We are now just about a week from the opening of the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils season, and the feeling surrounding the team is a bit different than the last couple years. After a couple of low-expectations seasons that yielded commensurate results, the Devils once again headed to this preseason with people not expecting much from the season. Despite a generally positive and successful summer that included drafting the first-overall pick in the NHL Draft and making a few other good moves and picks, the team still seemed far off from contention based on the disastrous 2016-17 campaign. Entering September, people likely felt that this season wasn’t going to deliver much in the way of excitement. A few more of the young guys would maybe take a step, but this team was still at least a year or two away from meaningful contention.
A month later though, feelings and expectations have experienced a bit of a jolt from a surprise preseason stretch where the Devils dominated most of their games and saw great play from a lot of potential key contributors. For the first time in a while, people are considering that the light at the end of the tunnel may actually exist in New Jersey. Now a full five seasons removed from their last playoff appearance in 2012, a weary fanbase is seemingly allowing just a little bit of belief to find its way back into the equation. Terrifyingly, hope is starting to emerge in Newark.
Now, I say terrifyingly because we all know the flip side of allowing oneself to be optimistic about this team: the utter disappointment that has often followed of late around these parts. Gerard correctly advised everybody to temper their expectations yesterday, but even a conscious effort to avoid getting your hopes up doesn’t always work. Seeing Nico Hischier explode out of the gate in his first NHL ice time, Pavel Zacha looking primed to take a big next step, and even the defense looking relatively competent makes it hard to crush down those thoughts that maybe we’re close to escaping these doldrums.
Despite my best efforts, my mind keeps starting to wander towards that dreaded maybe. Maybe they can be respectable. Maybe they can be fun to watch. Maybe we’ll have one of the more exciting young rosters in the league. Maybe they could even have us thinking playoffs soon. Now, I don’t necessarily expect these things to happen (particularly that last one), but the past couple weeks have thawed my icy cold heart towards this upcoming season, if just a little bit.
Preseason records are often a total mirage, and plenty of teams have had great preseason records followed by awful seasons (*cough* 2010-11 Devils), but there has been a ton to like about the way the team has looked beyond just the results. Some of the young players who they desperately need to be difference-makers looked like they just might be those difference-makers. A much-maligned defensive unit looked like maybe they could improve on the horrid 2016-17 season. Even pickups I’ve been skeptical of like Drew Stafford and Mirco Mueller have looked very good. It’s been enough for people to really start wondering, “wait, could this team be not too bad?”
That, however, is where the danger lies. “Maybe we’re not terrible,” can turn into “Why not us?” can turn into “This team could really be going places!” in a hurry. Then, boom, you’ve lost 10 games in a row by a combined margin of 30 goals and you’ve been crushed when emotional distance would have made it much easier. We let ourselves believe, though, because that’s kind of the whole point of being a sports fan. And this team legitimately has looked exciting in the lead-up to this season. So maybe it’s worth it to let ourselves believe a little bit. Maybe we’ll get burned and this will be another season at the bottom of the standings (it’s certainly one of the more likely scenarios), but maybe, just maybe, it could be the start of something fun.