How about getting hot at the right time huh? Deep into a long Western Conference road trip, the New Jersey Devils had just lost two games in a row, the second being a 6-2 drubbing against San Jose out in California. With Florida on the rise at that point, the Devils knew they needed to get hot to play hockey beyond tomorrow. And get hot they did! Since then, this team is 7-0-1, piling up 15 points en route to the postseason.
Today is a big game, of course. A win later would guarantee that NJ remains in the Metropolitan bracket of the playoffs, instead of being banished to the Atlantic bracket, where the likes of Tampa and Boston loom large. In fact, you could argue that remaining in the first wild card spot is the most ideal, as it means a date with Washington, who arguably has the worst underlying numbers as compared to Pittsburgh or either of the Atlantic teams. Of course, that could all be fool’s gold in a week from now, but the argument can still be made.
Today, however, considering we are still on the high of making the playoffs, I think it appropriate to discuss some positives that come with the playoff berth. There are many reasons that this is a good thing, even if it leads to a first round exit. That obviously would not be ideal, but even if it does happen, the fact that this team has an X next to its name in the standings carries some benefits.
1. Gives this Young Team Playoff Experience
The team that is going to take the ice in the postseason coming up has very little playoff experience. There is a smattering of it among some of the veterans, like Brian Boyle, Michael Grabner and others. But when it comes to the core of this team that we expect to see in Devils red for the long haul, the playoff experience is lacking. Kyle Palmieri does have some with Anaheim before he was traded to New Jersey, and the same could be said for Sami Vatanen as well. Marcus Johansson also has experience playing in the playoffs with Washington. But in terms of the true, young core, that is probably it. If you want to add Andy Greene onto that list from the 2012 Cup run, that would be fine too, I love the guy for how great he was back then. However, he is no longer a long term member of the core in my opinion.
Now, there are some veterans on this team currently who do have experience who can help get this team moving in the right direction. Automatically Brian Boyle comes to mind, who has plenty of it, and his leadership skills will greatly help in the upcoming games. But the playoff berth this season is so important because it gives everyone on this team a taste of the playoffs, and what to expect when it comes to the pace of play and intensity of the games. Key, core players of both the present and future like Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Will Butcher will be gaining valuable experience coming up shortly. Even if the Devils get knocked out in the opening series and only play 5 or 6 games, those will be valuable learning experiences for the future, which will hopefully contain many more playoff berths.
2. Promotes a Winning Culture
Anyone who became a fan of this team before 2012 will know how important it is to develop a winning culture in an organization. The Devils had it for two decades while under the leadership of Lou Lamoriello. NJ was a perennial playoff contender who no one wanted to play. Over the last half decade, however, that culture has disappeared. When Lou left for Toronto, and new management took over, a new culture needed to be created. And since Ray Shero and John Hynes have arrived, that culture did not contain all that much winning. That was not a good trend.
With this playoff berth, however, a culture of winning can begin to be infused back into this organization. It might not be Lou’s Devils anymore, or Ken Daneyko’s or Martin Brodeur’s or Patrik Elias’ Devils. The last breath of that culture of winning and dominance just went up into the rafters a couple months ago. This new Devils team needs a new winning culture, and making the playoffs this season is the first step to making that happen. It is now up to the team to build on this success and make sure that it grows into a true winning attitude that pervades every area of that locker room.
3. Incentivizes Players To Stay Here
No one wants to play for a loser. Because of the draft system in place, players will always have to play for a certain organization for a decent chunk of their careers, but if they are good enough to hit free agency and command a presence at the bargaining table, they will most likely want to play for a contender. One of the best ways to retain players and get them to want to stay in one place as opposed to testing the free agent waters is to be a competitive team that has a legit chance to make a strong playoff run year in and year out.
Assuming the Devils can create that winning culture I mentioned in #2, that would be a great way to retain players on this team. The key guy in that, of course, is Taylor Hall. With his contract only having a couple years left on it, Ray Shero will need to enter into talks of a contract extension with his agent. With the Devils making the playoffs now, and with this team being young and up and coming with the potential to become a strong contender each and every year, it will certainly incentivize Hall to want to stay here instead of moving on after his contract expires. The same could be said too for everyone else in the new young core. It could get Hischier to become a career Devil instead of leaving after becoming a UFA, and the same with Butcher and Kyle Palmieri and whoever else you’re thinking of. Winning gets people to want to stay, and that could be greatly beneficial for this organization moving forward.
4. Could Incentivize Free Agents to Want to Come Here
In a similar vein, for players that do decide to test free agency, being a playoff team with aspirations of getting even better will only help to attract talent to Newark. If Shero decides that this team needs another top 4 defender in free agency this offseason, getting players on his list to come here will be easier now that he can sell that the Devils are a playoff team with a lot of young talent that will only get better. That is a strong selling point for any player to come here. If the Devils had choked, however, and had missed the playoffs this year, getting players to want to play here moving forward would have been a harder sell.
Of course, New Jersey has never been a strong free agent destination, but Butcher did decide to sign here, and if Hall decides to stay and promotes this as a place to be, then maybe that can change a little bit too.
5. It’s Super Exciting!
Of course, what is the best reason for the Devils going back to the playoffs? It is super exciting as fans! Nothing is more thrilling than playoff hockey, and to be able to witness it again as a fan rooting for a specific team to win as opposed to being a fan rooting for a specific team to lose, well that is just awesome. Watching them during the home stretch of this regular season has already been intense, so I cannot even begin to imagine how many more gray hairs this team will give me in the upcoming weeks. But I can tell you that I look forward to every single one that I get.
Now, I am sure that I have missed some valuable reasons as to why this playoff berth is important and good for the New Jersey Devils. If so, please help me and add to this list in the comments. And thank you so much for reading!