During the Devils’ game against the Ottawa Senators on Friday, Frank Piserchia wore a red Devils jersey with the number 30 stitched across the front and back. It was a homage to the former goalie Martin Brodeur, the cornerstone on the 1995, 2000 and 2003 Stanley Cup championship teams.
Piserchia, a season-ticket holder from 1988 until the start of this season, recalls those days fondly, but they have seemed like a distant memory in recent years. The Devils have not made the playoffs since advancing to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals. Last season, they had the Eastern Conference’s worst record, and for each of the past five seasons, they have been near the bottom in scoring.But early this season, tanks in large part to the rookies Will Butcher, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier, the Devils are 8-2 and are third in the league with 3.8 goals per game.“The young guys are doing really well,” said Piserchia, a Freehold, N.J., resident. “There’s a lot of speed on the ice, a lot of action on the ice. It’s not dull, that’s for sure.
Butcher, 22, a defenseman who led the University of Denver to the N.C.A.A. title in April, is second on the team with 11 points, all assists. Bratt, 19, a sixth-round pick in the 2016 draft, is third in points with four goals and six assists. And Hischier, 18, the top overall selection in June’s draft, is the Devils’ first-line center and has added two goals and five assists.
Relying on young players has been part of Ray Shero’s plan since he arrived as general manager in May 2015. The team was coming off its worst record (32-36-14) in 26 years. The longtime general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Shero had also spent time in the front offices of the Senators and the Nashville Predators in the early years of those franchises. He believed that building through the draft was a smart and cost-effective way for the Devils to help turn things around.
The Devils had nine picks in the 2016 draft and 11 this year. With the No. 1 pick in June, they chose Hischier over Nolan Patrick, another center, who went second to the Philadelphia Flyers. Shero did not promise Hischier that he would play in the N.H.L. this season, but his performance in training camp and preseason games convinced the team that he was ready to contribute.
Centers Travis Zajac, who is out several months after having surgery in August on a torn left pectoral muscle, and Brian Boyle, who received a leukemia diagnosis in September, are missing the start the season. That gave Hischier the opportunity to center the first line. He has a point in only four of 10 games, but he has been solid in the defensive end and shown flashes of a player that the Devils could build around for years to come.
Everything is a step higher,” said Hischier, a Switzerland native, who had 86 points in 57 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. “I probably still need a little bit of time for adjusting to the game, but I like high-intense games.”
Unlike Hischier, Bratt was not highly touted and did not sign an entry-level deal with the Devils until May, 11 months after they selected him with the 162nd pick in the 2016 draft. Only 5 feet 10 inches and 175 pounds, Bratt split time last season between a junior league team and second-tier professional team in his native Sweden.
Bratt was expected to play in the junior Ontario Hockey League this season. But after performing well during a prospects game in Buffalo in September and in training camp, he made the Devils’ opening-night roster.“If we thought Jesper would be this good, we would’ve taken him a lot earlier than the sixth round,” Shero said.
He added: “He got off to a great start scoring goals, but that’s going to cool off at some point. But he’s got a back-up game. He’s an excellent penalty-killer. He’s very good without the puck.”Shero had been tracking Butcher for years. He had seen Butcher play for the United States National Team Development Program and in the world junior championship.
Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award last season for college hockey’s top player. The Colorado Avalanche had selected Butcher in the fifth round of the 2013 draft and held his rights until Aug. 15. That day, soon after Butcher decided to become a free agent instead of signing with the Avalanche, the Devils contacted Butcher’s agent. He signed with the Devils later that month.
It has not taken long for Butcher to display his playmaking skills. He set a franchise record for points in a debut when he had three assists in the Devils’ season-opening victory over the Avalanche. Entering Tuesday’s games, he is first among rookies and seventh in the N.H.L. with 11 assists.
So far, Butcher, Bratt and Hischier are proving they belong in the N.H.L. With the Devils also getting contributions from center Pavel Zacha, 20, left wing Miles Wood, 22, and defenseman Steven Santini, 22, the franchise could be in the early stages of a renaissance.“There will be bumps along the road, but it’s more of a longer, big-picture thing,” Shero said. “Those are the types of guys you want to build around because of what they bring both on and off the ice.”