In the next few days, the NHL regular season will come to a close and and, once again, that will signify the end of the New Jersey Devils' campaign. Another 82 games will have passed and Devils fans will once again continue their wait for a return to the playoffs. These are dark days in New Jersey hockey history, and while the we know the team is trying to steer itself back toward the light, the frustration of watching 16 other teams compete for hockey's biggest prize again still lingers.
The Devils will miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive time this season and the fifth time in six years. Not too long ago this was a run that would have felt unthinkable. Prior to the doomed 2010-11 campaign, the Devils had made the playoffs in 13 straight seasons and 19 times in 20 years. For a long time, the playoffs were a given in New Jersey. Even division titles were ho-hum, with the Devils taking the Atlantic Division crown 9 times in the previous 13 seasons. Simply put, we were spoiled.
The 2012 run to the Cup Finals now looks like the dying breath of an era, rather than the return to glory it felt like at the time. A combination of stubbornness, poor luck, poor drafting, free agency missteps, and key departures have conspired to reduce the Devils to the rebuilding team they are today. One more postseason miss, and the Devils will match the team record streak from when they were the Mickey Mouse franchise that had just moved to New Jersey (granted, it was much harder to miss the playoffs back then). The playoffs, once a given around these parts, now feel like a distant dream.
Now, looking at just this season on its own, nobody was expecting playoffs for this iteration of the Devils. In fact, expectations were about as low as humanly possible, so it's difficult to be too disappointed with the end result. But the disappointment associated with this season is more of a cumulative grief. No one is angry or shocked that the Devils will be golfing this April, as this was the most likely of outcomes. In the proverbial five stages of grief, we have reached acceptance this season. That carries with it a separate kind of sadness, though. The sting isn't so sharp anymore, it's just the dull pain of knowing you're probably on a road to nowhere. Losses aren't met with a visceral reaction, just a melancholy "¯\_(ツ)_/¯."
This isn't to say there weren't enjoyable moments this season. The team exceeded expectations significantly, clinging to a playoff spot as late as February. There were exciting goals and overtime winners and breakout performances from players like Kyle Palmieri or Reid Boucher and Joe Blandisi that gave some hope for the future. But in the end, the team exceeding expectations almost makes for a harder end to the season. The Devils still missed the postseason by a fairly wide margin, even with some overachieving. How close they are to a return remains as foggy as ever. And for their trouble, the Devils will now likely be rewarded with a much lower draft pick than if they had just bottomed out like [insert Canadian NHL franchise here].
Regardless of that draft position, though, the NHL draft is where our eyes will turn next. First, we will hope and pray for the Devils longshot lottery odds to turn up a top-3 pick. Then, we will start scanning the prospect world for the next big thing, in hopes that the Devils can snag a difference maker somewhere in the 10th-12th pick range they are likely to land in. A question-filled free-agency period will follow and we'll get ready to do this all over again. It will be another long offseason in New Jersey and as the last playoff appearance fades further and further into the rear view mirror, we wonder just how long it will be before they return.