The Devils' long walk through the NHL wilderness is over. When they open the playoffs this week, the Devils will be back in sports’ most gut-wrenching and stress-inducing postseason for the first time since the decline and ultimate collapse that followed 25 years of near-constant success. It has been 5 years, 9 months, and 28 days since the Devils last played a playoff game. That’s 2127 days, for those of you keeping score at home. That streak will end with the start of the playoffs for New Jersey either Wednesday or Thursday.
Depending on your age, you might be a completely different person than you were the last time the Devils were in the postseason. Perhaps you went away to college and subsequently graduated in that time. Or maybe you met a girl/guy and got married to them. Maybe you have a bunch of kids running around that weren’t there in 2012. Or maybe a bunch of kids you already had all finished high school and went off to work or college. Even if not a whole lot has changed for you, an immense amount has certainly changed for the team.
The turnover since that last playoff team from 2012 has been near complete. The stars that powered that team are gone. The role players that made their mark on a thrilling run are also gone. Six years is perhaps not a tremendously long time in the grand scheme of things, but in the modern NHL, it might as well be an eternity. Going back to the roster of that last team, of the 24 players who appeared in a playoff game that season are as follows:
- 17 are retired or out of the league (including one infamous “retirement”)
- 5 are/were on another NHL roster this season
- 2 players remain in New Jersey
The years since that playoff run have been something of an odyssey here in New Jersey. There has been a lot of heartache and plenty of bad hockey, but (off the ice, at least) things surrounding the Devils have rarely been dull since the summer of 2012. The almost complete lack of continuity from that last playoff team is a good indicator of how volatile and constantly-shifting these subsequent years have been. In addition to the roster turnover, the coaching staff, front office, scouting department, and even ownership group are now completely different. Almost nothing remains in Newark from that Cup Final team. Only stalwart veterans Andy Greene and Travis Zajac are witnesses to both the start and end of this downtrodden era of Devils hockey.
A look back at the past six seasons and what has happened in between them drives home how much has changed. The summer of 2012 saw the departure of team captain and one-time face of the franchise Zach Parise. The following summer saw the stunning retirement of Ilya Kovalchuk, a blockbuster draft day trade for Cory Schneider, the signing of Jaromir Jagr, and the arrival of new owners (that offseason was a doozy). The departure of hockey legend and franchise icon Martin Brodeur came in 2014, and larger-than-life GM Lou Lamoriello followed him out the door after the team bottomed out in 2015. The Devils swung one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory in the summer of 2016 to bring in Taylor Hall, and followed that up in 2017 by winning the draft lottery and selecting first overall for the first time in their history with Nico Hischier. The product on the ice had been awful for much of the five years leading up to this season, but it’s hard to say it was a dull time to be a Devils fan in general.
To see how far this team has come in the past few seasons, one has to look no further than the 2014-15 season to recognize the depths of futility that were being plumbed for the Devils. Adam Henrique led that team in points with 43. Steve Bernier was fifth on the team in scoring. Jagr lost favor after Pete DeBoer and his staff were ejected and got shipped out. NJD Bench had its legendary coaching stint. Tuomo Ruutu. Michael Ryder. Martin Havlat. Zombie Scott Gomez (remember that?!) was arguably one of the team’s best players. In a way, it is miraculous that this team is where it is, given the depth and breadth of organizational rot that had set in by 2015.
In a way, suffering in sports is a good thing. Not on its own, surely. Few people would mistake the past five seasons in New Jersey for anything approaching fun. There is something to be said, though, for the appreciation one gains for actual good hockey when they have watched years of the grim alternative. After decades of consistent success, we have been re-exposed to life in the NHL basement here in New Jersey, and I have to say, I’m not a fan. Now, the buzz around this team making the playoffs — once a bit of a foregone conclusion in these parts — is palpable.
The Devils will play one of Boston or Tampa Bay in their first round series, and they will be a deserved underdog in either of those matchups. For now, though, it’s hard for me to sweat the opponent because, well, the Devils are in the playoffs. They’d be an underdog no matter who they were matched up against, and to be honest, that’s probably exactly the way this team likes it. No matter who is on the other side, I’m reluctant to count this team out. Perhaps they lose this series. Maybe that’s even the most likely outcome. But this team has been surprising everyone since day one of this season. They have Hart hopeful Taylor Hall, they have young star Nico Hischier, they have a red hot goalie in Keith Kinkaid trying to go from career backup to something much more than that, and they have a roster full of players who have been stepping up when called upon for much of this season. To write them off now would feel foolish.
So, we turn our sights toward the playoffs. Toward the joy and misery, the agony and the elation, and the complete emotional exhaustion that comes from watching your team in the NHL playoffs. Perhaps this is the start of something wonderful or perhaps it will end in utter heartbreak. Maybe it will just be a blip in the Devils history or perhaps it will be a precursor to bigger and greater things. At this point, it’s impossible to say. One thing is for sure though: It’s good to be back.
Postscript: I’ve been writing for All About the Jersey (née In Lou We Trust - yeah even the name of the blog is different) for over five years now. My first post was just over five years ago, (digging into concerns about Travis Zajac’s production... I guess some things haven’t changed) meaning I’ve had the privilege of covering five seasons of disappointing or flat-out bad Devils teams. Now, finally, the Devils are on the right side of the ledger and I have to say... it feels good to write about it. Let’s Go Devils.