Today is the final installment of the 2015 AATJ Top 25 Devils Under 25. This year's top 5 includes the Devils most recent 1st round pick and 4 regular NHL players. Before we reveal the top 5, here is a reminder that you can see all the posts in this series right here. Now, let's take a look at which players rose to the top of this year's ranking.
#5 - Pavel Zacha - C - Age: 18 - 2014-15 Team: Sarnia Sting (OHL) - 2014 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile
Not only is Pavel Zacha the undisputed top prospect for the Devils after being drafted 6th overall a few months ago, but he makes the top 5 in our U25 rankings. The young Czech forward possesses the size (6'3, 213 lbs.) and skill that excites scouts and fans. Heading into the draft he was praised by USA Today and Hockey Prospects' Black Book for his speed, puck skills, and ability to protect the puck under pressure. Zacha has shown excellent passing at the junior level to go along with his highly rated shot.
Zacha consistently impressed coming up through the youth ranks of HC Liberec and Bili Tygri Liberec in his native Czech Republic where he often played in age groups a few years older than him. He turned that success into a contract with the Sarnia Sting in the OHL after being drafted 1st overall in the 2014 CHL Import Draft. His first OHL season was a bit of a mixed bag as he was limited to just 37 games due to injuries, suspension, and international duty. The good news is that he put up 16 goals and 18 assists in those 37 regular season games while adding 3 more points in 5 playoff games. When healthy and available he produced very well for a 17 year old, international rookie to the league which helped him earn OHL First All-Rookie Team honors.
As mentioned before, Zacha has quite a bit of experience representing his country from the U16 to U20 levels. He's already earned a silver medal on the U18 level and played in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. Zacha has also played in two World Junior Championships before reaching the age of 18. Zacha certainly has the resume to go along with his size and skill that suggests he will become a regular NHL player. He seemed to fit in well the other night in his first preseason game. The question seems to be will Zacha reach elite status or will he end up solid two-way player but not superstar? Time will tell but this is one of the few forward prospects we can be excited about seeing in New Jersey either this season or next.
#4 - Jon Merrill - D - Age: 23 - 2014-15 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2014 Rank: 2 - Elite Prospects Profile
Jon Merrill fell two spots in this year's rankings but a large part of that had to do with the emergence of Damon Severson and acquisition of Kyle Palmieri. Merrill was drafted by the Devils in the 2nd round of the 2010 Draft after spending 2 seasons in the USNTDP. He went on to play 3 seasons at the University of Michigan but was limited to just 82 games during that time due to a suspension for violating team rules and a cracked vertebrae. Since then, Merrill has seemingly matured on and more importantly off the ice.
After two brief stints in the AHL, Merrill has emerged as a regular NHL player for the Devils. According to Hockey Reference, his average time on ice was 19:14 in his rookie season in 2013-14 and rose to 20:33 last season. While not being much of a point producer, the passing data collected by our own Ryan Stimson has indicated that Merrill has done well to help create shots and gain the offensive zone through his passing game. According to War On Ice, his possession numbers are ok compared to his teammates but nothing amazing. It will be interesting to see how the new coaching staff deploys Merrill this season. Can he be a solid second pairing defender, capable of eating minutes and breaking up chances from the opposition? While he has shown mostly solid decision making in his own end in the past, it seemed last year he was prone to make some egregious errors at times. Hopefully that was just a young defensemen still searching to find some more consistency and we see him continue to make progress going forward.
#3 - Kyle Palmieri - RW - Age: 24 - 2014-15 Team: Anaheim Ducks (NHL) - 2014 Rank: N/A - Elite Prospects Profile
The Devils acquired the New Jersey native on day 1 of the 2015 draft for two picks. Palmieri was originally drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the 1st round of the 2009 draft. Prior to be drafted he spent time in the USNTDP system before spending his post-draft year at the University of Notre Dame where he would put up 17 points in 33 games. Palmieri would also represent the USA at the WJC's that year and would put up a goal and 8 assists in 7 games to win the gold medal. Prior to that he had a silver medal at the U17 level and bronze medal at the U18 level.
Palmieri would turn pro in 2010 and spend parts of the next 3 seasons between the NHL with the Ducks and AHL with the Syracuse Crunch. According to Hockey Reference, he only averaged 8-12 minutes per game during those first 3 partial NHL seasons. He did see some nice success in 2012-13 when he put up 10 goals and 11 assists in 42 games for the Ducks. The next two seasons saw him become a regular for the Ducks and put up a 0.47 Pts/GP while averaging 2 shots per game. As the War On Ice data points out, he has had decent possession numbers to go along with respectable goal-based stats. The good news is that he is young, trending upwards, and will have the opportunity in New Jersey to play a lot more than the 14 minutes a night he averaged last season. I personally expect good things out of Palmieri in New Jersey.
#2 - Damon Severson - D - Age: 21 - 2014-15 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2014 Rank: 6 - Elite Prospects Profile
The Devils drafted Damon Severson in the 2nd round of the 2012 Draft and he is already looking like a steal. The two-way defenseman jumped up 4 spots in this year's rankings after a very impressive rookie season in the NHL as a 20 year old. Severson was able to show the offensive instincts, speed, hard shot, and puck skills that made him a stand out player in the WHL while with the Kelowna Rockets. He did all of this while being mostly solid in his own end which was all the more impressive given his age and the fact that he was essentially making the jump to the NHL straight from juniors.
As a rookie Severson appeared in 51 games, missing a few weeks due to a fractured left ankle, and managed to post 5 goals and 12 assists while averaging 21:58 of ice time per game. According to War On Ice, he had a strong 50.4 CF% and 2.2 CF% Rel on a struggling Devils team while starting most of his shifts in the defensive zone. It is very encouraging to see Severson not only look solid as a 20 year old by the eye test but to have the point production and possession numbers to back it up. Though he struggled a bit after his injury, understandably, he really proved that he deserves to play a lot of minutes for the Devils and can be trusted to do well. I look forward to seeing what he does in his sophomore campaign with the Devils.
#1 - Adam Larsson - D - Age: 22 - 2014-15 Team: New Jersey Devils (NHL) - 2014 Rank: 3 - Elite Prospects Profile
Adam Larsson was selected by the Devils with the 4th overall pick in the 2011 Draft. He took a big step forward in his progression last season which is why he is now the new top ranked player under the age of 25 in our ranking. The young Swede was able to display more consistency on a night to night basis which is a positive sign for a young defenseman in his 4th season. Larsson was able to show off the strong two-way game, passing ability, and vision that made scouts high on him back in his draft year. He did all of that while taking on more defensive responsibilities than before as evident by his 38.8 Zone Start% and -11.1 ZSO% Rel.
Prior to last season, some were worried that Larsson had been taking a step back from his rookie season. In his first season, he managed to appear in 65 regular season games, post 2 goals and 16 assists, get some PP time, and average 20:37 per game. He struggled with injuries, consistency and to earn the trust of the coaching staff over the next two seasons as he would appeared in just 63 regular season games and put up just 9 points while averaging around 18 minutes per game. During those two years he had lengthy conditioning stints in Albany, appearing in 66 games and posting 7 goals and 31 assists.
The great news was that he was able to start fresh in 2014-15 and went on to put up 3 goals and 21 assists in 64 games on a bad Devils team while averaging 20:58 per game. Most of his production occurred at even strength with the exception of 3 short handed assists which was another positive sign. As I mentioned before he did this with less than favorable zone starts and still managed respectable possession numbers given how poor the Devils were last season and all of the defending he had to do. While Larsson's skating never really developed as hoped and is most likely what it is at this point, all of the other areas of his game seem to have taken a step forward. He's become responsible in his own end, makes smart decisions with the puck, and can chip in on offense while eating a fair amount of minutes. It will be interesting to see if he can beat out Severson for a spot on the Devils top pair alongside Andy Greene and continue to progress into a very reliable top pairing defensemen.
First, I want to thank everyone for contributing to the community portion of the ranking as well as my fellow AATJ writers for their rankings. How do you feel about this group of players for our AATJ top five? Where did you have these guys ranked? Which of these players are you most looking forward to following this upcoming season? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!