Devils ready to host 2013 NHL Draft
TORONTO -- New Jersey Devils director of amateur scouting David Conte said he's excited that fans from the Garden State will have an opportunity to see what an NHL Draft is all about on June 30 at Prudential Center.
Other than that, the draft will be business as usual. Except, of course, for the shorter drive to the arena to begin his work day.
"We want to pick the best player," Conte told NHL.com. "I'm sure the fact we'll be in front of our fans will mean whichever player we choose will feel the impact of that. Me, personally, I'm going to try to block that part of it out."
Chris Lamoriello, the general manager of the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Albany, is excited New Jersey will get a taste of all the pomp and circumstance of an NHL Draft.
"I think the most exciting thing is knowing fans will get an opportunity to share in the draft experience," Lamoriello told NHL.com. "Getting a chance to see that next wave of Devils and being there when the selection is made is going to be special. We've never hosted the draft before, so it'll be a good experience within a new building. We think it's a great opportunity for the fans to get another look at what we do and this whole process of building a team."
The Devils hold the ninth selection in the first round -- the first of four picks that will be made by the team. All seven rounds of the draft will be conducted on the same day for the first time since 2006.
"Are we happy with where we're allowed to pick and the picks we've made in the past? Yes," Conte said. "But we're not satisfied with the performance of our team [in 2012-13], but that's not their fault. It's our fault since we have to help improve the club. As a team, we need to play better, and hopefully our prospects can one day be conduits to that."
Conte said he's been pleased with the recent progression of many of the organization's top draft prospects. Reid Boucher is one such gem. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound right wing was signed to an entry-level contract by the team on March 13 and could turn out to be a draft-day steal.
"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 [for the NHL]. 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."
The fourth-round draft pick (No. 99) in 2011 has spent the past two seasons with the Sarnia Sting of the Ontario Hockey League. He led the league with 62 goals -- 12 more than any player -- to surpass Steven Stamkos' 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.
"He's got very good hockey sense, can pass the puck well, and had a nice finish in the two or three weeks that he was [in Albany]," Lamoriello said. "We're looking forward to seeing him in the summer and getting him ready for training camp."
Other prospects Conte has high hopes for are 2012 first-round pick Stefan Matteau and 2010 second-round pick Jon Merrill. Matteau, who played 17 games for the Devils this season, was released by his junior team, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, in April. It was an unfortunate situation, and Conte said he doesn't feel it will hinder his development.
"He's a man and ready to play," Conte said of Matteau. "I don't think playing was the problem. He's 18. We can't worry ourselves about that stuff; we hope it never happens, but we deal with it as they come."
Merrill played three seasons at the University of Michigan, registering 11 goals, 47 points and a plus-25 rating. The left-shooting defenseman had two goals and 11 points this season.
"Merrill came in and did a great job at the end of the year [in the American Hockey League]," Conte said. "He's had some bumps with a suspension and injuries, but clearly he's an exceptional hockey intellect, so now it's a question of being able to handle the next level. It's not about skill or about hockey sense, it'll be about mental toughness and physical preparation."
Conte was asked if he considers this year's draft to be filled with talented players and big names, and if the Devils might draft for need considering how deep the 2013 class seems to be.
"Maybe," Conte said when asked about drafting for need. "But we're preparing ourselves with a list of the best available players. From there, we may make a change and deviate from that plan on the fly, but that's a decision I won't make. I'll present the options, and that will be made by [Devils general manager] Lou [Lamoriello]. I'll have my say in whatever we do, because we work collectively as a team."
Either way, Conte said he expects to improve New Jersey's prospect pool despite the club being limited to four choices this year.
"Certainly we expect to improve all the time, but every team in the draft expects to improve," Conte said. "We still believe in getting the best possible player for what's afforded us in the picks that we have. Surely, if you're Columbus or Calgary with three picks [in the first round], your chances of getting better are more enhanced than if you have one pick.
"If you're Colorado, Florida or Tampa Bay and picking first, second or third, clearly your chances to get a player having an immediate impact are better."
The fact the Devils failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2012-13 tells Conte the organization, as a whole, needs to work harder. He is confident that will happen.
"I hardly think we're not a good team, but we need to be a better team."
Finding impact players via this year's draft, especially because the organization will have to forfeit its 2014 first-round pick as a penalty for circumventing the salary cap after the Ilya Kovalchuk contract, will play a huge role in that.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL