It is no secret that the New Jersey Devils are in a re-building mode. There has been all manner of changes throughout the organization from scouts to even general manager. Those changes are in line with bringing new philosophies and systems to the organization, effectively starting a new era in 2015-16. Additionally, several veteran players have not been brought back, in favor of sticking with younger talent in the system for better or (possibly) worse. There isn't much younger talent within the system, but there will be an emphasis on obtaining that talent in the next few seasons. Therefore, it stands to reason that it's to the Devils' benefit to have a bad record in this coming season so they can have high draft picks to get the talent to build around.
I can agree with that. However, I do not think they will have to make an extra effort to be bad. On the contrary, it's to the Devils' benefit that all involved make a legitimate effort to be a competitive hockey team for multiple reasons.
I'm in the middle of my Killing Time project and as of this writing, I just finished all of February 2015. That gave me an ugly reminder of last season. If you recall some of those games between the All-Star Game and the end of that month, the Devils were simply abysmal to watch. Here's an example, based on the recaps I was writing back then. They got wins they had no right earning short of Cory Schneider playing out of their mind. The "action" on the ice was the equivalent of dumping bags of trash into a large bin given how much they dumped the puck. Some of the periods from that timeframe were existentially offensive. Regardless of the result, it was hideous hockey outside of Schneider playing goaltender as well as Ric Flair was in the ring in the 1980s. The Devils may be awful, but they can ill afford to repeat those kinds of performances. Sure, it'll happen a few times to anyone in any 82-game season, but to do so multiple times in a row is simply unacceptable regardless of the team's quality or lack thereof.
For the business side of things, the 2015-16 Devils should make an effort to at least be a bit more than doormat. I'd like to think most Devils fans have accepted that this team is bad, they will be bad for some time, and a re-build is necessary. It's one thing to accept this, it's another to accept it and then proceed to spend money, time, and energy going to games and witnessing it. It was never an easy sell for one reason or another when the team was good; so it's only going to be harder for The Rock to get full of Devils fans for the next few seasons or so. At the minimum, this team needs to put in an effort to at least be an exciting bad team. A team that can spoil some wins over rivals. A team that does not get creamed night-in, night-out on the shot or attempt count. A team that's main approach on offense doesn't involved dumping the puck.
But it goes beyond entertainment, the effort has to be there to justify the new hires. 2015-16's team won't be good, but it'll be the first impression made by Ray Shero, John Hynes, and others. I'd like to think most have accepted that things will be different for better or worse under Shero. Hynes is a bit more of an unknown. Both have already brought on a catchphrase, first stated by Shero after Hynes' announcement. Per Tom Gulitti, he stated he wants the Devils to be fast, attacking, and supportive. It remains to be seen whether the Devils have those players - probably not, but hey, it's a re-build for a reason; but it's crucial that the systems Hynes and his staff puts in actually allow for it. It's one thing to not have the talent, it's another to have talent but not the means and tools to succeed. Coaches will be responsible for the latter and this is the first season to show it. And we'll know soon enough whether Hynes has the right ideas or not. It took less than a half of a season to figure out John MacLean didn't have it and that was with a way better team. While Hynes will have the benefit of the team re-building to allow more room for error than MacLean ever had, re-builds don't continue if there isn't any progress. It's up to him and the staff to establish that he can get them on the right path. The sort of path that shows that with better players - which is the job of Shero and, to a lesser extent, Paul Castron - the team will get better.
Moreover, the players themselves have every effort to put in the work. Last season, 882 skaters and 92 goalies suited up for at least one NHL game. Word travels around fast and if you're not good enough, there is someone who will get an opportunity. About two weeks ago, I wrote about the outstanding free agents from last year's team. Since that post, only Scott Gomez got a tryout deal; I don't think it's coincidence that some of them are still without a job in the league for this coming season. For the cases like Martin Havlat or Michael Ryder, consider what happened last season. Their role was to provide offense for a Devils squad that had the firepower of a pop-gun. Not only did they not do that, they took lazy penalties, were even lazier on defense, and were healthy scratches for more than a few games. No one missed them while they were out, despite their previous pedigrees of being scoring wingers. This didn't just turn off the Devils, it turned off 29 other GM's. Similarly, look at Buffalo. Last year's team was nakedly tanking; yet, you see a lot of roster upheaval for next season. The guys who stunk it up even when it was not considered unacceptable to do so don't have the same spots for a reason. Mailing it in is a fast track to get out of the NHL.
Fortunately, several players on the Devils' roster have every reason to avoid that track. Just look at their cap and roster situation at General Fanager. Kyle Palmieri will not only get big minutes, but potentially a significant contract should he justify those minutes in this coming season. As Mike wrote last week, this is make-or-break time for Jacob Josefson. While I don't think he'll be much more than he was; but if he can prove he's useful, then he could command a seven-figure salary in the near future. Stefan Matteau and Reid Boucher will have every opportunity to make the New Jersey roster. If they don't, it's going to be tough to climb back in; they can't just show up to play. Sergey Kalinin and Vojtech Mozik likely wouldn't have left their teams in the KHL and Czech league, respectively, if they didn't they had a real shot at the NHL. They have every incentive to get the reward for their risk. Veterans Stephen Gionta and Tuomo Ruutu are on expiring deals. Should they want to show the larger league they still belong, they need to put in good seasons. Lastly, there's the Shero factor. Should someone on a more significant contract not perform well (e.g. Mike Cammalleri), Shero may be more likely to move that player. He didn't make them, he only inherited them, and with the inherent blessing that comes with a re-build, some tough decisions like that may have to be made. It'll be on the players to show that the right decision is to keep them around. And even if Shero doesn't re-sign a player or trades them, their best bet for someone else signing them would be to try to do well in a not-at-all-well situation.
Tanking would undercut the purposes of showing progression in this rebuild, earning a spot with the Devils or another team after this comning season, and actually being a watchable hockey team. I think these are some solid reasons as any not to just drop a lot of 2015-16. Here's one more: I do think the Devils are one of the least talented teams in the NHL. They can try but I think they'll still finish in the bottom fifth of the league, if not in the bottom three. The Devils have Cory Schneider and while he's amazing, he can't be expected to put up 93%+ save percentages and bailout a low-scoring team. While they have some good talents on defense; it's entirely possible the 2015-16 Devils score fewer goals than the 2014-15 Devils and that's going to mean fewer winning results. Shortly after this year's Free Agency Frenzy, I wrote that the rest of the Metropolitan got stronger and that's good for the Devils. I think that's still true. Four teams were definitely stronger; Columbus won't likely be wrecked by injuries, Carolina won't likely be wrecked by PDO, and Philadelphia underachieved last season. New Jersey won't have to be try to fail; they can try to play like a competitive team and still end up dead last in the Metro.
Further, I don't think there's many teams in the entire league who are bereft of talent as the Devils on paper. There's Arizona, which is simply a mess. They have a few good players, but I don't even know where to begin with them. Toronto is undergoing it's own re-build. They already shipped out Phil Kessel; but with a world-class coach and new management with their players, I don't know if they're truly a lock for a bottom-five finish. Honestly, I don't know who else got worse. Edmonton and Buffalo certainly got better. I don't know if they'll make the playoffs, but they're not going to be doormats like they were last season. The other non-playoff teams (San Jose, Colorado, Florida, Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston) certainly weren't scrubs. I don't think they'll be massively worse than what they were last season. Assuming the re-building teams (Arizona, New Jersey, and Toronto) are what we think they are, then the Devils will have a good chance at the 2016 Draft Lottery to pick in the top three even if they try to play to their abilities. No matter how that goes, they will have an excellent opportunity to draft the sort of talent they need. Trying to compete won't really hinder that short of a massive over-achievement by this squad - something I don't see happening.
I'm probably going to make this point a few more times before this coming season and possibly during it, but it's worth repeating: it's OK for the Devils to try to win some games in 2015-16. It's OK to want them to beat their rivals. It's OK to demand that they attempt to be competitive. It's just about required for the players to earn spots with the Devils or possibly with another organization. It's just about required for the coaches and staff to get the team on a better path for the future. It's just about required to provide the many fans who have bought tickets and will buy tickets. It's OK to try; just showing up and jobbing out won't be for the rebuilding effort and certainly not for the good of the business, be it the player's or the team's.