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Devils Test Leadership of Kids with Historically Young Forward Group

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The Devils forwards are 22.75 on average — the youngest in the modern era of the NHL. Who will lead them?

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

What the Devils are trying to do right now is unprecedented.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s time for a bit of a crash course on the last few years of Devils history. In 2014, the Devils era of dominance had unofficially come to a close. The elite top line that propelled them to the Cup Finals in 2012 was composed of Zach Parise (who left for Minnesota), Ilya Kovalchuk (author grumbles incoherently), and Patrik Elias (37 and retiring soon). Additionally, years of contention and low draft picks had drained our prospect pool barren. In his last year at his post, GM Lou Lamoriello threw a Hail Mary to squeeze a few more years of relevance out of the core by adding UFAs like Jaromir Jagr (41), Michael Ryder (33), and Ryane Clowe (31). Those additions, plus the Devils aging core, made NJ the oldest team in the NHL by over a year and a half.

As is often the case after two and a half decades as one of the best teams in the league (see: Detroit), the Devils were forced to embark on what would surely by a grueling rebuild that sucked up the what was left of the careers of any player still sporting the red and black. Surely enough, as of about 7pm one week ago, that hypothetical became reality, as Travis Zajac — the last remaining player from that 2014 team — was traded to the Islanders alongside Kyle Palmieri.

It’s difficult to describe just how high a percent of the Devils leadership group (particularly among the forwards) walked out the door when that trade was signed. Even Captain Nico Hischier candidly said that the trade leaves a big hole. Here’s a taste of just how big.

Travis Zajac (35, 14 years) was the oldest player on the team by 4 years (Subban, 31) and the longest-tenured Devil by 7 years (Severson, 7). Kyle Palmieri (30, 10) was the 2nd oldest forward to Trav and, with the departure of Nikita Gusev, had 4 years on the next oldest forward (Andreas Johnsson, 26). Combined, the Devils forward corps had just over 50 cumulative NHL years under their belt and they traded away 24 of those years in one deal. Almost 50% of the NHL experience of the group just moved to Long Island.

The Devils current roster is tied for the youngest forward group of any NHL team in the modern era (1967 - current). Their average age of 22.75 years old ties that of the 1981 Buffalo Sabres. However, that Buffalo team was led by 26-year-old captain Danny Gare who was fresh off leading the NHL in goals and finishing 5th in MVP voting the previous season. The Devils captain is a 22-year-old who has missed virtually the entire season, underachieved last year, and is in his 4th year in the NHL. He wasn’t even on the continent when this rebuild started.

So, to recap, the Devils oldest forward is Andreas Johnsson who is 26 and has been on the team for one year. The longest-tenured forwards are Pavel Zacha and Miles Wood, neither of whom has ever had an integral role on the team until this season. The “core” is built around a 22-year-old center who has played just under 6 games in the coach’s system, a 22-year-old winger who has been demoted by 3 consecutive coaches, and a 19-year-old center who we hope will one day produce as many points as he does highlights.

So, as I said, the experiment the Devils are running with their forward group is unprecedented.

By the way, I want to point out that I do not say this all as a bad thing. I also don’t say it as a good thing. It’s just a thing. I’m very sad to see two good players and great role models leave the team. But I’m also personally very excited to see what this bold approach produces.

Study after study after study on aging at the NHL level has shown the peak age for NHL skaters to be around 22-25 years old and yet, the average age for an NHLer is about 27 and the average age for a rookie is about 22. As such, it’s often the case that players don’t even appear in an NHL game until the have already wasted a 1-2 years of their prime. Paradoxically, they’re often kept in the NHL long after their prime has passed due to ... reasons. What Tom Fitzgerald and the Devils brass are attempting here could pay huge dividends by getting some very good years out of players that were not traditionally considered “ready” for the NHL (ex: Sharangovich, Matlsev, etc.), but it challenges the conventional wisdom that battle-tested gritty vets are needed for a successful team.

Even if it doesn’t work out, playing these guys during their best years will increase their values as assets more than languishing in the AHL. The guys that earn a spot in the franchises future will be extended, and the ones that don’t will be sold for a higher price than they otherwise would have. All in all, the old “play the kids” trope is often stated flippantly, but is actually good advice on asset management

Now, you might note that I’ve only really focused on forwards. And while, it is true to say that there is some lingering experience on the blueline — Subban feels very much like he will be a veteran leader as a former Norris trophy winner and steady presence in the top 4 and Ryan Murray and Damon Severson have been around a while too — this is clearly a team built around it’s forward talent at the moment. In order for them to grow, they’ll need a role model in one of their own. Someone who dictates play in the OZ, is vocal in practices, and leads by example. It very much seems like the Devils brass believe Nico Hischier is up to the task. Their biggest moves were stripped away his training wheels in Zajac and Palmieri and add contryman and friend, Jonas Siegenthaler. Between those moves and giving him the “C” before he’d played a game under Ruff, it’s hard to imagine a clearer message that this is his team.

It’s often said in hockey that there is some value in establishing a “legacy of winning”. Perhaps there is some value in the institutional memory of a successful franchise. I think Ray Shero certainly thought so which was why he added veterans at the 2018 deadline well before the team had built its foundation for the future. The era of Brodeur and Elias had that legacy. The era of Zajac and Greene did not. Perhaps the exodus of these past two seasons is meant to signal that we have put the legacy of losing behind us. Here’s hoping that Nico & Co can establish a new legacy. And here’s hoping they can do it quickly — because while the team is young, this rebuild is getting very, very old.