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New Jersey Devils Get Speed, Forwards, and a Goalie at 2015 NHL Draft

The New Jersey Devils went into the 2015 NHL Entry Draft with six picks and left with center Pavel Zacha, goalie (!?) Mackenzie Blackwood, forward Blake Speers, defenseman Colton White, winger Brett Seney, and NHL right winger Kyle Palmieri. This post is a summary of what the Devils did this year and a reaction to what they did overall.

Pavel Zacha: The Devils' man at #6 overall in 2015.
Pavel Zacha: The Devils' man at #6 overall in 2015.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After months of speculation and supposition, hope and hype, and researching and reacting to the possibility of prospects, it is now over. The 2015 NHL Entry Draft is completed.  The New Jersey Devils went into it with six picks. They ended up using five of them, obtaining a player and a third rounder in 2016 in the process.  With two exceptions, all of their acquisitions in the last two days were for forwards.

Their biggest selection was the sixth overall selection in the draft.  As expected, Strome, Marner, and Hanifin went before the Devils would pick.  They were thinking about trading down to Columbus' spot, ultimately decided to keep the pick to select Pavel Zacha.  Zacha was one of the "second tier" of forward prospects beyond Strome, Marner, and the two generational talents.   Very good talents but there was something about each that prevents total excitement over the selection.  Zacha missed quite a bit of time due to injuries, suspensions, and the World U-20's in his first season in the OHL.  But in the 37 games he did play, he put up 34 points and displayed a lot of tools and skill.   He is an offensive forward prospect and should Zacha put it all together, he will be an excellent one for the Devils.  As New Jersey lacked that kind of prospect for years, it's hard to dislike the selection. As I wrote shortly after he was picked, it's a perfectly acceptable one.

The Devils were not done on the first day. While they did not trade back into the first round, they traded for an actual NHL player.  Near the end of the first round, it was reported that the Devils traded the 41st overall selection - the second rounder for the Jagr trade - and a third rounder in 2016 to Anaheim for Kyle Palmieri.   While a re-building moving a fairly high second rounder seems dubious, this deal makes sense for the Devils as they moved that pick and a third rounder next year for a 24-year old right winger.  The Devils needed to get younger and get right wings and Palmieri does both.  He's also relatively cheap with a cap hit below $1.5 million and he's a pending restricted free agent after 2015-16, so there isn't a large commitment made.  While I wasn't totally enthused after a quick and dirty look at his numbers, those in the comments to the trade post note that he's been a volume shooter and played a more limited role in Anaheim. In New Jersey, he'll get more ice time and that could translate to more appreciable numbers.  Ultimately, he's more of a known quantity than the forty-first selection in the 2015 NHL Draft and a 2016 third rounder to be decided later and he fits a big roster need the Devils have right now.  Should he prove out to be better than those picks, then it's easy to say this was a deal worth making.  It may be easy to say so now.

After a night's rest, I woke up thinking that the first day went pretty well. The Devils got a very good talent at sixth overall and while they moved a pick this year, they did add a right winger who can play right now.  That's good work so far.  Then comes the second day and arguably the most dubious decision of the entire draft for New Jersey.

They trade their original second round pick at 36th overall to Ottawa for their pick at 42nd overall either their fourth rounder this year or their third rounder next year.  They ultimately opted for the third rounder in 2016, which makes sense as they're giving one up for Palmieri.   However, their trade down yielded goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood.Yes, a goaltender.  Within the top sixty picks and after using one of their second rounders to get an actual player, the Devils picked a goalie.  It is true that with Scott Wedgewood and Maxime Clermont getting older, adding a goalie in the draft to keep the pipeline moving at that position would make some sense.  Doing so in the second round seems like a waste, especially with plenty of solid forward and offensive defensemen prospects available.  I can agree that Blackwood may be a cut above most of the other goalie prospects, but given the variation in the position, the Devils could've used a third or fourth round on someone a little lesser but still could turn out to be the same.  They could've also opted to sign an undrafted free agent too, like they did with Keith Kinkaid - their current back up NHL goaltender.  I really would have preferred someone like Jeremy Bracco, Daniel Sprong, Julius Nattinen, Roope Hintz, Jacob Forsbacka Karlsson, Gabriel Gagne (who Ottawa took at #36), or Ryan Gropp (who Our Hated Rivals took at #41) instead of what they did: trading down to pick a goalie.   It's not an accident no one else in the second round picked a goalie.

After that, the Devils seemingly got their senses back and selected a forward.  At 67th overall, the Devils drafted Blake Speers of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Speers increased on his production in his second OHL season to put up over a point-per-game rate. As he's a smaller player, Speers is quite quick, he's got good hands, and he can move the puck effectively.  In a way, this was the opposite of the Blackwood pick. Whereas that was a disappointment from a value-standpoint (again, a goalie at 42nd overall), it appears the Devils got good value in the third round with this speedy winger prospect.

From the third round on, the draft basically boils down to hoping a prospect eventually becomes a player at some level.  In the fourth round, the Devils picked Speers' teammate Colton White at 97th overall. He's known for his skating ability and keeping pucks alive going forward. His shot needs work and he generally just needs more ice time to keep getting better.  The good news is that he should get the latter in juniors next season.  While he's not necessarily an offensive player, the Devils cannot abandon the defenseman position entirely.  Doing that for a few drafts to focus on a positional need would result in defensemen becoming the positional need.  So White is someone they keep around to grow.

Their final pick is another prospect they will wait and see with: Merrimack winger Brett Seney.  At 157th overall, Seney was the last selection of the day by the Devils. Seney was passed over his first draft eligible year before heading to Merrimack.  In his freshman year, he started off the season real hot, he got hurt, and then struggled to produce since then.  Nevertheless, while Seney is small, he can absolutely fly.  Even with the drop in production, a freshman year of 26 points in 34 games isn't bad at all.  Expect the Devils to let him keep playing in Hockey East until he's done with college.

As Mike told me on his own, the Blackwood pick casts a shadow on an otherwise decent draft.  I'd still say that this year was much better than the underwhelming 2014 draft class, which had more "character" than skill.  While a re-build isn't helped by turning six picks into five, the Devils did draft more towards skill which is exactly what they needed in the system.  And that second rounder was traded for a under-25 established player who plays a position the Devils desperately need. There was also a common thread among all of their selections.  Based on what I've read of each prospect, all are good to great skaters. Zacha, Speers, White, and Seney were praised for being able to move well.  Even Blackwood was a standout at the combine, especially for his explosiveness, which speaks to his athleticism. I don't think that's an accident.  If you wanted a sign that the Devils were drafting with a particular skill in mind, then there you are.  As skating is crucial to doing anything well in hockey, that's not a bad one to pick.  At the end of the day, as much as I would have preferred a solid forward prospect in the second round, the Devils got more skill forwards in the system, they didn't botch the sixth overall pick or get too cute with it, and they leave Sunrise with Kyle Palmieri on the roster.  That's not bad.  Again, much better than 2014.

What does this mean in the larger concept of the re-build?  I'll go more into that tomorrow.  However, I will say that I would not be surprised if this was David Conte and his scouts' last hurrah.  As Ray Shero hired a new head coach outside of the organization, hired two assistants outside of the organization, and just told Tom Gulitti four veterans aren't returning, it's clear that the Devils are going into a new direction.  I don't think that direction will include Conte and I don't think it should.  Recent drafts aside, his department has not yielded much for many years - regardless of drafting position - and it's a root cause as to why the Devils are where they are now.  As there is a new set of eyes and a voice at general manager and will be new eyes and voices behind the bench, there should be new eyes and voices in scouting.  I would expect this decision to be made sometime during the summer, but I'll only be shocked if it's business as usual with Conte.

From my perspective, that's the summary of what the Devils did in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. I'm going to discuss where the Devils are ahead of free agency with respect to the re-building process tomorrow.  So please focus all discussion on this post about the NHL Draft.  If I get the time, I'll also try to re-post all of the profiles we've done here in order of draft position, just to see where everyone eventually ended up. There were some surprising risers (e.g. CJ is vindicated by Timo Meier at #9) and fallers (e.g. Mathew Barzal at #16), and quite a few deals that involved movement. I think that'll be interesting.

In the meantime, what's your take on the Devils' 2015 NHL Draft activities? Are you happy, unhappy, indifferent, or something else? Do you think the Devils addressed their biggest organizational needs this year?  Do you think the Palmieri deal was worth making at the expense of a second rounder?  If you could change one pick, who would it be and why?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the draft in the comments.

Thanks to Brian and Mike for helping out today. Thanks to Brian, Mike, Alex, Gerard, and CJ for helping with profiles throughout the last two months.  Thanks to everyone who read through, commented, linked, and shared said profiles.  Most of all, thank you for reading.