Since Lou Lamoriello took over as Devils General Manager in 1987, the Devils have earned a reputation as one of the best evaluators of draft talent in the NHL. Between Lamoriello and Director of Scouting David Conte—whom Lamoriello would contend really runs the show on draft day—save for an unfortunate stretch between 1999 and 2002, the Devils have always come through when it comes to making the most of their draft picks.
But when evaluating the top five drafts in Devils history, it is important to evaluate a draft year based on both quality and quantity. This criteria is the reason that a few select drafts—namely Zach Parise in that incredible 2003 draft, as well as Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rolston in 1991—have been left off the list. Despite the aforementioned being quality draft picks, all of whom paid off, the draft classes from those years on the whole was rather nondescript. Keeping this rule in mind, here are the top five draft classes in Devils history:
Other than drafting Martin Brodeur 20th overall—and believe it or not the Devils traded DOWN for this one—the 1990 draft landed the Devils a few other pieces. Despite having four capable goaltenders in the system and having just added a fifth in Brodeur, the Devils also took goaltenders Mike Dunham (53rd) and Corey Schwab (200th), both of whom would later serve as Brodeur's backups in the late 1990s and early 2000s, respectively. Though three defensemen—Brad Bombardir, Chris McAlpine, and Jaroslav Modry—did not play the best hockey of their careers in New Jersey, all three went on to become reliable NHLers. Finally, at 221st overall, the Devils picked up Valeri Zelepukin, a key component to the Devils' playoff run in 1994 and Stanley Cup in 1995.
The draft of 1998 did contain an ultimate bust in Christian Berglund, but it also landed the Devils four quality NHL players, two of whom made their name in Jersey. With back to back first round picks at 26th and 27th, the Devils nabbed Mike Van Ryn and Scott Gomez. Van Ryn did not play a single game for the Devils, but has put together a solid NHL career, while Gomez burst onto the scene in 2000, winning the Stanley Cup and Calder Trophy, and adding a second Cup in 2003. Brian Gionta (82nd) has had some impressive seasons as a Devil, including 2005-06, where he set the current franchise record for most goals in one season at 48. Despite his numbers steadily declining since, he has remained a top six forward. Pierre Dagenais (105th) looked promising in the AHL, but put together a quiet career in the NHL, playing minimal games for a few teams before settling into the German league.
Out of 12 draft picks made in 1994, 3 ultimately became quality NHL talent. After 25th overall pick Vadim Sharifijanov, who never really caught on in the NHL, the Devils struck gold twice, drafting Patrik Elias at 51st and Sheldon Souray at 71st. Elias has gone on to become the Devils' all-time leading scorer, while Souray really found his game in Montreal, but has become a top-two defenseman. Finally, at 233rd, the Devils took the gritty Steve Sullivan, who has put together a respectable NHL career, and become a fan favorite in Nashville.
It's always difficult to rank a draft class before it has time to pan out, but based on everything that has been reported about the Devils' first four picks, all indications are it has the potential to go down as one of the best. Mattias Tedenby is a pure sniper, and the only thing standing between him and a successful NHL career is adjusting to the North American game. Brandon Burlon looks to be a fixture on future Devils defenses, alongside Tyler Eckford and Matt Corrente. Patrice Cormier is a solid all-around forward, and if the present is any indication, the future is bright for him, as well as Adam Henrique. Time will tell, but barring something unforseen, the 2008 draft class could easily go down as one of the best.
In just their second draft in team history, the Devils landed themselves the best combination of quantity and quality of talent to date. It began with John MacLean at 6th overall. MacLean, now an assistant coach with the Devils, would play every subsequent season right up to his trade to San Jose in 1997, winning the 1995 Stanley Cup along the way. MacLean held the Devils' all-time scoring title until Patrik Elias passed him in 2009, and to this day holds or shares 10 Devils franchise records. At 85th, goaltender Chris Terreri came aboard, and Terreri would remain a fixture in the Devils' net. Terreri was around for the breakouts of Sean Burke and Martin Brodeur, won the 1995 Cup as the backup, and went off on his own before returning to backup Brodeur one last time when the Devils won their second Cup in 2000. Terreri now works as the goaltending coach in AHL Lowell. Viacheslav Fetisov, one of the first Soviet players to enter the NHL, did not break in until 1989, but it was in 1983 that the Devils selected him with the 145th pick. Fetisov was on hand for the 1994 playoff run, but would play against the Devils in the 1995 Finals as a member of the Red Wings, where he would cement his NHL legacy. Now a hall-of-famer, Fetisov is Russia's minister of sport, and to this day remains one of the greatest defenseman in NHL history. Compared to the other three, Alexei Kasatonov (225th) put together a mild career, but far outlived his value as the last Devils choice in the draft. Kasatonov's real success came as a member of the Russian national team, winning one Olympic silver medal and two golds.