The first month-plus of the New Jersey Devils’ season has been defined a hot start, high scores, and big contributions from a host of new players. After exploding out of the gate though, the Devils in an eerily similar position after 15 games as they were in 2016-17. At the same spot in the NHL calendar, the team finds itself again sitting with 9 wins, 6 losses and a lingering feeling of "are we out of the woods or is this just a flash in the pan." Obviously, we know how it turned out last season. The wheels came off... slowly at first, but then with alarming rapidity. A Devils team that was near the top of the entire league in mid-November went into a complete tailspin and was just about cooked by the New Year. With the 2017-18 team taking a somewhat similar expectation-upending route to this point and now with a recent swoon in play, there are understandable murmurs of “here we go again” from the New Jersey faithful.
So can New Jersey avoid that fate this season? I think most would agree this team is more talented than the previous iteration, but some of the same fatal flaws remain with a somewhat unproven bottom-6 and definite limitations on the blue line. The main area of concern for New Jersey continues to be the defense. Some new faces have arrived in support in the off-season, but the unit as a whole remains largely overmatched, particularly against the league's more talented teams. And to go along with the issues among the defensemen, the forwards are also limited in their defesive ability and missing their most reliable player at that end of the ice, Travis Zajac. The hope this season is that a dynamic offense can offset those issues.
The mostly-accepted truth regarding the Devils' current position in the standings, though, is that they have outpaced expectations thus far. In spite of that fact, I think people were starting to hope that our time in the NHL doldrums was coming to a close. But hopes and realities are different things. Things were unlikely to keep sailing along like they were at 9-2-0. A realistic evaluation of this team probably has them somewhere in the range of a bubble team. A fall from their current perch near the top of the standings to the playoff bubble is not necessarily unexpected, but with the franchise’s recent history, the fall from the top doesn’t necessarily have to stop in the middle, which is why it’s difficult not to worry about what lies ahead. With a losing streak that has now reached 4 games over the past week, fears of a repeat of last season are now understandably creeping in.
Depending on who you ask, that would perhaps not be the worst thing for the franchise. Another high draft pick could help cement a formidable core heading into the future. And given how things have gone for the Devils the past several seasons, it's easy to resign oneself to another spring of checking scouting reports on the upcoming draft class and determining who the Devils need to have their eye on. To wit:
[lets out 27-minute-long sigh]— mike (@ColdSportsTakes) November 10, 2017
[checks 2018 draft rankings]
Despite my sad-sack tweeting though, this is not a scenario I want anymore. This team has been bad quite long enough in my estimation. I’m not saying I am expecting this team to be great, or even necessarily a playoff team, but they need to avoid what befell last year’s team happening to them once again. Even if they have down times, another season featuring multiple extended losing streaks and disastrous play on the ice needs to be avoided. The bottom completely falling out may yield this team another high draft pick, but it would indicate that the team as currently constructed is still far from climbing out of this hole. And while another top prospect will help in the long run, continued futility could end up driving the pieces the Devils already do have in place — namely someone like Taylor Hall — away in the coming years.
Just because the Devils have started this season in a similar fashion to last doesn’t mean that things will necessarily work out exactly the same, though. As mentioned earlier, this is a team with more talent than last season up front with the arrivals of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and Marcus Johansson. As CJ dug into on Wednesday, this team just endured what is likely one of its more difficult stretches this season by the numbers (plus the west coast road trip factor). They are also very much not at 100% with some key injuries. They have to get right — and hopefully healthy — some time soon, though. If the team can’t stop this skid and starts to tumble down the standings it could get tough to block out what happened last season. Ultimately, this team has definite issues and stretches of struggles will be understandable, but they will need to be resilient and try to keep playing competitive hockey in spite of those problems. As a fan, a repeat of the post-15-game tailspin would be a difficult pill to swallow. This team feels like it has the talent to remain dangerous, though, so lets hope the recent slide is more of a blip than a harbinger of doom.