For the 2015 Hockey Prospectus Organizational Top 10s, we will start slowly, and then gradually build to a screaming crescendo of prospect awesomeness. For each team, we will list our top 10 prospects, along with one to three sleepers and mention those who are likely to lose their prospect eligibility this season by playing regularly in the NHL. A quick reminder that all top 10 candidates must be no more than 25 years old as of October 7, 2015. The lists consider all skaters in that age group who have played in fewer than 40 NHL regular season games, with 25 games being the cut-off among netminders.
Despite drafting a very high end player with the sixth pick of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft as well as some additional solid talent with their later picks, there is still not a system as underwhelming all around as that of the New Jersey Devils. This is not to say that the system, is barren, but their relative standing is sobering.
- Pavel Zacha, C, Sarnia (OHL) 6-3”, 212. 6th overall, 2015
- Steve Santini, D, Boston College (Hockey East) 6-2”, 207. 42nd overall, 2013
- Ryan Kujawinski, C, North Bay (OHL) 6-2”, 204. 73rd overall, 2013
- Joseph Blandisi, RW, Barrie (OHL) 5-11”, 182. UFA: Jan. 14, 2015 (Originally 162nd overall, 2012, Colorado)
- Mackenzie Blackwood, G, Barrie (OHL) 6-4”, 216. 42nd overall, 2015
- John Quenneville, C, Brandon (WHL) 6-1”, 182. 30th overall, 2014
- Alex Kerfoot, RW, Harvard (ECAC) 5-10”, 174 150th overall, 2012
- Josh Jacobs, D, Michigan State (Big 10) 6-2”, 193. 41st overall, 2014
- Stefan Matteau, LW, Albany (AHL) 6-1”, 215. 29th overall, 2012
- Sergei Kalinin, RW, Avangard Omsk (KHL) 6-3”, 190. UFA: May 29, 2015
Players likely to lose eligibility
- Reid Boucher, LW, Albany (AHL) 5-10”, 195. 99th overall, 2011
- Reece Scarlett, D, Albany (AHL) 6-1”, 185. 159th overall, 2011
- Blake Speers, RW, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 5-11”, 185. 67th overall, 2015
- Blake Pietila, LW, Michigan Tech (WCHA) 5-11”, 189. 129th overall, 2011
If there is any solace to their lowly ranking, it is that the Devils have a number of high end young defenders already patrolling the blueline in Newark. Among the 25-and-younger set in Jersey are included Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, Damon Severson and Eric Gellinas. This certainly helps to mitigate the extreme lack of blueline depth in the organization. Steve Santini still has a lot of fans in the game, although he will need another collegiate year after missing a good chunk of his sophomore season as well as a spot with the American WJC squad due to injury. He projects as a stay at home, defensive defenseman at the professional level. The only other notable defender in the system is Josh Jacobs, a strong physical player with good wheels. He decided to further his career by leaving the NCAA for the OHL, where he will suit up with Sarnia next season. There are some interesting players apprenticing in Albany, but none of Reece Scarlett, Raman Hrabarenka nor Seth Helgesen profile as anything beyond third pairing players.
The lack of goaltending depth is likewise mitigated by employing one of the top netminders in the league in Cory Schneider. Signed through 2021/22, the Devils will have plenty of time to groom a successor. 2015 second rounder Mackenzie Blackwood is actually a high-end prospect, if there can be said to be such a thing in the voodoo world that is the painted ice. Big and very athletic, he has elements of his game that need ironing out and will take two more years in the OHL before he is a consideration for the Devils. There is also Scott Wedgewood, although his numbers have been treading water in Albany for the past three seasons, where his save percentage of .903 last season established a new career high.
The strength of the New Jersey system, if we can call it that, is up front. Seven of the top ten, plus two of the three sleepers, are forwards. Unfortunately, after Pavel Zacha, none project as high end players. A power forward who will receive a legitimate chance to make the club, the Czech Zacha raised some eyebrows by his lack of production in the OHL which belied his outstanding physical gifts, a matter only somewhat excused by it being his first year in North America. The jury is still out as to whether he profiles best at center or on the wing. I am in the camp that believes that another season in the OHL would be better for his development than joining the NHL prematurely.
The signing of Joseph Blandisi as a free agent was an opportunistic move by New Jersey, as his production exploded in his overage season in the OHL after the Colorado Avalanche demurred when their pre-contractual rights expired. Between his intelligence, vision and physicality – in spite of average at best size – he could play a bottom six role in the NHL as soon as this season.
Ryan Kujawinski is further away, but his physical tools give him an outside chance at an eventual second line role, although the third line is a more likely future home. Like many Devils forward prospects, he is more notable for his all-around game than for offensive flair. I expect him to make his NHL debut this season, although the majority of his time will be spent in the AHL.
John Quenneville and Stefan Matteau are best discussed together, as the former late first round picks both lack upside yet bear hockey traits that speak to futures in the NHL. Neither player lit up the junior ranks and both have the smart games that speak to their rich bloodlines, but they don’t add up to a top six forward even if we could somehow magically combine their talents into a single player. They are emblematic of the recent drafts of now-deposed Director of Player Personnel and Scouting, David Conte, whose recent work has led to the Devils being unable to score. In a world where the vast majority of top offensive talents are developed and not bought, the Devils had not developed a marquee forward since Zach Parise. While Zacha might be a turning point, neither Quenneville nor Matteau will rank among Conte’s finest moments as a talent maven.
Russian import Sergei Kalinin should move directly into the NHL, but never topped 12 goals in five seasons in the KHL, which makes it unlikely that he will be more than a complimentary player in the NHL either. He has a higher floor than any other player on this list, but also the lowest ceiling.
Under the previous braintrust of Conte and new Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello, the Devils were never shy about scouring the ranks of future NCAA talent and there are four forwards from those ranks who bear watching in Alex Kerfoot, Blake Pietila, Blake Coleman and Miles Wood. The two Blakes will both spend this season in the AHL and neither projects as anything above depth, and Wood will debut at Boston College next year after making the US WJC team as a high school player, but Kerfoot had a strong sophomore season with Harvard both offensively and with his overall tenacious style, which is a pleasant surprise for a player with his slightness of frame. He is a longer shot than others here, but has enough upside to merit a spot on the top ten.
Looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, it is likely that at least seven of the top ten will still be prospect eligible next season, and the remaining talent will all be that much closer to impacting the NHL game, however limited those impacts may be. More pertinent to the long-term health of the New Jersey organization are the expected high selection in the 2016 draft, which promises to have a deep group of high end players at the top (if no one in the McDavid/Eichel stratosphere) and a new direction in scouting and player procurement as the Devils become Ray Shero’s team. For now, we can say that the New Jersey Devils have a lot to aspire towards.