A look at the New Jersey Devils’ (and Colorado Rockies’) All-Decade team for the 1980s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1980s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1980-81 and 1989-90) during the regular season. A complete list is available here.
Team: New Jersey Devils (1982-83 to 1989-90) and Colorado Rockies (1980-81 to 1981-82)
255-452-93, .377 WIN PCT, 2,688 GF vs. 3,391 GA, -703 Diff, 2/10 Playoff Appearances, 0 Stanley Cups
In a word, the Devils (and their predecessors, the Rockies) during the 1980s were terrible. They made the playoffs just twice, and both appearances were late in the decade: 1988 and 1990. And those were the only two seasons where they won at least 30 games or recorded at least 70 points. In fact, during their last season in Colorado and their first two in New Jersey, they won a total of 52 games over three seasons. Their worst season was ’83-84, the “race” to Mario Lemieux, where they went 17-56-7 for a .256 win percentage (the Penguins managed to be slightly worse, going 16-58-6 for a .238 PCT). The Devils/Rockies were awful at both ends of the ice: they hit the 300 goals-for mark just once, and only twice managed to allow fewer than 300 goals against. Their 37.7% win percentage was dead last during the 1980s; Toronto was the only other franchise below 40% (at 39.1%). The Devils/Rockies averaged just 3.36 goals for per game, last out of the 21 NHL teams. They ranked marginally better on defense, where their 4.24 goals against per game ranked 18th. But their staggeringly-awful goal differential of -703 was by far dead last; Toronto was 20th at -637, and no other team was worse than -477. That’s right: ignoring the Maple Leafs, the Devils goal differential was nearly 50% worse than the 19th-ranked Penguins. The lone bright spot was their ’87-88 season, their first above-.500 season in franchise history: the Devils not only qualified for the playoffs (on the last day of the season, I believe), but they made it all the way to the Conference Finals before losing to the Boston Bruins. But their “Mickey Mouse” label, from a certain Wayne Gretzky, was definitely deserved during this decade.
Left Wing: Kirk Muller (476 GP, 166-284-450, -63, 496 PIM, 16 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Aaron Broten
Poor Aaron Broten had spent nine years with this franchise, so it was no wonder his +/- was -72. But he was a bright spot on offense, with five 55+ point season (including two in the 79-83 range). But Muller was the face of the franchise offensively. He took a little while to get his legs under him (thanks no doubt in part to the lack of a supporting cast around him), scoring 120 points total in his first two seasons. But in the next four he scored 30+ goals three times, 50+ assists three times and 70+ points four times (including a high of 94 in ’87-88). His +/- improved every year from ’84-85 to ’87-88, and he managed to be a somewhat-respectable -63. He also scored 9+ powerplay goals five times, and even chipped in six short-handed markers. And despite playing for a team that rarely won, 10% of Muller’s goals were game winning goals. Muller also recorded at least 158 shots on goal in every season, including 180+ in the final four years of the decade. It’s tough to be drafted #2 behind Mario Lemieux, but Muller helped bring some respectability and offensive talent to a franchise that desperately needed both.
Centre: Patrik Sundstrom (217 GP, 70-126-196, +21, 112 PIM, 4 GWG)
Sundstrom wasn’t a world-class talent, but he was a decent offensive centre who was a point-per-game threat on a team that had a lot of trouble scoring. His point totals in three seasons with the Devils were 51, 69 and 76, and he was positive in +/- two of his three seasons. He was also effective with the man advantage, scoring 29 powerplay goals in three years. But he may have been ineffective in the clutch: only four of his 70 goals were game winners, or just 6% of his total. And he certainly wasn’t tough, registering 34-42 penalty minutes per season. But he was a fairly slick skilled player on a team that simply didn’t have much offensive talent.
Right Wing: John MacLean (468 GP, 172-191-363, -11, 635 PIM, 31 GWG)
John MacLean was a heart-and-soul type for New Jersey who stayed with the franchise through to their first Stanley Cup victory in 1995. He played 6+ seasons for the Devils during the 1980s, scoring 20+ goals five times (including a pair of 40+ goal seasons to close out the decade). He also scored 60+ points three times, including a high of 87 in ’88-89. He was also tough, as attested to by his four 100+ PIM seasons. He was also incredibly clutch for the Devils, with an amazing 18% of his goals (31) coming as game-winning goals. He played his way onto the powerplay, scoring 45 PPG over the final four seasons of the 80s, and he recorded 197+ shots on goal four times (including an impressive 322 in ’89-90). A valuable leader and offensive talent for the Devils.
Defense: Bruce Driver (361 GP, 41-169-210, -28, 259 PIM, 1 GWG)
Bruce Driver is one of the unsung heroes, in my opinion, of the New Jersey Devils. He was a dependable two-way talent on their blueline for many years. While he technically played in parts of seven seasons, there were three seasons where (due to either injury or having not sustained a full-time spot on the roster) he played 40 games or less. So really he only had four full seasons with the Devils, and those four were impressive (two 50+ point seasons and another two 30+ point seasons). He also managed to be even or positive in four of his six seasons with at least 25 games played. While not a huge goal-scoring threat on special teams, he was a steady influence who helped fuel his team’s offensive game while being responsible in his own end.
Defense: Ken Daneyko (369 GP, 19-53-72, -25, 1,048 PIM, 1 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Tom Kurvers
Ken Daneyko is the kind of rough-and-tumble, stay-at-home defenseman every team needs. He was and still remains one of the all-time greats in the history of the Devils’ franchise. He played in parts of three seasons before securing a full-time role with the Devils, and he played 74+ games in the final four seasons of the decade. While not an offensive threat (he only once scored more than 5 goals or more than 20 points), he was fairly steady defensively, posting a reasonable -25 rating in 369 games. He was also willing to stand up for his teammates, recording 200+ penalty minutes three times. He helped fuel the Devils’ turnaround from pushovers to perennial contenders. Honourable Mention to Tom Kurvers, who recorded seasons of 34 and 66 points from the Devils blueline (along with a +17 rating) before being dealt after one game in the ’89-90 season. He was traded to Toronto for a first round pick that nearly became Eric Lindros, but instead became Scott Niedermayer, fuelling the Devil’s success in the 90s and 00s. For that alone he gets an honourable mention.
Goalie: Sean Burke (127 GP, 54-54-15, 4 SO, 3.67 GAA, 0.877 PCT)
Burke came in late in the ’87-88 season as a hero for the Devils, going 10-1-0 in 13 appearances to drive New Jersey to their first playoff appearance. He went a respectable 44-53-15 over the next two seasons. While he never quite lived up to his hero of the 1998 playoff drive and subsequent run to the Semi Finals, he was still by far the best Devils’ goaltender of the 1980s.