It took until their 11th season inexistence. It took the NHL expanding the regular-season from 80 to 84 games. It even took a change in uniforms, from green to black.
The Devils, though, finally became a 40-win team during the 1992-93 season.
That season, which is widely remembered as former defenseman and Captain Scott Niedermayer’s rookie campaign, was just another in a long line of turning points en route to an eventual Stanley Cup Championship in 1995.
“I could see us coming together and having the right chemistry,” said ex-defenseman Scott Stevens, who was named team captain prior to the 1992-93 season, a title he didn’t relinquish until September 6, 2005.
“There was a change in the attitude around the Devils from what they were in the past,” Stevens added. “We became a very hard-working team and one with a lot of character that played tough every night. That’s been our best asset over the years.”
The Devils went 40-37-7, winning their 40th in the 81st game of the season, a 5-3 victory over Washington on April 10, 1993.
They opened the first 42 games with 22 wins, 17 losses and only three ties. There was nothing dramatic in those first 42 games, nothing great, but nothing terrible. The Devils were simply a team trying to figure out its game under new Coach Herb Brooks, the fearless and stern leader of the 1980 Gold Medal-winning U.S. Olympic hockey team. Brooks lasted only that season in New Jersey, but he set the table for Jacques Lemaire’s run over the following five seasons, beginning with a burst into the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Devils closed the first half of the 1992-93 season on a four-game winning streak, which stretched to five with a 7-1 win over Los Angeles on January 14. Before that, their best winning streak was three games, and worst losing streak was three games.
In fact, there was a stretch of 12 games where the Devils went 6-6, winning once every two games.
After winning that fifth in a row against the Kings, the Devils won once in their next eight games. They had two different stretches of four and five in a row without a loss, but they also lost four straight from March 9-16.
Hot and cold to say the least, but good enough to finish with 87 points, which tied a team-high set the season before, a team-best 40 wins, and fourth place in the Patrick Division. That meant their fourth-straight playoff berth, and that was a sign the Devils were now major players in the NHL.
However, for the fourth consecutive season, the Devils were one and done in the playoffs.
The two-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, buoyed by Mario Lemieux’s return from Hodgkin’s Disease, won the Presidents’ Trophy, and took care of the Devils in five games, winning the first two by a combined score of 13-3.
“I have a tendency to forget a little more when you lose in the first round, that’s my mentality,” former defenseman Ken Daneyko said. “I know we got on a good roll, but the whole key to me was that we were becoming a better franchise. It was still disappointing to lose in the first round.”
Still, as Daneyko noted, the team was getting better. The pieces were starting to fall into place for that miracle run in 1995.
Niedermayer was becoming a major factor. He contributed 11 goals and 29 assists in 80 games and was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie Team.
Bill Guerin found success in his rookie season as well, scoring 14 goals and dishing out 20 assists in 65 games. He also held an outstanding plus-14 rating, tied for third best on the team with Stevens, who led all defensemen with 45 assists and 57 points.
The Devils also welcomed in Bobby Holik via an August trade. They gave up defenseman Eric Weinrich and goalie Sean Burke, who gained his fame in the Meadowlands during the miracle 1988 playoff run.
“You have to lose a few of pieces in order to gain because you can’t get something for nothing,” Daneyko said.
scored 20 goals in 1992-93, his first season with the Devils.
Holik, who came from the Hartford Whalers, turned into a 20-goal scorer in his first season. He pumped in seven while on the power play, which tied him with Stephane Richer, Peter Stastny and John MacLean, who made his comeback from an injury that sidelined him all of the previous season.
The other little known factoid in that deal for Holik is that the Devils also received a draft pick from the Whalers, and turned that into Jay Pandolfo.
Defenseman Alexei Kasatonov was solid on defense during his fourth season in North America.
“The organization was all building toward that ultimate goal of winning the Cup,” Daneyko said, “and we had to add pieces here and there.”
For the second straight season Claude Lemieux was the Devils best point producer, finishing with 81 thanks to a team-high 51 assists. Richer led with 38 goals. MacLean, in his return season, had 24 goals and 24 assists.
The surprise of the season, though, had to be third-year Russian forward Alexander Semak, who the Devils drafted in 1988.
Semak was a natural 20-goal scorer for Moscow Dynamo, and in his first full NHL season he pumped in 37 goals and dished out 42 assists. He was second behind Lemieux with 79 points.
The Devils traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a deal that landed them defenseman Shawn Chambers, a major player during the 1995 Cup run.
However, with Semak aboard in 1992-93, the Devils had a roster in place that was getting closer and closer. Fifteen of the core guys that played on the 1995 Cup team were key contributors for the Devils in 1992-93.
“The young players, and the guys that were in the prime of their careers formed a nice combination,” Stevens said. “I felt good about the team, and it definitely turned out very well.
Dan Rosen covers high school sports and the NHL for The Record (Hackensack,
N.J.). He is a regular contributor to Center Ice Magazine.
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