First thing's first, congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins! Once the Devils were eliminated they became my adopted team from the East, and while my adopted team from the West, Chicago, did not make it to the finals, Pittsburgh both made it and won. I'm also happy for a pair of former Devils—Bill Guerin's only other Stanley Cup came here in Jersey back in his rookie year of 1995, and while Sykora was part of the winning team of 2000, he had to watch the celebration from the hospital after being injured during game 6. But obviously there's a big difference between skating around with the Cup yourself and watching Larry Robinson on TV with your jersey on representing you doing so.
So with the NHL season now officially complete, and since I already covered the NHL awards, it's time to turn our attention to the draft. Predicting what the Devils will do in the draft is nearly impossible because Lou Lamoriello and draft day guru David Conte have made a habit of going off the board and doing something unexpected. It has become a trend for the Devils to trade down from their original spot, still get the player they wanted because no one else saw in them what the Devils did, and use the extra draft picks to their advantage. It's the reason that, save for a rough patch between 1999 and 2002, the Devils have become notorious as one of the best drafting teams in the NHL. Based on the current progress of the players chosen in last year's draft, it would seem the Devils have struck gold. Mattias Tedenby is a flashy player, Brandon Burlon is a great standup defenseman, and Patrice Cormier has really made a case for himself between the World Juniors and the Memorial Cup.
But let's turn our attention to the 2009 draft coming up in Montreal, and more specifically who the Devils will take first. Providing the Devils do not trade down, though they always seem to, they will make their first pick at 23rd overall. So taking into consideration team needs, as well as who will already be gone by the time the Devils hit the podium, here are the top five players I think the Devils should choose if they have the chance.
(Scouting information supplied by The Hockey News' Future Watch 2009.)
5. Kyle Palmieri – C / 5'10" / Montvale, NJ / US NTDP / ISS #21
Described as a good skater who works hard, Palmieri presents many factors which make him an attractive pick. He's a Jersey kid, his brother Nick is already in the Devils' system, and the Devils have historically groomed kids of his description into solid NHL players (see Gionta, Brian & Parise, Zach). The two-way forward is headed for Notre Dame this fall, and seems to fit every category the Devils have historically loved about young forwards.
4. Louis Leblanc – C / 6'0" / Kirkland, QC / Omaha (USHL) / ISS #16
Another two-way center, Leblanc has what most teams want in a young forward; the ability to put up a lot of points without lacking ability on the defensive side of the puck. In his first year in the USHL, Leblanc went about a point a game in a league where most players simply don't do that, and was named the USHL rookie of the year. This combination of skills makes him a worthwhile pick on draft day.
3. Mikko Koskinen – G / 6'7" / Vantaa, FIN / Espoo (Fin.) / ISS N/R
The last goaltender drafted by the Devils was Jeff Frazee back in 2005, and while he is currently projected as starting goaltender of the future, the Devils are in serious need of a backup plan in case he doesn't pan out as expected. Koskinen has a huge frame and solid numbers to his credit (17-7-9, 1.91 GAA, .931 SV% last year with Espoo), but his late bloomer status means teams will be hard pressed to take him seriously after slipping through the past three drafts unselected. He's a high risk/high reward pick, but a risk worth taking if both of the top two players on this list are unavailable.
2. Landon Ferraro – R / 6'0" / Burnaby, BC / Red Deer (WHL) / ISS #18
About a month ago, Ferraro's biggest asset to the Devils was his spot on Red Deer's roster and the connection to Brent Sutter. But the son of Ray Ferraro needs no such connections with the level of skill he has. The Rebels sniper's only blemish is his defensive game, but consider how bad a team Red Deer is, and how well New Jersey teaches defense, and suddenly that isn't enough to hurt his case. He is strong in every other area of his game, and his skating, work ethic, and strong mental game will go a long way on a team suddenly intent on drafting for offense.
1. David Rundblad – D / 6'2" / Lycksele, SWE / Skelleftea (SWE) / ISS #31
Rundblad has everything the Devils could want in a first round draft pick. He's a full-on offensive defenseman who has great puck skills, the ability to quarterback a powerplay, and the potential to end up a top-pair NHL defenseman one day. His defensive game is questionable, but again, if there's one thing the Devils can teach, it's defense, especially when Larry Robinson works with your young defensemen. The big question is, will he still be available when New Jersey goes on the clock? If he is, the Devils should pounce on him or forever regret not doing so. With all of the focus on Hedman, Rundblad is the kind of under-the-radar player the Devils love, but still has more than enough skill to qualify a first round pick with. If Rundblad is still on the board at pick #23, or wherever the Devils may trade down to, not selecting him would be downright foolish, and a wasted opportunity at building on the promise of the 2008 draft.