When it comes to the New Jersey Devils, a devilish reward is right around the corner in terms of a concentrated youth movement.
When a team begins a season, the last thing on the mind of a general manager is the chance of coming away with the 1st overall pick in the next draft. In the NHL, every team starts a season 0-0-0 and even when expectations are not high, you never know a season is going to play out.
But in the case of the New Jersey Devils, this past season did not go well for all parties involved. They finished 28-40-14 and 70 points which were dead last in the eastern conference and 26th overall out of 30 teams in the NHL. There was a point in the season where the front office began to focus on the prospects for the upcoming NHL Draft.
With the Vegas Golden Knights coming into the league next season, the Devils went into the NHL Draft Lottery on Apr. 29 sitting in the number five position and just an 8.5 percent chance of landing the first overall pick. There was also the chance they could move the other way.
“You go into the lottery and we’re picking five and if things go wrong you could pick eighth which is obviously a big fall,” Devils general manager Ray Shero told Elite Sports NY during a phone interview last week.
But who in the Devil could have imagined what was about to happen?
The first domino to fall was that the Flyers moved into a top three position. Then, it was determined that, in a yet to be revealed order, the Devils, Flyers, and Stars would have the top three picks in the draft.
“Our odds were a little better at that point but still you never know,” said Shero.
And then it happened. The Devils won the lottery and they were in possession of the first overall pick in the NHL Draft on Jun. 23 in Chicago. It’s the 1st time that the Devils have owned the first overall pick since they 1982 when they arrived in New Jersey. It’s also the first time that one of the local teams had the first pick since the Islanders took John Tavares in 2009.
After a rough season for the players, coaches, management, the entire organization, and the fans, the Devils had something to show for their struggles.
Talk about the luck of the Devil!
“We would have been happy at five,” admitted Shero. “We think we could have had a good player. To actually win that lottery and get the first overall pick is certainly a great thing for our franchise.”
Having the first overall pick is a huge chip for the Devils in their youth movement. They have a plan in place to bring a winning culture back to the franchise and that plan doesn’t include going out and trading away their future for a quick fix. The plan is to build through the draft and with young players. They had 10 picks last season, 11 this year and nine more in June 2018.
“When I came here two years ago, it was the oldest team in the league,” said Shero. “There’s only one way to go and to continue going down that road of older players like every team that tries to win trading draft picks and prospects catches up. This was the direction that we had to go.”
Over the last two years, the Devils have added some younger assets including the trade for Taylor Hall who is just 25 years old. A look around the league will show that teams like the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins who took their lumps for a while as they built a consistent winner.
The Devils know they’ll have some growing pains, but it’s the end result that they are banking on.
“You have to take a step backward sometimes instead of taking two forward and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Shero. “You have to have a plan. Adding older players is not a plan. It’s just patchwork which is not the way to go.”
While the Penguins fortunes changed when they landed Sidney Crosby with the first overall pick in 2005, a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets is a more recent example of a franchise that stockpiled young players and built a playoff team. A big part of the Blue Jackets success was Paul Castron, the Devils’ current Director of Amateur Scouting.
Castron served in the same capacity in Columbus for 16 years before joining the Devils for the 2015-16 season. He and his staff have worked countless hours scouting the available prospects and will leave no stone unturned in making a recommendation for the first overall pick.
Shero has seen the top players, but not as much as the scouts.
“The way our year went, I probably did a lot more amateur scouting than usual and I’ve gotten to see some of these players,” said Shero. But to see a player play two or three times or one time is really dangerous to tell Paul who to draft.
So who will the Devils take first overall?
That’s a good question because unlike last year when the Maple Leafs took Auston Matthews with the first pick or in 2015, there isn’t a consensus selection among the experts for the Devils this year. But according to the final rankings by NHL Central Scouting, there are two players that stand above the rest that the Devils are doing their homework on.
Nolan Patrick is ranked number one by Central Scouting and is a center that plays for Brandon in the Western Hockey League. He was named the Wheat King’s Captain prior to this past season and averaged more than a point a game despite missing substantial time because of an injury.
He finished with 20 goals, 26 assists and 46 points in just 33 games.
“Nolan Patrick is a big center iceman with a right-handed shot,” said Shero. “He brings a lot of different things to the table. I think the projection on Nolan is not so much about this past year but his whole body of work including the two previous years.”
Patrick racked up 102 points in 72 games during the 2015-16 season and the year before that he tallied 56 points in 55 games.
Ranked number two by Central Scouting is Nico Hischier, a center who plays for Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He could be the highest drafted player from Switzerland since the Islanders took Nino Niederreiter fifth overall in 2010. This past season, he was named the QMJHL Rookie of the Year and was awarded the Mike Bossy trophy as the league’s best professional prospect.
In 57 games, he compiled 38 goals, 48 assists and 86 points.
“He is a kid that really has come on this year,” said Shero. “You didn’t really hear his name until a year ago but this kid is really a dynamic young center iceman. He has very good hockey sense and has a left-handed shot.”
The reality is that the Devils have two really good possibilities for that first overall pick and they are taking their time to gather more information on both players prior to the draft. The info that they already have is good, but they’ll dot the “I”s and cross the “T” before making a final determination.
“Both players should be impact players for their hockey team for a long period of time,” said Shero. “To have a chance at one of these guys is interesting. It’s a good thing for the Devils. There’s lots of time here to do our due diligence and try to learn more about these players. We hope to make the right decision and we’re confident in our staff.”
Another factor in play here is that the Devils could be approached by other teams about trading the pick. There could be a team out there that offers a king’s ransom for the pick, but it doesn’t seem likely that any club has a chance of making a deal with the Devils.
“I don’t think you rule anything out, but I think the days of trading the first overall pick for established players is long gone,” said Shero. “In terms of trading down and still getting the player you might want depending on the information that you have is another thing.”
Generally, most players selected in the NHL Draft won’t be a factor for the teams that take them until a few years down the road. But in many cases, players taken with the first or second overall selections can make the quick jump to the NHL right away.
As far as the Devils are concerned, both Patrick and Hischier can be skating on the Prudential Center ice next season.
“I think the two players that you mentioned are NHL ready or should be NHL ready to play next year,” said Shero. “You always want to do what’s best for the player long term. You’re going to get a good player here. It’s a luxury to have and we’ll see where it takes us. It’s kind of what we needed.”
After a season filled with losses, the Devils came up big winners by landing the first overall pick in the draft. It’s an exciting time for the franchise and their fans because there is a plan in place and hope for the future. The added piece to the puzzle of a first overall pick could accelerate the process but at the very least it’s going to be something to celebrate right now.
“Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction for us,” said Shero. “Once this thing turns around, it’s going to be a really good thing to be a part of … a young group of guys that are going to develop and win together. As a fan, I think that’s exciting to try and rally around.”
When the Devils’ brass steps to the podium at the United Center in Chicago on Jun. 23, they will select a player that they hope will be a central figure in the building of the fourth Stanley Cup in team history and perhaps other titles to follow. As the selection puts that Devils sweater on for the first time, there will be plenty of smiles because that’s what the draft stands for.
It’s a day for hope and with a plan in place for the future, you have to give the Devils their due in terms of what is happening at “The Rock.”