I know, I know, it’s a sore subject. But this is a this is a fact that has to be recognized.
For those who don’t know, I’m 26 years old, which means I was born in 1992 and I don’t recall much of Devils history prior to the turn of the millennium. The last two cups I feel I recall fairly vividly, but a lot of work needs to be done to fill in the gaps before then. Until last week my opinion of Devils history looked something like this:
1974 - 1982: Scouts and Rockies suck
1982 - 1987: Devils suck
1988: Devils make first postseason appearance thanks to OT GWG from John MacLean in the last game of the season — this is one of the only things I know about the pre-Elias Devils.
1989: must have been a hiccup
1990-1994: Pretty good teams
1995: FIRST CUP WOOOOOOOOOOO
1996: Hiccup again ... oops
1997-2012: Glory Years
2013-current: ... see here
In 1995 Devils won less than half their games in a lockout-shortened season that ended in a magical cup run. The missed the playoffs the next season which made me think that the true golden age of Devils hockey began just after, hitting its stride with the ascending careers of Elias, Sykora, Niedermeyer, Rolston and Arnott. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized a fairly large amendment was necessary with regards to the 1994 team. I definitely included them in the wrong era.
In preparing for this article, I was going to frame it as “the forgotten season” because, frankly, I don’t know much about it. The story of that year wasn’t told to me, only the story of the last game. From my perspective, Devils history started with the first cup. But, as someone who wasn’t really aware of things for the season myself, I decided to ask my father how he saw things.
Me: What was the ‘Golden Era’ of Devils hockey?
Father: I’d say from 1994 to at least the last Cup ... maybe as long as to 2012.
Me: Really, you include the 1994 season?
Father: Oh yeah, that was a great team and we thought we were going to be good for a while. Heading into 1994-95 we wanted the cup.
Me: But if you had to describe the “breakthrough,” when would that have been
Me: .... *Erases entire intro to article*
I asked my father a couple leading questions to get him to say something that would make me need to do less work, but he didn’t budge. I was framing the article completely incorrectly. It was originally going to be a piece intended to educate all fans about an underappreciated team. It took me a while to admit that this piece was not for all fans, it’s just for the ones like me who don’t remember what it was like. It’s for the unlucky fans who are just too young to recall 1994...
The first great Devils team.
They didn’t win a cup, so what was so “great” about them? Well, to name a few, the had a blueline with an absurd pedigree, had some of the best depth scoring in league history, and it was the first year of the most prolific goaltender of all time.
All-Time Defensive Roster
In keeping with the identity of the franchise that would be formed in the years to come, this roster contained one of the best groups of 6 defenders assembled in NHL history. Every member of the top 6 played 900+ NHL (/Soviet) games in their career (Steves, Niedermeyer, Daneyko, Driver, Albelin, Fetisov) and 3 of them (Stevens, Niedermeyer, Fetisov) would go on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
They were led by captain Scott Stevens who led the whole team (yes, including forwards) in scoring with 78 points. According to Point Shares, this was the single greatest season from a skater in Devils history. Unfortunately, he played at the same time as Ray Bourque, who scored over 90 points en route to his 5th and final Norris trophy. Stevens even received 13 Hart Trophy votes for most valuable player — 4th among skaters (Federov, Gilmour, Bourque).
The greatest skater-season in Devils history, leading one of the greatest groups of defenders in NHL history.
Based on that first section that I wrote, you’d probably think that this Devils team was fairly one-dimensional. It wasn’t. It might have been the most well-rounded Devils team ever. They finished 2nd in the NHL both in goals scored and goals against.
Miraculously, despite their leading scorer being a defender with <80 points, the Devils were able to amass over 300 goals on the season. They had an historically deep team to thank for this. The Devils hold the distinction of being the last team to have 10 different skaters score 40+ points for a team in one season — they were the only 1994 squad to accomplish this and no team has since. That’s historic in itself, but that they did it without an offensive star is truly special. The Montreal Canadiens (1962, 1981, 1983) are the only teams in history to have more 40-point scorers with a leading scorer getting less than Stevens’s 78.
This team was elite offensively, elite defensively, and yet had just one all-star (Stevens) to show for it in a year in which 12 of the 26 NHL teams had multiple. This was a testament to the superb coaching job done by eventual franchise wins leader, Jaques Lemaire, in his first season as Devils head coach.
Dawn of an Era
Jaques Lemaire wasn’t the only Devil in his first season. Among many noteworthy features of the season, perhaps the top of the list is that it was the rookie season of the Greatest Devil Ever, and it was by no means an inconspicuous debut. Martin Brodeur won the Calder Trophy for best rookie, and finished 7th in Vezina voting, immediately establishing himself as one of the best goaltenders in the world. Among rookie goalies with 41+ games played, Brodeur had the 11th highest GSAA in NHL history. The only more valuable season from a rookie goalie since 1994 was Henrik Lunqvist’s inaugural season.
According to Goals Allowed Adjusted, only Dominik Hasek, John Vanbiesbrouck, and Patrick Roy were more efficient goalies than the 21-year-old Brodeur that season.
The 1994 season almost every key player of the 1993 team that won less than half their games and lost in 5 games in the first round to the Penguins. The first change was Jaques Lemaire who shored up the offense. The other change was Martin Brodeur. And, unlike Lemaire, Brodeur would stay with the Devils for their entire golden era of hockey
The First Great Team
Hockey is stupid. Sometimes the best teams don’t win, and the annals of history are altered as a result. On the Simple Rating System, the Devils “best” 6 seasons yielded 0 cups. Their next 6 best yielded 3.
One of those top 6 was the 1994 season in which the Devils had their 2nd best season ever (behind 2001) and highest rating in the NHL — they scored 7 more goals and allowed 11 less than the President Trophy-winning Rangers. The rivals entered the postseason with the two best records in the NHL setting up an Eastern Conference Championship that had all the fanfare of a Stanley Cup Final.
In a series that included 3 double overtimes including one in a game 7, the Rangers JUST edged out a Devils team that was just as good as they were. It’s rare that you can credit one skater with being the difference in a series — but Rangers captain Mark Messier scored 11 points (more than double the Devils leader — Claude Lemieux) including a hat trick in elimination game 6 — the infamous guarantee game. The 33-year-old Messier would never have another playoff series like that one.
This could have been a flash in the pan. The franchise never scored over 87 points in a season and this time they hit 106. That doesn’t scream “sustainable greatness.” But the 1995 season legitimized that the hope brought on by 1994 wasn’t a simply the childlike fantasies of a team aching to graduate from “Mickey Mouse” status. This was the start of something special.
When anointing a season as the flashpoint for the era of Devils dominance, the tendency may be to give it to either 1988, the first postseason appearance, or 1995, the first cup. But, as my father told me, the first evidence that this franchise was capable of being not just a postseason participant, but a genuine cup contender, was in the 1994 season. As a co-worker who I spoke to about this piece told me: “Listen, the 1994 season changed it all. If you wrote that it was ‘forgotten’ you would have been ridiculed. That season was everything.”
This was the rookie year of the greatest Devil in history. Scott Stevens registered the greatest ever season by a Devils defender, perhaps the greatest by any skater. This team was 2nd in the NHL on goals for AND against — the most well rounded in team history. It was one of the deepest teams without an elite scorer in NHL history. The blueline was filled with great NHLers, including 3 hall of famers. It was the team’s first ever 90+ point season, let alone 100+, and the furthest into the playoffs they’d ever been.
The 1994 squad was wall-to-wall remarkable and are an essential team to story of the Devils franchise. So how come I needed my father to tell me that? How come no one was telling me about this the whole time. People always talk about how the 3 cup years, and how the 2001 Devils that lost in 7 in the Cup Finals were probably actually the Devils best team. How I haven’t seen the same acclaim of the ‘94 edition. Unfortunately, I think we all know why (<-TW). And it’s a shame the first ever great Devils team had to endure that. Because, this would be the most memorable team in franchise history, if their season hadn’t ended in a way that made us all want to forget.
If you can place a silkscreen over the terrible ending of the season, what good things do you remember about the 1994 season? What were your feelings as the season progressed? Which players do you remember the best? Do you think they are underappreciated team in Devils history?
If around my age or younger and don’t recall the season, what was your perception of the 1994 team? If you’re older and you do remember, what’s your recollection of the fanbase’s feelings about the team at the time?
Leave your thoughts below and thanks as always for reading!