The New Jersey Devils had quite a run from the mid-1990s to 2012. Their foundation was built thanks to some weird circumstances and bad moves.
The New Jersey Devils are currently one of the worst teams in the NHL. They’ve only made the playoffs once since the 2013 lockout. However, it wasn’t too long ago that they were one of the NHL’s most consistent teams. From the 1989-90 season to the 2011-12 season, they only missed the Stanley Cup playoffs twice (1995-96 and 2010-11). During that span, the Devils went to five Stanley Cup Finals, winning three of them.
Whether or not they had a dynasty is up for debate. But considering they won three Stanley Cups in under 10 seasons and were consistently among the NHL’s best teams, I’d say they were. The Devils might have the oddest dynasty in league history, and maybe even sports history, because its foundation was built thanks to an arbitrator and the mistakes of others.
Let’s take a look at how the Devils built their dynasty.
Every dynasty needs foundational players. You need stars to win in the NHL. The Devils core from the early 1990s through 2004 was built around three future Hall of Fame players. Each of them were elite at what they did and led them to extraordinary success. First, let’s take a look at the bone-crushing defenseman, Scott Stevens.
Stevens is someone who most fans probably hate. Some fans (myself included) might know him as that jerk who forever altered the careers of Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya by giving both of them concussions. Stevens played during a time when hard hits were the norm, and I don’t think anyone in NHL history loved hitting people more than Stevens.
He got his start with the Washington Capitals, as he, along with Rod Langway, led a defense that pretty much saved their future in America’s capital. Before Stevens and Langway arrived, the Caps had never made the postseason. With both of them on the roster, they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each season.
In May of 1990, Stevens, along with three of his teammates, including future Hall of Fame forward Dino Ciccarelli, was accused of sodomizing a woman in the back of a limo. Though no charges were ever filed, this remains a stain for the Capitals. This is likely why the Caps were so eager to move on from Stevens as well.
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Stevens decided it was time to move on from the Capitals during the 1990 offseason. The St. Louis Blues decided to pursue him, but because he was a restricted free agent, they had to offer compensation. This came in the form of two first-round picks that would become five first-round picks if the Capitals didn’t have a top-seven pick in the 1991 or 1992 drafts. They wound up with five.
This is where things get interesting. After Stevens spent one year with the Blues as their captain, the Blues decided to pursue Brendan Shanahan of the New Jersey Devils. Much like Stevens, Shanahan was a restricted free agent. And because the Blues owed the Capitals first-round picks, those couldn’t be part of the compensation.
The two sides couldn’t agree upon compensation, so it went to arbitration. While the Blues offered the Devils goaltender Curtis Joseph, forward Rod Brind’Amour, and two draft picks, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello’s demands were quite simple. He wanted Stevens. The Devils wound up winning the case, but things didn’t start off well for Stevens in New Jersey.
Stevens was understandably frustrated after having to move from the second time in under a year. And this time, he had no say in it. Stevens wanted to spend the rest of his career in St. Louis, as his family was happy there. Luckily for the Devils, he eventually agreed to report to the team. Stevens became the Devils captain within a year and the rest is history. It’s interesting to think how different things might have been had they not landed Stevens.
Chronologically, this was the first mistake the New Jersey Devils capitalized on. Let’s go back to the 1988-89 season. The Toronto Maple Leafs were expected to have a great season, but early struggles had them go 1-4-0 in their first five games, allowing 30 goals in the process.
New general manager Floyd Smith was immediately put under pressure. He had to find a solution despite not having very many tradable assets. Smith begrudgingly traded the Maple Leafs’ 1991 first-round pick for him.
Short-term, the deal was pretty good for the Leafs. They wound up righting the ship and making the playoffs, though they lost to the St. Louis Blues in the first round. However, next season is when things started going downhill for the Leafs.
At the time, the talk of the league was about some guy named Eric Lindros. He was dominating in juniors. His size and speed made him extremely tempting and he was seen as one of the best prospects in recent memory. The Leafs struggled mightily that season, and although they avoided having to give up the first overall pic, they still had to give the Devils the third overall pick because they finished in second-to-last and the expansion San Jose Sharks got the second overall pick.
With that third overall pick in the 1991 draft, the Devils selected Niedermayer. Now the Devils had two franchise defensemen. Stevens was the bone crusher while Niedermayer was the puck mover. It’s hard not to win a lot of games if those two guys are patrolling the back end.
Chronologically, this was the first move the Devils actually made. They drafted him in the first-round with the 20th overall pick of the 1990 NHL Draft. However, the Devils almost didn’t get him. The Calgary Flames really needed a goaltender. Knowing other teams did as well, the Flames made sure they got their guy by trading up to the 11th pick, owned by the Devils.
Unfortunately for the Flames, “their guy” wasn’t Martin Brodeur. It was Trevor Kidd, who was the top ranked goaltender in the draft at the time. Though Kidd actually had a pretty decent NHL career, playing in nearly 400 games, Brodeur clearly had a much better career, as many believe him to be the greatest goalie of all-time.
Had the Devils actually kept the 11th overall pick, who knows what they would have done. Maybe they would have taken Kidd. Perhaps they don’t take a goalie (which might have led them to take Curtis Joseph in that Stevens arbitration case).
Now, there were other important players. The petty Claude Lemieux helped the Devils win their first Stanley Cup (and later started the greatest rivalry in NHL history after being traded to the Colorado Avalanche). John MacLean and Stephane Richter were important as well. Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez were key guys in their Stanley Cup runs in 2000 and 2003. Let’s not forget about Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner either.
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However, Stevens, Niedermayer, and Brodeur represented the Devils core when they won their Stanley Cups. They were their best players in virtually every game. Had teams not made some huge mistakes, and had Lamoriello not somehow convinced a judge Stevens was an appropriate price for Brendan Shanahan, the Devils wouldn’t have had a dynasty.