We are getting ever closer and closer to training camp, which will begin in less than two weeks - at least for rookies. It's a time to get excited about the impending NHL season. It's a time to get your body, mind, and soul ready for supporting the New Jersey Devils. It's a time to start figuring out the roster and look for what spots will drive competition in camp and in preseason games. If only to have a reason to care a bit more about what happens in exhibition games in September.
One area immediately comes to mind: defense. Specifically, the seventh spot on defense. The Devils used eight defenseman last season and they have used at least that many defensemen in each of the last 15 seasons for ten or more games with only one exception. That one exception was the 1997-98 season and seven hit double digits in appearances. Earlier this summer, the Devils traded Henrik Tallinder away to Buffalo in a salary dump, so there a spot on defense could very well be available in New Jersey. If the team doesn't want to carry eight defensemen, then how a player does in camp and preseason could factor into someone getting the inside track for a call-up if/when injuries happen. The Devils are loaded with defenseman prospects but there are three who will be fighting for this potential spot: Alexander Urbom, Eric Gelinas, and Jonathon Merrill.
Alexander Urbom is 22, he'll turn 23 in December, and he is in the final year of his entry level contract. With other defenders coming into Albany in time, this could be his shot to shine. I get the impression that the Devils organization has liked Urbom for quite a bit. He has been called up for NHL games in the past; a total of 14 over the last three seasons. So he's got a taste of the next level. He's got a large frame at 6'5", 215 pounds and he knows how to use it. He even moves pretty well with it. What he doesn't have is much of an offensive game. Urbom is a defensive defenseman. He has never been a productive player in Albany and his skill on the puck isn't all that good. If he does make it at the next level, then it's going to be as a player who can control his own area. While that's valuable - even if Urbom only makes it as a third pairing defender in that mold - New Jersey has plenty of defenders who can do that already. In my opinion, he needs to have a very good camp should he want to finally crack the NHL in the final year of his current deal.
Eric Gelinas is big like Urbom at 6'4" and 205 pounds, but he's not as physical of a defender. With his size, one would think he should be but that doesn't play to Gelinas' strengths. He's actually an offensive-minded defenseman. He's got a good shot, he's willing to shoot the puck quite a bit, and he's been a productive defender with Albany in his two seasons in the AHL. Gelinas got his first taste of the NHL last season and I would think he'll get a long look in preseason for his offensive abilities alone. Since Brian Rafalski signed with Detroit after the 2006-07 season, offense has been lacking from the Devils' blueline to a degree. After Marek Zidlicky, there really isn't a solid attacking blueliner among the Devils even though they have been good in possession. That made re-signing him a defensible if not a good idea, but it's only for one year and Zidlicky is 36. The Devils need to address this issue soon. The 22-year old Gelinas could provide an answer and perhaps give them a better option on the power play unit behind Zidlicky than, say, Peter Harrold. Plus, Gelinas is also in the last year of his entry level contract, which might give a bit more motivation to impress the coaches.
The wildcard in this potential three-way battle is Jon Merrill. Merrill is a tantalizing defensive prospect on paper. He's been great at both ends of the rink for Michigan, he's big (6'4", 205 pounds) and skates well, and he contributed right away in his 12 game tryout with Albany. Yet, his three years at Michigan didn't go smoothly. He was suspended for 22 games as a sophomore, and he missed the 2012 portion of the 2012-13 season with a cracked vertebrae as a junior. Merrill didn't play a full three years of college, so one has to wonder how he'll adjust over the course of a longer professional season, regardless of level. That said, past Devils collegiate prospects have left college early if the player and organization both think they're ready for tougher competition. He's made making the team his goal based on his comments to Tom Gulitti today at Fire & Ice. I expect him to try and make his mark the best way he can in the coming month.
As of right now, in advance of training camp, I would order the threesome as Gelinas, Urbom, and Merrill. As much as I like what Merrill can become, I would prefer to see him go through a full season with Albany where he's free to grow. Gelinas and Urbom have both put in their time in Albany and I'm not so sure further seasoning will help them dramatically. I could be wrong about that, of course. Between the two Albany guys, I would think Gelinas has an edge due to his skillset. The Devils really could use more offense from the back end and Gelinas definitely brings more of that than Urbom to the proverbial table. I don't doubt that if/when a defensive-minded defender gets hurt, then Urbom could be introduced into the lineup. I'm just saying that if there is a spot open on New Jersey's blueline, I think Gelinas currently has an advantage as of this moment. That is not to say I think Urbom or Merrill has no chance, they most certainly do. That would just be my choice were I to choose at the moment.
Fortunately, such choices don't need to be made right now. Nothing is set in stone. The team has time to figure it out. That's what practices, drills, video sessions, meetings, and preseason games are for. That's where these three and others will try to excel to get their opportunity. Even that is not guaranteed. New Jersey may decide to not carry eight defensemen to start the 2013-14 season. Historically, they will likely use that many for more than just one or two games; so I think that if there is no spot right away, then it may happen again in the future. All the same, it's one thing to consider as we prepare as fans for the upcoming preseason.
In the meantime, I want to know what you think. Among these three young defensemen, who would be the most likely to crack the New Jersey roster in 2013-14? Why? Do you think there will be an eighth defenseman on the roster to start the season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these young defenders preparing for training camp in the comments. Thank you for reading.