I get it. They're not even contending for a playoff spot yet, why even think about the Stanley Cup? The simple answer is that most of the great teams don't inch their way towards contention. They have a quick path from lottery team to playoff contender. Chicago, for example, had a four year run leading up to their first Stanley Cup where they finished 29th, 28th, 26th, and 19th in league standings. The following season they lost to Detroit in the WCF and then won the cup the next year. Pittsburgh had a similar four year run of finishing no higher than 26th, lost in the first round in 06-07, then went to two consecutive cup finals. LA finished near the bottom of the standings for 3 consecutive seasons (after 3 straight misses where they were more of a middling team), had two 1st round exits, then won two of the next 3 Stanley Cups. TB, this season's likely winner, admittedly took longer to actually win the thing, but made the final within two years following a run of 5 misses in 6 seasons. They had much of the core in place at that point (the triplets, Stamkos, Hedman, Killorn). With Vasilevskiy on the roster and Point (sigh) on the way up. That's every team that has (assuming Montreal doesn't pull off an incredible comeback) won multiple Stanley Cups in the cap era. So if/when the Devils do switch from being a bottom feeder to a great team we should hope for it to happen fast.
The other thing these teams all had was superstars at key positions. Dom Luszczyszyn, from The Athletic, had a very good piece last September where he created a cup checklist. I'm going to go through his list focusing on just the skaters for now. Basically it boils down to needing two elite forwards, another 3 first line forwards, and 2 more top-6 forwards up front. On the backend, the list was elite defenseman, #1 dman, and two more top pairing dmen. Does anyone think NJ is close to that? Let's take the best case scenario, which is really what we need to hope for because the alternative likely means a lot more pain ahead:
- Elite C: Jack Hughes? (it's a stretch but I don't think out of the realm of possibilities)
- Elite W: ? (I'm a huge Jesper Bratt fan, and think he's close to being a 1st line winger, but I don't see him ever being classified as elite. I don't think Holtz or Mercer show signs of being in that category either)
- Two top line wingers: Bratt and Holtz (Bratt is basically there now, and remember this is a best case scenario. In this universe Holtz rebounds from a rough second half of the season and ends up being a 30 goal scorer who has to be sheltered defensively)
- Top line center: Hischier (he was on that path prior to last season and I think he'll end up being a fringe 1st line center)
- Two more top-6 forwards: Mercer, Sharangovich (I don't think this is waaay out there, particularly in a universe where Hughes is an elite center)
- Elite No. 1 defenseman: ? (I've got nothing)
- No. 1 defenseman: ? (Idk, maybe Luke Hughes if they draft him)
- 2 top pairing defensemen: Smith and Severson (they played at a top pairing level when put together this season, even if I'd categorize Severson as a good 2nd pair guy, and project Smith as a future good 2nd pair guy)
So in this best case scenario, the Devils need to find an elite winger, an elite defenseman, and another #1 defenseman. On top of that, we need to hope Hughes, Holtz, Smith, and Mercer hit their ceilings and Hischier rebounds. But I don't want this to be all pessimism. Let's now look at potential solutions to these problems.
- Elite winger: I see this as being probably the hardest piece to add right now. We're talking a Pastrnak, Marchand, Kucherov level player.
- Potential solutions: draft a guy and hope he's the next Pastrnak (none of the players listed were drafted super high, so it's not out of the realm of possibilities). I think Eklund will likely be available at 4 and IMO he's going to be the BPA so maybe we take him and hope he's the answer. Alternatively the Devils could re-unite with Taylor Hall, which is extremely unlikely but it is an option. He's likely done being an elite winger, but he could rebound. Certainly he looked good in Boston. We could hope that I'm wrong about Holtz or Mercer, or another prospect and one of them turns out to be an elite winger. Finally, there's a trade. At this point you need to hope a GM does something really dumb which is always possible. Based on the rumored names available, I think the closest I can come is Zacha and the 28th OA (+) for Reinhart (I don't think he's elite, but maybe getting him out of Buffalo helps) and this assumes Buffalo thinks really highly of Zacha.
- Elite Defenseman: Dougie Hamilton. Yes, he doesn't fit the window, but there's really not another good option IMO short of hoping 4th OA ends up being elite, and then you still need another number one defenseman. This is a big gamble. You're definitely overpaying him and he'll soon be on the wrong side of 30. But these players don't grow on trees and not every player falls off a cliff when they hit 30 the way Doughty and Karlsson have.
- Number one defenseman: 4th OA pick (Luke Hughes). This assumes that whoever that player is hits or surpasses their projected ceiling.
Sharangovich - J. Hughes - Holtz
Bratt - Hischier - Reinhart
Coleman - Mercer - Clarke
Wood- McLeod - Bastian
L. Hughes - Hamilton
Smith - Severson
Seigenthaler - Walsh
This assumes a lot goes right in terms of development and the Devils are able to make some key moves but that's how teams get built. Luck inevitably plays a big role in every facet. I can guarantee the Devils roster won't look like this in 2 years, but hopefully they are able to find the missing pieces and put together a perennial contender. I guess that wasn't any more optimistic, was it.
One last point I want to make is I think the Devils need to think big with their moves. If you are taking a bet on the next Kyle Palmieri, it better be for a U24 player (as opposed to Johnsson or Johansson who were already finished developing). Opportunity cost is a thing, so I really hope Fitzgerald and co look at the holes in the roster and the assets they have and make the most out of them. Smart low risk, high reward trades are nice, but IMO it's not enough to trade a 2nd and a 3rd for a guy you hope is a middle six winger. The Devils have a number of prospects who project as 3rd line wingers. Similarly, on defense, they have a bunch of prospects/players who are bottom 4 or project to be bottom 4 defensemen.
Happy Independence Day and LGD!