The Drive to the NHL
The drive from Albany, New York, home of the American Hockey League’s Albany Devils, to the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ takes about three hours but for three New Jersey Devils prospects it could feel like three minutes or three days. Eric Gelinas and Alexander Urbom have taken that drive across the state border and will be looked at closely during the parent club’s training camp this September. A third prospect that has not yet stepped on the ice during the regular season in Newark, 21 year-old Jon Merrill, will also be battling for a spot with the parent club after dipping his toes in professional hockey this past spring with the Albany Devils. All three prospects have a legitimate shot to make the final roster before the New Jersey Devils first game in Pittsburgh against the Penguins.
Alexander Urbom Fighting for His Chance
Of these three players, only Urbom has played in more than one game in the NHL. He made the Devils Opening Night lineup in 2010 but after a month was sent to Albany for the first time before being recalled for the final game of the season. In that final game against the Boston Bruins, Urbom was able to score his first goal in the NHL. He spent a handful of games in New Jersey in December of the following season and scored another goal but has spent every game in Albany since then until New Jersey’s second to last home game this past season. A third round draft pick of the Devils in 2009, this could very well be the last chance for Urbom to be a full-time contributor for the parent club.
According to The Hockey News, the simple scouting report on Urbom highlights his big frame (6-5, 215) and the potential ability to be a shutdown defensive defenseman. With Bryce Salvador’s contract expiring in two seasons and Anton Volchenkov coming off the books in three seasons (or earlier if he approves a deal), the Devils will soon be in need of a defenseman with size to replace these two players. This year could be his chance to add size to the New Jersey blue line and gain some experience from the Devils veteran core that also includes the newest alternate captain Andy Greene. Urbom’s two goals in the NHL in his limited playing time already shows he is not afraid to shoot the puck and skate with the puck although the Devils definitely want him to improve in this area. The negative on Urbom is his point totals have regressed on the blue line in his three years at Albany. He put up good numbers with 23 points in 72 games in his first professional season with the Albany Devils before posting 12 points in only 50 games the following season. However, this past season in 68 games he only registered 8 assists. The argument that this AHL season featured more NHL players because of the lockout and thus hindered his point totals because of more of a focus on defense is nullified because the Albany Devils predominantly used Jay Leach and Adam Larsson as their top shutdown defensive pairing. While he is still young and poses a great deal of potential, this may be his last chance to crack the lineup in New Jersey. If not, he could potentially be used as trade bait that in return will boost a New Jersey offense that is definitely in need of a lift.
Eric Gelinas Battling to Blast His Way Into Newark
After an excellent AHL debut in the 2011-12 season for the Albany Devils in which he put up 16 goals and 21 assists in 75 games from the blue line, Gelinas experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows in his second professional season. After missing the first 15 games of the 2012-13 season with a fractured jaw, he returned to the ice for Albany and once again put up respectable numbers that included 22 points in just 57 games before receiving the news every Canadian hockey player dreams about while growing up. On April 25th, exactly five months after his return to the Albany lineup from his injury, he made his NHL debut in grand style by starting the game beside Peter Harrold, his defensive partner for the evening. Another well-built defenseman listed as 6-4, 210, Gelinas has a booming shot from the point that would be a major asset for New Jersey. With the sudden retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk from New Jersey, the Devils lost not only their quarterback of the power play but also a player that played the full two minutes. Gelinas could replace the rocket of a shot that Kovalchuk fired at the net and despite it not being as lethal as Kovalchuk’s, Gelinas would make up for the risks that playing Kovalchuk full time back there presented (those shorthanded goal woes that plagued New Jersey’s power play the past two seasons). Gelinas moves the puck very well and is not shy of joining the rush as evidenced by a spectacular goal against the Worcester Sharks in Albany on January 12th, 2013, as shown right here:
After putting up solid numbers in Albany the past two seasons and getting a taste of playing in the NHL, the upper management of the Devils organization will have their eyes focused on the play of Gelinas. A player with solid skills defensively and a knack for the offensive side of the puck, Gelinas may be on the move from Albany to New Jersey this upcoming fall.
Jon Merrill’s Quest to Reach NHL Accelerating
The last of the Devils prospects with the best chance to crack the Opening Night lineup is Merrill. The Devils first pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, when he went to New Jersey in the second round because the Devils traded their first round pick to the Atlanta Thrashers as part of the Kovalchuk deal, is regarded as the Devils top defensive prospect. He signed an entry-level contract this past spring and will not be joining the University of Michigan for what would have been his senior year. Merrill is looking to put a tumultuous past few years behind him that included a suspension by the University during his sophomore season for a violation of team rules and a dangerous injury to his vertebrae during his junior season that limited his playing time. During his time at Michigan, Merrill scored 11 goals and 47 points in 82 games played out over three seasons. Merrill also put up a goal and eight assists during the World Junior Championship as a member of the United States team. He has already gained some valuable experience in professional hockey by playing for Albany at the end of the 2012-13 season. Another imposing defenseman like Urbom and Gelinas, Merrill, listed at 6-4, 205, put up a goal and seven assists in a dozen games for the AHL squad. His +/- of a +25 during his time at Michigan as well as his offensive output during his time at Michigan, the WJC, and with Albany proves he is responsible defensively and also has the capabilities to put up quality offensive numbers from the blue line. A solid puck-moving defenseman, the only negative at this point may be how he handles himself off the ice. However, in a system that features Lou Lamoriello at the helm, Merrill’s only negative should not be a concern.
Potential of Devils Prospects Exciting for Albany Devils Fans and Entire Organization
The Albany Devils have helped build a solid tree in which the New Jersey Devils may begin to pick their next NHL defenseman. Whether it is Alexander Urbom, Eric Gelinas, or Jon Merrill, the two players left off the roster for New Jersey will continue to grow and improve with the Albany Devils. Three big defensemen with a lot of potential on both sides of the puck, it will be another exciting season for the fans in both Albany and New Jersey since they will both be witnessing the rise of what could be yet another legend of the Devils blue line.
Leo is in his second year with THW. He covers the 3-Time Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils and the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League. You can follow Leo on Twitter, @LeoScaglioneJr.