Devils 2005 draft preview

By Jared Ramsden

Devils Top 10 Prospects

1. Zach Parise, C
2. Alexander Suglobov, RW
3. Ari Ahonen, G
4. Travis Zajac, C
5. Aaron Voros, RW
6. Petr Vrana, C
7. Tuomas Pihlman, LW
8. Ivan Khomutov, C
9. Matt DeMarchi, D
10. Barry Tallackson, RW

Team Needs

As was the case going into the last draft, the Devils still need immediate help on the blueline. With the 2004-05 NHL year being completely washed out, the contract of all-star defenseman Scott Niedermayer has expired, and at the age of 31, he will become an unrestricted free agent. Brian Rafalski and Scott Stevens also are UFA’s, though Stevens would be more likely to retire than sign with another team. That leaves the Devils with Paul Martin, Richard Matvichuk, David Hale and Colin White as the only NHL experienced blueliners under contract.

The Devils will try their best to re-sign their top two offensive blueliners, along with Stevens, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see one of Rafaski or Niedermayer leave the team. The loss of both would mean the Devils would have to dip into what is going to be a very deep free agent pool to add an offensive element to the defense.

The forward ranks won’t be as drastically affected with the lost season. Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez and Jamie Langenbrunner, the Devils top scoring threats, are all restricted free agents and won’t hit the open market. But the health of their top goal scorer Elias is a major concern. He contracted Hepatitis A and may need three to six months to build up his stamina to be able to play at a high level.

Even with Elias in the fold, the Devils secondary scoring continues to be somewhat of a concern. With Scott Gomez and Zach Parise likely manning the No. 1 and No. 2 center spots next season, it’s on the wing where this secondary scoring must come from. While the boon of UFA’s may hurt the Devils on the blueline, it may be a blessing for the forward ranks as the Devils may be able to add a legitimate secondary scorer through free agency. Brian Gionta may be on the verge of a breakout, but other forwards on the roster, like Jeff Friesen, Viktor Kozlov and Jan Hrdina remain very streaky. Again, the new-look NHL could see the Devils buy out some of their current forwards and replace them with more reliable scorers.

A backup goaltender likely also will be needed. Scott Clemmensen didn’t play badly in his limited action as Martin Brodeur’s backup in 2003-04, but he is still relatively unproven and the Devils would likely be more comfortable with a veteran netminder behind all-world goaltender Brodeur.

Organizational Strengths

The addition and quick maturation of 2004 first round draft choice Travis Zajac has given the Devils even more to get excited about at the center ice position. The organization’s top prospect, Zach Parise, made an easy and smooth adjustment to the pro level, scoring 18 goals and adding 40 assists for 58 points in his first pro season in Albany with the River Rats. He will definitely challenge for a spot in New Jersey this fall. But it doesn’t end there. Petr Vrana had a solid season, and played his best hockey during the World Juniors and QMJHL playoffs. Ivan Khomutov didn’t put up gaudy numbers in his first pro season, but for one of the youngest players in the AHL, he more than held his own. And though Adrian Foster continued to battle the injury bug, the team still believes he has potential. The depth and talent at the center ice position in the system is by far and away the biggest strength in the organization.

While the Devils may be lacking power forwards at the NHL level, they have quite a few intriguing players on the horizon that may make an impact in New Jersey in a couple seasons from now. Ahren Nittel was a pleasant surprise in Albany, scoring 25 goals, even though he missed significant time due to a bout of mononucleosis earlier in the season. He has a great shot from the slot, and proved to be quite deadly on the power play in his first full AHL season.

Aaron Voros cooled off after a hot start, but that was to be expected due to him playing in more games than he was used to at the collegiate level. He doesn’t have as much scoring potential as Nittel, but he does posses good offensive skill for a big man. Tuomas Pihlman struggled somewhat in his second pro season, but the Devils aren’t ready to give up on him just yet. Ex-NCAA forwards Barry Tallackson and Jason Rynzar may need an adjustment period as they jump to the pro ranks, but both have good upside, with Tallackson being the more offensively gifted of the two.

Organizational Weaknesses

The accelerated development and quick rise of Paul Martin and David Hale to the NHL level is one reason the Devils prospect pipeline has lacked a quality blue-chip talent on defense the past couple of seasons. Depth here is also somewhat of a minor concern. Matt DeMarchi is a solid to average prospect, but he has been inconsistent in the AHL with Albany and by no means is a 100 percent sure bet to make the NHL. And even when or if he does get to the NHL, he will be no more than role-playing, third pairing defenseman.

There is quite a large drop off after DeMarchi, especially considering top 2002 pick Anton Kadeykin has fallen off the prospect radar altogether. Tyler Eckford, Alex Mikhailishin and Krisjanis Redlihs are next in the pecking order, but remain far away from making impacts at the NHL level. The Devils should be focused early on in this draft on adding a top defensive prospect or two to the organization.

The Devils have quite a bit of depth on both the left and right wing positions throughout the system, but aside from Russian sniper Alexander Suglobov, who potted 25 goals with Albany this past season, the Devils lack pure goal scoring talent on both wings. It could be argued that Ahren Nittel has sniper potential, but he will need to have a few more solid goal scoring seasons at the AHL level before he gets promoted to the big show. He did show that he has the ability to be a goal scorer at the next level, as he tied Suglobov in the team lead with 25 goals with Albany. Much like the drop off in defensive depth, there appears to be a drop off here as well. Barry Tallackson provides glimpses of his offensive talent, but is too inconsistent in that regard. If the Devils have the opportunity to draft a goal scoring winger early in this upcoming draft, they would be foolish not to consider going in that direction.

With the status of Ari Ahonen up in the air, the Devils goaltending depth is starting to stretch quite thin in the minor pro ranks, and throughout the whole system in general. With Martin Brodeur still in his prime, it is not urgent to find a franchise goalie, but the Devils need to start addressing the lack of goaltending depth in the organization. Josh Disher had another solid season in the OHL, and he looks to have good potential, but he is the only real legitimate goaltending prospect in the system at the moment. The Devils don’t necessarily have to spend a high pick on a goaltender, but should not go through this draft without drafting at least one netminder.

Draft Tendencies

New Jersey is usually hard to get a read on for what they are leaning towards doing on draft day. They often do the opposite of what most people expect. The Devils do sometimes pull some early draft day surprises, like Adrian Foster for example, so if they go off the board with their pick, it wouldn’t come as a complete shock.

The Devils are not afraid to draft from any part of the globe, though lately, they have tended US college or college-bound players. The Devils have not drafted a high number of CHL’ers lately, but when they do, they tend to lean towards drafting OHL players.

The Devils do tend to like their defensemen big and strong, but that won’t stop them from drafting a more skilled, offensive type blueliner. Paul Martin is a good example of that type of drafting.

The Devils drew the 23rd overall selection in the 2005 draft. The Devils are used to drafting in the bottom half of the draft, so there will not need to be a change in strategy. The difference this time around is that with the snaking aspect of the draft, the Devils will pick again quickly, at 37th overall in the second round.

Player most likely to be taken with first selection (Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result): Sasha Pokulok, D, Cornell (ECAC)

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.