The New Jersey Devils are burning up the NHL again
Like the wise philosopher David Puddy he once said: “Don’t mess with the Devils, mate. We’re number one, we beat anybody!”
And that was more or less true during the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout these two decadesonly the dynastic detroit red wings accumulated more points in the NHL standings or won more Stanley Cups than the three times champion Devils of New Jersey. But after a surprise trip to the final of the Cup in 2012, New Jersey’s run was nearing its end. With virtually every star that fueled their success either gone or out the door, the Devils would begin a multi-year playoff drought, their first since 1987, and make just one appearance (a 4-1 first round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018) between 2013 and 2022.
However, this futility seems like it could be a thing of the past. After winning their 11th straight game Thursday night, this year’s Devils they are red 14-3 start: Good for the NHL second best record — and are among the top five in the league in both points offense i defense. For a team that went 27-55 last season and hasn’t managed a winning record or positive scoring margin in five years, there’s a sense of growing excitement that hasn’t been felt in days of former glory.
Of course, a new dawn seemed to be on the horizon in Newark for a while. Because of all that losing, the Devils held the No. 1 pick in the draft twice in three years from 2017 to 2019, and they didn’t miss either time. New Jersey spent the first of those top picks on Swiss forward Nico Hischier, a talented two-way pivot who was named team captain and compiled a pair of 20-goal seasons before his 24th birthday. And the second of the No. 1s, center Jack Hughes, may have an even higher ceiling. Hughes scored 26 goals in 49 games last season as a 20-year-old, giving him the 17th highest goals per game average for this age of NHL history. Along with those draft picks, New Jersey also landed some complete steals in the lower rounds in the mid-to-late 2010s, including wing Jesper Bratt (No. 162 overall in 2016) and center Yegor Sharangovich ( No. 141 in 2018). .
This emerging core gave New Jersey the league eighth youngest squad (26.9 years) in the 2019-20 academic year, which then dropped to second youngest (25.9) in the 2020-21 academic year and the youngest of all (25.8) in 2021-22. The last of those teams was tied for the ninth-youngest roster any NHL club had assembled since 1999 (the earliest season for which Hockey-Reference.com has an average roster age) and the youngest the league had seen in more than a decade. It also positioned the Devils within a growing league-wide youth movement that saw a handful of teams try to rebuild with the power of prospects. From 2019-20 to the present, six clubs have had rosters among the five youngest in multiple seasons: the New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and, yes, the Devils.
Those teams’ success, however, has been mixed at best, and that included the Devils before this season.
New Jersey’s arch-rivals, the Rangers, began their rebuild with a number of high draft picks which culminated with a lucky lottery bounce for the No. 1 pick (and prized left back Alexis Lafrenière) in 2020. And the Broadway Blueshirts quickly turned their fortunes around after that, pushing the eventual conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning to Game 6 of the final of the Eastern Conference last season But almost all of the key ingredients to that turnaround were acquired outside the organization, such as defenseman Adam Fox and high-scoring forwards Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, or were later acquired. like left winger Chris Kreiderwho had his first 50-goal season 13 years after being drafted by New York, or goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who eventually he had his dominant break almost a decade after being selected 118th overall. Conversely, highly touted kids like Lafrenière and 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko could have been generously considered bit players (at most).
And aside from New York, the rest of the league’s young roster experiments have failed to make any kind of postseason impact in years. The Red Wings of recent vintage have been a fashion choice every preseason, in part because of general manager Steve Yzerman career as an executive — but Detroit is tracking a seventh consecutive sub-.500 season, with last year’s rookie duo by Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider started slowly. The Sabers have cooled considerably after the first three weeks of the season, and the Blue Jackets and (especially) the Senators have disappointed early on. Both are currently several games below .500 though loading on veteran talent during the off-season to complement their developing cores.
Clearly, the youth-centric path doesn’t automatically pay dividends for any team that tries to follow it. So far, even the Devils have seemed to be in that caution group, as evidenced by the team’s struggles last season. They finished 19th offense —despite Bratt, Hughes and Hischier combining for 189 points in 195 games—and an awful 29th in defense.
However, last season there were hints that something interesting was brewing in the swamps of New Jersey. For example, in terms of disc possession, measured by Percentage of courses at 5 against 5 with the score closed — the Devils they were a middle of the road team (16th best), no one of the worst in the league. Add some improved porter (because there was nowhere to go but up), a healthy Hughes and a rebound performance from defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who faltered in his first season in red and black, and it was not more difficult to imagine the Devils broke out in 2022-23 than, say, the Red Wings or the Senators.
|Goals over substitution
for 82 games
What’s impressive about New Jersey is that so far, unlike these other clubs with potential but still short on results, the Devils have made those big dreams come true. The team now third place in Corsi and is in the top three in all adjusted goals above replacement category except for goalie (where ex-Washington Capital Vitek Vanecek is doing a solid job, but Mackenzie Blackwood is struggling for the third consecutive year). Our Elo model currently gives New Jersey a 69 percent chance of making the playoffs, a number that it should certainly be even higher. There’s nothing on the Devils’ resume to suggest an imminent fall to earth, other than the usual warnings about fishing for meaning in hockey’s vast ocean of chance.
So far, New Jersey has succeeded where many others continue to fail. Its young stars are playing fabulously, and things are starting to resemble the rapid progress this franchise made toward the Stanley Cup three decades ago. Indeed, opponents early this season are once again learning a valuable lesson: don’t mess with devils.
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