Despite the fact that the New Jersey Devils have fallen out of a current playoff position and are seemingly falling down in a super tight division, it is not wrong to say that the team has come out of the gate at least fairly well, well enough to stay competitive early on. And that competition has been great for the morale of the team, for the enjoyment of the fans who have not seen a truly competitive team in half a decade now, and for the overall atmosphere and vibe surrounding the organization. Throughout the fairly strong start to the year, especially when this team was 9-3-3 and sitting in a strong position, it has been easy to forget that this is still a rebuilding team. It is a group that most of us here at the website projected would finish about where they currently are in the division because we saw from the beginning that this was a team that still needed to get better, still needed to improve so that they could become a truly competitive team. With that in mind, and as we watch some frustrating performances like over the last two nights, I believe that there needs to be some perspective placed on what has happened so far.
To me, no matter what happens going forward, whether the team continues to fall out of it now, if they stay competitive until the end of March, or if they actually do end up in a playoff position, the Devils are currently doing things the right way. What I mean by that is that they are not sacrificing their future to create a lineup that has to win now. A few years ago, in the wake of the 2012 Cup run, the Devils were built on a foundation of older players which required that the team functioned in a win-now setting. Guys like Jaromir Jagr, Dainius Zubrus, Michael Ryder, etc. These were the players that were anchoring the top 6 only a couple of years ago. That was fine if the team was successful and remained as competitive as they were the previous two decades, but as we know that did not pan out very well, and it led to a team that needed a strong rebuild to become competitive once again, and it led to the team losing its longtime GM.
This year, however, while there can be no doubt that John Hynes is setting up the lineup to win on a nightly basis, it is not being done at the sacrifice of future growth. Instead, the Devils are playing with the youth that both deserves to be up there and also can use the experience to get better. The way that the roster is formed this year, it is promoting growth that should lead to continued success in the future, of course assuming that the youth that is getting this valuable experience continues to grow and produce. Guys like Pavel Zacha, Nick Lappin and Miles Wood are getting experience playing at the highest level, and also playing for a team that is at least fairly competitive. It is a positive for this season, as these are the guys that absolutely deserve to be in Newark and not down on the farm. Lappin has been a real boon for the production of the fourth line, Wood’s second stint with New Jersey has been him trying to replicate Michael Grabner’s game of pure speed, with numerous breakaways to confirm, and Zacha has shown that the league is not too big for him, even at 19. The likes of these guys are not here just because the organization wants to get them experience for tomorrow, but also because they are legitimately helping now. That is a plus in every way possible.
Furthermore, it is not even just the true youngsters on the team that are benefitting from this dual purpose, succeed now and improve for the future mantra. Many of the staples of this squad are not necessarily old anymore either. A few short years ago, after the departures of the Minnesotan and Russian, the only real stars on the squad were Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias. They were Devils’ legends and I believe that Elias’ number will be hanging from the rafters next to Marty’s sooner than later. But they were also old, very old in terms of their NHL careers. They were not getting better and gaining valuable experience by playing. Today, however, you have Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, and Kyle Palmieri, guys who are in their mid-20s. There is a good chance that these three are leaders on this team for the next decade. They may not need further NHL experience to improve their games like Wood, Zacha and Lappin, but they are still gaining excellent experience by being leaders on this team. They are learning what it takes to lead a team to victory night in and night out. They are also learning what losing can do to a squad, and what needs to be done to get a group back into the win column. These guys should also continue to improve, both together on the ice and in the locker room as leaders, as this team moves forward.
So, even as the Devils look to be in a little bit of a rut, giving up 3+ goals in 11 of their last 12 games, and looking quite ugly the last two nights, there are still positives to fall back on. This is not like 2013 and 2014 when the Devils lost and there was no bright side to look on. As fans, we have something to be positive about night in and night out, even if this team falls out of contention sooner rather than later. We can watch the future getting experience and getting better night in and night out. This is especially true as the Devils have drafted better recently as well. Hopefully, and I stress hopefully, the team is out of that long slump they were in with drafting, with the possible culmination of that slump being Stefan Matteau a few years ago. With Zacha and then Michael McLeod, along with the youth from beyond the first round like Steven Santini, the Devils seem to have found a little more success. Every year it seems that the experts rank the Devils amongst the worst in terms of prospect potential, but with the infusion of youth that has made it in the NHL and seems to be doing well in Albany and further down, there are even more reasons to feel good about what is to come.
Now, I don’t take this to mean that the season is over and we should only focus on the youth and the future. The Devils are still very much competitive despite their recent failures. They win three of their next four and the mood will be much more positive than it is this morning. But what I am saying is that is nice to know that win or lose, the Devils are doing it the right way this year. They are not going for broke with old talent that does not have much of a future here. Instead, the team is winning and losing with the best talent they have, and much of that talent happens to be young players with potentially bright futures. If they win now, excellent, the Devils are creating a culture of winning once again, and that is excellent. But if they do fully fall out of it now or not too far in the future, at least there is something positive that we are looking at no matter what.
What are your thoughts about this sentiment? Do you think that there is a bright side to fall back on if this team falls from grace, thanks to the youth on this team? Do you think that it is good that these young players are playing up in Newark night in and night out? Does the knowledge that this is a youthful team looking to break out of a rebuild make losing less painful as a fan? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!