John MacLean sensed a palpable difference around the Devils as the 1986- 87 season was just getting underway. Players were not only confident, they were maturing and growing in their NHL careers. The time wasn’t right just yet, but the Devils were getting closer to finally breaking the post-season barrier.
“We were starting to mature as players,” MacLean said. “We were just starting to feel a little more comfortable with ourselves as far as playing in the NHL. We were 23 and 24 now, and 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 the ‘Draft Picks Team’ as opposed to all vets, who were good for us at the time.”
The “Draft Picks Team” won a franchise-best 29 games during the 1986-87 season. It wasn’t good enough to get out of last place in the Patrick Division, but it was another major step toward respectability. After all, it had been three seasons since Wayne Gretzky called the Devils a “Mickey Mouse franchise.”
Oct. 29, 1986
- Kirk Muller (shown, 1986-87) records a hat trick and adds three assists to establish a franchise single-game record of six points, as the Devils defeat the Penguins 8-6 at Pittsburgh.
Needless to say, with MacLean, Kirk Muller, Joe Cirella, Aaron Broten, Pat Verbeek, Bruce Driver and, of course, Ken Daneyko, there was no love lost for Gretzky in East Rutherford.
“The draft picks started to take over, and put a little more responsibility for the franchise,” MacLean said. “At one point we might have been right in the thick of things, and we were getting closer to being eliminated later rather than earlier. It wasn’t funny at the time, but there was progress. We could see the light at the end of the tunnel, making some progress. However little it was, we were making it. There was talk at times that we could make the playoffs.”
The Devils were in the thick of the race at the halfway mark. They had 16 victories, their most in the first half of any season to that point, and 35 points. They were also scoring plenty of goals. The Devils won six of their first ten games, and scored at least five or more goals in five of those wins. They beat Pittsburgh, 8-6, and the Islanders, 7-6 in overtime, in back-to-back nights in late October.
Following a quick offensive slump in which they scored just one goal in the next two games, the Devils went 5-1-1 over the next seven games, and scored five goals four times during that stretch. They were 10-8-2 at the quarter-point of the season, the first time they ever had an above-.500 record at the 20-game mark.
“We learned over the years what it took,” MacLean said. “We were just building bricks.” A pair of late-season swoons – a seven game winless streak, and a three-game losing streak wrapped around one victory in mid-March – all but eliminated the Devils from a chance at the post-season. The players, though, weren’t feeling sorry for themselves. For the first time ever, the New Jersey Devils weren’t a pushover.
“It wasn’t as bad as it once was,” said Cirella, an All-Star defensemen. “I think it was also a combination of young guys coming together, and new players coming in via free agency. The pieces were finally starting to come together. We were close. It was just a matter of putting a few more pieces together that would put everyone over the edge.”
Those pieces came the next season in the form of a systematic and knowledgeable General Manager (Lou Lamoriello), an All-Star goaltender (Sean Burke), a fiery head coach (Jim Schoenfeld), and the perfect role-playing forward (Patrik Sundstrom). For now, though, the Devils were one of the fastest rising teams in the NHL, even if a quick glance at the standings found them in last place.
For the first time ever, the Devils even had a starting goaltender finish with a record close to .500 as Alain Chevrier was 24-26-2 with a 4.32 goals-against average. The 24 wins shattered Chico Resch’s previous single-season team record of 15, which he had done twice. Finally, Daneyko proved he was the resident tough guy with 183 penalty minutes, the new single-season team record. It was a mark he shattered the next season when he headed to the box for 239 minutes.
“We were getting closer, and we could see an upside to it,” MacLean said. “It’s almost like the realization that you know what, they are putting the responsibility on us now as a young group to start taking over the team, putting our mold in it.” “Guys were having good years, and the young guys started stepping up,” Cirella added. “I’m not going to say we had dominant players, but we had more impact players than we did from the season’s before. We would have some spurts of good games and some spurts of bad games. “That really put us on the cusp of becoming something impressive.”
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