New Jersey top-20 deep in defensive and goaltending depth

By Jared Ramsden
Photo: Jacob Josefson is one of many New Jersey Devils prospects who has seen considerable time in the NHL. (Photo courtesy of the NHL)

Defense continues to be the primary organizational strength as half of the top-20 prospects are defenseman. Goaltending has gradually become an organization strength, with four of the five goaltenders in the system progressing well, with Scott Wedgewood, Maxime Clermont, and Keith Kinkaid having solid 2011-12 seasons. There are many new faces on the Spring edition of he top-20, including several 2011 draft picks.

There was some debate whether to include rookie standouts Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique on this list, given that they still haven’t hit the 65 NHL games played mark to be considered a graduated prospect, but in reality, there isn’t much doubt that they’ve both established themselves as NHL players with bright futures.

Larsson has been averaging over 20 minutes of ice-time a night and is among the leaders in points by a Devils defenseman. Henrique stepped up big time to fill the Devils gaping hole at center and has been among the league leaders in rookie points all season long. He also has one of the best plus/minus ratings on the team. He’s spent most of the season playing on the top line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise and is key cog on New Jersey’s elite penalty killing unit.

There were a lot of sizable leaps up the list by many of the Devils prospects this spring and though graduations definitely played a role in those jumps, many prospects in their first year in the organization have excelled and earned a spot on the list. There will likely be more change in the fall rankings with two more potential graduations and a new class of draftees set to be welcome to the organization.

1. (2) Jon Merrill, D, 8D
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2010

Merrill regained his spot as the Devils top prospect with the quick graduation of Larsson. While his character issues are still a legitimate concern, which is reflected in his letter grade dropping from a C to a D, he is still an tremendously talented prospect. Merrill was suspended by the University of Michigan for 12 games for undisclosed reasons, which ended up turning into an indefinite suspension after those 12 games passed, though he was allowed to practice with the team. Before his suspension was lifted on January 6th, Merrill represented Team USA at the World Juniors, where he saw his first live game action of the season. He has since returned to the Wolverines where he has 10 points in 16 games.

It will be interesting to see what the Devils decide to do with Merrill at the commencement of his sophomore season. While the team might like to sign him and get him into the pros where they can closely monitor him, he’s essentially lost half a season of development due to his off-ice issues. Merrill’s poise, puck-moving skills and ability to quarterback a power-play are exactly what the team currently needs, and if he can keep his head screwed on straight, the sky is the limit for him.

2. (3) Jacob Josefson, C, 7B
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2009

The emergence of Adam Henrique has pushed Josefson into more of a support/depth role since his return to the line-up, but his high hockey IQ and savvy two-way play is still on display every night. Until he gets the chance to play again with more skilled players, he’s likely not going to put up very many points. Essentially, this is somewhat of a lost season for Josefson because of time missed to a clavicle injury early in the season. The future still remains bright for the slick Swedish playmaking center.

3. (10) Scott Wedgewood, G, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2010

Lots of graduations means lots of prospects climbing up the prospect totem pole, and no one is more deserving of a big jump than Wedgewood as he climbs all the way into the top three. Though he’s had to share the crease with Matt Mahalak (CAR) for a good portion of the season, Wedgewood is on pace to better all of his numbers from last season, and should have another opportunity to shine in the post-season as the Plymouth Whalers are currently one of the top teams in the OHL. He also parlayed his invite to Team Canada’s U-20 World Junior team into a spot on the team where he shared the net-minding duties with Mark Visentin (PHX) and helped the team bring home the bronze medal.

Wedgewood has done nothing to dispel the notion that he could very well be the goaltender of the future for the Devils. He doesn’t have the prototypical size of most of today’s goaltending prospects, but he’s a big game goalie with great reflexes and puck handling skills. Though he is not the only goaltender in the system, he has by far and away the most upside of the bunch. There is a possibility that he could make that jump to the pro level next year after the team signs him, but it’s hard to know for sure what direction the team will take with him given the uncertainty of the position at the NHL level.

4. (5) Alexander Urbom, D, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2009

Aside from a few call-ups to New Jersey, including a five-game stint that saw him score his second NHL goal, Urbom has spent the majority of his second pro season in the AHL with Albany where he has shown good developmental progress as a prospect. He impressed coach DeBoer in training camp, but the depth of New Jersey’s defense allowed for him to be sent to the minors for more development. He has been deployed in more a defensive role down on the farm and the game has really started to slow down for him as he’s not rushing things and instead letting the play come to him. He was Albany’s lone AHL All-Star representative.

There is very good chance that this season will be the last that Urbom has to spend in the AHL as he appears to be on the cusp of making it as an NHL regular. He’s been physically ready for the NHL since turning pro, but has since added muscle and learned how to us his size to his advantage when the opportunity presents itself. He skates well and has good offensive instincts, though he’s likely never going to be a big point producer.

5. (8) Eric Gelinas, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2009

Gelinas only made a slight move up the prospect list, but he’s shown exponential progress over the past two months in his first year as a pro. There was definitely a bit of an adjustment period early on in Albany for Gelinas, but since the calendar turned to 2012, the light has seemed to turn on. He leads all Albany defenseman in goals and points. The biggest sign he has started to turn the corner lies not just in the offensive numbers he’s been putting up, but in his defensive play, which has improved over the second half of the season.

Gelinas perhaps has the most pure upside of any prospect in the organization not named Jon Merrill, and the Devils have to be pleased with how much he has already progressed given that this is only his first pro season. The tantalizing package of size and skill the Devils saw when they drafted Gelinas back in 2009 is slowly starting to come to fruition, though another full season of development in the minors is likely in the cards for Gelinas next year.

6. (9) Brandon Burlon, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

A constant in the Devils top 10 group of prospects for the past three seasons, Burlon decision to turn pro last summer may have slightly caught the Devils off guard in respect to the fact that the team already had a glut of minor pro defense prospects. Initially Burlon had a tough time getting into the Albany lineup, but injuries and re-calls opened up an opportunity for him and since mid-November, he’s been a taking a regular shift amongst Albany’s top-six defenseman.

Burlon lacks the flash of defense prospects like Merrill and Gelinas, but he is quietly going about his business in his rookie pro season. He skates well, has good puck handling skills and plays well at both ends of the rink. He’s probably had about as smooth an adjustment to the pro game as the Devils could have hoped for so far this year and they hope to see continued development over the course of the next year and a half with perhaps an eye towards seeing some NHL action in 2013-14.

7. (12) Reid Boucher, LW, 7C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2011

Boucher moves into the top 10 this time around after making his debut on the Devils top 20 list this past fall. He was originally planning on playing in the USHL this season before going to play in the NCAA at Michigan State in 2012-13. However he changed his mind late in late July and decided to play in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting instead. It’s been a mixed bag of results thus far for Boucher as he is one of the top goal scorers on the team, but he’s also been through a couple of lengthy goalless droughts and has the worst plus/minus rating on the team.

At this point, Boucher’s is a one-trick pony. But it is definitely an impressive trick. He’s a lethal shooter with a lightning quick release who is a threat to score from almost anywhere on the ice. He’s going to need to continue to work on his play away from the puck, while also improving his foot speed. That all being said, Boucher’s goal scoring ability is going to be what takes him places. He’s still a bit of a project at this point in his development, but the team can afford to be patient with him while he works on rounding out his game.

8. (15) Keith Kinkaid, G, 7C
Signed as a free agent, April 2011

Kinkaid, like Wedgewood, made a seven spot leap up the rankings. He was the most sought after NCAA free-agent goaltender last season after a sparkling sophomore season with the Union Dutchmen, and though it is still early in his pro career, the early results have been very promising in Albany. There have been some peaks and valleys in terms of his consistency, but when he’s been good, he’s been very good. He’s had three shutouts already this season and in all three of those games, he’s made 30 or more saves. Aside from a two-week stint spent in New Jersey to replace an injured Martin Brodeur, it’s been a fairly even split of games between him and Jeff Frazee.

Though Wedgewood might have more long-term upside, Kinkaid is probably the guy who will get a chance to make a splash at the NHL level first. The Devils would probably like to have him spend another season in the minors next year, but given the fact that both Brodeur and Johan Hedberg are both pending UFA’s and in the twilight of their careers, there’s an outside chance he could see some action in 2012-13. The Devils will likely pay very close attention to how Kinkaid closes out his first pro season as it could help determine which direction the Devils go between the pipes for next year.

9. (16) Reece Scarlett, D, 7C
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2011

Scarlett’s rise through the system has been meteoric. As is the case with many of the Devils prospects, a lot of the upwards trajectory has to with the graduation of other prospects, but Scarlett’s play this season has definitely warranted a move up the list. Just like last season, he’s been a workhorse for the Swift Current Broncos eating up major minutes, but also just like last season, he’s unfortunately accumulating a not-so-pretty plus/minus rating.

The Devils gladly scooped up Scarlett when he fell to them in the sixth round of the draft this past summer and though it’s still early, the Devils have to be quite pleased with the early returns he’s shown thus far. He’s still slightly under-developed and needs to continue to pack on muscle, but there is a lot to like about Scarlett’s game. He has above average puck skills and offensive instincts and also plays a safe and steady game in his own end. He’s still a ways away from reaching his full potential, but he is definitely on the right track.

10. (11) Matt Taormina
, D, 6B
Signed as a free agent, February 2010

A minor injury put Taormina behind the eight-ball in training camp and with the competition stiff to make it on the Devils blue line, he was sent to Albany to start the season. However injuries have left the Devils defense in a constant state of flux and aside from the odd healthy scratch, he’s been taking a regular shift and has been with the team since early December. He’s not putting up a lot of points, but his puck-moving skills have proved to be invaluable with players like Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder and Larsson all missing time due to injury. He was actually named to the AHL All-Star team, but was unable to attend because he was with New Jersey.

With a fully healthy group of defenseman, Taormina would still be bidding his time in the minors. However he’s taken advantage of the ice-time he’s received and not looked out of place. His size and defense will always be a concern, but his slick skating ability and puck skills are on display on a regular basis. With a plethora of talented blueliners moving their way through the system though, Taormina might just be hanging on to his job. His long-term upside is limited, but he has enough ability to carve out a niche role as an NHLer.

11. (14) Maxime Clermont, G, 7C
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2010

The Devils had the option of sending Clermont back to the QMJHL for his overage season, but instead chose to let him being his pro career. However, with Jeff Frazee re-signed and the addition of Kinkaid last spring, Clermont was the odd man out and has spent most of the season in the ECHL with Devils and Canucks shared affiliate in Kalamazoo. His numbers have been fairly pedestrian, but in the majority of the games he’s started, he’s been peppered with shots as he’s faced over 30 shots on a fairly regular basis.

With Scott Wedgewood possibly turning pro next season, it’s quite possible Clermont will have to bide his time in the ECHL one more season before earning a full time promotion to the AHL. It’s still too early to tell if Clermont will make it to the NHL, but the tools and raw ability are definitely there.

12. (NR) Blake Coleman, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 75th overall, 2011

There are five new additions to the top 20 list and Coleman is the one who makes the highest debut. After tearing up the USHL last year to the tune of 92 points in 59 games, Coleman moved to the NCAA this season and is currently in his freshman season at the University of Miami-Ohio. Second on the team in goals, Coleman has put up his fair share of penalty minutes and also has one of the best plus/minus ratings on the club.

Coleman was ranked quite low by Central Scouting for the draft last year and was selected a lot higher than most anticipated. The 92 points were hard to ignore, but given that he was older than a lot of other players in the USHL, some weren’t convinced he was the entire package. Thus far, Coleman has shown a nice blend of skill and feisty play as a freshman. He does need to learn when to tune down the abrasiveness, as his physical play can be quite reckless at times. He’s got an interesting set of skills and as he continues to mature he could continue to climb up the Devils prospect rankings at a rapid pace.

13. (19) Seth Helgeson, D, 6B
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2009

The lone junior on the Golden Gophers blue line, Helgeson is providing his usual grit and physicality from the back-end, but is also being leaned on for more leadership given the greenness of the Minnesota defense group. He leads the team in penalty minutes by a wide margin and has also bumped up his offensive contributions as he already has put up more points than his freshman and sophomore season combined.

Helgeson often gets overlooked due to his style of play and the depth of talent on the blue line in the organization, but he brings a very unique set of skills to the table. He already has an NHL-ready physique at 6’5, 210 pounds, and his skating and mobility continue to improve at a expeditious clip. While it wouldn’t hurt him to return for his senior season next year, it wouldn’t be shocking if he decided to turn pro at the end of the collegiate year. Regardless of when he jumps to the pro game, he appears to be developing right on schedule and has the potential to evolve into a top-notch physical stay-at-home defenseman.

14. (NR) Curtis Gedig, D, 6C
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2009

After a steady freshman season at Ohio State, Gedig has picked up right where he left off, continuing to show positive development as a sophomore and earning a spot in the top 20. Gedig was given a lot of responsibility last season and handled it well, so it’s no surprise that he’s been relied upon heavily as a staple on the Buckeyes blue line this year. He gets a lot of ice time and sees major minutes on both special team units. He failed to record a goal last season, but has already scored two this year and has already surpassed his point totals from last year as well.

Gedig was a bit of an unknown when the team drafted him back in 2009, but he has quietly made a name for himself in an organization that is loaded with defense prospects. He lacks flash and pizzazz, but plays a very sound game at both ends of the ice. His puck skills continue to improve as he is becoming more comfortable with the puck on his stick and leading rushes up the ice. Gedig has shown a lot of growth as a prospect and might even be a little ahead of schedule when it comes to his overall development. He’ll likely return to the Buckeyes for his junior season next year, but a jump to the pros for 2013-14 can’t be ruled out.

15. (NR) David Wohlberg, C, 6C
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2008

University of Michigan forward David Wohlberg now finds himself as high as he’s ever been on the top 20. An injured collarbone last year ended his junior season a little prematurely, but a rough month of November aside he’s had a good senior season. He’s been most successful centering a line with Chris Brown (PHX) and Alex Guptill (DAL) and it’s no coincidence that those three players are 1-2-3 in goal-scoring amongst Wolverine forwards. He kills penalties, gets second unit power-play time and is also an alternate captain for the team this year as well.

The Devils have taken their time with Wohlberg, and it looks like it should pay off in the very near future. One of the best skaters in the organization, Wohlberg uses that speed to throw his weight around, wreak havoc on the forecheck and drive hard to the net when the puck is on his stick. He’s a well-rounded player who plays with an edge and a non-stop motor. His versatility is also a plus as he’s capable of playing both center and on the wing. Once he signs with New Jersey, he’ll need a couple of years to develop in the AHL, but he has the requisite skills needed to eventually be an effective checking-line winger at the NHL level.

16. (NR) Blake Pietila, LW, 6C
Drafted 5th round, 129th overall, 2011

Pietila’s play at Michigan Tech has been one of the more pleasant surprises for the Devils so far this year. Originally scheduled to play for the University of Northern Michigan, Pietila changed his mind last year to go play for the Huskies with his brother and cousin. He started his collegiate career with a bang, scoring two goals and an assist in his first ever game and is currently the second highest scoring freshman on the team. His linemates have fluctuated, but he’s played a lot for a first year player.

While Pietila often didn’t get a chance to showcase his offensive skills while playing behind more talented players at the US National Development Team last year, his speed, tenacity and sound hockey IQ were just some of the tools that helped get him drafted. When you combine those tools with the offensive ability he’s shown as a collegiate freshman, the Devils look like they might potentially have a solid-two way checking-line winger in the making.

17. (NR) Mike Sislo, RW, 6C
Signed as a free agent, April 2011

The last newcomer to the top 20 list, Sislo is currently navigating his way through his first pro hockey season in Albany after a fantastic senior season at the University of New Hampshire. He hasn’t scored at the same rate that he did in college, but he’s shown spurts of offense throughout the season and is one of only a few players in Albany that is on the plus side of the plus/minus ledger. In fact, he’s been on that positive side of the ledger all season long.

One of three collegiate free-agents the Devils signed last spring, Sislo’s size is always going to be a knock against him, but he’s made this far without it hindering him too much because of his speed, fearlessness and good hands. He’s going to have to continue to work his tail off to move up the prospect ladder, but he has a lot of traits that could eventually help him reach the NHL in a bottom six role down the road.

18. (20) Mike Hoeffel, LW, 6C
Drafted 2nd round, 57th overall, 2007

Hoeffel’s hovered around the bottom quarter of the Devils top 20 for the past few seasons and continues to remain in that area this time around. His pro career got off to a bit of a rough start as he missed nearly six weeks after suffering an undisclosed upper-body injury in Albany’s season opening game, but has slowly started to find his way since then. Competition for ice-time amongst Albany forwards has been fierce though so he has been a healthy scratch on occasion.

There’s a lot to like about Hoeffel’s game. He’s a big-bodied winger with good speed and defensive acumen. He plays with a lot of energy is very effective around the net. His lack of finesse and offensive upside limit his potential somewhat, but he still has enough to offer as a checking type forward once he’s finished developing. The Devils have had problems finding the right fit for their fourth line this season, and Hoeffel is a guy that is tailor made for that kind of role.

19. (18) Matt Corrente, D, 6C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2006

It’s the same old story for Corrente this season: injuries are ruining his development. He was in a tooth-and-nail battle just to make the team out of training camp and ultimately ended up being dispatched to Albany to start the year. To his credit, he didn’t sulk at the demotion and got off to a great start. However, two separate injuries that both kept him out of the Albany line-up for more than a month has limited him to seven games since the middle of November. Overall, he’s only dressed for 32 of Albany’s games this season

The Devils haven’t given up on him yet, but Corrente’s time in the organization is on pretty thin ice with what the team has coming up on the prospect pipeline. He has a unique set of skills for a defenseman, but those skills unfortunately are part of the reason he’s been unable to stay healthy as he relies on his grit and tenacity to make him an effective player. Corrente’s short-term goal will be to remain healthy for the rest of the season, but his long-term future is definitely in question.

20. (17) Jeff Frazee, G, 7D
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2005

Frazee has been on this list for what seems like ages, but he is finally on the cusp of losing his prospect eligibility. He’s played well in spurts for Albany but again, the injuries and inconsistency that have dodged him since his stellar rookie season all the way back in 2008-09 continue to haunt him. Those factors have pushed him to the brink of elimination of being a top 20 prospect.

Once the lone goaltending prospect in the organization, the Devils have started to add more and more goaltending prospects to the system and it’s now hard to envision Frazee as the heir to the Devils goaltending throne. Given the uncertainty of the goaltending situation in New Jersey next year, the team has to be disappointed that he hasn’t been able to take the next step as a prospect. The team did re-sign him for two-years last summer, so it’s clear they haven’t given up on him yet. But he’s clearly running out of time.

Editor’s Note: While Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique were left off of the list due to their pending graduations this spring, Jacob Josefson, who has played a comparable amount of NHL games, was left on. This is because Hockey’s Future feels that Josefson, despite his NHL experience, remains a prospect, and is very much still finding his role at the NHL level.