This fall, there’s a bit of a different feel among the prospects attending the New Jersey Devils rookie camp. In the present company, several prospects hold themselves to high expectations past this week’s prospect challenge. Among those prospects is Graeme Clarke, a former third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. After a big 2022-23 season, Clarke expects himself to make the NHL roster.
As a draft-eligible rookie, Clarke was better known as an offensive weapon, a gifted puck handler, and a playmaker who also had a nose for the net with a quick release. That became most evident in the 2018-19 season when he scored 23 goals and 34 points in 55 games with the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League. Graeme followed his breakout regular season with a seven-goal, 14-point effort in 18 OHL playoff games that same season.
At the pro level, Clarke’s game transitioned decently, scoring eight goals and 18 points in his first 31 American Hockey League games with the Binghamton Devils. However, inconsistencies haunted him in the 2021-22 season. Standing at just 6-foot, 174 pounds, Clarke had plenty of room to grow.
“I always laugh because when I walk into the rink in Utica, there’s a picture of (Frederick) Gauthier, AJ Greer, and Graeme,” Comets head coach Kevin Dineen explained after day one of rookie camp. “It’s on the wall and they’re celebrating the goal. Graeme looks like he’s on the wrong side of the glass. He should be on the other side. He looks like a little kid, a fan. That was two years ago.”
This fall, Clarke comes into camp looking a bit bigger, especially after a breakout 2022-23 AHL season.
“Now I look at him and he looks like a man,” Dineen continued. “I see him out there shooting the puck and the way he’s playing, he’ll wear a letter for us this year because just the upside of where his career is headed is something we’re really excited about.”
Last year, Clarke led the Comets in scoring by a landslide, potting 25 goals and 58 points. The next leading scorer in Utica was Rielly Walsh with 41 points.
Now, Clarke is attending the Devils rookie camp as part of the Prospect Challenge with five other teams. Although he’s been to these camps before, this time Clarke is utilizing his time to get a jump start for the Devils’ main camp which he’ll be attending.
“It’s probably the most excited I’ve been to come to a Devils camp,” Clarke explained. “I have those expectations for myself where I want to make the team, I want to make a push. There’s a shot for me if I do the right thing. This rookie tournament is an opportunity to start off on the right foot and carry it in (to the main camp). It’s gonna be tough, but that’s what I want to do and I think I have a chance if I just do the right things.”
With the departures of Tomas Tatar, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, Fabian Zetterlund, and Miles Wood, there’s going to be at least one spot up for grabs on the roster. Clarke will compete with a number of veterans for ice time. This summer, general manager Tom Fitzgerald brought signed some depth. Tomas Nosek, Chris Tierney, and Shane Bowers are all candidates to compete for ice time in camp.
However, Clarke’s biggest competition is anticipated to come from the youth of the Devils pipeline. New Jersey has high expectations for Clarke, but they hold the same expectations for Nolan Foote and Alexander Holtz. Although he might not be the favorite to earn a roster spot, Clarke believes he has what it takes to gain the trust of the Devils brass.
“I gotta show I can be a well-rounded player,” Clarke explained. “Whether that’s in a third or fourth-line role. I have to do whatever I can to get on the team and go from there. Just get on the team, and gain the trust of the coaching staff. That’s what I talked about at my year-end meeting with the coaches. Gaining the trust with Lindy (Ruff) or anyone else and knowing I can be on the ice.”
Clarke’s offensive breakout was a welcomed development last season. However, if he’s to make the Devils opening night roster, or rather, the NHL, the Minnesota native can’t be a liability on the ice. That was a focus for Clarke this summer.
“In the summer I just try and focus on those things,” Clarke explained. “Whether it’s wall work or defensive zone positioning. You try and do game situation stuff in the summer as much as you can. That’s why I think this tournament is beneficial for me, just getting those reps and bringing it in to main camp.”
“We have a good summer league in Ottawa. We try and do that kind of stuff. If it’s smaller games, 3v3 or 2v2, stuff like that you’re getting a couple bangs on the boards. In the NHL, it’s so fast. So it’s about just learning to play with pace.”
For now, the focus is on the prospect tournament for Clarke. He’ll be in attendance next week at the main camp, too. Clarke is looking forward to showing off the work he put in this summer that will translate on the ice. With a strong performance this week, that momentum could carry him all the way to Oct. 12th in Newark on opening night against the Detroit Red Wings.
“I think that’s the whole point of this tournament,” Clarke explained. “We’re all young guys and we’re coming off the summer where we got stronger and did different things. So now it’s putting it to the test in a real game. We worked on systems stuff today and to put that to work tomorrow and through the weekend is gonna be good.”