By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Devils were desperate for a win. In this case, even a lucky one generated off the ice would suffice.
For a team that not that long ago was synonymous with winning — in a 17-season run ending in 2012, the Devils qualified for the playoffs 15 times, copping three coveted Stanley Cups while also reaching and falling in the Final twice — they have since lost their way.
Following their defeat at the hands of the Kings in the 2012 Final, the Devils failed to even make the playoffs in the ensuing five consecutive seasons, with each campaign seemingly drearier than the one before. New Jersey finished this past season with a mere 70 points, the third-worst record in the league, after losing 21 (17 in regulation) of its last 24 games.
Well, it turned out that 70 — not 71 and not 69 — was the perfect number for the Devils to finally get back on the winning track — in one sense. Despite having only an 8.5 percent chance, New Jersey bagged the top prize in the NHL Draft Lottery on Saturday night and will own the first overall selection for the first time since the franchise relocated from Colorado in 1982.
Before we get too excited, it should be noted that the preliminary evaluations of the top of this draft class have not been overwhelming, comparatively speaking. There’s no sure-thing, transformative-type player such as the most recent top choices, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, to salivate over.
Still, the Devils needed something to jolt them out of their lethargy. Last offseason’s trade for dynamic left wing Taylor Hall wasn’t nearly enough, mostly because it came at the expense of top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson. Hall’s presence did little to lift the team’s production (New Jersey actually recorded one fewer goal than in 2015-16) while the defense became a sieve.
And though the overall talent in this draft is allegedly inferior to past pools, it was huge for New Jersey to move up, since the consensus has deemed two players — Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier — far above the next tier.
Provided general manager Ray Shero doesn’t trade the pick prior to the June 23 draft, most experts anticipate that Patrick, the 18-year-old center playing junior hockey in Brandon, Canada, who was named the top prospect by NHL Central Scouting a few weeks ago, will be donning a Devils jersey when training camp opens in September.
While Patrick doesn’t project into the Sidney Crosby or even the John Tavares mold, I’ve seen comparisons that have linked him to such standouts as Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar. The Devils should jump at that.
From the reports I’ve read, Patrick has the potential to develop into a more polished version of Travis Zajac, the Devils’ current No. 1 center, who just doesn’t possess the requisite offensive skill set for that role.
The 6-foot-2 Patrick plays a similar 200-foot game and is considered strong on faceoffs. While he won’t provide the electrifying dashes associated with the McDavids of the league, he has been labelled a very smart player with exceptional vision and hockey sense.
Patrick’s sheen dimmed a bit after an injury-laden season in which he was limited to 33 regular season games and then was absent during Brandon’s swift exit from the junior WHL playoffs. He also missed the glamorous World Junior Championship tournament in December. According to a story by Rory Boylen in sportsnert.ca.com, Patrick has played more than 75 percent of his team’s games just twice in his last six seasons.
Patrick did play Brandon’s full complement of contests in 2015-16, when he registered 41 goals and 102 points and was named MVP of the WHL playoffs. Had he been born four days earlier, he would have been draft eligible and most likely selected within the top 10 of a strong class last year headed by Matthews and Patrik Laine, per a preseason survey conducted by TSN.
Patrick’s demise in the rankings coincided with the rise of Halifax center Hischier, an 18-year-old from Switzerland who might tempt Shero with his package of elite skills and hard edge to his game.
Unfortunately, for Shero to rectify his most glaring need — a top-pair defenseman — he’d have to make a bit of a reach in the draft, if you go by the analysts who run NHL Central Scouting. In the split listing, no North American backliner is in the top eight of their most recent 2017 Draft Prospect Rankings, while the highest-rated international defenseman — Finland’s Miro Heiskanen — is ranked fourth among just the European skaters. Sweden’s Timothy Liljegren, an intriguing talent with strong puck-moving abilities, has fallen down the lottery ladder after a substandard second half of the season, according to TSN.
Shero will have to look around the league this offseason to fortify his blue line. Fortunately, the Devils will have ample salary cap space if they wish to get into the Kevin Shattenkirk sweepstakes or go after some other big name who will command big money.
That’s another side benefit of owning the top pick. Whether it’s Patrick or Hischier, the Devils will be able to add a nice piece up front without dipping into their assets. Let’s also not forget that center Michael McLeod, their 2016 first-rounder who is currently tearing up the junior playoffs, could also join the big club this fall and form a feared youthful triumvirate up the middle with Patrick/Hischier and Pavel Zacha.
All that losing may soon pay off in New Jersey. Thanks to some (shh!) tanking and extraordinary bingo pot luck, the Devils are in much better shape than they were two months ago.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1