This season has been a tremendous bummer. I wrote about that fact last Friday before the Taylor Hall trade rumors had reached a fever pitch over the weekend. As we now know, Hall was traded on Monday after weeks of speculation to the Arizona Coyotes in return for a so-so package of picks and prospects. Not that there was much left to hope for in a season with 10 wins over the first 32 games, but the departure of Taylor Hall was a clear acknowledgement of the situation and the now overwhelming likelihood of another bottom-10 finish for the Devils. Whatever stage of Devils grief you were in, this move likely accelerated the progression to “acceptance” for you. The 2019-20 season is what it is at this point.
Taking a step back from the disastrous season we are in the midst of, though, this move also may have signified something bigger. From a longer view, this week represented a proverbial changing of the guard. The Taylor Hall Era will be a curious one to look back on in Devils history. Hall showed up, used his lottery magic to get the Devils two first-overall picks, and sandwiched those two seasons around a run to the playoffs powered by perhaps the best individual season in the history of the franchise. As that era has now come to a close, Hall leaves behind a void that will be filled by whichever players define the next era of Devils hockey. As it stands now, it is not one but two players who are most likely to define this upcoming era of Devils hockey.
The above-mentioned two first-overall picks the Devils received during the Taylor Hall Era, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, are only age 20 and 18, respectively, but they are now undeniably thrust into a position where the team’s success will be dependent on them most of all. “Whose team is it?” is a tired sports cliché, and one I have admittedly engaged with as recently as August (feels like a thousand years ago, doesn’t it?), and, well, here I am again.
While it is an obvious cliché, though, it is inevitably one of the most common ways that we categorize teams in our memories. The 2016-19 Devils will always be the Taylor Hall Devils. Eras aren’t always so neatly defined but there is typically a name or handful of names you will always associate first with certain versions of teams. The 1993-2003 years will most often be referred to as the Stevens/Neidermayer Devils. The brief union of Parise/Kovalchuk will always define the 2011-2012 Cup Final team. The mid-2000s pre/post-lockout Devils were the Elias/Gomez/Gionta teams. Kirk Muller and John MacLean defined the first decent Devils teams of the late 80’s. In a broader example, Martin Brodeur is attached to a full 20-year stretch from 1994-2013. More than any tangible set of expectations or responsibilities, the “whose team is it?” question is an exercise in figuring out who we are going to associate with the team 20 years down the road.
In that post I linked from back in August, I looked at four main names with a realistic claim to it being their team: Taylor Hall, PK Subban, Nico Hischier, and Jack Hughes. The answer at the time was Hall, but now with his trade putting a neat bow on his run in New Jersey, the question is back to being an open one. Without overthinking it, though, the likely inheritors of that mantle are the duo of Hischier and Hughes (especially with Subban’s ongoing struggles). Any discussion of the Devils making a quick return to respectability in a post-Hall world revolves around the 2017 and 2019 first overall picks.
Being the new go-to guys is a lot to heap on two players who are not old enough to buy a beer, but with the Devils embarking on a bit of a reset of a rebuild that previously looked like it might be coming to a close, they are now the cornerstones around which the team will build. The Devils will need each of them to grow into a true difference-maker if they hope to be a contender sometime over the coming five-or-so seasons. While it’s early in each of their careers, their potential roles in leading this team out of the darkness are already starting to come into focus.
Nico Hischier has proven himself to be among the most valuable all-around players in the league in his opening two-plus seasons. While the standard boxcar stats are decent, they don’t necessarily leap off the page, but that obscures just how good Nico has been all-around as a player. Since arriving in the league just over two years ago as an 18-year-old, Hischier has amassed the 26th most goals above replacement (per Evolving Hockey) in the entire league. One look at the company he is keeping on that list is enough to drive home just how quietly great he already is at 20 years old. When he signed for seven years and $7.25M AAV back in October, some were skeptical of the deal, but the Devils have likely locked him into the type of incredibly valuable contract that Taylor Hall is just about to finish up this season. Hischier seems like he will lead the charge for the Devils against other teams’ best for years to come and come out ahead of the game while doing it.
Jack Hughes, meanwhile, is just embarking on his career, but early returns point to a player who is going to have plenty of success of his own. After some opening struggles, Hughes has started to establish why he was selected first overall in this year’s draft. The level at which he sees the game is obvious and as he matures as a player, he seems likely to be one of the league’s premier playmaking threats. With Hischier serving as a potential foil to other teams’ top lines, Hughes could have the opportunity to work his magic separately to help power a formidable scoring line in the future. These are all hypotheticals at this point, but you can already see the outlines of what this pair down the middle has the potential to be.
Of course, much of this is just projecting out from where we are right now. No trajectories are guaranteed in this league and without a proper supporting cast, even good performances may ultimately be in vain. But the confirmed reality of the situation is clear: These are the two guys that the organization and the fans will be looking to as we move forward from the end of the Taylor Hall Era. For better or for worse, this is now Nico and Jack’s team. As people sift through the wreckage of the first 30 games of this season and the apparent failure of the team to emerge from its rebuild, the silver lining that people most consistently point to is that we have these two guys to build around down the middle. Both had a good start with a solid effort and a point each in a victory in the first game after Hall’s departure on Wednesday. Hopefully, an omen for things to come.