Devils Top 20 prospects

By Jared Ramsden

With only one draft pick in the first five rounds of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, the New Jersey Devils added mostly “project” type players who will more than likely need plenty of development time. With that in mind, there are only three new faces to the Devils Top 20 prospects list, two of whom moved up from outside the Top 20 and one (Travis Zajac) who was drafted in June. Zach Parise, Ari Ahonen, Alexander Suglobov and Tuomas Pihlman still rank No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively.

Top 20 Quick Glance

1.Zach Parise, Center

2.Ari Ahonen, Goaltender

3.Alexander Suglobov, Right Wing

4.Tuomas Pihlman, Left Wing

5.Travis Zajac, Center

6.Adrian Foster, Center

7.Anton Kadeykin, Defense

8.Petr Vrana, Center

9.Ivan Khomutov, Center

10.Barry Tallackson, Left Wing

11.Matt DeMarchi, Defense

12.Aaron Voros, Right Wing

13.Teemu Laine, Right Wing

14.Jason Rynzar, Left Wing

15.Ilkka Pikkarainen, Right Wing

16.Ahren Nittel, Left Wing

17.Eric Johansson, Center

18.James Massen, Right Wing

19.Krisjanis Redlihs, Defense

20.Andrei Posnov, Left Wing

Key: Ranking (Old Rank, Rank Change), Name (Position), Age, 2003-04 Team (League)

1. (1, None) Zach Parise (C) 19, North Dakota (NCAA)

Parise remains atop the Devils prospect ladder after another outstanding season at the University of North Dakota. The highly skilled center was second in team scoring with 61 points and would have likely led the team in scoring had he not been overseas in December and January helping Team USA to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships. He finished tied for first in tournament scoring with 11 points and captured First Team All-Star honors along with being named the tournament’s best forward, and most impressively, MVP of the tourney.

Parise signed a contract with New Jersey at the end of his college season, foregoing his final two years of college eligibility to turn pro. The Devils are very high on Parise and it would not be a big surprise to see him make the big club this season. He might need a little AHL seasoning, but odds are it won’t be long until he is lighting the lamp in New Jersey.

2. (2, None) Ari Ahonen (G) 23, Albany (AHL)

Holding steady behind Parise is talented Finnish goaltender Ari Ahonen. The 2003-04 season saw some improvements for him. He did miss the first month of play after having arthroscopic knee surgery, but ended up playing 50 games for the AHL Albany River Rats, more than he had ever played in any previous season. He still showed some inconsistency, especially towards the end of the season, but his overall play was much better and more consistent than the 2002-03 season. While he recorded two shutouts for the year, his most memorable performance was a 47-save effort in a game against Springfield where he only allowed one 5-on-3 power play goal.

Ahonen has now completed three full seasons at the AHL level, and with the back-up job currently open in New Jersey, Ahonen could get his first taste of NHL action this fall. With consistency being his only real weakness, he does not have a whole lot left to prove with Albany. 2004-05 is as good a time as any for New Jersey to give this long time top prospect a taste of the NHL.

3. (3, None) Alexander Suglobov (RW) 22, Albany (AHL)

Suglobov’s strong showing in Albany this year keeps him at No. 3. After signing with the Devils in the summer of 2003, Suglobov was assigned to Albany out of training camp. He notched a goal in his very first game, and averaged almost a point per game until recalled to New Jersey in early January. Unfortunately, Suglobov suffered a wrist injury during his very first NHL game, and the subsequent surgery and rehab took him out of play for the next few months. He returned to action with Albany in late March, and was almost back to his pre-injury form by the time the season ended for the River Rats.

Suglobov made a quick adjustment to the pro game in Albany, probably a quicker transition than Devils management had expected. New Jersey has to be very excited about the potential of adding the skilled Suglobov to the line-up down the road. If Suglobov can avoid the injury bug this fall, he could be poised for an offensive breakout based on what he did in limited time last year. Suglobov may only need one more strong season at the AHL level to convince the Devils to give him a chance at an NHL job in 2005-06.

4. (4, None) Tuomas Pihlman (LW) 21, Albany (AHL)

After a strong preseason, Pihlman was one of the last players the Devils assigned to the farm club. In Albany, Pihlman proved to be both a durable and a versatile player, and his 29 points was fourth best on the team. Pihlman also earned his first recall to New Jersey, and played in two games for the Devils before being returned to Albany.

Pihlman had a good start to his pro career in his first year with the River Rats. He was one of the top players on a very young team, and finished the year strong. He showed good offensive promise, and will look to build upon his 29-point season of last year. Now with a full year of pro hockey under his belt, Pihlman will be given more responsibility in Albany and should his play continue to progress, he could see some more action in New Jersey this upcoming fall. This budding power forward may only need one more full AHL season before he is NHL ready.

5. (NR, N/A) Travis Zajac (C) 19, Salmon Arm (BCHL)

Zajac was selected by the New Jersey Devils, 20th overall in the first round of the 2004 NHL Draft and the multi-talented center makes his debut in the Devils Top 20 list, rounding out the top five prospects in the organization. Zajac was an offensive force for Salmon Arm in the BCHL, scoring 112 points, including 43 goals. He doubled his offensive output from the previous campaign. Season highlights for him include participating in the BCHL All-Star Game, and being named to the year end All-Star Team.

Zajac, who is just starting his NCAA career at the University of North Dakota this fall, has enormous potential. He does need time to fill out his frame, and further develop his game. The feeling from most scouts is that Zajac has the tools to be an impact NHLer, but what remains to be seen is if he will be a top line scorer, or an elite checker with scoring skills. The Devils should have an even better idea of what to expect in the future from Zajac after he completes his first collegiate season. The Devils are very deep at the center position and can afford to be patient with their newest top prospect.

6. (5, Down 1) Adrian Foster (C) 22, Albany (AHL)

Foster continued to struggle with various injuries throughout the 2003-04 season, but was able to appear in a total of 44 games with the young River Rats squad. Considering how much time he had missed in previous seasons, appearing in that many games was quite an accomplishment for the offensively gifted and slick-passing pivot. For a large part of the season, Foster was used as a checking center, a role that did not suit his offensive talents at all. However, on the occasions when he was allowed to play in a more offensive role, he performed quite well, and recorded several multi-point games.

By suiting up for 44 games in Albany last season, Foster finally was able to get a decent amount of AHL action after being limited to nine games the previous year. Foster still did battle through nagging injuries throughout the year however. The Devils still would like to see at least one season free of injury for Foster before they consider promoting him. His propensity for injury is definitely holding him back. He has the skill set to be an above average player at the NHL level, but his injury history limits his all around upside. The Devils depth and talent at center may start to push Foster down the prospect ladder soon if he can’t show that he can stay healthy.

7. (6, Down 1) Anton Kadeykin (D) 20, Sarnia (OHL)

After having a solid, but unspectacular North American debut last season, Kadeykin regressed some this year. Part of that can be attributed to injuries, something that he did battle last season too, but was more of a problem in 2003-04. He only managed to get into 39 games for Sarnia. The highlight of his season for this steady stay at home blueliner was being able to participate in the CHL/Russia Series tournament.

With the quicker than expected emergence of Paul Martin and David Hale in New Jersey this last season, Kadeykin now has even more time to iron out the wrinkles in his game. He is the top defensive prospect currently in the organization, and while he isn’t a blue chipper, he still has the tools to make it to the NHL as a role-playing No. 5 or 6 blueliner. His injury issues the last two seasons are somewhat concerning, but Kadeykin is still young and filling out his lanky frame. Kadeykin is tentatively scheduled to play in Albany this fall, and is at least two years away from an NHL job.

8. (7, Down 1) Petr Vrana (C) 19, Halifax (QMJHL)

Vrana played on a weak Halifax team last season, but the team captain was undoubtedly one of the best players on the team, when healthy. Vrana battled through shoulder problems through the season, but the supremely quick and offensively slick centerman showed tons of grit by playing when he probably shouldn’t have been. Vrana managed 38 points, including 25 assists in 48 games.

Vrana is another one of the highly skilled centermen the Devils are suddenly neck deep in. He signed a contract recently with New Jersey, and could be in Albany this fall. He will be watched closely this year to see how he plays after having offseason surgery on his shoulder. With Parise, Zajac and Foster in the system, Vrana future might be on the wing, where he can exploit his game breaking speed and stick handling skills. He is likely two or three years away from challenging for a top line spot in New Jersey.

9. (10, Up 1), Ivan Khomutov (C) 19, London (OHL)

When healthy, Khomutov displayed the potential the Devils saw in him when they drafted him in the third round of last year’s draft. His debut with the OHL’s London Knights was interrupted by a serious arm injury that sidelined him for a good chunk of the season. He still managed to put up good numbers (9 goals and 12 assists for 21 points) in 40 games despite the injuries. A deep and talented London team also limited Khomutov’s offensive output and ice time.

Khomutov has a great size/skill package and is versatile enough to play either wing or center. He also displays strong two-way game. In the hopes of accelerating his development, the Devils signed Khomutov over the offseason with the hopes that he will blossom offensively with more ice time in Albany. He still is a ways off from the NHL, but his future is very bright.

10. (8, Down 2), Barry Tallackson (LW) 21, University of Minnesota (NCAA)

After finishing the 2002-03 season on fire for the Golden Gophers, it was thought that Tallackson might have turned the corner in his development and breakout offensively in his third collegiate season. However, despite playing in 12 more games than the previous season, he only managed a meager two-point increase (23 to 25). The tall and lanky Tallackson got off to a slow start, and though he did finish strong, his season overall was fairly disappointing.

Tallackson has the size/skill set to become a very good offensive prospect. What is lacking right now for Tallackson is consistency, and not using his big frame effectively enough. He needs to get more involved in the play, and get his nose dirty more often. If Tallackson can turn it up a notch, and play with a touch more intensity and consistency, his fourth and final collegiate season could be huge. But whether Tallackson does that remains to be seen. He has an NHL future, but that is at least two or three seasons away.

11. (11, None), Matt DeMarchi (D) 23, Albany (AHL)

After wrapping up a solid four years at the University of Minnesota, DeMarchi began his pro career in Albany last fall and had a tough first year as a pro. He spent the entire season with the River Rats, but appeared in only 51 games due to a number of minor injuries. When he played, he sometimes struggled defensively, but still managed to record the lowest penalty minute total (78) of his career.

DeMarchi was slow to adjust to the pro game, but should be much better this coming season, now that he has a year of pro hockey under his belt. DeMarchi is the kind of defensemen the Devils will need down the road; a rugged and physical crease clearing blueliner. He likely will need one or two more full seasons in Albany before he is ready to challenge for an NHL job. He is not the most spectacular prospect but he has an NHL future as a physical stay at home No. 5 or 6 defenseman.

12. (13, Up 1), Aaron Voros (RW/C) 23, University of Alaska/Fairbanks (NCAA)

After a trying 2002-03 season in which he underwent surgery to remove a bone tumor from his leg, Voros bounced back in the 2003-04 season. He had a very strong year in Fairbanks, registering 16 goals to go along with 9 assists. His return to health and his overall progress prompted the Devils to offer him a contract as soon as the Nanooks’ season was over, and Voros decided to turn pro, giving up his last year of college eligibility. Voros was able to catch the last nine games of the River Rats season, and he didn’t take long to make his fiery presence known, collecting fighting majors in both his second and third games, before finally registering his first professional goal a few games later.

The Devils have to be relieved that Voros was able to come back from a potentially devastating injury last year with an excellent 2003-04 season. Voros will likely spend his first full pro season with the Rats. Voros is a very intriguing prospect. His size, skill and toughness have the Devils salivating at his future. He is probably a year or two away from an NHL job, but his upside is tremendous. Voros could shoot up the Devils prospect charts with a strong season this year.

13. (9, Down 4) Teemu Laine (RW) 22, Jokerit (Finland)

Laine had another average, unspectacular season over in Finland. He played a regular shift, but did not see much ice time playing mostly on the third or fourth lines on a very deep Jokerit squad. The supremely fast and feisty Laine managed only 13 points in 56 games. The Devils had hoped to see a little more offense from Laine last season, but it never materialized.

Laine’s development has been very gradual and slow, and while the Devils still hold out hope that he will develop more offense to his game, it is becoming more clear that that may not ever happen. However, Laine has not seen much quality ice time the past few seasons, which has contributed to his offensive struggles. With a change of scenery to Tappara for the upcoming season, it is possible Laine will get more chances to contribute offensively. The Devils do not expect Laine to be an offensive force, but they expect more than what they have seen. Laine’s speed will at the very least, earn him an NHL job down the road. He won’t be NHL ready for a couple more seasons.

14. (12, Down 2) Jason Rynzar (LW) 21, University of Michigan (NCAA)

Rynzar was yet another Devils prospect who battled through some minor bumps and bruises during the 2003-04 season. That was nothing new to him, as he has struggled with the injury bug in his previous couple collegiate seasons. The big and rugged Rynzar managed 17 points in 36 games for Michigan last fall.

Rynzar enters his final college season with his main objective being to stay healthy for a full season, something he has yet to be able to do. Rynzar shows flashes of offense, but he likely won’t be an offensive force once he reaches the pro level. He does have great size, and knows how to use it, and should he further develop offensively, he could be an above average third line checker in the NHL. Rynzar’s injuries have slowed his development, thus he won’t be NHL ready until at least 2006.

15. (Not in top 20, N/A) Ilkka Pikkarainen (RW) 23, Albany (AHL)

After signing with the Devils over the summer, Pikkarainen spent the entire 2003-04 season in Albany. He spent a lot of his first year with the River Rats in the penalty box, collecting 118 penalty minutes, the majority of them being minor penalties. He struggled somewhat offensively, and didn’t collect his first goal until the end of January, but in the end he totaled a respectable eight goals and ten assists.

After a brief adjustment period, Pikkarainen eventually found his game with Albany and had a strong finish to the 2003-04 season. Pikkarainen will likely not contribute much offense once he reaches the NHL, and that could work to his advantage, because the rest of his game is close to being NHL ready. He could challenge for a spot as a feisty, in-your-face checker in New Jersey as early as this year. At the very least, he should see a handful of NHL games this season. Pikkarainen was an older prospect when he was drafted so he likely doesn’t need much more time on the farm.

16. (Not in top 20, N/A) Ahren Nittel (LW) 20, Albany (AHL)

Nittel had a tough start to his professional career. Not only did he struggle with several minor injuries, but he was also stuck behind older and more experienced wingers in the River Rats lineup, and consequently, Nittel saw very little ice time for the first two-thirds of the season. He got a new lease on life in late February, when the River Rats fired their coach and replaced him with former head coach Robbie Ftorek. Ftorek gave Nittel a chance to play more, and less than a week after the coaching change, Nittel registered his first AHL goal, and he recorded three more goals and three assists before the season was over.

More will be expected from Nittel is his second pro season, and he will likely be given a more expanded role with the River Rats. Given his age, it was not overly surprising to see him struggle somewhat in his rookie pro year. With more experience Nittel should start to show a little more offense. He still needs a couple more years at the AHL level, but the upside as a scoring power winger is there.

17. (15, Down 2) Eric Johansson (C) 22, Albany (AHL)

Johansson’s second season with the River Rats was a little better than his first, but it was still marred by inconsistency offensively. He did contribute, but it was sporadic. He posted 26 points, including 7 goals in 63 games. The offensively inclined Johansson also saw a little more improvement in the defensive part of his game.

Johansson will need to have a monster season offensively if he is to move up the Devils prospect charts. Seeing as this will be his third pro season, his offensive game could take off. With the likes of Zach Parise, Adrian Foster, and now Travis Zajac at center in the organization, Johansson has a lot of work cut out for him to ever have an impact at the NHL level. If he has an NHL future, it is likely to be with another organization because Johansson’s path is blocked in New Jersey.

18. (14, Down 4) James Massen (RW) 22, University of North Dakota (NCAA)

While fellow Fighting Sioux teammate and Devils top prospect Zach Parise had another outstanding season, Massen had a season he would like to forget. After putting up excellent number across the board in 2002-03, his number dropped drastically in his third collegiate season. He struggled to remain in the line-up, and his point total dipped from 35 to 6, including dropping from 15 goals to a paltry 1.

After Massen’s somewhat surprising yet impressive 2002-03 season, Massen saw a drastic drop in production and playing time in 2003-04. This upcoming season will be very important in Massen’s development. Massen boasts impressive size, and is continuing to grow into his frame. Will the 2004-05 season be a repeat of last year or more like the year before? Only time will tell. Massen won’t be NHL ready for at least three more years.

19. (20, Up 1) Krisjanis Redlihs (D) 23, Albany (AHL)

Back in Albany for the 2003-04 season, Redlihs continued his slow but steady progress. His offensive improvement was particularly noteworthy, as he put up 9 goals and 10 assists. After wrapping up the season with the River Rats, Redlihs joined the Latvian national team for the World Championship in Prague. He appeared in all seven games as the Latvian team made it all the way to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by a very strong Swedish squad.

Redlihs showed signs of improvement, especially offensively in his second pro season. Year 3 in Albany could see him post big numbers, but of more concern to Redlihs and to the Devils is to see a drastic improvement in his physical and defensive play, which is still spotty at best. He will not be considered for a promotion to the NHL until he improves his play away from the puck. His offensive upside gives him a decent future, but he won’t be NHL ready for quite a while.

20. (16, Down 4) Andrei Posnov (LW) 22, Spartak (Russia)

Posnov had an excellent 2003-04 season in Russia, where he saw his offensive output skyrocket. He went from 4 goals, 7 assists and 11 points in 36 games to 16 goals, and 15 assists for 31 points in 53 games. Though his penalty minutes dropped somewhat, he still maintained an edge to his game.

Though he dropped four places in the rankings, Posnov’s 2003-04 season must have been very encouraging for Devils brass. His offense exploded, and the Devils have to be excited to see what the upcoming season will hold for him. His abrasiveness, combined with his potential to score make him a prospect to watch.

Grethe Kvernes contributed to this article. Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.