Throughout the broadcast of Saturday's game and likely to continue through this back-to-back, much will be made about the opponents of the New Jersey Devils being so much younger. The Islanders, Panthers, and Sabres have nothing to play for at this point of the season. They've either moved veteran players or lost them to injury, which means more of their prospects have the opportunity to play more. Whether they are a half-minor league team or not, much will be made about how the other team has players performing for future jobs. The Devils being considerably older isn't necessarily said but it doesn't have to be in that context.
There are a number of reasons why this is the case, but I want to focus on the bigger picture because that reason is crystal clear in that view but not necessarily right now: drafting. As a general rule of thumb, a draft class really needs about five or six seasons before being judged to see who bears out or not. Those selected in those drafts in the mid-2000s are developed, known quantities at this point. The Devils did not really draft well from 2002 through 2009. Out of 62 total selections, only thirteen players have played more than 50 games in the NHL. After cross-referencing with Hockey DB, here's the full list.
The Devils had two big hits in the first round, found a solid top-four defender, a solid top-six forward, and that's really it. You'll note that most of the players on this list aren't with the Devils. I'm not trying to say that the Devils should've kept all of these players. Only one on this list that departed had left a big hole in the lineup. I don't think anyone is really missing Mark Fraser. As much as I liked Vladimir Zharkov as a fourth liner, I can't say he was ever vital. A few were moved as part of larger deals. Nick Palmieri went to Minnesota Matt Halischuk remains in the league as a bottom six forward; he was moved to get Jason Arnott a few years back. Nicklas Bergfors (and Patrice Cormier, who missed the cut off) were moved as part of the deal for Ilya Kovalchuk. But the point remains the same: out of 62 total picks, the Devils really hit on only a handful of good, quality players plus Cam Janssen. That has a long term impact.
Exacerbating the issue was the lack of first round picks in a number of years. The Devils didn't have a first in 2002, 2007, and 2010. Those were all moved in deals that made sense at the time. I mean, the Devils had to burn a first to ship Vladimir Malakhov out of the organization get under the cap. The Kovalchuk deal was a masterstroke. While 2010 (and while I brought up the topic, 2013) firsts are out of the scope of what I'm focusing on, those were two potential players that could be on the roster soon enough. I get why they were traded and if I were in Lou's shoes, then I may have made the same decisions.
For many seasons, this wasn't as big of an issue because the Devils had plenty of players to lean on and they filled in holes as needed. They hit big on finding Andy Greene, David Clarkson, and Johnny Oduya, undrafted free agents. They had Paul Martin on defense for quite some time to lead the blueline. They were set in net with Martin Brodeur for much of the past decade. Patrik Elias continued to be an offensive horse to ride on as Parise and Zajac grew. But guys got older (namely Elias, Brodeur), some got bigger deals elsewhere, and the prospect pipeline became barer as the picks the Devils did make often didn't turn out. Not having a couple of firsts hurt. Many second and third round picks did not bear out as one may hope. That Matt Corrente, Mattias Tedenby, and (arguably) Jacob Josefson couldn't break through and stay on the NHL team despite many, many opportunities all adds to the cost.
Quite literally, the Devils have had to pay this cost. By all of those picks in the mid-2000s missing, the Devils had to go to free agency to find forwards and defensemen to fill in those gaps in the roster. Recall this last summer for example. The Devils had to pay quite a bit to get Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner, Rostislav Olesz, and Jaromir Jagr. Sure, Kovalchuk taking big money from the KHL drove a few moves, but the utter lack of quality forwards in the system for years drove the need for those signings whether it was for a second line role (Clowe/Ryder) or a depth position (Olesz). Since a player has to be 27 or have played seven seasons in the league before becoming an unrestricted free agent, that means many of the best years of that player were served with whoever drafted them. Those years can drive up a player's value so that means giving someone a lot of money to take that spot.
The Devils only have two really likely prospects at forward in Stefan Matteau and Reid Boucher. It's questionable how much their upside may be, but their success would save them from spending money to fill in depth in the future. It's not as if the other forwards in Albany really haven't stood out either. Look at their list of scorers; there's not exactly a diamond there being ignored by management. Leading scorer Joe Whitney got his shot earlier this season and showed that he doesn't have much of a future in the NHL. Mike Sislo looked OK during an extended call up but at age 26, he is who he is too. Maybe a few of the more recent picks by the Devils can show some promise, but it doesn't appear that this will change anytime soon. I'd expect the Devils to remain older up front and continue to spend for forwards.
There is better news on defense. Arguably, Adam Larsson is a NHL player. The Devils have found that Eric Gelinas (who just passed the 50 game plateau a few weeks ago) and Jon Merrill (who's can hit 50 games by season's end) are NHL defenders. There's high hopes for Damon Severson and, further in the future, Steve Santini. The Devils could very well have a majority of their blueline developed from within in a few seasons. Of course, they could flip one of these prospects to get a young talented forward.
But that's the future and not all hopes will bear out. The Devils as they are now are a veteran-heavy roster. That's not necessarily a bad thing (e.g. Jagr), but it can be if those veterans don't contribute as much as one hopes. The root cause to that was their lack of drafting success throughout most of the last decade. From a long-term perspective, the Devils would be wise to hold on to more of their picks, but also be more judicious in who they draft. They've lacked for forward prospects for years now. While it appears ownership is able to provide money for free agents, if they want that young stud or developing players at the bottom of their roster, their best path is through the draft. It's not a guaranteed plan for success: just ask the Isles, Panthers, and Sabres (who are banking on it). But if you're wondering why those three teams have younger players in bigger spots making things happen on the ice, then past drafting has to be considered.