Now that almost everyone here is feeling the good vibes and the chorus of "it's too early in the season!" and "I don't know if this team is for real" has died down...here is some more reason for optimism.
I posted the following comment back on 4/19/21, near the end of another terrible Devils' season. Arguably the Devils' rebuild is now AHEAD of schedule compared to Colorado's.
Like prospect development, rebuilding is not a linear upward trajectory.
Let’s look closer at that famously awful 2016-17 Avalanche team. MacKinnon (age 21) led the way with 53 points. Duchene (age 25) was 2nd with 41 pts, Rantanen (age 19) with 38 pts, Barrie (age 25) with 38 pts, Landeskog (age 23) had 33 pts. They actually had some veteran leadership with Iginla, Erik Johnson, Beauchemin. And remember this is a team that had already traded away Ryan O’Reilly in 2015.
In 2018-19, MacKinnon, Rantanen, Landeskog all had 75+ points but they had very little depth behind that. They had some veterans but outside of Erik Johnson (age 30) a lot of them were depth players (Soderberg, Calvert, Colin Wilson, Ian Cole) who would either be marginalized or jettisoned in subsequent years.
Sakic then went and acquired middle-lineup players like Kadri, Burakovsky, Donskoi, Toews to bolster the depth that his team was lacking.
So did Sakic do anything to trigger his team’s rise in 2018? Not really, it was all about MacKinnon reaching his elite potential and Sakic had the assets and cap space to tinker with his team once it happened.
How do today’s Devils stack up to the terrible 2016-17 Avalanche?
Hughes age 19 – MacKinnon age 21
Hischier age 22 – Landeskog age 23
Bratt age 22, Holtz age 18 – Rantanen age 19
Severson age 26 – Barrie age 25
Zacha age 24 – Grigorenko age 22
Smith age 21 – Girard age 18 (wasn’t on the team yet)
Blackwood age 24 – Calvin Pickard age 24
Mercer (age 18) – Jost (age 18)
We don’t have a Duchene, but I’ve already accounted for Girard and the Avs are contenders without Byram. We obviously don’t have a Cale Makar but we have a high pick and he hadn’t been drafted yet by Colorado.
A lot of things went right for Colorado to reach their current contender status, but it took a lot of patience along the way and in this case it truly was the "darkest before the dawn". I’m not saying the Devils are going to follow that trajectory – every rebuild is different. But I believe Hughes is approaching his tipping point to stardom, it might take a couple more years but the way he is dominating shifts this season is a really good sign. And with as many of the losses attributable to special teams in a weird, practice-less and nearly Nico-less season, I really do feel there are good things bubbling under the surface.
Here we are two seasons later. Two years later, the 2018-19 Avs were a middle-of-the-pack possession team, 14th in CF%, 12th in SF%, 17th in xGF%, not the high end possession force the Devils are now. The Avs only became a top 10 team in 2019-20 (after the additions of Makar, Kadri, Burakovsky), and became the #1 advanced metric team in 2020-21.
So how do today's Devils long term pieces stack up to the key pieces of the recent Cup-winning Avalanche players and their ages in 2019-20, a top 10 possession team?
J. Hughes age 21 - MacKinnon age 24
Hischier age 22 - Landeskog age 26
Bratt age 24 - Rantanen age 22
Mercer age 20 - Kadri, age 29
Sharangovich age 24 - Burakovsky, age 25
Palat age 31 - Nichushkin (not yet acquired, age 25)
Holtz age 20 - Newhook age 20
?, ? - Lehkonen (not yet acquired, age 24), Compher age 24
Hamilton age 29 - E.Johnson age 31
Marino age 25 - Toews (not yet acquired, age 26)
Siegenthaler age 25 - Manson (not yet acquired, age 29)
Severson age 28 - Girard age 21
L. Hughes age 19 - Makar age 20
Nemec age 18 - Byram age 18
Blackwood age 26 - Kuemper (not yet acquired, age 28)
Vanecek age 27 - Francouz age 28
In essence, the 2022-23 Devils are younger at almost every level than the good-but-not-great 2019-20 Avalanche, the only notable exceptions being that Bratt is 2 years older than Rantanen was, Palat is significantly older than Nichushkin, and the Devils don't have a player analogous to Girard (who missed most of their playoff run). Fitz is ahead of schedule in building the D (and looks to have already made the key steal of a trade getting Marino the way Sakic got Toews).
So should we start planning the 2025 parade? No...here's what needs to happen.
1. The Devils' stars need to learn to play through the grind of the full season and learn from their early failures in playoff hockey.
Obviously they need to make the playoffs first, and once they get there they're going to hit some road bumps. The Devils' pace is fit for playoff hockey, but it's harder to play the speed/finesse game in the playoffs and playing a 7 game series is a different animal. They're probably going to have to lose a few times before they learn enough lessons to win a Cup.
2. Jack Hughes needs to reach the Patrick Kane level.
Let's face it, Nathan MacKinnon and Jack Hughes are totally different players, stylistically. The point is not "Hughes needs to be like MacKinnon", it's that he needs to find superstardom in his own way and the path to his success is probably going to be most similar to Patrick Kane or a lite version of Connor McDavid.
3. Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec need to be better than Girard-Byram.
We have high hopes for both but can't expect either one to become a generational Dman like Makar. The Devils will have to do it with more of a committee...we need Hamilton to be a great offensive producer and competent on defense, for Marino to continue to be our Toews, and for Hughes/Nemec to be really good, better than Girard-Byram.
4. Fitz needs to find his 1A/starter goalie.
Kuemper didn't need to be fantastic, but he was reliable through most of the playoffs. I don't know that either Blackwood or Vanecek can be "the guy" in the playoffs.
5. Fitz needs to add power and depth up front, and sprinkle in a little more meanness on D.
The Devils' forward lineup runs a lot smaller than the Avs. Fitz can't make Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Mercer grow but he can find more warriors up front to help them. And despite the Devils' excellence on the blueline right now, there is a mean/physical element that is lacking and is the reason why Brendan Smith continues to draw into the lineup.
There's a lot to like here, and this Devils core is still super young. It's fun to be a Devils fan again, and it was indeed the darkest before the dawn.
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