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Taking a Look at How Ray Shero Has Built the Current Defensive Prospect Pool

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Ray Shero was given the unenviable task of rebuilding the Devils prospect system across every position when he took the job in the spring of 2015. This post will take a look at the defensemen he acquired through the draft and free agency to help add potential future value and depth to the organization.

2018 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
Xavier Bernard reacts after being selected 110th overall by the New Jersey Devils during the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center on June 23, 2018 in Dallas, Texas.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils named Ray Shero General Manager on May 4, 2015. The organization was at a crossroads when it came to the NHL roster, prospect pool, and front office. Shero was entrusted with rebuilding the prospect system from the ground up which is much easier said than done. Along with Director of Amateur Scouting Paul Castron who was hired on July 31, 2015, Shero has been able to help raise the Devils prospect standing to a respectable level. Their recent selections of defensemen Ty Smith and Xavier Bernard intrigued me to take a look at how the current defensive prospects are shaping up. This post will foucs on those who haven’t made the NHL yet so while the Devils deserve a lot of credit for signing Will Butcher last summer, he won’t be highlighted in this post. Nor will Mirco Mueller who was brought in via trade.

2015

  • Drafted: Colton White (4/97)

The 2015 draft was a tough situation for Shero for a few reasons. He had only been on the job with New Jersey for a few weeks, thus didn’t have time to change the scouting staff or make too many bold decisions. Plus, the Devils only had 5 picks to make that year and desperately needed some forwards. LD Colton White would be the lone defender to have his name called by the Devils when they took him in the 4th round. White was regarded as a fantastic skater, capable of moving the puck and playing on the PP. He would spend 2 more seasons with Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL after being selected but was never really able to take his game to that next level that many thought he could reach. He struggled in his rookie season with Binghamton in the AHL last season but found success at the ECHL level with Adirondack. While some of his prospect shine has worn off in recent seasons, the 21 year old still has time to try and re-establish himself as a NHL prospect.j

2016

  • Drafted: Yegor Rykov (5/132), Jeremy Davies (7/192)
  • Signed: Colby Sissons (10/3/16)

Shortly after the 2015 draft, Ray Shero let go of longtime Director of Scouting David Conte and replaced him with Paul Castron. This also meant that the Devils would be having different scouts on staff to help change the direction of the organization. The 2016 draft would be a very busy one for the Devils as they had 9 selections. They would use 2 of them on defenders drafting LD Yegor Rykov in the 5th round and LD Jeremy Davies in the 7th round. LD Colby Sissons was undrafted that year but signed as a free agent that fall. Rykov as we all know was traded away in the ill fated Michael Grabner deal though part of gather quality prospects is being able to use some as trade bait. So the fact that another team coveted Rykov enough to trade for him confirms that this staff seems to have identified a legitimate NHL prospect in Rykov.

While losing Rykov out of this group, the Devils should feel cautiously excited about Davies and Sissons. The Davies pick wasn’t thought of too much at the time, as most overage, 7th round picks out of the USHL don’t garner much interest. However, Davies has been able to translate his electric two-way game from the USHL to 2 very productive seasons with Northeastern University. He put up 23 points in 38 games as a freshman in 2016-17 and followed that up with a dominant 2017-18 campaign of 35 points in 36 games. He even made Canada’s Spengler Cup roster as a 21 year old collegiate player. Davies has shown the ability to eat a ton of minutes at the NCAA level, play on both special teams, and be an offensive threat at even strength and the PP. This is due to his elusive skating, vision, and playmaking abilities. Another season in college will help him futher refine these skills as well as allow him some more room to develop defensively to really round out his game. I really like his chances of getting to the NHL and think at his best he could be a potential middle pairing defender that runs the PP.

Sissons slipped through his draft year due to his then lanky frame at 6’2, 172 lbs and his unpolished overall game. The Devils took a chance and signed him prior to the 2016-17 season. So far that move seems like it could have a decent pay off as he became one of the top offensive defenders in the WHL while with Swift Current. He’s started to fill out his frame, now listed at 6’2, 190 lbs. and has improved his ability to rush the puck up ice due to his improved skating. He’s also become a consistent threat to make plays in the offensive zone with his above average passing ability and vision. Defensively he has become more consistent with maintaining his position and utilizing an active stick. He should be with Binghamton in the AHL this upcoming fall and I look forward to seeing if he can keep his progression moving forward the way he has since his draft year. His upside may be limited to that of a mid to bottom pairing defenseman, but the Devils have to like where his development is at.

2017

  • Drafted: Reilly Walsh (3/81), Jocktan Chainey (7/191), Yegor Zaitsev (7/205), Matthew Hellickson (7/214)
  • Signed: Michael Kapla (3/28/17)

2017 was another busy, forward heavy draft for New Jersey. The Devils had 11 picks and used 4 on defensemen - 3 of which all came in the 7th round. RD Reilly Walsh is a high upside pick that was drafted out of prep hockey and the USHL. The offensively talented blue liner is known for his excellent skating, mobility, and decent shot. He’s very comfortable with the puck on his stick and joining in on the rush. Last season he had a great rookie season for Harvard with 20 points in 33 games and was named to the ECAC All-Rookie Team. He still needs to fill out his 5’11, 180 lbs. frame with more muscle to deal with opposition forwards in his own zone. Like Davies, there is a lot of promise for the 19 year old Walsh and the hope that he can contribute in a mid pairing role with PP duties.

The 7th round selections aren’t quite on the level of Davies, Sissons, and Walsh but are worthy prospects in their own right. LD Jocktan Chainey has been an unheralded two-way defender for Halifax in the QMJHL for the past 2.5 seasons. He took a small step forward this past season increasing his production to 40 points in 66 games thanks to increased PP time. He needs to improve his decision making and backwards skating to reach the next level. Chainey won’t turn 19 until September so he still has time on his side. LD Yegor Zaitsev is another two-way player with untapped offensive potential. He turned 20 in May and already has 47 KHL games under his belt for Dynamo Moscow and has captained the Russian U20 team at the WJC. He’s a bit more of a wildcard at this point in time. LD Matthew Hellickson was another overager and came out of the USHL. This past season he was a mainstay in the line up as a freshman for Notre Dame playing in 40 games and producing 12 points. Towards the end of the year he was given a bit more responsibility and PP time to showcase his value. He is still very raw and his upside is that of a 3rd pairing defender at this point, but he is another player to keep an eye out for over the next few seasons.

The Devils jumped into the college free agent period in the spring of 2017 to sign former UMass-Lowell captain LD Michael Kapla. They even gave him a 5 game stint with the Devils at the end of the 2016-17 season to better gauge where he is currently at. While he had an up and down year for Binghamton as a rookie last season, it seems like he’s prime to enter camp to battle for whatever playing time may be available. He’s shown the ability to be an asset in the transition game and in breaking attacks up from the opposition.

2018

  • Drafted: Ty Smith (1/17), Xavier Bernard (4/110)

The Devils only had 6 picks this past draft, including a gap from picking 17th to 110th. They made their picks count by grabbing the supremely talented LD Ty Smith from Spokane of the WHL in the 1st round and the raw LD Xavier Bernard from Drummondville of the QMJHL in the 4th round. Smith instantly became the Devils best prospect in my opinion due to his impressive skating, vision, puck skills, and playmaking abilities. He’s comfortable rushing the puck up ice himself, joining the rush, and has been known to use his puck handling skills to make the opposition look foolish. His shot could use some more velocity as he gains muscle but overall his offensive game is right up there with some of the other top defenders of this class. His defending is also above average due to his sound positioning, gap control, and hockey IQ. He has the potential to be a top 2 guy at the NHL level should he reach his potential. I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes in the WHL next season.

Bernard saw his prospect stock take a hit after a tough rookie season with Drummondville in 2016-17 but rebounded nicely this past season. Regarded as a two-way defender with no serious flaws but a lack of above average skills, the 6’2, 202 lbs. player is known for his physical edge. Reading various guides and other publications, it seems like some people view him as a darkhorse candidate to break out into a solid NHL prospect. As you’ll see below, it seems like his underlying numbers were solid and good value for a 4th round pick. Could be a very nice pick up by Shero and his staff. Jeremy Crowe used and adjusted points rankings to come up with the top 25 forwards and defensemen for this year’s draft. Below is where the Devils prospects stood out on this list:

Your Take

How do you feel about the job that Shero and his staff have done in regards to re-stocking the prospect system? Which of these defensemen are you intrigued by? What are your expectations for some of these players? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!