One of the realities of the “new NHL,” the post-2004-05 lockout league, is that because of the cap structure, teams have windows to win a Stanley Cup. The right combination of high-priced star forwards; lower-priced, up and coming stars; the right support forwards; solid, good-sized, mobile defensemen; a very effective, offensive defenseman; and a solid number one goalie seems to be the formula to win the Cup. Year after year, that is what we have been seeing.
Traditionally, the New Jersey Devils were not built that way. The words “clog up the middle” were used regularly to describe Devils’ teams that entered the postseason yearly and went on to won championships three times before 2005–before the game started to change. It is how the team traditionally played the game over the years that may have made it more difficult to adjust than some other teams.
It has been a full ten years since New Jersey has competed for the Stanley Cup, and four full seasons since the Devils have seen the playoffs at all. Some of this has been pure bad luck–injuries and unexpected retirements. Some of it has been risks that were well taken, but just did not pan out. A few of the times, it was difficult mistakes.
But, much of that is now in the rear view mirror. There is no question that the Devils have been in the process of rebuilding. We date the rebuild from the start of Tom Fitzgerald’s tenure as assistant GM of the team, i.e., from 2016 draft. In that draft, Jesper Bratt (the team’s leading scorer this year) was selected. Since then, Nico Hischier (2017), Ty Smith (2018), Yegor Sharangovich (2018), Jack Hughes (2019), Dawson Mercer (2020), Alexandar Holtz (2020), and Luke Hughes (2021) have been added to the organization.
Hughes, who will return to the University of Michigan for one more season before joining the Devils, is hoped to be that star defenseman that eventually will be in the top pairing. Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves were added on the back end prior to past season to provide stability and solid two-way play on the blueline. And Damon Severson had his best season in 2021-22, despite the team’s challenges.
Defense has clearly been on the mind of New Jersey, as in this year’s draft five out of the team’s eight draft selections were blueliners. The first one selected by the team, with the second overall pick, was Simon Nemec, an excellent skater, with top hockey smarts, and very good gap control. In addition, he moves the puck quickly and smartly. Nemec put up excellent numbers in Slovakia this past year, but he is not expected to be an offensive defensemen in the NHL. Nemec’s potential is as a defensively responsible two-way blueliner; although it remains to be seen whether he will become a first- or second-pairing defensemen, he is big addition to the future of this team. The four other defensive prospects selected were Seamus Casey (46th overall), Daniil Orlov (110th overall), Charles Leddy (126th overall), and Artem Barabosha (198th overall).
One of the most important parts of a rebuild is goaltending. The Devils have been terribly unlucky in this position with netminders retiring suddenly and injuries over the past few years. However, the team believes that they have filled this hole by trading for 26-year-old Vitek Vanecek, who came over from Washington this past week. With the addition of Vanecek, the Devils hope that last year’s netminding carousel is over now. Almost as importantly, Vanecek’s arrival will allow the Devils 21-year-old top goaltending prospect, Nico Daws, to return to Utica to develop. New Jersey also used one of their eight draft selections last week to choose Tyler Brennan (102nd overall), a good sized, athletic netminder, who had an excellent WHL playoffs this season. He will go back to the WHL this coming season, but his size and his progress this past season make Brennan a very interesting prospect, who may give Daws a run for his money down the line.
What the Devils still need on the NHL team though is a another top six winger–one who is an outstanding scorer. (The Devils did draft two wingers on Friday, Petr Hauser (at 141st overall) and Josh Filmon at 166, but neither is expected to become a top six player, now or in the future.) The name of a top-line winger being bandied about–Johnny Gaudreau, who is a native New Jerseyan–would be an incredible get for the Devils. Signing Gaudreau would certainly speed up the rebuild–in fact, it may end it immediately.