On May 4th, 2015 the New Jersey Devils hired Ray Shero as their new General Manager, the first man to acquire that title in 27 years. Shero arrived to find a prospect pool starved of high skill level players and one that had not produced a major NHL contributor since Adam Henrique was drafted in the third round, seven years prior.
That year, the NHL Entry Draft was a mere month away, and Shero had to rely on veteran scout David Conte, who had unearthed talent like Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, Scott Gomez, Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta in the early 90’s, which led to an incredible amount of success in New Jersey for 20 years.
Shortly after the draft, Conte parted ways with the organization, and Shero reached out to Paul Castron, formerly the director of amateur scouting of the Columbus Blue Jackets, to help achieve Shero’s vision of a fast, attacking, supportive brand of hockey, that was more suited to today’s NHL.
It has been a rough six year patch for the Devils, other than a surprising run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. A stretch that was compounded by poor drafting from 2000 until 2014, where the hits were rare. Other than the aforementioned Henrique, the only Devils draft choices to really make an impact included Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Paul Martin and Adam Larsson.
Astoundingly, for a team that finished with the sixth overall pick, New Jersey only had five selections in the 2015 draft and came away with Pavel Zacha and Blake Speers of note. Even though most of the scouting staff was the same, Shero quickly identified players who were fast and would fit into a new Devils philosophy.
In 2016, Castron ran his first draft as the new director, and needless to say, his past two drafts look like they could really spur the moribund franchise. He took a few minutes on Saturday afternoon to discuss the new Devils draft strategy and a few of the lesser known names in the system.
This is your second year at the helm of the ship, when did you decide it was time to move on from the heavier, two way type of grinding players to players who exhibited skill?
It actually wasn’t by design, to be honest. I think we wanted to get skilled players, but we wanted competitive players. That was the goal from day one. We think we’ve got some good skill in the young kids that are here and they’re having a tough day today (6-2 loss) but overall they’re a good group of kids with some skill.
On Friday night, guys that you picked in the fifth and sixth rounds, like Marian Studenic and Jesper Bratt, really stood out. How are you and your staff able to identify players with that kind of skill, that deep in the draft?
You have to lean on the guys that are in the areas that know these kids the most. We had some of our scouts that had really good feeling on these guys. Studenic for example, didn’t play a big role in Hamilton (Bulldogs of the Ontario Hockey League) but our guys saw some special skills and some speed in his game.
Jesper Bratt was the same. He’s not a big guy, but he’s pretty dynamic and good skills. We’re looking forward to seeing him in London this year.
Another sixth round selection, Aarne Talvitie out of Finland has had a really good start to his U20 season with the Espoo Blues in Finland. Was there a reason he dropped even though he’s showing such promise?
I’m not sure why he dropped to be quite honest with you, but our staff really liked him when he was the captain of the under 18 Finland team, a real good leader, a hard worker, and also had skill to put the puck in the net. He’s scheduled to go to Penn State next year, it’s a good development process for him and like you said, he started out well in the under 20 Finnish league and our hope is that he’ll be on the under 20 World Junior team come Christmas time.
From the outside looking in, the forward situation from the first Prospect Challenge to today has seen a tremendous overhaul. Do you feel comfortable with your forwards moving ahead and will there now be an emphasis in the draft to finding defenseman?
Well, we definitely have more forwards at this point and we were able to stockpile some players. Ray Shero did a good job acquiring extra picks. I think we had five in Shero’s first year, I wasn’t here, but the next two years we had 10 in each year (nine in 2016, eleven in 2017). That definitely gives you more of a chance to hit on some of the later round picks too.
So yes, I think moving forward we’ll look at the best defense available, but at the same time, if there’s a forward out there that we really like, we won’t hesitate to draft him.
Getting Will Butcher signed, sealed and delivered was a step in the right direction to help revamp the defense, how big was your involvement, or your scouting staff’s involvement on that recruitment process?
No, none at all, we have a different group that looks after the college free agents and our guys that follow him really liked his game. It was just one of those things that, we were lucky enough to get him.
Is there anyone that people may not have heard about, that you and your staff are really high on?
I think Yegor Rykov might be known a little bit because of the World Juniors, but he’s a guy that’s playing in the KHL again this year and getting lots of ice time that we’re excited about. He’s on a good development path and he wants to come here at some point, I think he’s got two years left on his KHL contract, but he’s a solid defenseman for us.
Going back to Bratt, I think he’s the one that people won’t know, but know him this year from the OHL. The London Knights (Bratt’s OHL team) doesn’t really rebuild, they retool and I think they’ve got some good players for him to play with and I think that he’ll compliment them as well and we’re looking forward to a big year out of him.
How much of an input did you guys have, or do you guys have when a European player is thinking of coming over to North America and play in a Junior League? Do you talk to a team like the Knights and say the player will come if you select him in the import draft?
Well, once he signed his contract with us we got calls from a lot of different teams, and the agents are involved as well and there were a number of teams that were interested in him and London pretty obviously has a great track record with producing players for the NHL. So we’re happy that he was picked by them because we know Dale Hunter and his staff do a great job.