With the Devils formally eliminated from the playoff chase this weekend, the last three games (all at home) over the final week of the regular season are going to be about pride, about getting one last look at the younger players at the NHL level until September – and also in part perhaps about the final games of franchise stalwart Patrik Elias, who’s eyeing a return either tomorrow or Thursday for the last couple of games this season. Elias isn’t under contract beyond this year and his future is uncertain, though the winger’s on record saying he’d like to try to play another season we could very well be seeing his final games as a Devil one way or another. I won’t give a full retrospective on Patty at this point though, not with the possibility he returns next season. Despite his off year two years ago and inability to get on the ice this year I don’t really want to believe this is it yet for my favorite player. And a full season recap and look ahead at what’s next for the current roster can wait another few days.
If anything though, many of the most important parts of the Devil future are going to be playing meaningful games this Spring. For guys like Damon Severson, Scott Wedgewood and Joseph Blandisi (maybe even Reid Boucher as well), the AHL playoffs will provide further opportunity to play and improve their games. With the Devils’ AHL affiliate in Albany currently third in the Eastern Conference with 94 points (42-18-8-2), the long-suffering fans there may finally get an extended playoff run again for the first time since the salad days of the late ’90’s when the Devils were loaded with prospects and coach Robbie Ftorek won a Calder Cup in 1995, the same year the parent Devils won their first Stanley Cup. Certainly coach Rick Kowalsky and his staff have done an outstanding job this season not only winning but also getting players like Boucher, Blandisi and goaltender Wedgewood ready to contribute at the NHL level this season. Since all of the above players are still eligible to play in the AHL it’s likely GM Ray Shero will opt for them to do so once the Devils’ season ends on the 9th. For the AHL Devils, their playoffs will begin in late April since the regular season ends on the 17th. Ironically enough, this afternoon Albany’s fans got another dose of good news as the Devils re-upped their lease there through the 2018-19 season.
It’s not just at the AHL level where Devils prospects are getting a chance to shine though, for college prospects like Steven Santini and Miles Wood of Boston College, the Frozen Four this weekend may be their last chance to excel at the college level. Santini is a smart, hard-hitting defenseman who was a 2nd round pick in 2013 and has played big-time hockey both in BC and for the US national team. Wood is also a 2013 draft pick, a fourth rounder that’s been a bit of a late bloomer but an all-around forward and productive member of one of college’s best teams, putting up 35 points in 36 games in his freshman year at BC and also getting time with the US national team. Ideally, the Devils will sign them both after this season before their senior years come and fans like me start getting paranoid about either guy pulling a Jimmy Vecey. Another BC player of interest is a little-used forward named Chris Shero…who happens to be the son of Devils GM Ray Shero. Hopefully the kid will put in a good word for us with both players. The Eagles (28-7-5) will play in the national semifinals against Quinnipiac on Thursday 5 PM at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, with the winner playing in Saturday night’s final against either Denver or North Dakota. Interestingly enough the Frozen Four will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2 with John Bucigross and Barry Melrose coming out of witness protection long enough to do all three games this weekend. Both semifinals will be on ESPN2, while the title game will be on ESPN Saturday at 8 PM.
Also the OHL (Ontario Hockey League) playoffs are under way and feature 2016’s top four Devil picks – Pavel Zacha of the Sarnia Sting, Mackenzie Blackwood of the Barrie Colts, along with Blake Speers and Colton White of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Amazingly enough all four are playing in first round Game 7’s tomorrow night. Speers is a third-rounder that’s a smart, shifty forward who led his team in scoring this year with 74 points in 68 games and is tied for the team lead during the playoffs with 7 points in their first six games, while White’s a mobile defenseman who’s shown some offensive chops putting up 35 points in 68 games. While Blackwood led the OHL in save percentage during the regular season at age 19, he’s had an up and down playoffs to this point but certainly this season’s been a good start for the second-round goaltender in his first post-draft year.
Certainly the biggest OHL postseason star among Devils draftees has been the highest pick – Zacha (pictured above). During the regular season Zacha was criticized for putting up ‘only’ 64 points in 51 games compared to Flyers first-rounder Travis Konecny who totaled a whopping 101 points including 56 in 31 games with Sarnia. However, Konecny got hurt early in the Sting’s first-round series as they fell behind three games to one but Zacha has turned up his game another level in the postseason with five goals and seven assists – in just six games as the Sting have rallied back to force a Game 7 in Sarnia….against Speers and White’s Greyhounds. Yet another Devils draftee on the Sting is 2014 2nd rounder Joshua Jacobs, who’s impressed as an all-around defenseman with 24 points and a +26 in 67 games – along with five points in his six playoff games during his first year at Sarnia after opting out of college.
I’d be remiss if I left out 2014 Devils first-rounder John Quenneville, a two-way player described in the mold of Adam Henrique, especially since like the Devils center Quenneville wasn’t touted as a high prospect but has steadily improved his game. Still only 19 years old, he’s starred for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League this year putting up 31 goals, 73 points and a +28 in 57 regular season games and is following that up with a strong playoffs putting up three goals and seven points in the first five games of his team’s series with the Edmonton Oil Kings (which the Wheat Kings lead 3-2).
Moral of the story is for the first time in a long while things are looking up everywhere in terms of prospects who’ll hopefully be helping the NHL team in the next few years. If you’d like to find out more about the Devils’ prospects and their upcoming games, here are a few sites to check out:
The OHL: http://new.ontariohockeyleague.com/
The WHL: http://new.whl.ca/players/26489 (Quenneville’s player page)