Now We Rise.
This was the tagline for the 2018-19 season for the New Jersey Devils. It made perfect sense when it was announced. It quickly became a total farce. And yet it was used all the way until to the final week of the season - which is a fitting sign for the Devils’ 2018-19 campaign.
After making the playoffs for the first time in six years as well as for the first time under the current owners led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer and general manager Ray Shero, the New Jersey Devils entered the 2018 offseason with plenty of reasons to be excited.
The Devils made the playoffs after a terrible 2016-17 season that could then be seen as a bottoming out of the organization. Taylor Hall put in one of the greatest seasons in Devils history by a forward and won the Hart Trophy. There was a growing core of young talent that figured to improve with Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, and Will Butcher performing admirably in their roles. There were pleasant surprises in the emergence of super penalty-killer Blake Coleman, even strength supporting Stefan Noesen, and solid bottom-six center, leukemia smasher and Masterton Trophy winner Brian Boyle. Keith Kinkaid took the crease as those hoped Cory Schneider would rebound. In the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Devils ended up with one of the better defensemen prospects in Ty Smith; furthering the feeling that the future would be bright. Many fans, myself included, were pleased where things were going. Now we rise? You bet!
Then came free agency. Ray Shero did next to nothing. But this was defendable. Who wants to overpay for players who are unlikely to earn the contracts they would get? There were no must-have players available and, besides, Shero maybe tried and did not get it so he stood pat. It’s fine. Better to have cap space and rely on who got you to where you went last season, which was a playoff appearance. Now we rise? Sure - let’s go!
Then came pre-season. Things seemed fine although other teams in the division and in the East made moves to improve themselves. Upon further reflection, it seemed that perhaps things went a little too well last season. A few breaks went the Devils way. The division Hall may only be amazing instead of stupendously amazing and that could be seen as a downturn. With Schneider still recovering from offseason surgery, the Devils’ fortunes would rely a lot on Keith Kinkaid. Maybe this would not be a playoff team, but surely this would be a team that could compete. I felt pessimistic in predicting that they would finish sixth in the Metropolitan, but I was hopeful I would write another “I was wrong” post. Pretty much whole team was returning. Due to a fluke accident where Bratt’s jaw was broken on the even of the season opener, even Drew Stafford returned. Now we rise? Sure, why not? Few expected the playoffs in 2017 and they did it. They can do it again!
Then came the beginning of the season. The Devils smacked Edmonton down in Sweden. Great. The Devils dominated the defending Washington Capitals in their home opener, one of the greatest home openers in franchise history. Awesome. In their third game, the Devils had a tough game against San Jose but as they did many times last season, they pulled out a comeback win. Sweet. Against Dallas, the Devils dealt out another shutout win. That’s hot. Now we rise? We’re rising now.
Then came the rest of October and the Devils took some losses. But, hey, they finished 5-3-1. Not bad. The month ended with the first game of a seven-game road trip. In retrospect, this is where the Devils’ took a downturn they would not recover from. This was a seven-game road trip where the Devils found ways to fail. Cory Schneider returned from injury and was utterly abysmal. Keith Kinkaid started getting lit up more and more as more and more realized he was not all that. When something bad happened to them, the Devils folded more often than they tried to battle back. As the Devils found ways to get points last season, they failed to do that as often and it was hurting them. The Road Trip from Hell yielded just one win. November ended with a monthly record of 4-8-3 and two road wins. Now we rise? Not then. But, hey, bad months happened, maybe the Devils could rebound.
Then came December and the Devils would rebound somewhat. It was a month with more home games and that helped. Mackenzie Blackwood would get his shot and he made it count, which helped big time. The Devils finally won a game in overtime. The Devils closed out the month with three wins - which secured a 6-5-3 record. But underneath that record was a lot of evidence that the Devils were getting crushed in the run of play. Schneider and Kinkaid were still not providing good enough goaltending; hence, Blackwood’s arrival was well appreciated. And when Christmas arrived, the Devils were in last place in the East. Yes, even below Ottawa. With the benefit of hindsight that last game before Christmas would be the last game that Hall would play in 2018-19 as he was held out with a knee injury that led to surgery two months after that game. A crushing blow in a season that was seemingly done as 2019 rolled around. Now we rise? Not really, even with the three-game winning streak at the end of the month.
Then came January and that streak ended quickly. John Hynes amazingly received a two-year contract extension near the beginning of the month. The Devils proceeded to respond to that with a month where they went 4-8-0 in the first of four Hall-less months. Sure, some of those few wins were fun. But there was a lot of awfulness as it effectively ensured that the Devils were not going to go back to the playoffs in 2019. Now we rise? Maybe only to fall into a pit of despair and losses.
Then came February and the Devils just accepted that they were a terrible hockey team and acted like one. Ray Shero awoke and made moves to obtain assets for players on expiring contracts. These were good moves. Moves I supported then and I support now. All the same, a year after being buyers for a potential playoff run, the Devils were sellers. Injuries became a far bigger problem, forcing the Devils to call up and play several players from Binghamton that ordinarily would not play. At least not all together at the same time. And don’t count on Hall returning; in the final week of the month, we learned he had knee surgery. The many injuries at forward helped the understanding that the Devils were not going to win many games for the rest of the season. Which they did not. There was a sense of respectability in the month of games as the Devils went 6-7-1. It would be the Devils’ best monthly record since October. It would still have the Devils near the bottom of the standings. At this point of the season, some fans would find and hold onto silver linings such as Schneider returning and playing well (!) and appreciating skill up front when it happened. Other fans wanted to follow the example of Sherman Abrams and drive a tank all the way to April 6. Now we rise? To exactly nothing. Especially not with parts of the fanbase starting to be annoyed with wins.
Then came March. Riddled with injuries, with four players traded away, and nothing to play for, the Devils pretty much had to move like an armor division. The Devils’ offense reached levels of futility last seen when Shero took over. The Devils’ defense was not a total sieve all of the time but they were not always helping the cause. The goaltending tandem of Blackwood and Schneider were a bright spot but even so there were nights where they were lit up. Even when they played great, they could not count on the goal support needed to win. The Devils put up the leagues’ second-worst record in the month of March at 4-9-2. And those who wanted to go the full Abrams were unhappy they won those four. Now we rise? The Devils fell into a bottom-five position in the NHL.
Then came the last week of the season. Remember that the Devils were battling and ultimately secured a playoff spot on their 81st game of 2017-18. In their 81st game of 2018-19, their opponents secured a playoff spot and the Devils ensured that they would have either the worst road record in the NHL or the second worst road record in the NHL this season. Remember that last season, Devils fans paid close attention to the scores of other games, especially Florida’s, to see if they’ll get the desired result. In 2018-19, fans have paid attention to the likes of Detroit, Buffalo, and Los Angeles to see if the Devils can fall all the way down to 30th out of 31 teams in the NHL. In 2017-18, the fanbase was excited over what was happening. In 2018-19, the fanbase was a mix of frustration (especially among the pro-tankers, upset that the Devils won six games since 2019 NHL Trade Deadline), resignation, and apathy. The only common trait between the two seasons was that Game #82 was meaningless - except that it was not the end of 2017-18 whereas 2018-19 was over months before April 6. Now we rise? Don’t make me laugh.
I am admittedly still bewildered as to what happened this season. This is my 12th season blogging about the Devils. I thought and still think the MacLean era and the bottoming out of 2016-17 was harder to watch was this. But this 2018-19 campaign was still remarkably terrible. I did not expect a playoff team in 2018-19. But I predicted a sixth place finish in the division; not securing eighth place for months. I figured the Devils would play some meaningful games in March; not being done with meaningful games in December. I thought the Devils were fortunate to a point in 2017-18, but not to a point where everything would fall apart in 2018-19. I agree that the Devils were fortunate to a point in 2017-18 but I cannot agree that this was going to be one of the worst teams in hockey with one of the worst road records in hockey with one of the more porous goaltending tandems with one of the more lackluster offenses with one of the more ineffectual defenses. Outside of the penalty kill, the 2018-19 Devils were not really good a whole lot except for high-danger scoring chances - which is not really indicative of the Devils being secretly good or underrated. I didn’t see this coming. And, given the slogan - Now We Rise - neither did the Devils.
Clearly, the Devils did not rise. And yet the organization stuck with the slogan. I get it: they put in a lot of work into the graphics and presentations, but it became ill-fitting after Thanksgiving. They still stuck with it. Just as Shero stuck with the team and did not make any significant moves until February 2019 when he was dealing away players with expiring contracts. Just as John Hynes and his coaching staff did not make any significant changes to their tactics - especially on the power play - even when a large part of the roster was their AHL squad. Just as the team went from attempting to be known for Fast, Attacking, and Supportive to being known for none of those things in 2018-19. Just as ownership seemed to focus more on replacing the Goal Bar with The Lofts at the Rock, getting gambling in the Rock through William Hill, and other non-ice moves like raising ticket prices for 2019-20 (Aside: It’s true. Mine did. Bold move to do this to season ticket holders given this past season, Devils) rather than drive substantial changes with the team. Given the public nightmares out of Ottawa and Edmonton, I think I prefer a quieter ownership group. My larger point remains: the Devils were essentially crashing from November down to the bitter end of this season and there was a lot of inaction until February - which only confirmed that the season was wholly lost. I can respect not making rash decisions and I can understand defenders, but not doing much of anything is not worth praising. Especially when the result is a bottom five finish right after making the postseason.
Given the inaction, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised the Devils were blaring “You rise and you fall” with big “Now We Rise” graphics for a 29th place team to an “announced-sellout” crowd on Fan Appreciation Night. The team did not seek to make changes when things were falling apart in the 2018 portion of the season; why make changes at all then?
I know it is not really true but it is hard to not think that they were somewhat content to go from a playoff appearance to finishing near the bottom of the NHL standings. Say whatever they want, their lack of action speaks louder. Last season, I was excited and proud to support the team. This season, I’m writing a postmortem rant about 2018-19 before the final game of the season that I could have easily wrote a month or two ago (and maybe I should have).
What are the Devils now? Fast, Attacking, and Supportive sounded like a good approach. A good identity, or at least something to strive for. They were neither of those things in this recent season. The 2018-19 season showed the apparent lack of talent up front, the squad not being good enough to make up for defensive miscues, a power play that was less than the potential sum of its parts when most were healthy, real concerns at goaltender, and coaches that could not sort out their issues - especially away from home. As far as I can tell, the 2018-19 identity was We’re a Bad Team and Even Worse Away from Newark so Deal With It. That is not something that can continue.
So this leads into the obvious question: How do you get from here to somewhere better?
Blowing it all up and starting over does not seem to be a real option. It made sense that the Devils cratered in 2016-17 as Shero was re-building all facets of the organization. However, the 2018-19 squad is almost entirely Shero-approved. With the exceptions of Andy Greene, Travis Zajac, and Schneider, Shero either signed, re-signed, traded for, and/or drafted all of the other 41 players who put on the bedeviled NJ this season. This is his team and it is one season removed from a playoff appearance. Even if some of the players have some bloated contracts, the Devils have oodles of cap space and roster spots. The Devils are not really in a position to do so. Not to mention that watching a team that has been torn down is often incredibly hard to watch.
Sticking with the same crew seems like a non-starter too. For all of the reasons to justify Shero’s inaction in the 2018 offseason, they could apply to any offseason. At some point, the team has to actually build and this may mean spending money and being creative with the roster. Shero demonstrated he could be bold and do that. He has offered some lucrative extensions. He has traded for Palmieri and Vatanen and Johansson when it was not apparent they were real options. He took advantage of Peter Chiarelli’s idiocy to bring in the best forward to the Devils since Patrik Elias in Taylor Hall. But this season: nope. I liked the return in their selling but it is almost all futures. Even if they win the lottery for first overall and Sherman Abrams and his followers are rewarded, I do not think the team is one 18-year old prospect away getting back to where they were in 2017-18. There were too many holes shown in this past season that one player can fix it. Besides, this is hockey. Having the arguably best player in the world is not enough to make a team finish in the upper half of the league standings and participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Of course, spending big and making significant moves to “go for it” could also blow up in the Devils’ face. If you thought it stunk to be a bad hockey team with having nothing to play for unless a lot of things work out, then imagine if the team had huge and nearly unmovable contracts that could prevent potential improvements.
I do not envy Ray Shero. It is almost a cliche to say how important an offseason is for a GM and/or a team. All offseasons are important. Shero did very little last Summer and here I am lamenting a season where the Devils took much more than one step back. But this one is truly crucial for Shero and the Devils. The Devils need to make a step forward for next season. There must be some actual building for 2019-20. But mistakes will prove costly and I think we can all agree that a repeat of 2018-19 should be seen as a failure. Next season has to be better. But will Shero make the right moves to make it so? I don’t know. This time last season, I was excited and hopeful for what the Devils could do after a relatively good 2017-18. Now, I’m nervous and concerned for the team’s future; fearing they will fall into the pits of despair where Edmonton, Ottawa, Buffalo, and Detroit all find themselves. I want the Devils to actually rise. But, as ever, they can continue to fall flat on their faces; failure is always an option.
All we can do at All About the Jersey is share our thoughts about what we think the Devils should and should not do.
This is a good place as any to point out what is coming up next. As with past offseasons, we will be shifting our focus to prospects for the NHL Entry Draft. Throughout this season, people were hyped for Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. As they should, they’re excellent prospects that will likely lead the 2019 NHL Draft. This class has many more great prospects than just those two. Anyone picking in the top ten will be very pleased with who is available this year. And the Devils have multiple second and third round picks. Those picks matter too and hitting on those can really help a team’s fortunes down the line. Just look at Tampa Bay. We will do our best to compile information for all of the big names and not-so-big names from near the end of April up to the draft.
We will also maintain a focus on the Devils’ offseason. There is a lot to go over. This is AAtJ, we try to consider all issues involving the team. We will have posts about the big names hitting free agency, depth players hitting the market, the Devils own groups of free agents, and even players to extend among many, many other topics. I recognize that past offseasons have effectively made the site All About the Draft. So this will be rectified. You’ll see this begin later in April.
But as always, the name of the site is its mission. We’re All About the Jersey. The 2018-19 season is thankfully, mercifully, and finally over. We will reflect. We will analyze. We will opine. We will have open posts for the draft lottery (Tuesday), the playoffs (Wednesday), the world championships, and again for the Draft and Free Agency Frenzy. We will still be here. We will look ahead and hope for a better tomorrow. Maybe the slogan was off by a season and they’ll rise next season. I’d hate to see the Devils fall any further than what we just saw and what exactly that would entail.
Thank you for reading this post-season rant and throughout the season. That hundreds of thousands still check in every month despite how bad the team has been - not mediocre, bad - this season. It is a testament to that people care what we are doing and that people are interested in the Devils even amid one of the worst seasons in recent memory. I include it in every season awards post - the 2018-19 post will be up tomorrow - but it is true. You really are the best readers. Feel free to share your post-season thoughts in the comments. Again, thank you for reading.