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New Jersey Devils Draft History Since 1994: Few Hits Among First & Second Round Picks

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Days before the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery, I take a look at the New Jersey Devils' draft history in the first two rounds since David Conte was named Director of Scouting in August 1993 to identify trends. Expect a forward in the first, a larger defender in the second, and hope the prospect actually makes it because most have not even played 200 NHL games.

David Conte with Adam Larsson, arguably the most successful first round pick by the New Jersey Devils since...Travis Zajac in 2004.  Yes, it's been that long.
David Conte with Adam Larsson, arguably the most successful first round pick by the New Jersey Devils since...Travis Zajac in 2004. Yes, it's been that long.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

While we won't know whether the New Jersey Devils will be selecting first, sixth, or seventh overall in the 2015 NHL Draft, we do know that they will have a high selection in most rounds.  Since they have Florida's second round pick from the Jaromir Jagr trade and Florida also missed the playoffs, the Devils will have a high first round pick to go with two high second round picks.   That's desirable for any team in the draft.  For a rebuilding team like the Devils, it's a great opportunity to get the rebuild going right away.  I'd say it's almost necessary that the Devils get quality NHL players with those picks.

What could those picks become? Would they really go with Lawson Crouse over other forwards that have scored at a high rate in their respective leagues?  Could the Devils draft a defenseman with their first round pick like they did the last time they picked in the top-ten? (Aside: They moved ninth overall in 2013 for Cory Schneider; and people wanted Larsson at #4.)  What can we expect from the second round picks?  I'd caution worrying and lamenting over something that hasn't happened yet.  But that's me.

In an attempt to condense some of the nonsense between now and June 26, the first day of the NHL Draft, let's look back at Devils draft history to see if there are any tendencies.  For better or worse, David Conte has been the team's director of scouting since August 1993. (Aside: Check out the list of scouts, apparently Steve Kariya is a team scout. So is - sigh - David Conte's son.) Conte was with the team longer than that and has made his mark in previous drafts. But for the sake of consistency, let's look at the team's draft history in the first two rounds since 1994 - the first draft where Conte was the director.  That's a lot to look at, and I used Elite Prospects for all data, so let's take it one round at a time.

The First Round

As Travis Yost explained earlier this year in this article at TSN, the first round is where teams have their best chance of finding a NHL player. Yes, plenty of great players have been picked after the first round and some not even at all. However, the first chance at picking of prime prospective players will yield future players more often than not.

Number of Picks Since 1994: 18 (Four were traded before/during draft, 1998 had two)

The Devils and their "win-now" ways throughout the past fifteen ways justified moving some of those first rounders. Those picks being moved were justifiable. The 2013 pick, which was ninth overall, yielded an awesome goaltender. The 2010 pick looks like the biggest price the Devils paid for Ilya Kovalchuk's services.  The 2007 first rounder had to be sacrificed to move a terrible contract and get under the salary cap.  The 2002 first was part of the deal that brought Alexander Mogilny to New Jersey.  (Update: That's wrong, the 2002 first rounder was part of the deal that brought Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk to New Jersey. My bad. Thanks to acasser in the comments for pointing that out.)   Justifiable as they may be, they eventually impacted the prospect situation the Devils are currently in.  So did some of their actual picks.

Positional Breakdown: Eleven forwards (Most recent: John Quenneville, 30th overall in 2014); five defensemen (Adam Larsson, 4th overall in 2011); and two goalies (Ari Ahonen, 27th overall in 1999).

Defensemen haven't been common picks for the Devils in the first round.  The last defenseman picked before Larsson was Matthew Corrente in 2006, which was thirtieth overall.  Before that, David Hale in 2000 at twenty-second overall.  Basically, forwards are the common pick. So it's not written in stone that the Devils prefer defensemen as high picks, Larsson aside.  By the way, I'd like to think Conte & Co. have learned their lesson from Ahonen being a wasted pick in 1999.

First Rounders That Played At Least 200 NHL Games: Travis Zajac (Draft Year: 2004), Zach Parise (2003), David Hale (2000), Mike Van Ryn (1998), Scott Gomez (1998), Lance Ward (1996), Petr Sykora (1995)

I should note that Van Ryn and Ward should come with asterisks. Ward was so good as a prospect, he re-entered the draft in 1998 and was a third round pick for Florida.  He just made the 200-game cut-off.  Van Ryn found a loophole that now allows college players to move to play in major junior leagues.  After a season in juniors, Van Ryn became a free agent and so St. Louis snatched him up.  He also had a career for a couple of years.

Also note that the Devils haven't had a first rounder really "make it" since Zajac.  I use 200 games as it takes at least three seasons for a player to reach that mark, usually more.  To get that far means the player likely played beyond his entry level contract and someone thinks he's still good enough to play at this level.  Yet, the Devils have had a run where they didn't find those players.  It's one thing to have a miss after a few hits; as stupid as the Adrian Foster pick was in 2001, it didn't undercut the system.  Three straight busts? That's going to hurt.  Niclas Bergfors at least helped the Devils get Kovalchuk but he didn't stick around.  Corrente and Mattias Tedenby were busts.  And around that time period, there were years where the Devils didn't have a first rounder, which only compounded the pain.

It is highly likely that Larsson and Jacob Josefson will join this list next season to break that futility streak.  Though, if we're going to consider the more subjective question "Did they meet their expectations from when they were drafted," then it's arguable that Josefson really shouldn't be seen as a sign of success even though he's a NHL player.  It's way too early to judge whether the Stefan Matteau and John Quenneville selections were good or not. At least Matteau may have a shot to stick in the NHL next season.  Those hopes aside, there were a lot of years between Zajac and Larsson, and that's resulted in a lack of younger talent on the team and developing in the system. Given that they were nearly all forwards, that stings just a bit more.

Other Thoughts: After scanning the list of first rounders, Matteau really sticks out like a sore thumb.  While he was a low first round draft pick, the word on him was that he was a physical, energetic player. The word "gritty" was used in profiles of him. While I may have preferred someone else to have been picked in 2012, past forwards selected in the first round by the Devils really could not be called that at all. The defensemen like Corrente and Hale, sure.  Not Josefson, Tedenby, Bergfors, Zajac, Parise, Foster, Gomez, Petr Sykora, or Vadim Sharifijanov.  You'd have to go back to 1989 to see a "power forward" taken in the first round.  Even if you wanted to call those other guys that, they certainly weren't big and/or strong enough for that to mean anything in the NHL because they weren't.  I know the Devils have went for size in past drafts, but that's usually later in the drafts. They're more than fine with picking a smaller, more skilled scoring prospect.  It's just that they haven't hit on any of them since Parise.

The Second Round

Number of Picks Since 1994: 30 (none in 2011 and 2004; four in 1996 and 2000; three in 2001; two in 1999, 2002, and 2008).

If the Devils have erred in moving first rounders, then they have had the opposite problem with second rounders. They've had a lot of selections throughout the second round.  They've had six years under Conte's leadership with more than one.  Surely, the scouts identified good players to pick.

Positional Breakdown: Sixteen forwards (Most Recent: Patrice Cormier, 54th overall in 2008); thirteen defensemen (Josh Jacobs, 41st overall in 2014); and one goalie (Jeff Frazee, 38th overall in 2005)

Under Conte's long term as director scouting, there's more of a balance between forwards and defensemen in the second round.  However, if we limit ourselves to recent drafts, then the Devils have went heavy on blueliners in the second round.  They've selected at least one defender in every second round they had a pick in since 2008.  You know four of them quite well as three were in the NHL last season and one garners high hopes.  That was the last year a forward went in that round. With the Devils having two second round selections this year and a pipeline that could use a defenseman or two in development, we could see this streak continue.  Of course, that streak is a contributing factor as to why the team lacks scoring forwards in the system, but it's not going to garner too much criticism provided whoever is picked becomes a NHL player.

Second Rounders That Played At Least 200 NHL Games: Paul Martin (Draft Year: 2000), Mike Commodore (1999), Colin White (1996), and Patrik Elias (1994).

That's it.  Only four second-round picks since 1994 have played at least 200 games in the NHL.  There were quite a few cups of coffee in the league and three of these four turned out to be crucial players for the Devils.   Martin became a top defenseman, which was important as Niedermayer and Rafalski left the organization.  White became an important, defense-first member of the defense back when those players were still quite valuable.  Elias is the franchise's best forward.  Still, thirty picks and only four that have made it.  That's just sad.

I get that drafting is still very much an art as scouts and teams have to project out a 17 or 18 year old's future and hope they develop to reach those projections.  Still, Conte and his scouting crew had eleven second round selections from 1999 through 2002 and they only found two NHL players.  There are bad breaks and bad luck, but that's a run where someone in management needed to ask "What's going on?"  It's a testament to how the scouts unearthed undrafted gems, hit big on earlier picks, and how Lou constructed the team that this didn't wreck them in the 2000s. However, it's contributing to why the Devils are where they are now.

As with the first rounders, there is hope that more recent picks will prove out to be NHL players who have been in the league for a decent length of time.  I don't think very highly of Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill, but I do think they are players who belong in the league. In two seasons, they should be able to crack the 200-game mark and break that long second-round futility streak. The bigger star may be Damon Severson, who showed a lot of promise in his rookie season. In a few seasons, he could make that pick look very good.  The eventual development of Steve Santini and Jacobs will add to that.  Still, eleven picks yielding nothing between Martin in 2000 and Gelinas in 2009 (let's assume that pick was a good one) should be a cause of at least concern if not outrage.

Other Thoughts: Not only have the Devils been keen on picking defenders in the second round in recent years, this is where they get a reputation for picking players with notable size. The average height of all defensemen picked in the second round since 1994 is just under 6'2.5". While using official heights is iffy, only two of these thirteen defensemen were under 6'2" in height: Paul Martin and Brandon Burlon (2008).  Among the sixteen forwards picked, less than half were under 6'2": Alexander Vasyunov, Petr Vrana, Teemu Laine, Alexander Suglobov, Christian Berglund, Nathan Perrott, and Elias.  As a point of comparison, ten of the Devils eighteen first round picks since 1994 are below 6'2" in height.  If the Devils do make it a seventh straight draft where a defenseman is picked in the second round, then expect him to be somewhat large.  If they do go for a forward, then don't be too shocked if he's at least 6'2" and 190 pounds.  Nothing wrong with players with noticeable frames. It appears to be their tendency in the second round since Conte became the Director of Scouting since August 1993.

Closing Thoughts

It's a good thing Larsson, Josefson, Merrill, Gelinas, and Severson appear to be on their way to saying they've been in the NHL for a considerable amount of time.  Otherwise, the performance of first and second round draft picks leaves a lot to be desired.  That's at least partially why the Devils are relying on free agency, past successful picks until they aren't so good anymore (see: Elias) and other avenues to fill needs in recent years. It's really caught up to them this year. Even with those five players I named, notice that only one of them is a forward and he's a bottom-six forward, so the Devils need for some youth in the top-six remains dire.  Still, the main goal from first and second round picks is to get a NHL player who can contribute.  There's some reasonable hope that the long dry spell of busts may be over.

That said, after looking at the team's draft history since Conte became Director of Scouting, I openly question whether the Devils need some fresh sets of eyes in their scouting department.  Yes, Conte played a big role in the team's successful drafts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  And, yes, there have been some big successes since then. But there hasn't been enough successes, particularly through this last decade of drafts and in the two rounds where most teams get talented players.  The Devils should be in a re-building mode anyway, and it's imperative for the success of any re-build to have successful draft picks.   In that sense, it may not be the worst idea to at least consider whether David Conte should continue to be the Director of Scouting given that the team has missed more often than not in the top two rounds for so many years.

Let's go back to the initial questions.  Would the Devils go for a big, strong, and not-at-all high-scoring winger in Lawson Crouse? It's possible, but the Devils have had no aversion for picking smaller forwards with perceived skill in the first round.  Their past first round picks don't show that they look for larger players; that's been more common in the second round.

Could the Devils pick a defenseman in the first round this year? Sure.  It would go against their past tendencies in the draft.  They've picked defenders before, but it's been few and far between over the years.  If history's any judge, the Devils should stay away because before Larsson the last really successful first round defenseman picked was either Jason Smith (1992) or Scott Niedermayer (1991), depending on whether you value picks more if they remain in the organization.  It's more likely that they will pick a forward.

What will they do in the second round? In the second round, it should come to nobody's surprise if the Devils do take a defenseman since they've done that since 2008.  Again, with two picks this year, I'm confident it'll happen and I'd be fine with it provided they aren't two of the same type of prospect.

Out of forty eight picks between the first two rounds from 1994 through 2014, only eleven have played at least 200 games in the NHL and maybe another five to seven players can join that relatively short list in the future.   That alone should cause concern with respect to what Conte and his scouts will turn up for this important 2015 draft class.  Less so whether they'll pick someone you may deem undesirable despite a lack of basis in past tendencies and draft history.