At this point in the season, when the New Jersey Devils are not really in contention (as they haven’t been for mostly the last half decade), it becomes somewhat difficult to watch the team on a nightly basis. The reason I say this is because rooting interests change. The goal night in and night out early in the year is always going to be to win, and that usually is the case even through January or later for most teams. But when the calendar turns to March, some teams are just out of it, and the Devils are done at this point. Can they potentially win their next 14 games in March and make April interesting? Yeah I guess it is theoretically possibly, but it’s also possible that I win the lottery tonight. In all practicality, they’re done.
So when winning isn’t the goal on a nightly basis, rooting interests have to change. Some people will root for the team to lose every night, as a better draft pick is very important, something CJ noted not too long ago. I have nothing against that at this point, as the Devils do need a better pick. Hovering around the 10th pick isn’t good enough (right now they’d pick 8). But watching every night rooting for your favorite team to lose is rather difficult to do. I knew on Thursday night that the Devils needed to lose that game to Washington. It just is a better result for the upcoming draft and for the overall future. Watching that game, however, and it’s a one goal game in the third, I couldn’t help but root for them to win. It’s just the natural instinct. Hence why I say that this is a difficult time to watch.
Something that is easy to root for, however, and something that I am all for at this point, is allowing the youth to play night in and night out. There is almost no downside to this. To reference what I was just talking about, allowing younger players to play ensures that perhaps the team might manage to lose more games over the rest of the season. But there are also other reasons of course. One of the most important reasons is that it gives these younger players chances to improve their games and become better players. Guys like Steven Santini, Miles Wood, and Joseph Blandisi have over a month now to play regular minutes against NHL-caliber competition. They have a chance to fail now on a team that really wouldn’t mind some failing, and learn from those mistakes so that when this team really needs them to step up and generate wins, they will have the experience to do that.
Furthermore, it gives the coaches and organization a chance to really watch these players and see their true values. Is Blandisi going to be a regular NHLer sooner than later, or does he need to spend more time in the AHL next year? Or, even worse, do they consider him to be just a fringe NHLer at best? How about someone like Zacha? Is he ready to take on a top 6 role night in and night out, or should they keep him on a bottom 6 line moving into next season? Same goes with someone like Santini on the back end. How about with Jon Merrill? Last year he was considered an absolute bust, but he has improved this year. Extra playing time gives them a chance to evaluate just how much growth he has shown, and perhaps answer the question is it worth protecting him over someone like John Moore or Ben Lovejoy? These are decisions that hopefully the organization will be able to decide upon given all of the extra game tape that will be had on each of these young players.
Thankfully, the Devils are already moving in the direction of youth to play out this season. Let’s look at Thursday night’s roster. Here are some tidbits of information which don’t include the goaltending:
Average Age - 26
Average Game Experience - 289
# Players Under 30 - 14/18
# Players 25 or Under - 11/18
# Players Under 100 Games - 6
Those stats strongly indicate a team and an organization that is going young at this point. Remember only a couple short years ago when the Devils were the oldest team in the NHL by far? Yeah, not at this point. And remember, this is not even including Pavel Zacha, who would only skew those numbers even more to the youth side, with only 53 games played at 19 years old.
The current state of the roster, and the youth that Ray Shero and Hynes are trying to inject at this point, is indeed in stark contrast to what Lou Lamoriello and Peter DeBoer were attempting to do a few years ago, with a patchwork squad of veterans coming together to attempt to win games. That was great from a possession perspective interestingly enough, with those teams in ’13 and ’14 dominating Corsi, but they just could not win and it started this rebuild process that we see happening now. And at this point in the rebuild, letting these young guys play and cut their teeth is one of the smartest things to do in a lost season. Assess where the team is at, see who steps up to the plate and improves their game, and see who does not. It is all relevant information for the organization. That is perhaps the one lone positive to the poor trade deadline deals that Shero made. By getting rid of PA Parenteau and Kyle Quincey, he opened up more room for younger players. The trades themselves were not good, but at least there is a positive side effect to them.
For us fans, how to root in this scenario is simple. Root for the younger guys to play, and root for them to do well out there. Whether or not the team wins or loses, I can root to see growth in these young players. I am rooting to see Blandisi improve so that he can become a regular on the NHL squad next season. I want to see Santini learn from his scary mistakes he sometimes makes on the ice, so that next season he doesn’t make a bad move that costs this team a game. I want to see Miles Wood learn how to corral that speed of his so that he can use it to really generate plays that turn the tide of a game. All of those things are easy to root for, because it is synonymous with winning. Watching them grow and get better will lead to winning. Yes, losing most of March will help as well with a high draft pick, but this is just easier to root for.
As a quick aside, however, I am about to make a very, very large exception to the idea of playing the youth on this squad. After the trade deadline, Tom Gulitti tweeted out that there is a chance that Patrik Elias comes back and plays for the Devils this season. Frankly, I would be all for that. Exceptions can always be made for family, and when it comes to the New Jersey Devils, he is family. His name will be up in the rafters not too long from now alongside the other 4 banners currently there. If he wants to play a little more so that he can say he didn’t retire because of an injury, I think he deserves that chance. This is not to mention that there would be no better locker room presence to aid in the growth of these young kids than Elias. What they could learn from him being there is not trivial.
So there you have it. New Jersey Devils…keep playing the young kids, and if you want to bring up a couple more younger players to play instead of the likes of Lovejoy or Cammalleri, go for it. I wouldn’t mind that either.