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(Photo by Mark Fischgrund - JSN)

Devils closer to checking all the boxes of a contender

Begin at the ending and work backward. That sage advice has been given to many for years on how to write novels, plan presentations, and persuade jurors. It is also the way smart general managers build champions. Stanley Cup-winning teams aren't born by happenstance; they are constructed meticulously piece by piece. Those pieces must all seamlessly fit together to emerge as the winner of professional sports' most grueling postseason. While each general manager may chart their own course in getting there, the successful teams develop a prototype for team construction and then scrupulously follow the path to assemble a team in that image.

In his book, Burke's Law, former Vancouver Canucks and Anaheim Ducks General Manager Brian Burke describes, in great detail, what he looks for in each of his twenty rostered positions down to the finest point. Burke has used this model to create championship-level teams at several stops throughout the league. Time has shown that while Burke's model, heavy on toughness and "old school" hockey traits, has been successful, there are myriad ways to assemble a team worthy of hoisting the Cup.

The hockey analytics writers at The Athletic, led by Dom Luszczyszyn, researched Cup winners of the last decade. They created a list of common pieces found on just about every Stanley Cup-winning team during that time. In April, Shayna Goldman analyzed how the Devils' current roster fit into the Cup Checklist. Now that the team has changed, it is time to review the checklist, see how the current roster fits, and determine whether the Devils should continue to seek upgrades through trade or free agents or close up shop and fill holes from its deep prospect pool. 

Luszczyszyn found that the following ten player archetypes were found in at least 60 percent of the last ten Stanley Cup champions:

  • An elite first-line center among the best players in the world.
  • Elite first-line winger to support the elite center.
  • Two other top-line wingers on each of the top two lines.
  • Top-line center to play behind the elite center.
  • Two more top-six forwards for depth in the middle six.
  • Elite No. 1 defenseman.
  • A second No. 1 defenseman to play behind him.
  • A top pairing defenseman to help anchor a strong second pair with the No. 2.
  • Another top-pairing caliber defender to crush soft minutes on the third pair.
  • A top-10 caliber starting goaltender

The research found that the three most common players on championship teams are the elite center, elite defenseman, and a top pairing caliber defenseman on the second pair. All other needs on the checklist can be adjusted or made up for based on the strength of the others. For example, this year's Cup winner did not trot out a top 10 caliber goaltender but more than made up for it with its depth on defense and elite scoring wingers. At first glance, it appears the Devils have many of the pieces needed and may not be as far away as last season's disappointing finish would have you believe.

An elite first-line center that's among the very best players in the world

The Devils check this box easily after Jack Hughes's break-out 21-22 season. Before delving into the stats, it was clear the team was different with Hughes on the ice both at 5v5 and on the power play. Hughes is one of the burgeoning stars of the game and cemented his status as elite with his first All-Star Game appearance. He delivered an elite season that will only improve as he increases his game totals and if the power play is fixed. At 20 years old, Hughes scored 20 goals at even strength last season in 49 games. He was the youngest player in the NHL to score 20 goals at even strength. If he can continue to improve his durability, there is no reason to believe the Devils are not set with an elite first-line center for the next decade. The team-friendly 8x8 contract signed by Hughes last season will look like a steal in two years and will serve the Devils well moving forward.

Elite first-line winger to support the elite center

The Devils certainly have options to fill this role. Jesper Bratt and Alex Holtz are probably the two leading candidates. Bratt performed well above expectations last year, breaking out with 73 points in 76 games and becoming a darling of the analytics community. Bratt has the skill and data to establish himself as the elite first-line winger to support Hughes. He needs to demonstrate it over a period of seasons and show this was not a career year and a regression is coming. Holtz, the Devils' first-round pick in 2020 (7th Overall), certainly has the potential and pedigree to be an elite winger. However, he has yet to demonstrate that in his limited NHL appearances. He flashed brilliance in the AHL last season, scoring 26 goals and 51 points in 52 games. Holtz has the size and shot to be a top-line winger and is one of the system's few natural right-side forward prospects. It seems the question with Holtz is not if but when. The other potential options for filling this spot are Yegor Sharangovich and/or Dawson Mercer. Sharangovich began last year mired in a deep slump but was able to find himself down the stretch and finished third on the team with 24 goals. At 6'2", he possesses the potential to be a dominant power forward as he finishes his adjustment to the NHL game. With continued deployment in the top six and a more potent power play design, Sharangovich should be able to slide into this position and put up, at minimum, a 30-goal season.

Two other top-line wingers on each of the top two lines

As described above, the Devils have top-six caliber winger depth. While the team may not possess that elite winger, it certainly has at least four additional top six wingers in Bratt, Sharangovich, Ondrej Palat, and the choice of Holtz or Mercer. The signing of Palat and the retention of Bratt ensure that this box is checked.

Top-line center to play behind the elite center

While still not a finished product, Nico Hischier checks this box. He is a high-level 2C that will one day hoist the Selke Trophy. Hischier is a 200-foot player who has continued to improve and will anchor the second line for the next decade. He provides everything you would want in a top-line center putting up 60 points in 70 games, he plays on all special teams, his face-off winning percentage has remained above 50 percent, and he has a penchant for scoring big goals. The Devils are set up in the middle for a decade with Hughes and Hischier, as the flexibility of their contracts will allow the team to continue to add talent.

Two more top-six forwards for depth in the middle six

This is where the youth and depth will be tested and where the addition of an elite winger will bring about the depth further through the needed lineup. If you consider Bratt to be the elite winger referenced above, then slot Palat, Sharangovich and Mercer in at the other three, you would still have sufficient depth to claim two more forwards who could be top six caliber. Theoretically, between Holtz, Fabian Zetterlund (who played the best of any call-up last season), Tomas Tatar, and Andreas Johnsson. Holtz is certainly top six caliber. Zetterlund looked to be top six caliber putting up eight points in 14 games displaying a knack for being in the right place and a grit lacking from some of the wingers. 

The other two are veterans; Tatar underperformed on the scoresheet last year but possesses the ability to be a second-line winger and a power play contributor. Johnsson began the season on a roll but tapered off as the season progressed, experiencing a prolonged drought in March and April. Either possess the ability to contribute at the necessary level. However, they are each just as likely to be traded for salary cap relief and to make room for another addition or a long-term Bratt contract. There are certainly candidates for this slot, but who ultimately solidifies the role is up in the air and will be until it can be proven on the ice.

Elite No. 1 defenseman

The Devils signed Dougie Hamilton to be their number one defenseman. Less than twenty seconds into his Devils debut, Hamilton hit the back of the net and was off to a start he could have only dreamed of. Unfortunately for him, the rest of the season was marred by various injuries, including a severely broken jaw and a foot injury. He showed courage in returning to the ice, but it was clear he was never fully healthy and was not the Hamilton he and the team expected. Look for him to have a bounce-back campaign and have a huge impact elevating the power play. With Hamilton and two top four picks emerging in the next year (Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec), there is no need for concern about the elite defenseman spot for the foreseeable future.

A second No. 1 defenseman to play behind him

There are several ways the Devils can go to fill this need. You could go with Damon Severson, who played top pair minutes through most of last season and put up his best scoring numbers. You could also go with Jonas Siegenthaler, considered one of the top five shut-down defensive defensemen in the league. You could also make a case that this position is coming with Hughes and Nemec on the rise or that one, or the other, eventually usurp Hamilton and then he fills this role. It appears with the top six currently, and as projected by the end of the season, the Devils are set on the blue line.

A top pairing defenseman to help anchor a strong second pair with the No. 2

Ryan Graves is currently paired with Severson as the second of the second pair. It would be tough to call him a top pair defenseman primarily based on his inconsistent play last season. While the pairing is yet to be finalized, the Devils will claim one of the best RHD in the entire NHL with Hamilton, Severson, Marino, and Nemec. This should be a case where that depth overrides a less than perfect top pair level Graves. This will likely be remedied by the end of the campaign when Luke Hughes arrives from Ann Arbor or if young defensemen Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotyuk push their way into the lineup.

Another top-pairing caliber defender to crush soft minutes on the third pair

The addition of John Marino solidified the blue line and checks this box. Marino can play on all special teams and is considered a young, elite defender who can move the puck and exit the zone in transition. Should the rumors of Severson being moved be accurate, then the Devils would look to Nemec, Bahl, Okhotyuk, or Reilly Walsh to fill this role. A role that all four seem capable of filling.

A top 10 caliber starting goaltender

Here is the box that the Devils are seemingly farthest from checking off and the main reason it is so difficult to accurately evaluate how far away the team is from making the playoffs and making a run when they get there. Last season was as poor as it could have been in goal. The team used seven goaltenders, finishing with a team save percentage of .886, placing the Devils in the bottom two, just above expansion Seattle. Different pundits have estimated that with simply league-average goaltending, the Devils would have won at least ten more games, putting them on the precipice of contention. The team can legitimately contend for a spot in the playoffs if it gets above-average goaltending.

The Devils had multiple options to address the deficit in goal this offseason. They could have chased UFAs like Jack Campbell or Darcy Kuemper or tried to pry away veterans like John Gibson. Instead, the team chose to trade for Vitek Vanecek and pair him with enigmatic Mackenzie Blackwood. The Devils are now entering the third season, hoping Blackwood will emerge as a bonafide number one goaltender. Last year he never had a chance after suffering an injury that lingered and kept him out most of the season. Vanecek has posted slightly above league average save percentage and goals against numbers and at least twenty wins each of his first two seasons. Fitzgerald is calculating that the competition between the two will bring out the best in either one or both of them and perhaps establish a long-term answer at the position as both are still young (Blackwood 25, Vanecek 26). The other advantage to this tact is that neither is signed long-term at a large-cap commitment. Should one or both emerge, there is the ability to trade either at the deadline this season.

Devils Moving Forward

Taking all of the information above into account gives the Devils a true road map to success and explains well the moves that Fitzgerald has made this offseason. The only move left would be to add an elite first-line winger, and there is no reason to look to add for the sake of adding depth or experience. If available, Fitzgerald should target players like J.T. Miller, Timo Meier, William Nylander, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Any of those four would immediately impact Jack Hughes's wing and solidify the top line as one of the best in hockey. Making a trade like that would also push down all of the other forwards and fill out those slots with much higher caliber players. The decision point for the Devils is do they genuinely believe Bratt, Holtz, and/or Sharangovich will become that elite winger now and ameliorate the need to give up assets to obtain one. The goaltending is clearly the most significant hole on the team, but it has been addressed as well as it could now.

The Devils have choices and options and the end goal is clear. While the path to get there remains foggy, the fog is beginning to lift.

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