The past several seasons have seen some teams turn in some downright dreadful campaigns. The 2013-14 Sabres, for instance, won just 21 of 82 games and were almost historically inept at putting the puck in the net. The situation was almost as bad in Buffalo in 2014-15 as the Sabres won 23 games, posted a woeful minus-113 goal differential and finished dead last in the league for a second-straight season. The Arizona Coyotes were right there alongside those Sabres, though.
Others have turned in laughable seasons since. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2015-16 campaign was abysmal as they fell to the basement in a big draft year. The same could be said for the past season’s Vancouver Canucks, and an injury to Connor McDavid threw a wrench in the Edmonton Oilers’ plans in 2015-16. And this campaign, the Colorado Avalanche appear destined to finish dead last in the league.
For those franchises, though, the futility served a purpose. Low finishes meant high draft picks. High draft picks meant restocking with top prospects. And top prospects bring with them hope for the future. But throughout those darks years for other franchises, the New Jersey Devils continued being just bad enough to miss the post-season and just good enough that landing a top-five pick in the draft was a long shot.
In a way, their greatest nemesis has been their own mediocrity. Now five years since their last post-season appearance — a Stanley Cup final appearance, at that — the Devils find themselves in no man’s land with barely a glimmer of hope for the future. If that seems like a bleak outlook on the state of the Devils, it’s worth looking into where the team stands.
If the season ended today, the Devils would finish 26th in the league and last in the Eastern Conference. That would make New Jersey one of five teams to finish 20th or worse in the league in each of the past five seasons, joining the Sabres, Coyotes, Avalanche and Carolina Hurricanes. If you exclude this year, they’re one of six teams to have that much misfortune, with the Oilers joining the fray. That’s unenviable company, made all the more disheartening by the fact almost every other club has started to carve its pathway up the standings.
For the Oilers, it’s a one-man plan centered on McDavid. The Sabres have Jack Eichel and a host of others, including Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo. Arizona hasn’t taken the next step yet, but the Coyotes have some top prospects acquired through the draft. Carolina is the closest to competing, as the Hurricanes have continuously shown growth and could be only a goaltender away from a post-season berth. And the Avalanche are the only team in a position as bad as the Devils, but Colorado has tradable assets that could help kickstart a rebuild.
Almost every other team has the excuse of youth, too. Each of the Hurricanes, Sabres, Coyotes and Oilers rank among the league’s seven youngest teams. The Avalanche aren’t so lucky, ranking 16th in the league, but even that is one spot better than the Devils. A quick fix in the youth category likely coming to New Jersey either. The Devils ranked 28th in the league in terms of its prospect pool according to a panel of scouts in THN’s Future Watch 2016. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings were the only teams worse off, and both are perennial playoff contenders with a host of prime-aged players already in the lineup.
Now with another 20th-or-worse finish staring back at the Devils, the question becomes how New Jersey turns their franchise, which is good enough to compete and not bad enough to outright fail, back into the contender it once was.
The benefit the Devils have that few others do, rebuilding or otherwise, is the help of an all-star calibre netminder. Cory Schneider is the biggest check mark the Devils have, even in the midst of arguably the worst season of his career. But regardless of his down season, the 30-year-old has proven time and time again that he’s capable of carrying the team, and that’s not going to stop anytime soon.
GM Ray Shero’s off-season acquisition of Taylor Hall also stands out as one of the more savvy deals that any team made in the summer. The one-for-one trade brought New Jersey a bonafide goal scorer and potential 70-point player. Injuries have hindered his season, but building around a talent like Hall — the first-overall pick in 2010 — can give the Devils a star for the next decade. There are already some supplemental pieces around Hall, too, and Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri could be fixtures of the club for the next several seasons.
Beyond that, though, the goal for the Devils should be to adopt a model similar to that of the Hurricanes. Over the past few seasons, Carolina GM Ron Francis has been an expert at using his cap space as an asset and the waiver wire to take a shot at finding hidden gems.
In two separate deals with Chicago, Francis took on the contracts of Bryan Bickell, Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom to help the cap-strapped Blackhawks. Nordstrom has since become a contributing member of the Hurricanes’ bottom-six, and freeing the Blackhawks from Bickell’s $4-million contract came with the added bonus of picking up Teuvo Teravainen. There’s also been waiver acquisitions of Ty Rattie, Klas Dahlbeck, Andrej Nestrasil and the since-departed Martin Frk. All the while, Francis has also used trades to acquire prospects and picks.
Francis’ way of maneuvering is something Shero seems to have picked up on, and that should bring some hope for Devils fans.
Before the season began, P-A Parenteau was brought into the organization via waivers and Shero dipped into the waiver wire again on Wednesday to claim 2011 21st-overall pick Stefan Noesen from the Anaheim Ducks. Noesen was the Ducks’ eighth-ranked prospect in Future Watch 2016. Shero has also used cap space to his advantage, acquiring Beau Bennett from the Penguins, who were up against the cap heading into the season, and dealing for Marc Savard’s contract to nab a second-round pick in 2018 from the Florida Panthers.
Continuing to maneuver that way is how the Devils make strides, but they’ll also need some luck when it comes to the draft. Mike McLeod, the 12th-overall pick in 2016, seems a sure bet to make the club in the near future and Blake Speers making the club for a brief stint out of training camp was a pleasant surprise. Pavel Zacha has struggled in his rookie year, but there’s still a lot of promise there, and a youngsters like Steven Santini, Damon Severson and Miles Wood can be part of the turnaround.
Mediocrity hasn’t gifted the Devils a can’t-miss prospect in many years and they’ve only had one top-five pick in more than two decades. Little by little, though, New Jersey can take steps forward through savvy dealing, pickups and using cap space to bring in picks and prospects. It’s going to take time and patience, but the building blocks exist for Shero to right this ship.
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