The Holidays are here with Christmas just a couple days away and many Devils fans are likely welcoming the NHL’s upcoming mandatory 3-day break after a putrid month of hockey from Jersey’s Team. Yes, the 2016-17 season is now on life support after a horrid run of 3 wins over a 17 game stretch including a just-snapped 7 game losing streak. That doesn’t mean we all can’t get into the holiday spirit here at AAtJ, though. So with that in mind, I’d like to share what I really want as a Devils fan this holiday season:
I want this team to make up its damn mind already.
Are the Devils a young team on the upswing with a bright future? Or are they a total disaster that is multiple top picks from contending? If you only watched the first 16 games or the second 16 games of the season, you might come up with completely different answers. In the early going, the Devils looked like a very competitive team, and one that could perhaps challenge for a playoff spot. In mid-Nevember, the team was as high as 5th best in the league, with a 9-3-3 record, a non-wild-card playoff spot, and underlying numbers that showed a team that was improving (if not quite as good as the standings suggested).
Since that point, though, it has been a very different story for New Jersey. The Devils went into a complete freefall that now has them teetering on total playoff irrelevancy before the start of the New Year. The 9-4-3 record and overall decent play from the first 16 games was replaced by a 3-9-4 horror show of a second 16 games that was probably somehow even worse than that record indicates. Boneheaded mistakes piled up and the team’s underlying metrics (via Corsica) were at the bottom of the league over that stretch with their CF% above only terrible Colorado and Arizona teams and their xGF% (expected goals for) outpacing only the Avalanche. And the losses in the 7-game slide to cap that stretch were by an average of 3(!) goals per game. Getting outscored by 21 goals over the course of 2 weeks is not extremely indicative of a team ready to contend.
Devils fans are currently living through the worst stretch of sustained futility since the team’s early years about three decades ago. This is a different type of futility, though. Last few weeks aside, the Devils haven’t really been outright bad over this stretch. One of the most frustrating things about the past 5 seasons in New Jersey has been rooting for a team perpetually stuck in hockey purgatory. Not good enough to make the playoffs, but never bad enough to land a franchise-altering draft pick. The Devils have still only picked in the top 5 once since 1991 (Adam Larsson 4th overall), and they only had that pick due to winning the draft lottery. The overall finishes the past 4 years have been 22nd, 20th, 25th, and 20th, respectively. It’s difficult to root for your team to be bad but you wonder if one or two top-3 picks makes this look like a completely different organization going forward.
That brings us back to this season. The Devils are a team ostensibly on the rise as they continue to clear out rot on the roster and have some young, promising names now entering the league to go along with a relatively young group of core forwards and a top goalie. The past few weeks have been extremely disheartening, though. It was starting to feel like there was light at the end of the tunnel after the first month-plus of the season, but that light has been all but snuffed out after the disastrous month they just had. It’s just endlessly frustrating to have no idea which direction this team is actually headed in.
So my wish to Santa is not for the Devils to go all the way into the tank. Nor is it for for them to make a miraculous run to the playoffs. It’s for them to choose a path: suck or don’t suck. Another season of finishing 22nd, comfortably out of the playoff picture, and picking a guy who will be an alright second-liner in 6 years is not really what I want to see. I either want to see this team nosedive and appropriately sell the non-essential assets and secure a high (like top-3) pick or I want them to make an honest-to-goodness run at the playoffs. In the “don’t suck” category, even if they finish on the outside looking in with 90 or so points and have a not-great pick, at least it would feel like they made some type of tangible progress this season. I’m just not sure I can handle an 80-point team that looks no closer to contention than last season and only gets a so-so pick out of it, to boot. So please, St. Nick, bring me a team that is either terrible or actually decent, because I’m not sure how much more abject mediocrity I can take.