As the Devils head toward the 2015-16 season, a different feeling surrounds the team this year than at any point in the recent or even somewhat distant past. The Devils are in the midst of a significant rebuild for the first time since the mid-to-late-1980's (though that was more of just a "build"), and the outlook for this season doesn't look particularly rosy, standings-wise. This feeling that the team may not be very competitive is a strange one for sure and with a team sure to have some growing pains on the ice, the implications for the Devils could be significant from a business standpoint as well.
The Devils have been hovering in the bottom third of the league in attendance for a majority of their existence over the years. Even in the best of times, the Devils were never a team that could fill the arena to capacity on a nightly basis. Now that the team is staring down a season in which the playoffs are hardly even on the radar, should they be worried about the Prudential Center being especially deserted this season? Or can the feeling of a fresh start and a new approach to engaging the fanbase keep people making the trip to Newark?
The biggest problem for the Devils' attendance numbers this year comes from the generally low expectations surrounding the team heading into 2015-16. The Devils were perennial contenders through the 90's and 00's, so the team always had that success to lean on when trying to attract fans to the arena. The attendance levels fluctuated somewhat during that period of success, with the peak in raw attendance numbers coming in the late 90's and a valley coming post-2004-lockout in the last couple years of the Devils stay in Continental Airlines Arena (nee Brendan Byrne Arena), but there was at least a competitive team always there to ensure fans would continue showing up through the end of the season.
Even over the past few seasons, when the Devils have ultimately missed out on the playoffs, there was at least a general expectation of a competitive team heading into the season. Even the disaster that last season turned into started with many people thinking the Devils were a decent bet for a return to the postseason. This season will have a different vibe to it, though. For the first time in a very long time, the playoffs mostly seem like a pipe dream at the start of the season in New Jersey. If the Devils start slow, few people will be expecting a turnaround that gets them into the playoff hunt. It's been a long time since the Devils were expected to be a basement-dweller, so it's hard to gauge the impact those expectations will have on the team's bottom line. It's a fairly safe bet, though, that the impact wont be great.
While expectations will be low in terms of the standings, there is a bit of an aura of a new beginning surrounding this Devils team. The past several years, the Devils had been clinging to their amazing run of success over the previous decades and trying to hold everything together with duct tape and glue, but the 2015 offseason featured a bit of a cleansing fire for the Devils. Veterans were let go, a new coaching staff was assembled, and the front office received a complete overhaul after the departure of Lou Lamoriello. For better or for worse, this is an entirely new era for the Devils.
Will that be enough to get people to the arena? Perhaps some, but teams that are rebuilding are typically not the ones lighting up the attendance numbers. Still, the Devils have a defense made up almost entirely of under-25 players, and the forwards will start to see some turnover and new faces as well. The coaching staff will have a similar feeling, with the Devils opting against bringing in an NHL retread and hiring the youngest coach in the league in John Hynes. Things feel refreshed, to an extent, in New Jersey and even if the team is no good, I think most fans recognize that the team is going through a necessary step on the road to being a contender again. It may not always be pretty, but I think the team will at least get some slack from fans for making a clear effort to clear the organizational rot and start to fix things.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Devils over the years has been their reluctance to engage fans in any meaningful way as a team. It was generally accepted without much complaint by fans over the years because of the tremendous success the team enjoyed. The Lou shroud of secrecy was a double-edged sword, but the lack of engagement seemed a fair price to pay for an organization as successful as the Devils were. When the cracks started to form in the Devils' foundation, though, the equation lost some of that balance. Why block fans from watching camps or interacting with players on social media when the product that the black box is spitting out stinks anyway.
Under the new front office regime, the Devils have started to reverse that trend though. Over the summer, the Devils prospect camp had games open to the public for the first time and players have increasingly begun popping up on Twitter. Add an old staple like bobblehead nights and a new flexible ticket package option and the team is clearly looking to shake up the entrenched status quo. So the organization is making the move toward more of a fan-friendly atmosphere, the question is just whether it will have a significant impact on how many people are showing up to the arena. If the Devils can just maintain attendance levels similar to the last couple years, that might be considered a win, given the expectations of this team. Ultimately, it might be hard to gauge the real impact right away, since this season feels so different from any in a long time. If the Devils did manage to see an uptick in attendance this season, one would have to consider the fan outreach efforts a major success.
Can the Devils prevent a dip in attendance with this season's lowered expectations? It's hard to say at this point, but I'd be a little bit surprised if they didn't see a little bit of a slump in the numbers. They do have some things going for them though, with a lot of fresh faces and a new emphasis on being more fan friendly. If they can keep people coming out to the arena this season, it will bode well for when the team is ready to be a contender again. Whether they will be successful in their efforts remains to be seen.
So what do you think we'll see in the attendance numbers next season? Will it be a fanbase that has checked out or perhaps one that is ready to see a new era? Do you like what the team has been doing in terms of opening things up a little more to the fans? Comment with your thoughts on the season below and thanks for reading.