With the Devils playing their final game of 2015 tonight against the Senators, there is a lot to reflect on from a turbulent year in this franchise's history. The Devils saw many faces come and go, including the architect of the organization's prior three decades, and headed into this season with perhaps the lowest expectations in New Jersey since the mid 1980's. As the calendar gets ready to flip to 2016, though, the team has shocked a lot of people by being a continuing factor in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Now seems a good time as any to take stock of where the team is right now and where they might be headed going into 2016.
In the Conversation
With 2016 just days away, the Devils have been far more competitive than was expected of them and remain within easy striking distance of the East's wild card spots. The Devils visit one of the teams they are chasing tonight in Ottawa and could put themselves back into the playoffs with a win over the Sens. The Devils continue to be one of the NHL's biggest surprises and if they are sitting in a playoff spot come 2016 (which they will be with a win tonight in Ottawa), the first half of the 2015-16 has to be considered a big success for GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes.
This team has not exactly looked like a juggernaut in the past month and a half, but the fact that they are able to keep scratching out wins and staying relevant in the playoff race is a testament to what both Shero and Hynes have done early in their careers within the Devils organization. Many of Shero's moves, including trades, signings, and non-signings, look to have been solid decisions and, while there are still a number of shortcomings on this roster, the foundation for a turnaround appears to have been laid. Meanwhile, Hynes has extracted the most out of a limited roster that one could hope for and has led what has been a resilient Devils team for much of this season.
Despite what most would have to consider a successful first half for New Jersey, their play of late does raise some concerns about how long they can hang around. Earlier in the season, the Devils often impressed with their ability to go toe-to-toe with some good teams and their dynamic play in transition. The past month or so, though, their play has started to sag a little bit. The Devils have been getting hemmed in their end with more regularity and their neutral zone play has not looked nearly as crisp as is was before.
The Devils' numbers from the past month reflect some of the issues that have been showing up on the ice. In December to this point, the Devils have only had 45.6% of shot attempts at 5v5, which is decidedly not good. They've only out-attempted their opponent twice in 14 games since the start of December, which is also a bit troubling, given that many of the teams they have faced are not necessarily powerhouses. This dip in play has lowered their CF% to 47.2 on this season, putting them in the bottom 5 in the league.
This isn't to say the team is doomed, but they will need to regather themselves and start to play better hockey ast we head into January here, particularly with a tough run of games early on in 2016. Whether the slump has to do with some exhaustion for the team's top players or teams starting to respond to some of Hynes' tactics, the Devils will have to adjust to stay competitive. The team has showed that they are capable of putting together good stretches of hockey at times this season, they just have to find some of that form again to stay in the hunt through the deadline and beyond.
Buying and Selling
So if the Devils are able to get right and play well in the start of 2016, the major question that keeps coming up with Ray Shero is whether or not the Devils should consider buying if they are in the hunt. It was a topic that Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman got into with Shero in his "30 Thoughts" column this week (Aside: there's actually five 'thoughts' dedicated to the Devils in there, so it's worth a look). Some of the relevant stuff from Shero on what moves he might make later this season:
"There’s still a long way to go, but if we are still competitive you do want to help out. It’s not like Pittsburgh…more like when I was in Ottawa and Nashville. We’re building something and you have to think bigger picture."
Then, he used the same quote Patrick Roy did in this space last week: "No one wants to suck. And, if we are losing games by one goal, you think to yourself, ‘Where can I find that one goal?’"
With the Devils, despite being in the hunt, in just the early stages of a longer rebuilding effort, I think this approach is right from Ray Shero. You don't want to throw away an opportunity to make the playoffs, especially since it has been three years since the Devils made it there, but any moves to help the team now should either come with a very low price tag, or have the ability to help the team in seasons beyond 2015-16. The Devils should not be looking for the straight up veteran rental, even if they are solidly in contention at the deadline, and it seems like Shero agrees with that. Alternatively, if the Devils do fall way out of it, one would have to think Shero would be willing to sell some of the Devils' potential rentals at the deadline to get some assets with value for the franchise going forward.
Regardless of whether this team can keep it up, this is a welcome way to end 2015, which started with a Devils team in some turmoil after spiraling out of the playoff race and removing their head coach in December 2014. It was a year marked with big changes in New Jersey, with Lou Lamoriello, most of his staff, and a litany of veteran players heading out the door. Yes, 2015 was one of the biggest transition years in the history of the Devils' organization, and the successes of this season's team has given fans some hope heading into the future. Hopefully, as we head into 2016, the team continues trending in the right direction.