For those who have been following the Devils this season, there hasn't been too much to cheer for up to this point. A team that had playoff aspirations has fallen flat on its face, and whether or not things like injuries have had some impact, the team has been mostly bad for months now and is miles out of the playoff race. At time of this writing, the Devils are sitting 14 points out of the final playoff spot in the East (currently occupied by Boston) and have zero games in hand. For those unaware of the implications of that scenario, it puts the Devils in the neighborhood of 0.1% playoff odds. That means it's probably time to look for other things to hope for this season that don't involve playoff glory. So what are things we can still root for with this ship 99.9% of the way sunk?
Progress from the Young Defense
They've gotten plenty of time already with the makeup of the lineup and some injuries but, if nothing else, this season has had at least some bright spots in the form of young defensemen developing as NHL players. Damon Severson played fantastically for a 20-year-old rookie before his injury and will hopefully recover soon to continue to build experience as a young defender. Adam Larsson has made important strides in his fourth season with the team, first playing his way out of the scratch suite and, after an unfortunate run-in with the mumps, into the team's top pairing. He has looked very solid as a defender, more crisp in his decision-making, and has been a revelation on the penalty kill, where he helped turn around a previously shambolic unit. Any search for silver linings in this season can definitely begin with those two players.
Two young defensemen whose campaigns have been a bit more rocky are Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas. John took a look at Merrill's bumpy season on Monday, highlighting the fact that it's hard to judge exactly what role Merrill is going to fill going forward. Gelinas has had his struggles as well, bouncing in and out of the lineup due to defensive issues for much of the season. That's is belied to an extent by his decent CF%, but Gelinas has been getting the easiest minutes of any D by a pretty wide margin. He's has also seen his offensive production slide a bit this season, from about a half point per game down to around a third. His shot rates are still mostly steady, which is a positive sign, so perhaps it's just a bit of variance, but he still needs to produce if he wants to make up for his defensive shortcomings. It would be nice to see both make some improvements through the end of the season.
As far as other defensemen go, perhaps some of the other Albany defensemen should get a look in the NHL themselves. Seth Helgeson got an extended look over the past couple months, and didn't necessarily acquit himself well, but perhaps Reece Scarlett or even Raman Hrabarenka should see some time as long as the Devils will just be playing out the string the last few months. With the season basically lost, the reasons for not "seeing what you have," so to speak, are limited. Going super young is an issue if you have playoff aspirations, but with New Jersey in the position it is, it's not much of a concern anymore.
Moving the Rentals
When a team decides to "go young," there are decisions to be made along the lines of "who will actually be around next season?" If the answer is "they won't be" for any particular player, they should be shopped and moved, if possible, before the trade deadline. This, of course leads to some potentially sad/difficult decisions. We all love Jaromir Jagr around here, but he is probably the most valuable chip the Devils have and if he could fetch a late first-rounder from a contender that needs forward help, then it feels like something that needs to be done. Marek Zidlicky is another guy who can likely get you pretty good value with his expiring contract. Teams are always looking for that puck-moving D, and for all his flaws, few move the puck as well as Marek.
Going beyond those two, Michael Ryder is probably the most obvious trade candidate overall, as he is still a talented forward, but has never really fit in in New Jersey. Not moving Ryder at this point would almost feel like malpractice, as the odds of his return seem especially slim. Scott Gomez, while a fun story with his resurgence, also might be a guy the team can get some value for. It might be worth fishing for some bites on guys like Marty Havlat and Steve Bernier as well, even if they don't bring back a whole lot.
Another portion of the reason to move out rental players is to see what kind of contributions younger players can make at the NHL level. The cupboard is admittedly a bit bare at forward for the Devils, which might limit flexibility in terms of trading everyone, but at the very least, there doesn't seem to be a ton of harm in giving extended looks to guys like Reid Boucher, Stefan Matteau, or even Joe Whitney or Graham Black, and you can always get replacement-level warm bodies in return for a trade if completely necessary.
To Tank or Not to Tank?
This is the big philosophical question that people have to kick around when their team is in the position the Devils are in. There is virtue in playing for pride and building a team to win, and I will still be rooting for the Devils to play hard and win hockey games (particularly against rivals), but ultimately if you are in a position to improve the team's long-term outlook at the expense of the current roster, now is the time to make those moves. No one is going to be heartbroken if the Devils finish 26 points out of the playoffs rather than 20, and it may offer the added bonus of a better shot at the Connor McDavid-shaped pot of gold at the end of this crappy rainbow of a season.
As a rule, I'm very much against building a team to tank, but if your season is sunk and you have players who could be out the door in a few months, it naturally makes sense to trade them. If you'll allow me a clunky metaphor, it's not like the Devils entered a race with a car they knew had no shot to win (cough, Buffalo Sabres, cough). They built the best car they felt they could and many, myself included, thought they were at least a decent team. That car has been totaled, though, and it's time to strip it for parts.
The odds of this particular team making up 14 points by April are microscopic, so it's time to choose pragmatism over pride (at least from a roster-construction perspective) and start looking toward the future. Hopefully, some fun moments and good efforts from the kids are sprinkled into the rest of the season, but there appears to be no postseason in this particular team's future, so the Devils should really consider becoming sellers, and soon. Collecting assets, seeing progress and opportunities for your young players, and starting to retool for 2015-16 and beyond (plus, maybe a home-and-home sweep of the Rangers in April to dash their playoff hopes); that's what we should be rooting for over the next three months.