The Devils have long been an organization that prides itself in the team concept and playing for the crest on the front of the jersey. Throughout the Lou Lamoriello years, he put his stamp on the organization with a series of rules intended to promote a team concept, suppress individualism, and/or both. The teams always had a aura of “next man up” and even many of the best players on those Devils teams felt interchangeable. For better or worse, Lou was never afraid to shake up a roster, so offensive stars in particular rarely got too entrenched. And the defensive identity of many of the best Devils teams meant that the teams, in spite of having a deep pool of talent at times, rarely had individuals, outside of perhaps Marty Brodeur, capturing headlines. There are no shortage of die-hard Devils fans who love and appreciate the Devils teams and players of the past, but league-wide cachet/interest has never been a staple of the franchise.
When the team cratered in 2015 and Lamoriello left the organization, the old rules about numbers and facial hair and social media left with him, but the anonymous spirit lived on a bit longer. The team with Ray Shero at the helm has striven to methodically build a contender over the past going-on-five seasons. A steady stream of positive moves, headlined by the blockbuster 2016 Taylor Hall trade and 2017 selection of Nico Hischier first overall, helped build this team back to the playoffs in 2018. Last summer, though, in spite of coming off the most successful campaign in six seasons with the team’s first Hart Trophy-winning player, the team fell quiet over the summer (whether intentionally or not) and hoped they could make waves with a largely similar roster to 2017-18. As we now know, the season was a disaster, submarined first by goaltending woes, then by injuries and depth issues. After a brief flirtation with relevance, the Devils were back in the league also-ran pile.
This summer was like few the Devils have ever had, though. For the first time in what feels like a long time, the New Jersey Devils have legitimate leaguewide buzz about their roster heading into the season. Even when the Devils were still pumping out really good teams in the late 2000’s the general attitude toward those teams was mostly “well yeah, they lost [player X], but they always seem to keep doing their thing.” Even in the aftermath of the (first) Summer of Kovalchuk, the team might have had a similar number of stars, but not necessarily exceedingly positive vibes. The addition of the first overall draft pick in Jack Hughes, one of the biggest stars in the league in PK Subban, and the reigning KHL MVP in Nikita Gusev has a lot of people turning their heads for the Devils. Winning the so-called “offseason champions” award is by no means a free ticket to success (just ask Jim Nill and the Stars), but the level of positive energy around the Devils organization is hard to deny. Even in the aftermath of the (first) Summer of Kovalchuk, the team might have had a similar number of stars, but not necessarily exceedingly positive vibes.
With this fresh influx of stars, we find ourselves asking a question that we’ve rarely had to contend with in New Jersey, and especially of late. There are so many choices, who is the face of this Devils team going into this season? There are four names on this roster likely instantly recognizable to the casual NHL fan, a state of affairs that has only popped up a handful of times (if that) for this team over the years. The Devils now feature a roster with three different former first-overall picks as well as perhaps the biggest celebrity in the league in decades. But which of them will carry the banner for this team this season? Let’s run through the list of candidates.
Arguments for: Provided he is healthy, Taylor Hall is the best player on this roster. His combination of speed, talent, and playmaking instincts make him one of the most impactful players in the entire league when he is on the ice. He can take over a game like few players can and his energy on the ice is infectious. Everyone is a better player when they’re on the ice with Taylor Hall. Taylor Hall is also a better player than pretty much everyone else on the ice.
Arguments against: The contract. All of the great things about Taylor Hall currently come with the caveat that if things don’t break right, he may not be in New Jersey this time next year. The Devils have been burned by their stars in free agency many times before and Hall represents the latest risk on that front. Beyond that, he has some injury issues that can take him off the ice for stretches and its hard to be the face of a franchise when you’re not on the ice, as we saw last season.
Arguments for: Nico Hischier is among the most valuable forwards in the league over the past two seasons by some measures and he has not yet turned 21. Nico seems like the type of player destined to utterly crush his competition on the ice, a la Patrice Bergeron or Patrik Elias, even if it is yet to be seen if he’ll be able to put up the gaudy counting stats. He was the first first-overall selection in the franchise’s history and is likely to be a cornerstone of the franchise over the next decade or more.
Arguments against: Nico did have a bit of a flare for the dramatic with three overtime goals last year, but the way he plies his craft tends to be a quiet one, at least for now. The impacts when he’s on the ice are all fantastic, but he’s not a player who necessarily projects dominance in the way that, say, Taylor Hall does. He seems on track to be a great player, but [extremely sports talking head/radio personality voice] is he a star?
Arguments for: John laid this one out in pretty broad detail in his post from about a week ago: nobody on the Devils, or really the NHL as a whole, is as famous as PK Subban right now. He’s engaged to a world-renowned Olympian; he’s presenting awards and walking the red carpet at the VMAs; he has widely-celebrated charitable efforts; he’s the NHL’s modern renaissance man. Oh and he’s also a former Norris Trophy winner (plus three-time finalist) and he’ll be the anchor of the team’s defense this year. He’s new in town, but the spotlight has very much followed him to New Jersey.
Arguments against: He did just get here and is also coming off what was probably his worst on-ice season. He is the oldest of this group we’re talking about today and has at least a little bit to prove as a player again after a down season in 2018-19. He’s under contract for three years, but with the age and trajectory, there’s at least a little bit of “wait and see” for if he can return to form on the ice before he can be The Guy here.
Arguments for: Hughes enters the league with a wave of buzz after utterly disintegrating his competition with the USNTDP for the past couple years. He broke all sorts of development program and junior records, and enters the league with the talent and the confidence to become a true star. He has a non-zero chance at becoming the best offensive player in the history of the franchise.
Arguments against: He has not played a single NHL game. Hughes is a big story for the Devils but it’s hard to call it his team for now when he still hasn’t seen NHL ice. Just as Hischier and every other highly touted prospect of the past did, Hughes has to prove it on the ice before he’s anointed anything, including the face of a team.
So Who is the Devils Biggest Star?
Ah, now here is where I have to select one of the above choices. As laid out, the above players all have things going for and against them, but if I’m choosing today, I think it’s Taylor Hall for me, even if his position is precarious until such time as he has a contract extension in place. The bottom line is that he can take over games like few others in the league right now and, hard to believe as it may be, he is now one of the longest-tenured players on this roster. Discounting the one-game cameos for Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha in April 2016, only Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Cory Schneider, Damon Severson, and Kyle Palmieri have been around longer. To me, this is Taylor Hall’s team until he voluntarily relinquishes it or somebody takes if from him.
So what do you think? About the presence of multiple stars in general and about who the proverbial face of the franchise is specifically. I recognize the frivolous nature of this question but it’s also the Friday before Labor Day weekend, so it feels appropriate to argue about something frivolous this afternoon. Comment with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.
Who is the face of the Devils right now?
This poll is closed
Other (explain in comments)