Heading into the 2014-15 NHL season, the Devils are a team that is coming off of two disappointing years, but is hoping to make a return to postseason play. The team, as currently constructed, is full of veteran players, particularly at forward, where there are enough names – particularly at winger – that it remains unclear who will still be around when the dust settles. The Devils are not top-heavy in terms of the talent among their forwards, but they do have plenty of depth on the roster as currently constructed. But while the depth may be present, to an extent, at the NHL level, pickings are relatively slim at the forward position beyond that. The forward situation in the farm system for the Devils is, being generous, far from optimal but there is at least one player who seems to have a chance to make an impact in the coming years, and that player is Reid Boucher.
The situation in New Jersey at forward is fairly crowded as things currently stand. The Devils have 14 non-waiver exempt forwards who already project to the roster (plus technically a few more, considering the Pelleys and Janssens of the world), along with a few others like recent tryout recipient Scott Gomez and the still-floating-around Ryan Carter. With that in mind, the opportunity for younger forwards to make it out of camp will be limited. This does not mean they won’t eventually get a shot though, as the roster is filled with players who are either old or injury-prone. Between elder statesmen like Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias and players who have seen their share of the injury report like Ryane Clowe and Marty Havlat, roster spots are likely to come available for significant stretches of the season, necessitating a look either in Albany or outside the organization.
In Albany, there are theoretically a number of different options for players to be called up. There are a handful of journeyman grinders like Tim Sestito or Rod Pelley, but they are unlikely to have much impact beyond being a warm body. There’s the chance that Cam Janssen gets the call, but [line of expletives]. There are a few new players, like Graham Black or Myles Bell, who may have NHL aspirations but are likely unready to make the jump. And a couple of older A-Devs like Scott Timmins, Mike Sislo and Joe Whitney are impact guys for Albany, but seem unlikely to be too much beyond that level. Removing all of those options, that really leaves Boucher, and perhaps Stefan Matteau, who could step in and fill any kind of significant role this season.
So when assessing the situation in Albany, it becomes pretty clear that Boucher is really the one option for the Devils outside the NHL who could conceivably fill a top-nine spot for the team right now. What are the odds that he is able to do this in the upcoming season? Well, as with any prospect, it’s impossible to know for sure, but there have at least been some promising signs for Boucher thus far in his career.
To start, there is the season in Sarnia that most Devils fans who have followed the prospects over the past few years know about. Boucher broke the single season record for goals in his last season with the Sting before making the jump to Albany. Junior success is no guarantee of more at higher levels, but any time you see a player put up unprecedented numbers for a team, there is likely to be at least some measure of top-end talent present. Boucher may end up faltering for other reasons, but it’s hard to deny he is a gifted scorer, which is never a bad place to start.
With his transition to Albany last season, the first test posed to Boucher would be whether he could succeed in a professional league. His debut season in Albany was a success, as Boucher remained a scoring threat, putting up 22 goals and 38 points in 56 games. That comes out to an age-adjusted NHL equivalent of about 27 points, which is solid, if unspectacular, for a 20-year-old. No one is confusing him for a perennial all-star at this point, but he took a good step in his first season in the AHL. He doesn’t put up gaudy assist numbers – and didn’t really in juniors, either – but it appears his finishing scoring touch was able to make the jump to the professional level with him.
Boucher, as most will recall, also spent a good chunk of time in the NHL last season, and, for the most part, acquitted himself well. Boucher was able to keep up while playing mostly in the top-six, with the team putting up pretty good possession numbers with him on the ice and him chipping in some points (7 in 23 games in limited minutes). There were definitely some decent flashes of a guy who seemed like he belonged in the NHL when you watched him. He also managed to score the Devils’ only shootout goal prior to April for the entire year, which certainly endeared him to some people. His competition and deployment was a little more on the sheltered side, but he still held his own as a 20 year old in the best league in the world.
Looking at the 20-year-olds who have gotten a decent amount of time in the league, Boucher is part of an already decent group of players. Some of the point-per-game comparables to him at age 20 have some promising names (Max Pacioretty, Ryan Johansen, Mikael Granlund, Bryan Little, Wayne Simmonds) but there are also a fair number of duds in there (James Sheppard, Jordan Caron, Nikita Filatov) so that throws some cool water on things. Most of all, I suppose it just tells us that the jury is out on Boucher at the moment, but it at least it puts him in the company of plenty of NHL success stories. If he is able to continue to progress and take another step forward next season, he could already be a valuable contributor for the Devils.
Ultimately, Boucher’s success will depend on whether or not he can keep improving as a player. He was not quite there last season as an impact guy, but if he can develop a bit further in his second year in the NHL, he has a shot to be a real life-preserver for the Devils if they get bit hard by the injury bug. He is small, but he is a natural goal-scorer in an organization that always seems to be dying for one. He just needs to avoid the Mattias Tedenby career arc and keep progressing in the right direction. If he can push forward in his sophomore campaign, he could prove to be a very important player to the 2014-15 New Jersey Devils.
How are you feeling about Reid Boucher’s ability to step in if called upon this upcoming season? Can he make an impact, or are you not expecting much. Do you agree that it is likely that he will see NHL time with a fragile group of forwards? Chime in below with your thoughts, and thanks for reading.