Devils Top 20 prospects

By Jared Ramsden
Nicklas Bergfors retains his top spot on the New Jersey Devils Top 20 Prospects list, but there was a lot of movement elsewhere, and seven new faces to the list. The Devils strong contingent of collegiate freshmen represents the biggest reason for the influx of new talent on to the list. Tony Romano, Nathan Perkovich, Mark Fayne and T.J. Miller have had fantastic starts to their collegiate careers, giving the list some promising young talent to get excited about.

With all the new faces, inevitably there are quite a few players who have fallen off the list completely. Some, such as Jason Ryznar, have fallen just because of the rise of more talent in the system. Others, such as Tuomas Pihlman, have failed to live up to expectations and are living on borrowed time in the organization.

While there has not been an enormous amount of separation between prospects that was predicted back in the previous edition, the rise of new faces, combined with the fall of more seasoned and less exciting prospects shows that the organization’s overall group of talent is starting to get back to what it used to be in years past.

New Jersey boasts solid depth at all positions, with seven defensemen, four right wingers, three left wingers, four centers and two goaltenders in the Top 20. A defense group that was lacking in talent and depth last season is now undoubtedly one of the most improved areas of the organization. With Matt Corrente, Andy Greene, Kirill Tulupov and T.J. Miller being added to the system over the past year, the Devils brass have addressed a system weakness and turned it into strength.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Nicklas Bergfors, RW
2. Matthew Corrente, D
3. Andy Greene, D
4. Alexander Vasyunov, LW
5. Petr Vrana, C
6. Jeff Frazee, G
7. Barry Tallackson, LW
8. Vladimir Zharkov, RW
9. Kirill Tulupov, D
10. Mark Fraser, D
11. Tony Romano, C
12. Tyler Eckford, D
13. David Clarkson, RW
14. Nathan Perkovich, RW
15. Patrick Davis, LW
16. Alexander Sundstrom, C
17. Mark Fayne, D
18. T.J. Miller, D
19. Jason Smith, G
20. Rod Pelley, C

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

1. (–) Nicklas Bergfors, RW, 7.5 B, 20
Acquired: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2005 NHL Draft

The soon to be 20-year-old Bergfors retains his status as top prospect in the organization. After a fantastic first pro season as the youngest player in the AHL last year, expectations were sky high for the shifty, strong-skating and energetic Swede. His numbers thus far (12 goals. 16 assists) through 43 games with Lowell have him close to his scoring pace of last season that saw him record 40 points. He again represented Team Sweden at the World Juniors this past winter, but did not have the same type of performance he had at the tournament the year before, recording only two assists in seven games.

On the surface, Bergfors’ numbers look somewhat pedestrian for a player who excelled at the pro level last season. It should be remembered though, that he will only be turning 20 at the end of March, so he is still early on the upswing. He is by far and away the most talented forward prospect in the system and the way he has fast tracked through the organization at such a young age has to leave the Devils brass wondering just how good he might become once he fully matures and gains more experience at the pro level.

2. (+2) Matthew Corrente, D, 7.0 C, 18
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

After such a strong showing at Devils training camp in the fall, it has been a somewhat turbulent season for the Devils top pick at the 2006 NHL Draft. Corrente was thought to possibly have an outside shot at challenging for a spot on the Canadian World Junior Team, but a slow start to the OHL season in Saginaw and subsequent criminal investigation that had him along with four other teammates suspended for a pair of games for breaking team rules shut that door. He was then dealt by Saginaw to the Mississauga Ice Dogs in a multi-player trade at the beginning of January.

At the time of the trade, Corrente had put up 2 goals and 13 assists for 15 points along with a +12 rating for Saginaw and since his trade to the Ice Dogs, he has scored a goal and eight assists for nine points in just 13 games and has a plus/minus rating of +2. From all accounts thus far, Corrente hasn’t been able to take that next step in his development that many expected him to this season. Corrente has at times had problems staying out of the penalty box and as evidenced by his off-ice issues, Corrente’s maturity has also come into question.

Despite all that, Corrente plays the up-tempo type of game that is perfectly suited for the new NHL. This season has been somewhat of a struggle for him, but he still possesses loads of upside and is arguably the top defense prospect in the system. He is only 18 and the Devils hope that his season to date is just a bump in the road for the abrasive, all-around defender.

3. (+3) Andy Greene, D, 7.0 B, 24
Acquired: Signed as free agent, April 2006

It didn’t take much time at all for Greene to establish himself in the Devils organization as a top-flight prospect. Greene easily adjusted to the pro level with the Lowell Devils, earning himself a spot on the AHL All-Star Team for PlanetUSA. He earned himself a four-game call-up to the Devils in early January and did not look out of place, recording an assist in his brief time in New Jersey. He earned enough trust from coach Claude Julien to play more than his fair share of minutes for a rookie blueliner, including ample amounts of time on the power play.

With the trade of David Hale to the Calgary Flames at the NHL trade deadline, a spot became open on the blueline and Greene was recalled from Lowell to take his spot on the roster. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello said the trade of Hale was made because the team thought Greene was ready for the jump to the next level. At the time before his recall to New Jersey, Greene had 5 goals and 16 assists for 21 points in 52 games with Lowell. Paired with NHL vet Dan McGillis, the former Miami of Ohio star showed the ability to play high-quality hockey at both ends of the rink with relative ease and for the time being, has earned himself a spot in the New Jersey’s top six. While the eventual return of Richard Matvichuk could push Greene to the sidelines, Greene at this point in time appears to have earned himself full-time duty in the NHL.

4. (+1) Alexander Vasyunov, LW, 7.5 C, 18
Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

One of three Russians selected by the Devils at the 2006 NHL Draft, Vasyunov has had trouble getting regular ice time at the Super League level with Lokomtiv Yaroslavl thus far. He has been held scoreless in the 17 games in which he has suited up. Vasyunov did represent Russia at the WJCs this past winter and scored two goals in six games playing mostly in a third line role. There, he showcased his above-average skating and shooting abilities.

Vasyunov is no doubt an electrifying talent, capable of dominating games offensively. That, plus his overall upside, is what has him rated so highly at Hockey’s Future. However, there are weaknesses in his game that need to be corrected in order for him to become a more complete prospect. He needs to learn to utilize his linemates better and has to start showing a little more commitment to defense. His overall skill set is very reminincent of another Russian that not too long ago was considered one of the better talents in the Devils system in right winger Alexander Suglobov, who is now toiling in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies. With the new CBA rules dictating that you must sign European players two years after drafting them, the Devils may try to convince Vasyunov to sign this summer with the promise of more regular ice time, something that may help in his development.

5. (+2) Petr Vrana, C, 7.0 C, 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2003 NHL Draft

Vrana is still showing signs of inconsistency in this his second year of pro hockey, however as the season has gone on, those nights of inconsistent play are becoming fewer and far between. A natural-born leader and hard worker, Vrana has worn an “A” for most of the season. He was in and out of the line-up early on in the season, but has now seemed to cement himself a regular gig in Lowell’s line-up. Through 42 games in Lowell, Vrana has 8 goals and 16 assists for 24 points and is virtually on pace to put up the same type of numbers as last season.

Standing at only 5’10, and 185 lbs, Vrana still needs to put on some muscle and get stronger, something that will happen as he continues to go through the daily grind of playing professional hockey. He is a smart and responsible player, capable of contributing at both ends of the rink. In short, he is a prototype Devils player. He has only just started to scratch the potential that he has to offer. With the depth the Devils have at center ice, the team can afford to be patient with Vrana. He’s likely one more full AHL season away from seriously challenging for a full-time spot in the NHL.

6. (+3) Jeff Frazee, G, 6.5 C, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 38th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Frazee was inconsistent as a freshman, and has also been inconsistent at times as a sophomore. However in general, Frazee has made good progress in his second year backing up Kellen Briggs at the University of Minnesota. He showed up for his second year with the Golden Gophers in much better shape and has shown a much better commitment to the game and  an improved maturity level. In 17 games, Frazee has posted a record of 12-3-1, to go along with a 2.12 goals against average and .900 save percentage. Frazee earned a spot on the American World Junior Team again this past winter and after not starting the first two games, he came in and led the team to a bronze medal showing at the tournament.

Though he plays a somewhat hybrid and unorthodox style, Frazee’s athletic ability usually enables him to get into good position to make the save. He’s a fiery competitor and is the type of goaltender you want in goal when the game is on the line. At this point in time, Frazee is heads and shoulders the top goaltending prospect in the organization and the likely heir apparent to Martin Brodeur. With Brodeur showing no signs of slowing down, the Devils can be patient with Frazee and let him gain some starting experience and finish off his remaining two years of college eligibility before turning pro.

7. (-4) Barry Tallackson, LW, 7.0 D, 23
Acquired: 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2002 NHL Draft

Another one of many second-year pro players in the Devils organization, Tallackson’s play has been steady, but fairly unspectacular in Lowell thus far. The overall package of skills and talent that the big and silky-smooth 6’4 winger possesses is apparent some nights, but not all nights. He started the season in New Jersey playing a handful of games, but was sent down after only two games. Tallackson is currently fourth in scoring with Lowell as he has put up totals of 9 goals and 21 assists for 30 points.

Tallackson is somewhat of an enigma. He is immensely talented, but with all the tools he has, he leaves you wanting more. He could easily be capable of dominating on a nightly basis if he was so inclined. With some burgeoning talent on the way up in the system, Tallackson needs to step things up and take his game to another level the rest of this season, and next season. The fact he has been called up two times each of the past two seasons shows that the Devils believe he has the talent to be an effective player at the next level. It’s just up to Tallackson to push himself to be the player that the team knows he can be.

8. (–) Vladimir Zharkov, RW, 6.5 C, 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 77th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Though not possessing as much overall upside as fellow countryman Alexander Vasuynov, Zharkov is a solid prospect in his own right. The strong skating 6’0 right winger brings more of a complete package to the table. He competes hard and though he is still learning the defensive side of the game, the effort and willingness to learn is there. Zharkov was not invited to play at the World Juniors this past winter but he has had a fairly productive year for a player of his age playing in the Russian Senior League with CSKA Moscow. He has suited up in 48 games, and has put up four goals and two assists for six points thus far.

Zharkov’s well-rounded game and above average speed translates perfectly to the New Jersey style of play and the more wide-open style of the NHL. Though he is still somewhat raw, he has shown good progress as a 19-year-old playing in one of the tougher leagues outside the NHL. The Devils will likely let Zharkov continue to mature in Russia next season but will no doubt want to get his name on a contract before they lose his rights in 2008.

9. (+3) Kirill Tulupov, D, 6.5 C, 18

Acquired: 3rd round, 67th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

One of the true wildcards of the 2006 NHL Draft, Tulupov is making his presence felt in the QMJHL with Chicoutimi Sagueneens. A problem obtaining his visa delayed his debut, but ever since then, he has gotten better each and every game. Tulopov’s adjustment to the CHL was aided this year by having played previously in Canada with a private club team in Toronto. The 6’3, 220 lb. behemoth defender has scored 8 goals and 19 assists for 26 points in 52 games, and is the second highest scoring blueliner on the team. With 82 PIM’s, Tulupov has shown a nasty side to his game and has been a constant physical presence night in and night out.

It looks like the Devils did their homework when they selected Tulupov. He is the complete package on the blueline. He can shoot, skate, play physically, and most definitely knows how to use his massive size to his advantage. The scary thing about Tulupov is that he is still early on in his development and can and most likely will still get better as he fills out and gets stronger. Tulupov already made a three spot leap up into the Top 10 this time around, and assuming he continues to progress at this rate, he should continue to climb even higher.

10. (+3) Mark Fraser, D, 6.5 B, 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

If not for the presence of Greene, Fraser would likely be garnering a little more attention for his great pro debut thus far. By far and away one of the most consistent defenders for the AHL’s Lowell Devils, Fraser is a steadying influence in the back end and that has not gone unnoticed as he has been recalled to New Jersey as an injury fill-in a couple of times already this season, seeing action in seven games. Thought his ice time has been minimal, he appears to get more and more comfortable each passing game at the NHL level. He showed he is not afraid to mix it up either, getting involved in a scrap with heavyweight Chris Simon in a game against the Islanders. He’s suited up in 52 games for Lowell, put up 52 PIM’s, scored once and added four assists for five points.

Fraser has developed quickly, and though the 6’3, 200 lb defenseman will never likely be counted on for much offense, he has already shown enough thus far in his young pro career to be counted on as a steady, physical, stay at home presence. Similar in style to current Devil Colin White, Fraser might not have a spot available for him next year, but he will no doubt be knocking on the door and should compete for even more playing time in 2007-08.

11. (NR) Tony Romano, C, 6.5 C, 19
Acquired: 6th round, 178th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

The Devils have had great freshman seasons from many of their prospects, but Romano, the former Atlantic Junior Hockey League star gets the top billing. Romano was the leading freshman scorer for the Cornell Big Red, and finished tied for fourth in team scoring with 19 points. His nine goals were also tied for second best on the team. Some were unsure if Romano would be able to carry over his excellent play from the lesser-known AJHL to the NCAA ranks, but he proved this season that he was definitely game.

Romano possesses a fantastic set of offensive tools. Though only standing at 5’11, Romano bulked has up 15 lbs to 185, showing a commitment to get stronger. As a more diminutive player, there will always be knocks on Romano’s strength, but his superb skating skills and willingness to go to the high traffic areas will more than help offset that perceived weakness. Romano went from not being ranked at the beginning of this season, to almost making it into the Top 10 by mid-season. The Devils have to be thrilled at how quickly and easily Romano adjusted to the step up in competition and the best part about his rapid development is that he is only 19 and still has three years of college eligibility remaining. He is only going to get better.

12. (+3) Tyler Eckford, D, 6.5 C, 21

Acquired: 7th round, 217th overall, 2004 NHL Draft

There was no sophomore jinx for Eckford, a forward turned defenseman, in his second season at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Eckford logged significant minutes for the Nanooks, especially on the power play where he scored 15 of his 22 points. Eckford finished fourth in team scoring with 5 goals and 17 assists. Though his pace did slow some down the stretch, he still bettered all of his offensive numbers from his freshman season.

Eckford’s offensive skills are definitely not in question. He’s already shown the ability to quarterback the power play in his brief collegiate career. Some think of him as a one-dimensional player, and has even elicited comparisons to Andy Delmore in terms of offensive ability. However standing at 6’3, 215 lbs, Eckford has the size to be an effective defender and in his two seasons at UAF, he has continued to work on improving the defensive aspects of his game. In order to become more well rounded, the Devils may be tempted to let him play out his college eligibility instead of turning him pro early. 

13. (NR) David Clarkson, RW, 6.0 B, 22

Acquired: Signed as free agent, August 2005

Clarkson made himself noticed with a strong training camp and if not for the current salary cap issues facing New Jersey, he probably would have received a call-up to the big club by now, because his play has merited it. Clarkson is third in Lowell scoring with 31 points, and sits second on the team with 15 goals, already bettering his goal total from last year. Clarkson had a spectacular month of January, highlighted by a four-goal, five-point game against the Philadelphia Phantoms. With 135 PIM’s, Clarkson easily leads the team and should crack the 200 PIM mark yet again.

At this point in his career, Clarkson does not have very much left to prove at the AHL level and does deserve a crack at a job in the NHL. He is a fiery, competitive, two-way player capable of playing any role asked of him. The salary cap constraints faced by New Jersey this season will be less of a factor next season and unless he falls flat on his face, Clarkson will more than likely be given every opportunity to grab a full-time NHL job. Should the Devils run into injury problems come playoff time up front, Clarkson could very well get the call with player salaries not being a factor at that time.

14. (NR) Nathan Perkovich, RW, 6.5 C, 21
Acquired: 8th round, 250th overall, 2004 NHL Draft

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise among all Devils prospects this season was the play of Perkovich in his first year at Lake Superior State. After spending the past three seasons in the USHL, including with the Chicago Steel last season where he broke through in a big way with 28 goals, Perkovich took the NCAA by storm early on, and ended up having a fantastic freshman season. Perkovich strung together a six-game goal-scoring streak right off the bat, quite the feat for a first-year player. Perkovich currently sits second on the Lakers with 12 goals as he helped play a part in the team winning their first CCHA playoff series since the 1995-96 season. He also just recently received honorable mention on the CCHA All-Rookie Team.

Though he still has some filling out left to do of his 6’5 frame, Perkovich possesses good hands and sound offensive instincts. Once he bulks up and puts on some more muscle, Perkovich could dominate and be an absolute load to handle. A former eighth-round pick way back in 2004, Perkovich was a relative unknown before his big season in the USHL last year. That put him on the map, and the excellent start to his collegiate career this season has moved him into the Devils Top 20 list for the first time.

15. (-5) Patrick Davis, LW, 6.5 C, 20
Acquired: 4th round, 99th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

It has been struggle for Davis in his first full professional season. After a promising start, Davis has fallen on hard times, and is currently in the midst of a 12-game goal drought. He missed a bit of time at the end of January and early February, but still gets into the line-up on a fairly regular basis. Davis appears to just be having the growing pains that many first-year pro players experience. On the season for Lowell thus far, he has 5 goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 37 games.

Don’t be fooled by the sub-par numbers that Davis has put up this year. Davis has a great set of offensive tools and at 6’2 and 210 lbs, can dominate a game when he’s driving to the net on a regular basis. Had Davis returned to junior this past season instead of playing in the much tougher AHL, he likely would have had little difficulty putting up some eye-popping numbers. The Devils hope that by moving Davis along to the pro game this year will aid him in the near future by speeding up his development playing against better competition on a game-to-game basis. The Devils won’t rush Davis in any way, and won’t put too much stock into his struggles this season. Next season should be a better gauge to see what kind of player he will really develop into.

16. (NR) Alexander Sundstrom, C, 6.0 C, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 215th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Sundstrom has been able to remain relatively injury free the past two seasons, and as a result, was able to crack the Devils Top 20 list for the first time. Playing for Bjorkloven of the Allsvenskan League, the league just below the Swedish Elite League, Sundstrom has played in 28 games and scored two goals and eight assists for 10 points.  Sundstrom’s improved health also allowed him to represent Team Sweden and the most recent WJC, where he scored two goals in seven games.

Though Sundstrom’s chronic knee issues have robbed him of some speed and skating ability, Sundstrom more than compensates for those deficiencies with his keen anticipation and great hockey sense. Sundstrom’s bloodlines (his father Patrik played for the Devils) and the fact he has above average two-way skills bodes well for his immediate future in the organization. As long as Sundstrom is able to remain healthy and continue to progress as he has the past two seasons, there could be a checking line spot for him in New Jersey down the road.

17. (NR) Mark Fayne, D, 6.0 B, 19
Acquired: 5th round, 155th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

This former New England Prep School star has had a stellar start to his collegiate career with the Providence Friars. For a freshman, Fayne has seen a very heavy workload, playing in nearly all situations. On a Friars team that has struggled to score, Fayne chipped in on a fairly regular basis. The hulking 6’3, 220 lb blueliner through 34 games has scored five goals and added seven assists for 12 points thus far. His +2 rating is third best on the team and he has shown the physicality for a man of his stature with 43 PIM’s, good for second on the team.

Out of all the new faces to debut on this edition of the Devils Top 20, Fayne perhaps has the most upside out of anyone. Fayne already boasts NHL quality size, and the strength is sure to come as he fills out. He does not shy away from contact and does well along the boards and clearing traffic from in front of the net. While he is no burner out on the ice, he moves exceptionally well for a man of his physique and early in his collegiate career has already shown some offensive upside as evidenced with his powerful shot and by his five goals this season. Fayne looks to be developing into a quality two-way blueliner and is one prospect who will more than likely continue to rise on this list as he gains more experience.

18. (NR) T.J. Miller, D, 6.0 C, 20

Acquired: 4th round, 176th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

The final freshman to crack the Top 20 list, Miller has made slow and steady progress throughout his first collegiate season playing at Northern Michigan University. The California native has shown some of the offensive ability and skill that he put on display in his two previous seasons in the BCHL. Through 36 games for the Wildcats, Miller has scored 2 goals and added 12 assists for 14 points. For a freshman, Miller’s -4 rating is quite respectable and shows that he is learning to take care of his own end.

Much like fellow freshman Mark Fayne, Miller’s two-way potential is outstanding. At 6’4, 220, Miller’s skating ability is marvellous and his strong puck skills are evident any time the puck is on his stick. His defense is still a work in progress, and may take some time to iron out some of the wrinkles in that part of his game. With Fayne and Miller coming up the ranks, the Devils have a lot to be excited about on the back end.

19. (–) Jason Smith, G, 6.0 C, 21
Acquired: 6th round, 197th overall, 2003 NHL Draft

In his senior season, Smith has led the Sacred Heart Pioneers to one of the best records in the Atlantic Hockey conference. Smith earned Goaltender of the Week honors on more than one occasion and with a record of 15-8-3, picked up right where he left off last year. He posted a goals against average of 2.82 and a .906 save percentage. Smith is one of the Devils more unheralded prospects partly because of where he plays, but the athletic goaltender retained his spot in the Top 20 and is only behind Frazee in terms of goaltending prospects in the organization.

Smith appears to have finished up his time at Sacred Heart in style and likely earned himself a contract with the Devils, quite a feat for a former sixth-round draft pick. While not the most spectacular prospect in the system by any stretch, Smith has shown improved play each and every year and on a team that doesn’t have much prospect depth at the position, the butterfly style netminder has made it known to the Devils that he is intent on making a mark as a pro.

20. (NR) Rod Pelley, C, 5.5 C, 22
Acquired: Signed as free agent, July 2006

The Devils appear to have unearthed another solid prospect from the NCAA in Pelley. The former Ohio State Buckeye has been a pleasant surprise in his pro debut with the Lowell Devils thus far. His strong two-way play has earned him two separate promotions to New Jersey as he has suited up for four games with the big club. The hard-working Pelley has scored 13 goals and 11 assists for 24 points in 50 games down on the farm so far this year and his +5 rating shows he is aware of his defensive responsibilities.

Pelley did not look out of place in his brief stints in New Jersey and is likely to get a few more looks in the very near future. Pelley has the attributes to be a physical, abrasive, checking forward with the ability to chip in with some goals every so often. By finding undrafted free agents Greene, Clarkson and Pelley, the Devils have supplemented their strong drafting record with some very astute rookie free agent signings. Not many teams are likely to have one, let alone three undrafted prospects in the Top 20 like the Devils do.

Missing the cut

Jordan Parise, G, 5.5 C, 24 – Former North Dakota star has shown good progress in pro debut.

Jason Ryznar, LW, 5.5 C, 24 – Solid defensively but has not played as well as last season.

Sean Zimmerman, D, 5.5 C, 19 – Was a surprise addition to the American World Junior entry; playing well for Spokane in the WHL.

No longer eligible

Travis Zajac, C (Graduated) – He stepped right into the second line center spot in New Jersey and has not missed a beat. Twelve goals and 19 assists for 31 points thus far.

Cam Janssen, RW (Graduated) – Though never once landing in the Top 20, he has made the cut as a physical and high energy forward.