Tomorrow, we’re going to begin our prospect profile coverage for the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The New Jersey Devils have the first overall selection. They also have two picks each in the second, third, and fourth rounds amid a total of ten selections (eleven if a condition isn’t met for their seventh rounder). While I understand there is and will be a lot of attention paid to what the Devils will do at #1, it is equally important to understand who may be an option with those other picks. Coming out of this draft class with one NHL player should be a disappointment given how high and how many the Devils’ other picks currently have.
To that end, I think it is prudent to take a step back and look at the Devils’ prospect needs. These are more or less long-term needs for the Devils. They are issues that the team may face in the coming seasons, which are not necessarily the same problems It may (or may not) guide the thought processes of the members of Devils management when they are putting their draft boards together. At a minimum, we can see what is or is not coming to New Jersey.
Before jumping into this exercise, I want to highlight two resources that I used for this post. One, the ever-essential CapFriendly. They clearly lay out when contracts end, who has what kind of deal, and the team’s roster limit. Two, the should-be essential Roster Resource. It’s a site that elegantly lays out a team’s full roster with general facts such as when they were drafted, who drafted them, and when their current contract ends. Their depth charts alone are well put together and they do more than just the NHL. I’m not sure who pointed it out to me, but whoever did, I hope you’re reading this: thank you.
That said, let’s look at what current prospect needs are for the future of the New Jersey Devils. Let’s do it position by position:
Current Situation: The Devils have six goalies in their system. Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid were the #1 and #2 goalies, respectively, for the Devils last season. Scott Wedgewood was set to be Albany’s starter, but missed most of 2016-17 with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The A-Devs were mostly backstopped by MacKenzie Blackwood and Ken Appleby. In juniors, 2016 fourth round draft pick Evan Cormier was the primary goalie for the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League.
Of these six goalies, Cormier does not have a contract. The Devils will have his rights for another season; they’ll need to sign him to an entry level contract by then. Wedgewood is a pending restricted free agent and Kinkaid is a pending unrestricted free agent.
Is There a Long Term Need at This Position?: No. Schneider is locked up through 2021-22; he’s likely to be the #1 goalie for multiple years. The Devils have four non-NHL goalies in their system. Wedgewood is the “veteran” as he has been a pro for five seasons and will turn 25 in August. It’s unknown if he’ll move on up to the #2 spot behind Schneider, though. Behind him are Appleby and Blackwood, who will turn 23 and 21 next season, respectively. There’s plenty of hope in Blackwood as he finished last season strong in Albany - thanks to MedicSBK for pointing that out in previous posts - and will likely get an opportunity to be the top guy in Binghamton. Well before Schneider’s contract ends, the Devils will know whether Blackwood has a future in the NHL. Cormier tried his best on a pretty poor Saginaw team; we’ll see if he get signed within this calendar year. At a minimum, he’s organizational depth.
The Devils really aren’t hurting in the goaltending department, even with Schneider having a down year for him. There are plenty of goalies in the depth chart and all of them are young to fairly young. It may become a position of need in a couple of years if all four of Wedgewood, Blackwood, Appleby, and Cormier do not pan out as potential NHL goaltenders. But some time will be needed to determine that. The Devils can at least afford to go goalie-less with their picks in 2017.
Right Handed Defensemen
Current Situation: There are five right-handed defensemen in the organization: Damon Severson, Steve Santini, Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout, and Josh Jacobs. Vojtech Mozik would have been a sixth; but he’s already gone as he signed a deal with Vityaz of the Kontinental Hockey League. That’s it. Five right-handed defensemen. At least three of them are well under the age of 25: Severson, Santini, Jacobs. Josh Jacobs at least became a regular with the A-Devs, but he didn’t exactly set the world on fire with nine points in 49 appearances.
Only Severson is up for a new deal in this coming season. He’s a restricted free agent; expect him to stick around for a while.
Is There a Long Term Need at This Position?: Yes. The Devils’ four non-AHL defensemen in the system are lefties. Most of their AHL defensemen are lefties. Most of their NHL defensemen are lefties. They need some righties if only to balance out some pairings. This is also a short-term need as it’s an area the Devils struggled with last season - defense - and they’re lacking options if someone goes down with injury. Sure, they can move a left-handed player to the right side, but having a natural right-handed defenseman will make more plays possible both in their end and in the opposition’s end. They’re pretty valuable as Ray Shero flipped one last year for Taylor Hall of all players. Let’s go back to the long term. There are no right-handed defensemen prospects. The Devils would be wise to try to pick a few in this coming year.
Left Handed Defensemen
Current Situation: It’s a quantity, not quality situation with New Jersey. Andy Greene is getting up their in age - and there really isn’t a replacement ready for him. His contract is up in 2020, so the Devils may not need that replacement right away. John Moore and Jon Merrill aren’t really young - they’re 26 and 25, respectively. What you saw from them is what you’ll continue to get. Both are signed through next season. Most of the Albany Devils defensemen from this past season were not just left-handed, but they’re all over 25. Brandon Gormley is the youngest of the bunch and he didn’t even get a sniff of the New Jersey roster despite their issues. They are also all due for new contracts; although I would expect at least one - Yohann Auvitu - to explore options in Europe than re-up with New Jersey.
As for non-pro defensemen, all four of them are left-handed and there’s a little hope. Colton White just turned 20 and saw a little time with Albany after Sault Ste. Marie’s season ended. He could move up to Binghamton next season. The Devils signed an undrafted prospect, Colby Sissons, last year. The 19-year old has another year in Swift Current before he can go pro. 2017 seventh-rounder Jeremy Davies finished up his freshman year with Northeastern. The 20 year old was at the least productive with 23 points in 38 games. It’s potentially onward and upwards for him at NE. The brightest of the bunch is Yegor Rykov. He was an overage pick last year, but his 2016-17 showed why it was a good move. Rykov was one of Russia’s top three players at the 2017 World Junior Championships and he played the entire season with SKA St. Petersburg, the top team in the KHL in this past season. That’s not bad at all for recently turned 20-year old. The downside is that he’s signed for another two years so New Jersey may not be able to have him come to North America in the near future.
The Devils did sign a 23-year old left handed defenseman from the KHL: Yaroslav Dyblenko. I doubt he’ll bring much offensively to the table. 39 points in 180 KHL games says one shouldn’t expect that per Elite Prospects. However, that a young defenseman has been a regular defender for Spartak Moscow and Atalant suggests he’s got something. It remains to be seen how he’ll be in the depth chart
Is There a Long Term Need at This Position?: Yes. Even if the Devils have a diamond of sorts in Rykov, the Devils are lagging in defensemen prospects. It feels weird to type that since I vividly remember the days of “Just wait until Larsson/Gelinas/Merrill/Severson/Santini make it.” Santini was the last one that garnered excitement. For all intents and purposes, he’s in the NHL now. Of course, he’s a right-handed defenseman but the point is the same: the Devils are lacking in defensemen prospects that could make it to the NHL. And they’re going to need these prospects soon as the Albany’s blueline will likely be culled and New Jersey’s left side of the blueline is both not so strong and not so long-lasting.
Picking up Dyblenko helps in the short-term, but the Devils would be wise to pick up a few serious defensemen prospects this year to strengthen this aspect of the prospect pool. While the right-side is lacking in quantity (and, therefore, quality), the left-side may not really have a quality player to step up in 2-3 years. While Rykov will be out of contract by then, expecting him to make the transition right into the NHL may be asking a lot. There’s an argument to be made on whether that #1 pick should be used on this particular position given that Miro Heiskanen has emerged as a top-tier prospect in this last season. I think it depends on what you value more: a potential top pairing defensemen or a potential first line forward. I (currently) lean towards the latter. But with those two second rounders and two third rounders, the Devils should be able to identify some left-handed defensemen with a real future. They should pick a couple of them at least.
Current Situation: New Jersey’s left wingers are led by Taylor Hall. It’s a question as to who is behind him. Michael Cammalleri plays that side - when healthy. Pavel Zacha, Jacob Josefson, Joseph Blandisi, and Adam Henrique can play that side when they’re not at center. Miles Wood and Blake Coleman have shown plenty of energy on that side. Down in the minors, there’s Blake Pietila, Luke Gazdic (no), and Brandon Baddock as listed left wingers. John Quenneville, Kevin Rooney, and Ryan Kujawinski are all left-handed centers - which means they may be able to play left wing as needed. While it is contingent on who is set at center on a given night, there’s not a lot of strength behind Hall. A healthy Cammalleri who plays more like he did in 2015-16 would be a big help in the short term. But there really isn’t a listed left winger who is an offensive player between the two professional teams.
As for the prospects who haven’t made the pros in North America, the Devils have a couple of players with at least a long shot. In 2015, the Devils took Brett Seney with a late round pick. He finished his junior year with Merrimack College and likely will be back for his senior season. They took Mikhail Maltsev and Jesper Bratt in last year’s draft. Maltsev is big and his KHL contract ends after next season. He split time between the VHL and MHL, so it remains to be seen what he’ll do in 2017-18. Bratt improved his production from his draft year with AIK of Sweden’s second division, but it also remains to be seen what the future holds for him. I may be wrong, but none of these players really stood out enough to make one think that they’ll be in Newark one day. If there’s a hopeful prospect, it may be in Brandon Gignac. While he was drafted as a center, his size (5’11”, 172 pounds) may guide him to play left wing instead. He did sign an ATO with Albany after a productive year with Shawinigan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. There’s that hope, at least.
Is There a Long Term Need at This Position?: Sort of. While Maltsev, Bratt, and Seney may end up being players in the future - and it would be great if they did - there really isn’t a designated left winger in the Devils’ system who truly has a bright future in the NHL. The reason I’m hesitant is that the Devils have prospects who can slide to the left side as necessary. I don’t think it’s set whether Zacha or Quenneville are a wingers. Like Henrique, Josefson, and Patrik Elias before him, both could be utilized in both spots throughout a season. Gignac is an interesting case. When he was drafted, I was positive about the pick given his offensive capabilities in the QMJHL. If that does translate to pro hockey and he does slide to the left side, then that can help. The Devils seemingly could always use more offensive prospects; the left wing position is a good spot as any to have them. Especially if the long term future beyond three years doesn’t include Hall. Getting a potential top-six caliber left winger for the next few years would be beneficial even if that future does include Hall.
Current Situation: There’s Kyle Palmieri, there’s the pending restricted free agents of Beau Bennett and Stefan Noesen, there’s a guy who couldn’t stick around in the lineup in Devante Smith-Pelly, and then there’s not a whole lot to get jazzed about. The minors feature Nick Lappin, who had plenty of time in New Jersey last season for management to understand what he can do; Ben Thomson, who had a little time to be a banging sort of player; and Shane Harper, who didn’t get a shot in New Jersey in this past season. Carter Camper is a listed center but has a right handed shot; he also stayed in Albany all of last season. It is not a position of strength as of now. As much as I like Bennett, there’s Palmieri and not much else.
That said, there is a future in right wing in the system. Last year, the Devils drafted Nathan Bastian and Joey Anderson. Bastian dipped a bit with Mississauga in this past regular season with sixteen goals and twenty nine assists; he had nineteen goals and forty assists in his draft year. But Bastian has been on the scoresheet more in their postseason with six goals and seven assists in sixteen playoff games. At the least, he’s a guy for the future. Anderson has had a very fine freshman year with Minnesota-Duluth. He finished his first year with a near point-per-game pace, he represented the United States at the World Juniors, he made his conference’s all-rookie team, and he was a factor in the Bulldogs’ conference and national title. Yeah, he’s a guy to watch for in the future. But the Devils won’t need to wait too long to get some potential right wing help. First, there’s Alexander Kerfoot. He has just finished his senior season at Harvard and needs a deal before he becomes a free agent. While he wasn’t so outstanding that Shero should run to wherever he is with a load of cash; signing him would strengthen the depth on the right side. Second and more importantly, there’s Blake Speers. Speers played well enough out of camp in 2016 to get a few games in New Jersey before going back to Sault Ste. Marie for the rest of this past season. While injuries limited him to only thirty games, Speers was over a point-per-game and three-shots-per-game player with the Greyhounds. The Devils clearly thought highly of him to give him a NHL shot at the start of last season, he could be in New Jersey again - sooner rather than later.
Is There a Long Term Need at This Position?: Not really. While it’s not a guarantee that Speers, Anderson, and Bastian will all make it, there’s a lot more to be hopeful with them than with other prospects at other positions. Palmieri’s deal keeps him in New Jersey until the summer of 2021; by that point, these three could join him. This is more of a short term need. For the long term, the Devils are fine. They should only draft a right winger if A) he could play another position like center or B) he’s significantly more talented than the other options at the time of the Devils selection.
Current Situation: The Devils’ centers from last season were Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique for most of the time, sometimes Pavel Zacha, sometimes Jacob Josefson, occasionally Joseph Blandisi, occasionally Blake Coleman, occasionally Sergey Kalinin, and Vernon Fiddler before he was traded. John Quenneville did get plenty of time up with New Jersey, but he was playing at wing for those twelve games. It’s a position that has been in some kind of flux given that players can and do switch to wing on an as-needed basis.
In Albany, Quenneville was a center and also led the team in scoring. Joining him as center options was Coleman, Carter Camper, Kujawinski, Blandisi, and Kevin Rooney, who did get an ELC during last season just to get a call up. Only Camper and Kujawinski didn’t get a look in Newark in this past season. Quenneville and Blandisi figure to have some NHL potential; it doesn’t look like they would be at center in New Jersey based on how they were used in this past season. Plans can change though.
Outside of the pros, the Devils’ top non-professional prospect has been a center: Michael McLeod. McLeod finished just behind 2017 draft eligible Owen Tippett for scoring on Mississauga and he’s currently leading the Steelheads in playoff scoring with 25 points in 16 games already. McLeod’s speed - both in terms in how he moves and how he processes plays - is enough to get one excited for when he’ll come to New Jersey. His 2016-17 campaign may put him in a Zacha-like situation for next season: too good for junior, but may be in New Jersey just because he can’t go to Binghamton. Beyond McLeod, Gignac played center for Shawinigan and Joey Dudek remains at Boston College. Gignac did well enough to warrant an ATO. Dudek had a big jump in production in his sophomore season with B.C. - from three points in thirty-four games to twenty-two points in forty games. He’s a long shot but he may be one to keep an eye on as he enters his junior season.
Is There a Long Term Need at This Position?: Sort of. With Zacha already in the NHL, Zajac signed through 2021, Quenneville having a fine rookie season in the AHL, and McLeod possibly joining pro hockey really soon, there’s not that much urgency for a center in the future. However, there’s an argument to be made that the Devils could use centers in the future. Henrique’s contract ends after the 2018-19 season, it’s questionable how Zajac will age (he’ll be 32 next week), it doesn’t appear that New Jersey under John Hynes will use Quennville as a center, and it’s not guaranteed that Zacha stays at center and/or McLeod is a NHL center. I’d like to see Zacha and McLeod at center at some point. Given that centers can and do get moved to the wing position if there is no room or if the player’s skill set is a better fit there, I don’t think having too many centers is a bad thing. I don’t think the Devils have too many centers now. It’ll definitely be thinner should McLeod “graduate” to the NHL next season. So if the Devils want to pick up a few centers - perhaps with left-handed shots to move them to left wing as needed - then that’s fine by me. Especially if they have plenty of offensive skills. Such as the forwards projected to be potential #1 draft picks in this year.
As much as I agree that drafting the best prospects available is the right course of action, the Devils would be wise to use some of their ten (or eleven) picks to address these needs within their system. I believe #1 should go to whoever they think the best player is regardless of position. The rest can be focused more towards positions.
Defensemen on either side would be a big help for the future. Both left and right handed defensemen are lacking in both quantity and quality in the system. That can and should be addressed in some way at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. While that won’t help the Devils’ issues now, the blueline will either continue to be a problem or an expensive answer through free agency to solve the current problem without picking up some solid defensive prospects. At forward, the needs, in some kind of order, are left wing, center, and right wing. It’s weird to think that right wing isn’t really an issue in the long term, but it is at the moment. Goaltender is fine; there’s not really a need to pick up another goalie for their pipeline - that can wait until 2018.
That’s how I see the current prospect needs for the future of the New Jersey Devils. What about you? What do you think the Devils need in their system? Please leave your thoughts about the Devils’ current prospects in the comments. We begin the prospect profiles tomorrow. Thank you for reading.