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Opinion: The Devils Are Rebuilding Better Than The Rangers

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These teams have rebuilt very differently. I argue in favor of the Devils cap flexibility and strength down the center.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I’m sure I’m not alone in this community when I admit that I possess this insatiable need to troll Rangers fans on Twitter. I think it’s probably true of basically any blogger and any rivalry, but there’s something especially satisfying to me about annoying Rangers fans. I think it’s the combination of the entitlement that comes with rooting for one of the most famous teams in the league combined with the inferiority complex that comes with that team having such a mediocre history. Whatever the case, I seem to end up quote tweeted into oblivion on Rangers Twitter somewhat regularly, including when I tweeted that I was writing this article. #RentFree amirite?

The first one I remember was when I said the Panarin/Trouba deals would be bad value by the time the Rangers were ready to compete. That one still gets unironically retweeted whenever Panarin does something amazing (for a team that still hasn’t made the playoffs with him). The next was when I criticized their prospect pool which has been considered among the best in the NHL for years now and I genuinely believe to be overrated. There was also a somewhat gratuitous shot at Mark Messier which, in addition to Rangers fans, pissed off 95% of hockey fans over 40. That one’s not really relevant to this article, it was just really fun.

The first two, though, have become interested to reflect on for me recently because 1) Some Devils fans have started envying the Rangers rebuild after they trounced us 4 games in a row and generally feel “ahead” in the rebuild, 2) I disagree with that idea, and 3) I disagree because of the same reasons I tweeted those things, for the same reasons as when I tweeted them. How can I possibly think this?

Before I answer that, I want to clarify that thesis for this piece isn’t about trashing the Rangers (though that’s certainly enjoyable). It’s that these two teams represent fundamentally different approaches to team-building and it’s worth it to consider which is better.

The basis for why I believe the Devils rebuild is going better boils down to essentially two pieces: 1) The Devils “pillars” for the rebuild are more valuable, and 2) they have more flexibility with which to build around them.

The Case for the Devils

1) Pillars of the Rebuild

If I asked you to rattle off the 10 most valuable players in the NHL right now, how many defencemen would crack your list? I can think of one or two that might be considered, but according to Evolving-Hockey’s GAR, the answer is zero (0) and I agree with that list. In fact, despite making up only 4 of the 18 dressed skaters on each team (22%), 7 of the top 10 most valuable players (70%) are true centers. This is likely due, at least in part, to the additional responsibilities that come with the position in all three zones of play — they need great gap control in the DZ and great skating and vision in the NZ and OZ if they are going to go up against the other side’s best guys.

The Rangers don’t lack young talent on the back end. They have a stud in Adam Fox (who is a true Norris contender), an underrated complement in Ryan Lindgren, a really encouraging first season from K’Andre Miller and still a few options in the pipeline. But in the modern NHL, forwards (and centers, in particular) are more simply more consistently valuable than defenders and dynasties are generally built around their talent. Go through the Stanley Cup Winners and find the last one that didn’t have at least one elite center. If you say the Blues, I think you don’t realize just how good Ryan O’Reilly was/is. Maybe the ‘07 Ducks? But by that postseason, 21-year-old Getzlaf had rounded into form so even that one’s a tough argument (he was top-15 in NHL scoring the next year). Ironically, I think the Devils might have been the last team to do so — their top center was probably Scott Gomez who, while very good and underrated, was probably not “elite”.

So, if you want to build Cup contender, you need elite forward talent and probably at least one center. Who is your Crosby/Malkin? Your Kane/Toews? Your Marchand/Bergeron? Your Mackinnon/Rantanen? Your Matthews/Marner? Your McDavid/Draisaitl?

I’d assume the current Rangers would have to say Panarin and Zibanejad, but they are both exiting their peaks and the Rangers aren’t cup-ready yet. So I think, if they are going to be cup contenders, it either has to be sometime in the next two seasons, or it’ll have to be built around Kakko and Lafreniere.

The Devils obviously want it to be built around Hischier and Hughes. Hischier’s sample is too small this season due to injury, but let’s look at the rest of the seasons the 4 guys have played so far, the x-axis is the number year for each player (Only Nico has played 3 seasons).

Which color looks more encouraging to you?

I was asked by a few different league writers this offseason what the most important thing is for the Devils was this year and I always gave a two-word response: “Jack Hughes”.

Nico Hischier had an incredibly encouraging first two seasons in the NHL and it’s reasonable to sour on him after a down 2020 and injured 2021, but my money’s on the captain recapturing that form. However, if Jack was a bust, the Devils would have only one really strong foundational piece and Hischier doesn’t have the offensive potential Hughes does so it would pigeonhole our options considerably.

While the points have yet to come for him, Jack has most certainly proved his skeptics wrong this season as he’s been, debatably, the most dynamic transition skater in the NHL and has shot to the 96th percentile in the NHL in value per hour. The Devils this season have been a completely different team with Jack on the ice. In Jack’s 5v5 shifts, the Devils are outshooting opponents by 14 shots per hour which has translated to an expected goal advantage of +0.5 per hour. On a shot traffic standpoint, that means the Devils with Hughes have basically been the Carolina Hurricanes, but with crap goaltending. Unfortunately, without him, they’ve been the New Jersey Devils. A healthy Nico will go a long way towards fixing that problem, though.

The fact that Jack Hughes has arrived is the most valuable thing to happen to either team so far this year because it gives the Devils their 2nd star and, debatably, their first superstar.

My first point boils down to a simple concept. A rebuild needs valuable young talent. Forwards (centers, in particular) are the most consistently valuable position in the NHL. The Devils have significantly more value, in the most valuable position than the Rangers. And that is key, because the next step to a rebuild is putting pieces around those pillars in order to capitalize on their peaks. Which brings me to my 2nd point...

2) The Devils’ have far more cap flexibility

In February of 2018, the Rangers’ GM, Jeff Gorton, sent a letter to Rangers fans essentially saying that they needed to be patient, because in order to give them the hockey they deserved, rebuilding was necessary.

It’s important to remember that, at this point, the Rangers had made the playoffs 11 of the past 12 seasons and, while they hadn’t won a cup since 1994 (lol), they were accustomed to being in the mix. They made it to the Finals in 2014 and followed that up with a President’s Trophy and 3 consecutive 100-point seasons, so, this announcement seemed quite abrupt to some, especially since starter, Henrik Lunqvist, still hadn’t gotten his cup, and was on his way out.

To be honest, this letter worried me. I thought it was a pragmatic and prudent announcement, and uncharacteristically transparent for an NHL GM — much less one of a major media market. It seemed to me that, while the Rangers were going to be rough for a few years, they were clearly going to be patient, and eventually build a contender. The reason this worried me was because, right around this same time, Ray Shero had decided to do the exact opposite and buy at the 2018 deadline. Among those acquisitions was the pricy purchase of NYR-rental Michael Grabner for whom he paid Gorton a 2nd rounder and decent prospect in Yegor Rykov. Again, at the time, it seemed to me that the Rangers were being patient and the Devils were not.

A year and a half later, the Devils had fired Shero and sold most of their major pieces (the rest would be sold this year) whereas the Rangers gave just under $20M to Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Crazy how quickly things change.

I want to be clear: Artemi Panarin is one of the best players in the NHL. But if you’re less than 2 years into a teardown rebuild, what the hell are you doing giving one of the richest contracts in NHL history to a winger whose prime is right now? Compound that with a straight up bad contract for Trouba and the Rangers changed from a “building for the future” team to a “win before our top prospects’ ELCs are up” team.

The Rags currently have a lot of cap space. But this offseason has contracts for a few key pieces like Buchnevich, Shesterkin, and Lindgren. Then next year is loaded with Zibanejad, Fox, Kakko, and Kravstov, all headed to free agency. At that point, they’ll be paying a 31-year-old Panarin, 31-year-old Kreider, and a 29-year-old Trouba the same $26M that they’re earning now. The easiest way to a cup in the NHL is to capitalize when you have great talent on ELCs. By the time the Rangers are ready to contend — the peaks of Lafreniere, Kakko, and Fox — the veterens’ decline will be steepening, their ELC talent from that encouraging prospect pool will be drying up, and their funds to supplement the talent will have evaporated.

Compare that situation to the Devils. I know everyone who is a fan of the Devils is understandably exhausted from almost a decade of irrelevance, but we have zero albatross contracts, have already locked up Nico at a reasonable rate, have a bunch of encouraging middle-six forward talent that can be extended for reasonably cheap, and are sitting on 3 first rounders from 2021 and another high 1st rounder from the incoming draft that have not yet materialized. The Devils are in a great path to get the major pieces (Nico and Jack) signed long-term, lock-up or bridge a few other key pieces (Bratt, Kuokkanen, Sharangovich, etc.) and then capitalize during the ELCs of guys like Holtz, Mercer, and the incoming draft class.

The aging curves of an NHL roster seem like a drop in the bucket when viewed individually, but those droplets the add up to tsunamis of value. The Devils are in position to ride the crest of their wave, while the Rangers get washed up with the tide.

That is of course, unless I’m wrong...

The Caveats

Goaltending

To quote Robert Burns: “The best laid plans of mice and men don’t mean sh*t if you have crappy goaltending”

The Rangers have a very encouraging future in net. Over the past two seasons, among goalies who are 25 and younger, 2 of the top 10 are Rangers. Shesterkin seems like one of the best young goalies in the NHL and Georgiev seems good enough to keep Igor in a platoon and give the Rangers some leverage in the looming contract negotiations if they decide to go that route. But if not, the Rangers have a couple decent goalie prospects in Dylan Garand and Tyler Wall, that very well could develop into NHL backups as they ride Shesty.

The Devils have Mackenzie Blackwood and ... a prayer that Mackenzie Blackwood plays well. The best shot coming into the year looked like Gilles Senn, but he’s now 25 and can’t mange a .900 Sv% in the AHL. Akira Schmid has put together a strong season in the USHL, but he’s doing it as a 20-year-old and has still yet to regain his DY trajectory.

Mackenzie Blackwood has now cost the Devils over 15 goals relative to expectation in his three-season career. Reasonable people could conclude that Blackwood’s trajectory does not project him to be an above-average starter even at his peak. If that is true, the Rangers will probably remain ahead of the Devils unless we spontaneously locate a d-corps. But I agree with John’s analysis, that some/a lot of the goalie underperformance is likely not being captured by xGs due to the amount of dangerous passes our backs have allowed.

Part of my feeling on the titular stance hinges on the belief that you need offense and defense to compete and the odds of the Devils getting Blackwood to bail out their defense are higher than the odds of the Rangers depth making up for their lack of a franchise center.

I’m optimistic about Blackwood, but if I’m wrong, the Devils will find it hard to approach even league-average defensive numbers. Which is why Mackenzie Blackwood’s development is the most important thing to the Devils (HT to everyone who gets that reference).

The “Culture of Winning”

It’s been suggested to me on more than one occasion that a team benefits from having guys on the team that “know how to win” or [insert other cliche here]. I’m always skeptical of things that I can’t quantify, but intuitively it does feel like it makes sense that there are some environments that just cultivate stronger play. If you have a talented but cocky prospect come in and want to be the star for a team that has none, who will keep him in check? But, if he joins a team with Sidney Crosby, who’s done everything an NHLer can do, he’ll be more likely to sit back and learn. And then he will pass it down to the next crop of players (and so on).

Ray Shero clearly thought that simply making the postseason was extremely valuable or else he wouldn’t have gone for it in Nico’s rookie year when we had very little to build on. Maybe there is some value in it. If there is, then the Devils have won 1 playoff game in the last 9 years and have no lingering members from their last sustained run. The Rangers still have Kreider, Zibanejad, and Buchnevich from their last series win and seem closer to returning than the Devils are now. If the “Panarin” Rangers can establish this culture of winning that gives the ensuing era of Lafreniere and Kakko some momentum to build off of, it could succeed while the Devils spiral — never quite learning what “it takes”.

A winning culture is nice, but when you’re building for the long haul, you need the talent first. After that pillars are in place and ready, you can get UFA veterans pretty cheap to inject a few CCs of “culture” into the team. The only way to inject talent though, is to draft it, or to overpay. My opinion is that in the long term, talent always wins out in this league. And in that respect, the Devils future has an advantage.

Concluding Thoughts and Summary

While this whole article is written from the perspective of a Devils fan, I believe (as I said in the intro) that there are more bedrock principles in play here than simply the rivalry.

I believe that the talent distribution of NHL forwards has fatter tails than defenders and so the elite ones are the most valuable players in the league, and the most essential pieces for any rebuild. You need forwards for offense, you can get defense in a variety of ways. Therefore, in order to compete year-in/year-out, you need a foundation of young forward talent, specifically centers. The Devils have that, the Rangers don’t.

I believe that cap flexibility is much more important than a culture of winning. If I had the option to acquire Artemi Panarin’s contract today, I wouldn’t do it. Even with Panarin, I don’t think the Devils are contending for the Stanely Cup next year, and would be surprised if we did the year after that. So that puts us in 2023-24 with a 32-year-old Panarin who is continuing a decline that’s arguably already begun, and all that’s happened is that he’s lowered our draft pick, raised the prices of extending our current players, and diminished the space with which we have to do it.

And lastly, I believe the only goal of a rebuild is to win the Stanley Cup. So being “good” is only helpful insofar as it helps you helps you to ultimately become “great”. I think the Rangers are more likely to be good. I think the Devils are more likely to be great.

These are philosophies of team-building that I believe and they are what frame my opinion of these two rebuilds. Now I want to hear what do you guys believe. Which situation would you rather be in? Who do you think is better poised for a Cup run? What has each team done well/poorly so far? Who are the most valuable long-term assets for each franchise?

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