Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects” – a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL.
Today, as I continue my alphabetical journey through the NHL, I bring you a look at the New Jersey Devils. As always you can find a complete listing of my previous articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 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 2012-13 roster of their respective NHL team. 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 determining what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 45-50 NHL games played, or being 25-years old. These are not static rules, as I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
Top Prospect: Jon Merrill, Defence
Born Feb 3 1992 — Brighton, MI
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 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.
Merrill was still selected to play for the US squad at the 2012 World Juniors, but his performance in that tournament can only be described as “BRUTAL”. Merrill looked completely lost at both ends of the ice and made huge mistakes leading to back-breaking goals, and did his part in seeing the greatly underachieving US Squad in the relegation round. For me, he was easily the most disappointing player in the tournament.
Merrill rejoined the Wolverines hockey club. After he settled in he began to play better and had a good second half to the season. Keeping his nose clean going forward will be important to the future of Merrill’s career.
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. Those playmaking 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.
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, 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 stickchecking. 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. Merrill has announced he will be returning to Michigan for his Junior season. The Devils can only hope that he has turned the corner and that another year will give him the maturity needed to put the mistakes of youth behind him and become a productive NHLer in the future.
*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.
Prospect #2 Alex Urbom, Defence
Born Dec 20 1990 — Stockholm, Sweden
Height 6.05 — Weight 215 — Shoots Left
Selected by the New Jersey Devils in round 3 #73 overall at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft
Since coming over from Sweden, Urbom has been a relable defender for Albany in the AHL. In fact Urbom represented the club at the 2012 AHL All-Star Classic. Just 21 years old, Urbom is progressing quickly through the Devils system, and has even played 13 games as an injury replacement over the last 2 years, scoring 1 goal for the big club in each of those year.
Urbom has excellent size, and is a rugged and physical defender. He loves to hit, and his excellent positioning and great quickness and acceleration allow him to close gaps and throw big checks. He battles hard on the boards, and keeps the front of the clear. With his size and strength Urbom wins most of his physical battles as the AHL level. He has very good agility, pivots, and speed for a player his size and these skills help him to be a very reliable defender.
Urbom’s future in the NHL is purely as a defensive defenceman. His offensive ability is average at best. He has a decent point shot with good velocity, but just doesn’t open up shooting lanes in order to get it off more effectively. His puck skills and passing ability are average at best, and it is unlikely he will ever be a good powerplay player.
Urbom will push for a spot on the Devils defence in training camp. He is very close to being NHL ready and it will probably be a bit of a numbers game for him to make the NHL’s Eastern Conference Champions lineup. With most of the Devils veteran defencemen, and other young defenders Mark Fayne, and Adam Larsson all competing for spots on the Devils blueline, Urbom may have to start the season in Albany again and wait for his opportunity to make the big club. His upside is difficult to determine, but it is unlikely that he will be a top pairing defender. Instead expect Urbom to provide solid depth to an NHL club, as his size, physicality and defensive game have value.
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 has always been a goal scorer. After scoring 32 goals for the US NTDP in the 2010-11 season he had a real coming out party at the 2011 IIHF U-18 World Championships. With 8 goals in just 6 games, Boucher showed his natural sniping ability on the World Stage. With a further 28 goals this season as an OHL rookie, Boucher continued to turn heads.
Boucher is a natural sniper. He has an outstanding wrist shot and very quick release. He also has 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, you can expect he’ll find a way to make it find the back of the net.
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 him.
Boucher will probably spend another season in the OHL and will return to the Sarnia Sting this fall. 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 Calder Trophy finalist Adam Henrique has left the Devils prospect pipeline lacking in depth. Meanwhile, the questions surrounding Merrill have raised concerns about the team’s only remaining high end prospect. As a result the Devils group just doesn’t match up when compared to other NHL clubs. With one of the Devils next 2 first round picks 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 dept though is in goal where the competition between Scott Wedgewood, Jeff Frazee, and Keith Kincaid should be fierce in the coming years. The three young goalies will all vie to be the heir apparent to Martin Brodeur.
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