For fans of any sports team, there are always some seasons that people look back on fondly and others that they would sooner forget. For Devils fans, the Cup years of ‘95, ‘00, and ‘03 are likely among most fans’ favorites. It’s tough to compare to a season that ends with the team raising the Cup, but that doesn’t mean that the other seasons can’t elicit their own positive memories or have great moments. After all, if a championship is the only thing that can bring you joy as a sports fan, you’re going to spend a lot of time being miserable.
So in a similar vein to Gerard’s post from a few weeks ago, I’m going to ask what your favorite Devils seasons were, with a twist: you have to choose a season (or seasons) that didn’t end in a Stanley Cup. This could be a season where the team was great but just couldn’t get over the hump, it could be a season where a great player put in a amazing performance, or it could even be a not great team/season that you just liked. The past few seasons in New Jersey have been largely forgettable and/or bad but even a lousy season might have a special significance to a fan or a moment that made them a more devoted supporter of the team. Championships are obviously the goal and the ultimate payoff for any fanbase but what makes that payoff worth it is the journey to get there. One has to be able to appreciate the smaller triumphs and, yes, even some of the failures to stay sane during the vast majority of seasons that don’t end with a team picture that has the Stanley Cup front and center.
So with that, I’ll list off some of my favorite non-championship seasons, starting with my personal #1:
My Top Pick: 2005-06
This was a weird season in the NHL, but it is probably the one I remember most fondly, partially because of the point I was at in my life and its impact on my fandom. The NHL had just returned from the lockout, so the league was trying to figure itself out again, and the Devils even sort of floundered for a while. Then, when Patrik Elias returned from IR for his bout with hepatitis A, the team just exploded.
I remember them steamrolling through the end of the season and then obliterating the Rangers in that 4-game sweep in the first round. That part was especially sweet, as I was a freshman in college and one of my roommates was a die hard Rags fan. The abrupt departure of the team to the Hurricanes in the next round was a shock, but this season probably really cemented me as a die-hard when my fandom could have been on the wane after the lockout.
It really was a strange season in retrospect: the post-lockout weirdness, Lou coaching over half the season when Larry Robinson stepped down, Elias with his aforementioned health issues. But the team congealed into a real powerhouse by season’s end. Brian Gionta also set the Devils goals record (aided by the leagues post-lockout power play binge), which will likely not be broken for quite a while. It was the Elias-Gomez-Gionta-Rafalski Devils at the height of their powers and it might have been one of the most influential seasons for me as a fan.
2011-12: I’d be remiss not to mention this season. It was the last gasp of a two-decade powerhouse, but it was a hell of a fun ride. Kovalchuk, Parise, and Elias were all dominant forces and the team really found its stride in the second half. Those playoffs were filled with great moments even beyond “Henrique, it’s over!” and dispatching the Flyers and Rangers in order on the way to the finals is tough to top. Had they finished it off against LA, it might have been my favorite season of all.
2000-01: Probably the best Devils team in history, despite losing in the final. So close to back-to-back Stanley Cups. The team was fearsome on defense and explosive on offense. This was really the season where Elias and the A Line were at their peak. A tough end but an unmistakably great team.
1993-94: I know I might get some pushback on this one, given how it ended, but this was truly the start of something special in New Jersey. My earliest memories as a fan come from this season where I specifically remember asking classmates who were Rangers fans why they would root for the New York team when they were from New Jersey. The Devils came out on the short end of it but the ‘94 ECF is one of the most legendary series of all time and one I specifically remember the buzz around, even if I was just a 1st-grader. Plus, the Devils winning three cups in the following 9 years has a way of easing the sting of that ending and making it feel more like a beginning.
2010-11: This is admittedly a weird one, but the second half of this season remains one of the most ridiculous runs I think I’ve ever seen a team go on. After winning an abysmal 10 games out of their first 41, resulting in a fired coach and a shipped out captain, they suddenly became an unstoppable freight train. A team that has 22(!) points at the halfway point has no right to be in the same area code of the playoff picture the rest of the way, but the Devils really had people, myself included, starting to believe. They went on a 23-3-2 run under Lemaire and were, remarkably, back over NHL .500 in March, if only for an instant. They would cool off and fall short afterward, but that run was still something that felt pretty special to witness.
So to kill time on this summer Friday, what are some of your favorite non-championship seasons? It can be one where you loved the specific roster or maybe a certain player’s season. It can be a season with some personal significance to you. Maybe the team hit a specific milestone or perhaps you just remember it fondly for reasons that are completely random. Whatever your favorite season may be, sound off with your picks below in the comments.