We’ve seen the Devils youth movement shine. All season long, it’s been the single bit of good news. Ty Smith, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Mikhail Maltsev. Another step in the right direction for 19-year-old, Jack Hughes and sophomore, Mackenzie Blackwood has looked strong despite a troubling season health-wise.
It’s called the future and it’s what Tom Fitzgerald wants fans to cast their eyes to. It’s what the organization wants fans to get excited about in the wake of the club dealing away Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the Islanders on Wednesday in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers, a conditional draft pick in 2022 and a concrete 2021 first rounder–which, could be as high as 32 this year.
Yes, they’re selling hope in Newark. But just as they do, that fun bright spot has been handed a lot. Are they ready for it? I guess we’re going to find out.
“The legacy and impact that those two gentlemen have left in the locker room didn’t go unnoticed,” Fitzgerald said on a Zoom call roughly an hour after finalizing the trade with the Isles. “I believe this young group is like sponges and soaked up all that experience and will apply it moving forward.
“The future’s really bright here in New Jersey. I truly believe that. I say that with all sincerity, but you’ve got to be able to walk before you run. We’re walking right now and I think the experience that these kids are getting thanks to the veterans that we had is invaluable.”
That future, which could include multiple first round selections in consecutive entry drafts–after picking thrice at the 2020 Virtual event, has been rounding itself out seemingly since Ray Shero took over the band from longtime GM-turned deadline dealer, Lou Lamoriello.
Under Shero, Fitz and director of scouting, Paul Castron, the Devils have selected 45 players since 2016. That’s 10 more picks than the league initially provides each club in that same span…19 more than the Penguins…18 more than the Capitals. But, it’s walk before you run and we don’t need to Cup count, do we?
But we can recount the process of those more recent success stories: Pittsburgh won the ’03 lottery (Marc-Andre Fleury), won second-best in ’04 (Evgeni Malkin) before winning a generational lottery in 2005–Sidney Crosby. Still, the Penguins missed in 87’s rookie year and picked Jordan Staal second overall. Since, three Cups (I guess we are counting) and just one playoff miss–falling to the Habs at last year’s play-in round.
Washington, who won the 2004 lottery a year after the Panthers tried to reinvent age–got Alex Ovechkin. Nicklas Backstrom came by way of a top-four pick at the ’06 draft and they nearly had two other first round gems: Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th-2010) and Filip Forsberg (11th-2012/traded to Nashville).
Of course, that’s just part of the story that saw Penguins and Capitals go from laughable to fun. Fun to good, to not-so-fun to play against. And now, to present day. Those cupboards might be bare, but you’re not selling that there. Not yet, anyway.
So the natural question, for a Devils team that picked first in two of the last four entry drafts–and prior to 2017 had a pair of top-six picks: when does this cyclical process flip the other way? The 20-21 season will mark the eighth season the club has missed the playoffs in the last nine seasons. And if the team has aspirations to turn the corner in quick order, they’ll do so with one of the league’s youngest squads.
“It has to end at some point and the quicker the better,” Damon Severson said. “We can’t just keep saying year after year that we’re going to rebuild and young players and the future. You see some teams, it’s taken them a year or 2 to get things back to where they wanted it to be versus when a couple of years they were saying they were still in a rebuild or rebuilding.
“It’s unfortunate. I know obviously with the business side of contracts, free agency and everything kind of like that, there’s a business side of it as well. I’ve been here seven years and we’ve made the playoffs one time. It’s definitely frustrating. You try not to show the frustration too much, but sometimes it takes its toll. I definitely want to be a part of the solution to get this organization back to where it should be.”
By year three in the league, Crosby made a Cup Final; Ovechkin missed twice before the Caps started a reign supreme on the since-defunct Southeast division. But Sid and Geno (Malkin) had Sergei Gonchar and Mark Recchi. They rented Marian Hossa and Bill Guerin in back-to-back years. Countrymen, Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov played in Ovi’s first career playoff game.
It’s possible that the first time Hughes, who turns 20 next month, sees an NHL playoff game, Nico Hischier, 22, will be the playoff-experienced vet of the group. But, who knows when that will be?
And, assuming the team will have to wait on its youth to grow, it might mean a new cast of NHL experience is another part of the GM’s vision.
“We’re not going to rush anybody,” he said. “Is there one position that we have to continue to look at? Yeah, I’d say it’s the backend, to be quite honest because we feel like we have young kids coming, but we’re not going to put them in a situation where they fail.
“We want to make sure, when the time comes that they’re ready and can contribute. But we also have to have people surrounding them so that they can make mistakes.”
Outside Dougie Hamilton, it’s not a glamorous free agent pool for defensemen. But with the unlikelihood of cap growth and an expansion draft, alternate avenues just might open up. And while Fitzgerald couldn’t comment on potentially bringing back the two parties dealt away for a cup-run on the Island, he did confirm that he will utilize his league-leading cap space as it makes sense–or, to weaponize in the months ahead–or at this year’s deadline.
Dmitri Kulikov, Nikita Gusev, Ryan Murray, Aaron Dell and Scott Wedgewood are among the free agents still left on the roster, but time still ticks til 3p.m. Monday.
But as you wait: Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Reilly Walsh, Alexander Holtz. That’s the future. And while it’s supposed to be exciting, fans have started to pick up on the sale.