5 Devils with the Brightest Futures

Terence McGinleyContributor IIIApril 11, 2013

5 Devils with the Brightest Futures

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    Boy, it's getting grim. After a 5-4 loss to the Bruins, the New Jersey Devils have lost eight straight games. It's the longest losing streak in 18 years. According to Tom Gulitti, the last time the Devils dropped eight in a row was 1985. They are no longer on the cusp of the playoffs but sit in 10th place, four points back of the Islanders and Rangers, who occupy the last two spots.

    Ilya Kovalchuk is still out with a shoulder injury, and now captain Bryce Salvador is roughed up with a bruised wrist. A last-minute surge doesn't seem to be coming, and New Jersey is likely to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years.

    It might be time to start thinking about the future. With the last remaining pieces of the championship years, Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur, shrouded in uncertainty past this season, the Devils may be looking at a clean slate very soon. There are some young pieces on this team with high ceilings that can be reached with the right development. The organization is very good in that department.

    While the immediate future for this team probably lies on the golf course, the sun shines bright for several young Devils players down the road.

    Here are five who should get better and better in the coming years. 

5. Andrei Loktionov

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    Okay, so Andrei Loktionov hasn't recorded a point in the month of April. 

    The fact is that nobody is producing these days for New Jersey. And Loktionov has done a lot of good things since being acquired from the L.A. Kings in mid-February. He is a center man with speed and two-way skill. This type of ability is unteachable. Just 22 years old and listed at 179 pounds on the team website, Loktionov can get stronger and find exactly what he needs to do to score goals the way he did in February and March. He did record 11 points in his first 18 games with the team. 

    The problem is that Loktionov is a restricted free agent. Frankly, that is a sticky issue that hovers around all young players in the NHL. Rookie contracts are set at three years, and if another team out there takes interest in Loktionov's potential, then New Jersey will at least have to match an offer sheet.  

    He was something of a misfit in L.A. and has turned into an NHL regular with New Jersey. It is best for both parties if he sticks around. 

4. David Clarkson

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    At 28, David Clarkson is already in the midst of his prime physical years. But as a goal scorer, he is a late bloomer. Last year he recorded the first 30-goal season of his career. This year, it's been a strange ride. 

    After 12 games, Clarkson had 10 goals and seemed to be picking up right where he had left off. The Devils were winning games and he was a centerpiece of the offense. But since his 10th goal on February 15, he has found the back of the net just three times. The Devils are 6-13-8 over that span.

    He is one of several key free agents after this season. In making the decision of who to sign and who to retain, general manager Lou Lamoriello has to ask himself who the real David Clarkson is. Will the law of averages return him to a 15-goal scorer with a good pair of punching hands, or has this short season just been a little odd and he really has blossomed into a scoring threat?

    I think it's the latter. Clarkson has great finishing instinct around the crease. This Devils team is in an inexplicable funk. That's the way hockey goes—sometimes you don't have the puck luck. Last year they certainly did, as you saw essentially the same team plus Zach Parise finish with more than 100 points and go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

    Wherever he plays, New Jersey or not, David Clarkson will reach that 30-goal mark again.

3. Adam Henrique

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    Last year Adam Henrique was a Cup finalist, one of the three best rookies in the NHL. He scored not one but two overtime, series-winning goals in the playoffs. 

    This year he has regressed. After proving himself to be a good setup man with 16 goals and 36 assists, so far in 2013 he has just 10 goals and five helpers. Like a lot of quirks in this NHL season, the lockout is partly to blame for the dreaded sophomore slump. The Calder Cup winner, Gabriel Landeskog, has struggled this year as well and has just 13 points. For young players the most important thing is to keep playing at the NHL level.

    A 50-point rookie campaign is not a fluke. Henrique has instincts, and next year he needs to get back to setting people up. At age 23, he could prosper in a red sweater for another 10 years. 

2. Stefan Matteau

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    Just making the team out of a week-long training camp was impressive for the 19-year-old Stefan Matteau.

    In a brief cameo, the Devils' first-round pick in the 2012 draft showed good size and strength. Undoubtedly the kid was raw, but you could see the NHL ability in Matteau. How New Jersey has handled him since, however, has been maddening.

    Under the collective bargaining agreement, drafted players like Matteau who are still eligible for their junior team can play out the duration of that eligibility before joining the organization that drafted them. But once they appear in six professional games, their rookie contract kicks in. It was surprising when Matteau appeared in his sixth game.

    Conventional wisdom says let a guy who is still a little green like Matteau mature at his own pace in the juniors. But it seemed like they were going to stick with this guy and let him take a crash course in NHL 101. This turned out not to be the case. Lamoriello and Pete DeBoer teetered back and forth, scratching him and dressing him, until eventually sending him back to the juniors. So now year one of that three-year contract is kaput and the kid barely has any experience. 

    Not the most logical way to develop a guy. A 19-year-old should not be watching from the press box. He needed to be playing, either experiencing the speed of the big league or building his confidence in the juniors.

    With that tangent out of the way, he must have an upside to be able to hang around as long as he did. Matteau has natural size at 19 (6'1", 215 lbs) and is sure to get stronger. He was definitely a tad wide-eyed and will become more comfortable as he progresses.   

1. Adam Larsson

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    Adam Larsson may have the most upside of all of the young players on the Devils. It's easy to forget that the Devils won the lottery (for the fourth pick) for this guy two years ago. 

    He is scratched every so often, as DeBoer seems to like flip-flopping him and Peter Harrold for one roster spot. We see flashes of why he was the most highly touted defenseman in his draft class. Larsson is a very good skater and has excellent passing vision up the ice.

    The same way it can take centers in basketball longer to develop, so it goes for defensemen in the NHL. Perhaps there are more nuances, like gap control, to playing defense, where a forward can rely more on raw ability. Hopefully New Jersey approaches Larsson, who is still just 20 years old, as a long-term project.

    It must be said that when researching an article like this, one comes to realize there just aren't a lot of young up-and-comers on the Devils roster. This team is just plain old. Travis Zajac is only 27, but I think we know exactly the type of player he is by now, which is a workmanlike two-way center. The only other players on this roster who will be younger than 30 by next season are Steve Bernier, Jacob Josefson, Matt D'Agostini and Mark Fayne, four guys whose skills are not going to transform over the summer. This roster is less than dynamic.

    There are some top-flight prospects, especially on the blue line. If we are talking bright futures, then Jon Merrill, Reid Boucher and Eric Gelinas are names to keep in mind. But as the 2013 season winds down in depressing fashion (yes, I'm pronouncing them dead), the lack of offensive depth and youth is to blame.