Reid Boucher tossing a puck to the crowd after being named the first star in New Jersey’s 4-2 win over Calgary on January 19th
Since each has been called up from Albany for their latest stints in the NHL, Devils forwards Joseph Blandisi and Reid Boucher have played a combined seven games for New Jersey and have provided an offensive impact we have not seen from Devils prospects since Adam Henrique debuted in 2012. The two have put up a total of five points since each has come up to the NHL; Boucher found his way back into the lineup after being recalled with Brian O’Neil in time for Saturday’s game in Arizona, and Blandisi was brought back to New Jersey for his second NHL stint a week earlier when Jiri Tlusty went on injured reserve. While this is an extremely small sample size, both have put points on the board, shown the talent in all three zones necessary to compete at the NHL level, and have created a buzz within the Devils community.
Reid Boucher, the 22 year-old Michigan native, has struggled to find his place on a thin Devils roster, and has spent the bulk of his first three full professional seasons with the Albany Devils. After breaking Steve Stamkos’ single season goal record for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL, scoring 62 goals in 68 games, the expectations for the 99th overall pick in 2011 quickly inflated. Before these past two game of his current NHL stint, where he has scored twice and added an assist, Boucher only managed three career goals and eight total points in 34 games at the NHL level. Devils fans had largely given up on a player who started this season for the Senior Devils, only to be sent down by a team in full rebuild to Albany after only a handful of appearances. Boucher has said that he had gained confidence during his time this season with the A-Devils, during which he has scored fourteen goals and totaled 26 points. He has come back to New Jersey a player few Devils fans have seen; his offensive instincts have improved, he has gotten himself more involved in the defensive zone, and seems to be getting to the dirty areas around the net and in the corners. Boucher has long been regarded as a player with not much more than an elite-level shot, but as Reid said himself after playing a complete game in his most recent two appearances and beautifully set up Adam Larsson for New Jersey’s first goal against Calgary, he is not a one-trick pony. Boucher added a goal against the Flames and was named the first star of the game. Boucher has scored twice since returning to New Jersey, and if his production and play remain at the level he has now demonstrated he is capable of playing in the NHL, he could finally earn himself the permanent roster spot that has so far evaded him.
Joseph Blandisi has also impressed Devils fans and coaches during his current stretch in New Jersey, posting two assists in five games since joining the team in Minnesota on January 10th. The Markham, Ontario native made his NHL debut a month earlier in December. While his superficial statistics don’t jump off the page, he certainly passes what people have started to call the “eye test”. Anyone who has watched any of New Jersey’s last five games knows Blandisi is involved in every play in the offensive zone when he is on the ice, he has the instincts and speed to beat NHL defenseman, and his overall offensive skills are phenomenal. You see his number 64 buzzing around every part of the ice, and you are constantly hearing his name coming from Steve Cangialosi, because he is always getting himself into the middle of the play. He has skills on the puck and a shot to match. A major plus to his game is the bite and feistiness he plays with; sometimes it looks like he goes after goaltenders after the whistle so he can mix it up opposing defenseman. Much like his new line-mate Kyle Palmieri, he combines definite offensive skills with hard-nosed toughness, two things this Devils team desperately needs. Those two along with Travis Zajac look like they could form a very effective trio.
Before we let Lou and Conte’s recent draft record off the hook, remember that Joseph Blandisi was not a Devils draft pick. Blandisi, a career underdog, was drafted in the 6th round by Colorado in 2012 after also being a late draft in juniors. He never received a contract from the Avalanche due to a mysterious illness that sidelined him for the better part of 6 months to open the 2014 calendar year. He re-entered the draft in 2014 where he went unselected, and after unsuccessful camps with Buffalo and Winnipeg, he went back to Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League for his over-age season. After putting up impressive numbers upon his return from his illness, he had a few NHL suitors offering contracts, and eventually chose the Devils in January of 2015. He is in his first professional season, and has put up impressive numbers for the Albany Devils, scoring 21 points in 24 games. Blandisi is still looking for his first NHL goal, but it will come sooner rather than later. He has had his chances, none better than when he was stopped on a beautiful save on the door-step by Blues goaltender Brian Elliot.
Joseph Blandisi being denied his first NHL goal by Brian Elliot of the St. Louis Blues
The early success of Boucher and Blandisi is a welcome sight for Devils fans who had largely lost hope that anyone from the Devils pipeline would provide an offensive impact before last year’s 6th overall pick Pavel Zacha is ready to take the step to the NHL. When Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and David Clarkson all left New Jersey, the Devils had holes in their roster they could not fill though their prospect pool, which was also severely lacking offensive upside. The Devils traded their 9th overall pick in the 2013 draft for Cory Schneider only days before much of that offensive talent left, and their first round draft pick in 2014 ended up being #30 overall as a result of the penalties from Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract negotiation process. Without NHL or prospect-level offensive talent, it appeared the Devils were facing an extreme rebuilding process.
While there are a few success stories from the last half-decade of the Lou Lamoriello-David Conte draft era, they are mostly defensemen. Adam Larsson, who the Devils drafted 4th overall in 2011, has emerged as a top pairing defenseman who routinely skates against opponents’ top lines. Jon Merrill and Damon Severson have become serviceable regular NHL defensemen, and while Eric Gelinas’ development has abruptly stalled, he had some success in a Devils uniform. Forward Mattias Tedenby wound up back in Sweden, and Jacob Josefson, although a competent possession player, has barely produced any offensive numbers at the NHL level. Forwards Stefan Matteau and John Quenneville, other recent first round draft choices, are still in their development, but likely do not have an NHL top-6 ceiling. The most recent Devil to have come through New Jersey’s system and have a major offensive impact is Adam Henrique, who joined the Devils during the 2011-12 season (after making his debut playing one game the season before) and played a major role in the Devils’ run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final as a rookie. That year he recorded 51 points in 74 games and was a Calder Trophy finalist. Henrique was drafted in 2008, and the fact that the most recent offensive contributor from the Devils pipeline has grown into a leadership role, wearing the assistant captain’s “A” and is a seasoned veteran is, at the very least, problematic.
Boucher and Blandisi are not yet regular contributors at the NHL level, and it would be premature to call them tokens of success of the Devils’ prospect pool. Even if they do remain at the NHL level and produce at the levels they have during this brief period, this generation’s Devils’ prospects are weak offensively and are in a major transition process. However, they are showing Devils fans who had largely lost hope that anyone before Zacha would make an impact at the NHL level that there may have been some sleeping talent in the pipeline. Watching Boucher and Blandisi have the success they are experiencing is not only encouraging to Devils fans, but extremely exciting. We are hoping Blandisi proves to the hockey world that he was passed over one too many times, and that Boucher makes Devils fans regret relegating his potential future to a career in the AHL. They have so quickly made us believe that we have two future offensive weapons waiting for their turn to lead an NHL offense.