As a fan, it can be tough to sit through a rebuild. I think this is especially pertinent to us fans of the New Jersey Devils, as we essentially took making the playoffs for granted for a very long time. Now that they have been particularly bad for most of the last half decade, it can be hard to see the importance of these seasons and what happens during these times.
However, in reality, some of the decisions and moves that this organization has made over the last couple of seasons, will make this offseason (whenever that is), and will then make next year and beyond that could have massive implications on this organization for the next decade and beyond.
To showcase this, my retrospective look today is not an entirely positive one, but I think it is an important one to understand how this organization got to where it did, and how the organization should handle that lesson now. I want to initially take us back to 1990, when Lou Lamoriello made the best draft pick he would ever make: Martin Brodeur, drafted 20th overall. That gave the team an incredible, Hall of Fame foundation in its crease for two decades. The following year, with two first rounders, Lou was able to nab Scott Niedermayer, another core player for well over a decade, and Brian Rolston, a quality player for a half decade with the team, including the 1995 Cup run. So far, two quality drafting years in a row.
In 1992, Lou took Jason Smith 18th overall, not a major contributor for the Devils, but he had a long NHL career, playing in over 1000 games. He was part of the trade that brought Doug Gilmour to the team, a player who had a strong 1997-98 season before signing with Chicago. Not a huge hit that year ovearll like with 1990 and 1991, but not a total waste either. It helps that in the second round that year, Lou got Sergei Brylin, a major contributor to the team through the glory years. 1993 would be similar. Lou took Denis Pederson in the first round. He played a few years in NJ, had a longer career elsewhere. But the gem that year was the second round once again, where the Devils got both Jay Pandolfo and Brendan Morrison. Both Morrison and Pederson would be traded to Vancouver for Alexander Mogilny, who had an important role with the team in the Cup win in 2000 and the following season, which should have been another Cup win.
I can keep going on. 1994 brought in Patrik Elias in round 2. 1995 Lou took Petr Sykora in round 1. 1996 he got Colin White in round 2, and in 1998 he brought in Scott Gomez in the late first round. The point is this: Lou was able to develop and maintain a dynasty through strong drafting in the early rounds, specifically rounds 1 and 2. Lamoriello is known as a dealer, unafraid to make big trades and moves at key times, and that is true. He also was a tough negotiator. However, without his strong drafting throughout most of the 1990s, the Devils’ dynasty that we remember so fondly would have never come to pass.
When did it all fall apart? After 2012 of course. However, you’ve obviously figured out where I’m going with this, and to start looking at draft classes in 2012 would make no sense. It takes years to develop guys, and the rot that was New Jersey drafting started well before that. In 2003, Lou nabbed Zach Parise in the first round, and followed that up in 2004 with Travis Zajac. Both were very good selections. You might want to say something about Parise leaving, but that has nothing to do with drafting ability, and Lou and the scouting department, spearheaded by David Conte, still had it in the early 2000s. It led to the team being competitive throughout the 2000s and into the 2012 season. But once we hit 2005, however, Lou and Conte lost their touch, and the rot started to manifest itself.
To showcase the comparison between the draft picks that started the rise of the dynasty and those that ended it, check out this chart. It is a simple one, just showing the team’s picks in the first two rounds, and how many NHL games that player played. The six years with the rise of the dynasty is on the left, and six years leading to the fall is on the right. Check the link above to Hockey Reference for this info.
I think the comparison is stark on multiple levels. The most obvious, without even reading, is that the Devils had so many more picks in rounds 1 and 2 during the six years in the early 90s then they did during the six years in the late 2000s. Lou made so many trades at that time to keep the team competitive and give Brodeur a team in front of him, but it cost the Devils their future after 2012. In 2007 and 2010, the Devils did not have first round picks at all, and look at what it got them. Jon Merill has made a name for himself in Vegas, but Matt Hoeffel never played a game in the NHL, and he was the team’s top pick in 2007. If that happens for one year, a team can survive it. The 1997 draft for the Devils was not a good one, but it was sandwiched around good drafting years, and the team was able to absorb that. But when you have bad draft classes every year for a half decade, that’s a problem. You can argue that the best pick the team made from 2005-2010 was Adam Henrique, a fourth rounder. That type of drafting kills teams.
Also, just look at the NHL games played to get an even closer view of the disparity. In the 6 years from 1990-1995, Lou drafted six players in the top 2 rounds who played at least 1000 NHL games. That is a great drafting record right there. And a couple of those guys in Brodeur and Elias played all of them in the red and black. Contrast that with 2005-2010, where only Merrill and Jacob Josefson have played more than 300 NHL games. Josefson, as you remember, was never more than a bottom 6 forward, and you could argue most of those games were simply the team giving him shot after shot to prove his worth in the NHL, something he was never really able to do outside of checking line duty and being somewhat of a shootout wiz.
To bring this back to what I mentioned at the start, that is what makes what is happening right now for this franchise so important. David Conte’s last year with the team brought us Pavel Zacha in 2015, a player who has indeed played over 250 NHL games, but man the players NJ could have taken there really make you wish someone else was in control of scouting for that season. He feels much more like a somewhat better Jacob Josefson to me, one with a definitively positive skill set in the penalty kill.
Since then, what do we have?
2016 - Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian
2017 - Nico Hischier, Jesper Boqvist
2018 - Ty Smith
2019 - Jack Hughes, Nikita Okhotyuk
If the end result of that, 20 years from now, is all-star and potential hall of fame careers from Hicshier and Hughes, and 800+ game NHL careers from Ty Smith and Jesper Boqvist, then it is a smashing success so far, and the Devils are well on their way to another decade plus of perennial playoff runs. If the end result, however, is a good-but-not-amazing career from Hischier, a maddeningly inconsistent career from Hughes, and minimal out of the rest, it will be a decade of more misery. And what happens this year and the next will play into that, but especially this year. The Devils were awful this season; even if the season comes back and the NHL expands the playoffs to 24 teams in some crazy March Madness-like tournament to generate revenue and interest, the Devils would still miss out. But that means they will get a high pick, even if they lose the lottery. Who they take this year, and perhaps next, will go along with those picks there from 2016-2019 to determine the direction of this franchise for the next 5-10 years. It might make for some tough hockey to watch, but for the Devils now, it is all about the drama surrounding the draft. Just look at that history there to tell you all you need to know about the importance of that.