The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs reached its close last night with game seven of Lightning-Red Wings and, per usual, it was filled with intense, compelling hockey. The first round is always a lot of fun for hockey fans, with each night filled with a constant stream of excitement. For a hockey fan who is a neutral observer, there is probably no better time of the year, entertainment-wise. Watching teams slug it out and claw for every inch without the big time emotional investment allows you to really enjoy some great hockey without pulling your hair out and developing ulcers.
Isn't it just the worst?
Don't get me wrong, the playoffs are fun to watch, even without a rooting interest, but with the Devils now years removed from a playoff appearance, the itch to see them back in the tournament gets bigger with each passing season. New Jersey's run through the 2012 playoffs was an awesome experience as a fan. The Devils fell two wins short of the ultimate prize, but the journey was one to remember. Overtime series-clinchers, eliminating fierce rivals, contributions from players both young and old... it was the type of run that makes fans out of non-fans and die-hards out of casual supporters. But that trip to the Cup Final is now shrinking in the rear-view mirror, and it's hard to say when exactly the Devils will be a factor in April and beyond again.
Don't Call It A Rebuild
Lou Lamoriello made it a point to say the Devils are not rebuilding when he was asked this season, but there is only so much lipstick you can smear on a pig that has missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. Regardless of how we refer to the current state of the team, the fact is that they finished with their lowest points percentage since the 1988-89 season this year. They haven't had a run this long without a playoff appearance since they were the "Mickey Mouse" franchise that had just arrived in New Jersey.
Lou's reluctance to say the team is rebuilding is understandable and, to an extent, actually somewhat admirable. Teams who say they are entering a rebuild often seemingly do so to take some of the heat off management and make a built-in excuse for upcoming dreadful campaigns. A rebuild in a traditional sense means that you have to prepare for lean years, which of course isn't great. But just refusing to call it a rebuild certainly doesn't mean that a team won't be bad. If you refuse to acknowledge that a team has considerable issues that require significant changes, you risk making a bad situation worse. All franchises will eventually go through their rough patches, but regardless of what terminology is used, this team seems to be at the nadir of their past three decades, and it needs some serious work to get things turned around.
A System in Disrepair
Part of why the future seems so murky for the Devils is the current state of the prospect pool. Years of mediocre (at best) drafting and short term band-aids in free agency has left the team mired with very few legitimate NHL prospects, particularly at forward. When assessing how far away a return to the playoffs is for the Devils, it's hard not to look at the system and wonder if things won't get worse before they get better. The Devils have done reasonably well at drafting defensemen but elsewhere, things have been a bit of a train wreck. At the very least, they can get on their way to rehabilitating the system with three picks in the top 41 of a draft that is projected to be a strong one, but even with some strong picks, that help likely wont arrive for at least a couple of years.
Behind the Bench
The Devils face a big decision for the direction of the franchise this season with their search for a new head coach. After a couple years of relative stability, Peter DeBoer's inability to fetch results with this roster led to his dismissal and the installation of the three-headed regime that guided the team through the end of the season. With this particular situation unlikely to remain status quo, the Devils will be hunting for a new head coach this summer. Whether they look inside or outside the organization, this decision will likely have a sizable impact on exactly how well the Devils can bounce back from their current position in the standings. The wrong hire could set the team back even further, yet the right voice in the locker room could lead to rapid improvement, provided at least some of the roster concerns are addressed over the summer.
Hope for Next Season?
So what is the outlook for this Devils team? Is this too flawed of a roster to yield a winner of any sort heading into next season? That is obviously a tough question to answer, but the team clearly needs some things to break their way this offseason to make a return to the playoffs. The things the team currently has going for it are fairly well-known at this point: they have a young defensive core that, while not without its issues, gives the team a positive outlook on the blue line. In addition to that, they have one of the leagues best goaltenders in Cory Schneider who figures to be at the top of his game for at least several more seasons. With him backstopping the team, even an average roster can probably get to the playoffs and make noise.
Despite some of that upside, this is clearly a team in need of some serious work. They need to make a good choice for their new head coach and bring in a guy who can install a system that elevates the performances of his players, particularly on offense. To give that coach a chance to succeed, they are going to have to plug some major holes at forward on this roster. Maybe they don't necessarily need a superstar to crate the needed impact on offense, but if they don't find a way to acquire one, they are going to have to make a lot of smart, smaller moves to approach something resembling an adequate set of forwards. They could probably use a reliable middle-pairing defenseman to stabilize the the blue line too, if we're being completely honest.
So improvement and a return to the playoffs is not necessarily an impossibility, but this team needs to make a lot of solid moves over the summer to get there. They also need to be cognizant of the future while they make those moves and not mortgage another half a decade scrambling to add enough band-aids to make the team work. If I'm being completely honest with myself, I don't foresee a quick turnaround for this team right now. I think they realize that this bunch is now flawed, but it may take a couple years to clean out the deadwood and gather a roster ready to compete. The right coach and a few smart roster decisions can go a long way toward changing the direction of a team, though. At the very least, a good offseason can stem the current tide and get the team on track toward being a legitimate playoff contender again. This is likely the most important offseason for Lou Lamoriello in at least a couple dozen years. Here's hoping he's still got a few surprises in him.