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New Jersey Devils Drafts from 1999-2005: What Happened, Mr. David Conte?

Derek Zona did a review of all 30 NHL teams at the NHL Entry Draft from 1999 through 2005 based on how many of their draft picks made it into the NHL.  Regardless of who they played for, the metric was 200 NHL games played. And based on that metric, the New Jersey Devils were one of the worst teams at drafting in this time period.

That's right, one of the worst.  How can this be? 

Sure, you and I may feel positive about the current prospects, but those picks through those years are in their prime or  about to enter their prime now.  Yet, the Devils are among the Blues, Coyotes, Hurricanes, and Lightning in that realm. While four teams who definitely were not consistently successful as the Devils, how can this be?  What happened?

Taking a page from the closer looks at their respective teams by Derek Zona (Edmonton) and the Falconer (Atlanta), I look at the Devils' first and second round picks from 1999 through 2005 to see who became players and who have not, based on HockeyDB's draft results.

First Round Picks

The Devils did OK in terms of their first round picks who made it 200 or more games. They had 6, and they hit on 3, with 2 being particularly great.

Devils First Round Picks 1999-2005
Year Rd.  Num. Player  GP
1999 1 27 Ari Ahonen 0
2000 1 22 David Hale 302
2001 1 28 Adrian Foster 0
2003 1 17 Zach Parise 407
2004 1 20 Travis Zajac 326
2005 1 23 Niclas Bergfors 90


At first glance, Parise and Zajac were great picks because, well, they're great players.  For some, that may be enough.

However, it's still below league average (61.3%) because of the Ari Ahonen bust and the gigantic reach that was Adrian Foster. Nicklas Bergfors could turn out to have a good NHL career, so the percentage may increase to just average.  However, Bergfors will be doing so largely for another team.  While New Jersey won't get the benefit, that was a price I still think was worth paying to take a chance on Ilya Kovalchuk as a Devil.

If I can go off on a rant here, the Ahonen pick in 1999 and the selection of goaltender Jean-Francois Damphousse in 1997 as first rounders made no sense. Martin Brodeur was still quite young in his career and the Devils had zero need to develop a goaltender. It would be one thing if they were flipped for important players later on, but they essentially turned into nothing as assets for New Jersey.  

Related to this, read this column by Cory Pronman at Puck Prospectus.  That column in conjunction with the Ahonen and Damphousse picks lead me to strongly believe that a team really should only select goaltenders early in the draft if they think they will be special players. Not good - great players.   I don't want the Devils to select a goalie at #38 this year or any other goaltender early unless there is reason to believe they will become great goaltenders in due time.  Select a goalie late or just fill in any gaps through free agency.

So first rounders aren't bad. However, the second round pick history may make you cringe.

Second Round Picks

Devils Second Round Picks 1999-2005
Year Rd.  Num. Player  GP
1999 2 42 Mike Commodore 434
1999 2 50 Brett Clouthier 0
2000 2 39 Teemu Laine 0
2000 2 56 Alexander Suglobov 0
2000 2 57 Matt DeMarchi 0
2000 2 62 Paul Martin 400
2001 2 44 Igor Pohanka 0
2001 2 48 Tuomas Pihlman 15
2001 2 60 Victor Uchevatov 0
2002 2 51 Anton Kadeykin 0
2002 2 53 Barry Tallackson 20
2003 2 42 Petr Vrana 16
2005 2 38 Jeff Frazee 0


That's right, 2 for 13!  Say it with me now: "Urrrrrrrrrgh."

Jeff Frazee is a long shot to reach the goaltender threshold of 100+ games played, but there's no reason to believe anyone else on this list is going to crack into the NHL anytime soon.   Martin and Commodore are it, and only Martin was able to put those game in solely for the Devils' benefit.  It's been a long, long, long time since a second round draft pick played some games in the NHL, much less for New Jersey.

The league average in this time period was 24.8%, the Devils were at 15.4%.   I know this is all in hindsight, but it's pretty awful back there - too much to ignore.

Third Round and Later Picks

In these later rounds of the draft, there are more and more longshots and so the success rate is lower.  The league averaged 8.7%.  Believe it or not, the Devils have had as many players from these later picks make it into the NHL to play 200 or more games as they did in all of their second round picks.

Devils Third+ Rd. Picks 1999-2005
Year Rd. Num. Player  GP
2000 3 76 Michael Rupp 416
2002 4 117 Cam Janssen 206


Both are not only fourth line caliber players, but they aren't Devils anymore.  But at least they made it into the league, and they had their time in New Jersey.  I'm particularly grateful for Rupp for doing this, as are most Devils fans, something I'm sure he didn't know he would do when he went into the draft again in 2000. He's still only one of two here.  The Devils didn't strike gold late as often as most of the league, no matter how it's rationalized.  Mark Fraser (2005 3rd round pick) is a long shot to be added to the list, though.  

So What Does It All Mean?

In a way, it's a bit impressive that the New Jersey Devils have stayed such a strong team despite not really reloading through the draft from 1999 through 2005.  Yes, Parise, Zajac, and Martin all turned out to be great players. However, the other picks didn't turn out as well and a vast majority didn't even turn out significantly long NHL careers.   Yes, most draft picks don't - but the Devils were luckless at a worse rate than most of the league.

This leads me ask: What happened, Mr. David Conte?  The Devils went through the 1990s, often selecting multiple players who would have the skills to break into the NHL for some length of time in some capacity. That was great. If not in New Jersey, then elsewhere. The scouts clearly did their job well in those days.  Yet, we haven't seen anything like that since 1998.  2000 was the last draft year that turned out multiple NHL players who have played 200+ games (2005 may overtake that years from now).  In years afterward, the Devils were fortunate just to get one player out of each year. Granted, Parise and Zajac were far and away successes; but that was it. There wasn't anyone else to fill in other spots.

I understand scouting is far from an exact science and this is solely based in hindsight, but the results haven't been good from 1999-2005, Martin, Parise, and Zajac notwithstanding.

What really makes my head scratch is that the Devils currently have one of the largest scouting staffs in the league. Conte is the director of a scouting staff of 19 different people per the Devils website. While it doesn't not say what each one does or how long they have done it, I would think it would have to be diverse group in terms of experience and expertise.  At least, I certainly hope so, I don't want to consider the alternative.

Now, I have no idea as far as whether the staff has since been increased in size and resources as a result of a lack of results.  Nor do I know whether staff has changed because of the lack of prospects making it to New Jersey in those years.  I have even less than no idea in how the process goes altogether.  I'm sure if I had more knowledge that a lot of the picks would have made sense given the information they had at the time. I repeat: I know this is all in hindsight.

Hindsight aside, though, this is a results-oriented business.  Clearly, the Devils aren't getting enough results (read: players) out of the draft. From my outside opinion, I'd like to know what happened, Mr. David Conte? What went wrong? Have lessons been learned in retrospect of these picks?  What have you or will you do about this situation? Clearly, there must be improvement?

If I may go higher up, what has Lou done or will do about this?  It's my understanding that Lou largely leaves scouting and drafting decisions to Conte and his staff.  Maybe he needs to take more charge himself? Offer his own input?  As it is, Lou's been keeping the Devils strong in spite of the drafts in this time period.  This makes Lou look good, but not so much the scouting staff he ultimately has some responsibility in.

Of course, if the prospects from recent drafts turn out well and the Devils do get more players out of them, then the effect of the 1999-2005 draft failings will be mitigated.   All we can do is hope now.  Based on this recent-ish history, But this is a trend that cannot continue for the Devils to remain a contending team for years to come.

Thanks for reading.  Please let me know what you think about the Devils drafting in those years now knowing this. Are you surprised it was this thin?  Are you at least more appreciative that their first round picks appear to have done well. Does this make you more concerned about the prospects currently in the system, or with the picks in the upcoming draft? Leave your thoughts in the comments.