For basically all of us fans of the New Jersey Devils, we grew up around a core of key players who have become Devils’ legends. Early on there were some important guys, but the real core of the team that anyone would talk about revolved around the three Stanley Cups from 1995-2003. The reason that I bring this up is because we have now found out when the last of that core of players will have his number hung from the rafters of the Rock. Patrik Elias might not have been there for the first Cup, but no one can deny the impact he had on the franchise, and anyone who questions the decision to retire his number would be in the tiniest of minorities.
He will join the rest of the important core members from that era. Ken Daneyko was there from the beginning, saw the team through the three cups, and now commentates on it all. He is the epitome of Mr. Devil, and is certainly a part of that core. In many ways, Scott Stevens was the attitude of that core, as well as the ultimate team captain. Naming Bryce Salvador and then Andy Greene as captains certainly has some connection to the fact that Stevens was the stalwart captain of a defensive-minded team for so long. While also a defenseman and no slouch, Scott Niedermayer added even more of that offensive flair that the defense desperately needed. And then you had the backbone of it all, arguably the most important key, Martin Brodeur. Combined, they all made one heck of a core that made us watch on a nightly basis, and for many of us, made us fall in love with the team.
With Elias’ retirement, the last link to the past officially left the ice. With the team in the rebuild it has been over the last several years, you have to believe that one of the goals of this franchise has to be to generate a new core. Any team that has sustained success over a long period of time has a strong core of players who really defined the identity of that team over the course of that era. One great example over this decade would have to be the Chicago Blackhawks. They truly hit rock bottom during the 2000s, then they were able to begin developing their current core, taking Jonathan Toews with the 3rd overall pick in 2006, followed by taking Patrick Kane first overall the next year. Throw in the development of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford, all taken a few years earlier than that, and you had 5 core players that have brought the team to the Promised Land three times over the last decade.
For the current Devils, you have to hope that at least some of the core is already here. There are so many unknowns of course, and this is all speculation, but if the team is going to improve sooner than later and begin to be competitive, there has to be at least some of the core players already on the roster, if not most of it. The last core of players were all solidified by Brodeur of course, and the Devils have always relied on good goaltending, but it is debatable to say whether or not Cory Schneider will be a part of the next core. If he were 5 years younger I would say no doubt, but at 31 years old heading into this season, he does not have 10 solid years left. Some would debate if he has much more than 5 potential all-star years remaining before a drop off becomes impossible to avoid. He was not used heavily before coming to NJ, so he does have more tread than many 31 year old starters, but father time doesn’t lose. Let’s chalk him up as a maybe, and in my mind, the chance is less than 50%.
In terms of skaters, if core players are already here, the easiest player to bet on would be Taylor Hall. Former number one overall pick and perennial all-star, he has played seven full seasons in the NHL despite only being 26 years old at the start of this upcoming season. His path to the new NJ core is almost like Scott Stevens’ path back when Hall was born. Stevens played 8 full seasons in Washington, at an all-star caliber mind you, before ending up in NJ thanks to Brendan Shanahan and successful arbitration arguing by Lou Lamoriello. Hall may have come via trade instead of an arbitration settlement, but the path is similar, and if he stays here for the rest of his career, he is the easiest core player to identify.
The next two names you have to hope become core players, but as of yet it is hard to tell, are Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier. Both of them are top 6 picks, and of course Nico was the #1 overall. While the ceiling is higher for Nico, the hope is that both turn into top 6 forwards that anchor this team for the next 15 years. That would easily make them core-worthy. Amongst other young forwards, the next name I guess would be Michael McLeod because of how high he was taken, 12th overall. He had a very, very solid year with Mississauga this past year, and the hope is he could also add onto what Zacha and Hischier hopefully create. Of course, anyone else could also surprise us and join that core. John Quenneville, Nathan Bastian, Miles Wood, and basically any of the other 2017 choices could find themselves in that position if they play well enough. The odds for them are all considerably less, but you never know. At this point, it is far too early to tell for any of these skaters.
On defense, the two main names at this point would be Damon Severson and Steven Santini. If both can continue to improve, there is a decent chance that either or both could become perennial all-star material for the Devils for the next 15 years as well. Like with all of the young forwards I just mentioned in the last paragraph, it is certainly possible, but at this point far too early to tell.
Would anyone else make the list of potential new core players? After 2012 you might have mentioned Adam Henrique, and he is certainly important to the current roster, but when this team becomes really competitive, if these young guys develop into high caliber talent, would he really be a part of that? John provided some solid points that Henrique has the potential to become expendable if the roster gets stronger, so it is hard to really argue that he is a part of the next core. Travis Zajac has been around for a long time and has been a team leader for sure. But no one would put him in this new core. He was great for this transitional period between the old and the new, but he is not the new. Same could be said for the likes of Andy Greene.
Out of everyone else that isn’t the super young talent, the one player I think that could have a realistic chance would be Kyle Palmieri. He is young enough at 26 years old, and if he can sustain a high scoring pace (around 30 goals a year) for the next 8 years or so, he could possibly be considered.
In the end, however, the one really easy player to identify as having a strong chance at becoming a part of the next core for NJ would be Hall, and that is only after assuming he re-signs long term. After that, most of the established players here already (Schneider, Henrique) are either too old or potentially not good enough to really be a staple on that next core, and the young players (Zacha, Hischier, McLeod, etc) are just too young to know whether or not they will develop into a core franchise player. Is the next core here already? It is very possible most of it is. I could definitely see it containing Hall, Hischier, Zacha, and Santini and/or Severson. I could also see it containing Hall…and Hall. That is of course worst case scenario, but you never know. For me at least, it is interesting to think of. If it works out well, the next core could be the group that makes the next generation fall in love with the New Jersey Devils like we did years ago.