Top Shelf Prospects: New Jersey Devils
Welcome to Today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2013 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2013 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2013-14 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances (especially due to the fact that the latest NHL season was only 48 games).
The Devils went from nearly the top of the mountain in 2012, as Stanley Cup Finalists, to out of the playoffs in 2013. Things started to go downhill when star winger Zach Parise left for Minnesota. With 40-year-old legend Martin Brodeur finally starting to show his age this season, the Devils just couldn’t make up for the loss of Parise’s goal scoring. The 2013 off-season has lead to even bigger offensive losses, as Ilya Kovalchuk “retired” and left for the KHL, while David Clarkson is now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In an attempt to make up some of those goals, the Devils have brought in Michael Ryder, Ryan Clowe, and 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr, and in an attempt to provide competition for Brodeur, and bring in the team’s goalie of the future the Devils moved the 9th overall draft pick in the 2013 NHL Draft for Cory Schneider. Whether this will be enough to see the Devils climbing that mountain again remains to be seen, but in the meantime, with a roster featuring the likes of Jagr, Brodeur, Patrick Elias, Danius Zubrus, Bryce Salvador, and Marek Zidlicky, the team has a number of key players that are aging and will soon need to be replaced. With that in mind we look to the Devils prospect group to see what will be available going forward.
Top Prospect: Jon Merrill, Defence
Born Feb 3 1992 — Brighton, Michigan
Height 6.03 — Weight 209 — Shoots Left
Selected by the New Jersey Devils in round 2 #38 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Jon Merrill missed the first half of this season with a fractured vertebrae he suffered in an exhibition game on October 9th. When he finally did get on the ice, he played well enough, but his Michigan Wolverines suffered through one of their worst regular seasons in years. Things picked up for Michigan in the last ever CCHA playoffs as they made it all the way to the conference final. Unfortunately the season ended when they lost to Notre Dame, and their regular season record was not enough to get them into the Frozen Four tournament. With his junior career done, Merrill signed an entry level deal with the Devils, and was impressive in his pro debut in the AHL, putting up 8 points in 12 games with Albany.
On the ice Merrill’s biggest asset is his hockey sense. He plays a calm, composed game and makes smart decisions with the puck on his stick. He has the top-end speed and skating ability to rush the puck end-to-end, and creates offence for teammates with good vision and passing skills. The vision and passing skills also translate to Merrill’s game at the point and on the powerplay where he quarterbacks the play with skill and efficiency. His point shot is accurate, and he does a great job of opening up shooting lanes to get it off, however he could use a little more velocity on his shot. One thing he does do well though is keep the shot low and get it on net, creating rebound and tip-in opportunities for teammates.
Merrill’s defensive game is built on good positional play and a quick stick. He uses his hockey sense to read the play in the defensive zone and does a good job of stealing pucks with a good pokecheck. He uses good angles to keep opponents to the outside, and has good speed skating backwards, however he can sometimes be a little imprecise with his pivots and be beaten on such plays by especially speedy forwards. He also could stand to be a little more physical and not always rely on his stick and poke checking. Overall though, his defensive game can be refined. He just needs some time and good coaching.
There is little question about Jon Merrill’s talent. He certainly has the skills necessary to be an effective two-way defenceman at the NHL level. There are some serious questions though about his ability to put those skills together and be a consistent performer. There are also very serious questions about his maturity given his two serious suspensions for violating team rules. One issue is that Merrill has received plenty of bad press since 2010. Prior to being drafted, Merrill was suspended from the US NTDP for *violating team rules. While the cause of his suspension remains a mystery, many rumors have surfaced, most of which are pretty ugly.
What we know for certain is that Merrill was a mid-first round talent before the incident, who fell to the second round as a direct result. In 2010-11, Merrill seemed to be back on track. He was a superb freshman defenceman at the University of Michigan and was a top performer for the Bronze Medal winning U.S. Squad at the 2011 World Juniors. Unfortunately for him, controversy struck again, as Michigan followed the US NTDP’s lead and suspended Merrill for the first half of the 2011-12 season with only the familiar “violating team rules” explanation given.
*The US NTDP incident allegedly involved a suspension from Pioneer High School for sexual harrassment. No one will say what the 2011 incident was. All we know is that Michigan suspended him for 12 games originally, and then refused to re-instate him when the 12 games was up, saying he again violated team rules while serving the 12 game suspension.
A solid 2012-13 season with Merrill keeping his nose clean is a good start, but given his past, he’s going to need to do it again a few more times before people are convinced that all the off-ice problems are behind him. In the meantime, expect Merrill to start next season back at the AHL level as he works on refining his defensive game before making his way to the NHL.
#2 Prospect Damon Severson, Defence
Born Aug 7 1994 — Melville, Saskatchewan
Height 6.02 — Weight 198 — Shoots Right
Drafted 60th overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 NHL Draft
After being drafted late in the second round in 2012, Damon Severson took his game to another level in the 2012-13 season. Playing big minutes and in all situations for the Kelowna Rockets, he was a force at both ends of the ice. Offensively he scored 52 points in 71 games to finish 6th amongst WHL defencemen in scoring. He also was a force at the defensive end of the ice, killing penalties, playing against top lines, and helping lead the Rockets to the top of the B.C. Division. Unfortunately, despite Severson’s 10 points in 11 playoff games, the Rockets struggled, barely defeating Seattle in 7 games, and then being swept away by their rivals from Kamloops.
Severson has ideal NHL size (though he needs to add muscle to his frame), and is a solid two way defender in the WHL. Severson is a fluid skater. He has a great first step and very good acceleration. He reaches his top speed quickly, and this helps him to shake off forecheckers in the defensive zone. However, he is more quick than fast, as his top end skating speed is only slightly above average. He does have good mobility, as he is agile and makes good pivots and changes of direction. This allows him to cover a lot of ice despite the lack of top end speed.
Offensively Severson has improved leaps and bounds over his previous season. He has a great point shot, including a very hard one-timer and is used on the point in Power Play situations. His passing is good and crisp, especially in starting the breakout and transition game. Severson showed real improvement in his decision making this year. He was making plays that he didn’t try in previous years.
Severson’s biggest strength was once his defensive game. The revelation of an offensive game is a welcome addition and may have raised his ceiling as he truly is a two way defender now. However that doesn’t change the fact that his defensive game is superb. He is a great shot blocker, one of the best in the WHL. While not usually a big hitter, Severson is physical in battling hard along the boards and working to keep the front of the net clear. A big body, he does use his size to his advantage. His agility and mobility allows him to keep opposing forwards to the outside and keep most plays in front of him. His strong hockey sense allows him to diagnose plays and anticipate plays and shut them down before they get started.
Severson will likely spend the 2013-14 season back in Kelowna, where he will again be looking to take his own game and the Rockets to an even higher level than he has been at before.
Sleeper Prospect, Reid Boucher, LW
Born Sep 8 1993 — Lansing, MI
Height 5.11 — Weight 195 — Shoots Left
Selected by the New Jersey Devils in round 4, #99 overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Reid Boucher followed up a good rookie year in the OHL, with an incredible second season in 2012-13 for the Sarnia Sting. Scoring 62 goals in 68 games, he showed off the natural goal scoring talent that has always gotten him noticed in scouting circles, while taking it up to another level.
Boucher is a natural sniper, pure and simple. He has an outstanding wrist shot and very quick release and combines that with a great one-timer. Boucher has soft hands and good stickhandling ability which also allows him to score goals in tight. If Boucher plays with a linemate who can get him the puck (as he did with Alex Galchenyuk for half the year, and Charles Sarault for the whole season) you can expect he’ll find a way to make it find the back of the net. He is willing to work in the corners and in front of the net, but he’s more the type who is willing to take a hit to make a play than the type who will initiate contact.
Boucher’s skating is very hit and miss. He has good agility and a great first step. This helps him to pounce on loose pucks in the offensive zone in order to keep the play alive for a teammate, or to let go one of his fantastic array of shots. Boucher is a very elusive skater who can get away from defenders just long enough to be open for a scoring chance. However Boucher needs work on his overall speed and acceleration. They are both below average and he has trouble creating off the rush as a result. He might be able to get by a defender, but he doesn’t have the speed or acceleration necessary to pull away from defenders and drive the net.
Boucher signed his entry level contract and got in 11 games in Albany last year, scoring his first three professional goals. Expect to see him back in the AHL next year as he still has some work to do. In addition to his skating he will need work on the defensive aspects of his game. However Boucher’s ability to score goals is something that just cannot be taught, and if he can touch up the other aspects of his game, he could be a steal of a pick by the Devils.
The graduations of Adam Larsson, Jacob Josefsson, and Adam Henrique over the last few years along with the trading of multiple draft picks (the Devils only had 5 picks this year) has left the Devils prospect pipeline lacking in depth. Meanwhile, questions surrounding Merrill, and Stefan Matteau who quit on his QMJHL team during the playoffs, have raised concerns about the character of two of the team’s most high profile prospects. As a result the Devils group just doesn’t match up when compared to other NHL clubs. With the Devils 2014 first round pick set to be forfeited, GM Lou Lamoriello will have his work cut out for him replenishing the Devils system. One area where the Devils have some nice depth though is in goal where the competition between Scott Wedgewood, Jeff Frazee, and Keith Kincaid should be fierce in the coming years.
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Main Photo Credit: mgoblog.com