The New Jersey Devils find themselves in an unfamiliar position this offseason. Not only did they fail to qualify for the playoffs, their first miss in 14 years, but they also won the NHL's draft lottery. That bumped them to the fourth pick in the draft, a high slot for a team used to drafting lower in the first round.
Their roster is also undergoing several changes. As the stars age, the team has restocked the farm system with high-end prospects. Some of them, including Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson, made significant contributions this season. As the roster continues to evolve, more and more young players will be expected to contribute and play major roles.
With the NHL draft just about a month away, the organization will evaluate their needs and look for the right players to fill holes. They'll look from within for rookies who can have an impact this season. No one knows the organizations needs better than Jared Ramsden of Hockey's Future. He answered some questions about the organization, ranging from draft needs and targets to the evolution of Tedenby, Josefson and Nick Palmieri. Below is the full transcript of the interview.
SB Nation New York: Let's talk about the NHL draft. Heading into it, what do you think the biggest area of need is for the Devils?
Jared: After watching the Devils struggle constantly on the powerplay this season, the need for a puck-moving defenseman who can quarterback the powerplay has never been higher. The Devils do have some players of that ilk on the way with the likes of Jon Merrill, Alexander Urbom and Eric Gelinas currently working their way through the system, but the opportunity to add a top defense prospect with that 4th overall pick will be mighty tempting, even with all of those talented forwards that will be available then too.
A player who may fall to the Devils at number four is Sean Couturier. What do you think of his ability and potential?
He's a guy that has been unfairly criticized in my opinion. It's almost as though he's been over-analyzed, nit-picked and scouted to death to the point where more unheralded prospects to start the season (Jonathan Huberdeau) have passed him according to many scouting services. Couturier had another productive season in the QMJHL, and even played for Team Canada at the World Juniors this past winter. He's a strong and powerful center who knows how to protect the puck down low. He's also great passer and is well-schooled defensively. Maybe not as well rounded as Gabriel Landeskog, but pretty darn close. He's a future number 1 or number 2 center at the NHL level.
With the organization's seeming limitless defensive depth, do you believe they will make a play for Ryan Murphy or other high-ranking defensive prospects?
The Devils defensive depth has improved quite a lot over the past few seasons, but I don't think it will impact too much whether or not they take a defenseman with their first-round pick. As I noted earlier, it is going to be mighty tempting for the Devils to take a guy like Murphy, Dougie Hamilton, or even Adam Larsson if he somehow makes it out of the top three without getting picked. Had the Devils not won the draft lottery and moved up from eighth to fourth, I'd have put the odds of the Devils taking a blueliner well over 50 percent. Now that they've moved up to fourth, it's looking more like they will take a forward, especially if Larsson off the board.
Something else to keep in mind is that the 2012 NHL Draft is brimming with offensive minded defensemen, so if they do take a forward this year, they can always get that top-notch defense prospect next season.
Let's switch gears and talk about some of their prospects who made an impact this season with the Devils. Have those older prospects, such as Palmieri, reached their ceilings, or are we just starting to see their potential?
I think Palmieri just started to scratch the surface of his potential this year. He was a guy who wasn't producing much at the AHL level with Albany, but when he was recalled to New Jersey when Jacques Lemaire took over as the head coach, he was put on the top line with Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk and played a perfect complimentary role, providing the line with a net presence. I don't think Palmieri is an elite prospect, but he's a guy who I think can compliment a first or second line while putting up 20-25 goals once he's fully developed. Think of a Mike Knuble type of player.
Describe the growth you saw in both Tedenby and Josefson this season. Did Lemaire help push their development forward?
Lemaire definitely helped push the development of both of the Devils talented Swedish prospects, but I think it was more clearly evident in Tedenby's play. Josefson's high hockey IQ and two-way play made it much easier for him to adapt to the pressure of playing Lemaire's system. He quickly earned Lemaire's trust. Tedenby took a while to pick-up Lemaire's strict defensive system, but once he started to pick things up, you could see his confidence improve immediately. By the end of the season, you could see the effect Lemaire had on his overall play. In the long run, it is definitely going to beneficial for their long-term futures as NHL'ers.
Adam Henrique is the Devils next big prospect. What are his strengths and weaknesses, and can you see him competing for a lineup spot next season?
Josefson might be the most well-rounded prospect in the organization, but you could also make an argument for Henrique in that regard. A guy who progressively got better and better each year of junior [hockey], he made a seamless transition to the AHL, scoring 25 times in his rookie season for Albany. To be honest, there really aren't any major weaknesses in his game. He's not going to be an elite, top line scorer, but as he showed this year, he's more than capable of contributing offensively. His ceiling would be as a second liner, but more likely he settles in as an elite third line guy once he's in his prime. I don't think he has a whole lot left to prove at the AHL level and I would expect him to challenge for a full-time job in New Jersey next year.
New Jersey stockpiled goalie prospects this season to prepare for the eventual departure of Martin Brodeur. Which prospect looks the best and who will be able to immediately contribute?
It's tough to say at this point because Scott Wedgewood, Maxime Clermont and newly-signed Keith Kinkaid have yet to play a minute of professional hockey. Wedgewood had a great first season as a full-time starter in the OHL, and was a big reason why Plymouth was able to upset Kitchener in round one of the playoffs. Clermont had some bumpy points during the season, even losing the starting job twice, but has turned his season around in a big way in the playoffs for Gatineau. Both have tremendous upside and appear to be on a good development curve, but projecting goaltenders is a difficult thing to do. Kinkaid was a highly sought after NCAA free agent and will get the chance to jump right to the pro game next year, so depending on how quick he adjusts, he's likely to be the first of the bunch to at least get a chance to immediately contribute.
Mark Fayne, Matt Taormina and several other rookie defenseman played significant minutes along the blueline this season. Who can we expect to remain, and what prospect should watch to rise and grab an open spot?
It will be interesting to see where on the depth chart Fayne ends up next season. He literally came out of nowhere and, though he faded somewhat down the stretch, proved himself to be a reliable NHL defenseman who thrived under the tutelage of Lemaire. He's probably reached his peak in terms of his development, so he won't be able to rest on his laurels next year.
Even though he missed practically three-quarters of the season, one could argue that Taormina was the Devils biggest offensive threat from the backend. I think he's a lock next season because the team desperately needs the dimension he brings to the table.
Urbom is the one to watch next season. He needed a season of development in the AHL after starting the year in New Jersey, but it looks like he might now be ready to make the jump.
Let's talk about the organization's depth. How strong is the organization in terms of prospect and prospect performance?
Right now, it's probably slightly above average when you compare it to other prospect pools in the NHL. Considering where the system was a couple of seasons ago, it's refreshing to see that the organization has gotten back on track when it comes to drafting and developing talent. From top to bottom, there is quite a fair bit of talent scattered about. And the best part is, there is going to be a franchise prospect added to the pool of prospects at the draft this summer.
In terms of performance, when you look at the top 20 Devils prospects at Hockey's Future, in my eyes, the only prospects who had off years would be Jeff Frazee and Alexander Vasyunov. As a whole, I think it was one of most successful seasons of prospect development the team has had in quite sometime.
We all know defense is a strength, but what other strengths does the organization have?
The next position of strength for the Devils would appear to be up the middle, though the pending graduation of Josefson from prospect to full fledged NHLer takes a bit of the luster out of the group. Henrique is almost a surefire lock to see some extended NHL action and the underrated David McIntyre has the tools and skill set to eventually emerge into the perfect 4th liner center. David Wohlberg has spent the majority of his career at the University of Michigan at left wing, but he was drafted as a center. The goaltending depth the team has accumulated over the past year has also made that area suddenly become a position of strength compared to where it used to be.
Where are the weak spots in the organization?
The wings are where the Devils are currently the weakest, the right side being the main area of concern. With Nick Palmieri's showing in the second half of the season in New Jersey, it's almost safe to say that he's now a bonafide NHL'er, which leaves Swiss-born Mauro Jorg and Nathan Perkovich as the only other right wingers on the depth chart.
The left side has a little more depth with Vasyunov, Mike Hoeffel, Derek Rodwell and Jean-Sebastien Berube, but none of those names really jump off the page. Luckily for the Devils, it's a position of strength at the NHL level, so there is time to address that need before it become a major problem.
Last question. Who do you feel are the can't miss prospects? Who should we be ready to dismiss?
I'm not going to include Tedenby and Josefson in this conversation, because they are are pretty darn close to being full time NHL'ers. The only prospect to get that distinction should be Jon Merrill. The Devils stole him the second round last June amidst over-rated character concerns, and he had about as good a season as a freshman could have for the Wolverines. He collected multiple awards, and as tempting as it would be for him to turn pro, he appears to have made the smart decision to stay in school for at least one more year. Once he does turn pro, I don't think it's going to take long for him to make an impact because the team needs the dimension he brings to the blueline in the worst way.
There aren't too many prospects that we should be ready to write off, but Matt Corrente, Vasyunov and Frazee have pivotal years in their development coming up. Injuries hampered Corrente and Frazee and were mostly to blame for off-seasons, but Vasyunov needs to bounce back in a big way this fall as there aren't many openings at the NHL level at either wing position.