NEWARK, N.J. -- Perhaps a silver lining in a season when the New Jersey Devils failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs was the impact defensemen Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas had as rookies.
Each was given an opportunity because of injuries in the lineup, and many expect they will play big roles in 2014-15. The idea entering training camp in September is for Merrill, Gelinas and Adam Larsson to have an opportunity to earn a full-time job among the top six.
The loss of defensemen Anton Volchenkov (buyout) and Mark Fayne (Edmonton Oilers) this offseason may have opened the door for another young defenseman to join the mix or at least serve as an injury replacement. Among them at Devils development camp this week at AmeriHealth Pavilion are Seth Helgeson (No. 114 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft) and Damon Severson (No. 60, 2012).
General manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Peter DeBoer may also use rookie camp and training camp to target a few young forwards capable of providing some energy, enthusiasm and production on a regular basis. Two possible candidates are Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau.
"I think the organization sets the table with opportunity, and over my time as coach the one thing I've seen is opportunity for players to come in and play," said DeBoer, entering his fourth season. "Some of the young players grabbed it and ran with it, like Jon Merrill and Adam Henrique (in 2010-11), and some haven't yet. We need a few of these guys to do that this year."
Boucher (No. 99, 2011) entered his fourth development camp having the most NHL games (23) among the invites, with two goals and seven points in 2013-14. Matteau (No. 29, 2012) was second with 17 games during the 2012-13 season, when he had one goal and three points.
"I'm very determined," Boucher said. "I didn't change much from last summer. It seemed to work out pretty good for me. Stuck to my plan, and you have it in the back of your mind that you played there and you have a chance to do it again this year."
Boucher, who scored his first NHL goal Dec. 18 and connected for a rare shootout goal for the Devils last season, knows he needs to prove himself in training camp. He finished fifth in scoring for the Albany Devils with 38 points in 56 games and had a season-high five-game point streak (six goals, eight points) in November.
Matteau had 13 goals and 26 points in 66 games for Albany in 2013-14, his first full professional season. He represented the United States at the 2014 World Junior Championship and had three goals, four points and a team-high 10 penalty minutes in five games for the fifth-place Americans.
"I think coming into my third camp, I want to prove that I can play," Matteau said. "These camps count. It's a lot of timing and hard work; I think I'm ready and have gotten better since then, my first year with the team. I think I'm very close, but at the same time I'm far and will just have to work hard to get it."
At this stage in their development, Boucher might have a slight advantage over Matteau. That could change quickly, depending on how each player impresses in training camp and the preseason.
"I'm looking for [Boucher] to come into [training camp] and be in good shape," DeBoer said. "He's a veteran and I'm looking for some leadership. He needs to have a workmanlike mentality. Whether he's playing on a first line or fourth line, he has to bring that workmanlike mentality. I told him that the beauty about Zach Parise was that he was a first-line player with a fourth-line work ethic. I think Reid can take some notes from that."
Helgeson had a breakout year in Albany with a goal, 10 points, 100 penalty minutes and a plus-12 rating in 75 games. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound left-shooting defender spent four seasons at the University of Minnesota and was an alternate captain for the Gophers as a senior in 2012-13, when he was named to the All-WCHA Academic Team. He made 121 straight starts for Minnesota dating to his freshman season in 2009-10.
"I used a combination of physicality and my size to an advantage, and when the time came to protect my teammates, I did," Helgeson said. "You're also a target as one of the bigger guys out there, but I'll try and help the team any way I can."
Helgeson, who is participating in his fifth development camp, learned from Devils assistant coach Scott Stevens.
"He was teaching us [at development camp] in my first year here and I remember watching him how he used to crush people at that time," Helgeson said. "He was teaching me about when to pinch and when not to do it. You have to know when you pick your spots."
Severson is coming off his fourth full season in the Western Hockey League with the Kelowna Rockets. He was named a 2014 Western Conference Second Team All-Star after finishing tied for sixth among WHL defenders in scoring with 61 points (15 goals) in 64 games. He had four goals and 18 points in 14 playoff games, possesses good size (6-2, 210), and has a strong shot from the point.
He had a career-best nine-game point streak (one goal, 11 points) for Kelowna in February 2014. Severson, a right-shot defenseman, likely will play his first full season in Albany in 2014-15 unless he impresses the coaching staff enough to keep him with New Jersey.
"I played a couple of games in Albany after my season in Kelowna and didn't feel out of place at all," Severson said. "I felt like I belonged there when I was 18, and I've come a long way since then. I felt very comfortable in main camp with the pros and got in a couple of exhibition games and I feel I'm close."
Goalie Scott Wedgewood (No. 84, 2010) will look to battle Keith Kinkaid for backup duty to starter Cory Schneider. Lamoriello signed goalie Scott Clemmensen to a two-way contract to compete for that role.
Wedgewood spent his first full season with the Albany Devils in 2013-14 and went 16-4-3 with four shutouts, a 2.39 goals-against average and .899 save percentage. He went 8-4-0 with three shutouts, a 1.96 GAA and .906 save percentage in his final 14 games.
"As a goalie, you always want to play and [Kinkaid and Clemmensen] are two older, more experienced players," Wedgewood said. "Maybe I could use another year in Albany. I really felt I came on in the second half [of 2013-14]. Whatever the organization sees fit for me is the route I'll take."Mike Morreale