So this is not at all related to hockey, but I was watching the new Celtics vs. Lakers 30-for-30 the other night on ESPN, and they showed just how quickly a team’s fortunes could turn around. Boston was in need of a boost, and managed to parley the first and thirteenth picks in the 1980 draft for 00 wearing Robert Parish and the third overall pick, who turned out to be hall of famer Kevin McHale. While the Celtics did already have Larry Bird on their team, it was the acquisition of those two players that rounded out the team and propelled them to their eventual first of three NBA Championships with Bird in 1981.
While I was watching that, it made me think of our favorite team and what is now upon us. While not identical, there were some similarities there. The Celtics, although they had the definition of a dynasty in the 1960s and did carry that into the 70s, had fallen on hard times by the late 70s, with uncharacteristic losing seasons in 1977-78 and 1978-79. They needed to reverse their fortunes and get back on the right track, and between those three players, they made it happen. The New Jersey Devils, on the other hand, while not on the same level of dynasty that Boston was, was a perennial playoff team for two decades. The organization did not know what losing was, and you know as well as I do that if that same level of winning took place for a different team, like say New York or Toronto, there would have been considerably more fanfare surrounding those two decades.
However, the team has fallen on some real hard times over the last five years, and is in desperate need of a reversal of fortune. There is a chance that it started with the acquisition of Taylor Hall last year, but more is clearly needed, just like more was needed for Boston after getting Bird. Of course, I by no means am looking to compare Hall to Bird in terms of talent and impact (there are very, very, very few players in all of sports history you could compare Bird to in terms of talent and impact), but the situational similarity is still present.
If the Devils are going to become contenders sooner than later, down the road from now we will look back and say that these next two weeks were undoubtedly instrumental in the bounce back towards competitiveness. Before this, what else can you point to besides getting Hall? Maybe you could say that getting Cory Schiender several years ago was instrumental too, but that might be about it. The draft picks of Pavel Zacha and Michael McLeod hopefully hit as well, but as a major turning point? Most of us thought that this team was moving in the right direction heading into the 2016-17 season, but that of course fell through with a season that really did not build on the one previous at all. In fact, the team was worse this past season than the one before it. So it is not like the team had a whole lot of momentum heading into the draft lottery.
Then, the draft lottery came, fortune favored our team, and here we are ready to see what Ray Shero can make of it. Will nothing happen except for the drafting of Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier, just as Mike feared yesterday? Or, will numerous things happen? Picks can be traded, players can be moved around, and there is a chance that the Devils end up with more than just one of those two talents. On free agent frenzy in two weeks, players can be signed to really shore up the depth and add some top level talent, or nothing of real importance can happen. If Shero can pull the strings the right way, there is a chance that these are the weeks we all look back on and say that this is where things turned around. It might not lead to a playoff berth this upcoming season, but if done right, the cogs will be put in motion, and there is a good chance that we will be able to see those moving at some point.
That is what makes it so exciting to be a Devils fan for these next couple weeks, leading up to the draft and then to free agent frenzy. So much is at stake here, and so much good can happen. Of course, the exact opposite is also true. Shero can make the wrong moves, hamstring this team for years, and draft the wrong player at #1 who turns into a bust. That would also change everything for this team, but not in the positive way that I have been mentioning up until now. That is also the scary part of being a Devils fan right now. It is like there is a blank slate in front of us that is about to be written on, which will showcase who gets taken, who gets added to this team, and how much cap room will be used. That blank slate can turn into a Picasso, or it can turn into a turd. We just don’t know.
However, in my opinion, it is hard not to be optimistic. I understand being a pessimistic sports fan, believe me, but there is so much potential right now that it is hard not to think positively. When we knew that this team was going to enter a rebuilding mode a few years ago, we knew that it had to get worse before it got better. We thought that we had already hit rock bottom before this past season started, but that clearly wasn’t true. But thanks to winning the draft lottery, plus already having loads of picks upcoming in the next two drafts, and not to mention a boatload of cap space, these next two weeks could really put New Jersey on a positive trajectory. Again, it probably won’t lead to a playoff berth immediately, but we could certainly see some fruit beginning to ripen this season, and then really see it pay off after that. That would all truly begin now, starting with these next two weeks. That is super exciting to know, and I am pumped to see what happens.