Last week, I wrote about how the New Jersey Devils’ offense and the defense have been formulated quite differently by Tom Fitzgerald. The forwards, as showcased by Cap Friendly, have mostly all been acquired through the draft, while the defenders, with only a couple of exceptions, have been added to the team through means outside of the draft, be it free agency or trades.
One consequence of this formation, as you might guess, is the average age of the groups. Usually, squads that are mostly built through the draft will tend to be younger. This is because as players age, they hit free agency, and depending on their team’s cap situation and the player’s potential value on the open market, they might end up signing elsewhere. A squad that is mostly drafted, therefore, will tend to be younger. This is true with the Devils this year, by far. Take a look at the youngest and oldest offenses, at this point in the offseason, as determined by Cap Friendly. Note: These age averages, for offense and defense, can and will change for some teams before October. Cap Friendly has some teams with only 5 defenders on the team roster, for example, with the rest under non-roster as prospects. Something has to give there.
Heading into the season, the Devils have the second youngest offense in the NHL, and are only 0.1 behind Ottawa for the youngest squad. And there is almost a full two year gap between the Devils at 2 and the Rangers at 3, so it really is an extraordinarily young group of forwards that will be suiting it up in game 1. You’ll have Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Jesper Boqvist, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Michael McLeod and Pavel Zacha who are all under the age of 25. Only one starter come October will be 30, and that is the newly acquired Tomas Tatar. No one else is over 26, which is pretty wild.
But the defense, of course, will not be similar. With most of these guys acquired outside of the draft, that tends to inflate the average age, although the Devils still have a fairly young group, at least in comparison to the league. Here is another chart, this time showing the youngest 5 and oldest 5 defenses, as constructed at this point in the offseason, via Cap Friendly:
Whereas the Devils clearly have one of the two youngest squads on offense, their defense is not quite the same. It is still fairly young overall, tied for 8th youngest in the league right now with both Ottawa and Winnipeg, but it isn’t one of the super young defensive corps like the offense is. That distinction belongs to Columbus, with Buffalo and the Rangers not too far behind. Like with the offense, the Devils only have one defender right now over 30, PK Subban. However, the other defenders are a little older on average. Dougie Hamilton is 28, Damon Severson is 27, and Ryan Graves is 26. Only Jonas Siegenthaler and Ty Smith are under 25, and Siegenthaler only barely.
Now, in terms of roster development for being competitive this season, that isn’t such a bad thing. Defenders tend to take longer to develop than forwards do, so having a defensive corps that is a few years older on average than the forward corps is most likely a good thing. However, if you are looking at a squad that is hoping to get better this season, but perhaps really push into the playoffs for next year and beyond? It isn’t as ideal. But we also don’t know what to expect from the Devils this season either. Many predictors right now have them in the low-90s for points, expecting this to be a breakout season, but not a playoff run season. They expect that to come later. But in reality, the team does have an outside shot of sneaking in, especially if they get strong goaltending from the Blackwood-Bernier duo. That could make all the difference. In that scenario, the slightly older defense is a feature, not a flaw at all.
Overall, you have to like where this roster is in terms of age. The offense is extremely young, and for a team looking to break out of the rebuild this year, that is ideal. It means that this is a squad that can largely remain together for years to come, and if indeed the team breaks out of its doldrums and becomes a perennial playoff contender, you want to have that core remain. The defense is a little older, yes, but is still in a decent position. Subban will be gone after this year, and he is the oldest defender. If they replace him with someone young, like, say, Luke Hughes, that significantly lowers the average age of the defense. If you place the core of the defense for the future around Hamilton, Smith and Hughes, with perhaps Severson sticking around, that isn’t anything to complain about. Hamilton and Hughes being 10 years apart is a little awkward, as one could be entering his prime as the other leaves it, but let’s hope there is some quality overlap there.
And as a quick aside, check out those charts for division rivals. The Rangers are also incredibly young, both on offense and defense. They definitely got worse this offseason, but we will see if their players continue to develop into a strong core as well, which could negate their poor offseason moves. On the opposite side, Washington has the oldest offense and defense by far. They are the only team to have an average team age over 30, and they have it for both offense and defense. The Isles are also older as a whole, in the bottom 5 for both offense and defense, but they are also in win-now mode, so it makes sense.