As of this writing, the New Jersey Devils have won two straight games for the first time since mid-November. That the Devils have not done that in over a month is indicative how poorly the 2018-19 season has been so far. There have been weeks where the Devils have been in last place in the Metropolitan Division. There have been weeks where the Devils have been in last in the Eastern Conference. Prior to the games ending on Saturday night, the Devils are still last in the Metropolitan and just ahead of Ottawa in the East. The Devils also currently own one of the worst road records in the NHL at 4-12-3. While I did not think this was a playoff team, I expected them to be a lot more competitive than this after a successful 2017-18 campaign wherein they made the playoffs. That did not happen. And as the losses piled up, the dreaded t-word has shown up more and more.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Should the New Jersey Devils tank the rest of the 2018-19 season? I am against the idea for ten reasons. But, first, I want to establish why this is a question at all.
The Current Situation
The harsh reality is that while there are 45 games left for the Devils, they are in a very unlikely position to take a playoff spot right now. The Atlantic Division owns both wild card spots in the East. The top three teams in the Metropolitan are Washington, Columbus, and Pittsburgh - three legitimately good teams. Even if one of the Metropolitan Division team gets a wild card spot, the Devils would have to play really good hockey to unseat a team that has been much better than them so far this season.
More germane to the Devils’ situation, this is a league where points are earned every night and post-regulation play hands out single point - which is very inconvenient for a team trying to climb up the standings. While they are amid a large mix of other teams also outside of the playoffs (that last win over Carolina moved them up a spot out from 16th in the East), a lot has to go right for the Devils to be in the discussion by the first week of April 2019.
If you figure it will take about 90 points or so to be in the conversation, the Devils have to earn at least 53 in these next 45 games. The team has won games consecutively in only three stretches this season and their one winning streak was way back at the beginning of it. The Devils would need to play like one of the best in the league to get back into the proverbial picture. But because points are earned every night, even that may not be enough. More to the point, there is little reason to believe the Devils can suddenly start winning road games, breaking off streaks, and not get wrecked by really good teams in the next three months.
Therefore, with the current state, it is likely that the Devils will miss the playoffs in 2018-19. I hope I am wrong about that. I will be very glad to be wrong about that. But that’s where they are. As a result, more and more Devils fans are paying attention to the 2019 WJCs to see whether Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko are worth getting hyped for. Or at least, those names are becoming more familiar. Understandably, more and more fans are convinced that a team short on talent not only would benefit from a top draft pick but outright need one. With the Devils so far back in the playoff picture, the common argument for tanking comes up: What is the benefit for “going for it” only to end up picking seventh through fourteenth overall in June 2019 and missing out on a top prospect for a better tomorrow?
It is not a bad way of thinking. I can see the merits of it. I can also see ten reasons why it would not be my preference for how the Devils handle the rest of 2018-19.
First, the NHL uses a lottery for the top three picks. Coming in 31st in the NHL only secures fourth overall; as three other teams could still win the lottery. Assuming the same odds will be used for this year, as per Tankathon, the last place team in the NHL has an 18.5% chance of getting the first overall pick in the draft. There is a 50.6% chance the last place team does not win any of the top three picks in the draft. That undercuts the whole point of tanking. The point is to get that supposed future of the franchise at first or second overall; but the odds are against the very worst and they are even more against the not-as-very worst. I do not think picking 32nd overall in the second round or first in later rounds is worth eating all of the L’s either. Since nothing is really guaranteed by tanking in the NHL, I do not think it is worth the endeavor.
Second, tanking really only works when a few teams pack it in. If ten or so teams follow suit and given how someone’s getting points every night, a team could be crowded out from the bottom despite earnestly throwing away a season. Even with the Devils being last in the East, four teams in the West have been consistently below them already: St. Louis, Arizona, Chicago, and Los Angeles. That’s already a good amount of “competition” for the bottom. If you figure Ottawa, Florida, Detroit, Philadelphia, Carolina, and the NY Rangers can also pack it in for the same reason that the Devils would (not close to making the playoffs, near or at the bottom of the standings), then that’s also a lot of teams going to be disappointed that their tank was out-tanked.
Third, more relevant to our favorite team, the Devils are not a team bereft of young players or talented players. That first overall pick in 2017, Nico Hischier, turned out to be a first-line center as a rookie. They hit big with Jesper Bratt, a sixth rounder in 2016, as a top-six winger. Taylor Hall, who Shero acquired for the low cost of Adam Larsson, is an offensive dynamo and under the age of 30. Kyle Palmieri, everyone’s favorite shooter from Montvale, New Jersey, is also under the age of 30. Their most offensively talented defensemen, Damon Severson and Will Butcher, are 25 and 23, respectively. The 2018 version of the Top 25 Under 25 has plenty of professionals who are in New Jersey, who could be in New Jersey, and have good shots of being New Jersey players in the near future. Could the Devils use more? Sure, but the pipeline and the roster was not in dire straits as they were when Shero started back in 2015. Shero tore down a lot in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and that was a time where they could use a top-tier player from a high draft pick. They got it and now Shero has his roster to build from and legitimate future players in the system with tons of cap space.
Fourth, a tank would essentially send the message that Shero messed up. I do not know if you have noticed, but this is pretty much Ray Shero’s team. There are only three players on the books that Shero did not draft, acquire, sign, or extend on a new contract. Those players are Travis Zajac, Andy Greene (who was made team captain under Shero’s reign), Cory Schneider. That’s it. Everyone else has either been given a new deal by Shero, acquired in free agency or a trade by Shero, or drafted under Shero. Packing it in for 2018-19 on the basis that the team does not have enough talent inherently means that roster that Shero largely put together himself is not good enough. Say what you want about Zajac, Greene, and/or Schneider but three players cannot doom an entire roster to where they are (consider they were also on the more successful 2017-18 team). I can respect admitting it when someone is wrong; but for the purposes of the re-build, it would represent a big setback. It could also sour several of the current players to want to stay with the Devils.
Fifth, a tank may hurt the cause of keeping Taylor Hall. There is an argument to be made about how the smart long-term play may not be for the Devils to retain Hall before July 1, 2020. After all, the Devils already enjoyed his prime years. Hall made his mark on the franchise as the team’s first Hart Trophy winner. At the same time, top tier players do not all immediately bust after turning 30. Hall has been mostly healthy with the Devils so far and could very well be a contributor into his mid-30s. Most of all, they have Taylor Hall now. The tanking plan is essentially to get a bunch of lottery balls in the hopes of finding someone who can be possibly as good as Taylor Hall. While the draft is the cheapest way to get a superstar forward (or any position, really), I do not think we fully appreciate that a Taylor Hall-level player is hard to find. Is it really fair to Hughes, Kakko, Podkolzin, or anyone to have the burden of being Hall’s replacement before they are done with their ELC? More importantly for Hall, why in the world would he want to stick around if the team is going to pack it in like Edmonton has done for so many years when he was there? If you prefer that the Devils spend however much to keep Hall, tanking seasons is a great way to convince him that New Jersey is not where he wants to be. The argument about Hall’s future is a good one for a future day, but I’m skeptical that tanking 2018-19 will find a replacement and I’m more convinced that not trying to succeed with Hall will only cause Hall to look elsewhere instead of think about an extension in July 2019.
Sixth, tanking to get that high draft pick is not likely going to address the most immediate needs of the team. Sure, getting a top end forward and a potential star is always a positive. But the Devils need better goaltenders who can perform now and they need someone to replace Andy Greene’s role on the blueline since he still takes a lot of minutes in spite of his performances. I really doubt these players will be taken with a high pick and I would argue they should not. Getting another forward for the attack is great, but without a big-minute player on defense or even league average goaltending, the Devils are not going to get where they are going. I will admit, making the moves to get those players may lead to tank-like results. However, I am addressing the concept of just letting the season go south, with or without moves.
Seventh, addressing those needs and others is the bigger issue for Shero as it is the “build” part of his rebuild. Trying to make a team contend again comes from more than just getting an ace in the draft. The tanking approach only works when the draft picks succeed and the team builds around those successes. The Edmonton Oilers are the classic example of an organization botching it, so I will use a different team: the New York Islanders.
They were bad in the mid-2000s. Without the current lottery system, they were constantly a top-ten team in the draft from 2006 through 2013. They got their ace in John Tavares in 2009 and he was as good as hoped for. Yet, the team only made the playoffs three times with Tavares; they went beyond the first round only once; and the team reverted back to being a lottery squad in his final season before signing with Toronto. They had Tavares. They had Okposo, Bailey, de Haan, Hamonic, and Nelson to build around with him. They even found a fortune in late-rounder Anders Lee. Yet, the organization whiffed big in several drafts, they did not acquire the right players to support Tavares and the team; management made some poor personnel decisions; and so Tavares understandably moved on. The Isles did not build enough around their young all-star caliber forward and they could be heading back to where they were about a decade ago: hoping to find an ace to build around.
It is arguable that Mat Barzal might be that guy for the Isles, which brings up another reason to not tank.
Eighth, there are other prospects that can become really successful outside of the top three picks in a draft class. Continuing with the Isles, they got lucky to take Barzal at sixteenth overall. They made the playoffs, they got bounced in the first round, and they were able to nab a forward who could not only hang in the NHL but put up 85 points in 82 games before turning 21. There are several other top players who were picked by teams who didn’t intend to crash the season. Based on this list of potential all star selections at NHL.com, I would like to point out that many were taken outside of the top five picks in their respective draft class. Namely: Bergeron, Marchand, Point, Chabot, Domi, Pastrnak, Vasilevskiy, Skinner, Larkin, Kucherov, Lundqvist, Bobrovsky, Carlson, Letang, Giroux, Aho, Bishop, Rinne, Josi, Suter, Barrie, Ratanen, O’Reilly, Schiefele, Gibson, Burns, Giordano, Karlsson, Kopitar, Keller, Petterson, Gaudreau, and Monahan.
This is just a selection and some draft classes are stronger than others, but it illustrates my point. There are indeed good and even great players outside of the top five of a draft class. Yes, it is generally better to be as early as possible to pick players, but good scouting and a good organization to develop players in can and does make picking in the middle of the first or second or any round a viable proposition. And for contending teams to stay contending, they will need to do so. An all-or-not-much approach is not viable.
Ninth, it definitely is not viable for fans to really support. Devils fans were thrilled with what happened last season. Even with the quick exit at the hands of Tampa Bay, the Devils fans were excited for what was to come. The hope would be that the team would take another step forward. Even the more realistic/pessimistic fans like myself expected the team to be competitive but it would be more of a lateral step or a little step back. As bad as 2018-19 has gone so far, throwing away the rest of it is only going to make the games even less desirable for people to go to the Rock. This is a tough market for sports. The New Jersey/New York Metropolitan Area is passionate but there is also just a lot to do in the area such that few have time for most teams that stink. Those who may support a tank may also just come back when it is over - which is there right and I do not blame them. For those who stuck through the recent lean years understanding that the organization needed to be re-built from top to bottom, going back to a tank-like situation is tougher pill to swallow. It is a harder sell for those who are selling tickets for it. It is harder commitment of time and attention to ask for knowing it will be for naught. While I understand Shero’s focus has to be on the team and he can’t play the games for the players, essentially asking the fanbase to be patient with another run to pick up some more lottery balls is not an easy one to ask. I do not think management may like the answer.
Tenth, the Devils may not need to do much different to get where they want. The Devils already achieved a bad position in the standings on their own. Not much may need to be done to make things worse. Despite some good or decent 5-on-5 numbers, Hall having a point-per-game average over one, Palmieri still on pace to set a career high in goals, and a great penalty kill, the Devils are where they are in the standings for multiple reasons. If Shero just keeps things in a state of status quo, the Devils may still end up with a high draft pick without having to intentionally make the team worse. Should the team still be in the bottom end of the standings in February, the team is likely going to be sellers at the deadline and so there may be lesser talent for what could be a tough March schedule. If the Devils can be in this spot already, what gain is there to try and be worse?
Selfishly, I do not want to see a tank because I still remember that really crummy 2016-17 season. The games were hard to watch, hard to write about, and hard to believe I paid as much money as I did to see them at the Rock. Part of what made 2017-18 so great to be a part of was that it was such a difference from that miserable season. I can agree that the 2018-19 team is not as offensively-challenged and often-overmatched as the 2016-17 team. Still, I would hate to see the team revert to more like that as Shero is trying to continue this re-build to slightly improve the hopes of winning that lottery. I would hate even more wondering whether I should cheer a win or not. I’m a Devils fan. I want to cheer for the team succeeding! I don’t want to get to a point where I’m lamenting that the Devils dared to win a hockey game.
This is all a lot to say that I am not a huge fan of the idea of the Devils tanking where they are in this season. It does not necessarily guarantee that highly-desired prospect. It would be a great help for the Devils to get Hughes or Kakko or Podkolzin or whoever, but the Devils can (and if they plan on being a good, should) find talented players to help their team deeper in draft classes. They are not in the same spot they were a few years ago where they needed a potential cornerstone to build a team around. That highly-desired prospect may provide a great step forward for bigger and better things, but that will not excuse Shero or the team from addressing the other issues unless they want to repeat the cycle in the future. Besides, the Devils are currently in a position to have a fairly high draft pick without changing much at all. I do not think trying to be worse than Los Angeles or St. Louis or Ottawa is going to provide enough of a benefit or a better tomorrow than keeping on where they are.
Now that you know how I view this subject, I want to know what you think. Do you want to see the Devils tank the remainder of the 2018-19 season? If so, why? If not, why not? Did any of these reasons sway your opinion one way or another? Please leave your answers and thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.