Over this season, I've noticed more and more Devils fans here and elsewhere becoming in favor of the team playing for a higher draft pick rather than the playoffs. This sentiment has only grown in recent weeks between what Ray Shero did at the NHL Trade Deadline (namely, trading then-top scorer Lee Stempniak for picks), Cory Schneider suffering a Grade 1 MCL sprain in the recent loss to Dallas, and the team playing some very bad hockey all around those dates. I get it. With the team in a rebuilding mode and the prospect pipeline needing more prospects, it's better to try to pick a little higher than thirteenth or fourteenth overall in every round, first round lottery notwithstanding. However, I want to emphasize in this post that going down the standings is not as simple as the Devils just losing a whole bunch of games. There are internal and external difficulties to be aware of if this is what you want the Devils to do.
And if you want the Devils to "go for it" at all costs, well, the rest of this post won't really interest you. Not that the Devils are in a real position to do so after last night's loss.
Let's start with the internal challenges. First, there's the goaltending. Schneider has made this team far more competitive this season than most would have expected ahead of 2015-16. While Schneider isn't scoring goals, he has often kept the opposition to so little that the pop-gun-like Devils offense could still find a way to get a result. After the Devils' terrible 1-6 loss to Pittsburgh, it was revealed that he suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks. By my count, that means he's definitely out for the team's next five games and very likely a sixth since the Devils play Columbus two Sundays from now. After all, he would be re-evaluated, not necessarily cleared. If that re-evaluation is not in Schneider's favor, then he'll miss even more time - maybe to a point where the team could shut him down. Either way, the cause for going down gets a little easier.
Still, it's an open question to how well Keith Kinkaid performs. He has shown that he can be quite good, such as the 1-0 win against Los Angeles and his relief performance in Dallas. He's also had some bad nights, such as the 1-6 loss to Pittsburgh, half of the 1-6 loss to Columbus, and conceding four to Nashville. Although, the team and/or defense was just not helping out their goalie on those nights. There's little argument as to who is the better goaltender in New Jersey, but Kinkaid isn't a scrub. Should Kinkaid get hot or a miracle happens and the skaters play like good NHL players, then the goaltending could be the team's saving grace for a portion of their remaining fifteen games.
If the first challenge is the state of the goaltending, then the second is personal pride. The Devils' skaters may not be very good with respect to the entire league. Yet, they are professionals and they don't want to just dog it for the sake of doing so. There is a fine line between trying and failing and not trying. The former is hard to watch, the latter is rarely accepted. What makes this more of a challenge is the fact that a large chunk of this roster will be hitting free agency this summer.
Just look at the team page at General Fanager. On the active roster, the Devils have ten forwards and three defensemen who are up for new contracts. More than half are restricted free agents. I think they'll all be Devils next summer but how they perform in these last five weeks could make a difference in how much they get. Especially for Devante Smith-Pelly, who just joined the team and this post-trade deadline part of the schedule is his only time in New Jersey to make his case for his future. As for the unrestricted free agents, I suspect most would only want David Schlemko to return. I can understand that. I would also say that they have every incentive - maybe more than the rest? - to work hard and attempt to succeed as this season dies down. If they don't fit in to Ray Shero's plans, then they need to hope someone else in the NHL or in Europe will want them this summer. Having a strong ending for a team having a "lost season" helps their case for someone to sign them. It can stand more than just playing well, it can show good character in that the player(s) will perform even when times aren't so good. That's a plus. Playing out the end certainly isn't. With the possibility that some of those potential free agents turn it up, the team may play a little better. That all said, if those pending UFAs and RFAs have been working hard and trying to do their best in recent weeks, then maybe this challenge won't be much of one since the team has been rolled a lot recently.
Of course, the biggest challenges aren't internal to the Devils. They're external. It's not enough for the Devils to try and lose most of their fifteen remaining games. Shero and John Hynes just can't go to the next team meeting and go, "Just lose, baby." They need help. Allow me to illustrate that.
I do a weekly snapshot of the division where I focus on what's coming up and who can challenge for playoff spots or moving up in the standings. Given the nature of this topic, we need to go in the reverse direction. Let me show you the other half of the NHL standings: the non-playoff teams. These standings were taken after the games played on March 6.
Sources: NHL.com for the standings, NHL.com for lottery odds, which are listed under % AM.
The Devils aren't alone in where they are. There's essentially three tiers for this group. The bottom tier is the Toronto Tier. They've given up on this season a long time back and they have a strong hold on last overall. The second tier is the one that comprises of most of the bottom ten - the area that the Devils should try to finish in should they want a better draft pick. That's 23rd through 29th. While Edmonton and Calgary lag a bit more behind them, even those teams are within five points of the three-way tie at 62 points: featuring the last place team in the Metropolitan. Had I wrote this on Saturday, they would stand out more as gate keepers. Since 29th through 23rd would represent 2nd through 8th overall, again, this is the area those wanting the Devils to get a top-tier prospect should aim for. It will not be at all easy as they have significant deficits on the Devils and those teams in their tier. That tier is the "top" tier where the Flyers and Canadiens are separated out five points and everyone else is within one or two points from Philly. The Devils are in that tier now. So are other teams that made changes that imply that they want to go down too (think Carolina after moving Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg). They are currently direct competition for the Devils for moving down in the league standings.
Last night provided a perfect example of how the direct competition is the first hurdle. The Devils got creamed by Pittsburgh last night. They lost by a score of 1-6. Those who watched it or even looked at the score thought, "Man, it won't be that hard for that team to fall." Yet, they didn't. Ottawa, who is behind the Devils due to ROW, also lost their game in regulation. It may not have been as bad as a 1-6 beatdown. But the standings don't care: the Devils remain where they are in the standings. Ottawa's failure keeps them where they are in the draft pecking order. The Devils did not get the help they needed. So no matter that the Devils get to "enjoy" San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Minnesota, Columbus twice, Pittsburgh and Washington in a back-to-back, Carolina, Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and Toronto for the rest of their season. If the teams below them aren't picking up points as the Devils fail to get them, then there's no movement.
Let's go back to the standings chart. In addition to games played (GP) and games remaining (GR), I added a column called GPO. That stands for games against playoff teams. That's important to realize when looking at these standings this late int he season. I looked at each schedule and counted how many games against the top sixteen teams right now (Minnesota and Colorado could swap spots for a wild card spot) they have left among their remaining games. Those are games that the above group of teams, including New Jersey, should want to drop to move down. Spoiling somebody may feel good in the short term, less so in the long term - unless it's not by the Devils. The good news for the Devils is that most of their games remaining are against these teams. Lose what you can to them, although it may not be that hard since playoff teams are usually good teams and the 2015-16 Devils aren't.
The bad news is that several of the teams below them don't have as many games against playoff teams. So those who want the Devils to fall in the rankings will need to do some scoreboard watching and hope, say, Vancouver doesn't split their eight non-playoff opponent games. Instead, they should want that Vancouver either loses most of them or wins most of them so there can be some movement in the standings. (Aside: They get Edmonton three times. I feel bad for whoever watches those games.) Otherwise, it just gets messier in that second tier and harder for a team in the first tier to move down.
One more thing, it would be good to get familiar with some of the tiebreakers for the standings. They are always available at the bottom of the standings page at NHL.com. As the season is on going, the first one is games played. By the end of the season, everyone will be even in games. Then, the first tiebreaker becomes ROW. Note that the Devils are tied for the second most ROW among the non-playoff teams. That may make a difference between one or two spots in the standings when it's all said and done. The second is head-to-head with the tied teams. It gets complicated with number of games played and number of tied teams. The third tiebreaker after that is goal differential. The Devils are solidly in the red there and the Pittsburgh loss helps them in that regard. Should Kinkaid prove to be that much worse than Schneider, it could get as low as those teams in the tier below them. Problem is: those teams worse than them are also not good so it's a gap that will take multiple blowouts make up.
The long story made short is that the Devils need help from teams worse from them to make space to go down. First, they need to fall further to get away from Carolina, Ottawa, Philadelphia, and Montreal. Given the state of Montreal since December and Carolina having sold off big parts of their team, that's a little easier said than done. Second, the goal shouldn't be to aim for Auston Matthews. That's a lottery pick and even #30 Toronto only has a 20% chance at him. The goal should be for New Jersey to finish worse than Columbus. Get below them and they got a shot end up much higher in the top ten. Stay ahead of them and they'll likely be on the outside or just inside it at ninth or tenth. Helping that particular goal is that the Devils will play them twice. Columbus has beaten them all season; it's imperative they drop those games and the Devils hope the Blue Jackets win a couple more to make such a fall possible. From there, it's looking to the West to see how they do as it'll affect where New Jersey eventually finishes up. If they end up around where they were last season, which was sixth from the bottom, then I'd say they did it. If they stay where they are, well, the breaks weren't there and/or they didn't lose enough earlier. See that first internal challenge as for a big reason why.
If this all seems somewhat of a downer, well, it is. It's about hoping the Devils be bad enough for a potentially brighter future. It's nice to think about that future as it's filled with potential. Potential that will totally be fulfilled because, well, why wouldn't it be? It's better to think about that than a lot of bad games that just further emphasize that this team isn't good. Bad games are hard to watch and they leave you wondering why you spent two and a half hours of your life watching it. Better to just read about it at sites like this one, but eventually that wondering leads to why even bother following the team the rest of the way. And that's no good. So for those who want the Devils to go for it if only to just play for something, I get that sentiment too. The main point of this post is to help those who want the Devils to fall appreciate that it certainly isn't easy. Not within the Devils organization and definitely not outside of it, where again, the Devils not only need to lose games but the teams below them have to be good enough to win so the Devils can go down. Those are difficulties involved in going down in the standings. Especially with just under five weeks left in the season.