For the past seven or so years, the New Jersey Devils have been — with the brief exception of the Taylor-Hall-MVP-season-fueled run to the playoffs in 2017-18 — an NHL also-ran. Rarely relevant in the league standings and often downright terrible, the Devils have had a rough go of things since the team effectively collapsed under the weight of years of future-mortgaging and poor drafting in 2014-15. A major culprit of the demise of one of the league’s model hockey operations over the prior two-plus decades was the disintegration of organizational depth that occurred between 2001 and 2014. With a few notable exceptions, the Devils just stopped getting reliable contributions from their organizational depth and papering over the issues with free agency stopgaps/various journeymen could only hold up for so long.
In the modern NHL, there is a clear model for how to build a winner and it’s not necessarily linked to any one style or approach to hockey from a strategy standpoint. The key is to establish a handful of cornerstone pieces and core contributors and then, to build out your roster, supplement that core with a litany of good role players on ELCs and other team-friendly deals. This is best achieved by identifying, drafting (or otherwise acquiring), and developing enough young talent to provide the team a reservoir of organizational depth that can be called upon to contribute meaningfully in the NHL when the time is right.
Though they appear to perhaps be in the death throes of their current 15ish year run among the league’s best, the Penguins have exemplified this model at times, particularly in the past half-decade. While the engine driving those teams was obvious, they always seemed to have one or more random call-ups who would appear out of nowhere and put up 40+ points. There is a tweet that explains this phenomenon from Twitter user @ATFulemin:
The Penguins always have like eight injuries and twelve call ups I've never heard of. The call is like "Malkin gains the zone with wingers Mark Donk and Buzz Flibbet" and you look and they both have 47 points— Acting the Fulemin (@ATFulemin) November 17, 2019
The Penguins, thanks to a one-two punch in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that few teams in league history could possibly hope to counter, could draft/acquire players, give them time to develop and bring them up when the time was right for them to contribute. A Connor Sheary here, a Bryan Rust there, a Jake Guentzel for good measure, and pepper in a few Dominic Simons, Teddy Bluegers, and Zach Aston-Reeses around the edges. That you need elite talent in the NHL is obvious and the core is the pre-requisite for success, but the reservoir of other contributors is the way to sustain that success. You need the Donks and the Flibbets on some level or you end up floundering like the Edmonton Oilers, even if you have the right pieces at the center of everything.
For the Devils, time will tell whether they have the makings of the right core, though things are looking brighter on that front with the leap Jack Hughes has taken and the continued high-level play from Mackenzie Blackwood. Coming into this season, though, it was fair to wonder if the Devils were about to get waxed early in the season by opponents, given how much they were going to rely on inexperienced call-ups, particularly in the absence of top center Nico Hischer. But the Devils have so many young options to fill in the lineup that they have been able to promote the ones who are performing while shuffling out guys who might be struggling without really missing a beat. The Devils have been competitive and, at even strength, they’ve been downright solid, in spite of some major absences.
The expansive pool of prospect options the Devils have been building since 2016 — which has included picking an average of nine players in each of the past five drafts and bringing in some additional prospects last year through the trades of Taylor Hall, Blake Coleman, and Sami Vatanen — has become broad and deep. Taken on their own, many of these players are far from a sure thing. The Devils aren’t trying to squeeze an entire next generation of players out of a John Quenneville-shaped stone like they were in 2015, though. There are now probably a dozen 2015 John Quenneville-level prospects in this organization now, along with a number of guys with brighter outlooks. And while this effect is considerably more prevalent at forward for the Devils, there are the underpinnings of a similar trend on defense, too.
Relying on the development of a handful of prospects with a 20-30% chance of becoming an NHL regulars is a problem, but having a ton of those guys can quickly become a luxury if you have the right core in place. Which brings us back to the current state of the Devils. Needing, say, Janne Kuokkanen or Michael McLeod to absolutely be a difference-maker for your organizational depth chart to work is a bad spot to be in. However, being in a position to say, “Hey, we just need like three of the Janne Kuokkanen/Nolan Foote/Nick Merkley/Tyce Thompson/Mikhail Maltsev/Yegor Sharangovich/Jesper Boqvist/Aarne Talvitie/Mike McLeod/Nikola Pasic/Arseni Gritsyuk/Nathan Bastian/Patrick Moynihan group to turn into decent NHLers and we’re in pretty good shape,” is a considerably better situation (with the Alexander Holtz/Dawson Mercer duo being in a slightly different category).
The Devils have done some good scouting recently, particularly with some of their late round picks, but there’s something to be said for casting a wide net for something fraught with uncertainty like acquiring prospects. With a mix of taking the right swings on guys with potential and sheer volume, you can build a deep organization. If fans of other teams a year or so from now are saying “Who the hell is that [Thompson/Kuokkanen/Sharangovich/etc.] guy and why is he killing us?” in response to a few of the Devils players, that is an enviable situation to be in as an NHL organization. And given the results so far from a team that is prominently featuring more than a few of those guys, it feels like Devils might be on the precipice of having an actually deep NHL squad that can cause matchup headaches and “Who are these people!?” frustration for opponents.