New Jersey Devils top 20 brimming with pro-ready defensemen

By HF Staff

Michigan v Minnesota

Photo: Defenseman Jon Merrill remains the top prospect for the New Jersey Devils. Merrill recently signed an NHL contract after playing three years at the University of Michigan. (courtesy of Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)

An important summer approaches for the New Jersey Devils organization. With a plethora of free agents that may or may not be re-signed, the organization may give its minor league and junior prospects an opportunity to crack the NHL lineup.

New Jersey is well stocked in blueliners that are ready for the NHL. Alexander Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Brandon Burlon have played well in Albany and should graduate to the NHL in the near future. Even the top prospects Jon Merrill and Damon Severson could challenge despite their lack of pro experience. Blake Pietila took a big step in his development, playing great two-way hockey for Michigan Tech and Team USA. A few surprises and depth players are doing well, but there is a drop off of high end talent.

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

For the second straight year, Merrill had a setback entering his junior season at Michigan. He suffered a vertebrae injury on Octobor 9th in an exhibition game. It was expected he would return in a few weeks, but he was pushed back to return in January. The Michigan native returned for the final 21 games for the Wolverines, recording up 11 points (two goals, nine assists). With a healthy blue line, Michigan went on a late season run to the CCHA championship but faltered to Notre Dame in the title game. Coach Berenson said Merrill took on a major leadership role while he was sidelined, acting as a voice in the locker room while improving his athleticism in the weight room.

Days after his season ended, Merrill signed an amateur-tryout contract and joined the Albany Devils for the rest of the AHL season. In twelve games played, Merrill recorded a goal and seven assists. He bodied up and defended well while providing a point presence on offense. More importantly, he showed his hockey IQ in all three zones. Devils fans should be excited for what he can do at the pro level.

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

Wedgewood was loaned to the Trenton Titans in the ECHL for most of the season. In 48 games played, the Ontario native had a 20-22-5 record. He finished with a .900 save percentage, a 3.22 goals against average, along with one shutout. When New Jersey summoned Keith Kinkaid in late February, they recalled Wedgewood up to Albany for a short time. He also played five games in Albany, posting a 2-2 record, a .886 save percentage, and 3.47 goals against average.

Wedgewood was the best player for the Titans in numerous games, garnering praise from the local writers. However, the team in front of him gave him little help throughout the year. With Jeff Frazee unlikely to be re-signed this summer, look for Wedgewood to split time in Albany with Kinkaid. With Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg entering the final year of their contracts, this upcoming season could be pivotal for the skilled 22-year old to show he is ready for the next step.

3. (3) Alexander Urbom, D, 7.0B      
Drafted 3rd Round, 73rd Overall, 2009

Alexander Urbom had a decent 2012-13 season as he refined his overall game. The Swedish defenseman contributed eight assists, racked up 64 penalty minutes, and was a minus-three rating through 68 regular season games. Changes may be coming to the Devils blue line in an uncertain off-season. There is a chance New Jersey start to call up some of their young defensemen and the two-way defenseman would be one of them. He is a unique blend of size and mobility would be a breath of fresh air to a veteran laden defensive corp.  

4. (5) Damon Severson D, 7.5C       
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th overall, 2012

New Jersey was surprised when Damon Severson fell to their laps in the second round. Some teams may be kicking themselves years from now as the Saskatchewan native could become a top-four defenseman. The 18-year-old blueliner played a role in Kelowna's record breaking season that saw them win 56 of 72 games and taking first place in the B.C. Division of the WHL. He led all defensemen in scoring with 10 goals and 42 assists and finished a plus-43. The Rockets rallied from a 3-0 deficit in first round to defeat Seattle in game seven in overtime. The defenseman posted a goal and nine assists in 11 playoff games. Back in September, he signed an entry-level contract with the Devils. He played in the final weekend of the season with Albany and chipped in two assists.

Severson is not afraid to use his 6'2, 200 pound frame defensively and will also drop the gloves on occasion. He is a swift skater that plays a low-risk style, but has sound positioning and stick-work in the defensive end. The former second rounder could improve his breakout passes in his own zone, but they are not enough of a hindrance to his offensive sense. Whenever he joins the Devils, his all-around game will be a welcomed edition to the defensive corp.

5. (8) Reid Boucher, LW, 7.5C        
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2011

Boucher had one of the best junior seasons in OHL history. He broke Steven Stamkos' (TB) club record of 58 goals in a season and finished the year with 62 goals-12 more than any other player. He also led the league with 21 power play goals and finished fifth in scoring with 95 points. Sarnia reached the postseason but was swept in four games. The Michigan native recorded two goals and three assists.

On March 13th, Boucher signed a three-year entry-level contract with New Jersey for the 2013-14 season. When his junior season ended, he signed an amateur tryout agreement to play out the rest of the Albany Devils season. In 11 games played, he notched three goals and two assists. The sign of his development was his consistency throughout the year. He never had a long slump and found ways to score and create chances. He also possesses one of the best shots at the junior level. Boucher is the organizations best offensive talent, and if he can adjust to the physical nature of the pros, he can become the top six winger New Jersey desperately needs.

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

The Ottawa native had a sluggish start to his second year in Albany. With no proper training camp and a jaw injury in the pre-season, Gelinas did not look comfortable until much later in the year. He scored six goals and 16 assists and was a minus-one with 46 penalty minutes. Still, he bounced back in the second half of the season. His point presence helped relieve some of the struggles on offense.

The blueliner played for New Jersey against Pittsburgh on April 25th, taking one shot on net and finished a with a minus-one. The coaches paired him against Evgeni Malkin's line multiple times, but Gelinas performed quite well in the contest. He is another defensive prospect that appears ready to graduate to the big club. It would not hurt if he stayed in Albany, but like Urbom, Gelinas is ready to fight for playing time with the veterans in New Jersey.

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

The Swift Current Broncos defenseman Reese Scarlett was a constant factor in a season of ups and downs. He put together another good year in 2012-13 after a pretty impressive 2011-12 campaign. The Alberta native produced nine goals and 40 assists to lead his fellow defensemen in scoring. After a slow start, the puck moving defenseman tore it up in January and February, producing 23 of his 49 points in that span, and finished the season with a solid plus-14.

His biggest critique is his size, at 6'1 and 178 pounds. He simply needs to bulk up. As an offensive defenseman, the 20-year old needs to be prepared to take hits with the puck. Scarlett's transition game makes him an appealing player, but that will be nullified if he becomes a burden against physical checking teams.

8. (7) Stefan Matteau, C, 7.0C       
Drafted 1st Round, 29th overall, 2012

It was a rollercoaster season of highs and lows for the 2012 1st round draft pick. He started the year in the QMJHL with Blaineville-Boisbriand, but was called up to the Devils once NHL lockout ended. He physically performed well away from the puck, even netting his first NHL goal. Eventually, he was sent back to juniors to compete in the post-season. His season ended unexpectedly when he was suspended indefinitely by his club following a loss to Baie-Comeau in the second round. It was later reported that Matteau and his head coach had a heated debate following in the locker room which led to the action.

The Chicago native's off-ice drama raises questions about his mentality. Regardless, he remains one of the more talented forwards in the Devils system. He has already proven his body is ready for the NHL. Matteau's game focuses on winning battles in the dirty areas all over the ice. He uses his 6'2 frame to protect the puck and create space for himself and his teammates. His aggressive game can be borderline at times however, and Matteau has been suspended in juniors already. He will have to learn to restrain himself to show he has mature for the NHL.

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

Kinkaid played in 45 contests in Albany with a 21-17-6 record. He had a .905 save percentage, a 2.72 goals against average, and recorded two shutouts. He made one appearance with the New Jersey club, a relief effort for Johan Hedberg. He stopped 12 of 13 shots he faced, including a breakaway attempt by Steven Stamkos.

He split time with Jeff Frazee on the Devils AHL affiliate and was the better of the two. His numbers were not impressive, but he performed the best out of the four goalie prospects with his workload. He is a restricted free agent this summer but is likely to be resigned. It is possible he will split the crease with Scott Wedgewood next season in Albany.

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

What attracted the Devils to Burlon was his overall game on the blue line. He is not better offensively or defensively, but rather, a balanced depth defenseman. In a system stacked with quality blueliners, being vanilla might seemed uninteresting, yet Burlon played pretty well in his second season in Albany. He struggled to adjust last season following his departure from the University of Michigan, but this year he looked confident, threw his body around, and chipped in more offensively. He had 16 assists and 17 points, second in scoring amongst Albany defensemen.

One of Burlon's skills is to make a good first pass. For a team that can struggle at times to clear their own zone, that ability to move the puck forward is essential. Though New Jersey may promote some of their defensive prospects next year, Burlon would prosper from extra playing time in the minors to perfect his game.

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

The 2012-13 season was quite an exceptional one for Blake Pietila. The Milford, Michigan native became the first Michigan Tech player to earn a gold medal as a member of Team USA at the World Junior Championship. He excelled in a checking/shutdown role, chipping in two assists and a plus-five rating. He also played a big role on the American penalty kill, which was 89.3 percent successful (25-of-28).

Pietila continued his good play when he returned to Michigan Tech. He remained a force on the penalty kill, but he really excelled at even strength. His speed was beneficial on the forecheck. Two areas he improved upon this season in particular are his stick work and transition game. Pietila finished the season with 14 goals, 10 assists in 35 games. At the team's end of the year banquet, he earned the Merv Youngs Award as the team's most valuable player.

Pietila's style resembles Jay Pandolfo, a defensive forward that can chip in with some timely goals. Right now, his stock is rising as he enters his final two years at Michigan Tech.

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

Clermont played in 41 games for the Elmira Jackals and notched a 20-13-5 record. However, his numbers at the ECHL level, 3.24 goals against average and a .899 save percentage were not particularly impressive. In the post-season, the Montreal native split Elmira's first round series with teammate Ian Keserich. In his three games, Clermont battled, but was not a difference maker, managing a 4.33 goals against average and .860 save percentage.

Clermont played in one game for Albany this year and performed well. He made 29 saves, only gave up one goal, but lost in the shootout. As of now, he is third on the goaltender depth chart. At 21 years old, Clermont still needs some time to develop his game. It is not so much his numbers have to get better as he must become more consistent on a game-to-game basis.

13. (12) Blake Coleman, C/W, 6.5
Drafted 3rd Round, 75th overall, 2011

Coleman's second year of college hockey saw his squad, Miami University, finish atop the CCHA standings in the regular season. The Texas native's offensive numbers were a bit disappointing this year. He only managed nine goals and 10 assists, but it was in a lesser role. Still, there is a belief within the Miami coaching staff that he can improve his production with an expanded role.

He is a hard-working, gritty player who is also able to create offensive opportunities for himself and his linemates. At times, he was indecisive with the puck and still has to learn to avoid taking bad penalties.

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

The lone senior and alternate captain for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Seth Helgeson finished his collegiate career as the leader of the nation's top defense. On the season he managed five assists, 62 penalty minutes, and blocked 46 shots. Minnesota fell in the WCHA tournament to Colorado College and bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to the eventual national champion Yale.

He signed an amateur tryout deal with the Albany Devils on April 6th. In four games played, he had no points, a plus-two rating, took seven shots on goal, and served two minutes in the box. New Jersey knows what they will get from the Minnesota native so they can be patient with him. Helgeson is likely to spend some time in the minors adjusting to the next level. Otherwise, he is right on course with his development.

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

Curtis Gedig earned major blue line minutes in his junior year at Ohio State University. The Buckeye's philosophy is blocking shots and it has become second nature for the future Devils defenseman, who blocked 57 this season. Gedig's gap control and stick-work are a product of his good footwork, a combination which allows him to seem to be wherever the puck carrier is. He may have been the team's most consistent blueliner despite missing a few games due to injury. He finished with three goals and 12 assists and a plus-six rating. Gedig also donned the captaincy several times while Ohio State rotated the 'C' throughout the upperclassmen.

16. (18) Graham Black, C, 6.0C     
Drafted 5th round, 135th Overall, 2012

Graham Black put together another solid outing with the Swift Current Broncos in 2012-13. He finished the season with 24 goals, 26 assists, and 50 points, matching his 2011-12 output. He was invited to the Subway Super Series in November, a month in which he managed seven goals and four assists in just 10 games. However, his offensive production sputtered towards the end of the regular season. It was later noted that he was suffering from illness that made him miss the first two games of the playoffs. The Regina, SK native tallied a goal and three assists before the Broncos were eliminated in the first round. Once again, he was lauded for his skating ability and aggressive forecheck. Despite his 5'11, 179 pound frame, Black's solid two-way play matches what the Devils like from their forwards.  

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

In his rookie year with Albany, Wohlberg only played in 36 games. He did not play much in first half of the season because of a glut of veteran players at the AHL level, but was a regular member of the lineup by the end of the season. The Michigan native put up four goals, five assists, 26 penalty minutes, and was a plus-one along. It was towards the end of the season that Wohlberg came into his own. The former Michigan Wolverine did his dirty work in front of the net, outworking defenders for positioning and loose pucks. With Albany's scoring woes, the coaches are looking towards the younger players to contribute next season.

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

The Devils 6th Round pick made an interesting decision over the off-season. For personal reasons, he chose to start the year in Belarus playing for Neman Grodno, which plays in a league with grown men. He tallied five goals and seven assists in 12 games. At the Division I, Group A World Junior Championship, Gavrus lead the tournament in scoring, notching five goals and five assists in five games for the finalist Belarus.

The 18-year old forward returned to the Owen Sound Attack in January. He only posted three assists in the winter before he found is scoring touch in March. Gavrus notched eight goals and 11 points in the remaining eight games of the regular season. He recorded three multi-goal games, including a hat trick on March 8th against the Erie Otters. In the first round of the OHL playoffs, the Owen Sound Attack won their series 4-2 over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and Gavrus scored two goals and three assists, including the eventual game winner in Game six. He would only score a goal and two assists in the second round as the Plymouth Whalers would eliminate the Attack. He was invited to play for the Belarus National Team for the 2013 IIHF World Hockey Championships.

19. (15) Ben Johnson, C, 6.5D    
Drafted 3rd Round, 90th overall, 2012

Johnson suffered from the dreaded sophomore slump in his second year with the Windsor Spitfires. The Michigan native recorded 20 goals and 17 assists for 37 points, falling a point short of his 38 points total in 2011-12. His minus-28 rating is concerning, but defense was not one of Windsor's strengths, and it led to them missing the playoffs. Along with the dreaded sophomore slump, he also dealt with personal off-ice issues at the conclusion of his second stint in the CHL.

The centerman needs to learn to utilize his speed to improve his goal scoring ability. Luckily he is young and has some time left in juniors. It could help to add some muscle as well.

20. (20) Mike Hoeffel LW, 6.0C       
Drafted 2nd Round, 57th overall, 2007

The Minnesota native found his niche in 50 games with Albany. Hoeffel was placed on a line alongside Tim Sestito and Darcy Zajac. The trio provided energy, out-muscling opponents and creating chances down low with gritty work. The forward added five goals and five assists, finished with a plus-one rating, with 37 penalty minutes. It is not likely he will see a heavier workload in the future, but he has the tools to become an effective bottom-six forward.

John Iadevaia wrote this article.