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Window Officially Open: Devils’ Countdown to Contention Starts Now

Lottery, Kovy, Cap Space and Kids. The stars have aligned and the light at the end of the rebuild is officially visible.

For the 5th year in a row, and the 6th time in 7 years, our New Jersey Devils have missed the playoffs. At the end of the 2014-2015 season, this is what the Devils’ roster looked like. The Devils had the highest average age in the NHL by almost 2 full years. Although Lou tried to ice a competitive team — it became quickly clear that was not what we had. At the end of the year, Lamoriello’s tenure would come to a close, Ray Shero’s would begin, and the full-on firesale would commence.

Shero would immediately trim the fat (Salvador, Fraser, Havlat, Ryder, Gomez, Bernier, Zubrus). And over the course of the next two years, would continue to scrub away all the dead skin until we were down to the skeleton. However, rather than improving in this, the second year of the “rebuild”, the team saw its lowest point percentage since 1989. While there were some pleasant surprises of competency (Santini, Wood, Noesen), as of the end of this regular season, it was difficult to see an end to the ineptitude in sight. There was no reason to believe that the Devils would break free of the seemingly eternal free fall in the forseeable future.

But that all ends now. The window is officially open. The light at the end of the rebuild is visible. If you haven’t been paying attention — we’ve gotten quite a bit of good news lately. And AAtJ has been on top of all of it. If you have ever needed a reason to keep reading All About the Jersey in the offseason, the past two weeks are it. In this article you will see 8 links to AAtJ articles from the past 11 days. I isolate the 4 big events or topics they center around that have led to my optimism for the franchise's near future.

The First Overall Pick

AAtJ Coverage: John “Devils Win First Overall Pick!”

In an event that made me lose control of my physical form and completely abandon all guiding logical principles, the Devils won the lottery and got the first overall pick. Regardless of if we go with Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier (#TeamNolan), the Devils will get an immediate impact player. You can listen to Mike on Talking Red discuss the event and David discuss the choice here. These guys are not Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, or even Jack Eichel. But they are cheap, ready right now, and potentially, future all-stars.

Ilya Kovalchuk’s Return

AAtJ Coverage: John, “Kovalchuk Wants to Return”

Rumors continue to swirl about Ilya Kovalchuk wishing to return to the NHL. Gerard analyzed the virtues of “To Trade or Not to Trade”. We might not have the option to keep him if he doesn’t want to play here. I’ve seen some reports reference a tweet from Russian reporter Slava Malamud, but he’s since clarified that sign-and-trade is most likely. Even if that is the case, the Devils are likely to get something that is immediately helpful to the team in recompense. I doubt there are many teams willing to give up a first round pick for him — and anything less should come with actual current players. Kovalchuk is not THAT old. This is a graph of his NHLe points by year (assuming adjustment for KHL applies similarly to pre-KHL Russian League).

He is playing at the same level as when he “retired” from the NHL. He is obviously on the downside of his career, but if he’s as good as when he left, then he is an elite winger in the NHL. He has a cannon shot, is great at both ends, and is an ice time monster. If he comes back -- which does seem likely — and he asks for a trade, we should get a haul for him. Tampa and Florida could both offer one of their young forwards and a pick for him. You can also hear Mike and David discuss the “Kovalback” possibility here.

Michael McLeod and the Other Youngins

AAtJ: Yours Truly, “MM is Tearing. It. Up”

I talked in the article above about how McLeod is killing it in the OHL playoffs right now. Tomorrow he leads his Mississauga Steelheads against a heavily favored Eerie Otters. His current pace indicates he may already be a top 6 forward in the NHL. Regardless, he is expected to make the jump next year and contribute. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t exceed Pavel Zacha’s 2016-17 production. Also, McLeod is cheap.

McLeod is the most exciting one, but Miles Wood and Steve Santini should be expected to improve along with the higher-ceiling Pavel Zacha and Damon Severson. None of the Devils’ best players are on the decline. The forwards are all either currently or yet-to-be in their prime. Severson and Santini haven’t yet seen their best years — okay, Greene may have. But, it seems safe to say that without even considering the roster moves mentioned above, the Devils team would naturally improve just by increased experience and lack of significant ill effects of aging.

Cap Space

AAtJ Coverage: Mike, “Cap Space Remains an Asset”

The Devils have a truckload of cap space. They will have the 3rd most space going into next season. And rumors have been circling long enough to say that Shero is, at bare minimum, interested in the idea of guys like Kevin Shattenkirk. John has explained why we should push to sign him. Even if that doesn’t happen though, The Devils have a ton of financial room and are officially done getting rid of bad players (though some may debate about Cammalleri and/or Lovejoy). Furthermore, between Zacha, McLeod, and Nico/Nolan we will have 3 likely underpaid contributors on ELCs. There is nothing left to strip away, and so after we are past the expansion draft— or perhaps just before—, I fully expect Ray Shero to begin making moves to make this team competitive. And there are already a lot of names available this year and even more next year.

I would also be remiss not to mention the fact that the Devils have an absolutely absurd amount of picks. That’s not cap space, but it’s a non-player asset that isn’t visible in this past seasons on-ice product that needs to be factored into our projections.

The Devils Will Make The Playoffs in 2018-2019

We might not have enough time to make the moves to get us from where we were this year to be a legitimate threat in 2017-2018. We may make the playoffs if Shero makes a couple moves earlier than I expect him to. But, we will not be a threat to go anywhere. However, I would bet a significant amount of money that we are in the playoffs come 2018-19 and I think we will be able to be a legitimate conteder then, if not shortly thereafter. I wrote an article in the beginning of the year on if a bad season from John Hynes would put him on the hot seat for the next year. I got lambasted for it, but I think that has officially come to fruition. If the Devils don’t make the playoffs in two years, Hynes is absolutely gone. I honestly think he should be gone after this next year if he doesn’t figure out how to get this group of forwards to put up some goals.

Remember it is not unrealistic that we have a top 6 of Hall, Nolan/Nico, Kovy, Rico, Zajac, and Palms. That’s without mentioning Zacha and McLeod who may also be legitimate top 6ers. And if we were to get Shattenkirk, a top 4 of Greene, Severson, Shattenkirk, Santini has a shot at respectability to me. I don’t think this will actually happen next year — getting Shattenkirk and Kovy seems like 1 too many good breaks — but it is by no means impossible. And in two years, if Shero decides to open up the pocketbook... ho boy. Watch out!

There is no 1 right way to get us from where we are to cup contention — but the shear magnitude of opportunities we have right now is thrilling and should excite any Devils fan eager to get out of the ditch in which we’ve dwelt for the last half-decade. The assets we have in cap space, picks, and Kovys, combined with the young talent we already have just opens up so many avenues. We are done burning fat and have started building muscle. After 5 years of toiling, the window is officially open, the countdown has begun, and our Devils are on a course for contention. Break out the short sleeve NJD t-shirts, because May hockey is coming back to NJ very soon.