Defense and goaltending biggest assets for New Jersey Devils’ prospect pool

By Jared Ramsden

Jon Merrill - New Jersey Devils

Photo: University of Michigan defenseman Jon Merrill leads a strong and diverse group of New Jersey Devils prospects. (Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

The strength of the New Jersey Devils organization continues to reside in the burgeoning stable of defensemen working their way through the system. The addition of 2012 draft pick Damon Severson to a group that already includes Jon Merrill, Alexander Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Reece Scarlett should have Devils fans frothing at the mouth about what the defense might look like in the near future. That doesn't even include Adam Larsson, who's already established himself at the NHL level.

The Devils also have several promising goaltending prospects, led by Scott Wedgewood, who is scheduled to begin his professional career this Fall.

1. (1) Jon Merrill, D, 8.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 38th overall, 2010

In what should be no surprise, Merrill maintained his status as the top prospect in the organization after jumping ahead of the now-graduated Adam Larsson in the spring. His letter grade also moved back to a C from a D, though his maturity and character will definitely still require close scrutiny. Merrill's return to the Michigan Wolverine lineup in January provided a big boost to the club after serving a team imposed suspension during the first half of the season. Despite all the time off, Merrill didn't miss a beat, picking up right where he left off after a sensational freshman season.

Merrill did not immediately make a decision as to whether or not he would return to Michigan for his junior season. He wanted to attend the Devils prospect camp in July before coming to a conclusion of where he would be playing hockey for the 2013-14 season. After two weeks of deliberation, Merrill announced that he was going to return to Michigan. Given the Devils logjam of defensemen at both the NHL and AHL level, combined with the fact he missed half his sophomore season, he likely made a wise choice.

The fact it took Merrill so long to decide where he was going to play this year just shows how close he is to being pro ready and he should be ready for that jump next fall. He possesses calmness to his game that belies his age and a strong two-way game that screams future top-pairing defenseman.

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

Wedgewood's 2011-12 regular season numbers weren't overly spectacular, and in-fact were nearly identical to his first full season as a starter for Plymouth, but he again displayed his big-game ability during the playoffs and had a couple of strong performances for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships as well, collecting a bronze medal along the way.

Wedgewood may be the youngest of the Devils quartet of goaltending prospects (the no-longer-eligible Jeff Frazee included), but there is not much doubt at this point that his long-term upside trumps the other three prospects by a fairly wide margin. Unlike other goaltending prospects, Wedgewood relies on his reflexes and positioning to compensate for his lack of size between the pipes. Throw in the fact that he has elite puck-handling skills for a goaltender and the overall package looks even better. With Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg each re-signing in New Jersey for two more seasons, Wedgewood now knows he has two year of pro hockey to prepare himself for a shot at job with the Devils.

3. (4) Alexander Urbom, D, 7.0B
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2009

Urbom was one of two prospects to receive a letter grade bump in these rankings, seeing his C grade turn into a B after showing great improvement in his all around game in his second full season of pro hockey in the AHL with Albany. The game started to slow down for him and it allowed him to make better decisions in his own end. His point production dropped slightly, but that was more a result of focusing on his defensive responsibilities, not to mention a concussion which knocked him out for nearly a month in the second half of the season.

If New Jersey didn't have so much defensive depth at the NHL level, Urbom would likely be right in the mix for a full-time job this season. While a little more AHL seasoning unquestionably wouldn't hurt his development, he is very close to being ready to make the full time jump to the NHL. He is physically ready for the big leagues and has rounded out his game very nicely to emerge into a sound and steady defense prospect. He lacks a lot of flash, but has the skill set of a safe and reliable second-pairing defenseman in the not-to-distant future.

4. (5) Eric Gelinas, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2009

In his first season of professional hockey, the learning curve was steep early on for Gelinas. However, in the second half of the season, his game took off and his confidence sky-rocketed. There were times where he was arguably Albany's most skilled and talented player, forwards included, and it showed in the fact he finished tied for second on the team with 16 goals and fourth overall in points with 37. His own-zone play was inconsistent, but his plus/minus vastly improved once the calendar flipped to 2012.

Gelinas made a somewhat surprisingly easy transition from junior to the pros, so the challenge for him this year will be to pick up where he left off and continue to develop in his sophomore AHL season. It's going to be hard for him to match his gaudy first year point totals, but the Devils know what he can do offensively and that he has power-play skills, so ironing out his defensive play and decision making in his own end will be of the utmost importance for Gelinas this season. There is still some unpredictability in projecting his long-term upside, but another season like last year will go a long ways in dispelling those fears and could help him see some NHL duty as early as 2013-14.

5. (NR) Damon Severson, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2012

Upon first glance, it might seem a little startling to see Severson debut this high after being selected by the club at the end of the second round of the 2012 NHL draft this past June, especially considering the bevy of talented defense prospects littered throughout the organization. However when considering Severson's still-growing frame, impressive all-around game and growing confidence as a puck-carrier, it really should not be all the surprising to see him all the way up in amongst the top-five prospects. The fact the Kelowna Rockets organization has churned out a ton of defense prospects lately also works in Severson's favor. If not for an absolutely loaded class of 2012 draft-eligible defenseman, Severson likely would've been drafted much higher than he was.

It's still far too early to tell for certain, but the Devils look like they got a tremendous value in drafting Severson where they did. Aside from the odd defensive miscue here-and-there, there really are not a lot of negatives when it comes to evaluating him as a prospect right now. As he matures and fills out his frame, he'll become much more effective in his own end and when that is coupled with his heavy shot and slick puck-moving skills, you have a prospect with the outstanding potential to eventually develop into a top-flight second-pairing defenseman.

6. (9) Reece Scarlett, D, 7.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 159th overall, 2011

At this time last year, Scarlett had just been drafted into the Devils organization and had a lot to prove after slipping to the sixth round of the 2011 NHL draft. Now, he stands as the sixth best prospect in the entire system after a scintillating breakout season in his third year of junior with the WHL's Swift Current Broncos. He finished a career best 49 points, doubling his output from the previous year. The key to Scarlett's breakthrough was him trusting his skating and mobility so as to be able to force things more offensively and still be able to get back and be in the right position to defend.

After one full-season in the Devils organization, the team has to be thrilled with the early returns Scarlett has shown as a prospect thus far. He already played a relatively safe-and-steady game in his own end and now that he's found his groove as an offensive defeseman, he is starting to develop into a good two-way rearguard. His frame is still a little under-developed and could be a concern moving forward as he has a naturally thin body-type, but he should get strong enough to withstand the rigors of the pro game. If he keeps on the development curve that he's on, there is potential second-pairing upside here.

7. (NR) Stefan Matteau, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, 2012

Matteau immediately became the Devils highest ranked forward prospect when he was drafted in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft. No offense to Matteau, who does have intriguing power-forward potential, but the fact he jumped right to the top of the pecking order amongst forwards in the organization is a perfect example of just how thin the Devils are in elite forward prospects. Matteau, whose bloodlines have been well documented to Devils fans, played for the US Under-18 Development Team in his draft year and showed off a hard-charging power-game on a nightly basis as one of the teams most aggressive physical forwards. That physical nature showed in his team high 166 penalty minutes and two suspensions. He still managed to put up 32 points in 46 games though.  

Though he is listed as a center, Matteau has also played a lot of left-wing, where his energetic physical style projects well along the boards and in the corners. He does not have a lot of natural skill, but he does have a good shot and strong puck-protection ability. He ceiling is that of a complimentary second-line player as a pro, but a safer projection would see him as a two-way, third-line guy. Matteau, who has already signed his entry-level contract and de-committed from North Dakota, will play for Blainsville-Boisbriand of the QMJHL where his father is an assistant coach

8. (7) Reid Boucher, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2011

Boucher slipped one peg in the rankings with the addition of Matteau to the organization, but still maintains his 7.0C rating. In another organization deeper in forward prospects, Boucher might not be ranked as highly as he is in the Devils system, though his natural goal-scoring ability is hard to ignore. Originally pegged to play in the USHL last season before playing at Michigan State this year, Boucher changed his mind and ended up going the major junior route and playing with the Sarnia Sting. He had a couple of lengthy scoring droughts, but he still lit the lamp 28 times in 67 games.

At every level of hockey he's played, Boucher has had no problem scoring goals and that will ultimately be the one skill that will take him places. His shooting arsenal is diverse and he can finish from pretty much anywhere inside the offensive zone. What he needs to continue to work on is his play away from the puck and getting himself a little more involved in the tougher areas of the rink. He is never going to become a really good defensive player, but should he become at least competent in that regard, it will go a long way towards helping him forge out a professional career.

9. (8) Keith Kinkaid, G, 7.0C
Signed as free agent, April 18th, 2011

A highly touted collegiate free-agent, Kinkaid chose to sign with the Devils last spring after starring at Union College as a sophomore. There were a few bumps in the road in his first full-season of pro hockey, namely having to adjust to a heavier workload, but overall, he fared quite well in Albany. He played in 42 games and won 17 of them to go along with three shutouts while splitting time with Jeff Frazee between the pipes.

While Wedgewood has the highest long-term upside amongst the Devils goaltending prospects, Kinkaid is probably the closest to getting to the NHL and making a splash. However, just like Wedgewood, with Brodeur and Hedberg re-signing for two years, his window for the NHL at this point looks like the 2014-15 season. However more AHL seasoning was likely in the cards for Kinkaid regardless of what New Jersey did this summer with their goaltending. The team will likely try to increase his workload as a starter so as to test his durability as a future starter, but he will have no shortage of competition for starts with Wedgewood, Frazee, and Maxime Clermont all pushing for starts in the minors.

10. (6) Brandon Burlon, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2008

Burlon took a bit of a tumble in the rankings with an uneven first pro season. The addition of Severson and Matteau to the organization along with the meteoric rise of Scarlett through the system also contributed to his fall. He still managed to land in amongst the Devils top 10 prospects though. He decided to turn pro this past year after his junior season at the University of Michigan, however the adjustment was pretty much season long for Burlon as he struggled with bouts of inconsistency that can be quite common amongst first year pros.

There is not a lot of flash to Burlon's game as he simply does a lot of things well at both ends of the rink while not really excelling in one particular area on the ice. That is a trait that is common amongst many Devils defenseman currently at the NHL level, so in that regard, he fits the mould of a prototypical New Jersey style of blueliner. Burlon should be much more comfortable going into his sophomore pro season and with that, he should be able to get his development back on an upward trajectory. Burlon is just outside that first tier of Devils defense prospects, but is right at the top of the second tier and projects as a potential number four/five defenseman at the NHL level.

11. (11) Maxime Clermont, G, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 174th overall, 2010

Clermont spent the vast majority of the 2011-12 season, his first as a professional, in the ECHL because Kinkaid and Frazee were manning the pipes in Albany. In 31 games, Clermont managed a 13-10-3 record, 3.42 goals against average, and a .891 save percentage.

Upon first glance, it might seem like Clermont's ranking is a little high, but it was hard to get a read on him this year given that he only saw spot duty in the ECHL in his first pro season. Given that he is likely to spend the 2012-13 season in the ECHL too, with the glut of Devils goaltenders at the pro level, it will be another tough season evaluating Clermont's long-term future. He has a lot of raw upside and showed starting potential in junior, so given the proper amount of time to mature in the minors, it's possible he could eventually reach that level as a pro. It just will not likely be for at least two or three years.

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

Coleman made the jump to the NCAA with the University of Miami (Ohio) after dominating in the USHL last year. There was some question as to how his transition to college would go for him considering he was an overage player in the USHL, but it went quite smoothly as he had an effective and well-rounded freshman season for the Redhawks. Coleman provided a little grit (56 penalty minutes), energy and offense (12 goals and 11 assists), while helping provide some secondary scoring behind top scorer Reilly Smith (DAL).

There is not a whole lot to get excited about when it comes to forwards in the Devils pipeline, but Coleman has an intriguing overall set of skills. Regardless of how many points he puts up at the NCAA level, Coleman looks to have a lot of intangible qualities that will go a long way towards helping him forge out a pro career as a spunky, two-way forward who can slot into the top-nine. A strong sophomore season could catapult him up the rankings.

13. (13) Seth Helgeson, D, 6.0B
Drafted 4th round, 114th overall, 2009

It's often hard to grade and rank a guy like Helgeson given that he doesn't play with a lot of flash or pizzazz, but over the course of his three years at the University of Minnesota, he has grown better and better. Helgeson was required to do a lot of the heavy lifting and dirty work as the most experienced Golden Gopher defenseman this year. He led the team with 70 penalty minutes, providing his team with his usual snarl and nastiness. His 14 points this season were a career high.

There is a lot of talent on defense in the Devils organization, but Helgeson brings a different element to the table with his size and physicality. As an added bonus, Helgeson's skating has improved tremendously since being drafted in 2009, making him even tougher to play against. Given the Devils defensive depth, Helgeson is returning to the Golden Gophers for his senior season, where he will be an assistant captain. He remains on track to be a solid third line forward at the NHL level.

14. (16) Blake Pietila, LW, 6.0B
Drafted 5th round, 129th overall, 2011

Pietila never got a chance to show off his offensive skills while playing in more of a checking role for the US Under-18 Team, but in his first year at Michigan Tech, he was given a chance to play some significant minutes right off the hop. He took advantage of those minutes, finishing his freshman season with 10 goals and 24 points.

Probably the most pleasant surprise in the organization was how good a first college year Pietila had. The Devils already knew that he had great defensive acumen, speed, work ethic and tenaciousness to his game, but the offense he showed this year was a bonus. All those traits combine to form a pretty intriguing player with fantastic two-way potential. He will return to Michigan Tech, looking to build off his strong junior season and possibly even contend for a spot on the US junior team this winter.

15. (NR) Ben Johnson, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 60th overall, 2012

Another newcomer to the organization and the top 20 is Ben Johnson, sliding in right behind his cousin Blake Pietila at number 15. He got off to a bit of slow start for Windsor after essentially jumping right out of high-school level hockey to playing as a rookie in the OHL. Nonetheless, once he found his comfort zone, Johnson's game took off. The majority of his 18 goals came in the second half of the season.

Johnson's game revolves around his speed. He uses it to create offense off the rush and wreak havoc on the opposition on the forecheck. He is capable of playing both wing and center, but in the long run, his speed probably projects better to the wing. Johnson's offensive game is still a work in progress, but his late-season surge could very well be a sign of things to come, especially with a more prominent offensive role on the horizon for him with the Spitfires. No matter how far his offensive game develops though, his elite level speed will likely help him go places.

16. (14) Curtis Gedig, D, 6.0C
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2009

Gedig slipped a few spots in the rankings, but that's more a reflection of the additions to the organization than an indictment on his play. He was again played heavily and was utilized in all situations for Ohio State in his sophomore season, picking things up right where he let off as a freshman. Though his numbers didn't spike much as a sophomore, he showed more willingness and confidence to involve himself offensively. Defensively, he showed a penchant for blocking shots while also increasing his physical play.

In a way, Gedig is like a poor-mans Brandon Burlon. There isn not a wow factor in any aspect of his game, but he gives an honest effort every night, takes care of his own end, will get involved in the corners, and get his nose dirty when the time calls for it. He reads plays well, but needs to work on making the right decisions, something that should come with more experience. Gedig's upside is not that high, but he has the makings of developing into a safe and steady third-pairing defenseman. He will return to the Buckeyes for his junior season this fall.

17. (15) David Wohlberg, C, 6.0C
Drafted 6th round, 172nd overall, 2008

Wohlberg, like Gedig slipped a couple of spots with the addition of new prospects to the organization. Regardless of the slight slide, Wohlberg has pretty much solidified himself as a prospect that will likely always fall in the 15-20 range until he is no longer eligible for the list. He capped his senior year at the University of Michigan in style with his best all-around season, playing on the Wolverines first line for much of the season. He was also an assistant captain and a regular contributor on both special teams units.

While he was not necessarily a standout during his four years at the University of Michigan, Wohlberg developed into a steady two-way player under the tutelage of Wolverine coach Red Berenson. Capable of playing both left-wing and center, Wohlberg's speed and tenacity likely play out better as a center at the pro level where he can forecheck and try and exploit open spaces. It is tough to say how his offense will project at the next level, but he has decent hands and isn't afraid to drive hard to the net. He has the requisite skills to develop into a useful bottom-six forward, but will need a couple years of AHL seasoning first.

18. (NR) Graham Black, C, 6.0C
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2012

A late-bloomer, Graham Black led the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League in scoring in 2010-11 before jumping full time to the WHL in 2011-12 where he put up impressive totals for a first-year junior player. Though at age 19 he was a little older than most rookies, his 50 points in 71 games for the Swift Current Broncos was still impressive nonetheless.

There is a lot to like about Black especially since he is just scratching the surface of his long-term potential. He is already well advanced defensively for his age, and when you combine that with his blinding speed, vision, play-making ability and sneaky good shot, what you have is the makings of the prototypical type of two-way player that the Devils often have a lot of success developing. Black will return to Swift Current this fall looking to build off his stellar WHL rookie season.

19. (NR) Artur Gavrus, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th Round, 180th overall, 2012

The final 2012 draftee to make the list is Gavrus, who arguably has the most natural offensive skill of any Devils forward prospect in the system. If not for his concussion woes, he would likely be even higher on the list. Gavrus made things happen offensively (when he was healthy of course) for the Owen Sound Attack in his first season on North American soil, putting up 37 points in 45 games. A wrist injury and concussion accounted for all of his missed games.

Had Gavrus not shown such a propensity for injury this past season, there is a good chance he would have been drafted a lot higher than he was this past summer. He is a great puck-possession player that can do things at high speed with the puck that other players could only dream about doing. The tiny Belorussian plays with a lot of fire and intensity, which is quite rare for a player of his size, but it also acts as a double-edged sword given his injury history. Should he find a way to overcome his injury woes, Gavrus could end up being a sixth round steal as he has top-six ability and skill.

20. (18) Mike Hoeffel, LW, 6.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 57th overall, 2012

It was a close call between Hoeffel and Mike Sislo for the last spot on the top 20 list, but the former Minnesota Golden Gopher just narrowly edged Sislo out. His first year in the AHL definitely didn't go as smooth as he or the Devils hoped it would, though an early season injury proved to be a major contributing factor to Hoeffel's slow adjustment period to the pro game. He just never really got comfortable as he played well in spurts, but displayed a lot of inconsistency.

What you see is what you get with Hoeffel. He not the most naturally gifted player, but he's a good north-south player that knows how to use his big, powerful frame to his advantage. He gets around the ice well and plays with a lot of energy and grit. Simply put, he has the requisite skills to be an effective bottom-six forward once he reaches his full potential. Hoeffel should be more comfortable this year with a full season of pro hockey under his belt and as a result, the Devils should see more consistent play from him. Another year and a bit in the minors should put him on target for being ready to challenge for NHL duty sometime in 2013-14.