A few days before the draft, Tom Gulitti of the Bergen Record reported that GM Ray Shero and Scouting Director David Conte were adamant that the Devils would take the best player available at #6 at this year’s NHL Entry Draft. As I watched Noah Hanifin get passed over at #3, and then #4 during Friday’s first round, I began to get nervous. A team that is loaded with young defensemen, has a couple more in the pipeline and has a serious need for scoring and offensive prospects could not seriously consider taking a defenseman, right? Forgive me for the lack of trust, but the Devils have not proven much with their drafting in the last 10 years so even with Ray Shero in the mix, I was very thankful when the Carolina Hurricanes took the Boston College star at #5.
The Devils then took Czech center Pavel Zacha out of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting. First thing I noticed, he’s 6’3 and 215 pounds! Of their seven 1st round draft picks in the last 10 years, the Devils have taken five forwards, only one of whom comes close to matching those credentials (Stefan Matteau was listed at 6’1, 210 lbs on draft day). And of the current Devils roster, Zacha will come in as the second biggest forward, behind only Dainius Zubrus (6’5″, 225 lbs.) This is a welcome sight for a Devils fan who has watched the likes of Mattias Tedenby, Stephen Gionta, and Jacob Josefson get muscled off the puck too many times. I understand the “Tyler Johnson/Johnny Gaudreau Movement” is in full effect, but the Devils crop of small forwards never had the combination of speed and skill to overcome their diminuative frames – always riddled by injuries and ineffectiveness.
So needless to say, I really like the pick. He’s got some developing to do, but with his size and skating ability (and lack of quality currently under contract in New Jersey), I would not be afraid to pencil him into the Devils opening day roster. The news that Scott Gomez won’t be re-signed and the preference to have Adam Henrique and fellow Czech Patrik Elias play on the wing, Zacha could help fill in the middle with Travis Zajac, Josefson and most likely Gionta rounding out the center position. Shero, 1 for 1. (PS, how awesome was the story that Zacha met and had his photo taken with Elias when Elias brought the Stanley Cup back to the Czech Republic following the 2003 victory? Has to be a good omen.)
The second round pick of goalie Mackenzie Blackwood (OHL – Barrie) is a little confusing. Again, for a team with such a lack of offensive prospects, and the ‘miss’ rate of drafting goalies, it didn’t seem like a great fit even if Blackwood is labeled as a ‘can’t miss’. Cory Schneider is only 29 so you have to hope he has at least another 5-7 years of quality goaltending in front of him, leaving Blackwood to work in the AHL. Plus, there is another Brodeur in the wings – isn’t he destined to be the future?!?! (kidding). Either way, the need was clearly at forward so unless Blackwood turns out to actually be the next Brodeur, I’m not giving Shero a lot of credit here. 1 for 2.
Third round selection Blake Speers (F, OHL – Sault Ste. Marie) can fall into my earlier complaints about small forwards. But he’s labeled as a prolific scorer and he was taken in the third round which makes it a risk worth taking. Unfortunately for him, Devils fans are still waiting for fellow small scorer Reid Boucher to score in the NHL, so will Speers face the same issue? Half credit for at least waiting until the third round to go small, 1.5 for 3.
Already a win for waiting until the fourth round to go defense. Colton White (OHL – Sault Ste. Marie) isn’t a top end prospect but a good late round pick up. The Devils clearly have a knack for developing young d-men in Albany so there is hope for him. He also has a good name legacy in the form of Devils D-man Colin White (which would be so much better if an actual Colin White hadn’t been taken in the 1st round). 2.5 for 4.
Finally, the Devils took forward Brett Seney in the 6th round (NCAA – Merrimack College). Another small forward, but Seney will have plenty of time to develop and build muscle at the NCAA level. 3.5 for 5.
All in all, I think Shero had a solid draft. Especially when you consider the addition of Kyle Palmieri from the Ducks (see my separate review of the trade here). He’s exactly what the Devils needed and were not going to find in this year’s weak UFA market. And for what Shero gave up, I think it’s a great move.
It’s going to take a while for Shero and this development staff to fix the hole this organization has prospect wise, but this draft seems to have a been a solid start. Assuming Zacha makes the team and contributes this season, the Devils should be optimistic that rest of these picks can develop and join Zacha, Henrique, Josefson and the young defenseman in a couple of years.
A stab at the Devils opening day lineup:
Cammalleri – Zajac – Palmieri
Elias – Zacha – Henrique
Rutuu – Josefson – Boucher/Matteau
Zubrus – Gionta – Tootoo
Greene – Severson
Larsson – Merrill
Helgeson – Gelinas