Last offseason, the Devils organization underwent a massive overhaul it hadn’t seen in almost 30 years with the departure of Lou Lamoriello and much of the old guard. With that overhaul was the implicit acknowledgement that the Devils were embarking on a full rebuild of the roster and the system. After decades of sustained success under the Lamoriello regime, the combination of a depleted system and a roster in severe disrepair after years of stopgap measures conspired to relegate the Devils to the NHL’s bottom-10 doldrums, making it clear that the team needed a new start. That new start came in the form of new general manager Ray Shero.
The first year of the rebuild in New Jersey was largely a success, by most accounts. Shero was able to clear out a lot of the rot on the roster and made some smart transactions to bring in valuable pieces for the short and long term. The acquisition of Kyle Palmieri along with value signings like Lee Stempniak (and his later trade for draft picks) helped greatly improve the outlook of the team on a year-over-year basis. On the ice, the team surprised just about everyone, including Devils fans, when they remained in the playoff race well into February. A bleak feeling coming out of 2014-15 has been replaced a year later with an air of hopefulness.
Now, after the 2015 nadir, the Devils are heading into 2016-17 as a team that looks like it’s on the upswing. The roster formerly packed with aging veterans now has a decidedly youthful feel. As things currently stand, the opening night lineup will likely have just five skaters over the age of 26. Among the under-26 group will be the recently acquired Taylor Hall, one of the league’s top wingers, who has given the Devils an elite forward to build around for the first time in years. A year after the Devils unveiled their “Fast, Attacking, Supportive” mantra, the vision seems to be starting to take shape.
Despite the generally positive outlook on the direction the organization is headed, though, this remains a team in transition. The defense, particularly with the departure of Adam Larsson, has some major shortcomings and the depth, while improving, still looks weak in some areas. So regardless of the good vibe surrounding the rebuilding Devils these days, the fact remains that they are still a team that needs work. And with the most recent playoff appearance from 2012 getting further and further in the rear-view mirror, its fair to wonder how many more years the fanbase will be watching 16 teams who aren’t from New Jersey when mid-April rolls around.
Obviously, it’s difficult to predict how a team will progress when there are so many moving pieces and unknowns. Last year’s team is a good example, since most people had it pegged as one of the league’s worst and ended up surprised by its relative competitiveness. Expectations are starting to return in New Jersey, though. This coming season, playoffs still probably aren’t expected but people will want to see this team be competitive. The Devils are starting to enter that weird transition zone of a rebuild where the team should still be gathering assets but results should be improving. If the season results in a discombobulated team and a bottom-five finish, that might help when the draft rolls around but it would be pretty discouraging from an overall team-building standpoint.
On the flip side, one might ask how much value a playoff appearance would have when it is very unlikely that the team makes much of any noise once they get there. Again, with a team in transition, it’s hard to determine what the best outcome really is, long term. The answer to the playoff question would probably depend on how exactly the team gets there. If Cory Schneider drags the team there kicking and screaming, then one might wonder if it’s ultimately a good thing for the team’s development. But if the team plays a generally decent and improving brand of hockey and squeaks in (even with a little help from the percentages), I think it would be hard to be disappointed with that.
With four-straight seasons now without a playoff appearance, the patience among the fanbase will not last forever. People are willing to lengthen the leash for Shero because he only really started this rebuild last season but the question of how much longer the wait will be remains. Personally, I’m expecting the team to have a similar standings finish as last season right now, probably somwhere in the 15th-20th range overall. The playoffs feel like an outside possibility if everything breaks exactly right, but 6-10 points outside the playoff bubble seems like a pretty likely landing spot for the upcoming season. One thing the Devils definitely do not want to do this season is go for it and start unloading assets to bring in veteran help at the deadline. A playoff appearance would be nice but I think most would agree that it’s not worth it, nor is it prudent, to mortgage the future to get there at this stage of the rebuild.
Ultimately, the Devils are most likely afforded another playoff mulligan in 2016-17 if they don’t make it. There are still too many unknowns and too many holes that need to be filled to really expect this team to be in the playoffs. If the team can pick up its scoring and improve on its possession numbers a bit, I think most will be satisfied that it took another step forward this season. If the team does miss out again and the postseason drought stretches to five seasons, I do think the pressure increases a bit the following season. Then, 2017-18 probably becomes something of a litmus test for Shero and the roster to see if this team has the ability to take the next step and become a playoff team going forward. For now, it feels like we might all be waiting just a little bit longer to see the Devils back in the postseason. But with the team being built in a smart and deliberate way, hopefully it will be poised to be a contender in the years after that playoff return.