In light of the series I did about playoff droughts among 30 of the 32 NHL franchises and what the People Who Matter can learn from them (and how they apply to the New Jersey Devils), one of the points brought up was the importance of drafting well. I did write as a lesson to takeaway from the series that “You cannot draft your way into success alone.” However, is that a fully applicable lesson in this day and age where getting great young talent on entry level contracts is a great advancement? After all, many of the recent Stanley Cup winners featured a first or second overall drafted player. If the goal is to ultimately win the Cup, shouldn’t that be a pre-requisite?
I do not think that is quite the case. Sure, getting the first or second overall pick in a draft class usually means getting a great player. I agree that any team with high expectations needs high-quality players to meet them. However, I think it is as important (maybe even more important) that a quality team is built around the team’s best players - regardless of where they were drafted. Or how they were acquired. There are three great examples of this and you probably heard of them: the 1995, 2000, and 2003 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils. Despite the three Cups in nine years, the team underwent many changes from champion team to champion team and it was not all a result of what made David Conte a legend in his time. Let’s take a closer look at each to see how those champion teams were built.
The 1995 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils
Here is the list of all of the Devils players who played at least one game in the 1995 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Out of the 24 to have appeared for the Devils, 12 were drafted, 9 were acquired by trades, two were acquired through compensation, and one was a free agent. Of those 12 draft picks, six were first-rounders and three those six were top-ten selections (Scott Niedermayer, Bill Guerin, John MacLean). Clearly, the draft built this championship team, right?
No, not quite. It certainly helped quite a lot. The core of this team absolutely included Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, and John MacLean. (You could argue Bruce Driver is in this core?) The youth on the roster were largely picked by the team. However, the draft picks come from as recent as 1992 (a 21-year old Sergei Brylin) to as old as Ken Daneyko being drafted nearly 13 years earlier and Bruce Driver being one of Colordo’s last ever draft picks in 1981. There was a whole lot of change between those picks and 1995. And the core was much larger than just who was picked by the squad.
For the 1995 team in particular, there would be no Cup without Stephane Richer, 1995 Conn Smythe winner Claude Lemieux, or Neal Broten. All three were acquired in trades at different points in time. Sylvain Turgeon was sent to Montreal in 1990 for Lemieux. The Kirk Muller trade in 1991 brought back Stephane Richer, who led the team in regular season and playoff scoring in 1995, and Tom Chorske. Broten was acquired mid-season in 1995 for Corey Millen and was absolutely crucial center for the squad. Of course, there is no Devils core without Scott Stevens. Stevens was selected by the Devils as compensation for St. Louis signing RFA Brendan Shanahan. Player compensation for RFAs is not a thing anymore, but it was back then. Lou wanted Stevens and the Devils won the arbitration hearing to get him as compensation. It worked out, to say the least.
And other significant contributors to the 1995 Cup also came outside of the draft. Shawn Chambers beefed up the blueline when he was acquired near the 1995 trade deadline. Tommy Albelin was acquired way back in 1988 for a fourth rounder and served deeper in the lineup and blew up for eight points in the postseason. The Crash Line gained a lot of popularity - and all three were also not on this team from the draft. Randy McKay (who had 8 goals in the 1995 playoffs!) was acquired as compensation for the Red Wings signing Troy Crowder in 1991. Bobby Holik, a 1993 second rounder that would become Jay Pandolfo, and a conditional pick in 1994 was the return for Sean Burke and Eric Weinrich being traded to Hartford in 1992. Mike Peluso was a Devils draft pick in 1984, signed with Chicago as a free agent in 1989, picked up by Ottawa in the expansion draft in 1992, and then traded to New Jersey as the future considerations in a trade with Ottawa involving Peter Sidorkiewicsz and Craig Billington. So he’s marked as a trade because that was how he joined this team.
It is true that the Devils’ successful drafts from the late 1980s and early 1990s helped get this team to the top of proverbial mountain. It is equally true that several trades worked out to get the team to the top. And the free agent compensation was hugely important. It took all of it to come together to form this championship squad.
The 2000 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils
Here is the list of all of the Devils players who played at least one game in the 2000 Stanley Cup Playoffs with one exception: Chris Terreri. He backed up Martin Brodeur in the season but did not appear in the playoffs.
The 2000 Devils had 12 drafted players with five first-round selections, 7 players acquired through trades, 2 players acquired as compensation for free agent signings; and 2 free agent signings. On the surface, it looks like the drafted Devils played a large role on this championship team.
The draft certainly contributed more members of this championship team’s core. Two-thirds of the A Line were drafted by the Devils: Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias. Niedermayer was leading the blueline along with Stevens. Brodeur was, well, Brodeur and played the entire playoffs. While they served more depth roles based on ice time, Scott Gomez (whom the Devils traded up in the 1998 draft to get), Colin White, and Sergei Brylin were chipping in while Jay Pandolfo was settling into his defensive winger role.
However, the core still featured players acquired by other means. You know how Stevens joined the organization. However, two free agents would come in that would play huge roles on this and the 2003 teams. The undrafted Brian Rafalski, signed out of HIFK Helsinki, and the undrafted John Madden, signed after four seasons at Michigan. Rafalski was the only other Devil to average over 20 minutes per game in the 2000 Cup run along with Niedermayer and Stevens. Madden, like Pandolfo, was settling into a position of being a stalwart defensive center. In terms of traded players, the only core player here would be Jason Arnott. Bill Guerin and Valeri Zelepukin were sent to Edmonton for Arnott and Bryan Muir (who would be traded in November) in January 1998. Arnott would eventually center the A Line to lead the team’s offense.
And other acquisitions would contribute here and there. Claude Lemieux was brought back to the organization in another trade. Brian Rolston and an option to swap first rounders was sent to Colorado for the scoring pest. He added 10 points. The trade deadline pick ups for the 2000 team was the mighty Alexander Mogilny, who was obtained from Vancouver for Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson; and Vladimir Malakhov, who was obtained for Montreal for Sheldon Souray, Josh DeWolf, and a pick. Mogilny solidified the top six at forward while Malakhov strengthened the top four on defense.
As with the 1995 team, the Devils’ successful drafts in the 1990s helped build this championship winning team (and the 2001 team for that matter). So did the free agent and compensation decisions made earlier in the organization’s history. As well as the trades made, especially what was essentially an Arnott-for-Guerin trade. It took all of that to come together to form this championship squad.
The 2003 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils
It was just three years later, but quite a bit of this roster changed from 2000. Here is the list of all of the Devils players who played at least one game in the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs:
The 2003 Devils had 11 drafted players with only four first-round selections, 8 players acquired through trades, 5 acquired through free agency, and 1 acquired by compensation for a free agent.
While the number of drafted players on the roster fell a bit, they make up a big part of the core of this team. Niedermayer was on another level. Colin White took on top-four minutes. Elias was still the team’s most creative forward. Scott Gomez was starting to come into his own more. Pandolfo and Brylin were averaging over 17 minutes per game. Of course, Brodeur was still the Man in the net. The number of first-rounders and total picks were reduced, but by no means they were not important. The non-core drafted players had their moments. Brian Gionta put up 9 points and re-draft selection Mike Rupp scored the most important goal of his career in Game 7 against Anaheim ton win the Cup (3 of his 4 points were in that game).
Likewise, the core was more than just those players. Stevens remained as captain and was still averaging close to 25 minutes per game in the playoffs at age 38. He was very much still part of the core. Madden and Rafalski, the two undrafted free agents, were playing more minutes and contributing more than before. They were definitely part of the core. The big surprise here is Jamie Langenbrunner. Remember Jason Arnott? He, McKay, and a first rounder in 2002 was moved to Dallas at the 2002 trade deadline for Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk. This did not push the Devils in that season, but Langenbrunner turned out to be a fantastic fit for the Devils and in this 2003 Cup run where he led the team in scoring (goals with 11, tied with Niedermayer with 18 points). Another third of the A Line was also moved out for an important player in this playoff run. A seven-player trade with Anaheim in July 2002 moved Petr Sykora and Mike Commodore out to California and brought back Jeff Friesen and Oleg Tverdovsky to New Jersey. Friesen scored 10 goals, including this dagger in the hearts of Ottawa. (Aside: Should I do a goal breakdown of this goal? Let me know in the comments if you do.) Imagine two-thirds of a high-scoring line were traded away - and brought back two players who helped lead a Cup a little later? That’s what happened in New Jersey.
The other players acquired through trades were not as crucial as others in this Cup run. Nieuwendyk would miss the Finals against Anaheim due to an injury sustained in Game 7 in Ottawa, so his contributions were cut short. Grant Marshall had his moments of importance but was still a bottom-six winger. The acquisitions of Tverdovsky, Pascal Rheaume, Turner Stevenson, and Smehlik didn’t move the needle much, if at all.
Of all three championship teams, I would say the drafted players had more of a role in the team’s success. But just like 1995 and 2000, I do not think there’s a Cup won in 2003 without Stevens, Madden, Rafalski, Langenbrunner, or Friesen. The larger point remains: this championship team was created by good drafting and good trades and other means of acquisition.
Those three teams were all before the salary cap came into play. Free agency was much more rigid; and player compensation for RFA signings was common then. The Devils have yet to win a Stanley Cup after 2005. What about the team that came the closest, though?
Bonus: The 2012 Stanley Cup Finalist New Jersey Devils
No, they were not Stanley Cup champions as they ran into a buzzsaw named the Los Angeles Kings that year. However, they did win the Prince of Wales trophy. That is something, at least. Here is the list of all of the Devils players who played at least one game in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs:
The 2012 Devils that went all the way to the Finals had 8 players who were drafted by the Devils (5 first-rounders), 10 free agent signings, 5 acquired by trades, and a waiver-wire pick up. A stark difference from the other three teams where players acquired through trades out-numbered free agent signings and compensation by a large margin. The effects of moving unrestricted free agency up to age 27 or 7 seasons in the NHL can be seen here with more free agent signings being part of this team. To be fair, one of those free agent signings was Petr Sykora, who was originally drafted by the Devils; but came to this team from the open market.
In terms of who made up the core, the drafted players do stand out initially. Martin Brodeur was still the main man in the net in the twilight of his career. The forwards were led by Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, who missed most of the season with a torn pectoral muscle but returned for the playoffs. Both were former first-round picks by the Devils. While he was a rookie, Adam Henrique absolutely established himself in Devils lore with a two series-winning goals among his 13 points in 2012. Maybe he was not a core player then but this would establish himself as one.
However, the core of the squad included plenty of non-drafted players. The Devils acquired a former first overall pick in Ilya Kovalchuk in a big trade with Atlanta back in 2010. Despite back issues, Kovalchuk led the Devils in playoff scoring with 19 points and tied Parise with 8 goals scored while averaging an astonishing 22 minutes per game. The defense was led by Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, and Mark Fayne. Only one of those four were drafted. Greene was an undrafted free agent out of college and emerged as a top defender for the Devils in the 2010s. Salvador was acquired in the famous one-for-one trade with St. Louis for Cam Janssen. Zidlicky was an in-season trade return for a bunch of spare parts and proceeded to average nearly 24 minutes per game. Fayne was the only drafted player who played significantly on the blueline, often with Greene, and he was a former fifth-round selection. The forwards were supported by Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson, both free agent signings; and got some boost from Alexei Ponikarovsky, who was an in-season trade. Maybe I am stretching the definition of core a bit here, but it serves to support how much the 2012 Devils got outside of the draft.
Similar to the Crash Line in 1995, the Devils’ fourth-line got plenty of publicity and contributed in some crucial moments during the 2012 Cup run. Also like the Crash Line, they were not homegrown players. Stephen Gionta was an undrafted free agent who was an AHL player in the Devils’ organization prior to signing a NHL contract in 2011. Steve Bernier signed with the AHL Albany Devils right before the 2011-12 season began and signed an NHL deal in January 2012. Ryan Carter was a waiver-wire pick up early in the 2011-12 season. As Gionta did not play until the last game of the season, the formation of the Sherry Ross-coined CBGB line was really in the postseason. All outside of the draft too.
The 2012 Devils did not win the Cup. I do not think their issue was that they did not have enough drafted players or drafted players picked higher in the draft. The team was not as good or as hot as that Los Angeles team, who tore through the Western Conference like a wet paper bag (12-2 before the Finals). That is a simplification; but the larger point is how the Devils were constructed through trades and free agency - the undrafted like Clarkson and Greene included - as much as their drafted players contributed.
So...About the 2022-23 Devils?
I think they should make the playoffs first. But as a quick look, here is how the team is built
- Drafted (11): Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, Dawson Mercer, Damon Severson, Mackenzie Blackwood, Miles Wood, Jesper Boqvist, Michael McLeod, Nathan Bastian (Add to this if Fabian Zetterlund, Alexander Holtz, Tyce Thompson, Simon Nemec, Reilly Walsh, and/or Nikita Okhotiuk make the team.)
- Traded (6): Vitek Vanecek, Jonas Siegenthaler, Erik Haula, Andreas Johnsson, Ryan Graves, John Marino (Add to this if Kevin Bahl and/or Nolan Foote makes the team)
- Free Agents (5): Dougie Hamilton, Ondrej Palat, Tomas Tatar, Brendan Smith, Jonathan Bernier (Add to this if there’s any PTO that signs with the team in September or October. Or if Jack Dugan, Brian Halonen, or another signing by Utica gets a call up.)
- Waivers (1): Mason Geertsen
The 2022-23 Devils are very different than the other four teams brought up in that they are heavily leaning on the draft for their core. Hamilton and perhaps Siegenthaler (and more perhaps Marino?) are the two outsiders. The team’s success is going to live and die based on Hughes, Bratt, Hischier, and Blackwood with plenty of support from Severson, Sharangovich, and Mercer. GM Tom Fitzgerald spoke about the pillars of the team being the younger players drafted by the team. He is right. Now we shall see if the pillars were given enough of a foundation to carry the squad to new heights. Again.
I will agree that the changes in the Salary Cap era has put more of a premium on drafting well. It is the cheapest way to get high quality talent into the organization as well as filling it out. Still, as demonstrated in the series I did on playoff droughts and with looking back at the Devils’ own history, that alone is not going to be enough. The same applies with picking high in the draft. It is not as simple as drafting first or second overall and a Cup will come in the future for sure. Just ask the Islanders, Sabres, Thrashers/Neo-Jets, Panthers, Oilers, Flyers, and Blue Jackets. Building a roster is not an either-or situation. A team that wants to succeed will need to do more than draft well. They need to also acquire the right in free agency, trades, and other means to support whom they drafted and build out the roster. It all needs to be done and done well. And that is going to be driven by whoever is in charge of the team.
To that end, what did you learn from this look back at Devils history? Are there other teams you would like to see how they were built? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this topic. Thank you for reading.