For the last few seasons as New Jersey Devils fans, we have gone through a cycle of sorts: we sign a few free agents over the summer, anticipate that the team will perform better than it did the season prior, and then around December be utterly disappointed with the lack of positive results. This year up until this point has been no different; due in part to a number of injuries and under-performing players. Our Devils currently sit 3 points out of 3rd in the Metropolitan Division, and 4 points out of a wild card berth; the problem with both of these stats is that all of the teams currently ahead of us also have games in hand on us.
So with the team currently spinning their wheels in neutral so to speak, and a measly single winning streak so far this season, I wonder if maybe the Devils should just start looking towards next season. Why should they do this? For one thing, there are a number of contracts coming off the books for next season, as well as a few players that will be in their last year and perhaps for that reason be a bit easier to trade should the team desire to do so. The team is also currently looking at a high draft pick in what is currently projected to be a strong draft class. So let's first take a look at what the future may hold before we try to answer whether the Devils should throw in the towel on this season already or not.
At the end of this season, the contracts of ten players will expire, rendering them unrestricted free agents. Out of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Marek Zidlicky, Damien Brunner, Bryce Salvador, Peter Harrold, Jordin Tootoo, Scott Gomez, Martin Havlat, and Steve Bernier, I would say most of the fan base would only care about Jagr and Zidlicky leaving (and there are a fair share of Zid detractors as well) and welcome some roster turnover. While most of these players have fallen out of favor with fans, some have also fallen out of favor with management, and will most likely not be here next season.
Even if Zids and Jagr are the only 2 from that group to return next season, a quick glance at players who are going to be UFAs from other teams provides a bleak outlook; there aren't very many "impact players" available and even if they were, there's no guarantee they would want to come to New Jersey. This is precisely why the team needs to make their first round pick count.
An alarming little fact: the Devils have not had a first round pick make a significant contribution in a decade (2004: Travis Zajac), though the jury is still out on Adam Larsson, Stefan Matteau and John Quenneville. The Devils will most likely be picking as high if not higher than the year that they parlayed their pick into Cory Schneider, so they will need to make their selection count. While they will most likely not be in the Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel Sweepstakes, there are a number of other highly touted players that the team can select.
The Devils will also have to hope that their luck of finding NHL quality players in the second round will hold true; they have drafted Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Damon Severson in that frame, and found highly-touted prospect Steve Santini in that round as well. If the Devils are drafting high due to a bad finish this season, they have the opportunity to land 2 players who could be key contributors to the team sooner rather than later.
Now when I say the Devils should give up on the season, in no way am I saying to tank; I believe the concept of tanking goes against the spirit of hockey and competition. All I'm suggesting is perhaps the Devils should resign themselves to their fate; maybe tinker with the lines and try to pair players who definitely be here next season together and see if they can produce. Trading a few pending UFA for more assets could be a possibility as well; if we are getting draft picks and not contracts back, that would also allow for a few of the younger players down in Albany to come up and get some NHL experience.
Fans are clamoring for the head of Peter DeBoer or Lou Lamoriello or in some cases both. While I firmly believe Lou will still be here this time next year, the jury is out on DeBoer; if the team misses the playoffs again, 3 of his 4 seasons with the team will be considered nothing short of failures. While he hasn't necessarily had top shelf talent, he hasn't exactly made the wisest decisions with the scraps he's working with either. I can't say I would have strong feelings either way if he came back, and yet I can say the same about if he was let go.
If the Devils continue at their current pace, they are on track for a meager 76 points this season; not only would this be worse than last year, but would more than likely also put them well out of a playoff spot. Last year in the Eastern Conference, it took 93 points to qualify for the postseason; while it might not take that many this season, 76 seems way too low to expect to even eek in as an 8th seed. If the team gets healthy, winning streaks and the playoffs could still happen, however with the way the team is trending, we may want to just chalk this one up in the loss column.
As we often do here at ILWT, I'd like to hear from my fellow fans on this subject; should the Devils start planning for the season after this one? Is it bad for the players and/or the fans to have this mindset? What will be the fate of some of the UFAs as well as DeBoer and Lamoriello in your opinion? Leave any and all comments below and as always, thank you for reading!