With nearly half the season behind us, and the 2010-2011 New Jersey Devils mired in last place in the NHL, there's been considerable chatter on this site about the upcoming draft. What the team needs, who the Devils should draft, how they should build going forward, et cetera. For the first time in 20 years, the Devils are looking at exercising a pick at the very top of the draft.
I won't pretend to have anything new to say regarding next year's crop of kids. I won't even pretend to follow them or have anything interesting to say about them. Like many here, I simply hope the Devils make a selection that works out well for them.
Looking backwards, however.... the Devils have had success in the draft. A team almost has to, if they're going to build a consistent winner the way the Devils have been for nearly two decades. Many prominent draft picks have figured in that success.... but who is the "best draft pick" in the history of the Devils?
Well, that's not quite such an easy question to answer, given how many subjective factors can go into such a pronouncement.
So what makes someone a "good" draft pick, let alone one of the best in franchise history?
One obvious measuring stick would be on-ice performance. A player who puts up gaudy numbers is certainly a better draft pick than someone who puts up mediocre numbers. A player who wins League awards -- or is at least nominated for them -- would seem to be a good draft pick. A player who has the respect of his contemporaries, perhaps through multiple All-Star appearances, would seem to be a good selection. Perhaps overall team success factors into the equation, as a player who wins Stanley Cups would seem to have produced better results than someone who never won hockey's Holy Grail.
Then the picture gets even murkier when players who moved around during their careers come into consideration. How much credit does Lou Lamorello get for drafting Steve Sullivan in the 7th round, when Sullivan was a small part of a trade deadline deal and only played 49 games for the Devils in his career? Is Eric Lindros a good draft pick for the Quebec Nordiques because he was an elite player (pre-concussion), or a bad pick because he did all his damage in other team's uniforms? Is Lindros a bad pick because he refused to play for the Nordiques, or a good pick because of the massive haul reaped by trading him to Philadelphia?
Does it hurt a player's "value" if he leaves a team on bad terms? Does Atlanta get penalized because Dany Heatley asked out after difficult personal circumstances? Do you ding Buffalo because of the tendency of big-name talent to bolt for greener pastures during free agency in recent years?
How much does draft position matter? Does finding a "diamond in the rough" in the late rounds of a draft make someone a "better" draft pick? Does a Top 3 draft pick have to turn into a franchise player to justify its position? If a trade was made to move up or down in the draft, how does that figure in? Finally, does it matter who else was on the board when a player was selected, or does that mean less because some players would never thrive in certain situations?
Everyone has their own criteria, and weigh all these (and other) factors differently.... similar to voting for a "Most Valuble" Player in any sport. Without further adieu, however, I present to you my nominees for "Best Devils Draft Pick".
Vyacheslav Fetisov (1983 / 8th round, 145th overall), Alexei Kasatonov (1983 / 12th round, 225th overall), Alexander Semak (1988 / 10th round, 207th overall), Valeri Zelepukin (1990, 11th round / 221st overall)
This isn't a nod to any particular player, especially as the four players here did not have particularly memorable NHL careers. Rather, this is a nod to an idea that began before Lou Lamorello's arrival on the scene, that the great Soviet players would eventually come across to North America to play. Admittedly, these were low-risk selections, as draft picks this late are similar to lottery tickets, in that you hope for a massive payoff for a relatively meager investment. Still, passing up a player who might help the organization for (what seemed to many) a prayer requires consideration for the long term without any guarantee that anything positive will ever come from it.
Sean Burke (1985 / 2nd round, 24th overall)
Sean Burke is fondly remembered by older Devils fans as a hero of the dramatic 1988 playoff run. Burke joined the Devils following his play for the Canadian Olympic team at that year's Winter Games in Calgary. Down the stretch, Burke was 10-1-0, a major reason behind the team's late surge that ended with the Devils snatching the final playoff berth from Pittsburgh and Our Hated Rivals. Burke would go on to play three more seasons for the club, before being traded to Hartford following the 1990-1991 season. It would be one of Lou Lamorello's savvy moves in developing a champion, as Burke and defenseman Eric Weinrich went to Hartford, in return for a young Bobby Holik and a 2nd round pick. That pick would turn into....
Jay Pandolfo (1993 / 2nd round, 32nd overall)
Jay Pandolfo is the type of role player every good team needs. Jay joined the Devils during the 1996-1997 season, and would remain a part of the club until this most recent off-season. One of the NHL's premiere defensive forwards during much of his career, Pandolfo was even a Selke Trophy finalist once.... and otherwise spent most of his time focused on shutting down the other team's top forwards. His offensive numbers were never eye-popping, as Jay only netted 99 goals in more than 800 career games.... although he did chip in six goals during the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Three times, the team voted Pandolfo their "Players' Player" award, and five times Pandolfo was named the team's "Unsung Hero" in their post-season balloting.
Sergei Brylin (1992 / 2nd round, 42nd overall)
Sergei Brylin is another of those dependable role players that populate good teams and win fond places in the hearts of fans. Brylin arrived the season the Devils won their first Stanley Cup, and would be part of the organization through 2008. Like Jay Pandolfo, the numbers were not particularly stellar, but Brylin was a forward capable of playing any role the team needed him to at need. And as with Pandolfo, Brylin did receive recognition from his teammates, being named "Players' Player" once and "Unsung Hero" twice.
Zach Parise (2003 / 1st round, 17th overall) and Travis Zajac (2004 / 1st round, 20th overall)
Naming these two as "Honorable Mentions" isn't to say that there is anything wrong with either player. Rather, this is simply acceptance of the reality that neither player has enough of an NHL history to be fairly judged against players who have retired, or whose careers are winding down. Both players may yet define themselves as two of the greatest Devils of all-time.... but there are a lot of years to be played before we'll know for sure.
The above players are all important in their own way. Outside of potential future developments with Parise and Zajac, however, no one will ever mistake them for being the "best" draft pick ever.
The Nominees (in alphabetical order)
Martin Brodeur (1990 / 1st round, 20th overall)
Martin Brodeur needs little introduction to even the casual Devils fan. In his illustrious career, Brodeur has re-written the NHL's record book for goaltenders. He's backstopped the team to three Stanley Cups and countless other successes. More amazing than all of this is that the Devils actually traded down in the first round that year. The Devils had secured the 11th pick based on their play the previous season.... and when it came time for that pick to be made, the Calgary Flames were interested in moving up. Lou Lamorello pulled the trigger on a deal (netting the club an additional 2nd-round pick), and Calgary drafted goaltender Trevor Kidd. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ken Daneyko (1982 / 1st round, 18th overall)
Ken Daneyko was one of the rocks around which the Devils' championship-caliber defense was built during their glory years. Daneyko would play twenty years in the NHL, winning three Cups with the Devils before hanging up his skates and eventually joining the broadcast crew. Never much of an offensive threat, Daneyko was known as a defensive stalwart and a physical presence, and his game freed up numerous defense partners to contribute at the other end of the ice knowing there was someone to cover their rears.
Fun Fact: Did you know Ken Daneyko holds the franchise single-game playoff records for points and assists by a defenseman? (4 assists on April 22, 1988 at Washington)
Patrick Elias (1994 / 2nd round, 51st overall)
Patrick Elias is the Devils' all-time leading scorer, a lifelong Devil, and has a prominent place in the team's history. In his career, Elias has been part of many of the team's best and most well-known lines, from the "A-Line" glory days of the 2000 Cup winners to the "EGG Line" after the lockout to many others in between. Elias holds the franchise records for points and assists, and his most famous assist was the pass to Jason Arnott in double-overtime in Game 6 of the 2000 Finals that ended the series. A number of prominent NHL players were taken in the 1994 draft, but one would be hard-pressed to name a single one who has had a better career than Elias has.
Scott Gomez (1998 / 1st round, 27th overall)
Scott Gomez would be the second of two 1st-round picks the Devils would exercise in 1998. Following the use of the 26th pick on Mike Van Ryn, the Devils would send a pair of 2nd-round picks to Dallas for this selection. The Alaska-born centerman would join the team for the 1999-2000 season, one of four rookies to make significant contributions to a team that would win a Stanley Cup that season and another three years later. Gomez has maintained a reputation as a dazzling puckhandler and an elite playmaker, setting up many a sniper during his years as a Devil. Eventually, Gomez would depart to the Rangers by way of free agency, and move on from there to the Montreal Canadiens.
Bill Guerin (1989 / 1st round, 5th overall)
If one was looking for the prototype of a power forward in the "modern" NHL, they could do worse than Guerin, who made a career out of rugged play, goal-scoring, and leadership. The Devils' top selection in 1989, Guerin would play parts of seven season with the team, a period of time that included the 1995 Stanley Cup. Guerin was traded in 1997 for a young Jason Arnott, and eventually bounced to several other NHL clubs before his retirement this season. While his Devils' numbers were not all that eye-popping, his career numbers and play has many wondering if the Hall of Fame is in his future.
John MacLean (1983 / 1st round, 6th overall)
What franchise offensive records Patrick Elias doesn't hold, John MacLean likely does. MacLean joined the Devils full-time by the 1984-1985 season, and would play parts of fifteen seasons in total with the club before departing with most of the record book bearing his name. Even now, MacLean still holds the club record for career goals (347).... and he'll likely always be remembered as the forward who scored the overtime goal that propelled the team into the 1988 playoffs. Working against MacLean in the minds of many fans are the manner of his departure (unceremoniously banished to San Jose in 1997, before bouncing to New York and Dallas in his twlight years) and his tenure as head coach of the Devils.
Scott Niedermayer (1991 / 1st round, 3rd overall)
The recently-retired Scott Niedermayer is perhaps the best defenseman of his generation.... or at least a part of the discussion. Niedermayer was the offensive star of the blue line when the Devils were at their best, and perhaps no moment better summed up what Scotty could do than the end-to-end rush in Game 2 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals resulting in the eventual game-winning goal. Niedermayer would play thirteen seasons with the Devils, winning three Stanley Cups and a Norris Trophy, before taking his talents to Anaheim and continuing his superlative play with the Ducks (winning another Cup in 2007). Less well-known is how the Devils obtained the draft pick that would turn into Niedermayer.... a savvy Lou Lamorello trade in which defenseman Tom Kurvers went to Toronto for their first-round pick, with Toronto not playing well that season and turning over a top choice to New Jersey for the privledge. All that remains for Niedermayer now is the timing of his Hall of Fame call, and when the Devils and Ducks retire his #27.
Fun Fact: Do you know who the Devils used "their own" 1st-round pick on that season? This player is still hanging around in the NHL two decades later.
Brendan Shanahan (1987 / 1st round, 2nd overall)
The final nominee in this discussion is future Hall of Fame forward Brendan Shanahan. Shanahan's first tenure with the Devils was not incredibly long-lived, as Brendan signed as a free agent with St. Louis after four seasons -- including years where he scored 22, 29, and 30 goals. The arbitration case regarding compensation is well-known to Devils' fans, as the club would be awarded defenseman Scott Stevens in return, a move that is perhaps the most important when the sustained success of the franchise is looked back upon. This wouldn't be the end of Shanahan's vagabond ways, nor his involvement in transactions for premiere talent.... Brendan would eventually be traded (at different times) for Chris Pronger and Keith Primeau. Shanahan would end his career in 2008-2009 with a return to New Jersey, scoring the final six of his 656 goals in the process. All that remains now is the timing of his Hall call.
Fun Fact: Did you know that St. Louis offered Lou Lamorello a young Curtis Joseph and a young Rod Brind'Amour (plus two mid-round draft picks) as compensation for Brendan Shanahan?
So who is the best Devils' draft pick of all time, in my personal opinion? I'll go by process of elimination, here.
Bill Guerin is the first one off my list. A very good player, perhaps even a borderline Hall of Fame player.... but he never achieved quite so much in New Jersey, and the player he was traded for had one shining moment but otherwise doesn't have a significant impact on the equation.
Next to go is Scott Gomez. Part of this comes down to Scott's as-of-yet incomplete career, and part of it comes down to the manner of his departure and where he went. He was a key part of two Cup champions and a marvelous player in his own right, but neither one is enough to boost him over a talented field.
The third player out is John MacLean. MacLean had a wonderful career, as the numbers show, but a lot of his numbers are based largely on accumulation over time. When you divide it out, his average year was around twenty-five goals.... and while every team needs players like that, it can't boost him above elite talent. The manner of his departure also weighs him down.
The next player out is Brendan Shanahan. He had a terrific career, and belongs in the Hall of Fame when that day comes.... but he did most of his damage in other teams' employ. A debt of thanks is certainly owed to him for providing the Devils with the services of Scott Stevens.... but he didn't do enough in a Devils' uniform to overcome guys who spent their life with the team.
Ken Daneyko is the fifth guy voted off the island. A lifelong Devil, a rock on defense, and beloved by many fans he may be.... but not in the same neighborhood as the players who remain after him.
Scott Niedermayer is the sixth man out. While Scott was a phenomenal talent, and played a major role in three Stanley Cups, there are a few things against him. Many Devils fans will hold it against him the manner of his departure. I also downgrade him based on his draft location.... the two guys who remain were drafted far lower in the lottery.
The runner-up is Patrick Elias. He'll undoubtedly hold most of the franchise marks when he hangs up his skates, and he's been among the best players in the NHL for a decade. He's been part of the core for a long time, and the forward the team would build around for many years.
To me, the "Best Devils Draft PIck Ever" has to be Martin Brodeur. A no-doubt Hall of Fame goaltender, one of the faces you'd see on the Mt. Rushmore of Goalies (if one were ever crafted). He's been the foundation of this team since his full-time arrival in 1994, and his departure is tied (in the minds of many fans) to the looming re-build of the club. To think that the Devils were able to trade down in the draft and get him, and that teams preferred another goalie to him.... either the Devils got lucky, or they knew what they were doing.
So there you have it. In my opinion, the answer is Martin Brodeur. But what does everyone else think?