The 2015-16 New Jersey Devils season will be a curious one to look back on. After a complete regime change in the summer of 2015, expectations for this team were perhaps as low as they have been since the mid-1980's. Most had the Devils pegged as a bottom-dweller in their division, conference, and even the league as a whole. The offseason had been mostly about clearing the way for new blood and trying to start rebuilding a system that was completely depleted by years of sub-par drafting and a consistent "go for it" mentality. Most fans in New Jersey seemed to be on board with this approach, seeing it as a necessary, if unpleasant, step on the road to becoming a contender in the NHL again. But then something strange happened with the open of the 2015-16 season: after an early stumble, the Devils started reeling off wins in bunches and established themselves as a factor in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
As the months continued to pass, everyone waited for the other shoe to drop on the upstart team, but the Devils refused to yield. The overachieving for this bunch was a refreshing change of pace from the previous three seasons, where playoff expectations were met with disappointing finishes. A strong stretch from October into November established the Devils as players in the East playoff race and the team, despite showing some cracks, was able to keep battling to stay alive in the playoff picture in the months that followed. As recently as February 17th, the Devils were still holding a Wild Card spot (albeit very precariously) and hopes remained that the team could find a way to claw their way into the playoffs for the first time since the run to the Cup Final in 2012.
Unfortunately, a tailspin over the final two weeks of February that included five regulation losses in six games leading up to the trade deadline all but crushed those hopes. The Devils had been walking a tightrope on the edge of the playoff picture for a couple months and a stretch with two points in six games just about torpedoed their chances just before the deadline. With the odds of making the playoffs lengthened significantly, Ray Shero was encouraged to pull the trigger on a few trades, including sending leading scorer Lee Stempniak to Boston, to try to gather some assets in the form of draft picks. For some, it signified that the Devils were giving up on the season, but the writing was likely on the wall for this team whether they did any selling or not.
The reality is that this team was resilient and (at times) fun to watch, but they were not Cup contenders and even with the breaks going their way, they were a bubble team at best. In the last couple months, the team had become increasingly reliant on Cory Schneider and their possession numbers sank like a stone all the way to second-worst in the league. With Schneider having a couple off weeks in late February, we saw how ill-equipped the team was to handle less-than-all-world goaltending. Like pretty much any team embarking on the first year of a rebuild, they lacked the firepower or the depth to go the distance in the end and a lingering injury to their best forward, Michael Cammalleri, certainly didn't help things either.
Ultimately, the losing streak may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise for Shero, though. It allowed him to make some prudent moves without pulling the rug out on a team closer to the right side of the bubble. The truth of the matter is that this team still has a depleted system and needs to keep looking ahead to rebuild itself into a contender. This season has been a positive first step of the rebuilding effort, but it remains just a first step. The Devils still have a ways to go to return to being a perennial playoff team and being able to flip rentals and other players not in your plans for assets of value is an important part of that process. Now, the second, third, and fourth round picks the Devils got aren't going to instantly turn their fortunes around, but the more draft picks at team can amass, the better chance they have of finding the difference makers that are out there.
So yes, it hurts to see the Devils fall out of it like the have the past few weeks. But the silver lining is that we know that management is still keeping its eyes on the future and trying to improve this team's outlook in the coming years. The fact that the Devils sold (even if it really was only one player of substance - Stempniak - from their lineup) also increases the potential for the Devils to have good draft position. And speaking as someone who is now entering their fourth spring writing for this blog and has yet to write a word about a playoff game, I know it sucks to see another season that will likely end in early April, but it appears we are going to have to go a bit deeper into the crevasse before we can emerge as a legitimate contender.