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Is It Too Soon To Say NJ Hit on Both Top Defensive Picks?

The Devils used two very early picks on defensemen in 2021 and 2022. Now, both are in NJ and are playing really well. Is it safe to say they are both hits already?

NHL: DEC 29 Devils at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As fans of the New Jersey Devils, we know the importance of hitting on early draft picks and replenishing talent through the draft. We have been on both sides of this. Of course, the Devils have hit on both Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, #1 overall picks from 2017 and 2019, and that was by far the most important development for this franchise since 2012. The Devils needed to go 2 for 2 on those picks to initiate a strong rebuild that had been needed for this franchise for years at that point, and they have. Jack Hughes is obviously one of the best players in the NHL and was a massive success with that pick, and while 2017 redrafts all have Cale Makar as the top player from that draft, no one on this team or in this fanbase is upset that Nico is here. He is the rightful captain of this team and is vital to this team’s success.

Of course, we know the other side of this too. From 2005-2009, the Devils' first-round picks looked like this: Niclas Bergfors, Matt Corrente, no pick (traded it for the rights of Alexander Korolyuk, and Jim Fahey), Mattias Tedenby, and Jacob Josefson. This was about as bad as it could get. Bergfors played in 63 games for NJ, Matt Corrente played in 34, Alexander Korolyuk never played in the NHL again after the 03-04 season, Jim Fahey played in 13 games for NJ, Mattias Tedenby saw 120 games, and Jacob Josefson was the most successful at 276 games. Now, of course, none of those picks were high, as this was a time when the Devils were still a perennial playoff team. However, there is no doubt that what happened over those 5 drafts hollowed out this roster and was no small part in why the roster fell into disrepair after the 2012 Cup run. There wasn’t enough young talent to replace aging veterans, and the young talent that was drafted was simply not good enough. You can’t build a team solely on free agent signings and trades for veterans, and that was what Lou was reduced to doing at that time.

Now, with the hits of Jack and Nico, as I mentioned, this franchise gained a foundation that it could use to build into the perennial contender like it used to be. But that would not simply be enough. Even after those picks, the Devils were getting high picks, landing the 4th pick in 2021, and winning the lottery and hitting the 2nd pick in 2022. Back-to-back years, two more important picks to get this team back to where it should be. If it hits on those two picks, along with Jack and Nico, that is an amazing foundation for this franchise for a generation.

At this point, I think you could start saying that the Devils have indeed hit on those picks. Both were defensemen, needing to shore up the blue line after addressing the offense and scoring for other top picks. Luke Hughes came up last year and played well through the playoff run, and has cemented himself on this NHL team this season. Here is his card this season from Andy & Rono:

Luke has obviously been dynamic on the power play and as an offensive defenseman, but has a good defensive impact as well. It is electric watching him play sometimes, especially going back and forth with his brother.

But we knew he was expected up by now and is delivering on those expectations. What we were not sure of was whether or not Simon Nemec would be ready by now, and if he would be as strong of a hit with the 2nd pick as Luke looks to be with the 4th pick. But so far this season, since he has been called up, he is also proving that he is here to stay and can be a smashing success with that pick. Again, here is his card this year from A&R:

Those are better numbers than Luke has on his card, with a fantastic defensive impact and quality point production despite not being billed as an offensive d-man. He has played himself into a cemented role on this team already, as there is no way Lindy Ruff and Co. can send him back to Utica with how he has been playing.

Further, check out both of their possession and expected goal metrics when compared to every other defenseman who has played at least 100 minutes so far this year. 248 defenders make the list, and the stats are from Natural Stat Trick.

Those are some incredible numbers. Yes, they are buoyed by playing on a strong team, at least analytically, but they are not being carried to these numbers by teammates alone. They are contributing. To both be in the top 30 in possession among 248 d-men and to be in the top 25 in expected goals on that same list is highly impressive. If you asked the Devils brass what they wanted to see from these two guys before this season started, the numbers you’re seeing are probably at top end of what they could’ve hoped for. Nemec did not even start the season in the NHL, and Luke had only seen a little time here last season, so anything was possible. Especially considering defensemen usually take longer to develop than forwards do. But here both of them are, playing this well.

This is obviously a massive development for this team both now and for the long-term future. They are becoming part of the core, and at their ages, can be around for a very long time. When you have two strong guys like this solidifying the blue line, two guys who will only improve and get better, that is extremely promising. For now, it looks like these two picks are both going to be wildly successful, and we cannot ask for more than that.