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Defending Average as the Next Level for the New Jersey Devils

The whole point of re-building is to build a team up to be great. Who wants to be average? In this post, I defend the idea of the New Jersey Devils being mediocre in that it is a likely next step on their way to being a great team again.

2017 NHL Draft - Round One
There’s a lot of hope in Hischier. But can he take the Devils to average on their way of being great again? That should be the next step.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Every so often, a comment from a reader will spark an idea. This is one of those times. Here is a comment from Mike’s recent post arguing that the New Jersey Devils should sign Jaromir Jagr:

Make the playoffs and be mediocre for next few years or miss draft low and be great in a few years. - Mrmanchild on Jul 14, 2017 at 9:55 PM

Mediocre. Average. Ordinary. Typical. Run-of-the-mill. To some sports fans, these are slurs that they hope are never used to describe their team. I do not intend to pick on Mrmanchild, but the reader basically summed up a common lament in sports The general thought process is that an average team could make the postseason or just miss it, but by doing so they will undercut their chances to obtain a top-tier player(s) in a draft and the success they did obtain will cause management to stick with what they have and not make the bolder moves to hopefully become great. This, in effect, puts the team in a kind of purgatory: too good to be bad enough to get top prospects that could help the team, but not good enough to seriously contend for a championship.

This thinking has been bolstered by some instances in the National Hockey League for the better part of the last decade. The Pittsburgh Penguins - the former franchise for Devils GM Ray Shero - were abysmal to watch and follow for many years; they draft players like Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby; and BAM! Stanley Cups. Pittsburgh continue to reign in their respective divisions and the other top teams like Nashville and Washington have star players. Even doormats Edmonton and Toronto are on the up due to their fortune of obtaining a generational player with the first overall pick in a draft. Surely, this should want a fan to not just accept but also except to suck for several years until the team gets the Star (or Stars) to Take Them Back to the Promised Land. To be competitive in the meantime and seek to make the playoffs would undercut potential championships - being average gets one nowhere.

That’s my understanding of the thinking. And I get it. But, I do not think that is correct. And so I will do something most sports fans do not do. I am going to defend the term, average. Further, I will argue that is what the Devils should strive for next.

First and foremost, I need to be perfectly clear and blunt about this. The New Jersey Devils have not been a mediocre team. They have not been an average team. They have not been a team on the cusp of the playoffs for the last five years. They were one of the worst teams in hockey last season. By possession, by the run of play, by the lack of offense, the lack of shot prevention, and, most of all, by the lack of results. The Devils are coming off a season where they won three out of their last twenty-four games. The Devils won the Draft Lottery and ended up with picking fifth in following rounds where they had their original pick because they had the fourth worst record in the whole NHL. Good teams, average teams, or even teams just below average do not end up picking their. Bad teams do. I understand that a lot of the posts here come across as negative. Well, look at the 2016-17 team. They provided very little to be happy about. The Devils were not a near-average or just a below average team. The Devils stunk last season and they have not been an average team for the last three seasons at a minimum. If you cannot accept that the team has been really bad, then I do not know what to tell you.

Second, what is average in hockey? Sure, we can determine how teams rank by Corsi for percentage, Game Score, Goals Above Replacement, or any other number of stats. I will keep it simple. Results. There are now 31 teams in the NHL. Being around fifteenth or sixteenth in the league standings is about where an average would actually end up. It can include teams that rank a little higher or lower than that. Once you’re entrenched in the bottom or top thirds of the league, then you’re really bad or good, respectively. Depending on how the standings shake out in each division, making the playoffs is absolutely possible for the average team. You’re in the mix, so to speak. And given how playoffs function in hockey, a hot goalie/streak or a favorable matchup can yield a deeper run than expected. It really is not so bad to be average on its own.

If you’re still reading, then I assume you’ve accepted both of those definitions. Let’s also accept what the goal should be. Do I want this team to win championships? Sure. Do I want this team to be the competitive nightmare for opponents as it was for multiple decades under the legendary GM, Lou Lamoriello? Absolutely. Do I want this franchise to return to form of being a franchise to copy as opposed to being a franchise that copies others? You bet. How do we get to those points? I am not sure on the exact path but it certainly is not likely going to be a straight-shot from the outhouse to the penthouse. Instead, in order for the Devils to find, sustain, and grow success, they will need to make continuous improvements.

In other words, for the Devils to become great, then they have to be on the level of average before then. They have to work their way up to where they want to be. Fortunately, there are examples of this all around the league.

Earlier in this post, I made reference to how Pittsburgh and Chicago were utterly terrible for several years, drafted some high-end prospects, and BAM! Stanley Cups and being contenders for the better part of the last decade-plus. That reference came from Ben Massey’s recap of a Edmonton-Colorado game in 2011 when both teams were, well, utterly terrible. While he pointed out how Pittsburgh were lucky to get Malkin and Crosby in back-to-back years, he also made reference to similarly moribund franchises Atlanta and the Islanders, who were also very bad, had a lot of high draft picks, and sustained success eluded them. While the Isles and the now-Winnipeg Jets may be a bit better off, but it is not anywhere close to the wild success Pittsburgh and Chicago has enjoyed. They both missed the playoffs last season albeit by a close margin. Is the answer really for either team to blow it all up and start over? The point is that the idea of just be bad, get a Star Player, and then success will come is not one that actually happens. Just look at, well, Edmonton. What Massey did not know then was that it would be another six years and three more #1 overall picks before they get back into the postseason. It’s not like they just got Connor McDavid and BAM! they are not golfing after early April.

Are there examples of teams that obtained The Star Player in a draft class that did not jump from worst to first or near-first? Yes. The best example, and one the Devils should pay attention to, would be the Washington Capitals. Washington was fortunate to select Alex Ovechkin in 2005. After the 2004 Lockout, the Capitals would go on to miss the playoffs for the next three seasons. They finished last in the Southeast Division in 2005-06 with 70 points and did that again in 2006-07. In 2007-08, the Caps actually won the Southeast Division with 94 points. Back then, winning your division guaranteed a playoff spot. They were the only team from the Southeast to go to the playoffs and their 94 points was the fewest among all playoff teams in the Eastern Conference in that season. The Caps, for lack of a better term, were around the middle of the pack in the standings in that season. Yet, they did blow up their roster or lament that they just made the playoffs. They re-tooled further, strengthened their squad, and found incredible success in 2008-09, where they won the division and did so with 108 points - the second most in the East. They made a huge jump based on multiple decisions, transactions, and moves. There was no BAM! moment. So they have been able to earn at least 100 standing points in five in the following eight seasons.

Furthermore, that run had a downswing in the middle of it. The Caps stumbled in 2013-14 and missed the playoffs with a a more or less mediocre 38-30-14 record. Did they crash their season? No. They changed coaches among other changes and they returned to being a regular season power in 2014-15 with a 101 point season. They have continued on since then. While playoff success has eluded them, few can deny that they have been a powerhouse. Having Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and others absolutely made it possible; but there was more to it than just getting great prospective players in the NHL Entry Draft. They did it through building the whole team, finding the right coaches, and when the Caps did finish by missing out or just making it in the playoffs, they found ways to make improvements for a better roster. They did not just go from being bad, getting Ovechkin and Backstrom, and BAM! several division banners.

The larger point is that in the case of Washington, having a core of top prospects alone was not enough to get them back into the playoffs. It took some time before any rise to prominence and sustained greatness. It took additional moves, such as acquiring the right coaching staff, the right tactics, and obtaining additional players to put the team on a higher level. Even then, they had some struggles that required those organizations to make changes. It was not a case of, “Well, the good times are order, time to tank for prospects to become stars.” No, their organization was strong enough to recognize the issues and correct them appropriately to get back on that next level.

Another way to look at it is to look at the “Star” talents. Dom Luszczysyn identified who they were based on his Game Score model and wrote it all up for The Hockey News on July 14. Granted, I don’t know enough about Game Score to understand how it all shook out. But per his model, Nashville and Winnipeg finished first and second on the list, Boston had the most “tier 1” stars with three, and Tampa Bay made it in his “championship” cut off. That’s all well and good. Let me remind you that Nashville was the second wild card entry into the playoffs from the Western Conference - who battled hard to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Winnipeg, for all of their excellent talent, did not make the playoffs - they finished seven points behind Nashville, finishing the highest among all of the non-playoff teams. Boston finished just ahead of Toronto for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and finished one point ahead of Tampa Bay, who missed the playoffs entirely. They had the stars and yet it was not as if their playoff hopes went through Easy Street last season. And making the playoffs did not even happen to Winnipeg or Tampa Bay. Does this mean that the Boston, Tampa Bay, Winnipeg, or Nashville should seek to drop further instead of pressing forward? I don’t think so. I don’t think their average seasons should cause their managements to do anything drastic or try to start over.

As for getting those “stars,” again, look at Luszczysyn’s results. Not all of those star players were necessarily high draft picks. Among them in the aforementioned four teams: Nikita Kucherov, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Filip Forsberg, Dustin Byfuglien, P.K. Subban, Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis were all drafted outside of the top ten of their respective draft years. Depending on the scouts and the prospects themselves, a team picking 11th or later in the first round can and have been able to find prospects that become superlative players. Yes, if you want the Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Ovechkin, or Crosby level talents, then you’re going to have to hope the lottery balls go your way. But obtaining top talent is definitely not all within the first ten selections too. And in some of those players’ cases - Subban, Forsberg, and Byfuglien come to mind - it is not solely done through the draft either. An “average” team can definitely find useful players through the draft and, every so often, get a star outside of the top ten picks.

Speaking of generational talents, let’s focus on McDavid’s and Matthews’ teams for a bit. They are Edmonton and Toronto, respectively. Both of those teams made the playoffs in 2016-17. But is it all good? Well, Edmonton did jump from dead last in the Pacific in McDavid’s first season in 2015-16 and took second in the division in 2016-17. McDavid was the league’s Most Valuable Player. Clearly, the Oilers are in the penthouse now, right? Well, that obscures the harsh reality that the Oilers were veterans of the draft lottery process for about a decade with the hope that their high picks would have moved them up in the standings far earlier than they did. Per this post by Patrick Olson at The Copper & Blue, there were significant changes in management right before McDavid was drafted and several moves made since his selection. While not all of their moves were good ones, there were some real winners among them which contributed to their big improvement (e.g. Cam Talbot having an excellent season). The Oilers made their jump for reasons additional to McDavid being a legit MVP at age 20. It was not: Get McDavid, BAM!, playoffs. Can they sustain it? We’ll see.

As for Toronto, yes, they did make the playoffs with Matthews along with a core of other young, talented players. They also brought in a high-end coach Mike Babcock in 2016 to guide the team forward in their re-build, the experience of the legendary Lou Lamoriello, . Even with all of that Toronto finished as a mid-table team. They made the playoffs through the second wild card spot in the East by a single point ahead of Tampa Bay and the New York Islanders, who both have drafted #1 players in the past that remain as key parts of their organization, Steve Stamkos and John Tavares, respectively. Toronto may be a team on the rise, but even they rose to the middle portion of the league standings after getting their top prospect. I don’t think Toronto would view 2016-17 as a failure, but as progress from where they were. And while Matthews was a big part of it, there were other moves on and off the ice that made it possible. Again: Toronto didn’t just pick Matthews and BAM! made the playoffs. Again: they almost did not make it that far.

That leads me back to my point: a bad team has to build up to where they want to be. It is not often for a team to go from dead last to among the best. And even if the dead last team gets #1 draft pick that turns out to be a sure-fire all-star or a once-in-a-generation-like player, success is not guaranteed. Other moves have to be made to strengthen all aspects of the organization from the roster to the coaching staff to the managers above it all. There’s a lot more to it than just having prospects picked high in a draft class and having them develop.

I do understand that, for some, the fear is not so much getting to an average spot in the NHL, but to stay average. Again, Washington did not become complacent when the Ovechkin Era was not an immediate success. Edmonton will try not take a step back and Toronto appears to be on an upwards trajectory. Maybe they will avoid the doldrums of staying where they are. The best antidote for that is in how the organization is re-built beyond the roster. While it is not always apparent, having the right management is crucial. It means having a scouting director and department confident to find significant contributors for the future no matter where they are picking in the first round. It means having an analytics department and general manager assistants to truly identify team issues and how to best address them. It means having a head coach and assistants to put in place tactics that best the players to have them compete. It means having a GM that is able to not get too satisfied with a player for being good enough and to be able to make a bold move (e.g. Larsson for Hall) to try to make their team’s roster significantly better. This is the best protection for remaining average and it is just about the same as what a re-building team attempts to do anyway. If you take a step back and reflect on all that Shero has done, then I think you may realize that he has made more changes than get prospects and dump not-so-useful players. It is instills me with confidence that Shero is building a brighter tomorrow.

Lastly, I cannot ignore that this is all a business. When a team does not have much of a future in their system and the team’s results are bleak, then patience can be accepted as the team looks to gain high draft selections. Many fans understand and accept the idea of re-building. But that word is re-building, not waiting for a perfect storm to rise up in the standings. There needs to be something built to make the patience worthwhile. Eventually, the constant lack of wins and playoffs will just drive fans away. Especially if the ticket prices keep rising amid it all (read that again, New Jersey Devils people who read this site, we know). In the case of the Devils, the sports market is extremely competitive and if there’s not a lot to cheer for now, then people will leave. And there was definitely not a lot to cheer for as 2016-17 wound down for the Devils. Patience only goes so far and “trusting a process” only works if there are visible gains from that process. As exciting as the team’s prospects are, more wins by the Devils will do more to keep fans interested. While an average team may not fill the Rock, it will fill it more than a really bad team. It will definitely offer a lot more hope as an average team can push to become better. That is easier to sell and think about than waiting patiently for an eventual success. Especially since the Devils are on a five-year playoff drought and it is looking like this season will be the sixth.

Let’s put it all together based on all of these points. I do not see average as a dirty word. I do not see mediocre as a sentence to the doldrums. Other teams have proven that with their management and how they approach each season. It’s more than just getting a high draft pick, which can help a lot but is not the be-all and end-all reason for the top tier teams being top tier teams. And the star players that can drive a team to greatness may not necessarily be high draft picks anyway. Therefore, it is logical to me that the bad team must take a step towards becoming an average team on their way to being a great team once again. Being in the middle of the pack is actually what the Devils should strive for next. It is what Washington, among other teams, have done. It can be a stepping stone to where they want to be. It can be done without sacrificing the salary cap, draft picks, or the prospects in the pool. It would be a whole lot easier to watch than a really bad hockey team - even if they miss the playoffs, it would be a far cry better than a team getting rolled on the ice regularly and providing multiple long winless streaks. Considering all of this, it is OK to be just OK.

Therefore, I’m going to wish for a more average 2017-18 squad as I hope they push for the postseason in the following season. I encourage you to do so as well. If/when it does happen, it would be the result of a lot of things Shero did (and did not) do. Not just, say, Hischier turned out to be great so BAM! the Devils are a very good team again. A little more on that in tomorrow’s post.

Thank you for reading and thank you, Ben Massey, for the inspiration. If you have any questions, then please leave them in the comments.