As the wise philosopher David Puddy once said: “Don’t mess with the Devils, buddy. We’re number one, we beat anybody!”
And that was more or less true throughout the 1990s and the 2000s. Across those two decades, only the dynastic Detroit Red Wings racked up more points in the NHL standings or won more Stanley Cups than the three-time champion New Jersey Devils. But after a surprise trip to the Cup final in 2012,1 New Jersey’s run was nearing its end. With practically all of the stars who powered their success either long gone or on their way out the door,2 the Devils would begin a multi-year playoff drought — their first since 1987 — and make just a single appearance (a 4-1 first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018) between 2013 and 2022.
That futility looks like it could be a thing of the past, however. After winning their 11th consecutive game Thursday night, this year’s Devils are off to a red-hot 14-3 start — good for the NHL’s second-best record — and they rank among the league’s top five in both scoring offense and defense. For a team that went 27-55 last season and hasn’t posted either a winning record or a positive scoring margin in five years, there’s a sense of growing excitement that hasn’t been felt since the glory days of yesteryear.
Of course, a new dawn has seemed to be on the horizon in Newark for a while. Because of all that losing, the Devils held the No. 1 selection in the draft twice in three years from 2017 to 2019, and they did not miss either time. New Jersey spent the first of those top picks on Swiss forward Nico Hischier, a talented two-way pivot who was named team captain and compiled a couple of 20-goal seasons before his 24th birthday. And the second of the No. 1s, center Jack Hughes, may have an even higher ceiling. Hughes3 notched 26 goals in 49 games last season at age 20, giving him the 17th-highest goals-per-game average for that age in NHL history. Along with those high draft picks, New Jersey also snagged a few complete steals in lower rounds during the mid-to-late 2010s, including winger Jesper Bratt (No. 162 overall in 2016) and center Yegor Sharangovich (No. 141 in 2018).
That emerging core gave New Jersey the league’s eighth-youngest roster (26.9 years old) in 2019-20, which then dropped to the second-youngest (25.9) in 2020-21 and the youngest of all (25.8) in 2021-22. The last of those teams was tied for the ninth-youngest roster any NHL club had assembled since 1999 (the earliest season for which Hockey-Reference.com has average roster ages) and the youngest the league had seen in more than a decade.4 It also positioned the Devils within a burgeoning youth movement across the league, which saw a handful of teams trying to rebuild through the power of prospects. From 2019-20 up to the present day, six clubs have had rosters ranking among the five youngest in multiple seasons: the New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and, yes, the Devils.
The success of those teams, though, has been mixed at best — and that included the Devils before this season.
New Jersey’s archrival, the Rangers, kick-started their rebuild with a number of high draft picks that culminated in a lucky lottery bounce for the No. 1 selection (and prized left wing Alexis Lafrenière) in 2020. And the Broadway Blueshirts did change their fortunes in a hurry afterward, pushing the eventual conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last season. But almost all of the key ingredients for that turnaround were either acquired from outside the organization — like defenseman Adam Fox and high-scoring forwards Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad — or were late-bloomers like left wing Chris Kreider, who notched his first 50-goal season 13 years after being drafted by New York, or goalie Igor Shesterkin, who finally had his dominant breakout nearly a decade after being selected 118th overall. By contrast, the highly touted kids, such as Lafrenière and 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko, could generously have been considered bit players (at most).
And aside from New York, the rest of the league’s young roster experiments have failed to make any kind of postseason dent in years. The Red Wings of recent vintage have been a trendy breakout pick every preseason — partly because of general manager Steve Yzerman’s track record as an executive — but Detroit is currently tracking for a seventh straight sub-.500 season, with last year’s rookie duo of Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider off to a slow start. The Sabres have cooled off considerably after the first three weeks of the season, and the Blue Jackets and (especially) Senators have disappointed in the early going. Both are currently several games below .500 despite loading up on veteran talent over the offseason to complement their developing cores.
Clearly, the youth-focused path does not automatically pay dividends for any team that tries to follow it. Up until now, even the Devils seemed to be in that cautionary group, as evidenced by the team’s all-around struggles last season. They finished 19th on offense — despite Bratt, Hughes and Hischier combining for 189 points in 195 games — and a ghastly 29th on defense.
But there were nonetheless clues last season that something interesting was bubbling around in the New Jersey swampland. For instance, in terms of puck possession — as measured by Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 with the score close — the Devils were a middle-of-the-road team (16th-best), not one of the league’s worst. Add some improved goaltending (because there was nowhere to go but up), a healthy Hughes and a bounce-back performance from defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who flopped during his first season in red and black, and it wasn’t any harder to envision the Devils breaking out in 2022-23 than, say, the Red Wings or Senators.
|Goals Above Replacement
per 82 Games
What’s impressive about New Jersey is that so far, unlike those other clubs long on potential but still short on results, the Devils have actually gone about making those big dreams come true. The team now ranks third in Corsi and is in the top three across the board in every adjusted goals above replacement5 category except goaltending (where ex-Washington Capital Vitek Vanecek is doing a solid job, but Mackenzie Blackwood is struggling for the third straight year). Our Elo model currently gives New Jersey a 69 percent chance of making the playoffs, a number that arguably should be even higher. There isn’t anything in the Devils’ resume to suggest an impending fall to earth, aside from the usual caveats about fishing for meaning in hockey’s vast ocean of randomness.
For now, New Jersey has succeeded where so many others continue to fail. Its young stars are playing fabulously, and things are starting to resemble the rapid progress this franchise made towards the Stanley Cup three decades ago. Indeed, opponents early this season are re-learning a valuable lesson: Don’t mess with the Devils.
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