Trust, me ... I’m as pissed writing an article with this title as you are reading it. It’s December, and I have already flipped the page to the next season, and in a pretty pessimistic fashion at that.
A month and a half ago, I wrote an article that the Devils had turned around a slow start and looked like they’d be “fine” and things since then have certainly seemed anything but. I would argue, and have argued, that this team could have succeeded with the roster and system in place, but with no results and no leadership in the room to guide the through struggles, the gravity of the spiral was too strong to overcome. In fact, the spiral was so powerful and palpable, that General Manger Ray Shero decided it was time to trade the MVP Taylor Hall months before the deadline.
The Devils acquired pieces that, whether because of the market or because of Shero’s preference, are entirely future-based. I was hoping to get something that we could see this year, personally, and it seems like these pieces are unlikely to even see the NHL ice next season. This puts us in a situation where a Devils team that was supposed to compete for a playoff spot this season heads into next season having removed a league MVP from the 2nd worst team in the NHL. Does this spell doom for the Devils next season already? It’s the NHL, you never know. Corey Masisak wrote that the Devils, Rebuild 2.0 or an Islanders-style tweaking. I’d argue the Devils can learn from 3 important things the Islanders did that allowed them to improve drastically, despite losing John Tavares: Improve goaltending, proven NHL coaching, and reliable veteran skaters.
#1) A good goaltender
I’m not sure I can be any clear on this than I have been over the last three seasons, but the Devils have a goalie problem that goes all the way through the system. I’ve seen some here and on social media speak glowingly about Blackwood so let me clarify something about his performance. He may be a good/great starter eventually. He is currently a significantly below-average starting goaltender in the NHL. Which, when combined with debatably the worst backup goaltending in the NHL, is a recipe for disaster.
In a situation like this, it’s not good enough to get a decent backup. The Devils need someone at least as good as Blackwood if they want to have a shot at above league-average goaltending — that would give them a below average starter and an above average “backup.” Who, could we get? There’s actually a bunch of options as of right now. My preference would be Lehner, personally, but Francouz, Halak, and Markstrom all currently seem to represent substantial improvements over the status quo that Shero should be investigating.
This one’s tough for me since I’m not plugged into the talent pool available for NHL head coaches, and I actually think the last one we had was a pretty good one. But I think after the season we will have experienced, having someone that the team can trust, who has some weight behind their words, is important. If he’s not promoted to the Head Coach of his current team by the offseason, I’d try to poach someone who should be a familiar face to Shero: Dan Bylsma.
As you can see from Micah McCurdy’s viz above, he’s been a consistently positive-impact coach, particularly offensively where the Devils have talent for him mold as he did in Pittsburgh. He also has experience in righting a sinking ship. His first HC gig was taking over for a supremely-talented, underperforming Penguins team from Michael Therrien (27-25-5) and getting them to steamroll their way through the rest of the season (18-3-4) en route to Crosby’s first Stanley Cup. He would never miss the postseason as Penguins coach.
I’m sure there is talent out there that has not already been behind the bench, and I love seeing new faces in management positions. But I can only talk about what I’ve seen, and Bylsma would be atop my shortlist to fix this team.
#3) “Identity” skaters
Goalies and coaching should be approached in a similar way to the Islanders, but this next part I would do a bit differently. With NYI, Lou Lamoriello gave 4-year contracts to guys like Leo Komorov, Ross Johnston, and Thomas Hickey — none of whom have been very good. I think guys like that probably offer the coaching staff something that they want the rest of the roster to see, though. I’m not an analytical dogmatist to the degree that I discount the impact that may have, but I think you can acquire it without hurting the team on the ice.
For forwards, Devils could turn back to a few old friends: Brian Boyle and Patrick Maroon. They are both UFA veterans who have familiarity with this roster, but also career experience with success and playing “the right way” while still managing positive impacts. Boyle is used in tough situations and has a deceptively consistent positive impact (Patreon) offensively and defensively. Interestingly, it’s Maroon of the two that’s a more defensively inclined (Patreon). This year, the Devils suffered because the only players they could trust to maintain a lead (Rooney, Hayden, etc) were also guaranteed not to extend it or contribute in an positive way offensively. Maroon, Boyle, and other similar players are far more versatile.
For defenders, it’s going to depend on a few things. First, does Andy Greene get traded? I think probably. Sami Vatanen? Maybe. How much cap space do we have? I think the important thing here is to add a defensive dimension to this strong puck-moving back-end we have currently. This immediate need and its availability is partially why I’ve questioned Shero’s investment in picks/prospects with that skillset. I’d look at a guy like Radko Gudas who’s been a stalwart defensive impact until this season (which may make him cheap), and a big fire-in-the-lockerroom kind of guy — an attribute the team ha sorely missed this season. He’s the embodiment of what was lacking in this team to many people.
Can the Devils be good in 2020-21? I think, yes. I don’t think it’s worth punting on that season already too, and if we do I don’t think Shero will survive it. I think the 3 things I mentioned are achieveable and get you most of the way to what the Islanders accomplished last year.
What do you guys think? Can we be good by next year? Longer? What do we need? Is it available.
Thanks for reading and leavie your thoughts behind.