Devils Top 20 prospects

By Jared Ramsden

There are only two new additions to the New Jersey Devils Top 20 prospects list this time around, as 2007 draftees Mike Hoeffel and Nick Palmieri managed to crack a prospect group that is widely considered to be just average at best.

Top prospects Nicklas Bergfors and Matthew Corrente are coming off below average seasons, but remain No. 1 and 2 respectively due to the immense amount of upside both prospects possess. Russians Alexander Vasyunov and Vladimir Zharkov also both struggled last year, and as a result, dropped down the rankings.

It wasn’t all bad last season though as freshmen Tony Romano, Mark Fayne, Nathan Perkovich and T.J. Miller all had outstanding collegiate debuts.

The Devils have plenty of depth on defense, size through out the organization and a plethora of role playing forwards coming up the pipeline. A lack of potential star talent, too many boom or bust type prospects and a lack of depth in between the pipes constitute the major weaknesses currently in the system.

Top 20 at a Glance

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

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

1. (1) Nicklas Bergfors, RW, 7.0 B
Acquired: 1st round, 23rd overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Bergfors had a disappointing 2006-07 season, but still remains the cream of the crop among the prospects that the Devils are developing. In a deeper system, it’s likely that Bergfors might have dropped a few spots, but since the Devils organization doesn’t have much in terms of top flight talent at this point in time, it’s not surprising to see Bergfors retain his ranking as the top prospect in the organization.

While his second season in the AHL was a bit of a struggle, the well-rounded, energetic Swedish winger started his pro career just at the ripe age of 18. He’s still developing, and he still has a tremendous amount of upside. Last year was likely just a blip on the radar screen. It shouldn’t be much of shock to see Bergfors have a bounce back year as he heads into his third season of pro hockey this fall.

NHL upside: Two way, second line scoring winger.

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

Corrente’s 2006-07 season was one that he would like to forget as he was plagued by inconsistency, injuries, and off-ice problems. Those problems derailed any chance of him getting his season back on track and were part of the reason he was dealt from Saginaw to Mississauga at mid-season. Much like Bergfors, Corrente likely would have dropped down a few notches in the prospect totem pole had he been in a different organization, but he remains the top defenseman in the Devils system.

While the Devils had to be disappointed in his sub-par performance last year, they know Corrente is still maturing and is still quite raw at this stage in his development. On a team with a plethora of defensemen, his overall potential far exceeds that of any other blueliner in the organization. Over the summer, the Devils showed their commitment to Corrente by signing the strong skating and mobile rearguard to his first professional contract. He will return to the OHL this fall, looking to move forward and forget his tumultuous 2006-07 season.

NHL upside: Well-rounded and physical top four blueliner.

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

It was quite a professional debut for Greene as he started the season in the AHL with Lowell, and finished it as one of New Jersey’s more consistent defensemen after earning a full-time promotion three quarters of the way through the season. The AHL All-Star had a stellar trial run earlier in the year once a regular spot was available for the taking in the NHL, Greene grabbed it and ran with it. He sits just a notch below Corrente, but retains his standing as the third best prospect in the system.

With the free agent departure of top defenseman Brian Rafalski, there is a gapping hole on the Devils blueline, especially when you consider that Rafalski was the Devils top scoring defenseman the past two seasons. There is no better in-house candidate to fill that role than Greene, who has the offensive skills and vision to aptly take over that role. While it might be expecting a lot for Greene to fill Rafalski’s skates, if last season is any indication, he should be up for the challenge.

NHL upside: Two-way, top four defenseman, who may quarterback the Devils power play this year.

4. (6) Jeff Frazee, G, 7.0 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 38th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Frazee has showed slow but steady progress in his second season at the University of Minnesota this past season, but it was his performance at the World Junior Championships that really was the defining moment for him. After starting the tournament as Team USA’s No. 2 goaltender, he took the reins from Jeff Zatkoff (LA) and helped earn the American squad a bronze medal. As a result, Frazee moved up two spots from sixth to fourth in this edition of the Devils Top 20 prospects re-ranking.

After sharing starting duties the past two years, Frazee will be given every opportunity to seize the No. 1 goaltending job for the Golden Gophers going into his junior season this fall. His confidence, improving consistency and commitment to getting himself into better shape has to have the Devils brass excited about his long-term upside. Though the Devils don’t have much in terms of goaltenders coming up the pipeline, Frazee’s continued development should make that a moot point. This coming season could be the breakout season both Frazee and the Devils have been waiting for.

NHL upside: Competent, but not spectacular starting goaltender.

5. (11) Tony Romano, C, 7.0 C
Acquired: 6th round, 178th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Romano made the biggest jump up the rankings among all Devils prospects, as he rounds out the top five by jumping all the way from 11th spot. The little known former Atlantic Junior Hockey League star was a mere sixth round selection by the Devils in 2006, but after a highly successful season in the NCAA with the Cornell Big Red, people in the hockey world are starting to take notice of Romano’s talents. There will be even more eyes on him this year as Romano chose to leave Cornell after only one season to go play in the OHL with the London Knights.

Romano is one of the Devils most offensively talented prospects coming up the pipeline, and he is coming up fast. Though his defensive zone play still needs work, the undersized center has an abundance of skill, and he is not afraid to show it off. He will get a chance to show off those skills with the high-powered Knights this fall. While it might be a slight presumptuous, Romano’s style should translate well to the CHL and it wouldn’t come as much of a shock to see him threaten the 100-point plateau.

NHL upside: Offensively gifted second line center.

6. (5) Petr Vrana, C, 6.5 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2003 NHL Draft

Vrana didn’t have the most spectacular second pro season, but as the year went on, he did show more signs of consistency, something that plagued him in his pro debut. The former Halifax Mooseheads captain improved and gained enough respect from the coaching staff that he often wore an “A” as an alternate captain for Lowell. He is one of the Devils more unsung prospects, and continues to hover in and around the top ten Devils prospects, this time coming in at number six.

With two full seasons of pro hockey under his belt, this could be the year that Vrana takes a giant leap forward in his development. Vrana is perhaps one of the safest bets among an average at best group of prospects. He is a high-energy leader, who plays well at both ends of the rink. A poor man’s Sergei Brylin, Vrana could be in line for a cup of coffee with the big club this fall should injuries arise. He’s close, but still needs just a touch more development time in the minors.

NHL upside: Smart, versatile second/third line forward.

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

One of the organization’s biggest enigmas, Tallackson muddled his way through and inconsistent season in Lowell after a stellar pro debut last year. He had a couple of recalls to New Jersey, but was unable to make much of an impact. In his defense, he played part of the season with a wrist injury. His average season didn’t cause him to drop in the re-rankings, but it was average enough to keep him where he was previously ranked at seventh.

This season is a very important one for Tallackson. He’s shown glimpses of becoming an effective power forward and has the size and skill package to dominate on a nightly basis, but inconsistency still plagues him. The Devils still are intrigued by his upside, as evidenced by his multiple recalls to New Jersey since turning pro two seasons ago but he must start to translate his potential to production or risk getting passed by others on the organizational depth chart.

NHL upside: Second-tier power forward.

8. (4) Alexander Vasyunov, LW, 7.0 D
Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Vasyunov had a rude awakening this fall as he struggled mightily in his first full season in the Russian Super League, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. The RSL is one of the toughest leagues to play in outside of the NHL, and on a loaded Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team, Vasyunov’s minutes were limited. Still, zero goals one the season is not usually something you’d associate with a player who is best known for his goal scoring attributes. He did have a decent showing at the World Junior Championships, but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from falling four spots down to eighth this time around in the prospect re-rankings. 

The overall offensive skills and upside Vasyunov possesses is undeniable. What is also undeniable though is that he could end up being a complete bust if he doesn’t start to produce and start hitting the score sheet on a more regular basis this year. The Devils knew they were taking a gamble when they drafted Vasyunov in 2006 and they hope to see some returns on that investment as Vasyunov hopes to have a more successful second go around in the RSL this season.

NHL upside: Flashy second line sniper.

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

Fraser had about as good a pro debut as the Devils could have hoped, as he was a stalwart on the Lowell Devils blueline. His steady, consistent play earned him a few looks (10 games) in New Jersey when the Devils ran into injury problems on the blueline. He appeared to get more comfortable with each passing game when with the big club. Because his upside is limited to that of a defensive defenseman, his rating and ranking did not fluctuate much.

Getting one more full season of AHL hockey under his belt is about all Fraser needs before he should be ready for a full-time role in New Jersey. The defensive-minded, meat and potatoes type defender should the first player to be recalled from Lowell when the Devils need an injury fill-in. Of all the defensemen in the Devils system, Fraser is the closest to making an impact at the NHL level.

NHL upside: Physical, stay at home second pairing blueliner.

10. (9) Kirill Tulupov, D, 6.5 C
Acquired: 3rd round, 67th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

In his CHL debut, Tulupov gradually got better as the season wore on and by season’s end, had established himself as one of Chicoutimi’s top blueliners. Having played hockey in North America the previous two years with a private club team in Toronto, the adjustment period for Tulupov wasn’t as steep as it would have been had he not played in North America before.

Tulupov’s development is heading in the right direction, and the scary thing is, he still has the ability to get even better. The intimidating and physical Russian defenseman has some offensive ability, which just started to surface towards the end of last season. As he goes into his second year in the CHL this fall, his all-around play should improve and he should see a significant spike in his offensive numbers.

NHL upside: Multi-purpose, crease clearing defenseman.

11. (13) David Clarkson, RW, 6.0 B
Acquired: Signed as free agent, July 2005

For a guy who wasn’t even drafted, Clarkson has really made a name for himself in the Devils organization in a very short period of time. After a great rookie season in the AHL, Clarkson picked up right were he left off this past year as one of Lowell’s most effective forwards. The parent Devils took notice, recalling him to New Jersey late in the season when a rash of injuries struck the big club. He did not look out of place, and even saw action in a handful of playoff games. He has progressively moved up the prospect list, and this time is no different.

Clarkson doesn’t have much left to prove at the AHL level and though he won’t have a full-time NHL job handed to him at training camp, it would be a minor disappointment if Clarkson didn’t land himself in a third or fourth line role come the start of the regular season. The in-your-face winger can play any role asked of him, but he appears to be best suited playing in a checking role at the NHL level. It shouldn’t take long for him to become a fan favorite in New Jersey

NHL upside: Uncompromising, all-purpose checking line winger.

12. (17) Mark Fayne, D, 6.5 B
Acquired: 5th round, 155th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Toiling in relative obscurity in a New England prep school for the previous two seasons, it was difficult to get an accurate read on just what type of defenseman Fayne might become. Though he did show signs of dominance at that level, the Devils were hoping he’d make a smooth transition to the collegiate level and that is exactly what he did. He was the top scorer among Hockey East rookie defensemen and as a result of his strong 2006-07 season, Fayne jumped five spots in the rankings.

Though he is still a ways a way from turning pro, let alone reaching the NHL, Fayne’s long-term upside and potential is outstanding. As the massive, strong skating Fayne matures and grows into his frame, he should become even more of a force. He will return to Providence this fall, looking to build of a solid freshman season.

NHL upside: All purpose rearguard who can play a lot of minutes.

13. (14) Nathan Perkovich, RW, 6.5 C
Acquired: 8th round, 205th overall, 2004 NHL Draft

Perkovich exploded last year in the USHL after a few non-descript seasons, and in his first season in the NCAA, he had a great season and made a relatively smooth adjustment to the step up in competition. He finished tied atop the Lake Superior State Lakers scoring list with 15 goals and topped the team in rookie scoring.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise last year among all New Jersey prospects was how Perkovich performed in his freshman year at the collegiate level. The former eighth rounder has made tremendous strides since being drafted in 2004 and if last season is any indication, he should only get better as he gains experience. Possessing great hands, the tall and lanky Perkovich still needs some time to fill out but the Devils have no intentions of rushing him.

NHL upside: Lanky, finesse type power forward.

14. (NR) Nick Palmieri, RW, 6.5 C
Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2007 NHL Draft

One of two new faces to debut in the top 20, Palmieri comes in at 14th, which might not have happened in another organization that had more talent on the wings. Palmieri toiled on an awful Erie Otters team last season but was one of the more noticeable and effective players on the team on a game-to-game basis. The Devils thought enough of him to make him their third round selection at this past summer’s draft.

Palmieri joins a relatively unexciting group of forward prospects in New Jersey, but the big bodied power forward in training has a great skill set and plenty of room to grow. As he matures and fills out, he should become an even more effective player and could potentially dominate the junior ranks with his size/skill package. Patience is a word that is often associated with players like Palmieri, but it could be well worth the wait for the Devils if he is able to reach his full potential.

NHL upside: Goal scoring, second line power forward.

15. (18) T.J. Miller, D, 6.5 C
Acquired: 4th round, 107th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

The last of the Devils four first-year collegiate players to make the top 20 list is Miller, who is coming off a solid, yet unspectacular debut at Northern Michigan this past season. He led all Wildcats rookies in scoring. Though he dropped a few spots in the re-ranking of the Devils prospects, that is not a knock against the season Miller had, but more so, the fact that the organization is starting to get a little deeper on the blueline.

Miller is still very raw at this stage of his development, but he has a tremendous amount of upside. He is one of a handful of strong-skating, offensively talented blueliners quickly moving through the system. Going into his second season at Northern Michigan, expect Miller to continue to make slow, but steady progress as he matures and grows into his 6’4 frame.

NHL upside: Bottom pairing defenseman, who can contribute on the power play.

16. (8) Vladimir Zharkov, RW, 6.0 B
Acquired: 3rd round, 77th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

The Devils third Russian 2006 draftee on the top 20, Zharkov took a bit of a tumble down the list, dropping eight spots. His fall down the rankings wasn’t entirely his fault though. Like Vasyunov, playing in the Russian Super League limited his ice time and role. The main reason for his fall is due to the fact that his upside isn’t as high as some of the players ranked above him. He has the potential to be a solid player, but likely not the potential to become more than a third liner.

Zharkov was a bit of a wild card when the Devils drafted him, and at this stage in his development, it’s tough to really gauge what type of player he might turn into. His strong defensive play and blistering speed alone makes him an attractive prospect, especially to a team like the Devils, but he’s just not an overly exciting player. A second go around through the tough RSL will probably give the Devils a better idea of what kind of prospect they have in Zharkov.

NHL upside: Speedy, versatile third line winger.

17. (12) Tyler Eckford, D, 6.0 C
Acquired: 7th round, 217th overall, 2004 NHL Draft

Eckford is coming off a solid sophomore season at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he improved his defensive play and bettered all of his offensive numbers from his freshman year. The emergence of Mark Fayne and T.J. Miller was the main reason for Eckford’s fall down the rankings, along with the fact Fayne and Miller project as more safe bets than Eckford, who is more of a wild card.

Each year at UAF, Eckford has gained some much needed size and strength and has improved in all aspects of his game. He will likely never become much of force in the defensive zone, but his puck rushing and passing skills make his style of play tailor made for the new NHL. As he goes into his junior season, Eckford’s numbers should continue to improve and if he is able to continue to become steadier in the defensive zone, he could move back up the rankings.

NHL upside: Offensively gifted, fifth or sixth defenseman.

18. (15) Patrick Davis, LW, 6.0 C
Acquired: 4th round, 99th overall, 2005 NHL Draft

Davis got off to a fairly good start in his AHL debut with Lowell last year, but as the season wore on, injuries and a lack of experience made for what could best be summed up as a rather pedestrian season. He was wildly inconsistent and a bit of a later bloomer as a junior player so an up and down first pro season shouldn’t have come as a huge shock and shouldn’t cause the Devils to panic.

Assuming he is able to stay healthy this season, Davis should have a much improved second go-around in the minors. He is a naturally gifted offensively and much like fellow prospect Barry Tallackson, he will eventually need to turn that offensive potential into production. He does have a bit of a longer leash than Tallackson, due to the fact he has only one minor pro season to his name. The Devils should be able to better determine the upside and long-term potential Davis has after he gets some more experience under his belt.

NHL upside: Middle of the road, goal scoring winger.

19. (19) Rod Pelley, C, 5.5 B
Acquired: Signed as free agent, July/06

The Devils have had some great success in finding undrafted free agent talent the past few seasons with the likes of Andy Greene and David Clarkson, and you can add Pelley’s name to that list now. Coming off a rather disappointing senior season at the University of Ohio, Pelley’s first pro season was a resounding success. He was one of Lowell’s steadiest players throughout the year, and even earned a couple of promotions to New Jersey where he did not look out of place in limited ice time.

There will be some competition amongst a handful of players to fill out the Devils fourth line this year, and the hard working and defensively sound Pelley will be one of those in the heat of the battle. If Pelley has a strong enough training camp and pre-season, it wouldn’t be unfathomable to see him crack the Devils opening night roster. Should Pelley start the year in the minors, he should be first in line for a call up to New Jersey if there is an injury at center ice. He is as close as any forward prospect in the organization to making the team this year.

NHL upside: Fourth line checker and penalty killing stalwart.

20. (NR) Mike Hoeffel, LW, 6.0 C
Acquired: 2nd round, 47th overall, 2007 NHL Draft

Rounding out the top 20 list is Hoeffel, the Devils top pick from the 2007 NHL Draft. The former Minnesota High School star spent last season with the USNTDP program. If not for an untimely torn ACL in his left knee late in the season, Hoeffel likely would have been drafted much higher than the 47th overall spot that the Devils were able to snag him.

Hoeffel’s overall potential isn’t high, but his blazing speed should help allow him to turn into solid checking line winger down the road. His long-term offensive ability at this point in his young career is still in question. Some believe he will be able to score at the next level, while others see him as having average hands at best. As Hoeffel embarks on his first collegiate season at the University of Minnesota, the Devils will patiently wait and see how he adjusts to the step up in competition and see just what type of player he might turn into.

NHL upside: Two-way, third line checking winger.

Missing the cut:

21. Sean Zimmerman, D, 6.0 C
22. Jordan Parise, G, 5.5 C
23. Matt Halischuk, RW, 5.5 C
24. Ivan Khomutov, C, 6.0 D
25. Jason Ryznar, LW, 5.0 C

Players no longer eligible

Travis Zajac, C (Graduated)
Cam Janssen, RW (Graduated)
Tuomas Pihlman, LW (Age and UFA)

Players no longer in organization

Zach Tarkir, D (Not signed after completion of college, now UFA)
Bryan Miller, D (UFA)
Dan Glover, D (Not signed after completion of college, now UFA)
Alexander Sundstrom, C (Not signed at June draft deadline, now UFA)
Jason Smith, G (Signed to AHL only contract, not New Jersey property)

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