Despite missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, the New Jersey Devils are on the right path back to being a winning organization. Not only did the NHL club enjoy unexpected success, but the majority of their prospects enjoyed their own developmental success in their respective leagues.
Management’s attention to building the Devils’ prospect pool into a solid pipeline of talent appears to be ahead of schedule. The quality and competition amongst the Devils’ prospects made for some compelling debates when determining the Hockey’s Future 2015-16 prospect awards for the franchise.
Hardest Worker: Blake Pietila
There have been some growing pains during the season, but Blake Pietila has earned his keep in the Albany Devils lineup. The rookie assumed his role in Albany’s bottom-six and has excelled as an energy forward. Built like a fire hydrant, the stocky forward plays hard in the dirty areas, presses on the forecheck, and has become a staple on the penalty kill. His offensive skills seem to have transitioned as well from college to the pros. In March, he was rewarded with a call-up to New Jersey where he scored his first NHL goal. As the AHL playoffs progress, Pietila’s two-way play will be valuable for Albany’s run to the Calder Cup Finals.
Runner Up: Ben Thomson
Hardest Shot: Ryan Kujawinski
While he is not expected to become a big scorer in the NHL, Ryan Kujawinski still has a good arsenal of offensive tricks. One of his best is his hard shot. The 6’2”, 205-pound forward puts the same ‘oomph’ into his shots as he does when battling for the puck. There have been a few occasions this season where it has come in handy with the Albany Devils, providing Kujawinski with some extra ice-time on the power play. That may give him an edge in the postseason when matchups and special teams become a factor, although Kujawinski has appeared in just four AHL playoff games to date.
Runner Up: Raman Hrabarenka
Best Defensive Prospect: Steve Santini
New Jersey’s defense is about to get more competitive with Steve Santini making his long awaited arrival to the pros. In reality, the team has been awaiting the Mahopac, NY native to turn pro because he brings an element the team has been sorely lacking: physicality. Ever since he was a freshman, Santini has been a stable presence on Boston College’s blue line. He snuffs out fires in his own zone and throws dirt on offensive sparks before they go ablaze with smart positioning and well-timed hits. This season, Santini took a huge step in his development, not only defensively, but also offensively, finishing with one goal, 19 points and a +24 rating. He was named the Hockey East Defensive Defenseman of the Year and signed his entry-level contract with the Devils after Boston College was eliminated from the Frozen Four. He is expected to challenge for an NHL job in training camp next season.
Runner Up: Vojtech Mozik
Fastest Skater: Brett Seney
Brett Seney’s game revolves around his ability to outskate his opponents. While the diminutive forward’s offensive skills continue to develop at Merrimack, he is already taking advantage of his strong skating to generate chances. Seney is especially potent in counterattacks and transition opportunities when he has the open ice in front of him. As his puck skills continue to improve, Seney becomes a bigger offensive threat to defend one-on-one. He still needs to bulk up in order to reach the pros, but so long as he has his legs, Seney will always be wanted on the ice.
Runner Up: Alexander Kerfoot
Prospect of the Year: John Quenneville
What a difference a year makes. Coming off a somewhat disappointing 2014-15 season, John Quenneville has been nothing short of great for the Brandon Wheat Kings this season. The biggest area he improved was his consistency on offense. Not only did Quenneville create more chances by getting involved in the play, but his execution was the best it’s been in juniors. In 57 regular season games with the Wheat Kings, he scored 31 goals, 42 assists, and 73 points. Away from the puck, Quenneville remained a stalwart defender and dependable on faceoffs in all three zones. The Edmonton, Alberta native was a good possession player, as well, tilting the ice in Brandon’s favor whenever he was out there. Maturity-wise, the center handled himself well on the regional and international level with the press and in handling his emotions on the ice. He is not the best player on the Wheat Kings nor does he bear the burden of carrying a team like other Devils prospects, but his development in all areas of his game, his solid performance throughout 2015-16, and his maturity on and off the ice demonstrates all the criteria scouts look for in a player who can make it in the NHL.
For those reasons above, John Quenneville is the New Jersey Devils’ Prospect of the Year.
Breakout Player for 2016-17: Blake Coleman
In his short rookie campaign with Albany, Blake Coleman had an impactful role in the Devils lineup. His style of play not only energized his teammates, but also put immense pressure on the opposition. The power forward generated many chances down low and opened space for his linemates. He effectively set the tone for the style of play the Devils wanted to implement. Unfortunately, Coleman sustained a shoulder injury on November 27th, and remains out indefinitely following surgery in January. Health withstanding, expect Coleman to pick up in 2016-17 where he left off in 2015-16.
Runner Up: Ryan Kujawinski
Most Improved: Reid Boucher
There is no question that Reid Boucher is the New Jersey Devils’ most improved prospect of 2015-16. He benefited the most from the organization’s change of direction to a fast, attacking, supportive style of play. Part of this is because of Boucher’s maturation, but his confidence has remained high, and is arguably the key to his improved performance. As a result, he has been a consistent threat with the puck on most nights. The forward has had an extra kick in his stride, and his effort has stayed the same whether it was in the AHL or the NHL. He did tail off a bit towards the end of the NHL season, but from January to early March, Boucher was one of the Devils most effective players. His solid showing so far in the AHL playoffs will likely play a role in the contract New Jersey might offer him in the summer when he becomes a restricted free agent.
Runner Up: Miles Wood
Overachiever: Joe Blandisi
Joseph Blandisi became an endearing fan favorite in Albany and New Jersey in 2015-16. The scrappy forward battled his way up to Albany’s top line with a mix of grit and skill. He continued to play that way into 2016 when he heard he had been recalled to New Jersey. Early on, he played in a bottom-six role, but deservedly earned a promotion to the top-six when he started producing and energizing his teammates. But, while Blandisi enjoyed a hot streak of 12 points in 14 games, there were signs that the rookie was struggling defensively. That was exposed as the Devils faded down the stretch and opponents began to press the youngster. His production also evaporated. As a result, he became a healthy scratch towards the end of the season. Wherever he plays in the top-nine next season, that area of his game needs to improve.
Underachiever: Pavel Zacha
When examining Pavel Zacha’s second season in the OHL, it was good, but not great. The Cezch Republic native improved all parts of his game that Devils management wanted to see improved: offensively, defensively, and maturity. Scoring 64 points in 51 games is nothing to scoff at, but there was a sense he could have done more. Minor injuries seemed to slow him down in the middle of the season, especially during the World Junior Championship where he was lackluster. Also, when compared to players his age group taken in the 2015 draft, like Travis Konency, Zachary Senyshyn, and Blake Speers, all of them had better production than the sixth overall pick in their draft class.
Numbers are obviously one thing and are not the overall indicator of a player’s worth or performance. At the end of the season, Zacha was in top form and showed it in the first round of the OHL playoffs. He scored 13 points in seven games and almost won the series for Sarnia, but Sault Ste Marie prevailed. After signing an amateur-tryout contract with Albany, Zacha has maintained his quality form, adding another threat to the Devils lineup during the AHL playoffs. No matter how anyone examines this season, including this writer, it was a success because it matured Zacha, preparing him and building him up to where he is now ready for the pros.
Highest Risk/Reward: Raman Hrabarenka
The question of whether Raman Hrabarenka can become an NHL player is muddier than it was last year. The biggest need on New Jersey’s blue line is for a punishing defensive defenseman. Hrabarenka provides just that with his 6’4”, 230-pound wrecking ball of a body. He also provides an offensive presence with the puck and can chip in on the power play. However, the two-way defenseman has faced setbacks due to injuries in the last two seasons. Also, it does not seem that he has excelled in one area of his game over the other. It is good to be an all-around player, but Coach Hynes alluded to the fact that they want Hrabarenka to specialize in an area that he can build off of to propel him into the pros. It is likely he meant Hrabarenka’s size. The Belarus native is capable of playing bottom-pairing minutes, but now with Santini turning pro, he has competition that could steal his opportunity at the top level.
New Jersey Devils Prospect of the Month, April, 2016
Pavel Zacha, C/W, Sarnia Sting/Albany Devils
The past few weeks have been hectically optimistic for Pavel Zacha. He finished the regular season with 13 points in Sarna’s last seven games, stepping up when his team needed him to in the final stretch of the regular season. In the first round of the OHL playoffs against Sault Ste Marie, there was no one better than him. This was top-form Zacha, the dynamic threat that the Devils hope to see more of in the pros. In the seven game playoff series against the Greyhounds, he scored six goals and seven assists. Finally, he capped it off by singing his ELC and played in his first NHL game, racking up two assists and playing alongside his idol Patrick Elias. Zacha is now in Albany where he will be relied upon to help the Devils in their postseason push to the Calder Cup.
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