The Devils have quietly built a very solid group of OHL prospects, which was added to by their near OHL sweep at the draft this year (4 out of 5 picks).
1. Pavel Zacha - Sarnia Sting
Even if he was the 6th overall pick, to say that Zacha's first season in the OHL went as planned would be a blatant lie. Injuries and suspensions derailed his season, (along with the WJC's), holding him to just 37 games played. In those 37 games, he was solid. He was a physical beast at times, showcasing an ability to dominate the corners and the middle of the ice with his size and skill package. He really knows how to create his own scoring chances and his puck protection ability at full speed is excellent. He's also a solid two-way player and did a great job against Connor McDavid in round one of the playoffs. That said, there are areas that need refinement. I'm still not sure whether he's a center or a wing (he looked great on the wing at the U18's), and that's because I'm not sure about his vision or playmaking skill for those around him. At times when I saw him, he had trouble identifying open teammates, opting instead for a net drive that accomplished little. So where does that leave us for next year? Physically, Zacha is probably ready for the challenges of the NHL. He's a big kid and with his skill set, he'd probably find success right away. However, I think it would be a mistake. If I was the Devils, I'd want to see him play a full, healthy season before graduating him. The Sting are set to be a serious contender in the OHL next year and sending him back to junior would give him a chance to be an integral part of a potential Championship team.
2. Mackenzie Blackwood - Barrie Colts
Blackwood has already established himself as a top 5 starter in the OHL, thanks to two solid seasons in the league where he's cemented himself as Barrie's starter. While he's had some injuries and had a few shaky performances here and there, he's largely been pretty consistent for a Barrie team that has finished 2nd and 4th the last two years. His size and freakish athleticism give him sky high potential as an NHL net minder, barring he can continue to work on the fundamentals (rebound control, positioning, reads, etc). Next year, Barrie could be one of the best teams in the OHL and the next step for Blackwood would be leading them to a Championship after being bounced in the 2nd round the last two years. I'd also love to see him as one of Canada's backstops at the World Junior Championships.
3. Ryan Kujawinski - North Bay Battalion
The trade to North Bay really saved Kujawinski's season and was absolutely fantastic for his development. He and Coach Stan Butler seemed to be on the same page right from day one and he really brought out the best in Ryan, something other coaches have had a difficult time doing. In North Bay, Kujawinski established himself as a very difficult player to go up against. He used his size to disrupt away from the puck at both ends of the ice, and embraced a consistently physical approach for the first time in his OHL career. He also showcased a great north/south offensive game, finishing off plays off the rush and working hard in the corners/behind the net to wear down the opposing defence. When he's using his size to drive the net, Kujawinski shows he could score some goals at the next level. In the AHL next year, I'm hoping he continues to find the motivation to play as hard as he did under Butler. His skill set makes him an ideal candidate for an NHL 3rd line down the road and I'm hopeful he can have a successful first pro season. Would love to see him hit the 20 goal mark, which is a great goal IMO.
4. Joseph Blandisi - Barrie Colts
After the Avalanche elected not to sign Blandisi, he returned to the OHL as a man possessed. He ended up finishing 4th in league scoring and was tops in goal scoring with 52. The coveted overager then signed with New Jersey. This was really the first year that Blandisi was given a ton of offensive responsibility (top line ice time and first power play unit) and he took that and ran with it. Previously Blandisi had been more of a strong supporting character whose two way play and tenacity away from the puck made him a terrific complimentary scorer. But as he proved this year, he's more than that. Always a good skater, Blandisi took that to another level this past offseason, allowing him to be one of the quickest players in the OHL this year. He was also noticeably stronger and his release and the velocity of his shot greatly improved. Most of all, his confidence was sky high and he was able to take over a lot of games with his play in all three zones. Sometimes players bloom late, and when an NHL team chooses not to sign you, it can light a fire under you (Jake Muzzin comes to mind recently). Blandisi's speed and play without the puck should make him a good pro right off the bat. He's likely going to be ready to contribute pretty quickly in the AHL this year and should have a good year.
5. Blake Speers - Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Speers was fantastic in the first half of the OHL season, finding himself with a ton of offensive responsibility in his second year. But as the season went on, a couple of things happened. One, Speers seemed to tire a bit and he didn't bring the same type of energy late in the season as he did early on. Secondly, as the Hounds brought in higher profile veterans (Ritchie, Bailey), he found himself a little further down the depth chart. His speed, his release and overall goal scoring instincts, and his two-way smarts make him a very solid OHL player already. Moving forward, he needs to get stronger, become a little more aggressive in the middle of the ice, and find a way to consistently use his speed to generate scoring chances. Next year In Sault Ste. Marie, Speers will be a go to offensive player and will get the opportunity to blossom. My guess is that he puts in the work this offseason to make himself better and returns to the OHL next year a more consistent player. A 40/40 season and the 90 point marker are realistic expectations IMO.
6. Colton White - Sault Ste. Marie Gryehounds
Buried on the depth chart this year, White is a terrific young defenseman. His mobility is fantastic and I think we're scratching the surface on the types of things he's capable of offensively. He needs to gain confidence, but he's a very capable puck rusher moving forward, and his instincts running the point make him a candidate to run the power play if he can improve his point shot and distribution ability. As a defensive player, he's solid positionally and will likely continue to learn how to use his mobility to be an asset in his own end. Next year, White could be on the top pairing of the Hounds (moving up with partner Bouramman) and see a ton of ice time (thanks to a lot of graduations). He should see power play time and I'd expect his offensive numbers to really grow (in the 35+ points). The Hounds should still be a pretty decent team next year, despite losing a ton of talent, and that's because of the potential their young players hold...like White.
7. Connor Chatham - Plymouth Whalers/Flint Firebirds
It was a tough year for Chatham, as he battled a wrist injury that ultimately required season ending surgery. The Whalers (now Firebirds) were a very inconsistent offensive team, as they lacked a dynamic play creator outside of Sonny Milano. Chatham remains the same type of player that he was when he was drafted. A hard nosed, physical winger, who plays a strong North/South game and who has good hands. He has the potential to be more of a dynamic player, who can create scoring chances in a variety of ways (off the rush, off the wall, near the crease), but he just hasn't taken that next step yet. He needs to improve his shot and find a way to involve himself in all aspects of the game. Without a contract currently, it seems likely that Chatham will return to the OHL for his overage year. That would be a smart choice IMO. He should be able to physically dominate shifts and really gain some confidence offensively, before he settles into more of a checking line role at the next level. If he's in the OHL, he should be capable of a 30 goal season.
*Of Note, the Devils' 2nd rounder in 2014, Josh Jacobs, will be joining the Sarnia Sting in 2015/2016. I have very high expectations for him. The Sting should be one of the stronger teams in their Conference and he'll get the chance to play a lot (in all situations). Could even be a partner for Jakob Chychrun.