I don’t know when exactly it happened.
Maybe it was Jack Hughes’s game-winning goal.
Maybe it was the thrilling SO win to end the year on a high note.
Or maybe it was last night ...
Watching the Devils play hockey last night reminded me how fun it is to root for a team that’s giving it it’s all. A team that has made a name for itself giving up multi-goal leads late in matches managed to claw back into a game that threatened to get away from them, like so many games this season. We got future All-Star Nico’s heroic one-man effort (#VoteNico), Blackwood’s battle-bloodied face, and Palmieri’s go-ahead goal. Despite ultimately losing the game, this was the first time since very early in the season that I felt really invested in a game. Those guys played their heart out, and getting a point was good, but in a season that can now offer us nothing but moral victories, I wanted the “W.”
Because of this, I felt the need to address something. Earlier this week, I tweeted a poll that got, in my opinion, some depressing results...
Devils fans, which is a preferable way for this season to go?— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) January 5, 2020
Option A: Devils play extremely well, but never genuinely re-enter the playoff picture.
Option B: Devils play terribly but win draft lottery after finishing at or near the bottom of the NHL again.
Not only a significant number, but a majority of voters that actually picked a side would prefer winning the lottery to playing well the rest of the season.
Don’t get me wrong, Alexis Lafrenière is a special player and I’d love for him to be on this team. But this team was not suffering from a shortage of forward talent coming into this season — we had 3 1st overall picks in Hall, Hischier, and Hughes and if we got Lafrenière we would have 3 again next year. How much better do you think Lafrenière will be than Taylor Hall?
Ignoring my being a fan who’s just damn tired of losing, I think this is the wrong thing to root for. Emotions aside, this team is going to be selling some pieces that we’d like to appreciate in value. As one example, Sami Vatanen is a trade chip that has been racking up the points since the coaching change — that’s clearly a good thing for the team. And even still if you ignore that, there’s another piece of the puzzle that I think is important.
The Devils are in danger of turning the rebuild into a hamster wheel. There is a lot to GMing and coaching and playing that establishes consistently great teams, but a few bonus points need to be allocated for the culture and legacy of winning established. The Penguins are the most injured team in the NHL this season — and it’s not been to minor players. But, at no point has it felt like their season was spiraling. Since 2006, they’ve had 4 different coaches, and two different GMs, but have yet to miss the playoffs even once in the entire Crosby/Malkin era. Is it easier to do that with two generational talents? Of course. Is it certain? I don’t know, ask Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
There’s something to be said for establishing institutional memory of how to succeed in this league. I’ve talked about the Devils legacy of penalty killing in this light, for instance. Ray Shero clearly sees the value in this as well. That’s why he went for it at the 2017-18 deadline despite being way ahead of the rebuild schedule. It’s also likely why he went for it this season. The quicker a team starts winning, the easier it is to keep pick up momentum.
I want to watch good hockey games, but even more than that I want Nico and Jack and the Jespers to feel like winners. It’s hard to have confidence when you look at the Devils record over the last few years. If we close this year strong, we can enter 2020 as a dangerous type of team — and underdog with swagger.
For those reasons, don’t tank.
Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments below.