It was a tale of two weeks for the New Jersey Devils. They had continued their hot streak from the California swing from before the All-Star break, coming out of the hiatus with a shootout win over Toronto to kick-off a five game homestand. Though they followed the win over the Maple Leafs with an overtime loss to the Penguins, they followed that up with wins over the Panthers, Senators and the Leafs again.
Then they hit a buzzsaw in the form of the Montreal Canadiens. Understandably, it was a tough game and the Devils fell, 6-2 to one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Then, on Monday, February 9, the lowly Edmonton Oilers came into Prudential Center, in last place in the Western Conference and only ahead of Buffalo in the overall NHL standings, and they promptly defeated the Devils, 2-1.
These back-to-back losses will surely put a dent into the Devils playoff hopes, as they need to get two points off of teams like Edmonton if they are going to succeed in making a run of it. Plus, their next two games, on the road on Friday the 13th in Chicago to take on the Blackhawks and a Valentine’s date with the Predators in Nashville, are not exactly against pushovers.
It seems like two different Devils teams who showed up to play against the Maple Leafs, Penguins, Panthers and Senators than team who went into Montreal. Though the Devils did lead 1-0 early on in the game against the Habs, it was bad penalties that cost the team, as Montreal ended up converting on the power play to both tie the game and take the lead that they would never relinquish. Montreal actually scored their first three goals on the power play (Dainius Zubrus had taken a four minute double minor for high sticking P.K. Subban, which drew blood, to set up the tying and go ahead goals and Travis Zajac’s cross checking penalty yielded a third goal from Tomas Plekanec). The same thing generally repeated against Edmonton, as Nail Yakupov would score the game winner on the power play (an Adam Larsson delay of game penalty).
Now, the Canadiens are a very talented team, Subban had three assists in the game; Plekanec had two goals; Dale Weise had two goals; Max Pacioretty had two assists and David Desharnais had three assists in the Montreal offensive avalanche. The Devils simply could not keep up once Montreal got going. But Edmonton? Though they are a very young and offensively talented group, they have never really clicked and should have been no threat to the Devils (if the Devils are really a playoff team).
It is still early and a lot can happen between now and April 11 (the final day of the regular season), but the fact may be that this team is just not that good as they are built right now. Hopefully, I am wrong, but some moves will need to be made come the summer.
The way it looks (and I am certainly on the outside looking in here), but the first to go might just be Michael Ryder. He has been a healthy scratch for the last week or so after what has been an awful season for him. He is a good player who still has some mileage left, if the Devils were to unload him to a contender, maybe they could get a draft pick for him and that would allow the team to begin building through the draft. What could also happen is that the Devils buyout Ryder’s contract come the offseason and he goes elsewhere without any compensation for the Devils. Although it would free up some cap space, it would be nice to get something for a player that has not really been a great fit for the Devils throughout his time here.
The conventional wisdom is that Devils fans would never tolerate a rebuilding phase. But should it return the team to its former glory (meaning making the playoffs and making deep runs in the playoffs), I think the fans would be all for it.
It is hard for the Devils to attract big name free agents and that is not how the championship teams of the past were built anyway. The Islanders are a great recent example of a team building a contender through shrewd drafting and moving the pieces around the chess board. New York was a decimated franchise a few short seasons ago and is now in a battle at the top of the Metropolitan Division.
New Jersey’s championship teams were built with a core of homegrown talent taken through the draft (guys like Marty Brodeur, John MacLean, Ken Daneyko, Patrik Elias and Scott Gomez), timely trades (players like Alexander Mogilny, Joe Nieuwendyk and Neal Broten), trades looking at the long term (think Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer from the 1995 team) and key free agents (Scott Stevens).
Even their last team to head to the Cup Finals in 2012 was built in a similar way: a core of draft picks (Zach Parise), and guys like Ilya Kovalchuk (who they originally got in a trade from the Atlanta Thrashers and then re-signed when he became an unrestricted free agent). Throw in some undrafed gems on those championship teams through the years like David Clarkson, Jay Pandolfo and Andy Greene and you get the Devils’ recipe for success.
This team could be great again, it just takes a little bit of patience from fans and getting back to the basics of what made the team a top contender for the Stanley Cup for so many years. The team has a good core to build upon now: goaltending is taken care of with guys like Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid between the pipes, Andy Greene (the next possible Devils captain according to Daneyko – once Bryce Salvador leaves the team) has the defense anchored along with young guys like Larsson and Jon Merrill and Adam Henrique is a good young forward and a bright spot in an otherwise aging group.
Overall, the Devils do need to get younger and I think they will. The draft and finding young guys outside the draft will play a big role in the Devils future. Albany also has some guys waiting in the wings who can help the team where it needs it the most: scoring.
Although time seems to have run out on the Devils 2014-15 season, it does not mean that this is a franchise that has a bleak future. On the contrary, this is a team that can have a great future, it just needs to embrace it.