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Despite Win Totals, the Devils’ Season Has Been Great News for Rebuild 2.0

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The Devils youth and cap flexibility give them one of the more optimistic futures in the NHL.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A few days ago, I saw a tweet from the NHL about what proportion of the Devils points have come from young players, specifically 23-and-younger. It said the Devils had the highest such figure and the difference was fairly stark. I double-checked the work and we are, in fact, the #1 team. Ottawa is pretty close and the rest of the NHL is very not.

Over half of the Devils points have come from players 23-and-younger. If you look at the other 7 teams in the East Division, the highest team other than the Devils is the Rangers at just 30%. By the way, these numbers were run BEFORE the Devils got 8 points from U23 players against the Flyers last night.

I think this should concentrates a lot of the mixed feelings I — and I’d imagine many of you — have had about this season. We’ve had some brutal stretches of play, yet I feel plagued by this nagging optimism. The reason is because this team is currently dominated by young players, many of whom are proving they belong in the NHL, possibly long-term.

I talked about a month ago about how the Devils half-decade of top picks was finally paying off. Jack Hughes has proved skeptics wrong and has been, by most people’s accounts, the most consistent player on the team. Pavel Zacha bizarrely leads the team in points. McLeod has become an effective energy center and PKer. And Ty Smith is already playing consistently in the top 4 and leads our defencemen in points. And the good news doesn’t stop with former 1st rounders.

Our most effective line over the last 10 games or so has been Zajac-Sharangovich-Kuokkanen line which Mike profiled here. Janne and Yegor have put up a combined 8 goals in March (4 each) — the most of any linemates on the team. They’ve also put up 7 and 6 primary points, respectively, during that span — 1st and 2nd on the team.

Add these guys to newcomers like Mikhail Maltsev (leads the Devils in value added per minute) and established top-6ers like Jesper Bratt (trails only Zajac in March points) and sporadically-elite goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, and the Devils have one of the most formidable groups of youngsters in the NHL.

And it’s not done yet! The Devils have a top-10 prospect pool that features 3 first-rounders from the 2020 draft as well as Nolan Foote, Tyce Thompson, Reilly Walsh, and Kevin Bahl and a few other decent pieces as well — NONE of whom have seen NHL minutes yet. According to Scott Wheeler, Sharangovich and Kuokkanen were only our 10th and 11th best prospects! And this will only grow as the Devil seem poised to secure another high draft pick plus potentially 4 in the top 100 in 2021.

And these are just the assets currently in our possession. There are more fuzzy values that the Devils have stocked as well, like cap space and flexibility. The only “bad” contract the Devils have is P.K. Subban at $9M AAV. He comes off the books in two seasons which is the same year Wood, Bratt, Zacha, and Hughes hit restricted free agency. The only contracts before then for are Sharangovich and Kuokkanen along with the rental defenders (Vatanen, Murray, Kulikov). Andreas Johnsson is the only Devil locked up 3 years, and the only one for more than 3 is Nico Hischier at a team-friendly (in my opinion) $7.25M AAV.

What’s so encouraging about this season is that many of the things that have caused us to struggle do not have long-term ramifications. The most disappointing seasons have been from veterans like Palmieri, Gusev, and Murray who, even if re-signed (the only one I’d want is Palms), would likely come at a discount and not feature in the long-term vision for the team. The super-condensed schedule is a one-year fluke, as was the COVID outbreak. And the lack of chemistry that caused issues like a catastrophic early-season penalty kill are already righting themselves. These are exactly the things you want going wrong.

All of this is to say that, if you were building a team from scratch, it’s hard to ask for more than the Devils currently have. We have 9(ish) young key contributors including a blue-chip 1C, 2C, defender, and goalie; a top prospect pool; all our draft picks; and we have cap flexibility for days.

We are well set up for the Seattle Expansion Draft, we are well set up for free agency, and we are well set up for the future. I consider this to be Rebuild 2.0 and I think it’s going pretty well. I look forward to writing this article again in 2024 when we discuss how encouraging Rebuild 3.0 is looking.

Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments below.