The New Jersey Devils went into the 2019-20 season with heaps of confidence and hope from the fans that they would make a push for the playoffs. They faceplanted. Hard. The team was effectively out of the playoffs by the time 2020 began and they finished a pandemic-shortened season with the sixth worst record in the league. New Jersey were selling by the trade deadline as they already dealt away Taylor Hall, fired John Hynes, and fired Ray Shero. There are different people in charge; namely Tom Fitzgerald as the GM and Lindy Ruff as the head coach. With an yet-to-be-established 2020-21 season in the distance, the Devils’ expectations are surely different from where they were last season. We want the Devils to succeed, but what would that look like?
We are fans of the Devils. We want goals and saves and great plays to cheer for, players to excel, games to be won, rivals to be crushed, and, at some point, banners to be raised at The Rock. The ultimate goal is the ideal goal for a NHL franchise: to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. However, it is not a realistic goal. Thirty teams (soon to be 31) fail at that goal every season. This does not mean that all non-Cup winning teams are the same. In this great sport, there is no guarantee that good or even great teams do not win it all, much less consistently. Dallas losing in the Stanley Cup Final are in a very different place than Ottawa or Los Angeles, who joined the Devils in the NHL Draft Lottery this year. As much as we would all love to see the Devils battle for a championship, I do not think many fans actually believe they really can do so.
This does not mean that winning a Cup is not the goal. Again, it’s the ultimate goal - but not really one for next season. There are accomplishments they should really aim to do first before they can realistically set their sights on lifting the greatest trophy in sports. The question is really, what should they be aiming for in 2020-21 to take a step closer to contending for a championship? Would doing so make this season successful? I invite you to give your opinion about that in the comments. I will give you my thoughts about it in this post.
Actually Having a 2020-21 Season at All
Let me point out the elephant in the room: the Coronavirus. The NHL and NHLPA put in a remarkable effort with the Return to Play format. Even though the Devils were not involved, the league and the players paid a lot in terms of money, time, and energy to have two separate bubbles to keep all players safe as the put on the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals. They succeeded without any positive cases for the virus. As great as it turned out, it is not something to repeat. Not for a full 82-game season or a shorter regular season with a full playoff. The resources may not be available. The players may not be so interested in quarantining themselves away from everyone except for their team for longer than two months - especially if they just did so. The league and the union may not want to pay the cost to make the unlikely happen a second time. What’s more is that other professional sports leagues in North America have moved beyond bubbles such as MLS, college football, and NFL. Another set of bubbles may not be in the cards.
It could be argued those leagues should have gone into a kind of bubble as there have been positive COVID-19 cases in those sports and others over the past few months. With rising cases in North America (and Europe), there could be further action that would prevent professional sports from resuming. The NHL is still aiming for a January 1, 2020 start date. What the season would even look like or how it would be constructed is not known. It does not help that other hockey leagues on the continent have varying different plans. In Canada, the WHL will start in January and the OHL will start in February, each with shorter seasons. The QMJHL started as normal, but positive cases forced two whole divisions to be on pause - and who knows if they can make games up as Quebec is dealing with increased outbreak in the province. While the ECHL announced plans to resume, half of the league will be doing so in December and the other half will do so in January. The AHL has pushed back a potential start time as well. And, of course, any outbreaks or sharp rises in cases throws everything out the window - again, as we have seen in the QMJHL. Keep in mind, this is all while assuming there will be no fan attendance as well as other policies in place to try to minimize a potential spread of the virus. Having a NHL season at all would be an accomplishment.
Therefore, I am sympathetic to the idea that the 2020-21 season may not be worth worrying about in terms of performance. It is not likely going to be a full 82-game season. There is no definite structure, so we do not even know if the Devils will travel or travel far. We do not know if there will be adjustments made to rosters or even the rules. It may seem like a low bar to clear and it is not entirely in the Devils’ control. However, actually having Devils hockey at all can be seen as a success with respect to this pandemic-stricken world. We can worry about whether the team is or is not progressing if and when the NHL returns to a normal schedule.
Of course, the Devils may have to try anyway to make a more normal future a more successful one for the organization. Father Time does not care about the pandemic. He will march on regardless. The many young players in the organization will get older and new GM Tom Fitzgerald will just have to make the best of it with the squad he is managing. It would be smart for the Devils need to make the most of whatever opportunity they get, even if it is a 48-game season limited to local opponents in otherwise empty arenas. So let us consider the possibilities.
What About Contending for a Stanley Cup?
Not only do I think the Devils are not ready for this, even a miracle of a 2020-21 season would make this a near-impossible goal to reach. Short of Mackenzie Blackwood and Corey Crawford playing like Martin Brodeur all season, Jack Hughes breaking out like he is Patrik Elias (Aside: Gerard discussed the possibility of a breakout yesterday.), Nico Hischier playing like the best center in the tri-state area, every winger getting hot, P.K. Subban playing he was going to win a Norris, and the other defensemen playing like defense as a unit, it would be a difficult level for the squad that they have to reach. Much less maintain it for any length of time or in a tournament against other good-to-great hockey teams. It is not impossible in a technical sense, but it is incredibly unlikely right now. I do not think this is a fair bar to set for the Devils. I would love to be wrong and see this happen. But I would still not expect it.
Securing a Guaranteed Playoff Spot
Assuming the 2020-21 NHL season retains its divisional structure where the top three teams in the division are guaranteed a playoff spot, I think this is too high of a goal for the Devils to reach currently. Assuming the Metropolitan Division teams stay together, I do not think the Devils are in a position to jump at least five other teams to finish in the top three. I can agree that the Isles and Columbus are likely to take a step back. I absolutely agree that Pittsburgh’s window for being a Cup contender is just about closed. I also think it is starting to get much smaller for Washington too. However, those four teams are likely better than the Devils as currently constructed. Unfortunately, I think Philadelphia will continue to be a strong team, Carolina has arrived as a strong team, and Our Hated Rivals are just a bit ahead of the Devils. While I do think the Devils will be much more than a doormat for the other seven teams in the division, I do not think they are better than five of them as they are on paper. Thankfully, hockey is not played on a paper. Yet, the Devils have not played well on the ice for two straight seasons so until they can do so, then this is too high of a goal as well.
Taking a Wild Card Playoff Spot
This is aiming a bit lower and it not as impossible to achieve. But it is still too lofty in my opinion. In some ways, it can be even more difficult. Assuming the NHL maintains the same kind of conference structure, the Devils would be competing with Atlantic Division teams. If 2020-21 looks anything like 2019-20, then the wild card picture will be a total dogfight. The Metropolitan Division was tight enough between second and sixth and sometimes seventh place. Now add Montreal, Florida, and maybe Buffalo to the mix. It would be vastly interesting for the fan as every night would matter since one win or loss or post-regulation loss could change a team’s hopes quite a bit. But just as I am unsure that the Devils can finish fourth or fifth in an assumed eight-team Metropolitan Division, I am unsure the Devils can also hold off the Atlantic Division squads from taking a spot. However, this does lead to a goal I think the Devils should set for themselves:
Actually Competing for a Wild Card Spot Until February or March
A few years back, I had the fortune and privilege to interview Kevin Weekes. I essentially asked him the question what I am writing about in this post. Weekes’ answer was an insightful one. He stated that the team should look to play meaningful games in March. Even if they do not make the playoffs, it would be a sign that they are getting closer to that level. I can appreciate that from a player’s perspective, there is more willingness to put in a full effort knowing there is an even remote chance at the playoffs than knowing there is no chance at all. I can also appreciate that from a writer’s and fan’s perspective; having even a faint hope to hold onto is better than paying money and time to go watch a game that has no real impact for your favorite team. It is an answer I think back on; thank you for that, Mr. Weekes.
More importantly, I also think it should be the goal for the 2020-21 Devils. It would be a legitimate sign of improvement, even with a truncated season and modified league and playoff structure.
Part of what was so depressing about the 2019-20 Devils was the fact that they were cooked by the time Hynes was fired and Hall was traded away. More than a faceplant to start the season, they were in a five-foot hole. Jacques Lemaire was not coming through that door to guide the team as to what successful hockey looks like and he did not. I was already thinking about the 2020 Draft back in January and many fans, if they did not check out back in October and November, were doing so in the beginning of this year. They were legitimately one of the worst teams in hockey. I was not even all that bothered when the Devils were not included in the NHL’s Return to Play format; I did not think they were even good enough for it based on what we saw back in 2019-20. No, they were not the worst non-Detroit team in the league, but they were not that far from it with 68 points earned in 69 games.
To that end, the next step is not so much to make the playoffs but to at least be in the picture until the final month of the season or so. This means being competitive in games. This means aiming to succeed. Even if they fall short, it is a far improvement over being done and dusted in early January. No, it is not a very high goal to achieve just like making the playoffs is not necessarily a massive achievement. But, again, recall the last two seasons for the Devils. Just as a baby needs to crawl before they can walk, the Devils need to at least show some progress before they can really shoot for a playoff spot. Sure, Sherman Abrams and his ilk will not like it, but success in hockey (or most things in life) is rarely like flipping a switch. You do not compile a bunch a high draft picks and - BAM! - Stanley Cup. It does not work that way. Progression is not always linear but it is not instant. By at least hanging with better teams for most of the season, it will be easier for Tom Fitzgerald to sell free agents on the notion that something is building in New Jersey. The internal discussions will be more about how to improve the team from what they have than discussing whether what they have is worth being built around. It would be actual progress.
It is also entirely achievable. On paper, Blackwood and Crawford may be the best goaltending tandem the Devils have had in years. One of the larger lessons from analytics is that coaching plays a large role on a team’s success and so Lindy Ruff replacing Hynes and Alain Nasreddine as head coach could provide a massive lift. An improving Hischier and Hughes could really lead the offense, which does have some solid top-six wingers in Palmieri, Gusev, Bratt, and Johnsson. It is possible we could see an improved defense. It requires quite a few if’s - Ryan Murray’s health, Dmitry Kulikov’s health, Will Butcher returning to form, Subban returning to anything like his past, Damon Severson being smarter in his own end - but it can be done. Players in the pipeline could breakthrough to the NHL roster and provide some kind of impact, such as Ty Smith, Janne Kuokkanen, or Nick Merkley. The roster would be far from ideal, and improvements can and should be sought out. But I think it could be better in January 2021 compared to how they were back in January 2020. That could result in having something to play for in January and February, giving fans a reason to at least pay attention, not being total sellers at the deadline, and having their season effectively end later than the last two. In other words, there could be real progress.
This would also be consistent with what management stated when they formally announced Fitzgerald and Ruff as being hired. During the press conference, David Blitzer - one of the owners of the team - stated that the “players will tell us” when they are ready to move forward. A great way for the players to show to management that they are ready to contend for a playoff spot is to play so well to put the team at least in the playoff picture - even if it is on the outside looking in next season.
That is why I think the 2020-21 season can be seen as a success if the Devils have some games that matter to them in March. After two straight miserable seasons and five miserable seasons out of the last six, I will see that as actual progress for the future. If they can just achieve that, then they can set themselves up for battling for a playoff spot - and actually getting one - in 2021-22. If they can over-achieve and take a playoff spot in whatever next season looks like, then that would be wonderful. But I will take this step forward in the meantime. I agree that in the larger picture, this is not a big step. The Devils need to take this smaller step in order to take larger ones in the future. Yes, I want to see banners in the future - but it is a distant one. For now, from my point of view, small improvements are both achievable and desirable.
Now that you know what I would consider success for the Devils in 2020-21, I want to know your take on it. What do the Devils have to achieve at a minimum to call this coming season a success? Do you think they will achieve it? If not, what should they do now to make it possible? Will having Devils hockey at all be a kind of success in your view? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.