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Predictions for the Next 30 Years of the NHL and New Jersey Devils

Since the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils are playoff-bound, and the next three games do not mean much, let’s look ahead and predict what could happen on and off the ice for the NHL and the Devils over the next 30 years.

Carolina Hurricanes v New Jersey Devils
What will the NHL and the Devils look like when these kids grow up in the future?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Yesterday, I turned 40. I have been following the New Jersey Devils from the 1993-94 season, when I turned 10. Over the last three decades, I have witnessed my favorite team win it all twice, come close two more times, and loads of playoff appearances save for the last decade or so. What I can also say is that I saw a lot of changes in the NHL along with changes in my own life, including starting a blog and continuing it to what you see today.

First: Thank you all for continuing to read the site. You are the People Who Matter; living proof that there are indeed fans who support the New Jersey Devils. And you matter. Hence, the term.

Second: As the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils are in this odd spot where their playoffs are secured for a change and the next three games mean little for both teams involved (no, I don’t believe in Buffalo), let me indulge in trying to make some predictions about what the NHL and the Devils may look like in the next 30 years. (And what Sunday content from me may look like in this coming offseason.) What will hockey look like when I am about to turn 70, close to 60 years of being a Devils fan? Will this site even exist to look back on these predictions just to be sure? Will anyone care? Will I even remember this list of mostly-bound-to-lose predictions that I am about to write up? Who cares. Let’s predict away!

But first - let me establish where I am coming from. What was it like 30 years ago?

The Past State of the NHL, an Incomplete Recollection

  • The NHL had 26 teams, having just recently added the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers. That followed a round of expansion that added the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators, and San Jose Sharks. The NHL was not done expanding. Four more teams would be on their way by 2000: Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota (you’ll see why in a next point), and Columbus would make it 30.
  • Teams were are also not so stable in terms of where they were. The 1993-94 season was the first in Dallas having left Minnesota and rendering Norm Green a villain on Art Modell’s level. The Whalers would be in Connecticut for three more seasons before moving south to Raleigh. Quebec City didn’t want the Nordiques but Denver was open to revisiting the NHL so they would go become the Avalanche in a season from now. The Jets also had two more seasons before ownership moved them to Phoenix. This is to say nothing about an eventual crash of the Canadian dollar that put most of the Canadian teams at a real risk of moving on in the early 2000s. Additionally, financial concerns would drive another hallmark of the NHL from the mid-1990s...
  • ...Labor strife! The NHL had to deal with an actual strike in 1992. Eventually, that would lead to changes in NHL leadership from John Ziegler to Gil Stein to Gary Bettman in 1993, who combined the Commissioner and President positions. This would lead to lockouts at future times when the CBA would end, first in 1994-95 which halved that regular season. Revenue, free agency, and so much were a concern because the money in the league was still on the rise but still not quite so large. This was a ways before some teams - cough Our Hated Rivals cough - would try to out-spend other organizations with mixed success.
  • On the ice, the game was going through an evolution. Jacques Lemaire brought the 1-2-2 “neutral zone trap” to the Devils from his historical days in the 1970s and it was used to great success to bring the Devils to the top. Scotty Bowman, who was coaching Detroit, employed the left wing lock - which was a Czech-developed tactic from the past to try to compete with the USSR. This led to more teams also putting in systems beyond putting players together. Teams still used checking lines but matching-up units and even players (think Claude Lemieux in 1995) was becoming more common place. The success of Patrick Roy meant a lot of the goalies coming up would be butterfly-stance goalies from the Q. A trend that Martin Brodeur (hybrid) and Dominik Hasek (whatever he wanted) bucked.
  • The game itself was becoming more diverse from the old Canadian way and background. Again, the left wing lock was a European based tactic and concepts of puck possession popularized by the Soviet teams were becoming more accepted than a dump-and-chase style. Additionally: Americans were becoming more common in the game with real stars in Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Patrick LaFontaine, Brian Leetch, Jeremy Roenick, John LeClaire, Bill Guerin, and Brett Hull among others, something further developed with college hockey and the USNTDP, which was founded in 1996. European-based players were becoming stars: from Russians now freed up from the former Soviet Union like Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov to Finns like Teemu Selanne to Swedes like Nicklas Lidstrom to Czechs like Dominik Hasek. The old guard from the 1980s were still very much impact players such as The Great One, Ray Bourque, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Brendan Shanahan. A new guard was coming in featuring Martin Brodeur, Jason Arnott, and Chris Pronger (their rookie seasons were in 1993-94).
  • As far as where the game actually was, the Devils were still in East Rutherford. As were the Nets. As was Seton Hall basketball. The Meadowlands was still the place to be for pro sports in New Jersey. My first game may have been in 1995. The large parking lots surrounding Giants Stadium. The walking bridge over Route 120. The warehouse aesthetic inside the place with the steep seating. I miss, well, none of that compared to The Rock but it was the place of what would be championship-winning hockey.
  • And if memory serves me correctly, local games for the Devils were limited to SportsChannel and anything on a national level would be through ABC and ESPN. Ads were on the boards and present through the broadcast, but definitely not on the ice, helmets, or jerseys beyond the manufacturers of said equipment. I do not remember much for radio (WABC?) but Sherry Ross and Randy Velischek were color commentators in that time frame. Mike Miller was the play by play guy then before John Hennessey in the early 2000s. This meant a lot of Sportscenter scores to look for as well as reading Rich Chere in The Star Ledger. The internet was around in the form of Newsgroups, Prodigy, and the early years of America OnLine. But not a thing - yet.

A lot has changed since those three decades. Brodeur would become a legend. As would Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Patrik Elias, and Ken Daneyko. Cups were brought to New Jersey in 1995, 2000, and 2003 with attempts made in 2001 and 2012 to add more. Lou was the constant among a roster full of incoming players, outgoing free agents, all manners of trades, and coaches being replaced. That lasted until 2015. Ownership changed hands three times going from John McMullen to YankeesNets to Jeff Vanderbeek to a group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer. The Devils got out of East Rutherford and made the Rock in Newark, which opened in 2007. Checking lines are a thing of the past, every team runs some kind of neutral zone tactic to try to slow down the opposition, there have been multiple lockouts including an entire season killed to get a hard salary cap in place, the game remains a mix of American, Canadian, and European hockey, the league is now at 32 teams as expansion halted until the past five years, ads are even more everywhere, the Devils are now aired locally on MSG, and the Devils underwent a massive decade of changes that they are now emerging as, hopefully, a team to contend with for several years at a minimum. And, thanks to the Internet, everyone all over the world can watch the Devils if they so correctly choose. I even started a blog called In Lou We Trust in October 2006 that has become this thing you now read. Again, thank you.

OK, that’s the past. Now let me predict (and be wrong) about what may happen by 2053.

Predicted Changes On the Ice for the NHL Over the Next 30 Years

  • Positionless hockey is going to be the wave of the future of the NHL game. You already see signs of this in the current game. Lindy Ruff has the Devils defensemen activate on offense to join the attack. You would expect it from Dougie Hamilton or Damon Severson, but even Ryan Graves and Jonas Siegenthaler do so with regularity. Other teams have found a dangerous dimension to their offense by effectively having a big-minute defenseman be a fourth forward. Erik Karlsson has made a career of it. Ditto for Brent Burns. Our Hated Rivals have Adam Fox, Colorado has Cale Makar, and the hope is that the Devils have two of them in Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec in their system. As this grows, expect defensemen to basically be seen as skaters playing deeper. Just as forwards are now expected to backcheck and drop in position on defense - it’s not an accident they are called Forward 1, Forward 2, and Forward 3 when plays are describe - the defense will be just be deeper players. Once that takes hold, coaches will have a lot more freedom to create tactics. The 3-forward, 2-defenseman standard may go away, even for a little bit, over the next three decades.
  • Likewise, there will be similar evolution to defensive hockey. I think the current trend of increasing scoring will continue for several years but there will be course correction. Just as positionless hockey will be driven by defensemen attacking from deeper positions becoming a league-wide phenomenon, I think the opening up of positions will lead to primarily defensive units being used in games and certain situations. Think of a penalty killing unit, only that is the main function of the players and they cannot ice the puck. In other words: I think checking lines are going to come back in a different form at some point in the next 30 years. The memories of John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, and Jamie Langenbrunner will return!
  • The rink is going to get bigger at some point. Discussion about increasing net sizes or changing the puck (material, weight) will go nowhere. But the increasing size and speed of the NHL player will necessitate some extra room for play. This will take a long time to even implement even if there is agreement. There will be a lot of pushback as a fast game makes hockey appealing and teams do not want to give up lucrative seats. But safety reasons will require it as does a desire to literally open up the game. As arenas make up the money with more luxury experiences, I think this will happen. Will it be European size? Only if European teams enter the NHL - which I am not so certain will happen in the next 30 years. Will it mean to a larger number of players on the ice? I do not think so. 5-on-5 is going to be the main state of play.
  • Safety concerns will drive further changes to how the game is controlled. All of those concussion suits and lingering concerns downstream from that will lead to a less physical game than it is today. There will be fans grumbling about how soft the game got in 2050 compared to the 2000s just like fans in 2000 grumbled about how soft the game was compared to the 1970s and 1980s. Anyway: Fighting is out (this push has begun as the QMJHL has recently banned it), headshots are automatic out-of-the-game calls instead of a two minute minor if the referee sees it that way, and everyone will be wearing cages like they already do in college hockey. There will be intensity, but it will be at a much smaller level compared to the past.
  • There is a current trend in other sports to speed up the game. To that end, the NHL will have league reviews of scoring plays only to remove challenges. The bargain will be that all scoring plays are reviewed. The process will be made efficient enough to make the ruling even as the celebration happens - a natural time period to confirm a score. Over the decades, there will be artificial intelligence driven processes to take out the human element that leads to delays and, worse, confusing and incorrect decisions.
  • The trapezoid will go away. It never should have been a thing to begin with.
  • The actual player will look about the same save for a facial cage. Equipment changes will be more subtle but advances in material science will yield more cushioning for areas that need protection, sturdier material to handle wear and tear, and enough flexibility to allow the player to move as needed. From a distance, it will still be a man on two skaters with padding and a stick. What all of those things are made of will be upgraded considerably and that will lead to changes to the game becoming more high scoring, players lasting longer, and so forth. The equipment will be expensive, but the downstream effect of used and older equipment becoming more available will benefit the younger and recreational levels.
  • There will be discussions about returning the redline by re-instituting two-line pass rule. I think it will fail upon experimentation in the AHL.
  • There will also be an experiment to make teams suffer a whole penalty instead of having a non-major penalty end with a power play goal. That will get a run out for a few seasons but after some complaints from some teams - I will guess Toronto because it is Toronto - the current format will be put back in.
  • Ads are just going to increase somehow. We will gripe about it. We will give in all the same. It is professional hockey, after all, and the pros have to be paid. Such is life.

Predicted Changes Off the Ice for the NHL Over the Next 30 Years

  • The NHL will go through another couple rounds of expansion over the next three decades. I do not think it will be as aggressive as it was in the 1990s, but we will see some 1970s style additions of a couple of teams added at a time. As to not totally dilute the already growing pool of hockey talent. I think the NHL could be as large as 44 teams by 30 years from now. I will even predict a two-tier league system allowing for relegation from the better 22-team league to a worse 22-team league. Before you say 22 teams is an odd number, well, it is even; but the NHL had 21 teams from 1979-80 to 1990-91 so it is not entirely new as a concept.
  • There will definitely be interest in trying to expand overseas into Europe, as that is where hockey is the biggest outside of the North America. I think the NHL is going to wait until the NFL and NBA does it first to sort out the logistics. I think they figure it out by the end of this three decade outlook. But it will be extra difficult as the European countries where hockey is the most popular is even further away time-wise from England, Spain, and France. Until major improvements in transportation happen, the 12-team-over-30-year expansion will be in North America.
  • I can definitely see Atlanta getting a third crack at the NHL, which will work if there is an actual owner with actual money and actual interest to keep a team there. I can definitely see Houston being added to the league if Arizona does not relocate there first. I can definitely see the team interested in markets like Portland (a natural rival for Seattle, they have had the Winterhawks for a long time too), San Diego, and Austin based on other pro sports teams having success in those areas. I wonder if New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and Orlando could be added to the mix one day too. I also think expansion could include some areas like Cleveland (they support their AHL team very well), Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Baltimore get a look. Maybe Kansas City and Hartford will get another crack to the NHL should someone really wealthy want to throw a lot of money there. 44 teams in 30 years mean 12 more teams to add so I expect some new and older markets to get some serious interest.
  • I will more flatly predict that Quebec City is never going to get an expansion team and Hamilton will be denied by Toronto as much as possible of getting one. Short of a massive growth in the country (which I don’t foresee), I do not expect another Canadian franchise in the NHL.
  • Unfortunately, the playoff format will change over the decades. Too many NHL owners also own NBA teams and see the success of play-in games. This will happen in the NHL after Gary Bettman, a vocal opponent of this, is replaced. I will hate it. But then the 16-team format will return later on, possibly in anticipation of a two-tier league system. The lower league cup will mean promotion with guaranteed safety for two seasons and the other finalist gets promoted but no protection so they could go straight down. The higher league Cup is the Stanley Cup. 16 playoff teams for 22 teams sounds weak - until I remind you that the 21-team NHL had 16-team playoffs throughout the 1980s. What will be presented as new will be a little older than you may think.
  • Speaking of new, Bettman’s replacements are going to make Bettman look really good in retrospect! Replacements, plural, is not an accident. Expect a few to be cycled in before someone leads the Board of Governors for longer than a handful of years.
  • Also not an accident is the growth of hockey people coming from distinctly non-hockey backgrounds. This was always there in the NHL with Lou and the late Pat Burns not having pro hockey backgrounds, but it is not the norm as organizations still heavily value past experience of being a player and/or in the game for a long time. But this will explode when Eric Tulsky, former SBN blogger and owner of 19 patents, becomes a GM and becomes successful. Which could happen within the next five years, nevermind the next thirty. This will do more for the diversity of the game than any intentional program. My personal hope: A Department of Player Safety led by someone with a background in regulatory affairs or quality compliance to enforce rules as they are instead of a former pro being pulled in whatever direction the league and/or union will desire.
  • The NHLPA - well, that will be about the same as the competing interests between young players breaking into the league, veterans established in the league, players coming in from pro leagues in Europe, and others. Expect more lockouts than strikes and the NHL continuing to effectively win any labor dispute short of a sea change in the union. Related to this: The hard salary cap will remain thirty years from now, albeit with different changes.
  • Speaking of diversity, I think we will see a woman GM, an openly gay player (or players?), and women coaches within the next few years. By the next 30, it will be common enough as to not be seen as the big deal it would (and should!) be when it does happen. Not if, when. Haters and losers will hate this and be summarily ignored.
  • Additionally, the game will grow further in other countries leading to rises of other nations in hockey. Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, and Russia will still be the main powers. Think Germany, Austria, Norway, and Denmark pushing further in development to be more common in the NHL. Likewise with other European nations like Italy and France generating more talented players to break into the league. Within the United States, the growth of players will include more outside of the powerhouse states of Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts. Perhaps enough to consider two separate USNTDP programs by 2053.
  • Broadcasts are going to get more experimental over the next three decades. The regional sports network model is on its way out now, which is going to force some kind of change in approach for how games are aired and presented to people outside of the arenas. The NHL may dabble in producing it themselves but I think a larger company may take that over. The real interesting part is going to be when TV effectively becomes more based on VR. I hate to reference a video game, but think braindances from Cyberpunk 2077 (Aside: This game is absolutely playable now and I fell in love with it. Your mileage may vary. Also, it is absolutely not for kids.) and you have an idea of how it could go. There will be a way to watch a game traditionally with commentary but also ways to watch it as if you are actually in the arena. And be able to switch formats as needed. It will be weird. It will have a lot of growing pains. But by 2053, the way we watch games will be considerably different than just what platform we use. The “virtual attending” broadcasts will hopefully make ticket prices cheaper to convince people to go to games in reality, but I am not holding my breath on that.
  • Also experimental will be statistical analysis. Once artificial intelligence gets more capable, they will effectively replace scorers at the game. Combined with puck and player tracking, which is already in the works of being implemented now, a new revolution of analysis will take place. It will be driven by teams first before opening it up to the public once they exhausted full value out of it. But the NHL and its teams will be a bit more open, such as following the NFL’s lead and create their version of the Big Data Bowl to pull in different and new perspectives with this new data. I am thinking 3D positional analysis. I am thinking of a way to actually measure actual defensive impact beyond what is allowed. I am thinking of a way to objectively judge goaltending beyond save percentages. Expected goal models will be far superior to what we currently have. Concepts like GAR and WAR and Game Score will go the way of the dodo with better data and better methods. Once the technology pushes hockey data forward, there will be a new age of analytics. As with the previous one, the teams that get on board with it first will have a big advantage over the others.

Hopefully that team will include the Devils. As this is a New Jersey Devils blog, let me close out this series of predictions that probably will not turn out to be correct by adding some Devils-specific ones I really do hope become correct.

Predictions for the New Jersey Devils Over the Next 30 Years

  • Exist. They’re staying in New Jersey. They will be for 30 more years and even longer. The Newark Housing Authority isn’t going anywhere. Harris and Blitzer are worth billions and clearly love to own sports teams. They’re beyond secure.
  • Check that: There will be new owners within the next three decades, but they will be as financially secure as Harris and/or Blitzer. The Devils, the value of the franchise, and the Rock are valuable enough to secure a similar level of wealthy ownership. Plus, the NHL is going to make sure of that when it does happen. But it will not happen anytime soon.
  • The Devils will get a new arena and/or significant renovations around 2045-2050. The Rock will be pushing 40 by then, and upgrades to the infrastructure will be needed. There will be smaller renovations up until then. After all, the Rock is turning 20 in a few years anyway. There may be a new name for the arena due to a sponsorship change, but unless that sponsor comes with a cooler logo than the Rock of Gibraltar, the rink will still be called The Rock.
  • A new golden age. Just as the 1994 – 2004 Era yielded so many great moments, players, seasons, and 3 Stanley Cups, there will be a similar run in the future where the team will win multiple championships and generations of fans will be born from those years. Selfishly, I’d like that to start now rather than later. And I do not think you can fully appreciate this season if you do not think this season could be the start of one. But a golden age will happen at some point within the next 4 decades. Hopefully two or three of them.
  • There will be a better goaltender than Martin Brodeur. He hasn’t been born yet.
  • There will be a better defenseman (or whatever they will be called) than Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes will push for this designation, but I think this defenseman has yet to be born too.
  • There will be a better forward than Patrik Elias. Jack Hughes could be that forward. Nico Hischier if he continues to glow up in all three zones. But I think that forward has yet to be born as well.
  • I do think Hughes and Hischier will have their numbers retired at their current paces. Especially if/when they win Cups and league awards.
  • There will be a 50-goal scorer in a season. It could even be done by Jack Hughes before 2030.
  • There will be a 100-point scorer in a season. This too could be done by Jack Hughes before 2030. Technically, it could happen this season if he is on fire for the next three games.
  • The Devils will finally add to that Devils ring of honor start with Dr. John McMullen and should have continued. The players with retired numbers will be exempt because, well, their numbers are retired. Sergei Brylin will not get #18 retired but he should get this, I hope. Ditto John MacLean and Bruce Driver. Jacques Lemaire, Pat Burns, and Larry Robinson absolutely deserve such an honor too.
  • The logo – the best in all of sports - will remain. Someone will spend more than 10 minutes on a third jersey design that is at least interesting and creative instead of the trashbag they have now. Hopefully will be done before 2030. No, the “Jersey” jersey has not grown on me.
  • A statue for Lou Lamoriello. No one has brought so much more to the Devils than Lou. More than respect. More than Cups. He gave them an identity and an expectation of greatness after many years of do-little hockey. He created the team’s first golden age, a time where the Devils nearly matched the number of championships (3) ever won by Our Hated Rivals (4) in less than a decade. (Aside: How sad is it that 3 out of the 4 championships ever won by Our Hated Rivals happened when there were 10 or fewer teams in the NHL. Indeed, the Rangers suck.) The losers and the haters of Lou will get a permanent ‘L’ in their life who shall cope, seethe, and mald about it to anyone that will listen. They will be largely ignored.
  • Oh, the Devils will pass Our Hated Rivals in championships within the next three decades. Doubling them up in Stanley Cups is possible but it is a lot to ask for five cups within the next 30 years. The Second Rate Rivals will still fall well short of greatness despite all of that Comcast money.
  • I have no idea what or how I will do it, but I am sure I will have a lot to say about the Devils over the next 30 years. I had a lot to say before this past decade when it was In Lou We Trust. I had a lot to say about the last decade through to the past the transition to All About the Jersey. I have said a lot about the seasons since then, correct and incorrect, good and bad, and rational and emotional. Whether that is in a written format like this, a streaming video, a platform for media yet to be developed, or just loudly talking to whomever is within physical distance of me will remain to be seen. For now, it’s this provided Vox Media continues to support it.

Your Turn

Now I want to read from you, the People Who Matter. What do you think the NHL game will look like in the next 30 years? What do you think will change on the ice? What will change off the ice? What will the Devils do in the next 30 years? Will they continue to outclass Our Hated Rivals and the Second Rate Rivals? Please leave your best guesses and predictions in the comments. Thank you for reading.