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If the Devils Were to Miss the Playoffs This Season, What Would It Mean for the Rebuild?

A lot of projections heading into the 2018-19 season have the Devils taking a step back from last year’s playoff run. The hope is that the Devils will again exceed expectations from the broader hockey world, but if they do stumble, what does that mean for the rebuild?

Ottawa Senators v New Jersey Devils Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

This offseason, the question hovering over everything the Devils have done — or in most cases, haven’t done — has been “Can they return to the playoffs?” New Jersey’s run to the playoffs in the 2017-18 season was a surprise for fans and prognosticators alike, and on the heels of any surprise season, particularly in the NHL, analysis often revolves around figuring out if the surprise team was a flash in the pan. The consensus building in the national media and analytical circles seems to be leaning toward the Devils taking a step back, though here at AAtJ, CJ has pushed back a little bit, at least on the notion that the 2017-18 team was particularly lucky. My general disposition heading into this season has been that the Devils will be somewhere near the playoff bubble, though which side of it they land on is tougher to say.

Entering any season, in pretty much any sport, a fanbase will generally trend toward optimism. That’s not a hard and fast rule, obviously, as the particularly incompetent franchises are going to produce more jaded fans (see: Ottawa right now), but if I had to put a number on it I’d guess that 60-70% of teams probably have at least a generally hopeful attitude within their fanbase in any given season. My unscientific assessment of the Devils fanbase at the moment is that it’s probably somewhere between neutral and cautiously optimistic about the team’s playoff hopes in 2018-19. This is in the aggregate, of course, as individual opinions will vary substantially, but people are hoping that the Devils can continue to build on the successful 2017-18 season. The team did suffer some fairly significant injuries to the forwards last season and will be looking for steps forward from a lot of young contributors as well as a bit of a bounce-back from their starter in net.

If they make the playoffs again, the season will be hard not to deem a success in New Jersey. The more complex question is what does the team do if that step back does occur? If the Devils do miss the playoffs this season, what are the implications for the still-ongoing rebuild in New Jersey? For Taylor Hall’s next contract? For the front office and coaching staff? Does the team stay the course? Do they look to make a splash in free agency? Questions will abound if this season does not go right for the Devils.

Obviously, if the Devils do miss the playoffs, the implications will be different depending on the fashion in which they do miss them. This is a decidedly lukewarm take, but that doesn’t make it not true. If the Devils falter this season drop from the ranks of the playoff teams, a skin-of-their teeth miss will bring much different feelings than a wire-to-wire disaster. So let’s look at some of the scenarios:

Near Miss

If the Devils find themselves on the outside looking in come April, but have only missed by a few points, that’s probably reasonably in line with a lot of people’s expectations for this roster. I think this scenario would be disappointing for the team and fans, but I don’t think it brings substantial changes. It’s fair to ask if this negatively impacts the chances of Taylor Hall signing and extension before the last year of his contract, but my feeling is that if the team is competitive and just misses, particularly if some bad injury luck accompanies it, I think the impact on those negotiations would be limited.

Overall, I think a near miss will largely result in staying the course for Ray Shero and the Devils. They will still have a young roster and could have some significant reinforcements showing up on defense in Ty Smith (assuming he lands back in the WHL this year), Jeremy Davies, and Reilly Walsh. The performance of players like Pavel Zacha and Michael McLeod will dictate how much the team would need to improve the forwards, whether via free agency or trade, but if players progress, the needed additions could be limited. Ultimately, a Devils team with around 90 points or so would still feel like a team following a generally positive — if uneven due to the fickle nature of hockey — trajectory.

Disaster

If the Devils crash and burn somehow, a definite reckoning will likely be in order in the spring. If they end up near the basement of the league I don’t know that the GM would be in danger just yet, but the coaching staff would likely feel their seats warm up. Most would likely say that John Hynes has done a solid job to this point, but if the Devils take a tumble, his stretch in NJ starts to look a lot more unimpressive, given the last place finish in the East in 2016-17.

On the player side, a very bad campaign probably brings some significant turnover on the roster. Older veterans like Andy Greene, Travis Zajac, and Cory Schneider might start finding their way into trade or buyout speculation and significant questions could face younger players like Pavel Zacha, John Quenneville, and Damon Severson about their future in the organization. The elephant in the room with Taylor Hall’s contract status will become substantially bigger as well.

Overall, if this season really goes awry, it would force a major reevaluation of the rebuild. Hey, maybe you land Jack Hughes, though, and things look much rosier again.

In-Between

The hardest question to answer will be what to do if the Devils land somewhere generally in between the bubble and the basement. If New Jersey ends up an 83-point team or something like that, what does it mean for 2018-20 and beyond? Do they push ahead with some tinkering around the edges or do they enter a sort of rebuild redux where they make some tough decisions but keep the core together. If the Devils finish in this sort of no-mans land and end up picking at the back of the top-10, I think my one prediction would be that you see the team ramp up the activity in free agency to try to get the team over the hump. That could, of course, lead to bad things, but I think this scenario brings the most activity. next summer.

Your Take

This is admittedly a post that frames the upcoming season in a negative light, but just because it’s unpleasant to think about the Devils potentially taking a step back doesn’t mean it might not happen. This isn’t a prediction of what is going to happen for the Devils (those will come in the season preview in a few weeks), just a look at what it might mean if the season heads varying degrees of south. What do you think comes in 2019-20 and beyond if the Devils do falter in 2018-19? Do you think any kind of tear-down occurs, or you you think the team tries to keep things steady? Sound off with your thoughts or chide me for being a Negative Nancy in the comments below. Thanks for reading.