The New Jersey Devils are currently on a very similar trajectory as the Edmonton Oilers. They both have two incredible centers (although Connor McDavid is admittedly in his own category, but the Jack Hughes-Nico Hischier experiment is very similar to the Leon Draisaitl-McDavid experiment. The goal of both the Oilers and Devils is the build the right pieces around them to make a Stanley Cup winner.
The Oilers, like the Devils, had the entire hockey world wondering when, not if, they were going to win a Stanley Cup Championship. When they went on a run to Game 7 of the second round in 2017, it was the start of a new era for Oilers hockey. McDavid was 20 years old, and Draisaitly was 21. It was the start of something special. Then, it took until 2022 to make it to the second round again.
The Devils want to avoid that. They need to listen to the lessons the Oilers unfortunately had to learn. Now, as everyone picked the Oilers as their preseason champion, they find themselves at the bottom of the standings and the end of their rope. The Devils need to avoid this. As they face an uphill battle with a spot outside the playoffs in November and no Hischier or Hughes, the moves they make around their two top centers will dictate what comes next.
Lesson #1: Fix the Defense
Fix the defense is an arbitrary statement, but it’s something the Devils must do. Whether it’s through the development of Kevin Bahl, Luke Hughes, and Simon Nemec, or through the acquisition of a veteran puck stopper. The Devils have been borderline masterful at acquiring great defensemen at a discount. Tom Fitzgerald already got Dougie Hamilton as the top dawg in free agency, used young assets to get John Marino locked into a cheap contract, and Jonas Siegenthaler after he was misused in Washington.
However, the defense is a major problem right now. After letting Damon Severson and Ryan Graves go in free agency, the Devils made minimal moves to replace him. Colin Miller and Cal Foote were the new arrivals. One got hurt after a putrid preseason and the other isn’t good enough to stay on the NHL roster. Now, the Devils are stuck with Brendan Smith in the lineup every night.
This is similar to what the Oilers found. They always had weak links on the defense. They had some decent homegrown stars (Darnell Nurse tops among them), but it wasn’t enough to get them to even middle ground when it comes to defense. The Devils need to know what it will take to get the team’s defense back in a positive light.