Every year when the New Jersey Devils take the ice at the Prudential Center, their group of prospects, dispersed throughout the globe, is working on taking its game to the next level.
From Ken Daneyko and Scott Niedermayer to Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, the Devils have a good track record of evaluating and developing young talent.
While some of their prospects are still a few years away from being NHL ready, others have already been on the ice with New Jersey in regular-season action.
Currently, the Devils' pipeline is loaded with solid defensive talent. Honestly, this entire top-five list could have been entirely comprised of defensemen.
That's not to say that New Jersey does not have any young scorers coming up—they do. The majority of the Devils' brightest young talent, however, for better or worse, is comprised of blueliners.
With that said, let's take a look at the Devils' five best prospects heading into fall.
Reid Boucher, drafted 99th overall in 2011, has got scoring down. He just has to work on everything else.
In 2013, Reid Boucher exploded onto the scene with 62 goals and 95 points for his OHL team, the Sarnia Sting. That goal total was enough to surpass the single-season franchise record, formally held by Steven Stamkos.
There is no doubting Boucher's offensive skill. He has a deadly accurate shot, and he will rarely miss an opportunity to put the puck on net. The problem with the young forward, however, is that he doesn't have much else going for him right now.
Brendan Ross at DobberProspects.com notes that Reid lacks high-end speed and possesses only average puck-handling skills, suggesting that he needs to be on a scoring line to be effective.
Typically, players of Boucher's size (he's only 5'11" and around 190 lbs) need either to be fast or have dominant puck-handling skills to compliment their scoring in order to be successful at the highest level.
At the end of last year, Boucher signed an entry-level contract and he joined the Devils' AHL affiliate in Albany where he added five more points in 11 games.
At this point in his career, a season or two at the AHL level may be the best thing for him, but Reid hopes to have an opportunity at the NHL this year, reports Tom Gulitti of The Record.
Although Boucher's chances of breaking through in 2014 are small, head coach Pete DeBoer didn't exactly close the door to the possibility.
"It's a big jump," he told Gulitti, "but it's not impossible."
The fact that Steve Santini was the first player the Devils selected in 2013 despite their need for offense shows exactly what they think of him.
When the Devils selected Steve Santini at the 2013 draft (second round, No. 42 overall), he immediately became one of New Jersey's top prospects.
Santini still has a while to go before donning the red, white and black. He is 18 years old and will begin attending Boston College in the fall.
Santini was a member of the USA team that took home the silver medal in the Ice Hockey U18 World Championships. Although he didn't put up any points, he finished with a plus/minus of plus-eight and was named Best Defenseman of the short tournament by the directorate.
Corey Pronman of Hockey Prospectus argues that despite Santini's lack of offensive prowess, he is "an excellent defensive defenseman...Tough on his checks, he closes his gaps well with his body or as a stick checker."
Santini was drafted by New Jersey because he was the best available player on the board when the Devils went on the clock. They decided to pass up filling a hole on offense and instead drafted for value.
Just how valuable Santini will become remains to be seen, but if he can continue to progress, the Devils may have gotten another very solid defenseman for a steal.
Stefan Matteau wants a permanent roster spot with the Devils, but is he mature enough yet?
Stefan Matteau, son of the same Stephane Matteau who infamously ended the Devils' season in 1994, was drafted by New Jersey in the first round (No. 29 overall) of the 2012 draft.
In his first season as a pro, Stefan played in 17 NHL games for the Devils, but he spent a majority of the season in the QMJHL with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
During his time with the Devils, Matteau was, for the most part, inconsistent. He showed some flashes of what he can become, but he never seemed to be be playing at the same level as everyone else on the ice.
While he was more productive with the Armada, Stefan displayed a severe lack of discipline in the QMJHL. He registered 70 PIM in 35 regular-season games. During Blainville-Boisbriand's playoff run, he added another 16 PIM.
The last two penalty minutes Matteau posted in 2013 ended his season.
Ten seconds after Matteau got out of the box for a slashing penalty in the second period, opponents Baie-Comeau scored what would become the game-winning goal.
Matteau was benched for the entire third period of that game. Afterwards, he got into a heated exchange with the Armada head coach and was promptly released from the team.
Matteau has since said that he has moved on from the incident with the Armada and is now focused on earning a permanent roster spot with the Devils. The departure of Ilya Kovalchuk certainly has made that possibility more likely.
There is no doubt that Matteau has the prerequisite skills to become a solid NHL forward. The question still remains, though, if he has the head for it.
Last year, Damon Severson proved that he's got some serious offensive talent to pair with his defensive capabilities.
Damon Severson, the Devils' second-round selection (No. 40 overall) in the 2012 draft, will look to break into the NHL in 2014.
Severson is a very good two-way defenseman. He is a good skater with excellent puck-moving skills.
Hockey Propectus notes that Severson "can rush the puck and stay with his checks...he is able to win battles effectively while also showing a nasty edge."
Severson spent 2013 in the WHL with the Kelowna Rockets. There, he posted an impressive 62 points and a plus/minus of plus-45 in 82 games, including the playoffs.
CEO, team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said that he expects at least one young defenseman to suit up for the Devils this year.
Severson is hoping that he can earn that role in training camp.
"I feel like I've progressed a lot as a player," he told The Record's Tom Gulitti, "and coming into camp in September I feel like I'm on top of my game... I think I've set myself up really well...and hopefully, can make the team."
Severson has proven that he is a well-rounded player, and with New Jersey looking at another offensively challenged year, the Devs may be willing to give him the opportunity to help the team on both ends of the ice.
John Merrill believes that he's ready to take the next step into the NHL.
Jon Merrill will also be trying to make the Devils in 2014 as a young defenseman.
Drafted by New Jersey in 2010 (second round, No. 38 overall), Merrill has played the past three seasons with the University of Michigan. He also spent two years with the USA World Junior team and got some playing time last year with Albany after signing his entry-level deal.
Merrill can play at both ends of the ice and can also contribute on special teams, which may make him all the more attractive to the Devils this year.
Last year, Merrill missed extended time when he suffered a fractured vertebrae after taking a check from behind.
The injury sidelined him for more than a month, but he was able to come back and finish the season strong.
The Devils are gearing up for an exciting training camp competition amongst their talented young defenders.
That is something that Jon Merrill is looking forward to, telling Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger: "I think I'm in a good place. I think I'm ready going forward into training camp. I feel great."
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