Forwards dominate New Jersey Devils prospect awards

By HF Staff

Seth Helgeson - New Jersey Devils

Photo: Seth Helgeson was the only senior defenseman on the Minnesota Golden Gophers roster this season. Helgeson recently signed a two-year entry-level contract with the New Jersey Devils. (courtesy of Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)

As the 2012-13 season comes to a close, it is time to hand out the end of the year awards for the New Jersey Devils prospects. While the NHL team struggled, many of their junior players performed very well for their respected clubs. What may be surprising are that most of the recipients are forwards. New Jersey features a healthy stock of quality defensemen, but lacks depth and talent up front. Still, the few standouts had terrific seasons that cannot be overlooked.

Hardest Worker: Graham Black, C, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)

Graham Black focuses on winning battles on both ends of the ice. He fights hard on the forecheck and creates turnovers for himself and his teammates. He still needs to improve on his goal scoring consistency, but no one ever questions his effort away from the puck. Quick and tireless, Black finished third in team scoring with 24 goals and 50 points. He was also effective on both the power play (seven goals) and the penalty kill.

Hardest Shot: Eric Gelinas, D, Albany Devils (AHL)

It is the second year in a row that Gelinas takes home the hardware in this category. A jaw injury in the pre-season threw him off his game early on and the Devils missed his slapshot until he rediscovered it in the winter. He launched 137 shots on goal and buried six of them. The 6'4, 205 pound defenseman knows how to use his shot and it has become one of his best attributes.

Best Defensive Prospect: Jon Merrill, D, Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)

For the second straight year, Merrill missed half the season at Michigan. This time due to a cracked vertebra suffered in the pre-season. Once again, his return to the blue line sprung the Wolverines towards the postseason. After his team fell to Notre Dame in the last CCHA finals, Merrill left school to join the Albany Devils. Its concerning he has missed so many games in his development, however Merrill's former head coach Red Berenson believes the time spent recovering from his injury this season was beneficial from a leadership standpoint. Merrill's performance at Devils training camp should tell the front office whether he'll require long or short seasoning in the minor leagues.

 Fastest Skater: Blake Pietila, LW, Michigan Tech Huskies (CCHA)

Once a weakness, Pietila's skating has opened up his game to become a two-way threat. The short stocky forward was relentless on the forecheck and a beast on the penalty kill for Team USA. His speed also generated numerous transition opportunities for Michigan Tech.

Prospect of the Year: Reid Boucher, LW, Sarnia Sting (OHL)

Last year's high risk/reward prospect turned into the Devils best offensive prospect and this year's Devils Prospect of the Year. His record breaking season of 62 goals broke Steven Stamkos' (TB) club record of 58 goals in a season. The former fourth round pick also scored three times in 11 games with Albany towards the end of the year. Along with his great shot, Boucher stayed consistent throughout the season, rarely falling into a slump. It is also a good trait when you are constantly finding different ways to score. He is the Devils best offensive talent and could become the top six winger New Jersey desperately needs.

Breakout Player for 2013-14: David Wohlberg, C, Albany Devils (AHL)

Albany's stack of veteran forwards made it hard to dress the younger Wohlberg. He only played in 36 games throughout 2012-13. He started to play his style however as the ice time increased down the stretch. The Michigan native tallied four goals, five assists, 26 penalty minutes, and was a plus-one. The front office likes his willingness to scrap in the dirty areas, along with his ability to outwork defenders for the puck. Albany will turn to its young players to help contribute to their scoring woes.

Most Improved Prospect: (tie) Blake Pietila, LW, Michigan Tech Huskies (CCHA) and Curtis Gedig, D, Ohio State Buckeyes (CCHA)

Pietila took a big leap forward in his development in his second year of college hockey. The Michigan native was able to utilize his speed to harness his two-way game. At the World Junior Championship, he played a critical role on Team USA's penalty kill (89.3 percent successful; 25-of-28) as well as a shutdown forward. He carried that confidence back to Michigan Tech where his stick-work and transition skills improved. He finished with 14 goals, 10 assists, and was named the team's MVP for 2012-2013.

The underrated Gedig is being recognized for his solid junior season at Ohio State. The coaching staff gave him major minutes for his consistent play. The defenseman was also thrown into key situations for his shot blocking ability. His footwork allowed him to get better with his gap control and stick-control. The former seventh round pick also chipped in offensively with three goals and 12 assists. Gedig is not flashy, but his balanced, simple style bodes well for his future.

Overachiever: Seth Helgeson, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)

In his final season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Helgeson was a leader for the nation's top defense. As the lone senior on the squad, he received quality ice time on a loaded blue line. The stay-at-home defenseman recorded five assists, 62 penalty minutes, and blocked 46 shots. It will be interesting to see how the 6'5, 215 lbs. blueliner adjusts to the speed of the pro game next year.

Underachiever: Blake Coleman, C, Miami RedHawks (CCHA)

A promising 2011-12 freshman campaign for Blake Coleman had many believe he would carry more of the offensive load in his second season. That was not the case for the former USHL player of the year. He failed to stick on the top two lines, managing nine goals and 10 assists. Fortunately, the Texas native has two more years at the junior level to unlock his scoring potential. The Miami coaching staff believes the gritty centerman can contribute. He just needs more confidence with the puck and learn to avoid taking bad penalties.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Artur Gavrus, LW, Owen Sound Attack (OHL)  

The highly skilled forward split the 2012-13 season in Belarus and the OHL with Owen Sound. Gavrus also got to represent Belarus internationally in two tournaments. He went through a long slump upon returning to the North American game, but caught fire down the stretch. In the final 11 games of the Attack's season, he scored eight goals and 11 points. He is very fast, hard on the puck, and makes big plays in the offensive zone. A reason for his success this year was staying healthy. Last season, he suffered from a concussion and wrist injury, which hurt his draft value. Gavrus's fearless style will make him vulnerable to injury, but as long as he is close to 100 percent, the Belarus native can become a difference maker.

John Iadevaia wrote this article.