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In a Lost Season, Opportunity

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The Devils took a flamethrower to their playoff hopes over the first couple months of the season. In those ashes of a lost season though, there will be opportunity for the stars of tomorrow to hone their abilities.

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

The Devils have just won three in a row. This is the first time this has happened in a little over a calendar year. Devils fans are probably in the best mood they’ve been in since 39 minutes into the opening game. So let’s take this opportunity to talk about something every Devils fan from the past 10 years is familiar with: silver linings! Oh, how we love those silver linings.

Despite the first bona fide winning streak in over 12 months, the Devils remain 13 points out of the final playoff spot with everyone but Detroit to jump over. Unless this three-game winning streak turns into a 15-game winning streak (lol), the Devils remain thoroughly cooked in the standings. That doesn’t mean that the recent trend in play hasn’t been encouraging to some extent, though. As nice as high lottery odds are, the Devils need evidence that some of their current pieces are ready to help drive a winner if there is to be any hope of salvaging this rebuild.

The Devils have struck it big in the draft lottery twice after a pair of dreadful seasons in 2016-17 and 2018-19, which has perhaps placed them on a positive trajectory heading into the 2020s. But the ongoing mediocrity in Edmonton serves as an important lesson: high draft picks are no guarantee of future results. Yes, better odds at Alex Lafreinere are objectively good but if the Devils close this season as a bottom-five team again (and perhaps more importantly, look like a bottom-five team in the process of getting there), they remain far from the goals they seek. They need to look better in the second half of 2019-20 if we are to realistically believe they have a chance to return to playoff contention in 2020-21.

That’s why the recent uptick in play has at least been refreshing to see, particularly with some of the players they are getting really solid performances from. The benefit of having your soul crushed in the first two months of a season and then seeing the team’s best player traded away is that there isn’t much pressure left to be dealt with. Forty-two games of playing out the string is far from ideal, but the Devils should use the opportunity to put the players who theoretically figure into this team’s next step in positions to develop and refine their games.

The Devils have gone 6-2-1 over their past 9 games, which is as good a run as they've had since the stretch run of 2017-18. They of course went 0-6-1 immediately before that, but really they’ve been playing relatively aesthetically pleasing hockey for close to a month now (with some nights that were clear exceptions) and they’ve been playing legitimately good hockey since the Chicago game just before Christmas. This has come on the heels of the departure of, first, maligned head coach John Hynes at the start of the month of December and then the trade of Taylor Hall to Arizona in the middle of the month. Three wins in a row don’t do a ton to erase the fact that these are dark days for Devils fans, but there is at least hope in the form of some legitimate young talents who we hope will lead the team into the future.

It didn’t work so well at the very beginning but Alain Nasreddine’s more open style of hockey has looked good on the Devils over the past couple weeks. There’s plenty of debate to be had over how much blame can be placed at the feet of John Hynes for the way things unfolded this season, but the Devils certainly look like a better and more exciting team of late. Sometimes, regardless of why it happens, teams need a new voice, and early bottoming out notwithstanding, the team seems to be responding to a new approach to the game.

On the Hall departure, all we can do is speculate. Teams theoretically shouldn’t get better when you remove the best player from the mix, but sometimes it does seem to shake out that way. I don’t necessarily subscribe to any of the theories that point to Hall being a bad teammate or locker room influence, but I do think the contract situation and his likely departure with the team’s failures this season were probably starting to weigh on guys. And even beyond that, I think this team had a little bit of a tendency to stand back and wait for Taylor Hall to do something cool (and conversely, Hall seemed to feel like it was on him to make something happen and would do too much), but unless he’s playing at superhuman levels like he was in 2017-18, its not much of a recipe for success. With him removed from the mix (and with a bit more talent around than last season’s skeleton crew), other guys seem to have taken the initiative to try to step up and collectively fill the void.

The result (at least until a four-game losing streak immediately invalidates this take) is a team where its other talented players are starting to thrive. Can Nico Hischier step out of Hall’s shadow and become the all-world producer that the underlying numbers have been hinting at since his arrival in the league? His past few games, at least, have featured him looking like the engine that will drive this team forward in the future. Is Nikita Gusev actually the player that was advertised when the Devils brought him in over the summer? Ten points in his last eight games to go along with one of the team’s best xGF shares are beginning to point to yes. Is Jesper Bratt ready to grab a bigger role on a successful team? His past week of helping drive a dominant top line and putting up five points in five games seems like a good start.

Really what this pressure-free stretch will do is help us figure out if this team is closer to the one that seemed so promising on paper at the start of the year. There are more questions yet to answer for this roster. Can Hughes hit his stride in the second half of the season? Can Jesper Boqvist harness the dynamism that made him such an appealing prospect coming into the year and in the preseason? Can PK Subban recapture something approaching his old form? The benefit of a team unburdened by expectations (admittedly only because they gave those expectations a spectacular Viking funeral over the first few months of the season) is that they can give the room that players need to figure themselves out and hopefully make for a stronger team heading into 2020-21.