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Devils see prospect base as remedy to scoring woes

by Mike G. Morreale

NEWARK, N.J. -- A glimpse of what could be the start of something special began to materialize for the New Jersey Devils despite not qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs a third straight season in 2014-15.

It started when homegrown defensemen Adam Larsson, Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Damon Severson began to earn more ice time, which led to greater confidence as they established themselves on a daily basis.

The challenge Devils general manager Ray Shero and coach John Hynes now face will be to establish some sort of cohesiveness up front in providing more offense. Make no mistake, it will be a work in progress.

Pavel Zacha scored six power-play goals and 34 points in 37 regular-season games in the Ontario Hockey League last season. (Photo: Getty Images)

"We want to be a team that's going to play fast and attack, and when you have those two adjectives describing your team you have to make sure that when you don't have the puck you are very strong defensively because you have to be able to get the puck back to transition to offense," Hynes said. "In order to play fast, all five guys on the ice have to be active in the offensive zone."

Hynes and his coaching staff provided a template of that process at AmeriHealth Pavilion when the Devils held their development camp. Among the 26 forwards participating were Pavel Zacha, their 2015 first-round choice (No. 6), and John Quenneville, their 2014 first-round pick (No. 30). Each is projected to possibly fill a need at center someday.

"I'm just trying to focus on development camp right now because it's really important for me; I'm in the eyes of the New Jersey Devils," Zacha said. "It's an amazing feeling, so I hope I show my best in order to be ready for main camp."

Zacha had 16 goals, including six power-play goals, and 34 points in 37 regular-season games with the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League last season, his first in North America. The native of Czech Republic was named to the OHL All-Rookie First Team.

"I was happy with my decision to play [in the OHL] because it helped me a lot in learning English, and learning the style of hockey since it's completely different than big ice in Czech," Zacha said. "I was suspended during the season but I learned and it made me stronger because I had never been injured or suspended all my life. I feel good and I'm here to battle to play in the NHL."

Zacha, compared at times to Nashville Predators forward James Neal, became the first Czech Republic native drafted in the top 10 since Jakub Voracek was chosen No. 7 by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2007. After centers Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers, No. 1) and Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres, No. 2) came off the board, Zacha was thought by many to be the most NHL-ready forward of the 2015 draft class.

Quenneville, who provides energy and offense much like Devils forward Adam Henrique, made quite an impression at development camp last year but was returned to the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Western Hockey League for a third season.

"I watched tons of Devils games [in 2014-15] and you just want to help, you want to contribute and want to be a part of it," Quenneville said. "You watch a team and it makes you get the itch really badly to want to play. It gave me extra motivation and gets me really excited."

Quenneville said he likes the fact Hynes might be the most detail-orientated coach he has ever seen.

"He's always talking about the little things and specifics of the game," Quenneville said. "I always enjoy learning from different coaches since they all have different philosophies and different ways to view the game."

The players are privy to the fact a solid development camp could ultimately lead to greater opportunities, particularly because Shero did not re-sign right wing Steve Bernier or center Scott Gomez. The Devils did acquire top-six right wing Kyle Palmieri in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks for two draft picks.

"There is a chance one or more players [at development camp] will be playing with the big team," Hynes said. "We like our prospects. I don't think it's fair to rule anyone out at this point. We'd like to see these guys perform and have a very competitive camp when we come back here in September."

The Devils haven't had a 30-goal scorer since 2011-12 when Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and David Clarkson each had at least that many. Mike Cammalleri came close last season when he scored 27 goals, but the Devils really didn't make things easy for their defense. They ranked 28th in the NHL  with a 2.15 goals-per-game average and 29th with a 24.5 shots-per-game average.

"You want to be able to play on the offensive side of the red line more than you do the defensive side," Hynes said. "When you look at the successful teams, they are going with speed and attacking styles. When you spend less time on the defensive side of the red line because you have the puck or you're playing well offensively, you'll increase your shot totals, increase your opportunity for offense."

In addition to Zacha and Quenneville, there were more experienced offensive players in development camp hoping to make an indelible mark with the new coaching staff.

Sergey Kalinin, who spent the past five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, signed a free agent contract in May. The 24-year-old was captain of Avangard Omsk last season. Reid Boucher (2011, No. 99) is in his fifth development camp.

"I do have something to prove to the new staff," Boucher, 21, said. "Last year wasn't my best year but I want to come back strong and make a good impression. This style fits me. I prefer offense to defense. I think [last year] was more tightening up defensively. I think we'll open up a lot more [in 2015-16] to create chances and hopefully it will help us."

Joseph Blandisi (free agent), 20, was named 2014-15 OHL over-age player of the year after leading the league with 52 goals (10 shorthanded) and finishing fourth with 112 points in 68 games with the Barrie Colts.

Blandisi was drafted by the Colorado Avalanche (2012, No. 162) but not signed after being diagnosed with coxsackie virus in 2014.

"I couldn't walk up the stairs; kept falling over all the time," Blandisi said. "I tried to skate but couldn't get from the boards to center ice."

The disappointment of not getting a professional contract motivated him to spend that summer rebuilding his mind and body.

"I knew if I wanted to make something out of the sport I had to bear down in the summer, so I really dedicated 5-6 months in the summer to training and working out and trying to get my feet back under me," Blandisi said. "I knew I was going to end up playing an over-age year [in Barrie], which wasn't the plan the year before, but I just wanted to try and make the most of it. I have confidence and feel healthier than ever. Everything happens for a reason and I'm definitely excited to be a Devil."

Blandisi said one thing attracting him to New Jersey was the Devils appear to be moving in a younger direction.

"This is a good fit for me," Blandisi said. "The organization is getting older and they're looking for a rebuild coming up and hopefully I can be part of that rebuild, whenever that is."


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