It was only six more wins, and in the grand scheme of an 80-game season that doesn’t sound like much. To former Devils’ great John MacLean, though, it was a huge deal in 1985-86.
The Devils, in their fourth season of existence since the franchise moved from Colorado, won 28 games that season, the most in franchise history and six more than the previous year. They weren’t in the playoffs, far from the cusp in fact, as they finished last in the Patrick Division, 17 points behind the fifth-place Pittsburgh Penguins. Believe it or not, this was progress. The Devils were now an established franchise in the league, and only two seasons away from making a run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“At one point we might have been right in the thick of things, and we were starting to be eliminated (from playoff contention) later rather than earlier (in the season),” said MacLean, now an assistant coach on the Devils’ bench. “It wasn’t funny at the time, but there was progress. There was something we could see. We were making progress, however little it was. There was talk at times that we could make the playoffs.
“You know if we had six more wins we might have been in the playoffs too,” he continued. “We were getting closer, and we could see an upside to it.”
The Devils, though, were still a young bunch. Most players had only a year or two of true NHL experience on their résumés, and the veterans such as Mel Bridgman, Peter McNab and Dave Lewis were starting to be phased out. Even Don Lever, the Devils’ first-ever team captain, was no longer with the organization.
“It was survival for the older guys,” said former forward Paul Gagne, who had 19 goals and 19 assists in 1985-86. “They wanted to stay as long as they could, so they had a role of being mentors and fathers because we were kids and the coaching staff can’t do it all. That’s where the leadership came in, and that was a positive. However, there were fewer veterans. There was more development with MacLean, Pat Verbeek and Joe Cirella. Those guys became the core and they were developed at a young age.”
So much so that Aaron Broten, the 25- year-old veteran of four NHL seasons, and 28-year-old Mark Johnson were considered old on this team. However, the up-and-comers such as Greg Adams, Cirella, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver, MacLean, Kirk Muller and Verbeek, were now being counted on more than ever. They had to score. They had to pass. They had to lead. Bridgman was still the team captain and having good seasons (he had 23 goals and 40 assists in 1985-86, and another 39 points the following season), but MacLean sensed a change in philosophy.
“It’s almost like the realization that they were putting the responsibility on us now as a young group to start taking over the team, putting our mark on it,” MacLean said. “It felt like we were never going to get there,” Verbeek added.
That youth responded well early as the Devils won their first three games, including victories at Philadelphia and in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. They finished with 14 wins in each half of the season, and went 9-11 over their last 20 games.
“We were starting to mature as players, and we were just starting to feel a little more comfortable with ourselves as far as playing
in the NHL,” MacLean said. “We had years under our belt only because there wasn’t a lot to begin with and we had to find our way. We were starting to become a team comprised of young draft picks as opposed to all vets. “The draft picks started to take over.”
Adams, who wound up playing over 1,000 NHL games and scoring over 350 goals in his 17- year career, led all Devils with 35 goals and 42 assists. He was in his second NHL season. However, the key stats came from the certain group of core players who all remained for the next several years, including the memorable 1987-88 season when the Devils were one win away from a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
Muller was second on the team with 25 goals and 41 assists. MacLean had 57 points, and Verbeek had 53. Doug Sulliman and Broten each had 43 points.
“We had 19-year-old kids coming out of juniors playing for us, and for them to get a couple years under their belts really made a big difference,” Broten said. “We felt that we would start becoming a good team,” MacLean added. “We had some good players.”
One of the key youngsters who finally started to make his presence felt in the league was Daneyko. The eventually legendary Devils’ defenseman played 44 games in the 1985-86 season, and the Devils were happy to have him. Daneyko was the enforcer the Devils never had before. He was the protector, the grappler. If a message needed to be sent to any particular team or player, Daneyko was the guy to send it.
“One thing about Kenny, and it’s something he never changed throughout his years, is that he has a unique personality which was good for our team,” MacLean said. “He is a team player. During those early times, we didn’t have anybody to protect us, but he was always on call. That gives you that extra confidence, knowing that he would take on the big guys. Kenny was there, and we weren’t as worried about it. We grew and became more confident because of it.”
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