I’m going to do a series this week, where I essentially dive into each position and take a look at the Devils’ depth (or lack thereof) at that position, and a super brief history of drafting that position. We’ll start with a short overview today along with a look at defensemen. After the NHL Scouting Combine wraps up, I’ll take a closer look at draft prospects and who the Devils might consider drafting to add more depth and skill to the organization.
The Devils are still in a rebuild and have plenty of holes to fill come draft day. While none of their selected prospects are expected to make a big splash right out of the gates (with their first overall pick being the lone exception), these prospects can still be developed and trained in order to prepare for the inevitable future.
New Jersey is in pretty decent shape when it comes to a rebuild that’s just two years in. They have 20 picks between this year’s and next year’s drafts, and they have a ton of cap space. They still have a few contracts to dish out (i.e. Kinkaid (possibly), Severson, etc.) but none that would make a serious dent in their cap space. They can sign a few free agents to big contracts if they wanted to (and probably should) as long as the contract (and by extension, the player) is worth it; don’t dish out big bucks just for the sake of spending big money.
They also won’t have all of those draft picks come draft day; the Devils will likely make some trades before the expansion draft deadline and the free agent deadline. Teams will be looking to move players that they can’t protect before June 18 and that’s where the Devils can come in and do a Palmieri-type trade, especially with teams like Minnesota, Anaheim, Pittsburgh, or even Washington. I wouldn’t rule out another trade with Edmonton either.
Arguably the Devils’ biggest need is a puck-moving defenseman and let’s not pretend that acquiring just one would completely turn around New Jersey’s blue line (it doesn’t work like that). They’ll probably trade for one and/or sign a free agent to be a top liner (or the team’s #1 defenseman) but it wouldn’t hurt to draft defensive prospects as well. The Devils don’t have a ton in the system but they’re getting there.
They’ve drafted two in each of the last three drafts: Yegor Rykov and Jeremy Davies in 2016, Colton White and Brent Seney in 2015, and Joshua Jacobs and Ryan Rehill in 2014. The year before that? Steven Santini. And the year before that? Damon Severson. So their defensive prospects have played out pretty well. Jon Merrill (drafted 38th overall in 2010) and Seth Helgeson (drafted 114th overall in 2009) are both still in the Devils’ system as well, and both saw time up in New Jersey this past season (Merrill more so than Helgeson). Merrill took a step forward this year and looked better than he has in seasons prior, which could be a good sign of things to come. Both Merrill and Helgeson are still young (but could have more potential as trade chips, if a team was interested in trading for them).
Other than that, there haven’t been a whole lot of standouts, draft wise. Adam Larsson was drafted 4th overall in 2011 (but we all know how that story ends). Reece Scarlett, drafted in the same year, was traded at the deadline this past season. Eric Gelinas, drafted in 2009, was also traded not too long ago. Mark Fraser, drafted in 2005, is probably the last notable name. New Jersey hasn’t really done a great job (overall) of drafting defensemen; of course, we overlook that because of the (Scott) Niedermayer’s and (Ken) Daneyko’s that have become Devils legends. But if the last four drafts are any indication, the organization’s crop of defensemen is improving, slowly but surely.
Devils prospect Rykov (216 lbs, 6′ 2″).had a good World Juniors tournament, tallying a goal and six assists in seven games played; he won a bronze medal with Team Russia and also tallied the most assists by a defenseman (6) in the tournament. He also won the Gagarin Cup with SKA Saint Petersburg this past season.
Davies (181 lbs, 5′ 11″) has also played well. He spent this past season playing for Northeastern University in the NCAA, and tallied 8 goals and 15 points (23 points) in 38 games played. He spent the two years prior in the USHL, playing for the Waterloo Black Hawks and Bloomington Thunder. He’s tallied 17 goals and 56 assists (73 points) in 114 regular season games, and six assists in eight playoff games. In 2015-16, he had the most points and most assists by a defenseman in the USHL, and was named to the First All-Star Team.
White (192 lbs, 6′ 1″) has had a good junior career too; he’s played four seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, and has 21 goals and 72 assists (93 points, 86 PIM). He’ll likely play for the Binghamton (Albany) Devils (AHL) this upcoming season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get some playing time in New Jersey.
Seney (170 lbs, 5′ 9″) has spent the last three years playing for Merrimack College (NCAA) and has 29 goals, 54 assists (83 points) in 102 games played (about 0.81 points/game) and has a whopping 127 penalty minutes. He spent two years prior to that in the OJHL, playing for the Kingston Voyageurs; he tallied 29-50-79 (also 0.81 PPG) in 98 regular season games, and 7-7-14 in 26 playoff games (0.54 PPG).
But the defensive prospects have worked out for the most part as of late and New Jersey should definitely draft more defensemen in this year’s draft. I don’t see any reason not to. While they won’t get a (Miro) Heiskanen or a (Timothy) Liljegren, they could still potentially get good defensemen with their draft picks. (I’ll have more on this after the NHL Scouting Combine ends!)
Right now, the Devils’ “main” defensemen are Captain Andy Greene (who’s hitting a decline), Ben Lovejoy (who is a defensive liability), Dalton Prout (who is also a defensive liability), John Moore (who actually had a good offensive year but not a great defensive one), Merrill (who was actually not bad!!!), Severson (who was great despite his plus/minus), and Santini (who has a long way to go but also looks good). The Devils are probably planning to lose a defenseman in the expansion draft (either Lovejoy or Prout, or Vegas can take both, I won’t protest) but they desperately need to redo and revamp their blue line. If there was a version of Extreme Home Makeover for a team’s blue line, I wouldn’t hesitate to put the Devils on that show.
Bottom line: the Devils’ defense needs a lot of work, I mean a lot of work. Signing or trading for a single defenseman won’t do much. Drafting defensemen won’t transform the blue line overnight but it’ll help in the not-so-distant future. It’s a process and will continue to be a process. Baby steps.
So should the Devils draft defensemen? How many? Anyone who’s caught your eye yet?