The New Jersey Devils are heating up the NHL again

Like the wise philosopher David Puddy said once: “Don’t mess with the devils, mate. We are number one, we beat everyone!”

And that was more or less true in the 1990s and 2000s. Over these two decadesonly the dynastic Detroit Red Wings Earned more points in the NHL ladder or won more Stanley Cups than that three time champion New Jersey Devil. But after one Surprise trip to the cup final In 2012, the New Jersey run was nearing its end. With virtually all of the stars that fueled their success either long gone or on their way out, the Devils would enter a multi-year playoff drought – their first since 1987 – and only make a single appearance (a 4-1 loss in the first round to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018) between 2013 and 2022.

However, this futility seems to be a thing of the past. After winning their 11th straight game Thursday night, this year’s Devils are gone at a scorching hot 14-3 start – good for the NHL second best record — and they’re in the top 5 in the league on both counts offense and defense. For a team that went 27-55 last season and hasn’t had a winning record or positive goal margin in five years, there’s a sense of growing excitement not felt since the glory days of yesteryear.

Of course, a new dawn seems to be on the horizon in Newark for some time. Because of all of those losses, the Devils kept the #1 pick in the draft twice in three years from 2017 to 2019, and they didn’t miss either time. New Jersey issued the first of those top picks to Swiss forward Nico Hischier, a talented two-way pivot who was appointed team captain and compiled a couple of seasons with 20 goals before his 24th birthday. And the other No. 1, center Jack Hughes, could have an even higher ceiling. Hughes scored 26 goals in 49 games last season at the age of 20, giving him the best 17th-highest goals-per-game average for that age in NHL history. Along with these high-draft picks, New Jersey also snagged some full-round steals in lower rounds in the mid-to-late 2010s, including winger Jesper Bratt (No. 162 overall in 2016) and center Yegor Sharangovich (No. 141 in 2018) . .

This emerging core gave New Jersey the league eighth youngest squad (26.9 years) in 2019-20, which then fell to the second youngest (25.9) in 2020-21 and the youngest of all (25.8) in 2021-22. The last of these teams was the ninth youngest roster an NHL club had assembled since 1999 (the earliest season for which Hockey-Reference.com has an average roster age) and the youngest the league has seen in more than a decade. It also positioned the Devils in a burgeoning youth movement across the league, with a handful of teams attempting to rebuild through the power of prospects. From 2019-20 to date, six clubs have had rosters that have been among the top five youngest in multiple seasons: the New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and, yes, the Devils.

However, the success of these teams has been mixed at best – and prior to this season that included the Devils.

New Jersey’s arch-rivals, the Rangers, began rebuilding with a string of high draft picks that culminated in one lucky lotto jump for the No. 1 pick (and esteemed left wing Alexis Lafreniere) in 2020. And the Broadway Blueshirts changed fortunes in a hurry, edging after eventual conference winner Tampa Bay Lightning Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season. But almost all the key ingredients to this turnaround were either acquired from outside the organization – like defender Adam Fox and top scorers Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad – or were late bloomers like left winger Chris Kreiderwho scored his first season with 50 goals 13 years after being drafted by New York, or goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who finally had his dominant outburst nearly a decade after being overall 118th selected. In contrast, the highly-touted kids like Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko, No. 2 overall for 2019, could generously have been considered (at most) small players.

And aside from New York, the rest of the league’s young squad experiments haven’t made a postseason dent in years. Last year’s Red Wings were a trendy breakout choices every preseason – partly because of that of general manager Steve Yzerman Track record as a leader — but Detroit is currently chasing a seventh straight sub-.500 season, with last year’s rookie duo by Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider got off to a slow start. The sabers have cooled down considerably After the first three weeks of the season, the Blue Jackets and (particularly) the Senators disappointed early on. Both are currently several games under .500 despite upload on veteran talent in the off-season to supplement their developing cores.

Of course, the youth-focused path doesn’t automatically pay off for a team trying to follow it. Until now, even the Devils seemed to be in that caution group, as evidenced by the team’s all-around struggles last season. They finished in 19th place offense – despite Bratt, Hughes and Hischier scoring 189 points in 195 games – and a terrible 29th place finish defense.

Still, there were indications last season that something interesting was brewing in the New Jersey swamp. For example in terms of puck possession – measured percent courses in 5v5 with a close score – the Devils were a mediocre team (16th-best), no one of the worst in the league. Add slightly improved goalkeepers (because there were nowhere to go but up), a healthy Hughes and a bounce-back performance from defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who flopped in red and black in his debut season, and it wasn’t harder to imagine the Devils break out in 2022-23 as, say, the Red Wings or Senators.

What a difference a year in New Jersey makes

League-wide rankings of the New Jersey Devils in various statistical categories for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 NHL seasons

Stat 2021-22 2022-23
avg Age 1 2
corsi % 16 3
Goals about replacement
per 82 games
Forward 20 2
defender 21 1
offense 19 3
defense 25 1
goalkeeper 32 24
In total 25 2

In terms of average age, a younger team is ranked higher.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

What’s impressive about New Jersey is that unlike the other clubs that have a lot of potential but aren’t showing results yet, the Devils have actually worked to make those big dreams come true. The team now Third in Corsi and is in the top three across the board in each customized Goals about replacement Category other than goaltenders (where ex-Washington Capital Vitek Vanecek is doing a solid job but Mackenzie Blackwood is struggling for the third year in a row). Our scoring model Currently, New Jersey has a 69 percent chance of making the playoffs, a number that is should probably be even higher. There’s nothing on the Devils’ resume that hints at an impending fall to earth, aside from the usual caveats about fishing for meaning in hockey’s vast ocean of randomness.

Right now, New Jersey is thriving where so many others continue to fail. Its young stars are play fabulous, and things are starting to resemble the rapid strides this franchise made toward the Stanley Cup three decades ago. In fact, as this season begins, opponents are re-learning a valuable lesson: don’t mess with the devils.

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