Devils on Right Track to Becoming Next Avalanche

The NHL has historically proven to be a copycat league. Every spring, the Stanley Cup is lifted, and 31 general managers and coaches begin taking notes to see what they can learn and adapt to their own team. The New Jersey Devils are a team that is following the Colorado Avalanche’s blueprint and are slowly working towards becoming legitimate playoff contenders.

Avalanche president of hockey operations Joe Sakic has talked about how his team went from the worst record in the league to Stanley Cup champions in five seasons, and it seems that, in their case, patience was a virtue.

Colorado Avalanche Executive Vice President Joe Sakic
Colorado Avalanche Executive Vice President Joe Sakic (Photo by RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post via Getty Images)

“As bad as it was, we still had Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen. We had the core pieces already but knew it was about building around them,” Sakic said. “We needed more core pieces around them. So as bad as ’16-17 was, we still had budding superstars that were ready to take the next step. We just had to build around them.” (from ‘How Joe Sakic built a Cup champion: NHL GMs marvel at Avalanche’s patient, methodical rise,’ The Athletic, 06-27-2022).

The above quote can easily be applied to the Devils with a core of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt. With training camp right around the corner, I thought this would be as good of a time as any to explain why New Jersey is on the right track to becoming Colorado.

Comparing the Devils’ Core to the Avalanche

Last season, Devils defenseman Ryan Graves openly compared MacKinnon to Jack Hughes and Landeskog to Nico Hischier, and if anyone should know, it would be him. The 6-foot-5 blueliner spent the first three seasons of his career playing in Denver, and thanks to the impending Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, he was traded to New Jersey in exchange for Mikhail Maltsev and a 2nd-round pick.

Both the Devils and Avalanche have a forward group led by first-overall picks. Colorado’s elite forward was selected first overall in 2013, while the budding Devils star was selected first in 2019. MacKinnon took the league by storm earning the Calder Trophy his rookie season. On the other hand, Hughes has been getting better each season, and some believe he is primed for a breakout role in the 2022-23 campaign.

Jack Hughes, David Rittich
New Jersey Devils’ Jack Hughes scores on Calgary Flames goalie David Rittich (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

As far as leaders, both team captains took on the responsibility at a young age. Hischier was named captain on Feb. 20, 2021. At the time, he was 22 years and 47 days old, which made him the youngest captain in the NHL and the second youngest in Devils history. When Landeskog earned the captaincy, he was the youngest player in NHL history to earn the honors at 19 years, 286 days. When asked about his captain, Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar talked about his lead-first style.

“A highly competitive guy the leads by example, every time he is on the ice practice or games. …He doesn’t have to say a lot but when he speaks the guys are just dialed right in, tune into what he is saying, ” said Bednar of Landeskog. “I think the experience that he has and even starting as a young captain and the respect he commands in that room is second to none.”

Related: Devils Getting Solid Leadership From Nico Hischier

The one thing that Devils head coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Tom Fitzgerald talk about when it comes to Hischier’s leadership style is he leads by example. The young captain has been quoted saying, “I’m more of a leader with action. I like to do the action (so) that others can follow me. Going to war with brothers, with the team, that’s what I like about hockey. It’s a team sport.”

Regarding the blue line, Colorado selected Cale Makar fourth overall at the 2017 NHL Draft. At 23 years old, the Alberta native and phenom has already won the Calder Trophy, Norris Trophy, Conn Smythe Trophy and his first Stanley Cup. In 2021, New Jersey selected their own defenseman with the fourth overall pick, a young player by the name of Luke Hughes. The younger brother of Jack had quite the year at the University of Michigan and, according to The Athletic, is the second-ranked NHL prospect under 23 years old behind Owen Power (from ‘Who are the top NHL prospects under 23 years old? Scott Wheeler ranks top 50,’ The Athletic, 07-25-2022).

Luke Hughes of the USDP
Luke Hughes of the USDP (Photo: Rena Laverty)

After the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, Landeskog was asked what NHL teams could take away from the  Avalanche’s run, and with a laugh, he said, “find a Cale Makar somewhere.” Fitzgerald was paying attention because when it came time for the 2022 NHL Draft, he selected his own coveted right-shot offensive blueliner in Simon Nemec. Can Hughes and Nemec become their own version of Makar? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, there is a lot of promise and excitement surrounding the Devils’ two defensive prospects.

Do The Devils Have the Depth?

The question that remains is if New Jersey will have the depth that Colorado displayed this past spring, and the answer is to be determined. At the conclusion of the 2022-23 campaign, the Devils have quite a few players who will be restricted and unrestricted free agents, including Miles Wood, Yegor Sharangovich, and Jesper Boqvist. The team’s depth could look significantly different in the near future, but that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

The one positive last season was the play of rookie Dawson Mercer. The Bay Roberts, Newfoundland native showed versatility similar to Rantanen and can be utilized as both a wing and center. Last season, the 20-year-old played on the top line alongside Hughes, but he also centered his own line when injuries caused holes in the lineup. Fans have seen a small but promising sample size from Mercer, who can easily become a key member of the roster, just as Rantanen has done in Colorado.

Started at the Bottom, Now We Are Here

It looks like the 2021-22 Devils were where the Avalanche were back in 2016-17. Both teams had difficulty playing on the road and were unable to string together a respectable winning streak. Back then, MacKinnon was 21 years old and finished the season with a team-leading 53 points. This past season, Devils fans saw 20-year-old Hughes earn 56 points in 49 games, which was a career-best for the youngster.

After that season, things started to click for Colorado. They qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the next season, and even though they lost in the first round, they found a rhythm and soon became a favorite to take home the Cup. Tom Gulitti of sat down with Nico Hischier this past offseason at the NHL European Player Media Tour and asked his thoughts on the club’s new additions.

Nico Hischier New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“Just looking at the roster right now, we feel way more comfortable. We feel confident,” Hischier said to Gulitti. “Those guys coming in definitely can help us with their game style, with their experience, and that’s something we need. We did this summer, and that’s why the excitement is there to get back to work and see where we’re at.”

Fitzgerald has been adding pieces to complement his core and drafting prospects that will make a significant impact on the club when they are ready to make the jump to the NHL. If everything goes right for New Jersey this season, they should be in the wild card hunt and could possibly make a return to the postseason. A lot of questions surround the goaltending, but if the Avalanche proved one thing this spring, it is that a team does not need top goaltending to win the Cup.

The time is coming for New Jersey, and the parallels between the clubs are undeniable. The Devils finally have a core and an impressive supporting cast that includes Ondrej Palat, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Dougie Hamilton. Fitzgerald understands that building toward long-term success takes time, and he has not been rushing the process. While it can be frustrating for everyone involved, it will all be worth it if fans get to see Hischier lift the Stanley Cup in the next few seasons.

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