Folks, the 2016-17 NHL season is nearly upon us. All of the traditional indications of the hockey season are here: the air is getting crisp, the players are back on the ice, preseason is in full swing, and the comprehensive season preview from the handsome and intelligent staff at All About the Jersey will drop next week. With Devils hockey now right around the corner, the team is taking shape and a fresh start offers endless possibilities. With a new beginning and a clean slate, you can really let your imagination run wild. In response to this new season, I was deep in thought the other day while sipping a snifter of brandy in my study and I got to thinking: man, wouldn’t it be neat if the Devils made the playoffs?
The playoffs, for those of you unfamiliar, are a tournament the NHL holds at the conclusion of each regular season to decide the winner of the sport’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup. It sounded ridiculous to me too when I looked it up on Alta Vista, but sources confirmed that this is the case. In order to qualify for these “playoffs,” you must be an elite squadron among the best 53% of the league’s teams. After watching some video of this tourney, I have concluded that I would very much enjoy having the Devils being a part of them again.
In all seriousness, we all know the Devils are still working though a fairly comprehensive rebuild and maybe they aren’t quite ready to make that leap back to the postseason. And I do suppose finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference with 83 points is great in its own way. It’s getting to be a long time since we were able to watch playoff hockey in Newark, though. The list of Devils who were here for the last run to the Cup Final has now dwindled to a paltry four players (Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Adam Henrique, Jacob Josefson) after a drought that now covers four seasons.
Now, perhaps four years isn’t so long. Measured against timeline of the existence of the universe or the Oilers playoff drought, it’s actually quite short. It’s possible that I, like perhaps many Devils fans of a certain age, am just spoiled. I came of age at a time when the Devils were the class of the NHL. I was blissfully unaware/mostly non-existent during the franchise’s ‘Mickey Mouse’ years. Prior to this recent run of futility, the Devils were a rock that could be counted on to, at worst, comfortably make the playoffs. Even in years where major free agents departed or playoff runs ended in disappointment, the Devils were still fairly consistently mashing the then-Atlantic Division into a fine paste during the regular season.
That spoiled perspective can change in a hurry, though. This might be a controversial opinion, but watching the Devils slog through 80-point seasons is considerably less fun than watching them coast to first place in the division. And while Edmonton may still dwarf this level of futility, the four-season playoff drought in New Jersey is tied for the fourth-longest active postseason drought in the league. There is some hope that the drought could be nearing its end here though. Ray Shero has been making consistently solid moves in the 16 months since he arrived and the Devils now have one of the league’s top forwards to go with one of the league’s best goaltenders. The team still has some holes big enough to drive a Zamboni thorough, but progress is definitely being made.
So how likely is a return to the playoff? Well, perhaps the chances aren’t the best. Despite a much improved set of forwards, they still lack depth down the middle and the defense is, to be extremely generous, iffy. But it at least feels like they have a fighting shot once again to be in that vaunted top 53%. And I think we can all agree on one thing: the Devils being in the playoffs this season would be cool and good.