Devils Top 20 prospects

By Jared Ramsden

Top 20 at a glance

1. Zach Parise, C
2. Alex Suglobov, RW
3. Travis Zajac, C
4. Niklas Bergfors, RW
5. Petr Vrana, C
6. Jeff Frazee, G
7. Aaron Voros, RW
8. Ahren Nittel, LW
9. Ivan Khomutov, C
10. Barry Tallackson, LW
11. Adrian Foster, C
12. Matt DeMarchi, D
13. Tuomas Pihlman, LW
14. Josh Disher, G
15. Jason Ryznar, LW
16. Teemu Laine, RW
17. Mark Fraser, D
18. Tyler Eckford, D
19. Ken Magowan, RW
20. Ilkka Pikkarainen, RW

Key: Rank (Rank Change), Name, Position, Grade

1. (–) Zach Parise, C, 8.0 A

Parise’s stellar pro debut keeps him at the top of the Devils prospect rankings. The super skilled pivot finished second in scoring with the Albany River Rats with totals of 18 goals and 40 assists for 58 points in 73 games. His 40 assists were second among AHL rookies and his 58 points ranked him fifth among first-year AHL’ers. Other highlights in Parise’s first pro season included being voted in as the starting center at the AHL All-Star game and playing for Team USA at the World Championships in the summer of 2005.

After making such a smooth transition to the pro game with the River Rats, Parise goes into the 2005-06 season with and outstanding opportunity to seize a major role in New Jersey. Though the Devils brass likely won’t say so publicly, it would be a big disappointment if Parise didn’t open the season in New Jersey. He has proven to be a capable point producer at each and every level, and the Devils will give him every opportunity during training camp and the pre-season to establish himself as an everyday NHL’er. It would not be shocking to see Parise centering the Devils second line and challenging for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie this year.

2. (–) Aleksander Suglobov, RW, 8.0 C

After a promising first year with the River Rats, a lot was expected of Suglobov in his second AHL season. Though his play was inconsistent for much of the season, the Russian sniper still retains his position as the Devils second best prospect. The season started out well as he delivered a dazzling four-point performance on opening night. Unfortunately his play for the rest of the season was hit or miss and often lackluster. In the end, he finished fourth on the team with respectable totals of 46 points (25 goals and 21 assists) and a -15 rating in 72 games.

The Devils would probably like to keep Suglobov in Albany for at least one more season to iron out the inconsistencies in his game, most namely his streaky scoring and his attention to defensive play. However, Suglobov could force the Devils to change those plans with a strong training camp. The uncertain return date of top scoring forward Patrik Elias who is recovering from Hepatitis A and a salary cap problem that may force the Devils to sever their ties with current NHL forwards on the roster means Suglobov’s chances of being promoted to the big show are that much better. All of these things will be worth watching in the weeks leading up to opening night. Regardless, Suglobov will likely see some NHL action at some point during the year.

3. (+1) Travis Zajac, C, 7.5 B

The Devils first rounder in 2004 started off his first year in the organization with a bang, and the end result has him now as the third best prospect in the system. Zajac was a two-way force for the Fighting Sioux as he led the University of North Dakota in goals (20), power play goals (10) and short-handed goals (3). Overall, he finished second on the Sioux roster with 39 points (20 goals, 19 assists) playing in all 45 games.

Zajac returns to UND this fall where he will look to build on his stellar effort of 2004-05. While he may have surprised many with his play, the Devils will tell you otherwise. They may have not expected him to mature this quickly, but the Devils clearly knew they were getting an abundantly talented player when they drafted him last year. Zajac could still get better as he continues to mature and fill out his 6’2, 205 lb. frame. The sky is the limit right now for Zajac and he could rise even higher up this list with a repeat performance this year.

4. (NR) Niklas Bergfors, RW, 7.0 B

Bergfors is the newest addition to the Devils top 20 prospects list. The team’s most recent top draft choice was the highest-ranked Swedish prospect going into the draft and the Devils did not hesitate to snap him up 23rd overall. The competitive and highly skilled Swede lit it up in the top junior league in Sweden with 18 goals and 34 points in 21 games before being promoted to Sodertalje’s senior men’s team, quite a feat for such a young player. There he played in 25 games, and scored once. He also represented Sweden at both the U18 and U20 tournaments.

Before being drafted by New Jersey, Bergfors committed to playing the 2005-06 season in North America by deciding to play in the CHL. It did not take him long to find a home as the QMJHL’s expansion St. John’s Fog Devils took him second overall in the CHL’s annual import draft in early July. Bergfors is a technically sound player, but the physical part of his game is something he himself admitted he needs to work on and playing in the CHL will no doubt help him in this way. He will attend Devils camp this fall looking to make a name for himself, but will spend this year with the Fog Devils were he will look to make a quick adjustment to North American hockey.

5. (+1) Petr Vrana, C, 7.0 B

After struggling through an injury-plagued 2003-04, Vrana wrapped up his CHL career in style with a solid all around 2004-05 season and rounds out the Devils top 5 prospects. While his 16 goals and 51 points in 60 regular games for the Halifax Mooseheads wasn’t very spectacular, the spirited and offensively talented pivot saved his best for the World Juniors and CHL playoffs. At the annual WJC, Vrana captained the Czech team to a bronze medal and finished second on the team in scoring with 5 goals and 3 assists for 8 points in 7 games. In the QMJHL playoffs, Vrana turned it up a notch, scoring a team-high 10 goals and finishing second on the team with 14 points.

After wrapping up his CHL career in Halifax, Vrana will now turn pro and look to make an impact in the AHL with the River Rats. Vrana will attend Devils training camp this fall and will look to make a splash in training camp and hopefully get into a few pre-season games. He will likely spend the full 2005-06 season learning the pro game in Albany, and his role on the club will be determined by how quickly he adjusts to his new surrounding. Vrana’s feisty play will help this adjustment and his offensive skill set could shoot him into a top 6 role with Rats sooner rather than later.

6. (NR) Jeff Frazee, G, 7.5 B

Frazee is the second new addition to the Devils top 20, and he debuts as the top ranked goaltender with the graduation of former top prospect Ari Ahonen. The Devils took the competitive Minnesota native in the second round of this past draft out of the US National Development Team Program. Frazee had an excellent all around season, posting a 22-7-0 record, along with an impressive goals against of 2.29 and a save percentage of .927. To go with those stellar numbers, he also racked up 5 shutouts. The athletically gifted Frazee also sparkled at the World Under 18 Championships, leading the US team to a gold medal. He led the tourney with an amazing 1.33 goals against and outstanding .958 save percentage.

As soon as Frazee was drafted, he assumed the status of the top goaltending prospect in the organization. Though Ari Ahonen is still in the system, he had reached the age where he can’t really be considered a prospect anymore after completing his fourth AHL season. Martin Brodeur is still the main man in New Jersey and he still has a lot of good years left in him, but Frazee could very well be the heir apparent in the nets for the Devils. For the 2005-06 season, Frazee is off to the University of Minnesota to play for the Golden Gophers. The Devils have absolutely no need to rush Frazee with Brodeur still playing at a high level, but now the Devils have a potential No. 1 goaltender in the system to groom.

7. (-2) Aaron Voros, RW, 7.0 C

Although he tailed off after a scorching start to the season, Voros still had a solid first full pro season in the AHL with the Rats. His drop in the rankings is more due to the new talent in the system than a drop off in his play. He scored 8 times in his first 10 games, but only scored 3 more times the remainder of the year. He still finished with very reputable totals of 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points in 71 games. The 6’4, 190 lb. Voros also showed a willingness to get involved physically and drop the gloves as evidenced by his 220 PIM’s.

Considering what Voros has had to overcome in his hockey career thus far, last season has to be considered a resounding success for the power forward in training. Voros will likely return for another full season in Albany this season looking to show a little more consistency offensively while still playing at a high level physically. He could potentially see some spot duty in New Jersey should injuries strike the big club, but it would be best served for Voros in terms of his development to spend a second full season in the AHL.

8. (+5) Ahren Nittel, LW, 7.0 C

Nittel was without a doubt one of the most pleasant surprises among Devils prospects this past year, and because of this, he jumps from 13th to eighth in the prospect rankings. Nittel’s season didn’t start off on the right foot as he missed the majority of the first two months overcoming a bout of mononucleosis. He made up for that lost time over the rest of the season though by putting up 25 goals and 36 total points in 50 games. His quick release and deadly accurate shot helped him accumulate 17 power play goals, which was good enough for third-best in the AHL.

The 6’3, 225 lb. Nittel is one of many sizeable wingers in the organization but he perhaps has the best offensive upside as evidenced by his 25 markers with Albany last season. Translated over a full slate of games, Nittel would have easily surpassed the 30-goal mark. Assuming he can stay healthy for a full year, Nittel will likely be heavily relied upon this season with the River Rats to provide offensive. If Nittel can build on last season’s success with another solid offensive season, he may be closer to getting to New Jersey than most think.

9. (-1) Ivan Khomutov, C, 6.5 C

The Devils decided Khomutov’s development would be better served in the AHL rather than fighting for ice time in the OHL with a stacked London Knights team. As one of the youngest players in the AHL, Khomutov was often in and out of the line-up as a healthy scratch. However, as the season wore on, he seemed to gain a little more confidence despite a limited amount of ice time. His totals for the 2004-05 season were more than respectable given these issues. In 66 games, Khomutov scored 6 goals and 11 assists for 17 points.

Khomutov is one of the more intriguing prospects in the organization considering his age and that he already has one full AHL season under his belt. He will likely be more comfortable in his second full pro season, and that will likely result in more confidence and more production offensively. Still to be remembered too is that Khomutov is still growing into his lanky 6’3, 205 lb. frame. With the depth the Devils have at the center ice position in the organization, the Devils can afford to be patient with him and it is likely Khomutov will spend at least another couple of seasons with the Rats before being considered for a promotion to the big club.

10. (–) Barry Tallackson, LW, 7.0 D

Tallackson was looking to finish off his collegiate career with a bang, and though he stepped up his game again during the NCAA playoffs, his final season at the University of Minnesota had to be considered somewhat of a disappointment. A mid-season ankle injury did hamper him somewhat, but he still continued to show inconsistent play and effort over the full season. Though his 11 goals and 19 points in 35 games look good on paper, Tallackson was capable of producing much more. When playing a physical game and driving to the net, Tallackson was very difficult to contain. He just didn’t provide that type of play consistently enough. He played four games with Albany after his college season came to a close, scoring a goal and assist in his first game before being held off the score sheet for the final three games.

Tallackson has been quite the enigma since being drafted by the Devils. He has a great skill set, and standing at an imposing 6’4, 210 lbs, he has the ability to dominate on a nightly basis. He still though has not been able to overcome his bouts of inconsistency. The move to the AHL this season will prove to be a big test for Tallackson. The Devils may have to be more patient with Tallackson than with other prospects in the system as he learns to become a more consistent player. His potential is outstanding, but whether Tallackson ever reaches his full potential is still somewhat in doubt.

11. (–) Adrian Foster, C, 6.5 D

Though he set a career high in games played with 51, Foster still struggled with injuries in his second full AHL season, a common theme throughout the talented centerman’s career. He scored 6 goals and added 11 assists for 17 points but an early season shoulder injury forced him in and out of the line-up and he never really was able to get on track.

The Devils top pick in 2001 has a ton of skill and natural offensive ability but his penchant for getting injured has slowed his development significantly. The Devils organization has shown a tremendous amount of patience waiting for Foster to have a full season of good health and are hoping that maybe this is the year he can put it all together. With the dearth of talent the Devils have at the center ice position, Foster’s window of opportunity to make an impact is growing smaller by the day. This could be Foster’s last kick at the can with Albany to show that he can be the impact player the Devils hoped he would become.

12. (-3) Matt DeMarchi, D, 6.0 B

DeMarchi is the top ranked defender in the system. He had a bit of a rough transition to the AHL in his first pro season in 2003-04, and unfortunately for DeMarchi in 2004-05, he struggled again with nagging injuries and inconsistent defensive play. He played in 61 games, missing 19 due to injury and when in the line-up, put up seven points and 85 PIM’s.

DeMarchi’s play was a bit of a disappointment last season as he did not really improve much in his second full AHL season. He plays a little too much out of control at times, and that leads to sloppy defensive play in his own end. For a stay at home defender who is never going to light up the score sheet, DeMarchi must settle down and show an improvement defensively. This is an important season in terms of DeMarchi’s development. He still has the ability to be a solid role playing defenseman should he reach the NHL, but going into his third AHL season, DeMarchi needs to step up his game a notch.

13. (-6) Tuomas Pihlman, LW, 5.5 B

After a strong debut in Albany, Pihlman suffered through a sophomore jinx in his second full AHL season. After finishing fourth in team scoring with 29 points the previous season, Pihlman slumped to 9 goals and 22 points in 2004-05, most of which came in the second half of the year. Known to be a solid two-way player, Pihlman’s -16 rating was very uncharacteristic, even on a defensively poor River Rat squad.

The Devils expected more from Pihlman after a stellar North American debut, and had to be a little disappointed in his lackluster second pro season. They are far from ready to give up on him as a prospect, but he may be more limited in terms of his offensive potential. He does have good size, and has shown the ability to put the puck in the net from time to time. Instead of being the scoring power forward the Devils hoped he may turn into, they may have to settle for Pihman becoming a grinding type role player when he is finally ready for the NHL. His third full AHL season will likely tell us what type of prospect Pihlman really will turn into.

14. (+1) Josh Disher, G, 5.5 B

Though he played in a few less games from the previous season, Disher had a solid second season as the top goaltender for a very average Erie Otters team in the OHL. He played in 51 games, and compiled a record of 25-21-3, and with a goals against of 2.73 and a save percentage of .913, he improved on both of those statistics from his stellar rookie season. He also managed three shutouts along the way. They were not the most spectacular numbers, but another solid season across the board.

The drafting of Jeff Frazee and graduation of Ari Ahonen off the prospect list keeps Disher as the second best goaltender in the system. He showed no signs of a drop off in play and in his third full OHL season, will look to continue to build on the success he had in his first two years. He still has room to improve and the Devils can afford to take their time with Disher as he slowly works his way through the system and up the prospect ladder.

15. (+1) Jason Ryznar, LW, 5.5 C

Unlike fellow graduating college senior Barry Tallackson, the Michigan Wolverine forward Ryznar saved his best collegiate season for last. His ability to stay healthy played a key role in him having his best statistical season to date. He scored 6 goals, and added a career-best 17 assists and 23 points. The rugged 6’3, crash and bang winger also showed an ability to drive to the net and was very effective in close due to his strength and aggressive nature.

Ryznar picked a great time to put it all together in his final collegiate season. The Devils signed Ryznar to a contract after the NHL lockout was resolved and he will begin his pro career this fall in Albany. Ryznar does not possess the natural goal scoring ability of some of the other potential power forwards in the organization, but if last season is any indication, he showed the Devils the ability to be a potentially physically imposing role player in the very near future.

16. (-5) Teemu Laine, RW, 5.5 C

Laine and the Devils hoped a change of scenery to a new team in the Finland’s SM-Liiga would help him develop more of an offensive touch. With his new team Tappara Tampere, the ultra high-speed skating Laine started the season on fire, but he could not keep it up over the full season. Despite finishing with career highs in all offensive categories with 7 goals and 10 assists for 17 points, his late season struggles were very alarming as he failed to score a goal in the second half of the year.

The Devils had to be pleased at Laine’s early season scoring prowess, and in turn had to be disappointed he couldn’t maintain it over a full season. The Devils have long held out hope that Laine could add some scoring aptitude to go along with his blazing speed but it appears that that may never come to fruition. He may never become more than a speedy checker type and now going into his sixth season of hockey in Finland, it is becoming more questionable if he will ever cross the pond to play hockey in North America.

17. (NR) Mark Fraser, D, 5.5 B

The final new addition to the top 20 Devils prospect list is the 6’3 195 lb. Fraser, a steady, stay at home blueliner whom the Devils selected in the third round of this past NHL draft. Fraser played with a very strong Kitchener Rangers team in 2004-05, and really improved his draft status as the season progressed. Fraser only scored 8 assists in 58 regular season games, but he will never be confused for an offensive force. Fraser instead focuses on his defensive responsibilities and plays a solid, physical game in his own end.

The Devils were lacking defensive depth in the system so it not surprising the Devils added a guy like Fraser to the system. Though he is not an elite prospect, and may never be, he is considered to be a very safe bet to reach is potential. That potential may just be as a solid, defensively focused role playing rearguard, but all NHL teams need players like that and as Fraser fills out his frame, he should move up the prospect ladder as a steady, yet unspectacular prospect.

18. (-1) Tyler Eckford, D, 6.0 D

Eckford displayed excellent offensive potential for a blueliner as he recorded 22 goals and 43 assists for 65 points in helping the South Surrey Eagles to a BCHL championship. Eckford still needs to work on the defensive aspects of his game, but 65 points from a defenseman at any level can’t be ignored and the Devils had to be happy with what Eckford did last season.

This season, Eckford faces the challenge of moving up a level of play as he will start his collegiate career with the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Nanooks. Eckford has shown a lot of raw potential since being drafted by the Devils and it will be very interesting to see if he can translate the success he had offensively at the BCHL to the NCAA. Eckford still has a lot of developing left to do, but with a decent sized frame of 6’1, 205 pounds, the potential is there. Eckford will be someone to keep a close eye on this season.

19. (–) Ken Magowan, RW, 5.0 C

Magowan was forced to spend most of the 2004-04 season at the ECHL level due to the influx of young forwards at the AHL level, but he definitely made the most of his time there. With Augusta, Magowan was one of the top scorers on the team with 21 goals and 28 assists for 49 points to go along with 107 PIM’s, showing a rugged style of play. Highlights of his season included a trip to the ECHL All-Star game and a four-game call-up to Albany where he scored the game-winning goal in his first game.

After proving capable of scoring in the ECHL, Magowan’s goal for this season is to crack the AHL’s River Rats squad on a regular basis. With the likes of Vrana, Tallackson and Ryznar graduating to the pro ranks, it will still be a challenge for Magowan to earn a regular spot in Albany. He may again have to bide his time again in the ECHL as the Devils more highly regarded and more heralded prospects get a shot with the Rats.

20. (-7) Ilkka Pikkarainen, RW, 5.0 A

Though he dropped all the way to the bottom of the top 20, Pikkarainen still had a very solid and respectable season for an Albany team that continued to struggle. His drop is more due more to talented players being added to the system more than anything. Pikkarainen showed improvement in all aspects of his game, scoring 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points in 71 games, and he still showed an antagonistic side to his game by hitting triple digits in PIM’s with 102. Pikkarainen was by far and a way one of the most consistent Rats performers throughout the season.

What you see is what you get with Pikkarainen and he likely has already peaked in terms of his NHL potential. He has great potential as a fourth line sparkplug/energy winger. Whether there is room for him this year is another question, but with a strong training camp and pre-season, Pikkarainen definitely has a chance to make an impression. He may get a chance sometime this season to crack the Devils line-up possibly as an injury fill in.

Missing the Cut

Patrik Davis, LW, 5.5 C
Cam Janssen, RW, 4.5 B
Alexander Sundstrom, C, 5.0 C
Alexander Mikhailishin, D, 4.5 C

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