Anatomy of a Devils Prospect
The phrases “Fast, Attacking, Supportive” and “relentless”, introduced to the New Jersey Devils organization and fanbase by Ray Shero and John Hynes were far more than marketing phrases to help sell tickets. On the surface, they may seem like broad adjectives to help ease the transition from one General Manager to the next (especially when replacing one of the all-time greats like Lou Lamoriello), but these words gave an intimate and very blatant look in the direction the team and organization would head in. Ray Shero has now overseen two NHL Entry Drafts as GM of the New Jersey Devils, and one draft with his new Director of Amateur Scouting, Paul Castron. While it is still far too early to look back and evaluate the draft classes, what we can do is take a look at what is encompassing of a Ray Shero-Era Devils prospect.
The Draft Classes:
2015 – Pavel Zacha (1st round); Mackenzie Blackwood (2nd round); Blake Speers (3rd round); Colton White (4th round); Brett Seney (6th round).
2016 – Michael McLeod (1st round); Nathan Bastian (2nd round); Joey Anderson (3rd round); Brandon Gignac (3rd round); Mikhail Maltsev (4th round); Evan Cormier (4th round); Yegor Rykov (5th round); Jesper Bratt (6th round); Jeremy Davies (7th round).
What this post is not intended as is a formulaic look at each draft class. There are characteristics that are certainly valued above others, and those will be addressed later on. This post will also be interesting for me because of the changing needs of the organization and how that will affect the upcoming draft classes. The last two drafts have been extremely forward-heavy, but I believe there will be more of an emphasis on defensemen next season, particularly left-handed defensemen. I’ll start by looking at forwards, then move on to defensemen, and finally look at the goaltenders. To keep things simple, this will only be a look at players drafted under the Shero regime, and not ones who have been signed as undrafted free agents (i.e. Nick Lappin, Sergei Kalinin, Ken Appleby, etc.)
With that being said, there are a few characteristics that immediately jump out to me about the majority of forwards. The most immediate, and important, is that of skating speed and ability. Every forward drafted has either an already-phenomenal skating ability (like McLeod, Zacha, Bratt, etc.) or has the potential to be an excellent skater (guys like Bastian and Maltsev are already good skaters but have minor mechanical improvements to make in order to be great skaters). Speed has absolutely been a main focus for both the amateur and professional scouting departments within the organization. While the footspeed is an immediate focus, there is also a misconception of emphasizing on speed means sacrificing size. This archetype is somewhat deconstructed considering that of the 9 forwards drafted in the last 2 draft classes for the Devils, only 2 of them are under 5’11” (Brett Seney and Jesper Bratt). 5’11” is a bit of a strange threshold so for further clarification, of the forwards drafted, 3 players are 5’11” (Blake Speers, Joey Anderson, and Brandon Gignac), meaning 4 forwards drafted are taller than 6’0” (Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian, Mikhail Maltsev) – well, all that are over 6’2”. For the most part, these are big, big guys who can skate the puck up the ice very well.
It’s also important to note here that the “fast” in “fast, attacking, supportive,” as Ray Shero mentioned, is not just specifically referring to skating speed. So “fast” here is a pretty broad and vague term. It can be anything from shooting speed, shot release speed, stick-handling speed, passing speed, transition from the defensive zone to the offensive zone, etc. And each prospect seems to excel in at least one of these categories (and other types of speed I didn’t mention). However, what seems to be common, not just in forwards drafted, is the ability to think the game through at a high speed. Guys like Michael McLeod can bolt all across the ice at ridiculous speeds, but can also think through the game while going at such a high pace of play. I will address the influence of head coaches have in a little bit, but the influx of all types of speed into the organization is a drastic change from the last regime and head coach, which placed the emphasis on cycling in the corners and grinding down opponents to create scoring chances. This element of cycling and “heavy play” is still strongly present and will be a key component discussed, however the organization is turning away from the dump-and-chase play, which was so prevalent under the last head coach.
Transitioning away from the dump-and-chase, we begin to see a forward prospect that is able to gain the offensive zone easily, and usually with the aforementioned speed. This enables the team to hit the offensive zone hard and begin to set up play. This characteristic, in my opinion, was a good transition from speed because it’s important to recognize that while speed is highly emphasized, it’s even more important to know what to do with that speed and being a good, attacking, supportive player. An example of the emphasis on hockey IQ would be during the Prospects Tournament game between the Devils and the Buffalo Sabres. Michael McLeod, who is usually excellent at gaining the offensive zone, was having trouble getting through to the offensive zone because of the Sabres defensemen essentially clogging the blue line. McLeod, instead of trying to gain the zone the same way as before, opted to dump the puck into the zone on attack, and was one of the only Devils prospects to do so. So the combination of ability to gain the offensive zone and the intelligence of knowing when not to is awfully important as well.
Of the forwards selected, there were only two of what I would call “dice roll” picks. Obviously each draft pick carries its own risk towards panning out, and perhaps I’m being purposefully vague with the description of a “dice roll” pick. In many people’s opinions, Pavel Zacha was a very risky selection at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. However, for clarification (and transition to the next characteristic), I would describe a “dice roll” selection to be a player whose primary game focuses on one particular aspect of the game. In this case, both selections were almost entirely offensive-based. In this sense, I would say they’re top-6 or bust type players. The two players were both selected in the 6th round of the two draft years, Brett Seney and Jesper Bratt. This is what you should do though as an organization in my opinion, and draft based off of pure skill in the later rounds, so I am not criticizing the picks or questioning their path of progress ahead of them to the big leagues. Instead I’m simply noting that they are the exceptions to the rule that has been set, which is the idea of all-around, “complete” players, specifically in the aspect of excelling in the two-way game. In addition to this strong two-way game, many of the forwards drafted display a versatility in their ability to switch around between center and wing (sometimes a particular wing or, in the case of Bastian, any wing). Also important to note, the centers drafted have usually been very solid at the face-off dot.
With this, we are beginning to get a picture of the type of forward the Ray Shero regime is geared towards drafting: big, complete players who can skate well, enter the zone, and play a heavy game. The “heavy game” element is something I’d like to elaborate on here, because to me, it’s the description that poses as a bit of an X-Factor for the top prospects taken. It also serves as a bit of a merging point between the prospects taken from the last regime to the current regime. I put this characteristic after the others because while John Hynes does run a heavy, relentless style game from forwards, the heavy game is not as emphasized as it is with speed and two-way play. What a “heavy game” means to me is a team that emphasizes strength (oftentimes using size) along the boards, in one-on-one puck battles, and focus on possession play. While this does not quite mean having a team that hits more, the Devils did increase their hits /game (despite hits being a subjective stat) in the 2015-2016 season than years before by about 2 hits/game. However, this is more of the deviation away from the PDB “low-event hockey” system. The best way I describe this characteristic is that a prospect plays with some sandpaper to his game.
The defensemen are more difficult to analyze, since they’ve only selected three of them in the two drafts that Shero has been a part of the Devils organization, only two of which I’ve actually gotten some good viewings of. However there are already some immediate similarities between the three of them that mesh well with the overall trend of the forwards. Aside from the emergently most important factors of skating ability and IQ, all three defensemen drafted show a surprisingly good acumen playing on the Penalty Kill. Colton White was voted one of the best defensive defensemen in the OHL last season (in the 2015-2016 OHL Coaches’ Poll) and anchored the Soo Greyhounds PK unit. Jeremy Davies, despite not having the season start yet for the Northeastern Huskies (NCAA), has already played significant time in exhibition matches on the Huskies’ PK unit. Additionally, Yegor Rykov has carved a role for himself on a deep SKA (KHL) blue line and contributed positively to the PK unit. While this is easily a characteristic you’d like to see from your defensemen, the ability to play in their own end, to me it’s telling that all three of them are getting significant time in that role. It’s going to be interesting to see if more of a telling trend emerges with this next draft coming up, where I believe the organization will focus on defensemen, particularly left-handed defensemen. With the sample already-established, the trend of defensemen doesn’t differ much from the forward types. This isn’t exactly an Earth-shattering development, but should still be noted. Strong two-way play, strong skating, good size, ability to win one-on-one puck battles ability to move the puck out of the zone, and particularly proficient on the penalty kill are the main characteristics that describe what the organization apparently values when drafting defensemen.
For clarification sake, I’d also like to address the differences between the defensemen drafted. It’s been well-established that Ray Shero has a penchant for signing puck-moving defensemen. To me, this trend has continued with his drafting as well. All three defensemen (White, Davies, Rykov) have the ability to either skate the puck out of their defensive zone or pass it out, as well as move the puck up the ice and create spaces for offensive plays. In this regard, I would say their play constitutes that of a puck-moving defenseman, but I don’t want to pigeon-hole their skillset by using that term. I’d say all three have a “two-way defenseman” skillset. Unlike forwards, I wouldn’t say any of these draft selections were “dice rolls” in the sense of an imminent “boom or bust” type play. As mentioned earlier, I believe this draft will see more explored options regarding defensemen and potentially ones with higher ceilings/floors.
In the realm of goaltenders, the Devils have only drafted two since Shero took over, and both have come out of the OHL. Interestingly enough, both goaltenders remind me a lot of each other. It seems here that the Devils went on pure skill in drafting these two, with the focus of development being on hammering out the inconsistencies, rather than go with a less-skilled, but more consistent option. Other similarities include height of around 6’3” (which is a more common theme in the NHL), so good size, quick glove hand, calm demeanor when facing shots, quick reflexes and ability to move quickly from post to post, and both have tremendous upside. While there were fewer questions with Blackwood’s development, the big question facing both goaltenders was their overall consistency. An important area of distinction here is the element of a “calm demeanor”. I added “when facing shots” because when facing shots, neither of the goaltenders tends to flail around in the crease, but Blackwood did have some trouble with, let’s just say “extra-curricular activities” after a play was blown dead. This was most emphasized last season, when Blackwood was suspended on two separate occasions. Once in December for slashing (more like chopping) an opposing forward which made him sit for 8 games, including a few at the World Junior Championship tournament (more on that later), and on another occasion where he flipped the puck into the stands after an opposing team scored a goal, which carried a mandatory suspension. There were ups and downs last season for Blackwood, and the World Juniors Championship was definitely a down, but his ability to bounce back from his (and the entire Team Canada) performance as well as working through the stumbles. Last season was also one of significant growth for Blackwood, as he blossomed into the top goaltender in the entire OHL. The fire is still there, but he’s working on keeping that calm demeanor in play after the whistle has blown.
A scout described Cormier as a “lower end Blackwood”, which makes a lot of sense, which is not to say Cormier isn’t a good goaltender, but rather an acumen to how talented Blackwood is. It makes sense that the Devils drafted goalies based on pure skill, because they have the opportunity to be patient in their development. Cormier is back in the OHL this season, and Blackwood is currently at the Albany Devils camp to determine if he’ll play at the AHL or ECHL level this season. The Devils also signed Ken Appleby to an entry-level contract a year ago, and with Scott Wedgewood (who was drafted 6 years ago) finally having what looks to be a breakout season with Albany (and his brief stint in NJ) last season, all combined with having Cory Schneider signed until the 2022 season, the goaltending situation is looking good. So the organization is able to be patient with these players. We don’t know if the Devils will draft a goalie at next year’s draft (We didn’t think they would this year, especially having taken Blackwood last year), and it will depend on the specific scenario: who falls, etc. but it looks to me that the goalies are set for quite some time. I say all of this because, at the risk of being repetitive, this allows Blackwood and Cormier to have as much time as needed to work on their consistency issues and get to their highest potential ceiling as possible.
There are specifics that each individual prospects bring to the ice, for example, we noticed Brandon Gignac, when on a partial breakaway doesn’t usually shoot the puck himself if he knows there is a teammate skating in behind him. Instead, Gignac usually tucks the puck and drops it back for the teammate. Another example of this would be that Jesper Bratt has a particularly large number of breakaways that he’s able to generate. Yegor Rykov also likes to take the puck up from out of his zone to about the blue line or just before the red line, and really likes to fire a pass diagonally through the neutral zone to an attacking forward on the opposite wall. These are individual examples, but all in all, the Shero regime has brought an entirely new type of prospect to the New Jersey Devils. With an emphasis on speed, intelligence, creativity by the scouting staff (looking for players buried on depth charts waiting to break out), a heavy game, and a few other characteristics, the make-up of what makes a New Jersey Devils prospects has been transformed in the past two years. With the 2016-2017 NHL season underway, we're already seeing two players from the 2015 draft class already make the team (Zacha and Speers, while Blackwood is going to play professionally - either AHL or ECHL). The 2016 draft class is already paying dividends as well. Here’s to many more successful drafts under Ray Shero and Paul Castron.