For the past several years, we have been going through some lean times here in Devil-land. The Devils recent run of futility has been tough to deal with at times given the success that came before it. With five straight seasons of the team not reaching the postseason, it has become standard operating procedure in New Jersey to expect to be watching everyone else participate in the joy/misery of the playoffs come April while we review draft rankings and cross our fingers for the lottery.
This season, things are currently on a different trajectory, though. Nearly halfway through the season, the Devils sit in first in a brutal Metropolitan Division and are playing some of the best hockey they’ve played in years. Based on expectations coming into the year, the team was supposed to maybe take a small step forward in a more extended rebuild. Instead, they look more like a team on the cusp of becoming a true contender. This divergence of results from expectations leads to something of a feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop on this team. But maybe that shoe ain’t coming.
At the outset of the season, there was debate about what result this season is best for team in the long run. Do they still need more help in the form of high draft picks to become a viable long-term Cup contender? If they rode the percentages to being around the playoff bubble, was it worth it to sneak in even if they ended up with reduced draft position? They were fair questions at the time, but now that the first 34 games of the season have played out the way they have, the calculus is changing. At this point, the thoughts about the draft have mostly gone away though, and they’ve been replaced by thoughts of the playoffs.
This team has flaws, but they are undeniably a factor in the East and are capable of playing well enough to run with the league’s best. With that in mind, I’m ready to push my chips in and buy in on this team. I want the playoffs for the 2017-18 Devils. I need the playoffs for the 2017-18 Devils. Watching this team this season is as fun as watching Devils hockey has been in quite a long time. They are young, they are fast, they are resilient, and they are competent. It’s still important for the team to make smart team-building decisions and draft well, but I’m no longer worried about draft position heading into this offseason. This team is good enough and has legitimate talent in the pipeline now.
This change in perspective is refreshing. Allowing oneself to get excited about a team like this of course comes with risks, but I’m prepared to believe they are good enough to break into the playoffs and hold their own once they are there. Just thinking about the exhilaration of playoff hockey coming back to the Rock is great, and its nice to actually believe in the possibility. They have top-end talent, they have depth (at least at forward), and they have the kind of capable veteran role players who can help keep the team stable. Maybe it doesn’t work out in the end, as is the risk when you buy into a team’s success, but I’m now fairly confident in saying this team isn’t just a house of cards. They have issues, for sure, but what’s happening in Newark isn’t a complete mirage. They are a legitimate playoff contender in the East and a team that has a nonzero chance of coming out on top of this meat grinder of a division.
So this Christmas, I’m hoping (and officially starting to believe in) for a return of playoff hockey in New Jersey. And for the first time in a while, that is not such an outlandish request.