Coming out of the All-Star break, those of us who cheer for the Devils are staring down a stretch run that likely won’t feature any playoff chase. It was a season that people had reasonably high hopes for, but it has played out just about as poorly as anyone could have imagined. Despite a fairly successful trip through California just before the break, New Jersey currently sits with 42 points in 47 games, good for 14th in the conference and 26th in the NHL. They are 15 points out of the final wild card spot right now and have playoff hopes approaching zero with 35 games still remaining in their season. Given how successful the Devils franchise has been for a while, fans haven’t had to endure a season like this very often, so how long has it been since the Devils were this poor?
The Devils are by no means a historically bad team this season, but by this organization’s standards, it could be the worst team in a very long time. With the team on pace to finish with about 73 points, you have to go back multiple decades to find a New Jersey team that finished with that few. The Devils haven’t finished with less than 80 points in a season (save for lockout seasons) since 1990-91, and haven’t finished with fewer than their current 73-point pace since 1988-89. To get to a team that was as low as this team’s .400 Win/Loss %, you need to go back to 1986-87. A keen observer will note that that was the last year before one Lou Lamoriello became GM and steered the franchise into the elite. So the last time the Devils were this poor at collecting points, Reagan was president, Lou was commissioner of the Hockey East, and this writer hadn't been born yet. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but looking at things objectively, this really could be the worst Devils team in close to three decades.
It goes beyond just the amount of points collected, though. This will likely be the worst Devils team, territorially, on record. Hockey-Reference has shots for/against totals going back to 1987-88 season, and over that entire 27 season stretch, the Devils have been outshot over the course of a season exactly one (1!) time. As it turns out, 2005-06, coming out of the lockout, is the only season with data in which the Devils were outshot over an entire campaign. Their shot differential that year was -10. The next worst shot differential over a season is the +7 they posted in 1989-90. In 2014-15, they have now been outshot by 259 over their first 47 games. That projects out to about a -452 shot differential for the season, which, I don’t think I need to tell anyone, is not good. It's likely that the "Mickey Mouse" era Devils teams were getting outshot by this much or more, but this team is getting run over in a way that no Devils team has since at least the mid-80s.
As an aside, a few stray thoughts come to mind looking at this table: 1) The Devils really were amazing in the late nineties and early 2000s. Their best 5 seasons, territorially, all came in the stretch between 1998-99 and 2002-03 and the seasons from 1995-96 to 2003-04 make up the top 9, plus there is a sizable gap to get to the next best team after them. 2) The first few teams coming out of the 04-05 lockout were not particularly great by shot differential or even goal differential, but were buoyed by Brodeur and a lot of post-regulation points. 3) That 2013 lockout team really was good but was victimized in a massive way by terrible goaltending (it was .890 for the season!).
Given how good the Devils were in the 90s and 2000s, shouldn't be too much of a stretch to say this team is worse than any in quite a while. Perhaps you could say the team was worse in the first half of the 2010-11 season, but with the crazy run that team put together in the second half, they climbed above where the 2014 is headed right now. It's still within the realm of possibility that this team goes on a run (though their underlying numbers don't really foretell such a thing), but at this moment, it's on pace to be the worst of the Lamoriello era by a number of different measures.
How Did We Get Here?
How did the Devils get to this point? Well I'm sure there are a few thousand words that could be teased out on the subject but the main points remain somewhat simple. First, the team has not drafted well, particularly at the forward position, for about a decade now. Adam Henrique is really the only current 'impact' forward on the roster that was drafted since the 2004-05 lockout, and he's probably best-described as a second-liner. The problems stem from there, but they've also been exacerbated by players retiring, leaving via free agency, and "retiring." Some of the free agency departures were blessings and others were less so, but the Devils still had a solid enough base to patch the leaks and keep on chugging along. But as the core aged or departed and few replacements came from within the Devils system, cracks have started to show more and more, with the losses culminating in the departures of Parise and Kovalchuk.
After hitting on a Hail Mary with Jaromir Jagr last season, the team was still able to ice a respectable product done in by a historic disaster of a shootout cold streak, but 2014-15 is the season where all of the duct tape holding the Devils' roster together seems to have finally given way. Too many players have declined, too many people are injured, too many free agents aren't producing, and the utter lack of continuity, familiarity, or chemistry can't be helping much either. The Devils ability to stave off a rebuild for 25+ years has been remarkable, but it appears the specter of a depleted system and a team continually built through free agency is now coming home to roost.
So is there hope that this team can turn it around after this season? There are some building blocks in place for a successful team (a very good goaltender; a solid bunch of young defenders), but the organization will have to commit to refreshing this roster and building up their currently lackluster system. As many have suggested before, this isn't the worst season for the Devils to be this bad. With a strong draft that includes two possible superstars at the top, there is a chance for the Devils to draft a game changer if they can land a high pick. The organization just has to be committed to actually follow through and endure some of the growing pains of remaking a "win now" team that is no longer winning now.
It will start with knowing when a season is lost and getting the value that you can from your players that have potential as rentals for contenders. Sentimentality and loyalty are valuable traits at times, but the team can't let it hamstring them in their decision-making when the roster is in the shape it's currently in. If they can stockpile some extra picks in what is supposed to be a strong draft, the team will be healthier in the long run for it (not to mention unloading some people will likely positively affect their draft position).
The team also has to stifle itself over the summer. The Devils are not one piece away right now, so they should be conscious of the types of contracts they are giving out and not hand any multi-year contracts to guys on the wrong side of 30. Find some undervalued guys after the free agency dust settles to try to plug holes and be competitive next season, but keep the roster flexible as you try to re-shape it. Beyond that, the Devils will have to get serious about developing more offensive talent at the forward position. It's obviously a little more difficult than it sounds and rebuild is a tough word to hear, but it's something Lou Lamoriello and the Devils will finally have to face for the first time since the 1980s. Hopefully, it's a word that we won't have to hear for too long.