Home > Analysis, NHL Draft > Evaluating The Devils Organizational Depth: Defenseman

Evaluating The Devils Organizational Depth: Defenseman

Urbom was all smiles after tallying his first NHL goal - a game-winner - against the Boston Bruins on the last day of the season. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils will always be a defense-first team. Jacques Lemaire’s first tenure as coach, way back in 1995, began that precedent. Those teams developed the trapping style that brought three Stanley Cups to the Garden State. It seemed the organization possessed unlimited defensive depth, churning out defensive stalwarts like Colin White to compliment the core of Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer.

Fast forward to 2011. The team still plays solid defense, but gone are the big names. In their place stand overachievers and average defenseman. The mass exodus of the dynasty defense through retirement and free agency left a gaping hole in the Devils’ organization. The inability to find a true offensive defenseman continues to frustrate fans. But there’s hope – a rising crop of defensive prospects, led by Jon Merrill and Alexander Urbom, should return the blueline to its once lofty status.

With a surplus of quality defenseman in this year’s draft, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Devils once again focus on their blueline with the fourth pick. But do they need a defenseman? The bubble of NHL-ready prospects looks ready to burst, providing ample opportunities for New Jersey to plug in holes. In today’s preview, we take a look at the organization’s defensive prospects, from the AHL to those yet to turn pro.

And here we go:

Albany Devils (AHL)

Alexander Urbom – 72 GP, 23 points (2 G, 21 A), minus-9 rating

Urbom continued the recent Swedish movement in the Devils organization. The 20-year old defenseman spent most of the season with the Albany Devils, earning two brief call-ups to the Devils. He led all Albany defenseman in points, and earned significant minutes on the powerplay.

The year of seasoning helped Urbom tremendously. When he broke camp with the Devils, he looked rough and didn’t adjust well to the NHL. But his year in the AHL gave him the ability to play with veterans like Olivier Magnan and Rob Davison. He ended his season on a positive note, tallying his first career NHL goal in the Devils’ 3-2 win. He may find himself back in the AHL next season, but Urbom made a strong case to play on the Devils’ blueline next season.

Rob Davison – 63 GP, 18 points (4 G, 14 A), minus-1 rating

Davison became one of the biggest offensive threats on an underachieving blueline in Albany this season. The stay-at-home defenseman, who compiled 203 NHL games before the season, never found a way to make it to New Jersey. When the organization needed replacements, they routinely called on other players. Davison signed this summer as a depth player, and served that role to the letter.

The unrestricted free agent probably won’t be in the organization next season. He helped with the development of Urbom and gave the team quality minutes. But a guy with over 200-games of NHL experience deserves a shot to make a NHL team, something he may not get with New Jersey.

Olivier Magnan – 50 GP, 13 points (2 G, 11 A), minus-3 rating

Magnan’s shown steady improvement in each season with the organization. The former QMJHL Kevin Lowe Trophy winner (best defensive defenseman) finally got his chance to play in New Jersey last season. In 18 games, he was solid yet unspectacular, failing to record a point. But he couldn’t stick in New Jersey, eventually giving way to Mark Fayne.

Despite solid play for both teams, Magnan may not return to the team next season. With a new crop of defenseman ready to take the reigns, Magnan may be forced out by his inability to deliver on his talent.

Eckford's offensive potential has kept him afloat in the organization. But the rise of other prospects may force him out the door. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Tyler Eckford – 37 GP, 12 points (2 G, 10 A), minus-8 rating

Eckford looked to be a can’t miss prospect coming into this season. He excelled in his two seasons in the AHL, twice leading the Devils’ minor league affiliate in points by a defenseman. Scouting services praised his offensive ability, and he was projected to become the next blueline threat for Devils.

This season, Eckford took a major backward step. He missed most of the season to deal with personal issues (a death in the family and undisclosed issues). Those situations contributed to his low point total and games played. He’ll be 26 this season, and likely reached the peak of his development. He’s an unrestricted free agent, and could leave to find a NHL opportunity with another organization.

Jay Leach – 66 GP, 9 points (2 G, 7 A), 0 rating

The Devils re-acquired Leach from the San Jose Sharks during the trade deadline, sending him to the AHL. He did manage to play in seven NHL games, recording no points. In his 16 games with Albany, he was one of just four defenseman to finish with a positive rating (plus-4). Leach is a defensive defenseman in every sense of the term, and displayed that with his limited point production. He’s a solid AHL option, but at this point seems like a depth defenseman.

Chris Murray – 52 GP, 8 points (1 G, 7 A), plus-3 rating

Murray served as Albany’s defensive enforcer this season, collecting 118 penalty minutes. That pretty much sums up his value. He’s a defensive defenseman who won’t contribute much offensively. The Devils already have enough of those guys, and the signing of Anton Volchenkov brought a top-flight shot-blocker and physical presence. I wouldn’t expect him to make the jump to New Jersey anytime soon.

Dan Kelly – 61 GP, 7 points (2 G, 5 A), plus-7 rating

Kelly’s professional debut was a strong one. The former Kitchner Rangers captain played in 61 games and recorded the best plus/minus rating on the team. The coaches paired him with some of the more experienced defenders, making his transition a bit easier. Like many of the Albany blueliners, Kelly is a defensive-minded defenseman. He’ll have time to continue improving and developing at the AHL level.

Harry Young – 52 GP, 5 points (1 G, 4 A), minus-5 rating

Like Kelly, Young came into the AHL after a strong career in the OHL. He twice captained the Windsor Spitfires to Memorial Cup championships, helping the team despite being limited offensively. Like Kelly and Murray, Young will never be considered an offensive defenseman. He’s an enforcer, never afraid to drop the gloves. Some project him to become the next White, but he pans out as an average NHL defenseman.

Joe Sova – 11 GP, 4 points (1 G, 3 A), minus-6 rating

The Devils were active in signing several college free agents this spring, and Sova was the first. He joined the team on March 23, recording an assist against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Penguins. Sova displayed great two-way abilities and a knack for offense, and earned regular powerplay time. Near the end of the season, he formed an effective pairing with Urbom. He’ll get a chance to continue developing next year, and could become an underrated prospect.

Leaderer ranked first among all Trenton defenseman in points. Photo Credit: TrentonDevils.com

Trenton Devils (ECHL)

Dave Leaderer – 66 GP, 33 points (7 G, 26 A), minus-22 rating

Leaderer once again posted solid offensive numbers with the Trenton Devils. The defenseman led all defenseman in points and finished among the leaders in goals and assists. He’s one of the better offensive defenseman on the team, and played in five games with Albany. He’s a good player, but a little old for the ECHL. We’ll see if his strong play gets him a full-time opportunity with the Albany Devils next season.

Brad Miller – 43 GP, 23 points (8 G, 15 A), 0 rating

Miller came to the Devils in a trade on December 12, boosting the offensive skill along their blueline. His eight goals led all Devils defenseman. His 0.53 points-per-game also ranked tops among all blueliners. Miller played with Travis Zajac at North Dakota, leading all defenseman in points (35) during his senior season. Like Leaderer, Miller is getting old for an ECHL player. Depending on offseason moves and promotions from Albany to New Jersey, he may find himself on the AHL roster come next season.

Justin Pender – 52 GP, 14 points (2 G, 12 A), minus-22 rating

Unlike his two teammates, Pender didn’t show offensive potential last season. He’s a defensive-minded defenseman, and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves either. His aggressiveness cost him in the past, however, as he served a one-game suspension this season. The minus-22 rating ranked among the worst defensively, an epidemic seen throughout the organization. He’s played for two years with Trenton, and hasn’t made any significant strides. He did cut his penalty minutes from 100 during the 2009-2010 season to 42 last year.

Martin Nolet – 51 GP, 11 points (4 G, 7 A), plus-2 rating

Nolet, originally in the Los Angeles Kings system, made a solid rookie debut in the ECHL. His size (6’3″, 205 lbs) is considered one of his greatest assets. He fired 70 shots on net, displaying an increased offensive awareness. He doesn’t figure to pan out as an offensive defenseman, but he won’t be totally inept either.

Jordon Southorn – 35 GP, 9 points (9 A), minus-13 rating

Southorn came from the Buffalo Sabres organization after finishing his career in the CHL. In that time, he showed a knack for offense, putting up gaudy point totals in his three seasons. He’s a bit lanky at 6’3″ and 200 lbs, but will hopefully fill out his frame. He’s solid in his own zone, but gets nervous under pressure. That’s never a positive quality, but may improve as he continues to play.

Andy Thomas – 41 GP, 6 points (2 G, 4 A), minus-11 rating

Thomas came to the Trenton Devils after spending a year in the Washington Capitals organization. He brought over a physical presence, and doesn’t provide much offensive value. Albany called him up this season, and he played in 28 games with the AHL affiliate. After spending two years splitting time between the ECHL and AHL, he may get his chance to play for Albany full-time next season.

TJ Miller – 22 GP, 6 points (1 G, 5 A), minus-13 rating

Miller is one of the least talked about prospects in the organization. His offensive playmaking abilities, however, should change that soon. Miller spent four productive years at Northern Michigan, serving as co-captain and developing as an all-around player. If he can produce offensively, he can shoot up the organization’s ranks. He once put up 48 points in 60 games for the BCHL’s Penticon Vees. A hip injury limited his to just 22 games, so we need to see how he can produce when healthy. But if he can find his offense, he’ll be a hot prospect in the organization.

Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Eric Gelinas – 62 GP, 44 points (12 G, 32 A), plus-15 rating

Gelinas became one of the fastest rising names through the prospect ranks this season. The forward-turned-defenseman fired 198 shots on goal this season, an astounding number displaying his offensive potential. He’s continuously improved in each of his four years in the QMJHL, and will most likely turn pro next season. He’ll have ample opportunities to improve with the Albany Devils for the next few seasons.

Merrill is the shining star on top of a rising pool of above-average defensive prospects. Photo Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Signed/Amateur College Players

Brandon Burlon (University of Michigan) – 38 GP, 18 points (5 G, 13 A), plus-14 rating

Burlon continued to impress the organization with yet another stellar season at Michigan. He set career highs for points and assists, and tied his career high in goals. He finished second among all Michigan defenseman in points as well. Burlon is a great skater, and he’ll look to improve his offensive abilities next year in the AHL. He signed an entry level contract last week.

Jon Merrill (University of Michigan) – 42 GP, 25 points (7 G, 18 A), plus-11 rating

What a season it was for Merrill. The Devils prospect led all Michigan defenseman in points and was named first star at The Big Chill, an outdoor game played against Michigan State University. He won a bronze medal with Team USA at this year’s World Junior Championships. He recorded one assist in eight games, and the coaches named him one of the team’s best players.

Merrill seems like the steal of last year’s draft. If he continues to develop offensively, the Devils may have a franchise defenseman on their hands. He will return to Michigan for his sophomore year, but don’t be surprised if he turns pro after the 2011-12 season.

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