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With the Changing of the Guard in the Metro, the Devils are Positioned to Contend for Years to Come

Dark days are ahead for most of their division rivals, and the Devils are set up to capitalize.

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NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils
This year is just the beginning for Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton, and the Devils
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since the Devils run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, the Metropolitan Division has run through every city in the Northeast BUT Newark, New Jersey.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have not only won the division but have won the Stanley Cup as well in that timeframe, as both franchises successfully built championship rosters around generational superstars in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, respectively.

The New York Rangers won a Presidents Trophy in 2015 and managed to reach the Stanley Cup Final themselves as well, before (thankfully) losing to the Los Angeles Kings in 2014.

The Carolina Hurricanes have rebuilt themselves into perennial contenders, making the playoffs each of the last five seasons and twice winning the division. They are led by Sebastian Aho and arguably the best front office-head coaching combo in the league in Don Waddell and Rod Brind’Amour.

Even the Philadelphia Flyers (4 playoff appearances in the last decade), New York Islanders (back-to-back Conference Final appearances), and Columbus Blue Jackets (five playoff appearances, highlighted by an all-time upset over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018-19) have all enjoyed far more on-ice success than the Devils since 2012, who only had one playoff appearance in 2017-18 to show for their efforts prior to this season.

The reason for this futility was that the Devils decided to go through a prolonged, multi-year rebuild once the final pillars of their late 90s-early 00’s dynasty crumbled. Years of trading away future draft capital, combined with the few picks they did make that didn’t come close to panning out, left the prospect cupboard barren and the Devils with one of the oldest rosters in the NHL after 2012. Then-GM Lou Lamoriello was no longer able to fill holes on the NHL roster after Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and David Clarkson departed. After 3 Stanley Cup championships, two more Stanley Cup Final appearances, and 21 playoff berths in a 24-season span, the time had come for the Devils to see what it was like to be an also-ran and endure the pain of a much-needed rebuild. Teams that the Devils had beaten for years had risen to take their place atop the division, and outside of the suburbs of North Jersey, nobody was going to feel sympathetic that it was the Devils turn to be cellar-dwellers for years to come.

Winning and losing is cyclical though, and nothing lasts forever. The shoe is now on the other foot as the teams that made the Devils lives miserable for years are now experiencing or are about to experience what the Devils did at the end of their run.

John wrote the other day about predicting the next 30 years out, but I don’t think you need a crystal ball to realize that the Metropolitan Division is likely to run through Newark, New Jersey until at least 2029-30, the final year of Jack Hughes’s 8-year deal. I also don’t think you need to dig too deep to realize that some of the issues our division rivals are facing are similar to what the Devils experienced over the last decade.

Take the Washington Capitals, for instance. They are missing the postseason for the first time since 2013-14 and only the second time since 2006-07. They have been a fixture atop the Metropolitan Division since Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom emerged onto the scene in the mid 2000s. To Washington’s credit, they were smart enough to realize months ago that 2022-23 wasn’t going to be their year. They traded off some pending unrestricted free agents in Dmitry Orlov, Marcus Johansson, and Garnet Hathaway, and they even got younger on the blueline with the acquisition of Rasmus Sandin from Toronto. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. This won’t change the fact that Washington, one of the oldest teams in the NHL this season, will be yet another year older next year. It doesn’t change the fact that the core of this team is still built around Ovechkin, Backstrom, TJ Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson. All of those players are very good, but they almost all of them missed significant time this season with injuries and players don’t generally get healthier as they enter their late 30s. All of those players have years remaining on big-money, long-term deals. With approximately $5.8M in cap space this summer, there’s only so much GM Brian MacLellan and head coach Peter Laviolette can do going forward with this roster. Assuming they survive missing the playoffs in the first place, which isn’t a given.

When talking about the oldest teams in the NHL, nobody was older entering the season than the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins may or may not extend their playoff streak to 17 seasons, but they feel an awful lot like the Detroit Red Wings felt towards the end of their 25-season playoff streak that came to an end back in 2017. The Penguins feel like a franchise that is on life support....where even IF they get in, they’re not a legitimate threat to upset a loaded team like Boston in the first round, let alone go on a Cup run. Like the Capitals (and like the Devils in the mid 2010s before them), years of trading futures has depleted their prospect pool. Sidney Crosby is still a great player, and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang weren’t the biggest issue with the Penguins this season, but with all of those players over the age of 35, how many more prime years can you realistically expect out of their aging core? How much longer can you expect them to mask the warts this team has on the blue line and in their bottom six. They currently have 10 other players aside from the trio of Crosby, Malkin, and Letang over the age of 30! The Malkin and Letang extensions won’t necessarily be GM Ron Hextall’s problem, as the next Penguins GM will have to deal with that down the road, but short-sighted moves like trading away John Marino, trading for Jeff Petry and Mikael Granlund, and letting Jared McCann get away in the expansion draft will ultimately be what gets Hextall fired. The Penguins will have cap space to play with, but there aren’t going to be any quick fixes in free agency this summer and they lack the prospect pool to make a big trade unless they’re surrendering future first round picks.

Let’s assume for a minute that the Penguins miss the playoffs. After all, they’re currently on the outside looking in with just a couple days remaining in the regular season. Even IF everything breaks right for the Penguins and Capitals next season and they make it back into the tournament, what exactly is their long-term prognosis? Even if the Penguins beat the odds and won the draft lottery this summer, they can only move up 10 spots, so they’re (fortunately) not even going to be in that range to get Connor Bedard, Adam Fantilli, or Matvei Michkov. Washington could potentially move up to #1 or #2 (they have the 8th best odds as of this writing), but they could also stay where they are. Either way, a high draft pick is unlikely to help much in the short-term. It’s not a great spot to be in.

The two Metropolitan Division teams better positioned to win the aforementioned Bedard sweepstakes are Columbus, who currently has the worst record in the league, and Philadelphia, who currently has the 7th worst record. Columbus is far better positioned to be a thorn in the Devils side moving forward than Philadelphia, as they already have a loaded prospect pool (only New Jersey and Minnesota are better according to The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler) headlined by David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, Kent Johnson (40 points in 76 games this year) and Kirill Marchenko (who has 21 goals in his debut NHL season). Adding Bedard on top of that, and on top of some of the other pieces they have in Johnny Gaudreau, Zach Werenski, Patrik Laine, Adam Boqvist, and Jack Roslovic, and Columbus at least has the potential to be a thorn in the Devils side moving forward if they can figure out their goaltending. I’m not saying Columbus will make a massive one-year jump in the standings like the Devils did this year, but the pieces are in place where they don’t have to be dreadful for too much longer.

The Flyers are going to take longer though. How much longer, exactly? It’s tough to say, but they threw away a critical year this season by tying up future cap space and term into multi-year deals to bad players, not aggressively selling the few tradable pieces they did have this summer and again at the trade deadline, and making a half-hearted attempt at contending this season with the roster they had. John Tortorella is a good head coach, and he was certainly good enough to squeeze 73 points out of this terrible roster when they really needed to be where Anaheim, Chicago, and Columbus are in the standings. It was an ill-advised plan when it was conceived and it’s still one now. If Philadelphia is actually committed to a true rebuild, and they should be as interim GM Daniel Briere has said it won’t be a quick fix, they could accumulate enough draft capital and prospects where they could be a problem for this Devils team in five years. They’re already behind the eight ball though, and whether Comcast Spectacor has the patience to sit through a prolonged rebuild like the one the Devils ownership duo of Josh Harris and David Blitzer just did is a whole other question.

This brings me to the New York Islanders and how its tough to pin down exactly where they will be next year, let alone a few years from now. New York may still make the playoffs, but it’ll almost be by default at this point because Pittsburgh blew it. Obviously, they have a star goaltender in Ilya Sorokin, which is more than we can say about Washington and Pittsburgh. Their two best defensemen are signed through 2029 and their two best forwards are signed through 2031. But the rest of the Islanders forward core is over the age of 30. They’re not a high-ceiling offensive team even with Horvat and Barzal. Sorokin is a UFA after next season. The Islanders have a bottom-five prospect pool, and they’re short a 1st round pick this season due to the Horvat trade (this pick becomes an unprotected 2024 1st round pick if it somehow lands in the Top 12 of the 2023 draft). That’s not to say the Isles are a bad team. They play with structure. The way they’re constructed, they’re built for the playoffs moreso than an 82-game regular season. Their goal is to wear other teams down, outlast them, capitalize on mistakes, and win behind their defense and goaltending. I don’t doubt that Lou Lamoriello will continue to make the appropriate short-term moves to keep the Isles competitive, but this also sounds exactly like what he did with the Devils before their house of cards fell. This is a fringe playoff team, at best. Their long-term ceiling is extremely limited, and by the time they do acknowledge it’s time to rebuild, they’ll be years behind Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia, not to mention light years behind New Jersey.

We would be foolish to write off the New York Rangers as a divisional threat for at least the next few seasons. After all, Igor Shesterkin and Adam Fox are at the peak of their powers and they’re 27 and 25 years old, respectively. Mika Zibanejad might be the most underrated great player in the league. Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider aren’t going anywhere, and K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider have a lot of potential going forward. Plus, its the Rangers. They surely see the landscape of the division as well, and as one of the top teams in the division, they’ll continue to go for it. They’ll spend right up to the cap ceiling, trade whatever futures they have to to bring in stars of yesteryear, and they’ll luck their way into the Adam Fox’s of the world who force their way to MSG because they only want to play for the Blueshirts. If the Mid Line of Filip Chytil, Kappo Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere ever took a huge step in their development like what Nico Hischier or Dawson Mercer or Jesper Bratt or Jack Hughes have done across the river, that might be the difference between them winning and losing a Conference Final, let alone a Stanley Cup Final. Let’s hope as Devils fans that that day never comes.

To me though, the Devils biggest threat going forward in the Metro is Carolina. I’ve mentioned the admiration I have for the job Waddell has done, but that admiration might be better placed with AGM Eric Tulsky and the savvy moves the Hurricanes have made over the years since he’s been on the staff. Its tough to say exactly how much credit Tulsky, who has only been the AGM for two seasons now while working the previous six seasons in their analytics department, should get versus the traditional hockey people in Carolina’s front office. I don’t think its a stretch to say that the two smartest front offices in the division might be in Carolina and New Jersey though. Both organizations rely heavily on analytics, both teams unearth gems via trade, and both teams draft and develop well. The Canes have identified players who can play well in Brind’Amour’s system. They’ve maintained salary cap flexibility going forward. The Hurricanes also have several high-end prospects remaining in their pool even though they haven’t picked in the lottery for several seasons now. If Carolina has a flaw, it might be that they’re TOO analytically driven, that they’re unwilling to be flexible with their perceived player values, and as a result, they’re not willing to go the extra step to get or retain that player that can put them over the top. Two examples of this are their decision to let Dougie Hamilton leave in free agency and their unwillingness to put Alexander Nikishin in the Timo Meier trade. Both of those losses for Carolina turned out to be gains for New Jersey.

I look at the Metropolitan Division for the next couple years as a three-team race between the Devils, Carolina, and the New York Rangers. And while the Devils have some big question marks as early as this summer with Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier due new contracts, I could say the same thing for the Hurricanes with Sebastian Aho and a Rangers prospect pool that is depleting (Brennan Othmann is their only top prospect of note) and a tighter cap crunch than the one facing the Devils. But if you look deeper at the rosters and prospect pools, New Jersey is right there with them now and compares very favorably in the near future.

Jack Hughes is 21 years old, has set the franchise record for points in a season, and is signed through 2030. Even after taking another big step this season, he still has room to grow as a player. Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt probably don’t have a lot of developing left as they’re both 24 years old but they’re legitimate Top Six forwards and Hischier is signed through 2026-27. Dawson Mercer is 21 and the Devils control his rights for many seasons to come. The Devils did what they did this year without Luke Hughes or Simon Nemec contributing anything for the NHL team (outside of one uneventful NHL debut for Luke Hughes). If you still believe in Alex Holtz’s upside, he’s only 21 years old. This isn’t even including Timo Meier at 26 years old, or Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino at 25 years old. This isn’t including the next wave of prospects that you might have an affinity for whether its Seamus Casey, Arseni Gritsyuk, Graeme Clarke, or Josh Filmon. That’s also not including Dougie Hamilton, who just had a career year and doesn’t turn 30 until June. Tom Fitzgerald said after the Meier trade that he’s not going to apologize for his prospect pool, and the Devils pool is overflowing.

That’s not to say Carolina doesn’t have great young players because they do. Sebastian Aho (25), Andrei Svechnikov (23), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (22), Martin Necas (24), Seth Jarvis (21), and Jaccob Slavin (28) is a great core to build around. They have that next wave of prospects coming in Scott Morrow, Nikishin, and young netminder Pyotr Kochetkov. They also have a smart front office that can take big swings on low-risk gambles such as Max Pacioretty where if it doesn’t work out, all it cost them was money for one year. Carolina is a force to be reckoned with, although retaining Sebastian Aho (UFA after 2023-24) is a must and it should be mentioned that he did sign an offer sheet in the past. It’s one thing to not pay Dougie Hamilton into his mid 30s, but Carolina will need to be ready to pay the then 26-year old Aho what he’s worth.

That’s also not to say the Rangers won’t remain competitive in the short-term, but when you look at the ages of their top players now, their best chance of winning a Stanley Cup might have already passed them by. Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider are both 31, while Mika Zibanejad, Vincent Trocheck, and Jacob Trouba are all 29. All of those players have no-move clauses, so they’re not easily movable. Fox and Shesterkin are superstars now, and they should remain so over the next five years, but I have my doubts this Rangers team can beat this Devils team now in a seven-game series. I think the Devils are better right now, and the scales will only tip further in the Devils favor as their players develop further and get more experience.

Why is all of this important? Because Gary Bettman is still the commissioner of the NHL, and because he still insists on having a divisional bracket-style postseason format rather than a 1v8, 2v7 reseeding format that we saw from the mid 90s to the mid 2010s. I think the divisional playoff format that Bettman loves is awful. I also think this playoff format benefits the Devils in the short-term and long-term, as they don’t necessarily have to go through juggernauts like Boston, Toronto, or Tampa Bay to reach the Conference Final. They have to contend with the likes of Carolina, New York, and the other Metropolitan teams I mentioned unless one of the Atlantic Division teams crosses over into that side of the bracket. I’ll take my chances that the Devils find a way to get through their side of the bracket most years while the Bruins, Lightning, and Leafs beat each other up on the other side of the bracket.

Of course, none of this is a given for the Devils going forward. They still need to play the right way and take care of their own business. They need their best players to stay healthy. They’ll need to learn when they have to dial it up in the regular season and when they can get by at 70-80% in the dog days of the regular season, a skill that more experienced teams like Tampa has mastered. They need Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec to do their part and live up to the hype. If they don’t, they’ll at least need to prove to be capable NHL replacements for Ryan Graves and Damon Severson when they depart this summer. They will need that next wave of prospects to come in on ELCs and keep the salary cap manageable as they say goodbye to more expensive, expendable veterans. They’ll need to bite the bullet and pay Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier more than what Jack Hughes is making, and that’s ok. They’ll need their goaltending to not revert back to what we saw the last few years where nobody could make a damn save. But the Devils title window is open now. The rebuild is over. Even if they don’t win it all this season, this is the first year of a multi-year window of contention where they’re as well positioned as anyone to win. Even if they experience a setback, such as Bratt or Meier being unwilling to sign and having to trade one of them away, they deep enough and have enough flexibility to pivot and remain a threat going forward. These Devils aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Ultimately, I think by the time 2029-30 arrives, the landscape of the Eastern Conference will have changed to the point where Buffalo, Detroit, Columbus, and maybe Montreal or Ottawa have replaced the likes of Pittsburgh, Washington, the Islanders and Rangers as perennial playoff teams. Its tough to say exactly where teams like Boston, Toronto, Florida, and Tampa Bay will factor in to the equation, and I expect Carolina to still be in the mix. But here at All About the Jersey, it’s all about New Jersey and where they will be. By then, they may have already won a Cup or two and might be chasing history as the league’s next dynasty. Or they may have experienced playoff heartbreak a few times, but they’re as talented as anyone and could win if the breaks go their way. Only time will tell, but with how the Metropolitan Division is looking, backing the Devils going forward would be a smart bet.

You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I turn things over to you. Do you agree with my assessment of the Metropolitan Division in the short-term and long-term? Am I being too dismissive of the old guard or too bullish on Carolina? Am I overrating the Devils chances going forward? Please feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!