The Devils have been among the NHL's elite teams for most of the past two decades. Still, nothing in the league lasts forever, not even one team and its consistent success. Given the age of the roster and several of their key players, plus the recent spate of playoff failures, I think it is fair to ask whether it might be time to start the transition of the team.
The hypothesis and evidence first.... my opinions on the matter following the jump.
How does one build a good team in today's NHL? In the era of the salary cap, most of the best teams do a lot of their construction through the draft. Consider the following four examples, in the two Cup finalists and two of the League's "premier" teams, all of whom have great expectations going forward.
The Chicago Blackhawks certainly have used free agency to augment their team. Marian Hossa was a high-priced import last off-season, signing a twelve-year deal to play in the Windy City. Before him, Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet were also shown the money to ply their trade for the Blackhawks. The core of the team, however, was built through success at the top of the draft. Patrick Kane was the first overall pick in 2007, and Jonathan Toews was the third overall pick in 2006. Two of their top defensemen, Brent Seabrook (14th overall in 2003) and Duncan Keith (second round in 2002) were brought in through the draft, and Cam Barker (3rd overall in 2004) was a mainstay on the blue line until a trade during the past season.
The Philadelphia Flyers have long had a reputation as a big market team willing to spend whatever it took to try and bring a Cup home, be it money or assets in high-profile trades. Still, many of the key components of this team were homegrown, or were acquired in trade for high draft picks or the prospects those picks once yielded. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter came out of the first round of the loaded 2003 draft class. Claude Giroux and James vanRiemsdyk are two of the younger players now providing significant support; each was a first-round pick in the last few years (22nd pick in 2006, 2nd pick in 2007 respectively). The Flyers packaged their 2009 first round pick with the player they selected in the first round of 2008 for defenseman Chris Pronger, and 2005 first-rounder Steve Downie was traded for Matt Carle.
The Washington Capitals have reaped the benefits of several high draft picks in building a team that dominated the most recent regular season. Alexander Ovechkin may be the league's best player, and was a no-brainer first overall pick in 2004. Nicklas Backstrom (4th overall) and Semyon Varlamov (23rd overall) came out of the 2006 draft, while Mike Green (29th in 2004) came out of the Ovechkin class. Alexander Semin is also a former first-round pick (13th in 2002), and the Capitals are receiving contributions from several other first round picks from the past decade (Eric Fehr and Karl Alzner, to name two).
The Pittsburgh Penguins might be the poster child for when it comes to rebuilding a team through the draft. Following the retirement of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, the team descended virtually to rock bottom before a bumper crop of high draft picks restored the team to glory. Everyone knows how Pittsburgh won the Sidney Crosby draft lottery (1st overall, 2005), but he was merely the third of four consecutive Top 2 picks the team would use. Marc-Andre Fleury (2003) was one of the few goaltenders ever to be tabbed with a #1 overall pick. The Penguins selected Evgeni Malkin (2nd, 2004) after Ovechkin came off the board, and Jordan Staal (2nd, 2006) was also a high draft pick. Those four are among the many reasons the Penguins are considered contenders for the long haul.... and that doesn't even begin to mention other significant Penguins first-round draft picks that contributed to their current run and the 2009 Stanley Cup.
High draft picks don't necessarily equate to success, however. Consider that the Atlanta Thrashers squandered a number of high draft picks in their early years. Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Kari Lehtonen, and Braydon Coburn were all Top 10 selections in the early part of this decade, and the Thrashers have a single playoff appearance (and no wins) to show for the entire group.
There is another way to build a successful team. The San Jose Sharks draft history hardly inspires confidence. In the last decade, Devin Setoguchi (8th overall, 2005) is the only high draftee by the team playing a prominent role. Unlike the teams named above, the Sharks have prospered through shrewd dealings, when players have literally fallen from the skies into their lap. Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley both forced their way out of situations in the Northeast, while Dan Boyle landed in the Bay Area as part of a salary dump.
So what about the Devils, you ask? For all the huzzahs given to Lou Lamorello and David Conte for their drafting and developing, the last decade has been largely barren when it comes to producting players at the high end of the draft. Zach Parise (17th, 2003) and Travis Zajac (20th, 2004) certainly stand out, but can you even name the other players the Devils have spent high draft picks since 2000?
David Hale (22nd, 2000). Adrian Foster (28th, 2001). Nicklas Bergfors (23rd, 2005). Matt Corrente (30th, 2006). Mattias Tedenby (24th, 2008). Jacob Josefson (20th, 2009).
Now, Bergfors has just emerged onto the NHL scene, and was dispatched to Atlanta in the Ilya Kovalchuk trade. The Devils have also swapped their first round pick twice in the past decade. There are high hopes for Corrente, Tedenby, and Josefson.... but none of them have proven anything at the NHL level, yet, and it is possible that none of them ever will.
So what's the point of all this, you ask? Most successful teams build a substantial part of their roster from within, as it is a cheap and reliable way to procure talent and mold it into something that fits into a system. In a day and age where teams can no longer spend unlimited amounts of cash for mercenary talent to augment their clubs, drafting and developing is more important than ever. Looking at the Devils, however, it seems this isn't the formula the team is following.
Considering the age of many of the core players, and some of the teams mentioned above, might it do more good for the Devils to start stripping down the team and positioning itself to rise again with a younger group around Parise and Zajac? Might it be a benefit to sacrifice the short term, the twilight years of Brodeur and Elias, for the potential of building a dynasty around "the kids"?
Thanks for reading.
Just as a disclaimer, my answer to the questions posed above is "no". The draft can be a very questionable proposition, moreso when you consider the Devils take their time in development of players and rarely rush anyone to the NHL level. More than that, there's a very uncertain future beyond Martin Brodeur, and the team's best chance to win is likely while he is still one of the league's top goalies. In addition, there's little reason to expect good free agents to come and be part of a lengthy building process that such a rebuild would entail.... and doing so might alienate Zach Parise and lead to him asking out. Furthermore, I don't know that Lou Lamorello has the stomach for running such a process, and that he'd probably hand the reins to another GM rather than disassemble this team he has built.
I thought this might make an interesting topic to discuss, however.... all the more when I started looking at how some of the good teams have profited through a number of very high draft choices.