To say that the New Jersey Devils have struggled in recent years would be putting it lightly. This is a team that has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs just once over the past 10 seasons, including missing the postseason in each of the last four campaigns.
However, the 2022-23 season has offered a glimpse into the team's extremely bright future and hope that things could be different this time around. The Devils have a 8-3-0 record with 16 points and currently sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division. In addition, New Jersey has the second-most points in the entire league through the first month of play.
Entering Friday, the Devils are riding a five-game winning streak, including their most recent 4-3 comeback win over the Edmonton Oilers. It also marks the team's second winning streak of three or more games already in the young season.
With the first month of the 2022-23 season in the books, it appears that the Devils have turned a corner. New Jersey's young core, which includes assets like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt, has a lot to do with their recent bout of success.
It's been no secret that the Devils have had their fair share of draft blunders in recent years or at least players that have taken a little longer than expected to develop.
For a refresher, here's a look at the last 10 Devils' first round picks:
- 2022 (No. 2 overall): Simon Nemec (D)
- 2021 (No. 4 overall): Luke Hughes (D)
- 2021 (No. 29 overall): Chase Stillman (RW)
- 2020 (No. 7 overall): Alexander Holtz (RW)
- 2020 (No. 18 overall): Dawson Mercer (C)
- 2020 (No. 20 overall): Shakir Mukhamadullin (D)
- 2019 (No. 1 overall): Jack Hughes (C)
- 2018 (No. 17 overall): Ty Smith (D)
- 2017 (No. 1 overall): Nico Hischier (C)
- 2016 (No. 12 overall): Michael McLeod (C); Jesper Bratt was taken in the sixth round (No. 162 overall)
Hughes and Hischier were expected to quickly become household names, but it didn't happen overnight.
After recording 52 points (20 goals and 32 assists) in his rookie campaign, Hischier didn't top the 50-point mark again until the 2021-22 season when he registered a career-high 60 points (21 goals and 39 assists). The former No. 1 pick missed the majority of the 2020-21 season due to a leg injury and was limited to just 21 games.
Speaking of injuries, that's what has kept Hughes from realizing his full potential. The 21-year old dealt with lower and upper body injuries during his rookie season that limited him to just 61 games. As crazy as it sounds, that's the most games that the former top pick has logged in a single season. During the 2021-22 campaign, Hughes missed 17 games in October and November due to a shoulder injury, but still managed to be selected to his first NHL All-Star Game. However, the season ended on a sour note as Hughes suffered an MCL sprain in April, which prematurely ended his season.
Along with Bratt, the three Devils young forwards have been enjoying immense success to start off the year. Through 11 games, here's what the Devils core group has accomplished thus far:
- Bratt: 5 goals, 12 assists; scoring on 17.2 percent of his shots
- Hischier: 5 goals, 6 assists; scoring on 14.3 percent of his shots
- Hughes: 4 goals, 6 assists; scoring on 8.7 percent of his shots
Prior to the 2021-22 season, Bratt, who was a sixth round pick in 2016, had never recorded more than 35 points in a single season since entering the league back in 2017. However, Bratt rose to the occasion during the 2021-22 campaign and tallied a career-high 73 points (26 goals and 47 assists).
Bratt has been on a tear to open up the 2022-23 campaign. In the Devils' Nov. 3 win over the Oilers, Bratt continued his stellar play as he scored the game-winning goal with just 3:08 seconds remaining in the third period.
Hischier won the face-off and defenseman John Marino got the puck to a surging Bratt as he crossed the blue line into the Edmonton zone. Bratt certainly didn't miss his opportunity as he snapped a shot past Oilers netminder Stuart Skinner and it marked the second Devils' goal in seven seconds after defenseman Ryan Graves had previously scored.
It also marked the 11th consecutive game in which Bratt registered a point. In doing so, Bratt set a new Devils record for the longest season-opening point streak as he topped the previous record that was held by Tim Higgins (10-game point streak in 1984-85).
What made Bratt's play possible was Hischier's tremendous face-off win and that's been a common theme throughout the first month of the season.
The Devils are winning 55.7 percent of their face-offs, which is the third-highest rate in the NHL behind only the Chicago Blackhawks (57.5 percent) and the Boston Bruins (57.3 percent). Hischier has won 125-of-201 face-offs (62.2 percent), which is the seventh-highest percentage in the league. In addition, teammate Erik Haula has also been productive in the face-off circle as he's won 62.1 percent (100-of-161) of his draws.
Most recently against the Oilers on Thursday, Hischier successfully won 11-of-20 face-offs. As is the case on most nights, Hischier took the most draws for the Devils in that contest, and he ranks in the top 15 among total face-offs taken across the NHL.
Additionally, Hughes has begun to elevate his play after starting off the season relatively slowly. The American-born center had registered at least one point in each of his last four games prior to Thursday's contest and has scored goals in three of his last five games. After scoring a career-high 26 goals last season, that's a welcome sight for the Devils.
Injuries have really been the only thing that has been holding Hughes back from having an MVP-caliber season. Even in just 49 games a season ago, he was still able to accumulate 56 points and be a true difference maker for New Jersey.
If you look at the amount of high first round picks that the Devils have racked up, it's not a surprise that the franchise could have a few potential stars come out of those selections. If New Jersey's core of Bratt, Hischier, and Hughes can stay healthy this season and continue to develop, a return to glory is well within reach for a team that is off to an incredibly hot start.