After the opening day of New Jersey Devils rookie camp in July, coach Peter DeBoer couldn't help but be impressed with the high-caliber defensive prospects on the ice.
"By far, it's the most depth we have at a position in the organization," DeBoer said.
It includes Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas and Alexander Urbom, each of whom has a pretty good shot at earning some type of role with New Jersey this season.
"I was excited by a couple of them," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "It's going to be very interesting. I will be shocked if there's not a young defenseman, at least one, in the lineup. But I've been shocked before. [That] would really force moves. It's happened in the past, but they have to be ready to play, and that's when you find out."
Lamoriello's trade of veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder on July 7 all but assured DeBoer that at least one of the top young prospects in the system will be playing a significant role.
Here's a look at New Jersey's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
1. Jon Merrill, D: The organization's top defense prospect is expected to make a big push to earn an NHL roster spot out of training camp in September. Merrill, 21, signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Devils in March, after his junior season at the University of Michigan. The No. 38 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, he had two goals and nine assists in 21 games after recovering from a fractured vertebra in his neck sustained during an exhibition game against the University of Windsor on Oct. 9, 2012. The 6-4, 205-pound Oklahoma City native finished his career with the Wolverines with 11 goals and 47 points in 82 games.
"The one thing that is different this year from last year is mentally I feel I'm in a good place," Merrill said during rookie camp in July. "I think I'm ready going forward into training camp. I think there is no exact mold for an NHL defenseman these days. I think everyone gets the job done differently. I think if you can bring something to the team, that's what they're looking for."
2. Alexander Urbom, D: The team's third-round draft pick (No. 73) in 2009 will be given every opportunity to grab a roster spot out of training camp. Urbom played one game with the Devils last season, and had eight assists and 64 penalty minutes in 68 American Hockey League games with the Albany Devils. In 190 AHL games, Urbom, 22, has four goals and 43 points. At 6-3, 216, the native of Stockholm, Sweden, is more of a stay-at-home type who enjoys the physical side of the game.
Urbom has played in 14 NHL games with the Devils, totaling two goals and nine penalty minutes.
3. Stefan Matteau, LW: Matteau (6-1, 215), the team's first-round pick (No. 29) in 2012, played 17 games for the Devils last season, with a goal and two assists before being returned to his junior team, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. His season didn't end well; Matteau, 19, was released by the team in April. It was an unfortunate situation, but the Devils don't believe it will hinder his development. Neither does Matteau.
"In September it's going to be a whole different camp," Matteau said. "It's going to be with the big boys and I want to make a good impression there so I can stay next year."
So what does DeBoer hope to see from Matteau in training camp?
"Improvement," he said. "He jumped in last year and got great experience and I think what you want to see with all the young guys coming back is their continued improvement. They're not going to improve in leaps and bounds, but if they're a little better this year than last year, they're heading in the right direction. It's only a matter of time before they're full-time NHL players."
4. Eric Gelinas, D: The 6-4, 205-pound defenseman might possess the hardest shot of any New Jersey prospect. He's spent the past two seasons with Albany, where he's totaled 22 goals, 59 points and 101 penalty minutes in 132 games. Gelinas, 22, played one game for the Devils, on April 25 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 2009 second-round pick (No. 54) will make a big push to earn a role with the Devils out of training camp.
5. Reid Boucher, C: The versatile forward, who turns 20 on Sept. 8, is one of the more intriguing prospects entering training camp. The 2011 fourth-round pick (No. 99) is capable of playing all three forward spots, and he's spent the past two seasons with the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League. The 5-10, 192-pound left-handed shot led the OHL last season with 62 goals -- 12 more than any player -- to surpass Steven Stamkos' single-season club record of 58. Boucher also led the league in power-play goals (21) and finished fifth with 95 points. In 11 games with Albany, Boucher had three goals and five points.
Much like Adam Henrique prior to his breakout rookie season of 2011-12, Boucher is coming off a productive season heading into his first full professional campaign.
Stefan Matteau appeared in 17 games for the Devils last season and scored his first NHL goal in a 3-1 win against the Penguins on Feb. 9. WATCH NOW ›
David Conte, the Devils' director of amateur scouting, said he's been pleased with Boucher's progression.
"It's pretty hard not to be happy with a fourth-round guy who gets 60-plus goals and has done a great job with himself physically," Conte said. "Ironically, his year took off after [Montreal Canadiens rookie Alex] Galchenyuk left. That showed a lot of impetus on his part to elevate his game, as opposed to cry about not having a great player with him."
6. Blake Pietila, LW: The 2011 fifth-round pick (No. 129) spent the past two seasons with Michigan Tech in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. He became the first player from the Huskies to earn a gold medal as a member of the United States national junior team at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia, excelling as a shut-down forward in a third-line role. One of the organization's swiftest skaters, he had two assists and a plus-5 rating in the tournament. The 20-year-old doesn't plan on making the roster as an offensive playmaker or goal-scorer, rather, the kind of third- or fourth-line grinder every team relishes.
In 74 NCAA games, Pietila (5-11, 189) has 24 goals, 48 points and 90 penalty minutes.
"Winning a gold was probably the most exciting moment in my hockey career and it has given me confidence going forward," Pietila said. "It showed that I could play with and against the best guys in the world, so my confidence is sky high now. I don't plan on making the NHL as a high-end guy. I'm just a guy who can play a good defensive, two-way game, and hopefully chip in offensively."
7. Harri Pesonen, LW: The versatile Finn had an impressive first season in North America, with 14 goals and 31 points in 64 games with Albany. Signed by the Devils in June 2012, he played four games with them and impressed.
At 6-foot, 194, Pesonen, who turned 25 on Aug. 6, knows how to get to the net and generate shots. He took 288 for JYP of SM-liiga, Finland's top professional league, in 2011-12, and had 21 goals and 35 points in 60 games averaging more than 16 minutes a game. The Devils will need to determine where Pesonen stands within the organization; he'll earn $550,000 this season in the last year of his contract and can become a restricted free agent next summer.
8. Brandon Burlon, D: The 2008 second-round pick (No. 52) will enter his third professional season in Albany after three seasons at the University of Michigan. The 23-year-old likes to throw his weight around and can chip in offensively; he had 16 assists, 17 points and a plus-9 rating in 53 games last season. Burlon (6-0, 195) has good awareness on the transition and has shown he can make a good first pass out of the defensive end.
9. Keith Kinkaid, G: If something were to happen to either Martin Brodeur or Cory Schneider, 6-2, 190-pound Kinkaid likely would be the first call-up. In 45 games with Albany in 2012-13, he went 21-17-6 with two shutouts, a 2.72 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. Kinkaid, 24, stopped 12 of 13 shots in a relief appearance for Johan Hedberg with the Devils against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 5.
10. Scott Wedgewood, G: With Brodeur entering the final season of his contract, this is an important season for Wedgewood, a 2010 third-round draft choice (No. 84). He was loaned to the Trenton Titans of the ECHL last season and went 20-22-5 with one shutout, a 3.22 GAA and a .900 save percentage. Wedgewood, who turned 21 Aug. 14, played five games for Albany (2-2-0, 3.47 GAA, .886 save percentage) when Kinkaid was called up.
Wedgewood (6-1, 190) performed very well for the Titans, despite his numbers. Expect him to share duties with Kinkaid in Albany this season.
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