OK, so it's not an attractive title, but let's break this down. From previous comments and given the current roster, there will be many spots open at forward - again, at forward - for Devils' prospects to strive for in the coming 2009-10 season. In fact, given Lou's comments just after free agency began - as reported by Chere - expect those most of those spots to remain open by preseason. He wants players pushing each other for spots and the salary cap is going to fall next season, so it's best to give the kids a chance now.
So let's briefly go over who has the best chances and who may be a long shot. After all, prospect camp is next week. Note #1: No one prospect is a lock to make the Devils, everyone's got to earn it; but I think it's fair to think that some players are in a better spot than others. Of course, if no one impresses, look to Lou making a deal later on. Note #2: I'm not calling out Pierre-Luc Latourneau-Leblond as a prospect here, but he's got to earn his spot as well.
PENCIL THEM IN, THEY ARE IN LOU'S FAVOR
Rod Pelley, C, 24 - Pelley was actually specifically mentioned by Lou as someone he needs to make room for, as reported by Chere:
"It will be status quo to see where our budget is," Lamoriello revealed. "We have to make room for Rod Pelley and a couple of others. And we have to get more ice time for David Clarkson."
When Lou is calling you out specifically, you're definitely favored! Pelley also has the additional advantage of being a center - a position of need on the New Jersey Roster - and having more NHL experience than any of the other prospects, with 67 games. It's worth mentioning that 58 of those games came in 2007-08 where he averaged 9:47 a game. He didn't get a look last season, but he's definitely known within the organization.
Possible role? Checking line center and again, Lou was clear about this on July 1st, as reported by Chere:
"In John's case a change might be good," Lamoriello suggested. "We really have to get a little younger in certain areas. Rod Pelley is ready to take John's role. We had to look at the dollars to sign John."
That's a pretty big role! And if Lou is confident in him, than all Pelley has to do is to keep up his effort.
Ilkka Pikkarainen, RW, 28 - When it became known that Lou was signing a player from Europe, people expected a surprise. Well, when former prospect and HIFK Helsinki forward Pikkarainen was announced, it definitely surprised people when announced! In any case, he's favored because of Lou's initial response to what his role will be, as reported by Gulitti:
"He was signed for here," Lamoriello said.
Lamoriello said that the Pikkarainen, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound right wing, would "help" offset some of the free agent departures of Wednesday, but he wasn't necessarily signed to replace any of the individual players that left -- John Madden, Brian Gionta and Mike Rupp (as well as goaltender Scott Clemmensen).
"He's big and strong and he helps our size factor," Lamoriello said.
Where Pikkarainen fits will be up to the incoming head coach, but Lamoriello said he probably wouldn't be on the first two lines.
"I think he's going to play on the third or fourth line, he said.
There is plenty of room on the bottom two lines, and should no other right wing make it in New Jersey, a right side of Langenbrunner, Rolston, Clarkson, and Pikkarainen should be sufficient. Since Lou plainly stated he was signed for New Jersey, Pikkarainen only has to fit in, really. If he doesn't, well, let's just say I get a Fedor Fedorov feeling. But I would expect him, right now, to make the team.
Let's continue on for other possibilities that don't necessarily have the benefit of Lou talking them up specifically.
TALENTED, BUT ON A BUBBLE OF SORTS
Nicklas Bergfors, RW, 22 - The former first round draft pick is known for being a skilled forward. A potential scoring winger. According to Jared Ramsden's review of the Devils AHL prospects at Hockey's Future, Bergfors' offensive skill and ability to bounce back from an injury-shortened 2007-08 season was lauded despite the not necessarily impressive numbers. Ramsden thinks Bergfors is close to making the NHL and this summer really is his best shot yet.
What I think Bergfors needs to show is that he not only has this skill, but that he can command it at the NHL level. While some argue he would be best suited on the top two lines, there's not a lot of space there. Brian Rolston is already on the team as a natural replacement for Brian Gionta at right wing. Some would like to see Rolston move to center and have Bergfors (or someone else) in that right wing position, but I'm loathe to move a winger to center when there's already a hybrid player who at least knows what he's doing in that role in Dainius Zubrus.
If Bergfors wants a spot on those top two lines, then he needs to work his tail off to earn that right. In my view, the first step for him is just to become a regular New Jersey Devil first. Then he can move up accordingly. I think it'll happen.
PROBABLY NOT YET, BUT DON'T BE SURPRISED IF THEY CRACK THE LINEUP.
Alexander Vasyunov, LW, 21 - After spending numerous years with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, Vasyunov finally came to the AHL last season and showed off some that offensive potential he was touted as having when drafted. Ramsden's report is as follows:
Vasyunov put on his display of elite offensive skill and speed on a regular basis and he scored some spectacular, breathtaking goals in his first year as pro. New Jersey had been trying for sometime to get his name on a contract and get him to North America with his development sagging in his native Russia, and were finally able to do so, and it looks like they may have found a gem. Players of Vasyunov's ilk don't grow on trees and the Devils have to be excited at what he showed in his first year as a pro, and what he might have in store for 2009-10. He'll likely still need another full season of development in the minors, maybe two, but the blossoming sniper is giving the Devils something to be excited about in the near future.
While Ramsden may ultimately be right, I would not discount the Russian winger immediately. If he can show off that speed and offensive skill, then he could be considered an excellent option for limited minutes should the new coach want that instead of defense. Maybe not as a regular, but in spot duty. Another season in Lowell wouldn't be a bad thing, but I could see him as a long shot of getting some games with New Jersey next season.
Matt Halischuk, RW, 21 - Halischuk did get a game in with the Devils last season and looked all right. Other than that, he spent a shortened season in Lowell. Unfortunately, it was shortened due to a MCL tear. The former Canadian WJC checker is still projected primarily as a defensive player. Here's what Ramsden thinks of the winger:
Halischuk is the epitome of what the Devils crave in their forwards, and he has the added bonus of possessing those intangible qualities that you just can't teach: a tireless work ethic and boundless energy. He has above average hockey sense at both ends of the rink and is a top-notch skater who also has the skills to be an elite penalty killer in time. He has moved very quickly through the system and it would not be surprising to see him in New Jersey to start next season.
Not at all bad traits to have. Yet, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to see how he does with a full, healthy AHL season. What is in Halischuk's favor is that he is a defensive winger and the Devils really don't have too many of those. He could be a good option to have should the Devils not need "toughness" on the fourth line. What isn't in his favor is the sheer number of wingers on both sides - both on the right side as mentioned with Pikkarainen, and on the left with Parise, Elias, Pandolfo, and Leblond.
Anyway, I think Halischuk is a long shot because he basically has to outplay other wingers to get to this spot, and that's going to be more difficult than ususal as they know this is the year to make their mark.
Nick Palmieri, LW, 20 - Palmieri came right out of Belleville to play a few games in Lowell last season. He's projected to be a power forward and while his recent junior season wasn't massive, he definitely sparkled in the OHL playoffs with 14 goals in 17 games. The potential power forward got a good long look at training camp last season and he'll probably get one again. Should Palmieri have an excellent camp, he could sway a few minds among the coaching staff. Especially if he scores goals like he did in the OHL playoffs.
Patrice Cormier, C, 19 - Cormier had an excellent season last season both with the Rimouski Oceanic and for Canada at the 2009 WJCs. So much so that Hockey's Future's QMJHL staff named him the best prospect in the league! Moreover, he's a center, an area of need for New Jersey. I think he would benefit with some time in the AHL before jumping right in, but it's not unheard of for a 19 year old center prospect jumping right to New Jersey.
Mattias Tedenby, LW, 19 - Tedenby's gotten stronger and more experienced in the SEL in this past season. He had a few more games with the senior HV71 team, got further time with Sweden's junior teams, and had a successful loan to Oskarshamn. I don't know what his contract status is with HV71, so he may not be in New Jersey for a little while longer. However, his skating abilities combined with his offensive instincts and those hands of his could concievibly force the Devils to consider him in New Jersey. Highly doubtful, I think, but not totally impossible (contract aside).
Needless to say, a lot of players are going to be looked at closely at both the prospect camp next week and in preseason in September. Best of luck to all involved as the 2009-2010 could be the season for these potential talents to finally make their mark at the Rock.
Feel free to comment on this, as I plan to revisit this topic from time to time in the summer. Let me know if I'm on the mark, off the mark, missed a player, or anything else relevant to this. (Also: Please don't comment about how Lou hasn't signed anybody because this isn't the place for that.)