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A Model Opponent: A Pre-Preview of New Jersey Devils vs. St. Louis Blues

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On Friday, the New Jersey Devils will return home to host the St. Louis Blues. This pre-preview post of the game provides reasons to want to go to the game, an explanation of how the Blues may be a model for the Devils to follow as the rebuild again, and offers an affiliate link to Stubhub for fans to buy tickets for this Friday’s game.

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St Louis Blues v New York Rangers
St. Louis Blues celebrating success at the expense of Our Hated Rivals. You love to see it.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils will return home for the first time since February 22 to host the St. Louis Blues. While the Blues utterly trounced the Devils last month, I still think this is a game worth attending beyond the simple fact that it is a Devils game in New Jersey. There are a number of additional reasons as to why you should consider attending this Friday’s game.

First, it is the last Friday night game of the season for the New Jersey Devils. Friday nights are common times for people to go out. It is considered to be the beginning of the weekend. If you let this opportunity slip by, then you will have to wait until next season and hope the schedule has more Devils games at The Rock on Friday nights. By the way, if you are a fan of weekend evening games at all, then you should know there is only one left for the Devils this season - March 21 against the Islanders. If you cannot make it to that one or do not want to be around a lot of Isles fans pumping their tires, so to speak, about their team, then this Friday’s game is a more attractive option.

Second, it is Video Game Night and the Devils’ theme nights have at least been interesting spectacles. There is no shortage of directions the Devils could take their presentation in from graphics to sounds to clips on the screen. There are not many more theme nights remaining this season. There is Kids Day on March 28 against Philly and Fan Appreciation Night on the final home game of the season on April 2. Again, do not let this chance slip by if this is a thing you could be interested in.

Third is more esoteric and more or less why I will be at the Rock and paying attention to this game. As much as I expect the Blues to take the Devils to school, the Devils owners and future management of the team should take a few lessons from the Blues with respect to their restarted re-build.

It has become a common practice for a team that needs to rebuild and reload their team with talent is to be bad, stock up on picks, hopefully win a lottery (or two), and build from there. Do not get me wrong. There have been some great talents in seemingly every draft class and winning a top-three pick can be a huge help for making the team better in the long run. However, tonight’s opponent, the St. Louis Blues did not really do that.

At least, they did not do that at all in this past decade. The last time they picked in the top-ten of a draft was back in 2008 when they picked defenseman Alex Pietrangelo fourth overall. The draft lottery back then was only for moving a team up four spots, with the bottom five teams taking first overall had they won the lottery. St. Louis did not win it that year and took the third defenseman out of four straight picks.

Since that selection, the Blues made it to the playoffs in 2008-09, missed twice in 2009-10 and 2010-11, and then proceeded to make the postseason six straight times with two Central Division championships and one trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2016. The Blues missed out in 2017-18 but they rebounded massively in their storied 2018-19 season with a remarkable second-half of their season to even make the playoffs and then went on a great run to win their first ever Stanley Cup. This season, the Blues are in the driver’s seat for another Central Division title with a record of 41-17-10. Only Boston has a better record in the entire NHL after Tuesday’s games.

The main point is that this is a team that has blossomed since 2008 and never really crashed again to get another top draft pick since then. While they missed the playoffs three times since Pietrangelo was picked, they did not miss it by a big margin either. One would say they were mired in a land of not being bad enough to get prime prospects but not being good enough to make the postseason. Clearly, they pulled out of it and found plenty of success. They are a great example of how good management, good drafting, and getting the right kinds of players makes it possible to have a really good team without being led by a core of high draft picks.

This is the biographical information at NHL.com for the Blues’ skaters and the Blues’ goalies. While the Blues have twelve players who were picked in the first round picks, most of their top contributors were not top-ten picks. Vladimir Tarasenko? 16th overall in 2010. Jaden Schwartz? 14th overall in 2010. David Perron? 26th overall in 2007. Robert Thomas is a rising contributor and he was 20th overall in 2017. Other key contributors from past Blues draft classes include some successes outside of the first round. Such as their goaltending tandem of Jake Allen and Jordan Binnington. Such as defensemen Vince Dunn and Coltron Parayko. Getting into the Draft Lottery and/or picking in the top five is a big plus for getting better prospects. Pietrangelo was definitely a success. However, the Blues scouting staff and management clearly hit big in the middle to late parts of the first round while also finding some successes outside of the first round. You do not need to be looking at lottery balls for several years and then have a crew to build around. It is very much possible to do so outside of the top ten or top thirteen picks and the Blues have done that. That Pietrangelo pick was eleven drafts ago; the Blues did not need to go back to get additional foundational players.

Management has also been able to pick up players that were available and fit them into how their coaches want to play the game. Acquiring Ryan O’Reilly from Buffalo has been a huge get as O’Reilly has 136 points in 147 games as a Blue. Brayden Schenn - who was LA’s pick at fifth overall in 2009 - has been very productive with 179 points in 221 games with St. Louis. Jay Bouwmeester, the former third overall pick from 2003, has been a mainstay of the Blues’ blueline since 2013. Alexander Steen - originally a Toronto pick back in 2002 - has been a solid veteran hand for over a decade. There may be others but these players have served significant roles on the Blues in the past and/or are significant players today. The Blues have been able to identify talent in deals and free agency to help them out. Not every move worked but the ones that did have lasted and had a significant impact. It helped them in the short term to become a more competitive team and it did help them in the long term to sustain their success and eventually win that elusive Stanley Cup in 2019.

And we cannot overstate the importance of having the right staff to utilize these players appropriately. Sure, the Blues have benefited a lot from Binnington and Allen this season. But they are not a team that gets wrecked in 5-on-5. They are from being a dominant team but they do well enough in the most common situation in hockey. They hovered around 49 to 51% in the 5-on-5 rate stats at Natural Stat Trick. But they do well enough to be involved in just about every game this season. It suggests that they have the right approach tactically. Their power play has been potent in terms of success rate per NHL.com and they have pretty good on-ice rates in power play situations per Natural Stat Trick. That is another mark in favor of the coaches as power plays are structured and can employ distinct concepts for the players to run. The Blues have had five head coaches since Pietrangelo was drafted; but knowing that they have been in the playoffs more often than not tells me that the coaching staff got something right. Under Craig Berube, their current head coach, they utilize their talent well. They are not relying solely on Binnington or Allen to get wins or solely on special teams or a night where everything goes right for them.

When you put it altogether, it makes for a very solid team. One that I think can be a model the Devils organization should try to emulate to a degree. The Devils will have the advantage of at least having one first rounder in 2020 among the lottery teams in addition to having Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and MacKenzie Blackwood to build around. But the Blues should not be seen as just as an example of not wanting to throw a season away after three months, but as an example that it is OK to push for some mid-range success. It is very, very difficult to go for a team to go from the proverbial basement to the proverbial penthouse. Just ask a Buffalo or an Edmonton fan about having a top-tier young player and whether their team immediately became good from picking first or second overall. Or The Blues went up, up some more, had a set back, and eventually had it all click for the right time to go make history last year. In my view, despite the past two weeks or so, the Devils remain as one of the least threatening teams in the NHL. The Blues are among the top teams. They are where I want the Devils to be one day. How Blues got there did not require a five-plus season rebuild or a total tear down of the roster at any point in this past decade. It is something that ownership and the eventual GM of the Devils should really consider.

This is the sort of thing I will be looking for as the Devils play the Blues at the Rock on Friday. I have a feeling I will be alone in looking at that. Fair enough. That it is Video Game Night, the last Friday night game, and the simple fact that it is a Devils home game are more compelling reasons to go attend the game. Still, let me at least help you attend the game while possibly saving a few bucks. As part of an affiliation deal between Vox Media and Stubhub, you can find tickets on the secondary market for Friday’s game against the Blues through this link.

We will be having one more of these “pre-previews” as the season goes on to share similar affiliate links for future Devils games this season. In the meantime, I want to know what you think about this match-up ahead of Friday’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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