Welcome to the 2015 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2015 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) and 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 2015 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 2015-16 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.
After a season finishing 7th in the Metropolitan Division, its been an off-season of change in New Jersey. First was the shocking announcement that Lou Lamoriello was giving up the general manager’s chair, and that former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero was taking over. Shero got to work by hiring John Hynes, a man who he had once hired to coach Pittsburgh’s AHL team, as the Devils new head coach. Next long-time head scout, David Conte was shown the door. Then came the shocking announcement that Lamoriello was leaving the organization to take over as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. How this all translates to change the fortunes of the Devils on-the-ice is something that won’t be known for several years. There is much work to do, as the prospect cupboards need to be restocked, and some turnover needs to happen in what was seen as a rapidly aging lineup last season.
New Jersey Devils Prospects
Top Prospect: Steve Santini
Born Mar 7 1995 — Mahopac, NY
Height 6.03 — Weight 207 — Shoots Right
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the 2nd round, 42nd Overall at the 2013 Nhl Draft.
Steven Santini has put up 16 points in his two seasons in the NCAA with Boston College. However, the contributions Santini brings are often things you don’t see on the score sheet. Santini’s true value is in his defensive game. He is extremely well developed in this aspect of his game, and a true shutdown defender. He has good size and at 6’3″ 207 lbs, has a well developed frame for an 20-year-0ld. Like nearly all prospects in this draft he could add some more muscle mass, but Santini is ahead of the game in this area.
Santini plays a very strong physical game, clearing the front of the net, and working hard in battles along the boards. He maintains great gap control, always keeping himself between the puck and the net. Santini is a willing shot blocker. He’s also willing to lay a number of big hits if given the opportunity. Players need to keep their heads up if coming down Santini’s side of the ice, as he’s been known to throw some very punishing hits. Those who try to sneak by Santini along the boards have to be fearful as he is capable of making them pay the price.
Santini is a great skater. His straight line speed both forwards and backwards is excellent. He has a good first step and excellent acceleration based on compact, powerful stride. He has great edgework and pivots, and his strong agility allows him to quickly change direction and cover a ton of ice. The skating skill gives him the ability to be a top notch defender moving forward.
Santini’s offensive game is massively underdeveloped. He has a good first pass in his own end, but is not likely to lead or join the rush. He is also not much of a playmaker in the offensive zone as he is more likely to dump the puck into an open corner than to use the patience and poise required to make a play at the blueline. He does have a low and hard slap shot, but he really doesn’t utilize it enough.
Santini is expected to be back at Boston College in the fall, as the Eagles have another strong team and will take another run at the Hockey East and NCAA titles. I would guess that the Devils will make a push to sign him as soon as his junior year is done, and get him some games in the AHL at the end of the year. 2016-17 could be the year he makes presence felt in the NHL.
#2 Prospect: John Quenneville, Centre/Left Wing,
Born Apr 16 1996 — Edmonton, ALTA
Height 6.01 — Weight 186 [185 cm/84 kg] – Shoots Left
Drafted in the first round, 30th overall by the New Jersey Devils in the 2014 NHL Draft.
John Quenneville had a less than impressive season for a first round pick with just 17 goals and 47 points in 57 games. I always worry when a first round pick falls well below a point per game, playing in the CHL, in their post draft season. While it doesn’t preclude him from becoming a top six forward at the NHL level, the history of 18-year-olds in the CHL, their points per game, and their success at the NHL level, suggests that its a long shot. Quenneville is now projecting to likely top out as a third liner, though a big season in 2015-16 could get him back on track. An encouraging sign is that Quenneville did have 19 points in 19 playoff games.
Quenneville does have the versatility to play both left wing and centre, though I think he likely projects as a winger at the next level. Offensively, Quenneville is at his best controlling the puck down low on the cycle game and setting up teammates with good vision, and very high hockey IQ. He can drive the net when given the opportunity and while he can show good finish in close, must become more consistent at it. Quenneville is strong on the puck and his long reach and good puck skills really help him to protect the puck down low. He’s not afraid to battle in the corners and in front of the net, and should only get better at this as he adds some bulk to what is currently a somewhat slender frame. Quenneville also has a strong and accurate shot, allowing him to score from further out.
Skating wise, there is some good and bad with Quenneville. He has decent top end speed, but could stand to improve his first step quickness and acceleration. His stride is long and powerful, he has the balance and the strength to fight through checks and win battles on the boards. Quenneville has decent agility and solid edgework as well.
Defensively, Quenneville is very strong and well developed. He offers great support to his defenceman both in back pressure on the rush, and in defending the cycle game down low. He is decent in the face-off circle for a 17-year-old and again should only get better with experience. He anticipates plays well and cuts down passing and shooting lanes. Willing to play physical in all three zones, and even willing to drop the gloves, he can be a really pest to the other team’s top players.
Expect to see Quenneville back with the Brandon Wheat Kings next season. They are projecting to be one of the strongest teams in the CHL, and expectations will be to make a run at the WHL title and Memorial Cup. In terms of NHL expectations, a projected arrival date of 2017 seems to be a best case scenario.
#3 Prospect: Stefan Matteau, Left Wing
Born Feb 23 1994 — Chicago, IL
Height 6.02 — Weight 216 – Shoots Left
Drafted by the Devils in the first round, 29th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft
Stefan Matteau improved his goals per game and points per game in his second AHL season, but it was a modest improvement as he still finished with just 27 points in 61 games. He also got a cup of coffee in the NHL, playing seven games and scoring his second career goal.
When you watch young Stefan Matteau, you can definitely see the influence that his father has had on his son’s game. Like his father, Matteau is a gritty, hard working, winger who is capable in all three zones. Matteau seems to relish playing a physical game, is effective on the boards winning battles, and protecting the puck in the cycle game. He is more likely to bull through a defender than to go around them. Matteau has a hard, heavy wrist shot and a decent release. When Matteau doesn’t have the puck in the offensive zone, you can find him near the opponents crease. He gets to the front of the net and causes havoc when he’s there attempting to screen the goalie, tip in goals, and bang in rebounds. Matteau just loves initiating contact and is a very physical player. He’s also likely to be found right in the middle of any after the whistle scrums. His offensive game is a little limited by his average passing skills and vision, and his average hands making moves in tight to the goal, and around defenders.
Matteau is a smart defensive player. He has very good positioning and is active in the defensive zone. He uses his stick to effectively cut down on passing and shooting lanes, and uses his physical game as effectively in the defensive zone as he does in the offensive zone. He can however sometimes have issues with especially quick opponents. Matteau still needs to work on his discipline and while he was able to avoid major incidents this year, he can still get overly emotional and take a bad penalty at a bad time. He must learn to be physical without crossing the line.
Matteau’s skating is good for a man his size. He has very good top end speed, and has really worked to get better in his first step and acceleration. Increased agility gives him the ability to make quick cuts and changes of direction. He is very strong on his skates and has great balance. Its very difficult to knock Matteau off the puck, and he has a powerful stride when he gets going which helps him to charge the net effectively and play that strong power game.
Matteau might need a little more time at the AHL level, to try and develop his offensive game a little bit more. As it stands he seems to be a safe bet to make the NHL as a bottom six player one-day, but the Devils probably hope that there is a little more offence and a chance he could develop into a top six forward with more seasoning. He likely will get some NHL games as an injury call-up.
Sleeper Pick: Raman Hrabarenka, Defence
Born Aug 24 1992 — Mogilev, Belarus
Height 6.03 — Weight 212 [194 cm/96 kg]
Signed as an undrafted free agent July 2013
Two years ago the Devils took a chance on an undrafted defenceman out of Belarus in Raman Hrabarenka, and now it just might be paying off. Hrabenka put up 27 points in 47 games in the AHL this year, and got in his first NHL game as the Devils were playing out the string.
There seems to be some differing numbers on Hrabarenka’s height and weight depending on which websites you check. We have chosen to go with the New Jersey Devils official site which uses a conservative estimate of 6’3″ 212 lbs. Other sites we have seen have him as big as 6’5″ 240 lbs. What the actual number is, does not make a huge difference in our assessment. We see Hrabarenka as a big and strong defender, capable of winning battles on the boards, and clearing the crease. He is willing to throw a big hit, and is especially good at closing the gap when a forward tries to take him outside near the boards. Hrabarenka is also good at getting himself into shooting and passing lanes, and does not hesitate to block shots.
He’s not purely a defensive defender though, as there is some offence in his game. He has a good first pass out of the zone, and can get the transition game started. Hrabarenka shows poise with the puck, and the ability to make plays from the blue line. He has decent agility and can walk the line allowing him to get his hard slap shot on the net. He may not be a first unit power play guy, but he could develop into a competent part of a second unit going forward.
Hrabarenka will make a real push to make the Devils out of training camp this year, and I would not be surprised to see him on the roster on opening night.
The Devils system is very, very strong in defence. While they aren’t prospects anymore Severson, Merrill, Larsson and Gelinas are all having an NHL impact. Add in Santini and Hrabarenka, along with Seth Helgeson, Joshua Jacobs and Reece Scarlett and the Devils have a solid backbone for the future. In goal the Devils have a superstar NHL starter in his prime, while MacKenzie Blackwood and Scott Wedgewood will be allowed to develop. Up front the Devils hope they have hit a home run with the pick of Pavel Zacha, and would like to see his offensive production skyrocket this season in Sarnia. This is much needed as its unclear if there is any other top end talent in the system. Reid Boucher might be a top six forward, but hasn’t quite found his touch at the NHL level, yet. Miles Wood is a slick skater who will try himself at a higher level as he moves into the NCAA this year. Blake Coleman, Ryan Kujawinski, Ben Johnson, and Graham Black are projects, but it is unclear if any are future top six forwards. Overall the system looks tremendous at the back end, but as the Devils rebuild a team that quite simply didn’t score enough goals this past season, they will need to count on Zacha developping, and adding a few more high end forward talents.