Following last night's pivotal loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Devils will head into the all-star break just outside of the East's final playoff spot. The game was an opportunity for New Jersey to put a bit of breathing room between themselves and the Penguins in the East playoff race, but the Devils ran out of steam after a strong first 15 minutes and were rolled in a 2-0 shutout loss. The Penguins now sit in the East's final wild card spot, having the same 55 points as the Devils in two fewer games.
Sitting 50 games into a season in which the Devils have shattered expectations, the team has shown that they have a real chance to make the playoffs. Heading into the break outside of the playoff bubble and in the unfortunate 17th overall spot in the NHL has reminded fans of the elephant in the room, though: the possibility of the team finishing just short of those playoff hopes, simultaneously stretching their postseason drought to 4 seasons and stunting their nascent rebuilding effort.
The reality is that regardless of the outcome of this season, the Devils and GM Ray Shero still have some significant work to do to make this team a realistic Cup contender in the coming years. Finishing just outside the playoff bubble won't wreck their rebuild but it could weaken it and/or lengthen its time frame. Making the playoffs would obviously have similar impacts from a rebuilding perspective but halting a three-year run of postseason misses make that trade-off much more worth it. It's the same rock and hard place many teams end up stuck between this time of year: do you sell pieces from a competitive team for the sake of the rebuild or do you go for it and risk a worse draft pick and assets walking in UFA?
Obviously for fans, it's tough to decide how to feel. Rooting for your team to be bad is never something a fan really wants to do and, as the Edmonton Oilers have so adeptly demonstrated over the past decade, being crummy and piling up high draft picks in no way ensures future success. At the same time, nobody really wants to see their team end up in what is essentially a worst-case scenario: with the 14th pick in the draft and no postseason hockey either. With the way the Devils organization looks, in terms of prospect talent, a high pick is something they could use in a big way. Beyond maybe Pavel Zacha, the Devils lack a forward with potential to be an elite NHLer and the defensive pipeline has started to thin out as well. A solid drafting strategy can help fix these shortcomings, regardless of draft position, but it's much harder make happen without being able to pick from the top talents available.
So what is in store for this Devils team? They are still very much in the thick of things with more than 60% of the season now done and, as has been discussed previously, Cory Schneider at a bare minimum probably keeps them within striking distance down the stretch. Can the team find a way to pick their play up a notch and get the franchise back into the playoffs? Barring a tailspin coming out of the break, the Devils being sellers in the next month seems somewhat unlikely and Shero has already indicated that he will not be going after any rental-type players at the deadline, so it appears that the team will be rolling with the roster as currently constructed, for better or for worse.
Personally, I want to see the team keep fighting for that playoff spot. The fear of being left out of the dance while simultaneously missing out on a top-10 pick is real, but this team has been fun to root for and I'm hoping they can find a way to keep up their play or even elevate it for the stretch run. Of course, if they do ultimately fall out of it, I wouldn't exactly be inconsolable, because the 5th or 6th pick (and better lottery odds) would be a heck of a lot nicer than the 13th or 14th. Ultimately, if they remain in the race, they will have to roll the dice just like many bubble teams have before and hope they're sitting on the right side of that line at the end of game 82.
So what are you thinking? Are you afraid of the team ending up on the wrong side of the playoff bubble? Would you prefer to see them settle back into the top-10 range rather than deal with that risk? Or do you want to see them in the hunt until the final day, draft consequences be damned? Take the poll, sound off with your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.