Devils Top 20 Prospects

By Jared Ramsden

Top 20 at a Glance

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

Key: Rank (previous rank), Name, Position, Grade

1. (1) Zach Parise, C, 8.0 A

Parise remains entrenched as the top prospect in the Devils organization, but this will be the last time he is eligible for the list. While he has not produced the type of numbers that super rookies Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have, Parise has settled in nicely as a regular in New Jersey. At the Olympic break, Parise has played in 57 of the Devils 58 games and has eight goals and 12 assists for a total of 20 points. His defensive play has been somewhat spotty as evidenced by his -10 rating, but Parise is still learning the intricacies of the NHL on a game to game basis. Parise opened his NHL career by scoring the game-winning goal and adding an assist in his NHL debut in the Devils 5-1 season opening victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Parise struggled to get much ice time under since-resigned Devils head coach Larry Robinson during much of November and December, but since GM Lou Lamoriello took over behind the bench, Parise has played much more and seems to be gaining confidence through each passing game. Currently playing on a line with Sergei Brylin and Grant Marshall, the Devils have eased the burden somewhat on Parise by playing him on left wing frequently, which is mainly to help him with his defensive responsibilities. Parise’s rookie season has not been as splashy as many expected, but the Devils still have extremely high hopes for him. As he continues to get NHL experience and mature both mentally and physically, expect Parise’s numbers to continue to improve gradually throughout the final stretch of the season.

2. (2) Aleksander Suglobov, RW, 7.5 C

Suglobov has made huge strides in his third pro season with Albany and it seems as though he is very close to reaching his full potential and becoming an NHL player. Suglobov has been brimming with confidence and just recently had a nine-game point streak come to a close, and is currently on a stretch of recording at least a point in 15 of his last 21 games. Consistency had often been an issue for Suglobov in the past, but this season he has vastly improved in that aspect of his game.

He currently leads all River Rats in scoring with 21 goals and 21 assists through 45 games, nearly scoring at a point-per-game clip. Suglobov will no doubt shatter his previous career bests set last year as he is only four points off last season’s pace. Suglobov replaced David Hale as a representative in the AHL All-Star game after Hale was recalled to New Jersey. Suglobov had been selected to play in last season’s AHL mid-season classic but was unable to participate due to injury. He also received a brief recall to New Jersey in mid-December for a game against Carolina, a game in which he scored his first ever NHL goal in a 4-1 loss to the Hurricanes.

Though Suglobov still remains inconsistent defensively, he is scoring regularly and really does not have much left to prove at the AHL level, as he has matured a great deal both on and off the ice. The Devils right now are struggling to get secondary offense up front and Suglobov looks like he would fit the bill as a guy who can come in and light the lamp. However, the Devils and Lamoriello seem hesitant to throw a youngster like Suglobov into the fray as they have turned their season around and now are in the heat of a playoff race. Suglobov may have to be content with finishing off the year strong in the AHL with the River Rats, but he has already shown enough to merit consideration for a regular spot with New Jersey next season.

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

The Devils most recent first round draft choice, Bergfors has had ups and downs in this his first pro season in the AHL, but as the youngest player in the league at the age of 18, that inconsistency is not overly surprising. Bergfors left the River Rats in late December to participate for Team Sweden in the U-20 World Junior Championships and he put on quite a show being teamed up with fellow countryman and 2006 top draft prospect Nicklas Backstrom. Bergfors scored three times and added three helpers for six points in six games, along with a +3 rating in the tournament. Upon his return to Albany, Bergfors did not record a point in his first six games back, but recently has turned things around by scoring four goals and four assists in his past eight games, including his first two-goal game in a late January game against Manchester. For the season, he currently has nine goals and 12 assists for 21 points in 39 games.

When the Devils selected Bergfors this past summer, the idea of him getting fast tracked to the AHL instead of playing in the CHL was likely not in their plans, but after impressing the Devils in training camp and the preseason, Bergfors has exceeded expectations for this season. Playing against men in the AHL is without a doubt benefiting Bergfors immensely and his often dominating play at the World Juniors reflected that. If he continues to progress at this current rate, it would likely not surprise many if he challenged for a regular spot with the Devils sometime next season.

4. (3) Travis Zajac, C, 7.0 B

Zajac’s second season at the University of North Dakota started rather slowly, but he is now back to playing the way he did for the majority of last season. After posting a pedestrian five points in his first 10 games, Zajac has been on a major tear as he has put up nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points in the Fighting Sioux’s next 22 games. He currently sits tied for second overall in team scoring with St. Louis Blues prospect T.J. Oshie with 30 points. During that hot stretch, Zajac earned WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors in mid-January. His rock-solid +11 rating is tied for second best on the North Dakota squad. Also of note is that Zajac’s has been excellent in the faceoff circle, taking almost 800 draws and winning over 55 percent of them.

Zajac is arguably the most well-rounded forward in New Jersey’s system, quite a feat for a player only in his second collegiate season. He continues to excel at both ends of the rink for North Dakota, and is progressing just as the Devils had hoped when they made him their first round draft choice back in 2004. Zajac is just ahead of his scoring clip from last season, and as he continues to fill out and mature physically, Zajac’s stock in the organization will continue to accelerate.

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

As have many other first-year River Rat forwards, Vrana has been plagued by bouts of inconsistency, including a lengthy scoring drought of almost two months. However, the former Halifax Moosehead captain looks to have adapted relatively well to the rigors and daily grind of hockey at the pro level. Vrana has averaged around six points each month thus far this season, and sits a respectable fourth overall in team scoring with eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points in 50 games. Despite his -10 rating, Vrana contributes at both ends of the ice as he learns to hone the defensive aspects of his game.

Vrana may not be in the same category as other centers in the system such as Parise or Zajac, but he is still considered one of the better prospects in the organization. Vrana will strive for some consistency and hope to end the season on a high note as he wraps up his first pro season in the AHL.

6. (10) Barry Tallackson, LW, 7.0 C

After getting a brief taste of the AHL at the conclusion of his senior season at the University of Minnesota last year, Tallackson has been one of the steadiest and consistent River Rat forwards thus far this season. His strong play, especially early on, did not go unnoticed by the Devils, as he was rewarded with a mid-November recall to the big club. He scored his first NHL goal in a Nov. 19 game against the Ottawa Senators and in 10 games with New Jersey, he tailed a goal and an assist. He did not see a whole lot of playing time, playing mostly on the fourth line, but was effective in his limited opportunities on the ice. Since being returned to Albany, Tallackson picked up right where he left off, and currently sits second in team scoring with 10 goals and 22 assists for 32 points through 42 games. He is one of the few River Rats with a positive plus/minus rating, and leads the team in that category with a +4.

Tallackson has made a great impression so far in his first full AHL season, and thus he moves up the Devils prospect rankings. Tallackson often struggled to maintain any form of consistency over his collegiate career, but that has not eluded him up to this point in Albany and the Devils brass have to be thrilled that one of their most enigmatic prospects has seemed to find his game after turning pro. Tallackson is blessed with enormous talents for a man of his physique at 6’4 and all he needs is a little more AHL seasoning before he earns another look in New Jersey.

7. (6) Jeff Frazee, G, 7.5 C

Frazee, the highest ranked goaltender in the Devils system, has seen very limited minutes in his freshman season at the University of Minnesota, playing behind junior starter Kellen Briggs. Since returning from the World Junior Championship, he’s barely seen any time, due to Briggs being unbeaten in his last 12 starts. At the WJC, Frazee backed up B.C.’s Cory Schneider (VAN) and won his only start, a 6-5 win over Finland. Frazee’s best performance for the Golden Gophers thus far this season was a 35-save performance in which he only gave up one goal in a win over Niagara back at the beginning of January. Overall he has a 4-2-2 record and sports a 2.77 goals against and a .907 save percentage.

With Martin Brodeur just signing a new long-term contract with the Devils that will expire when he reaches the age of 40, the Devils have been active the past few drafts in adding goaltenders to the fold in hoping to find the heir apparent to the goaltending throne in New Jersey and right now, Frazee likely has the most upside of any goaltender in the system. The Devils have no need to rush any goaltenders, and Frazee is no different. He likely won’t see too much action down the stretch run for the Golden Gophers, but the experience of being on a top collegiate team with a good chance to go a long way in the NCAA playoffs will no doubt benefit Frazee long term.

8. (9) Ivan Khomutov, C, 6.5 B

Khomutov, who last season was one of the youngest players in the AHL, has looked much more comfortable in his second go-around with the River Rats. In fact, Khomutov has already surpassed last season’s point total of 17and only needs one more goal to exceed the total he achieved last year. In 38 games, he has six goals and 14 assists for 20 points. It still has been somewhat of a struggle for Khomutov to remain in the Albany line-up on a regular basis, due to the number of forwards on the Albany roster. He still is working on becoming a more well-rounded player, and despite being in and out of the line-up, he is coming around quite nicely for a player who is still only 19 years of age.

The Devils seem to have no problems fast tracking some of their younger prospects to the AHL, as they did with Khomutov last season and Bergfors this year. Though growing pains are to be expected with teenaged players playing in the AHL, the long term benefits of playing against older competition at a much higher pace is something that can’t be overlooked. The Devils can be more patient with Khomutov than some other prospects in the system because of his age and the depth of talent the Devils have accumulated at the center ice position. Khomutov has a ton of raw talent, and as he matures and fills out his lanky frame, looks for his numbers to keep gradually increasing.

9. (8) Ahren Nittel, LW, 7.0 C

Finishing the 2004-05 season on a goal-scoring rampage after missing much of the first half of the AHL season due to injury, Nittel had hoped to pick up right where he left off this season. However, he was again felled by the injury bug and has just started to regain the form and confidence he showed last season when he tied for the team scoring lead with 25 goals. Nittel has missed a ton of game action, including a month from late December to January and as a result has only been able to suit up for 24 games. He has seven goals and seven assists for 14 points in those games. Half of those points have come in the past 10 games, as Nittel has shaken the injury bug for the time being.

Though Nittel has often struggled to remain healthy on a regular basis, he has shown the ability to contribute when in the line-up. He is one of quite a few big, physically imposing wingers in the system, but he may have the best offensive tools of the bunch, including a lethal shot. The Devils have given some Albany forwards a look this season, but it is in the best interest for Nittel and his development to remain in Albany for the rest of the season where he will look to finish the season healthy and on a high note, much like he did last year.

10. (7) Aaron Voros, RW 6.5 C

Voros has been a fairly consistent force for the River Rats after a sluggish start that saw him in and out of the line-up early on, including a season-opening drought that saw him only record one assist in his first 11 games. In 36 games since that point, Voros has pumped in 12 goals and 10 assists and has been a frequent visitor to the penalty box, sitting second on the team with 109 PIM’s. Those 12 goals he has put home are good enough for second best on the team and are already more than the 11 he scored in 71 games last year. Voros has shown that he is not afraid to rough it up and stick up for his teammates on regular basis by those high PIM totals and standing at 6’4, definitely has the intimidation factor on his side.

Voros’ drop in the rankings should not be taken as a negative in terms of his overall progression as a prospect. Aside from the slow start this season, Voros has been just as good, if not better than last season, and is showing more consistency, something that was a minor concern last year after he really cooled off down the stretch. Voros may not have as much natural offensive talent as other prospects in the system, but he as shown the Devils that he can be more than just a physical force on a nightly basis. He is slowly but surely maturing and growing into his big frame and is turning into a player that looks more and more likely to have an NHL job in his future if he keeps developing like he has been.

11. (13) Tuomas Pihlman, LW, 6.0 B

In this his third season playing in the AHL, Pihlman looks to have matured and finally figured things out. Though he doesn’t often contribute consistently on the score sheet, Pihlman, who regularly wears an “A”, finds other ways to help a River Rat team littered with first-year players. His efforts on the farm did not go unnoticed as the Devils had Pihlman up with the big club for 11 games from mid-November to mid-December. Though he did not play much, he was effective playing a smart and physical brand of hockey and was even rewarded for his hard work with his first career NHL goal in a November game against Philadelphia. Since being returned to Albany, Pihlman hasn’t scored much, but he has been a constant presence playing regular minutes and contributing solid defensive play, as shown by his +1 rating. In 38 games, he has seven goals and 11 assists for 18 points.

Pihlman doesn’t have a whole lot left to prove in the AHL, aside from maybe chipping in with a little more offense. However, the rest of Pihlman’s game is very close to being NHL ready. He’s solidly built, plays a physical brand of hockey, and most importantly, is smart and sound at the defensive end of the ice. Barring an injury at the NHL level, Pihlman likely will remain in Albany to finish the season, but Pihlman is the type of player that could provide some valuable depth to New Jersey down the stretch and into the playoffs. Pihlman’s steady play this year should put him in contention for regular duty with the Devils for the start of next season.

12. (15) Jason Ryznar, LW, 6.0 C

Another of the Devils big-bodied wingers, Ryznar has slowly acclimatized himself at the pro level after four years at the University of Michigan. While not as offensively gifted as some of the other power forward types, Ryznar probably is the most defensively sound. Ryznar became the second Alaskan to suit up for the Devils, alongside Scott Gomez, as he was recalled early in January for his first taste of NHL action. Ryznar has suited up for three NHL games up to this point and been held off the score sheet. He has been returned to Albany during the Olympic break, and may be recalled again when the NHL returns to action at the end of February. Ryznar sees regular minutes killing penalties with the River Rats, which is a testament to his solid work at that end of the ice. In 45 games for Albany, he’s tallied four goals and 14 assists for 18 points.

Of the recalls to New Jersey this season, Ryznar likely was the least expected, but in very limited minutes has played solid, yet unspectacularly in a checking role. Ryznar’s upside is as a big and physical, grind it out checker, and up to this point, he has played about as expected as he hasn’t had as tough an adjustment to the pro game as some other first-year players have. Ryznar could very well be called back to the parent Devils after the Olympic break, but the Devils may opt to call up another River Rat forward and give Ryznar more regular minutes in Albany. At this point, Ryznar is likely a year or two away from a permanent NHL job, but the Devils have to be pleased with how the defensively minded first-year pro is developing.

13. (17) Mark Fraser, D, 6.0 B

One of the very few legit defensive prospects in the system, Fraser has looked every bit the part after being selected in the third round of this past summer’s NHL draft. The second-year defender was named team captain of the Kitchener Rangers and has quietly put together a solid season up to this point. While Fraser hasn’t, and likely won’t ever, put up many points on the score sheet, he has improved his play with the puck, usually making the smart and safe play. Fraser is a steady defensive presence and as his 109 PIM’s attest, is more than willing to get involved physically. He’s also a regular on the Rangers top-ranked PK unit. In 48 games with Kitchener, Fraser has three assists and +6 rating.

Fraser at this point is easily the Devils best defensive prospect, despite only being in his second year of major junior hockey. He is not likely to become a spectacular, top-pairing defender, but he has the potential to develop into a mean and physical stay at home defensive stalwart, much like current Devils defenseman Colin White. Fraser’s intangible qualities, such as his leadership and hard-working nature also bode well for his future.

14. (NR) David Clarkson, RW, 5.5 B

The newest member on the Devils prospect list is Clarkson, a first-year River Rat who was signed by the Devils this past summer after graduating from the OHL. Clarkson has filled a variety of roles, from scorer, to penalty killer, to enforcer, showing how well-rounded a hockey player he is. With Cam Janssen having seemingly secured a regular fourth line role in New Jersey, Clarkson has really stepped up and asserted himself physically and as a guy who will not back down from a fight. His 208 PIM’s are easily tops on the River Rats and that also places him in a fifth place tie in the league for that category. Clarkson has contributed offensively more often than not this season as well, as his 11 goals and 18 assists for 29 points places him third on the team.

Considering he was never drafted, Clarkson has easily surpassed expectations this season and has been one of the best River Rat players to date. His ability to contribute all over the ice is something that likely has not gone unnoticed by New Jersey management as they look to have possibly uncovered another undrafted free agent find, a la John Madden and Brian Rafalski. Clarkson’s seamlessly smooth transition from junior to the pros will likely garner him a look in New Jersey sooner rather than later.

15. (NR) Patrick Davis, LW, 6.5 C

Thought of as somewhat of an enigma earlier in his junior career, Davis has exploded offensively this season, already setting career-best numbers with the season still yet to be finished. After scoring 13 goals early on for Kitchener, Davis was dealt to the Windsor Spitfires and since that point, Davis has been on an absolute scoring tear. He has been scoring at over a point a game clip since the trade with 43 points in 32 games, and overall this season, has 33 goals and 27 assists for 60 points in 54 games, to go along with a robust +14 rating. Davis had often been criticized for being a perimeter player and not being involved physically, but this season he has shown much more drive and determination this season, with good offensive numbers and a career-best 84 PIM’s.

With the way Davis has performed up to this point this season, the Devils may have found themselves quite a mid-round gem. Davis has always had all the tools, but had not always played up to his capabilities. The early season trade to Windsor seems to have lit a spark under Davis as he is using all his natural talent, including great skating ability and a lightning quick shot to put up career-best totals. This may just be the tip of the iceberg for Davis as he still is growing into his 6’2 frame. As he continues to physically mature, he could become an even more dominant offensive force and is definitely a guy the Devils will be keeping a close eye on to see that he keeps up his much improved play.

16. (14) Josh Disher, G, 5.5 B

Disher has hit a little bit of a bump in the road in this his third go around with the Erie Otters, who have resided at the bottom of the OHL’s Midwest Division and are more than likely going to miss the postseason party this year. Disher’s numbers are not anywhere close to what they had been in the past two seasons, as his goals against average of 3.71 and .893 save percentage are sub-par. He has proven to be a workhorse yet again though, playing in 44 of Erie’s 55 games, and can lay claim to 17 of the Otters 22 victories thus far.

Though Disher has not been his sharpest this year, playing on one of the OHL’s weaker teams has not helped him any. Something that should also be taken into consideration in Disher’s average play this year is New Jersey’s hands-on approach with Disher this season, in trying to get him to change his style to be more like that of current Devils all-star netminder, Martin Brodeur. Disher is still not yet signed, but with the Devils lacking quality goaltending depth in the minor pro ranks, the chances of Disher being signed are likely quite strong, despite his sub-par season.

17. (18) Tyler Eckford, D, 6.0 C

Eckford’s freshman season at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks hasn’t been spectacular by any stretch, but he has more than held his own, and has been one of the better players on the Nanooks. Eckford is the Nanooks third highest scorer and second highest scoring blueliner up to this point playing in 31 of their 32 games while posting three goals and 13 assists. His 13 assists are second best on the team. For a first-year collegiate player, Eckford has made quite a smooth adjustment to the new level of hockey after starring offensively for South Surrey of the BCHL the past few seasons.

While Eckford is still quite some time from wearing the red and black of New Jersey, he is an intriguing prospect because of his strong skating and the offensive abilities he brings to the table. As has been noted earlier, the Devils do not have much in the system when it comes to defensemen, and he easily has the most offensive upside of any blue line prospect in the organization. While he is still rough around the edges and learning how to play better defensively, the Devils have to be pleased with how his development is coming along.

18. (NR) Jason Smith, G, 6.0 C

A relative unknown coming into the season, Smith has really made a name for himself after taking over the No. 1 goaltending duties for Sacred Heart. Smith spent his first two seasons with the Pioneers as the seldom-used backup, but with the graduation of senior starter Kevin Lapointe, Smith has assumed the reins as the starting netminder and has been stellar in that role. Smith recently collected his 15th win of the season, setting a new school record for wins in a season. Smith’s goals against of 2.10 and outstanding .933 save percentage are the best in the Atlantic Hockey Association. On top of the fantastic numbers he has put up this season, on three separate occasions Smith has been named the Association’s goaltender of the week.

The Devils obviously knew Smith had talent when they drafted him in the sixth round of the 2003 NHL draft, but his talent had been hidden as a backup until he burst on to the scene this season. Now that he is playing on a regular basis, and playing outstandingly, the Devils look to have a dark-horse prospect in between the pipes to keep tabs on over the next few seasons. Even though the level of competition in the AHA is not the same as in the WCHA or CCHA, Smith is definitely making the most of his opportunity at Sacred Heart.

19. (12) Matt DeMarchi, D, 6.0 C

Though DeMarchi has dropped seven spots in the prospect rankings, he has played well but not great for Albany after missing most of the first month of the season due to injury. DeMarchi, going into his third pro season down on the farm with the River Rats, has seemed to mature somewhat by playing smarter and limiting the glaring defensive miscues that often plagued him his first two years on the farm. In 38 games, DeMarchi has two goals and fifth assists for seven points, to go along with a plus/minus rating of -7.

Drafted the same year as current Devils defensemen Paul Martin and David Hale, DeMarchi’s development hasn’t been on the same curve and therefore, he has been forced to spend more time in the minors, trying to iron out his weaknesses and improve his strengths. DeMarchi’s drop in the rankings is due to the fact that his overall upside isn’t as high as others on this list, but he still merits a spot in the top 20 because he still has the ability to develop into a solid No. 5 or 6 defender.

20. (16) Teemu Laine, RW, 5.5 C

Laine continues to remain in Finland, and is currently in the middle of his second season with Tappara Tampere. He started the season with a bang, much like he did last season, and was actually in the Top 10 in league scoring for most of October. But since then, Laine has crashed back to earth offensively. With six goals and 10 assists in 47 games, Laine is about on the same scoring pace he was on last season. While he remains a world class skater, his offensive game has definitely levelled off.

With the wealth of first and second-year forwards at Albany, in hindsight, staying over in Finland yet again was likely the best case scenario for Laine. Playing against men in the Finnish Elite League probably has been serving him better than being in and out of the line-up in the AHL. That all being said though, Laine has reached the point in his career where he likely isn’t going to develop much more until he crosses the pond to play professional hockey in North America. With a few River Rat forwards on the cusp of making it in New Jersey, it would probably be in the best interests for Laine, if he really wants an NHL future to play pro hockey in the AHL next season. Whether that happens though still remains to be seen.

Missing the Cut

21. Alexander Sundstrom, C, 5.5 C
22. Ilkka Pikkarainen, RW, 5.0 B
23. Bryan Miller, D, 5.0 C

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