Things are grim these days for the Devils. The 2019-20 season, just 30 games in, appears to be effectively over from a competitive standpoint barring a miraculous turnaround. A season that arrived with an enormous amount of promise and hope has turned into a thoroughly unmitigated disaster. Instead of a rebuild nearing its end, as was expected, the Devils seem to be entering the beginning stages of a brand new rebuild. A rebuild of a rebuild. Three and a half years after the Devils pulled off one of the biggest trade heists in recent memory from the Oilers, they have become that which we once mocked. Complete with multiple first overall picks and all, the Devils are now the Oilers. Merry Christmas.
You may look at the headline of this article and scoff a bit, given how truly and embarrassingly bad the Devils were after they first arrived in New Jersey. But I’m not saying this will be the absolute worst season from a results standpoint. What I’m saying is that this may be the season most drenched in misery in the close to 40-year history of this franchise’s run in the Garden State. Place the expectations and context up against the results and I believe we are at peak dejection for this fanbase. There was real, palpable excitement heading into this season for the Devils, even among casual fans.
You’re all living it right now, and you’ve got plenty of other places to read about how much this team stinks on this blog, so I won’t dive too deep into the details of this season. All it takes to capture the disappointment is to think about all of the moves the Devils made this offseason, think about how fun we all expected this to be even as a likely bubble team, and then head over to the standings page at NHL.com and check out where things are at. The Devils are SIXTEEN points out of the final playoff spot in the east. Even reeling off a ten-game win streak starting tonight would probably barely put this team in shouting distance of the second wild card. This team is horrible, and it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
And because I can’t help myself, here are some not-so-fun facts: Only two Devils teams, the 1982-83 and 1983-84 squads, have had fewer wins through the first 30 games of the season. Including overtime losses, the Devils have left the arena as losers 21 times this season. Only in 1983-84 did they go home with an L more times (22). But for a handful of extra OTLs, this team has a basically identical win-loss record through 30 games as the 2010-11 Devils. The 2019-20 Devils have won four of their sixteen home games. Things are bad, folks. They’re not good. So has any season been worse in terms of sheer misery? Let’s run through the candidates.
This is the gold standard of flat-out bad Devils teams. The 1983-84 Devils are the team that was so bad that they insulted the very core of Wayne Gretzky’s being. The Mickey Mouse label he slapped them with would follow the team for years, and remains prominent in franchise lore. Few teams are bad enough to be so memorably roasted by the league’s biggest star, but these Devils were just that bad. They finished with a goal differential of -119, which even in the absence of any expectations, had to be hard to stomach. The worst modern Devils teams, including the two that recently landed first-overall picks, have barely sniffed a differential half as bad as that -119. They lost ten games by 5+ goals. The 80’s were admittedly more ripe for teams running up the score, but I can’t imagine having much less fun than watching a team get run off the ice every single night, and this team really got its ass kicked a lot.
If you think this year’s start has been bad, consider that the 1983-84 lost 20 of its first 22 games, including the infamous 13-4 loss at the hands of the Gretzky Oilers. They amassed three separate losing streaks of 10, 8, and 7 games back when ties were still an option. And after all that misery and even with closing the season on an 8-game losing streak, they still got out-tanked by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who would go on to select Mario Lemieux in the draft. Even with rock bottom expectations, it’s tough to get much lower than this version of the Devils.
This season turned out to be a blip, but it was still one of the most confounding an frustrating seasons in the history of the franchise. Coming off the Stanly Cup championship season in 1995 (which itself was on the heels of a deep playoff run in 1994), there was no reason to think this team was not poised to be a contender again. With the trifecta of Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, and Scott Niedermayer here as well as much of the same supporting cast that just won the Cup (save Claude Lemieux), there wasn’t really much to explain the malaise that the team was in this season.
The bottom line was that the team just could not score, with FA acquisition Steve Thomas leading the team in scoring and the modest production of John MacLean, Stephane Richer, and Bill Guerin not being enough to power the team to the playoffs. This team even went big at the deadline and added two future hall-of-famers at the deadline in Dave Andreychuk and Phil Housley, but to no avail. The team sputtered down the stretch, going 5-8-1 in their final 14 games and missing the playoffs by two points after dropping the final game of the season at home to the Ottawa Senators, an awful team that won 18 total games that season. I was just a kid at the time, but I can still recall being dumbfounded by how underwhelming this team was (and fielding accusations that the 1995 Devils were a fluke all along). This would be the first in a number of frustrating seasons for the late-90’s Devils.
There are many parallels between the Devils of fall 2010 and the Devils of fall 2019, which is very much not a good thing. Similarly to this year’s version, the 2010 Devils came into the season off a successful summer in which they had signed superstar Ilya Kovalchuk to what was expected to basically be a lifetime contract. Glossing over the contractual fiasco surrounding the Kovlachuk signing, expectations were high for the Devils. They were coming off a disappointing playoff exit at the hands of the Flyers, but they still looked like a powerhouse. With Zach Parise, Kovalchuk, Elias, Brodeur, and supporting players like Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, and new defensive acquisitions Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov, it seemed like the team would continue to hum along near the top of the standings like it did every year.
It did not turn out that way. This team fell flat on its face, and then had one of its stars go down with a bad knee injury and had its captain revolt and get unceremoniously shipped out of town. Back in 2010, right around this time of the year, John wrote about the five stages of dealing with the disastrous MacLean Era Devils. Lots of those feelings probably look familiar, as this season has begun to mirror that first-half disaster to an unfortunate extent. This team looked like it would be the unchallenged standard-bearer for bad Devils teams in the modern era before a second half surge under Jacques Lemaire briefly and miraculously vaulted the Devils briefly back into the playoff conversation before they stumbled down the stretch. It was a shocking and miserable first half of the season, though, as the team managed just ten wins in the first half, amassing more losses in the first 41 games (including OTL) than any other Devils team in history. Little did we know that the bad times that were just about to get rolling another couple seasons down the road.
This season was, as far a bad seasons for NHL teams go, fairly run of the mill. The Devils were coming off back-to-back playoff misses and were a team that everyone knew was held together by Scotch tape and Elmer’s Glue-All at that point. There were still some hopes that the team could challenge for the playoffs behind the ageless Jaromir Jagr and similarly old-but-still-effective Patrik Elias, the newly-arrived Michael Cammalleri, plus still-near-the-top-of-their-games Andy Greene and Cory Schneider. But when the team imploded early on, I don’t think anyone was all that surprised.
This was a sad season though because of what it truly represented. The Devils officially weren’t those Devils anymore. Any remaining strings attached to the close to 25-year run of success the team had were essentially severed. Also, dear lord look at this roster and these stats in retrospect. They would have to start over from the bottom up and the long-avoided rebuild had finally arrived. They’d make this end of an era even more stark when Lou ended up leaving the team the following summer. Despite a brief flirtation with contention in 2017-18, perhaps a blip in retrospect, the Devils are still trying to get up off the mat from this final disintegration of the dynastic Lamoriello/Brodeur Devils that came before.
Your mileage may vary, but even in the face of these terrible campaigns I have listed, I feel we may be in the midst of a fanbase’s worst season. My logic:
- The 1983-84 Devils are unchallenged in their sheer badness, but everyone knew that team was going to stink. Maybe those who lived it have a different perspective, but while finishing 39 games below .500 is undeniably terrible, it’s still a team that expected to finish near the basement.
- The 1995-96 season is tough to beat in sheer frustration. As frustrating as it was, though it was still in the afterglow of a Stanley Cup win. It was definitely bitter in that lots of “fluke” shots were taken and the way the season ended was brutal but, again, banners fly forever and the Devils had just raised one.
- 2010-11 was a season that has lots of parallels running with this one, right down to the 9 wins after 30 games and the head coach fired in December. Given how good the Devils were for so long, it was legitimately hard to process how bad they were. This felt like a blip, though, (even if it ended up being something more like foreshadowing) and with the team coming off of 13 straight seasons in the playoffs, you just figured you had to take your medicine at some point. And with the Lemaire-led surge in the second half of the season, the team was legitimately scrappy and fun for much of the late winter.
- The 2014-15 Devils were truly the end of an era and it made that season sad on a deeper level in some ways. Everyone saw the climb ahead once that team fell apart, and knew it was probably going to be a long while before the Devils were contenders again. But the writing was somewhat on the wall for that team. This 2019-20 team is currently surrounded by some of the same feelings and concerns, but it has already been rebuilding for five years now and was supposed to be exiting that rebuild, not spelunking for new depths within it.
So, there you have it. Because a am a glutton for wallowing in the badness of my favorite sports teams, I have just outlined for you why you are, at this very moment, living through perhaps the worst year of being a Devils fan. Bright side: Nowhere to go but up, right?... Right?
What is the most miserable season in franchise history?
This poll is closed
Other (explain in comments)