Here we are again.
The Devils have been teetering on the edge of irrelevance for a few weeks now, but I fear they are now beyond the point of no return. The Devils have fallen into the abyss, and are unlikely to resurface any time in 2018-19. This is not how this season was supposed to go, but, alas, here we are anyway.
Recent Devils history has featured a lot of playing out the string. The Devils missed the playoffs five straight years from 2013 to 2017 and, save 2014, didn’t end up being particularly close in any of them. Add in the disastrous MacLean-era in 2010 and the Devils missed the postseason six of seven years leading up to last season. That’s why last season was such a blast for Devils fans. It was fun to break the newly-developed status quo of late season hopelessness. It was fun to not give a damn about the draft rankings in February.
With the Devils locked in what is now a two-month long tailspin, any thoughts of a second straight playoff berth in 2018-19 have been largely snuffed out. It’s not even Christmas, and now 11 points out of the final playoff spot, this team already appears to be dead and buried. They may have had a glimmer of hope and some precedent on their side a week ago, but yet another losing streak may have delivered the final nail in the proverbial coffin. The Devils have now crossed the Rubicon from where a playoff comeback would be a relatively mundane occurrence to needing a miraculous turnaround to even get a sniff of the postseason.
There are some excuses to be had and some rationalizations to make here. The Devils have played decent hockey by some metrics and have been victimized by an ongoing goaltending disaster. They have also now played far and away the most difficult schedule in the league. By Hockey Reference’s metric, the Devils’ schedule to this point has now been roughly twice as difficult, relative to average, as the team with the next most difficult schedule. But the reality is that the Devils a have lost 22 games out of 33 overall, and have posted just 7 wins since October 18th. Regardless of how badly things are going against you, it’s hard to justify that level of ineptitude. This team has been non-competitive on far too many nights to just hand wave it away as bad luck.
If this had occurred a year ago, it would have been disappointing, but ultimately would have been generally in line with expectations. This year’s team, after a run to the playoffs and an MVP performance from their best player the year prior, had real expectations of being in the mix all season and potentially making a habit of the whole playoff thing. Maybe this wasn’t a contender, but the season was going to be exciting and competitive throughout, even if they fell just short of a postseason return. Building on those hopes was an incredible start out of the gate, where the team went 4-0-0 with three 3+ goal wins and a throttling of the defending champs. The tricky thing about hope in sports fandom, though, is that it very much cuts both ways. The more you let yourself believe, the more you are exposing yourself to getting those hopes crushed. The fall back into the abyss hurts.
The sports abyss is a land free of hope. When your team is in it, you become numb to the losses. “Ho hum, they lost 6-2, who cares.” In a way, it’s a relief to let it consume you. It’s much easier to watch your favorite team lose 75% of its games when you have no expectations of any payoff. The misery of a season in the abyss is different, though. Sure, that blown lead or 4-3 shootout loss to a rival might not sting as much if it doesn’t have any playoff implications, but the dull knowledge of watching a exercise in futility each night is always there. A bad loss when there’s hope may feel like a punch to the gut, but a season in the abyss is like running a low-grade fever at all times.
Your mileage may vary at this point, but consider my hopes crushed. Almost exactly a season ago at this point, I pushed my chips in on the 2017-18 season, and despite a number of nervous stretches in a very uneven second half, it paid off. We saw playoff hockey. Today, though, it’s time for me to stack up what little chips I have left, toss a tip to the dealer, cash out, and head home. We’re in the abyss now. Time to find a draft guide and crack it open.