The Devils are not one of the NHL’s oldest franchises, but they have been around for quite a while and are one of the most successful franchises over the 37 years (36 seasons) since the team arrived in the Meadowlands in 1982. The team’s history in New Jersey now spans most of four separate decades, with the soon-to-arrive 2020s being the fifth. Those decades started with substantial lows but transitioned into the highest highs. In the most recently completed decade, franchise effectively imploded, leaving few survivors
A New Jersey Success Story
The Devils have bookended two extremely successful decades with two, well, much less successful ones, but over the stretch since they arrived in New Jersey, few teams have secured hardware like the Devils have. The Devils, as we are all well aware, have three Stanley Cups to their name. Only three teams can best that achievement since the team’s inaugural season: the Edmonton Oilers (5 Cups), Pittsburgh Penguins (5), and Detroit Red Wings (4). In addition to those Cups, the Devils have also secured another two Prince of Wales trophies for winning the Eastern Conference (nee Wales Conference) giving them a total of 5 conference champion trophies since arriving on the scene, another feat only topped by the same three teams (Oilers (7), Penguins (6), Red Wings (6)).
The Devils’ regular season success is limited by the runs of bad hockey in the early-to-mid 80s and mid-to-late 2010’s, so they are only middle of the pack in regular season wins among teams that have been around since 1982-83 (12th out of 21), and in win percentage for all teams (14th out of 31). In the playoffs, though, the Devils are in the top 10 in wins (9th overall) and win percentage (7th overall). The Devils also appeared in the playoffs in 13 straight seasons from 1996-97 to 2009-10, a streak that only the Red Wings (25 seasons from 1990-90 to 2015-16) and Capitals (14 seasons from 1982-83 to 1995-96) have beaten since the Devils’ inaugural season (side note: that Devils streak could have been 20 seasons if not for the inexplicable miss in the 1995-96 season, where the Devils finished 12th in the overall league standings, but missed the 16-team playoff bracket due to conference imbalance).
By a number of metrics, the Devils are one of the most successful franchises in the league over their time in New Jersey. This team has seen a lot of highs
The Rise and Fall
Taken as a whole, the Devils’ run from 1982 to 2019 fits a pretty neat rise-and-fall narrative. The Devils started out as a punchline in the 80s, getting constantly pulverized by the league’s top teams and famously earning Wayne Gretzky’s ire after a particularly embarrassing showing against the Oilers in November 1983. The Devils were a joke to more than just the world’s best player back then, though, as this very real excerpt from a NY Times article from that season makes clear:
Since moving from Colorado before last season, the Devils have felt other slaps. They have endured a parody of the rock song ‘’Safety Dance’’ by Men Without Hats, entitled ‘’Devil’s Dance’’ by Men Without Hat Tricks. One of the lyrics in the parody goes, ‘’We can lose if we want to.’’ More recently, Resch, a fine goalie and good citizen, has suffered being lampooned in a vulgar skit on an FM rock station.
I don’t want to know what they did to poor Chico in that “vulgar skit on an FM rock station,” but can confirm that the Devil’s Dance by Men Without Hat Tricks is apparently a real thing that existed/exists. I have embedded it below because I felt some cosmic obligation to share a lo-fi, extremely 80s parody song about the Devils once I found it, and because it does highlight just how low the Devils’ profile was in those days. You have to be a pretty lousy hockey team to be getting extended airtime about how much you stink on the local New York morning zoo show.
Things improved by the end of the 80s though, as the Devils began their rise up to the top of the NHL ladder. The Devils, of course, made the playoffs for the first time in 1987-88, running all the way to the conference finals. That would be just a harbinger of what was to come for the franchise. As the Devils turned the page from the 80s to the 90s, the would go from plucky upstarts to legitimate contenders.
The 90s were where the Devils really arrived as a contending franchise. The pieces that would form the bedrock of a three time Stanley Cup winner would arrive in the early 90s, with 1991-92 being a watershed year where Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Martin Brodeur would each make their first appearances with the team. The team was a part of one of the most storied conference finals in modern history against their trans-Hudson rivals in 1994, and followed up that heartbreak by reaching the NHL’s mountaintop in 1995. The 90s were the decade that the Devils booted the punchline label of the 80s for good and became a contender and a thorn in the side of everyone in the NHL. The back half of the decade would have its share of postseason failures, but the Devils were legitimate, and they were approaching the arrival of a second wave of stars who would take them from contender to dominance in the 2000s.
The 2000s were the decade that the Devils became one of the teams that would define an entire era of hockey. With dominant teams, a Cup, and back-to-back finals appearances in 1999-2000 and 2000-01, the Devils emerged into the new millennium as one of the NHL’s teams to beat and a constant Stanley Cup threat. They would add another Cup in 2003 after a roster shakeup, making putting them in rare air as a team to win three Cups in a 10-year stretch. The lockout in 2004 would end up marking the end of the Stevens/Niedermayer era in New Jersey, but the Devils kept chugging along as one of the league’s most formidable teams. Even as the team had playoff failures in the back half of the 2000s, with their virtual stranglehold on their division and the way they kept winning despite a parade of high-profile departures in free agency, it felt like Lou Lamoriello and the Brodeur-Elias-Parise Devils had discovered a perpetual motion machine of success. Speaking as a Devils fan who really came of age in this decade, you just started to take success for granted and the playoffs were just a given. The decade to follow was about to lay bare how spoiled we were.
The End of an Epoch
If you’re telling the story of the New Jersey Devils, there are a few different eras over the first 30 years: the Mickey Mouse Days, the Muller-McLean-led late 80s, the rise to contention of the 90s, and the dominance, and then attrition, of the 2000s. It all follows a pretty consistent narrative through-line, though. The fabric of those teams all felt like continuations of former versions of the Devils. The 2010s, though, have largely extinguished that link, though. The wobble and then abrupt collapse of the longtime powerhouse Devils would mark the biggest shift for this franchise since it fled the mountains of Colorado for the swamps of New Jersey in 1982. With the benefit of a few years of space, the mid-2010s look like the end of not just an era, but an entire epoch for the Devils’ franchise.
Coming out of the 2000s, the Devils were still among the league’s strongest teams and, at least at the time, seemed reasonably well positioned to keep that gravy train rolling. After a heartbreaking playoff exit in 2009, the 2009-10 team landed right back at the top of the division, adding one of the best forwards in the league, Ilya Kovalchuk, in a deadline blockbuster. The Devils would again make an early exit from the playoffs though, and Jacques Lemaire would retire to make way for a rookie coach in the form of franchise legend John MacLean. That coach would be overmatched and oversee the worst few months for the franchise since the early 80s before being canned around Christmas. Lemaire would return and almost steer the team back to a miraculous playoff berth, but the cracks were finally starting to show for the Lamoriello Devils.
The 2011-12 season would seem like a return to championship form for the Devils, and in a way, it was. The 2010-11 disaster was made to look like a blip, as the Parise-Kovalchuk-Elias Devils ran all the way to the Finals, going through their two most fierce rivals on the way. With the benefit of hindsight though, it was the last gasp of a truly special run of franchise success. Zach Parise would depart in the summer of 2012. Kovalchuk’s infamous “retirement” would follow in 2013. Brodeur’s career in New Jersey would be done in 2014 (and after a probably-not-necessary handful of games in St. Louis, the NHL in early 2015). Elias would be effectively done in 2015, save for a final farewell tour and magical last game in April 2016. Lou Lamoriello was force to hand over the GM reins in 2015 and left the franchise shortly after. Even ownership changed hands when an overleveraged Jeff Vanderbeek could no longer keep all of the plates spinning and was forced to sell the team in 2013.
The types of through-lines that generally tied Devils eras together all quickly disintegrated while the team floundered its way through the mid-2010s. Franchise mainstays gave way to mercenaries, whose stretches varied from “sometimes fun, if ultimately doomed” (Jagr, Cammalleri) to “nostalgic but pointless” (Gomez) to “ill-advised and tragic” (Clowe) to “consistently aggravating” (Ryder). By 2017, almost nothing was left tethering the Devils to the success of 2012, let alone the 2000s. By New Years Day 2018, only Andy Greene and Travis Zajac remained as connections to (survivors from?) the before time. Everyone else had been traded, retired, or otherwise departed New Jersey.
The past decade of Devils hockey has been an odd thing to endure as a sports fan. Few teams will ever enjoy the type of sustained run of success that the Devils did from 1987 to 2012. When a run like that ends, though, it takes a while to accept and then assess the wreckage in the aftermath. Save for the Taylor Hall-powered blip in 2017-18, this team has been downright bad for the better part of seven seasons now. The Devils have finished either last or second-to-last in their division in five of these past seven years. This has been a bad hockey club to watch for the most part, and they’ve been bad enough long enough that we’ve gotten used to it on some level. Certainly a far cry from where things stood ten years ago.
Hope Springs Anew
Despite the gloom that has hovered over most of the past decade of Devils hockey, the team is now approaching a position where it appears success is on the horizon. The poor hockey mentioned above, combined with some lottery ball luck, generally good recent drafting, and mostly savvy maneuvering on the trade market have given hope that perhaps a new epoch of success is about to dawn in New Jersey. With players like Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes set to be featured down the middle together for a long time, a group of promising and solid defensemen with a proven veteran capstone in PK Subban, a constantly improving supporting cast, and superstar wing who may be around for a while too if he signs on the dotted, the outlines of the next Devils era we might actually look back upon fondly are certainly in place.
The Devils current state actually somewhat mirrors where the team was at the end of the 80s, coming off six playoff misses in the prior seven years. With a group of veterans hungry to take the next step and a litany of young talent either nearing their prime or entering the league, the pieces are in place for a 1990s redux if things break just right in New Jersey. Here’s hoping a new era of Devils hockey is upon us, and here’s hoping it’s the type of era that someone might be writing about nostalgically on their blog 30 years from now.
Research and stats for this article compiled from the endlessly valuable Hockey-Reference.com.