Back in the what one might call the ‘golden era’ of Devils hockey (1995-2003), the Devils garnered a reputation as a boring team that it has been unable to shake ever since (at times, rightfully so). The team captured three Stanley Cups and reached four Cup Finals in a nine-year span, and did it in large part thanks to an absolutely suffocating defense. No team allowed fewer shots than the Devils over that stretch, and coupled with the goaltending of some Brodeur kid, not a lot of teams were finding the back of the net against New Jersey. With the great success the team enjoyed in that span, they earned the label of the "team that killed hockey" in many circles of (mostly bitter/jealous) fans.
By virtue of having such a dominant defense, the team was always perceived has having little offense to do with it, and winning exclusively by dragging teams down into the mud of Devils hockey and grinding out 2-1 wins. For portions of this era, that is not too far from true, as the Devils were rather mediocre on offense for their 1995 and 2003 Cup wins, finishing tied for 13th out of 26 and 14th out of 30, respectively. Those are some of the lowest ranked Cup-winning offenses (non-Kings division) in recent NHL history. Lost amidst those two bookends of middling offense, however, is one of the strongest offenses of its era.
Yes, in the stretch between the 1998-99 and 2000-01 seasons the New Jersey Devils were one of the strongest offenses of their era. They finished second in offense in the 1998-99 season, second again in the 1999-2000 season, and topped the league in the 2000-01 season. It should go without saying, but it’s not terribly common to go three consecutive years in the top-two of NHL scoring. Over that three-year stretch, the Devils outscored every team in hockey, finishing a fairly comfortable margin ahead of the second-place Red Wings. With the boring label those great Devils teams were saddled with, they never got much credit for being dynamic scorers, but make no mistake, they were a damn good offense.
The Dead Puck Era of NHL hockey, typically considered to be from 1995 to 2004, is one for which much of the blame is heaped at the feet of the New Jersey Devils. I think the Devils were a convenient scapegoat more than anything, and their wins near both ends of the period help bolster the narrative there, but they also had one of the better offenses of that era. In fact, among the 489 possible 3-season stretches since the 1994 lockout, only 23 teams have bested the Devils’ 3-season stretch from 99-01, and most of the stretches were either in starting in the first couple years before scoring fully cratered in the 96-97 season (9 teams) or included the 2005-06 season, where offense was greatly inflated by power play goals (8 teams). Maybe it’s getting a little cherry-picky at that point, but the moral is that the Devils were a great offense in a period of time where there were no great offenses. Since 2008, only the Capitals (08-10, 09-11) and Penguins (11-13, 12-14 [pro-rated]), teams with a couple forwards you may have heard of, have been able to top the Devils teams in question over a 3-year period.
All three of these teams were more of the scoring-by-committee variety, but the prominence of the offense very much coincides with the rise of the A-Line as a dominant unit. Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora were all entering their primes as the 90s came to a close and, as linemates, they were a force to be reckoned with. By 2000-01, the line was an absolute wrecking ball, scoring 96 goals as a unit. If there was an Extra Skater (RIP) back in those years, I’m sure it would have shown them absolutely manhandling opponents. Beyond them, the team had a number of strong secondary options with names like an in-his-prime Bobby Holik, a young Scott Gomez busting onto the scene, stalwarts Randy McKay and Sergei Brylin, the shorthanded goal master, John Madden, and back-end threats in Scott Neidermayer and Brian Rafalski. Plus, in 2000-01, the team added a scorer in Alexander Mogilny that pushed them from a very good offense to an absolutely great one. They could pour in goals, and did it using a plethora of different options.
The 1998-99 and 1999-2000 teams both had a similar scoring output , each scoring about 250 goals over the course of the season. The goal prevention for those teams (1998-99: 196 GA; 1999-00: 203 GA) wasn’t really any better than the one we saw for New Jersey this past season, but the great scoring depth that the teams possessed allowed them to sail comfortably through the regular season (though apparently not comfortably enough in 2000, as Lou saw fit to can Robbie Ftorek prior to the end of the season) and nail down Atlantic Division titles.
The truly great offense from that era was the 2000-01 team, though. The A-Line, Mogilny, and the scoring options up and down the lineup meant the team basically scored at will. In the years from 1997-2004, here is a comprehensive list of teams who scored more goals than that Devils team: [LINK]. There’s a pretty good argument to be made that, despite falling just short of hoisting the Stanley Cup, this team was the best Devils team in history. They combined their trademark solid D with a buzzsaw of an offense and just ran through teams that year, finishing with a +100 goal differential. They were so good that they came within one win of the championship despite Martin Brodeur faltering with an .897(!) overall save percentage for their playoff run. If they are able to close out the Avalanche in the Cup Final, this team is almost inarguably the best Devils team in history. If there is a Devils team that killed hockey, it sure as hell wasn’t this one.
There have been some Devils teams (okay, plenty of Devils teams) where people are justified in saying that they were a snoozefest to the neutral observer, but you should dismiss the opinion of anyone who tries to tell you that the 1999-2001 teams were a bore. They were a tremendous hockey team that battered opponents at both ends of the ice. They weren’t playing grind-it-out hockey, they were playing dominant hockey, and it’s a shame they aren’t more appreciated for it.