New Jersey Devils: A History of Success

While they’ve barely been around for 40 years in their current iteration, the New Jersey Devils are one of the more interesting teams in the history of the NHL. During the relatively short time they’ve played their games in the Garden State, the Devils have rostered some of the best players in the history of hockey, quite literally changing the way teams played the game during the 1990s. It’s one thing to be a successful franchise, but yet another to have such an impact on the game that every other team wants to be like you. Here’s everything you need to know about the history of the Devils, including their proudest moments and best players.

Jacques Lemaire and the Neutral Zone Trap

If you ask a knowledgeable hockey fan, whether they root for the Devils or another team entirely, to sum up the 1990s from a puck perspective, they’re almost certainly going to talk quite a bit about New Jersey. Former Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire revolutionized the game during the 1994-95 lockout season, helping the team post a gleaming 16-4 playoff record on the way to their first-ever Stanley Cup championship.

As is often the case when a team wins the cup, other NHL coaches were quick to adopt Lamaire’s strategy, the 1-2-2 neutral zone trap. Like the name implies, the neutral zone trap centers around stifling offenses before they even get a chance to possess the puck in the offensive zone. A forechecker cuts off passing lanes, guiding play toward the boards, where the wingers and defensemen can poke the puck free. 

In Lamaire’s iteration, that opened a window for the team to counterattack, pouncing on the loose puck and getting back up the ice for a two-on-one. Speed helped beat the trap, of course, as did scoring first or getting power play opportunities—it’s hard to prioritize staying put when you need to mount a comeback and score—but the strategy’s ability to level the playing field, helping teams with less star power keep up with their opponents, made it catch on like wildfire across the league.

The late nineties were known as the ‘Dead Puck Era’ because of Lamaire’s strategy, with scoring stifled to an absolute minimum: if one were betting on sports back then, hammering the under at places like Fanatics Sportsbook would’ve been a sure-fire scheme to win frequently.

Martin Brodeur and the Trapezoid

It wouldn’t be fair to pin the Devils’ success solely on the neutral zone trap, though. Sure, it can help bad teams stay in games, but it also helps the great teams excel. With center Bobby Holík leading the charge on the forecheck and wingers like Stéphane Richer and Bill Guerin there to clean up the puck, New Jersey wasn’t short on talent when they won three Stanley Cups in nine years in the early 2000s. 

Most important of all, though, was goaltender Martin Brodeur, the league’s runaway all-time leader in wins, shutouts and games played, a hockey hall of famer and the proud owner of four Vezina Trophies. Marty could stop shots with the best of them, but his play outside the net might’ve helped set him apart from the rest even more. 

Brodeur’s athleticism allowed him to bail the net, darting to dig pucks out of the corners and essentially serving as the team’s third defenseman when opposing players would try to chip the puck in deep in order to beat the trap. 

While every young athlete wants their name engraved on championship trophies and in the Hall of Fame, perhaps the biggest compliment is when you get a rule named after you—an honor reserved for players so dominant that the league has to fundamentally alter the way the game is played to limit the innate advantage you have.

That’s what happened with the ‘Martin Brodeur rule,’ which established a trapezoid behind the net where goalies could play the puck. Outside that shape was the restricted area, where goalies couldn’t venture, which the league decided in an attempt to create more scoring chances.

New Jersey Devils: What’s the Verdict?

Whether you love them or hate them, one can’t deny how the New Jersey Devils changed the future of hockey. Their revolutionary approach to the game helped them win three Stanley Cups, but it also helped kill viewership in the league as plodding defensive play turned prospective fans away—along with a number of labor disputes in the era, including the 2004-05 lockout that canceled the entire season. 

Following the lockout, the NHL instituted the Martin Brodeur rule to speed up the pace of play, and they also eliminated the two-line pass rule, making it easier to break through the neutral zone and thus beat the trap. The trap lives on to this day, although not with the same level of success or ubiquity, and it may be a long time before we see another team possess the same degree of impact that those Devils’ clubs did.

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