Flashback to the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. The New Jersey Devils rolled out a group of forwards in their top-9 that looked like this:
Blake Coleman-Travis Zajac-Stefan Noesen
Kenny Agostino-Kevin Rooney-Kyle Palmieri
Drew Stafford-Blake Pietila-Joey Anderson
With all due respect, it’s not exactly a group that strikes fear into the hearts of defensemen and goaltenders. Other options on the 2018-19 roster included Nick Lappin, Eric Tangradi, and Kurtis Gabriel.
Flash forward to the present day, as we sit less than three months before opening night at the Rock in 2024…this is what the Devils top-9 is (roundabout) looking like today:
Jesper Bratt-Nico Hischier-Timo Meier
Dawson Mercer-Jack Hughes-Tyler Toffoli
Ondrej Palat-Erik Haula-Nolan Foote/Alexander Holtz
Quiet the difference in talent, top to bottom. And it’s very possible Curtis Lazar, Tomáš Nosek, or even Chris Tierney will slide into that third-line right-wing slot at some point. Or maybe even Tyce Thompson if he has a solid training camp.
Aside from Toffoli, the majority of this group already proved how lethal they could be when running on all cylinders in New Jersey. Adding a player of his caliber to replace Tomas Tatar was a move that could win Tom Fitzgerald the GM of the Year award at the end of the upcoming season.
“I really, truthfully believe that the sky is the limit with this club. I mean, you’ve got Jack; I don’t even know if he’s reached his full potential, right? You have a young captain in Nico, and there is so much untapped potential (on this team), and we’re getting close,” defenseman Brendan Smith said as the team cleaned out their lockers for the summer back in May.
The defense has improved by leaps and bounds as well, but that’s another story for another day. New Jersey is coming off the best regular season in franchise history, and they have managed to keep 75% of the roster intact. The sky is the limit for this group. And in no way will the line groupings stay the way we listed them all season long. They can all slide up and down the lineup and play with whomever the coaching staff needs them to play alongside, again, as they already proved last season.
Adding Toffoli, Tierney, and Nosek to the mix while subtracting Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist. Miles Wood, and Tomas Tatar seem like a win, which isn’t often the case when losing four players, but only adding three. Perhaps the best part is that the Devils’ core is young, in or entering their prime years, and signed for next season, the season after that, and the season after that, etc.
Even without those players, New Jersey still has Hughes, Hischier, Mercer, Bratt, and Meier under contract and their control for a while – and Meier is the elder statesman of that group at the ripe, old age of 26.
The new era of Devils hockey started last season and will continue this season. This is just the beginning of a new age of winning hockey in New Jersey. Is there a team currently that has a better top-9 in the NHL? I haven’t seen one yet.