Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf NHL Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). 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 this year. 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 2016-17 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. 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.
TSP: New Jersey Devils Prospects
For a long time it seemed that the New Jersey Devils would be one of the biggest surprises of the NHL season. While few picked them to make the playoffs, the team seemed poised to do exactly that, as they held a playoff spot into the second half of the season.
Unfortunately familiar problems would catch up with the Devils. Despite a breakout year from Kyle Palmieri (30 goals 57 points), the Devils didn’t score enough goals. Their biggest offensive threat, Mike Cammalleri, had 38 points in 42 games before he was lost due to injury. Centres Adam Henrique (30 goals, 50 points) and Travis Zajac (42 points) had solid seasons as well. Winger Lee Stempniak performed well, but was dealt at the deadline. Overall there just wasn’t enough offense. The Devils attempted to address some of those concerns with a shocking trade for Taylor Hall. He immediately becomes their best forward. They also picked up Beau Bennett, hoping the former first rounder can find his potential.
While the Devils defence is solid in their own end of the rink, they don’t do much for the transition game or to help the forwards generate offence. With 21 points, Damon Severson led all Devils defencemen in points. They need Severson and Jon Merrill to step up offensively next season. Goaltender Cory Schneider is one of the best in the NHL. His late season injury certainly didn’t help the Devils playoff chances, even if Keith Kinkaid and Scott Wedgewood were decent in relief.
Draft Picks: Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, Joey Anderson, Brandon Gignac, Mikhail Maltsev, Evan Cormier, Igor Rykov, Jesper Bratt, Jeremy Davies
Graduates: Reid Boucher, Sergey Kalinin, David Warsofsky (age + free agency)
New Jersey Devils Prospects Scouting Reports
Top Prospect: Pavel Zacha
Centre/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born Apr 6 1997 — Brno, Czech Rep.
Height 6’3 — Weight 213 lbs [191 cm / 97 kg]
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in round 1, sixth overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
The Devils first round pick, sixth overall in 2015, had an impressive season. He really improved his offensive production at the OHL level, scoring 28 goals and 36 assists for 64 points. Zacha was even better in the OHL playoffs, putting up six goals and 13 points in seven games. Unfortunately the Sarnia Sting would fall in a hard fought first round series. Zacha also got a taste of pro hockey. He scored two assists in his first NHL game. He also picked up a goal and two assists in three AHL games; as well as another goal and two assists in five AHL playoff games with the Albany Devils.
Zacha is a good skater with a powerful stride. He has outstanding acceleration and the ability to change speeds to fool defenders. His top end speed is also very good. Zacha has great agility and edge work, and can combine this with his stick handling to get past defenders. His balance and power are also good and he wins board battles and fights through checks.
Zacha has the size and skills to be a power forward at the NHL level. He also possesses elite skill to be a sniper, or a top notch play maker. In the offensive end, he really can do it all. He has the power to get through checks and drive the net, as well as the soft hands necessary to finish in close. Zacha’s wrist shot is elite. He shows great power and a hair trigger release. He also has a very hard and accurate one-timer.
While Zacha is a shoot first type of player, he does show the vision and passing skills to be an very good play maker as well. He gets in quickly on the fore check and absolutely punishes defenders with hits in the corners and behind the net. He has the size and stick handling to protect the puck in the cycle game and maintain possession. Zacha’s improved production stems from learning how to be more effective in the cycle. He improved his poise and decision making with the puck. He now waits for teammates to get open and makes the smart play, maintaining possession while extending offensive opportunities.
Zacha’s defensive game has also improved over the last year. He has made adjustments to a smaller rink, and to the angles he needs to take. Zacha supports his defence down low, against the opponent’s cycle, and now has less issues of miscommunication. He can still get better, but the strides taken this year suggest that he will get there. One area he still needs plenty of work on is in the face-off circle.
Zacha will come to Devils camp looking to earn a full-time spot on the team. With the Devils need for offense, he will be given every opportunity to make it. It’s a tough situation. The ideal spot for Zacha is playing in the AHL. He is not quite NHL ready, but does not have that much more to do at the OHL level. Unfortunately, the CHL/NHL transfer agreement makes this an impossibility. The Devils will likely give him nine games at the NHL level and re-assess at that point.
#2 Prospect: Michael McLeod
The Devils drafted McLeod with the 13th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on McLeod. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#3 Prospect: Steve Santini
Defense — shoots Right
Born Mar 7 1995 — Mahopac, NY
Height 6’2 — Weight 208 lbs [188 cm/ 94 kg]
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in round 2, 42nd overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Santini showed some real strides offensively in his junior year with Boston College. He only scored one goal, but added 18 assists for 19 points in 41 games. It was his most productive season at the NCAA level. Santini signed an entry level contract with the Devils following the season. He even played in one game with New Jersey. He also played 10 games for Team USA at the World Championships.
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 edge work 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 underdeveloped. He has a good first pass in his own end, and became more likely to join the rush this year. He also not improved his poise and patience in the offensive zone. Santini has a low and hard slap shot, but he really doesn’t utilize it enough.
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.
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.
Expect Santini to start the year with the Albany Devils. He is a talented, but raw defenceman. He could make an impact as a shut-down defenceman in the next couple of years.
#4 Prospect: John Quenneville
Center/Left Wing — shoots Left
Born Apr 16 1996 — Edmonton, ALTA
Height 6’1 — Weight 205 lbs [185 cm / 93 kg]
Drafted by New Jersey Devils in round 1, #30 overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
Quenneville exploded during his final year of junior hockey. He scored 31 goals and 73 points in 57 games for the Brandon Wheat Kings. He was even better in the WHL playoffs. Quenneville had 16 goals and 27 points in 21 games, in helping Brandon to win the WHL title and advance to the Memorial Cup. He also earned a spot on Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
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 edge work as well.
Quenneville has the versatility to play both left wing and centre, though 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. Quenneville improved on his finish in close this past year, showing more of a knack to make plays in front of the net. He is strong on the puck and his long reach and good puck skills really help him to protect the puck down low. He is not afraid to battle in the corners and in front of the net, and should only get better at this as he continues to get stronger. Quenneville added bulk over the last couple of summers and it would not be surprising to see him come to camp even more defined this year. He also has a strong and accurate wrist shot, allowing him to score from further out.
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 very good in the face-off circle. Quenneville also 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.
Quenneville has now finished his junior career, but there is still some developing to do. Expect to see him spend at least a season with the Albany Devils, refining his game. He is another effective two-way forward in the Devils system. He likely projects as a left wing at the pro level.
#5 Prospect: Miles Wood
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born Sep 13 1995 — Buffalo, NY
Height 6’1 — Weight 185 lbs [185 cm / 84 kg]
Drafted by New Jersey Devils in round 4, #100 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Heading to college a little later than most prospects, Wood had an impressive freshman campaign with Boston College. He scored 10 goals and added 25 assists for 35 points in 37 games. He was consistently one of B.C.’s most dangerous forwards throughout the campaign. Following the season he choose to sign and entry level contract and even played one game at the NHL level. Wood also played for Team USA at the World Championships.
Wood is an excellent skater. He has a long and powerful stride, giving him very good speed and acceleration. He is very strong on his skates, with excellent balance in the corners and the ability to fight through checks and get to the net. Wood has good agility and edge work. He eludes defenders through the use of quick cuts, and changes of direction.
Wood uses his speed to get in quickly on the forecheck. He pressures defencemen and causes turnovers; which he looks to quickly move to a teammate. An excellent play maker, Wood can saucer passes through traffic, and finds openings off the rush or when playing the cycle. He is strong on the puck, and protects it well down low, maintaining possession and extending plays. While he is more of a play maker than a goal scorer, he is not afraid to battle in front of the net and try to bang in rebounds or get deflections. Wood has a hard and accurate shot, but must work on his release. He needs to get his shot off quicker if he is going to be a consistent NHL scorer.
Wood shows a commitment to play in his own end of the ice. He brings a gritty game, battling for loose pucks in corners. He is also not afraid to block shots. Wood gets caught out of position from time to time, but the effort is always there. Some solid coaching should fix any deficiencies.
Wood is also likely headed for the AHL this season. He has a lot of talent, but his game is very raw at this point. He could also stand to take some time to add muscle to his frame. He’s at least a year away from being in the NHL on a full-time basis.
#6 MacKenzie Blackwood
Goalie — shoots Left – Catches Left
Born Dec 9 1996 — Thunder Bay, ONT
Height 6’4 — Weight 224 lbs [193 cm / 102 kg]
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in round 2, #42 overall 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Blackwood had an exceptional season for the Barrie Colts. The Thunder Bay native was named OHL Goaltender of the Year. He also won a spot on the league’s first all-star team. Blackwood posted a .921 save percentage in 43 games for the Colts last season. He also backstopped Team Canada at the World Juniors.
Already at 6’4″ tall, MacKenzie Blackwood has the ideal size that teams look for in goaltenders now. He uses that size effectively and comes out to challenge shooters and take away the amount of net they have to look at. He skates extremely well and can back up quickly to close down the net on dekes. Blackwood is almost always square to the shooter, even on cross ice passes as he gets across very quickly due to a strong leg push. He stays in control and avoids over-sliding.
Blackwood plays a strong butterfly technique with strong legs that take away the bottom of the net, and an excellent glove hand. While he has very good rebound control for a goalie his age, it can continue to be improved. He does a very good job of recovering quickly and getting square to the puck when he does give up a rebound though.
Playing the Puck
Blackwood also is a very good stick handler and passer, not being afraid to leave his crease to play the puck. He takes advantage if he sees the opponent make a bad line change, and can make a long pass to his forwards. Blackwood’s puck handling makes him like a third defenceman back there for his team. He is a natural leader, with a cool and calm demeanor. Blackwood does not get frustrated after giving up a goal. He bounces back quickly, focusing on making the next save.
There are still some raw spots in Blackwood’s game that could be refined by a good goalie coach, such as being tighter with his arms and his body when he goes down in the butterfly. He also could work on reading the play when the puck behind the net. However these are minor issues. They should be fixed by a good goalie coach. For a goaltender who only started playing the position due to an injury to a teammate seven years ago, his technique is actually more polished than one would expect. These are some relatively minor issues overall.
A late 1996 birthday, Blackwood appears to be done his junior career. In theory, he could return for an overage season, but that seems unlikely. Instead he will be expected to move up in the Devils system and continue to develop his game at the pro level. Like with most goaltenders, this is likely a long-term project.
Sleeper: Nick Lappin
Centre/Right Wing — Shoots Right
Born Nov 1 1992 — Geneva, IL
Height 6.01 — Weight 175 [185 cm/79 kg]
Signed as an undrafted free agent, April 2016
The 23-year-old has had an excellent senior season with the Brown University Bears. He scored 16 goals and 32 points in 30 games. The Devils signed Lappin and assigned him to their AHL team in Albany. He performed very well with three goals and seven points in 12 playoff games. Lappin added five goals and seven points in 11 playoff games. The Albany Devils lost a hard fought second round series to the Toronto Marlies.
Lappin is a solid skater. He has good speed and acceleration. He can beat a defender wide on the rush and take the puck to the net. Lappin also has good edge work and agility. He is elusive, and can get around defenders both with and without the puck. He needs to add core strength though, in order to improve his balance and be stronger on the puck.
A sniper, Lappin has an excellent shot and lightning quick release. He also has the soft hands to finish plays in tight, whether those be via tip-in or deflection. Lappin can also play the role of play maker. He stick handles well and uses his frame to protect the puck, extending plays on the cycle and then firing a pass to a teammate. He could stand to bulk up if he is going to continue to play this game at the next level. That said while he appears to be extremely skinny, he’s been tougher to knock off the puck than you would think. Lappin has good balance, as well as the instincts to roll away from hits. He is also not afraid to play the game physical either, getting in quickly on the fore check.
Lappin is a solid defensive player. He reads the play well and uses his stick to cut down passing lanes. He also puts pressure on the puck carrier, and is in good positions to contain the cycle. Lappin needs to add more muscle though. He can be overpowered trying to contain bigger opponents cycling at the pro level. Lappin is not afraid to battle in the corners, or to block shots. When he gets the puck, he transitions quickly to offense.
Lappin will likely start the season in the AHL. Coming straight out of college there is some things he will need to develop at the pro level. He should prioritize getting in the gym and adding some muscle this summer.
The Devils system is full of good forwards, but its unclear if they have the franchise changing elite forward that they so desperately need. The best chance of finding that player is Pavel Zacha, and so the Devils must ensure that he is developed properly. Behind the forwards already named, there is some additional depth in Nathan Bastian, Joey Anderson, Joseph Blandisi, Blake Speers, and Blake Coleman. The defence needs a real influx of puck moving, point producing talent. Despite not having that blue chip prospect, there is also depth here in Josh Jacobs, and Colton White. Overall this is a prospect group that is improving, but there is still plenty of work to be done.