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Devils’ Half-Decade of High Picks Finally Paying Dividends

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Five years, 5 mediocre-to-bad teams, 5 high draft picks, and 5 feel-good stories to start the season.

New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Disclaimer: This post was written before the Islanders game last night and so statistics may be a tad off. Also, no doubt, Zacha’s point streak will have ended because, of course.

Entering this season, I think it was fairly easy to be bearish on the Devils recent draft history. In particular, the Devils had really produced just 1 clear everyday starter with their past 5 first-rounders combined — Nico Hischier.

2019 1st overall selection, Jack Hughes, produced 21 points in 61 games for the Devils, seemed overmatched as an NHL center, and couldn’t retain his spot in the top 6 in his rookie season. He did play every game he was healthy, but it’s difficult to argue that it was earned by anything other than his draft status. If he got off to another slow start this season, “bust” calls probably would’ve started to rain down.

2018 first rounder, Ty Smith, was the lone hope for the future of the Devils blueline. However, after being perceived as a steal at 17th overall, he twice failed to make the roster of a Devils team that wasn’t exactly flush with defensive talent, and twice saw his age-adjusted production decrease in the WHL.

2016 first rounder, Michael McLeod had played 21 games in 2019 and, in a season that included a roster firesale, saw that decrease to 12 games in 2020. He had scored a total of 0 goals in those 33 games and never had the look of a regular roster player, much less a first-round pick. He’d been outshined by later picks like Jesper Bratt and Joey Anderson, and came into the season a favorite to make the opening night roster, but an underdog to retain it for any length of time.

And that brings us to 2015 first rounder, Pavel Zacha, who has been ... enigmatic? It’s difficult to describe exactly what Zacha has been for this team. At just 23-years-old, he’d already played 250+ NHL games and produced over 100 points (top-20 of his draft). He’s also seen his TOI and points-per-game increase every year of his career, and developed something of an expertise on the PK. Yet he hasn’t been able to shake the label of “disappointment” ever since the Devils selected in a 1st round that included McDavid, Eichel, Strome, Marner, and Hanifin before him; and Provorov, Werenski, Meier, Rantanen, Debrusk, Barzal, Connor, Chabot, Boeser, and Konecny all after him.

The success of these draft picks is integral to the future of the team, because the lack of them is the main cause of the need for a rebuild in the first place.

Ty Smith, at 17th overall, was the latest first-round selection in that half-decade of 1st rounds from 2015-2019. In the THREE DECADES previous (1994 - 2014), the Devils selected that high just three times with top-10 picks Lance Ward (10th, ‘96) and Adam Larsson (4th, 2011) and Zach Parise just squeaking in at 17th in 2003. This is the price you pay for winning the Stanley Cup three times and basically never missing the playoffs.

With that heavy weight of history, I think it’s fair to say that there is a lot resting on this crop of prospects. And, for the first time since Zacha was selected at the start of this stretch in 2016, there is plenty of reason for optimism.

Hughes immediately put any calls of doubts to bed by sprinting out of the gate as the team’s unquestioned #1 center with Nico starting the season on IR. He’s been an absolutely dynamic offensive force, especially at 5v5, which is a great sign for the sustainability of his impact. He still has a ways to go defensively and in the faceoff circle, but his ability to make something out of a skill that cannot be trained and raises his floor as an NHLer to a pretty high level.

Ty Smith may have been the only one to sprint out the gate faster than Hughes, recording a 5-game point streak to start the season. Even as his production has slightly waned, his responsibilities have grown alongside new partner, Damon Severson. Before the COVID delay, Smith produced 8 points in 9 games, and he’s recorded just 3 in the 9 games since. However, he also had played 20+ minutes in only 1/8 pre-COVID and has done it in in 8/9 since as of this writing. He’s becoming a top pairing defender at a truly impressive pace.

McLeod never became the offensive weapon some had hoped after producing 73 points in 57 OHL games in his DY+1 season. But, after showing defensive growth in limited time last season, he’s become a mainstay on this team’s “energy” line. He’s been the primary option for Lindy Ruff in the defensive zone, where he’s been given 31% of the faceoffs and is responsible for 37% of the faceoff wins. He’s also recently been given increased responsibility when shorthanded, where he and longtime linemate, Nate Bastian, have stabilized what had previously been a tire fire of a Devils PK unit.

And lastly, Pavel Zacha. After struggling (again) in the top 6 with Gusev and Johnsson to start the season, Zacha was bumped down to a line with Kuokkanen and Merkley where things began to improve. But, he really hit a new gear when he was moved to the wing and given another chance in the top 6, this time with Jesper Bratt and the recently-returned captain, Nico Hischier. Zacha is, as of this writing, the proud owner of the team lead in points (14), the longest active NHL point-streak (10 games), and the most comfortable position in the top 6 he’s had in his career.

Picking late in the drafts repeatedly for three decades finally caught up to the Devils and was likely the main driver of their fall from grace. In retrospect, it was perhaps ambitious of us to believe that, in 2018, after just one top-5 draft pick, we’d be able to turn around 3 decades of pipeline evaporation. But now, after having paid a more complete penance of futility, the Devils are positioned to reap the rewards. The half-decade of high-end draft picks is finally paying off.