When you are a fan of a successful team in any sport, it's easy to take things for granted. If your team wins consistently, you get used to that paradigm and at some point, you come to expect that your team will meet a minimum threshold each season. Conversely, if your team loses with regularity, things will start to feel more and more grim as the years pass. As the losses pile up, a certain brand of sports nihilism will inevitably set in. For anyone who has been a Devils fan over the past couple decades, it is likely that you are now familiar with both ends of this spectrum of expectations.
Not long ago, the Devils missing the playoffs for five straight seasons was a ridiculous thought to entertain. Prior to the 2010-11 season, the team had appeared in the playoffs 19 times in the previous 20 seasons. Among NHL franchises, they were a model of consistency matched only by the Red Wings of the same era and a team that just refused to stop winning a boatload of games each season. Even in the late 00’s through a series of big free agent departures, the team continued to own the (old) Atlantic Division. The team suffered some early round playoff exits, but the playoffs remained something of a foregone conclusion.
It feels like ages ago at this point, but the very idea of the Devils missing the playoffs in those days felt asinine. Hockey pundits who dared predict their demise were chuckled off and ultimately, invariably proven wrong. No matter which player departed or what hurdles were placed in the way, betting against the Devils remained a losing proposition. If you were a fan of teams in other sports and they stunk, year-in and year-out you could always count on the Devils for that dose of success. Somewhat abruptly at the opening of the 2010’s, though, things started to change.
The first dent in the armor was the disastrous John MacLean era in 2010, when the Devils had a horrid first half that ended up with the team in a distant last place in the league, a fired coach, and a disgruntled captain shipped out in a trade. Even that felt like just a minor blip, though, as the team brought back Jacques Lemaire and went on an incredible tear in the second half that put them in shouting distance of the playoffs. The team would ultimately fall short, but with a draft lottery win that netted a potential cornerstone defender in Adam Larsson and a star winger returning to the lineup from injury the next season, the team seemed as poised for future success as ever. And for a season, they were. The 2011-12 team was a playoff team once again and powered their way to another 100-point season with a strong second half. They then ran all the way to a Cup Final, dispatching their two most hated rivals along the way. The team was partially in transition with some of the old guard like Brodeur and Elias starting to age out, but there seemed to be a core and a future and on the surface there was little reason to think the success was about to dry up for good.
Of course, we now know the tragic aftermath of that glorious run. First, the then face of the franchise, Zach Parise, took off to pal around back home in Minnesota with Ryan Suter. Even that didn't feel like a death sentence, though. The Devils had recovered from a litany of free agent departures previously and, based on past experience, there was no reason to think they couldn't do it again. For the first month of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, it seemed that might be the correct perspective with the team sitting atop the league. But then it all came unglued. The Devils suffered some key injuries, scoring dried up, the goaltending fell apart, and the team spiraled out of the playoff picture.
After the shocking departure of Ilya Kovalchuk in summer 2013, there was plenty of reason to start worrying about the future. Aided by the arrival of Jaromir Jagr though, the team remained competitive in 2013-14, but due to a confluence of bad luck and sub-optimal roster decisions, fell short of the playoffs once again. Then, in 2014-15, the dam finally broke. With a terrible team and a cupboard of prospects that was mostly bare, the writing was on the wall. With the departure of Lou Lamoriello and much of his staff, the end of an era had been reached.
Fast forward about two years to today and we are guaranteed the fifth consecutive spring which will feature no Devils playoff hockey. With the Oilers poised to finally make their return, the Devils now own the league’s third-longest playoff drought behind Carolina and Buffalo. The Devils are a distant last in the Eastern Conference and tied for third-to-last in the league. A team that felt like it might have been gaining some traction in their rebuild after last season now feels adrift once again. Rather than expecting the Devils to come through when it matters or to shut a team down when necessary, the default has switched to an expectation of failure. Two goal lead? “They’ll blow it.” Three game win streak? “This won’t last.” With this prospect pan out? “LOL.”
It’s not that anyone really wants to think that way, but rooting for a hapless team has a way of beating you down. Watching a team that constantly looks overmatched will make a pessimist out of almost any fan. And when a team is as lost as the Devils have been this season or in the last two months in particular (19 losses in 22 games; 1 regulation win in that stretch), it’s hard to sense the light at the end of the tunnel of a rebuild. The worst part of all of it, though, is that the Devils losing is just starting to feel like the way of the world. For a team that, not terribly long ago, was a perennial contender, its a bitter pill to swallow. You don’t want to accept losing as the norm but at some point you have to lower your expectations as a fan, if only to maintain your sanity.
In retrospect, what has happened in the past few years is the inevitable result of years of mediocre drafting and losing big names in their primes only to replace them with stopgaps and half-measures. It was enough to keep things rolling at the time but the foundation was clearly eroding for a while until, finally, the team collapsed. Now, a few years later, it’s hard to say exactly what the future holds for these Devils. You don’t want to be the one who says “They stink, they’re doomed forever,” but, well, it does just kind of feel that way sometimes. Losing is the new normal for the Devils, whether we would like to admit it or not. Hopefully, Ray Shero is able to right the ship soon, but the longer the Devils run of futility drags on, the harder it will be to expect success. Whether the Devils can fight their way out of these doldrums in the coming seasons remains to be seen. One thing has become crystal clear over the past half-decade, though: it does, in fact, suck to suck.