By Steve Lichtenstein
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At last week’s Devils development camp in Newark, all eyes were glued on Nico Hischier.
However, New Jersey’s 18-year-old No. 1 overall draft choice, who signed a three-year entry level contract after Saturday’s spirited scrimmage concluded the five-day event, wasn’t the only prospect to make a good impression.
The camp roster was stacked with skillful skaters. Players such as Miles Wood, whose speed and physicality were obvious during his 60-game rookie campaign, and Pavel Zacha, the Devils’ dazzling 2015 first-rounder, have already proven their NHL worthiness. Others, like 2016 first-round selection Mike MacLeod and Blake Speers, have a decent shot of making the big club out of the upcoming training camp.
John Quenneville, another prior top draft choice who started to get going for New Jersey in the latter stages of last season, was unable to participate in the camp’s on-ice activities due to an injury. Also notably absent was Alexander Kerfoot, the Harvard standout who the Devils have until Aug. 15 to get under contract or else risk losing him in free agency.
(Side note: Can we PLEASE get rid of this ridiculous U.S. college player loophole in the next round of collective bargaining? It makes a mockery of the whole draft process. I mean, how long after Aug. 15 will Kerfoot be a New York Ranger, like Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Hayes in prior years? If a drafted college player can’t come to terms after a certain period, he should go back into the next draft, like in other pro sports.)
Ready or not, here or not, all of the above-named talents have one thing in common.
None of them are a defenseman.
While the promising group of young forwards bodes well for those looking to see the Devils boost their anemic attack after a 183-goal output, the league’s third fewest in 2016-17, the lack of NHL quality and quantity on the back line is equally concerning.
Devils general manager Ray Shero is keenly aware of this issue, noting the team’s overall weakness at the position to the media after watching Kevin Shattenkirk, the top free agent defenseman, bypass New Jersey for the bright lights of Madison Square Garden earlier this month.
Unfortunately, unless Shero pulls another one of his trade heists out of his hat, alternative outside reinforcements for the blue line is looking less and less like a viable option. The best available free agent is probably Buffalo’s Cody Franson, who isn’t rumored to be on Shero’s radar.
More likely, Shero will be looking to fill holes from within, which will probably require a big leap of faith.
Of the defense’s nine camp invitees, none suited up for at least half of last season’s NHL contests. Steve Santini, the best in my opinion of a limited bunch, came the closest. He dressed for 38 games. Michael Kapla’s cup of coffee lasted five games.
That’s it for big-league experience.
When New Jersey needed an emergency call-up in the past few seasons, it usually went out to Seth Helgeson, a below-grade spare part who is now toiling on a two-way contract with the Islanders.
Bear in mind that the Devils’ regulars are not exactly young. Captain Andy Greene is still solid, but may lose a few strides at age 34. Ben Lovejoy was touted as the right-side replacement for Adam Larsson on the top pair with Greene when he signed as a free agent last summer. But while the 33-year-old brought a warrior mentality to the rink, his ineffectiveness soon earned a demotion. John Moore, 26, is coming off a career-high 12-goal season, but he needs to get a lot better in his own end. Dalton Prout, 27, was abysmal all over the ice after coming over at the trade deadline.
Only Damon Severson, 22, is young enough to still possess significant “upside.” Severson, a restricted free agent, is looking to rebound from a shaky NHL season. Newly acquired 22-year-old Mirco Mueller, meanwhile, is coming off a shaky AHL season.
Ergo, it would have behooved the Devils’ coaching staff to speed up the D’s development at the development camp.
We’ll see over the coming years whether anyone bears fruit, but I’m not holding out hope for immediate help.
The Devils haven’t prioritized the position in recent drafts, with Santini and Joshua Jacobs, a 21-year-old who probably will require another year of AHL seasoning, the only defensemen at the camp chosen in the first two rounds. Igor Rykov, a 2016 fifth-rounder who could be the Devils’ best defensive prospect after a strong performance at last season’s World Junior Championships, is under contract in Russia through 2019 and didn’t attend.
Several other defensemen did draw notice from the media members on hand for the scrimmage and other events. The Record’s Andrew Gross was impressed by 23-year-old Yaroslav Dyblenko, an undrafted free agent signed out of Russia’s KHL in April. In the scrimmage, Jeremy Davies, a 2016 seventh-round pick, stood out for his ability to jump into plays while Reilly Walsh, the 81st overall selection in June’s draft, scored twice.
It’s important to note here that management stressed that no evaluations are determined based on players’ performances at the camp. Its purpose was to get these young players off on the right foot in their efforts to become professionals. That means that someone like Dyblenko should still be considered a long shot to break into the Devils’ lineup in 2017-18.
That’s at least better than Davies and Walsh, who have no shot. Maybe ever. They’ll soon be off to their respective U.S. college campuses.
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