When we think back to the golden decade of Devils hockey from 1994 to 2003, the things that most readily come to mind are of course the triumphs in 1995, 2000, and 2003, and perhaps also the heartbreaks of 1994 and 2001. Embedded in the middle of that run though are some of the most frustrating Devils teams in the franchise’s history. The five years above are all talked about quite frequently as great or memorable Devils teams, but there were three teams directly in the middle of that run that all looked poised to deep runs and instead swiftly crashed and burned once they hit the postseason.
The run from the 1996-97 season to the 1998-99 season featured some of the best regular season teams in Devils history, each putting up over 100 points in an era where the loser point didn’t exist and only three or four teams finished in the triple-digits. In those three years, though, the Devils managed to advance to the second round just once, winning a grand total of one game beyond the first round. With the Cup win in 1995, the angst of course wasn’t at the levels of the 2000s Canucks or the pre-2018 Capitals, but the Devils looked like a team that might just be squandering their window for further glory. We now know that the team would return to the mountaintop upon the turn of the millennium, but that was never a guarantee, and it’s interesting to look back at a somewhat glossed-over bit of Devils history.
1995-96 — The Post-Cup Hangover
The Devils reached the top of the hockey world for the first time in 1995, exorcising some of the demons from the heartbreaking end to their 1994 playoff run and bringing the Cup home just 12 seasons after their bumbling inaugural go-around in New Jersey. The Devils steamrolled their way to the Cup in the ‘95 playoffs, losing only four games in four rounds, including a sweep of the heavily favored Red Wings in the Final. Despite some attempts by bitter rivals to discount the Cup win in a shortened season, the Devils looked every bit like an emerging big problem for the rest of the league and given the back-to-back deep playoff runs, they were as battle-tested as anyone else in the league. Further success felt like a given.
Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. The Devils stumbled hard in the 1995-96 season, as their first three months looked like a team mired in a serious Cup hangover. At the arrival of New Year’s Day, the Devils were four games under .500 and second to last in the division (via ShrpSports). Lou Lamoriello spent much of that season wheeling and dealing, as the Devils would make eight different trades during the season, jettisoning names like Claude Lemieux, Chris Terreri, Jim Dowd, and Tommy Albelin over the campaign. Esa Tikkanen and (Claude’s brother) Jocelyn Lemieux were both acquired and traded by the Devils in the same season (Tikkanen was around for less than a month). As part of a big second half push, the Devils brought in not one but two future Hall-of-Famers in Phil Housley and Dave Andreychuk.
They would fall short though, partially due to the imbalance of the Eastern and Western Conferences at the time. The Devils finished ninth in the East but 12th overall in the league, meaning they had a [significantly] better record than five (!) of the playoff qualifiers in the West. I was young, but I remember being dumbfounded by the Devils missing the playoffs in 1996. The team that had just stomped the whole league into the earth in the 1995 playoffs wouldn’t even be in the tournament to defend their title. It was an aggravating season, but ultimately both a blip, as the Devils would not miss the playoffs again until 2011, and a precursor to even more frustration in the coming seasons.
1996-97 — A Return to Form and a Terrible End
With a whole lot to prove after their disappointing 1995-96 season, the Devils made damn sure they did not miss the playoffs in the following season. The Devils jumped from a playoff miss to finishing first in the Eastern Conference in 1996-97. A look at the roster from this season shows how many good players the Devils were riding with. Beyond the central triumvirate of Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, and Scott Niedermayer, the Devils had a litany of other good players, including Bobby Holik, Andreychuk, John MacLean, and Bill Guerin, with strong depth behind that. Lou would also be at work on the trade market once again, again adding a future Hall-of-Famer mid-season, this time Doug Gilmour, who was still an elite NHL forward at age 33. This season would also mark the first significant appearance for a guy you might recall named Patrik Elias.
As mentioned, this team finished first in the conference, ending the season 22 games over .500, and they looked ready for a seriously deep run again (though hobbled by an injury to Andreychuk). In the first round, that seemed like the direction things were headed, with the Devils quickly dispatching a mediocre Canadiens team in five games with the only loss coming in triple-OT. That would set up a rematch of the 1994 ECF with the fifth-seeded Rangers. It would not go well.
The Devils won Game 1, and then promptly lost the next four (including a Game 5 overtime elimination) to fall to the hated trans-Hudson rivals for the third time in six years. This might have been worse than missing the playoffs altogether in 1996. The Devils were a team that cruised through the regular season and first round only to hit the worst possible brick wall against the Rangers. The team was kind of mediocre offensively, but the defense headed up by Stevens, Neidermayer, Ken Daneyko, and Lyle Odelein and backstopped by Brodeur was the NHL’s best, and the team had added Gilmour at the deadline to help the offense. That formula worked well until the moment it didn’t.
The defense held up its end of the bargain, allowing less than two regulation goals per game in the Rangers series. The offense completely evaporated though (with some assistance from one of the worst rules ever conceived), with the team scoring three lousy goals in the final four games and five goals total in the series. Gilmour was held completely off the scoresheet, as was Holik. Andreychuk didn’t return until Game 5. Niedermayer and Brian Rolston were the only Devils with multiple points in the series. It was a disaster and an ignominious end to a promising season. On the bright side, the Rangers would be promptly eliminated in the next round and the Devils wouldn’t lose a game to them again until 2001.
1997-98 — New Faces Emerge but Disappointment Abounds
It probably wasn’t quite perceptible at the time, but in spite of the ending, this season was a watershed one in Devils history. The core of the defense would remain in place most of the way through 2003, but at forward, things changed a whole lot between 1995 and 2000. The Devils were likely bitter about how things ended in 1997, but they were undeterred, as they put on a wire-to-wire domination of the Eastern Conference in the 1997-98 season. Jacques Lemaire remained at the helm and the Devils continued to crush the life out of teams on defense while improving their offense (relative to the rest of the league, at least, going from 16th to 9th ranked in spite of scoring fewer total goals). The Dead Puck Era was arriving in earnest and the Devils were working on getting to the perfect mix of defense and counter-punching offense.
The Devils offensive attack was changing around this time and, specifically, it was getting younger. Gilmour, Holik, and Andreychuk were still leading the way, but a pair of new faces who had arrived late in 1996-97 would become mainstays. Yes, Elias and Petr Sykora both played their first full(ish) seasons in red and black, and they looked like the future. Lou wouldn’t acquire a Hall-of-Famer mid-season this time around, but he would trade for someone who would become a much more legendary Devil. In a trade that shipped out Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin just a month after the departure of a face of the franchise in John MacLean, Lou acquired a center by the name of Jason Arnott. Much of the old guard was moving on and pieces of the most famous line in the history of the team were in place, even if nobody quite knew that yet.
Everything was going swimmingly as the Devils again cruised into the playoffs, this time getting matched up with the 8th-seeded Senators in the first round. Despite a huge performance out of Doug Gilmour this time around (5 goals and 7 points in 6 games), the Devils would again meet bitter disappointment, falling to the Sens in 6 games. The Sens were not a particularly good team in 1997-98, finishing the season with a negative goal differential. Once again though, the offense would fail to generate enough to win games, despite another strong defensive series. The Devils allowed only one regulation goal in four of the games and only allowed more than two regulation non-empty net goals in one game. They lost, regardless, as nobody outside of Gilmour could make an impact on the offensive side of the puck.
This would mark the end of Gilmour’s career interlude with the Devils, which is little more than a footnote in spite of Gilmour playing mostly great hockey outside of the 1997 Rangers series. Lou was never a man to shy away from a trade, and the late-90’s were no different as he had some doozies in this stretch. Ultimately, 1998 started to outline a troubling trend for the Devils, as they could not muster enough offense to succeed against locked down postseason defenses. After Lemaire’s departure in the summer of ‘98, the Devils would return with one of the best offenses in the league to go with a still solid defense. They would even find significantly more scoring in the playoffs. The result? Well...
1998-99 — #$@&^#% $!!#@$#&
Once again, the Devils would enter the season with a chip on their shoulder, and once again, they looked poised to make a big run in the playoffs, and once again, they would exit the stage by the first week of May.
With Robbie Ftorek at the helm, the team took a slightly different route to dominance, with a high powered offense and a still good, but slightly less suffocating, brand of defense. The result was yet another finish at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, though the Senators team that had shocked them in the first round in 1998 was nipping at their heels this time. Despite the two teams seemingly poised for a playoff rematch as the 1 and 2 seeds, both would immediately crash out in the first round.
By this time, you can really start to feel the distance from the 1995 team looking at the roster. The big three of Brodeur, Stevens, and Neidermayer remain, but at forward only Holik, Brylin, Rolston, and McKay are still around. Sykora would lead the team in scoring as he, Arnott, and Elias all really start to emerge as the engine for the team in the 1998-99 season. True to form, the Devils didn’t have anyone near the top of the league in scoring, but they had great depth, with nine players putting up 30+ points and 14 players putting up 20+. This was a team powered by its youth movement, with each of the top seven scorers under 29 years of age and only Holik over 25 among that group. Even Guy-You-Forgot-the-Devils-Drafted Brendan Morrison was in the mix with 46 points at age 23.
That new look and the higher-powered offense ultimately wouldn’t lead to a different result in the playoffs, though. This time, however, the blame wouldn’t really fall with the offense, who put up a solid 2.6 goals per game over the seven-game series versus the Penguins. The defense was also hard to blame, as they held Pittsburgh to just 20 shots a game as the Devils were putting up 28. No, this one came down to the goaltending, and despite his legend, this one was probably on Brodeur.
This was a Penguins team some serious talent for sure, with Jaromir Jagr (who actually was injured the first four games) winning the Hart Trophy with 127 points in a league that didn’t really do that anymore, and other names like Martin Straka and Alex Kovalev presenting their own threats, but Brodeur faced just 139 shots and allowed 20 goals, a save percentage of .856. Regardless of how well a team is playing, that is difficult to overcome, and the Devils would ultimately fall to Tom Barrasso and the Penguins in seven.
Three straight runs to the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Devils had exactly one series win to show for it. Just when they had seemingly fixed the offense to go along with the stifling defense, Brodeur blew a tire. In a vacuum, this three-season stretch by the Devils had to be among the worst in history in terms of postseason flame-outs. Even with 1995 in the relatively recent past, 1999 was an immensely frustrating time to be a Devils fan.
A Happy Ending
The good news for all of us is that the Devils swept away the aggravation of the late 90s with a bang as soon as the calendar flipped to 2000. The A Line reached the height of its powers, a couple of new rookie standouts arrived on the scene in Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, Claude Lemieux returned, Alex Mogilny was the big deadline add, and Brodeur made amends for 1999 in a big way. The result, of course, was the team’s second Stanley Cup. The team would go on to another two finals in the following three years, despite some big roster changes and a continuous coaching carousel, and they’d bring home Cup #3 in 2003.
The success of the early 2000s obscures the amount of frustration that immediately preceded it. It’s an era that is hard to get a solid grip on because the Devils were so good but flamed out so spectacularly in each go-around. The Cup Final in 2001 is always a big “what if?” for Devils fans, but the stretch from ‘97 to ‘99 represents another major missed opportunity in the team’s history. Those teams were all potentially capable of winning championships but none really even came close. Even if the Devils had just made a couple conference finals in that stretch, it would feel like there is a lot more continuity between the team that won in 1995 and the team that won in 2000.
It’s tough to complain about a team winning three titles in nine seasons leaving opportunities on the table, but the Devils were so consistently good from 1994 to 2003 (and really up to 2010), that it does sometimes feel like they could have done even more. Sometimes, it’s the disappointments that make the triumphs that much sweeter, though, and perhaps the frastruation of the preceding years just added to the euphoria the moment when Arnott potted his double-OT goal in 2000.
Research and stats for this piece collected from Hockey-Reference.com.