1/9/2012 New Jersey Devils Prospect Update: Top 20 In Lou We Trust Prospect Ranking-Winter Edition

The holidays are over and the AHL, NCAA, CHL and European leagues are back to full action. After the jump I update statistics for Devils prospects and reveal the latest In Lou We Trust Top 20 Prospect List.

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As a note, for my rankings I utilize players drafted by the Devils who have not exhausted their rookie eligibility. Other lists you might see out there may still have Adam Larsson, Adam Henrique, etc. I feel it's easier to have a simple line in the sand: No longer a rookie, not eligible for the list. I also do not include players who are on AHL only deals like Joe Whitney, Brian Haczyk and Nathan Perkovich.

Graduates from the last ranking: Larsson, Henrique, Matt Taormina.

Getting closer to graduation: Alex Urbom, Steve Zalewski.

20. Steve Zalewski: Since this is my list, and I have a bizarre affinity for him, I will continue to rank Zalewski. Albany's leading scorer deserved a chance to bring his brand of energy to the Devils 3rd/4th line and has finally gotten it. Let's see what he does with this opportunity.

19. Jeff Frazee: Poor Jeff Frazee. Every time he starts to assert himself as a solid goaltender he suffers another nagging injury that knocks him out of action. He is like the Rick DiPietro of the AHL. Playing much better than his statistics indicate, Frazee has formed a solid goalie tandem with rookie net minder Keith Kinkaid. If, and this is a huge if, he can remain healthy for an extended period of time, the Devils could look to him as an NHL backup in the future. While it seems like he has been in the system forever, he is still just 24 years old.

18. Maxime Clermont: Clermont has played sparingly in his first professional season. A backup for the ECHL Devils affiliate, the Kalamazoo Wings, Clermont also spent a few weeks in Albany, where he only got action in one game. The inconsistent playing time has led to a subpar season for Clermont. Used to the heavy workload he had in the QMJHL for the Gatineau Olympiques, he hasn't adjusted well to the limited game-time he has received. That said, if he plays better in the opportunities he does get, he will force himself into the lineup.

17: Reece Scarlett: Scarlett's horrible plus/minus rating is a bit more palatable then Reid Boucher's, if only because of the tough minutes he plays and the struggles of his team. When researching Scarlett, you see similar items: Good shot, great skater, needs to improve defensive positioning, needs to get stronger to win one-on-one battles in the defensive zone. Scarlett, a 6th round pick in 2011 was slated to go much higher in the draft (ranked the 67th North American Skater by CSS Rankings) but fell to the Devils much later on.

Can he be considered a steal? Not yet. He will need development time i n the ECHL (yes, even before the AHL to improve on the defensive defeciancies in his game. If he can do that and become a bit stronger, he resembles in his play and his looks, like Brian Rafalski.

16. Blake Pietila: The other 'Blake' in the 2011 draft class, Blake Pietilahas played solidly in his freshman season for the Michigan Tech Huskies. While his scoring has tailed off a bit, he is still scoring at a respectable rate in both WCHA/Non-Conference play. What is most impressive about Pietila right now has been he ability to get shots on net. Projected as a future 3rd/4th line player in the NHL, being able to generate shots is all-important in the puck possession league.

15. Corbin McPherson: See below

14: Joe Faust: Slow and steady sometimes win the race. After de-committing from Princeton University (fun fact: Princeton was the former capital of the United States for a short period of time in the 18th century) the 4th round draft pick in 2010 has slowly moved up the depth chart of the Wisconsin Badgers. In his freshman year Faust saw inconsistent ice-time as a lower pairing defenseman. Now in his sophomore year Faust has gained the confidence of his coaches and is playing on a regular basis. As Bucky's Fifth Quarter hockey editor Chuck Schwartz said in his first half season review Faust is quietly surpassing some of his teammates on the pecking order. He moves the puck well, has a cannon of a shot, and has improved his play in the d-zone. He is facing a strong level of competition in the WCHA conference and I expect his progress over the next few years will push him to the top of the Devils prospect list. As an aside I wonder how anxious the Devils marketing department is to sell sweaters with Faust on the back.

13: Joe Sova: Sova, a free agent signee from the University of Alaska, started this year in the ECHL. This was due more to the depth of the organization than his play in a brief stint last season. Sova excelled in the ECHL and has been promoted back to the AHL. He has played in twelve games this year scoring two goals. Sova offers a huge shot from the point and can quarterback an effective power play unit. If he can start to play a bit better in his own zone, then the Devils might have found a Kurtis Foster-type player. He has a big frame, heavy shot and can hold his own in the defensive zone. He will still need to fight for time at the AHL level but has slowly moved past a few players on the organization’s depth chart.‏

12: Reid Boucher: The plus/minus rating for any hockey player is not a firm indication of talent. There is a lot of luck (good and bad) that can influence the number either. Let's hope that Reid Boucher has experienced some bad luck and his current -20 rating for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL is not any indication of his talent. Boucher, who de-committed from Michigan State (and chose not to play out his final year in the USHL) is in his first of a possible two years he can play in the CHL. Boucher's development has taken a much different path than what the Devils thought it was going to be when they drafted him back in June. Instead of having a year in the USHL and up to four years in the NCAA to work on different areas of his game, he will now be in the organization in less than three years.

Taking into account the differences with the competition level, I would have preferred he took the USHL/NCAA path. That said, playing in the CHL offers advantages too, including the scheduling similarities to the AHL/NHL. If we want to focus on the positives at Sarnia, he is a point per game player who has added nine power play goals. Additionally, Boucher will be able to play with Albany after Sarnia's season ends, giving him a sneak preview into the AHL game. The CHL path also makes it easier for Boucher to take part in the development and training camps the Devils have.

11/15: Seth Helgeson/Corbin McPherson: When a prospect is in a NHL feeder league most of us look to the point productivity of the player to determine his potential NHL value. Some other misguided folks look at penalty minutes as an indication of toughness. Those thought processes undermine evaluation of players like Corbin McPherson and Seth Helgeson. Both are big guys who skate well and have performed solidly in the shutdown role for their respective clubs. Neither has shown much in the way of offensive abilities before their stints in the NCAA, but that's ok. While you would hope that each prospect has the strong two way abilities of a Jon Merrill, that's not a realistic goal for an organization.

Either McPherson or Helgeson will hopefully be able to replace Anton Volchenkov in a few years in the much needed shutdown defender role. I rank Helgeson higher right now because of his age and competition level. McPherson will be able to sign with the Devils this spring after his college season concludes.Helgeson still has another year of eligibility left at the University of Minnesota.

10. Blake Coleman: I will admit that I was troubled by the 3rd round pick of Blake Coleman last year. I felt there were better options out there than Coleman and that his great stats in the USHL were enhanced due to his being older than most of the competition. I was further troubled by his slow start at Miami-Ohio. But I am starting to think I might have been too hasty in my assessment of this pick/player.

After a rough start to the season, Coleman has bounced back to become a point-per-game player over the last 10 games all while centering the third line. Looking for an interesting comparable player for Coleman? Let's look at Andy Miele. Miele, the Hobey Baker Award winner (best college hockey player) last year was a highly sought after player after he graduated last spring. Like Coleman, Miele started school a bit later. Like Coleman, Miele didn't hit his stride until he had at least half a season under his belt. Looking at how both players scored at age 20 you see similar point per game rates.

This doesn't mean Coleman is the next Andy Miele. Coleman perhaps offers a bit more upside than Miele because of his size and goal scoring abilities. Let me offer a speculative reason why I think the Coleman pick makes a bit more sense now. Premium college free agents like Miele, Stephane DaCosta and Bobby Butler command more lucrative deals when there are multiple bidders for them. Why not take a shot at the next big college free agent now, instead of fighting with other teams for his services now. Perhaps we saw a pre-emptive strike by Lamoriello, Conte and company to get the rights to a player who could potentially be a boom or bust and were willing to spend a high pick to ensure his rights.

9. David Wohlberg: Wohlberg, now in his fourth and senior season, has had an up-and-down career for the Wolverines. A 5th round pick of the Devils in 2008, he had a great freshman season, a mediocre sophomore season, a bounce-back junior season that unfortunately ended early by a collarbone injury and now a senior season that sees him as one of the top scorers on the Wolverine squad. His play has picked up recently (five points in the last two games) and Wohlberg should be able to eclipse his goal scoring high of 15. Get ready for him in mid-to-late April as he should start playing with Albany shortly after Michigan's season ends.

8. Mike Hoeffel: It has been a rough start to Mike Hoeffel's professional career. Sidelined by an upper body injury that caused him to miss most of the first half of the season he has been playing in 3rd line minutes/situations. At this point it's hard to give a fair assessment of his play due to the limited time he has played, but I think if he starts to get some top 6 ice-time you will see his name on the score-sheet much more often.

7. Brandon Burlon: After leaving Michigan a year earlier than expected, Brandon Burlon has had a rough go of it so far in his first professional season. He initially had trouble getting into the lineup and was a healthy scratch more often than not in the first month of the season. Injuries gave him a chance to finally get into the lineup, and while he hasn’t totally seized the opportunity he hasn’t played badly. At Michigan I had thought that Burlon had showed skills similar to a poor man's Paul Martin but I am currently re-assessing that projection. Burlon, while not all that big, is strong for his size and that should help him as he progresses through the AHL. While it's been an unspectacular start to his professional career, I still have high hopes for Burlon.

6. Keith Kinkaid: The undrafted free agent from Union College took little time to assert himself as the 1A goalie at Albany. He also was the first goalie called up when Martin Brodeur went down with an injury for a few weeks, a big endorsement by the organization. He didn't receive any game action when he was with New Jersey but just the fact that it was he who got the call instead of longtime organizational prospect Jeff Frazee speaks to the confidence the Devil's have in him. His save percentage has dipped in recent weeks, but I attribute that mostly to a depleted defensive corps and a porous penalty killing unit in Albany. In an adjusted even-strength save percentage post I did a few weeks back I estimate his even strength save percentage to be around .908-.912. Has he been great? No, he hasn't. But he has been a solid goalie in his first professional season as he adjusts to the rigors of the AHL schedule and the jump in competition level.

5. Curtis Gedig: Gedig the tall, lanky defender from OhioStateUniversity has been an important part of the resurgence of the OSU program this year. Drafted in the 7th round in the 2009 draft out of the BCHL, Gedig has been part of winning teams at every level at which he’s played and seems to be poised to help OSU make a deep run in the Frozen Four tournament. I think a lot more people will be talking about Gedig as this year/his college career progresses. It’s all about perception sometimes. If Gedig was a higher round pick and played for Michigan or BostonCollege, he would be much more heralded. A two-way defenseman (think Henrik Tallinder) his offensive game is starting to take better shape, and many good things are in his future.

4. Scott Wedgewood: Is Wedgewood the heir apparent? It's certainly starting to seem this way as the young goaltender was the starter on Canada's World Junior championship team. Despite being in net for five of the six goals against in the semi-final round against Russia, he showed a lot of poise for someone with his experience. I like Wedgewood as he has seen a lot of adversity in his short career and I’m of the belief that the key to a great goaltender (besides the standard skill-set) is mental toughness. Wedgewood, after sitting behind Matt Hackett in Plymouth for a few years, getting snubbed by the Canadian WJC team and coming into this year having to fight just to make the roster, has faced some adversity in his early career and I think he will be better for it. The next Devils goalie will always have the career of Brodeur on his back and will need to be tough mentally to succeed as the Devils netminder.

He's able to join the Devils next year and while I don't think that he will need much time to adjust himself to the professional ranks it’s probably best if he follows the footpath of other CHL goaltenders (for example look at the development path of former teammate and Minnesota Wild prospect Matt Hackett) and play in Albany for one to two years before being promoted to the NHL level. It is going to be an interesting few years as Martin Brodeur winds down his career and the Devils, for the first time in almost two decades find a new goaltender. Whether that's Keith Kincaid, Wedgewood or Maxime Clermont it would be somewhat fitting if Wedgewood (a hybrid goalie who idolized Marty growing up) was the guy.

3. Eric Gelinas: It's been an up-and-down first season for Eric Gelinas. Positives: He’s been an integral part of the Albany power play with four out of his seven goals with the man advantage. Gelinas' seven goals tie him for third in the AHL among all defenseman. Also, he's currently (at time of writing) 11th in scoring in the AHL by a rookie defensemen. Negative: On a team with a -5 even strength goal differential, Gelinas is a -7 rating. (In fairness, he has played in tougher situations and has had some unlucky bounces, but he still needs to play better in his own zone.)

I had thought he might have been better served starting the season in the ECHL to get accustomed to the jump in physical play he would see in the AHL, but he seems to have adjusted well without that step. The Albany experience will be a positive one for Gelinas. In the QMJHL Gelinas was either on a very bad team (Lewiston) or a totally stacked team (Saint John) and I think the experience of being on a middle-of-the-road team will be very beneficial to his development. In Albany, Gelinas is not forced to play 25-30 minutes a night with bad teammates nor is he just an extra part to an already amazing team.

2. Alexander Urbom: Urbon recently had a second short stint with the NHL club after injuries hit Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder. Urbom hasn’t looked that good yet at the NHL level, but I think more patience is needed. He's only 21 years old and is in his second real professional year after limited time in the Swedish Elite League and one year in Brandon of the WHL. For a third round pick in the 2009 draft, Urbom has progressed well. For those of you disappointed with him, let me ask you this: If Lou Lamoriello had never said ‘Urbom is our best prospect’ would we be viewing him the same way?

Last year I interviewed Brandon’s radio play-by-play announcer Bruce Luebke. He made an apt comparison for Urbom in Swede Mattias Ohlund. Ohlund has been a solid NHL defenseman in his career. He’s not a true top pairing defender, but certainly will be a solid second pairing defenseman. Remember his age and his progression when you look at Urbom. It may take another year or two, but he will be a solid asset to the Devils defensive core.

1. Jon Merrill: Despite only playing in a few games with Team USA in the World Junior Championship, Jon Merril stays at the top of the Devils prospect list. The problem with Merrill at this point in his development has nothing to do with his on-ice skills. The development Merrill first needs is all about the shoulders. According to Bob McKenzie of TSN, Merrill committed the same infraction that got him suspended for 12 games less than a month after the original occurrence. You have to wonder if the concerns about Merrill’s character during the lead up to the 2010 draft should have been heeded more by David Conte and company. That said he's back. Playing in games against Lake Superior State University over the past weekend, Merrill notched two assists in his return from the lengthy suspension. Let's hope he finishes out the year strong.

News and Notes:

Both Nick Palmieri and Steve Zalewski were re-called from Albany this week, with Tim Sestito (put on waivers yesterday) likely heading back to Albany. In other surprising news Cam Janssen is still on the NHL roster.

How long will Zalewski stick around? Your guess is as good as mine. However, one would think that once Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson are fully healthy I would imagine either Ryan Carter or Zalewski emerges with that 4th line center role, with the other player the odd man out.

North Dakota forward Derek Rodwell will miss the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury.

The Albany Devils swept their weekend series against Norfolk and are now bunched with a few teams in the AHL's Eastern Conference for the final playoff spots.

With the recent call-up of Steve Zalewski to the NHL keep an eye out for Mike Hoeffel. After going scoreless in his first ten games of the year, he has scored three goals in his last six games.

As noted above defenseman Eric Gelinas is 3rd among all AHL defenseman in goals scored. He is 11th in scoring for rookie defensemen.

Scott Wedgewood had a rough go of it at the World Junior Championship's as poor defensive play, led to him letting up five goals against the Russian team and consequentially relegated Canada to the Bronze medal game, which they won. I think this experience will be helpful to Wedgewood in two ways: (1) The experience/pressure put on the Canadian goaltender at the WJC is immense. (2) The break in his normal grind in the OHL will keep him fresh for the OHL playoffs.

That's it for this week, leave any questions or comments below. Thanks for reading.

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