This is a lost season. We’ve known this fact since mid-December at least, and likely even earlier than that. Through the Devils’ struggles, we have all done our grieving and mostly come to terms with the fact that the rebuilding years in New Jersey are likely to extend through at least 2020-21 after we hoped they had maybe come to a close in the summer of 2019. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s unfortunately what we have, as I once again know far more about this summer’s draft class than I would prefer to before the end of winter has even arrived. There is latent hope generated by the fact that there seem to be some viable franchise cornerstones in place (though your mileage may vary on that), but this is undeniably a downtrodden fanbase right now.
After the firing of John Hynes, it took a couple weeks under Alain Nasreddine, but the team appeared to have morphed into a more interesting version of itself. Instead of a clamped down and conservative squad that often managed to get blown out anyway, the Devils seemed to be morphing into a plucky run-and-gun outfit that gave up too much ice on defense, but was keeping pace to an extent with solid counterpunching (though your mileage may vary on this as well). Those gains, such as they were, have largely ground to a halt over the past couple weeks. Of late, the Devils have taken to being absolutely battered by their opponents and hoping that their goalie bails them out and they eke out just enough offense to claim a win.
While it’s encouraging to see MacKenzie Blackwood play the way that he has the past few weeks, it is equally concerning how often the Devils look utterly outclassed of late, with three pretty brutal performances this week in particular. Part of that can be chalked up to removing one of the most consistently positive forces among Devils skaters, Blake Coleman, as well as an aging but still relatively effective-in-his-role defensive stalwart in Andy Greene, but it is still discouraging how far off this team is starting to look from the realm of competitiveness. That is often an inevitability of choosing to do a roster teardown (even a partial one, as in this case), but it is still not so much fun to watch.
Back in 2017, when a depleted roster entered a full-on tailspin to close the season, losing 21 of 24, it was certainly not much fun to watch but it was at least a little bit easier to swallow, given the still relative freshness of Rebuild 1.0 under Ray Shero. If the Devils continue to look like a slipshod, directionless group for the remainder of the 2019-20, it may provide some marginal benefit in lottery odds (though Blackwood may thwart that as well), but it will be hard to envision a summer that can bring this team to where it will need to be to compete for a playoff spot in 2020-21.
The Devils have allowed fewer than 30 shots just twice since the calendar flipped to 2020 and six of the 10 games they have played in February have featured the Devils putting up less than 40% of the expected goals on the night. Even one of the ‘good’ performances was shaping up like an embarrassing defeat to a historically bad team before a short burst of competence in the third period proved enough to dispatch them. The run in the past three games has been worst of all, with the offense drying up as well and the Devils topping out at just over two expected goals, putting up less than 40% of the xG in each of the three games and finishing with a collective all-situations xGF% of 32% (and an even more embarrassing 29% at 5v5). The 0.95 expected goals they put up against St. Louis on Tuesday is the worst in years and it’s the second-worst the team has managed in Natural Stat Trick’s data set going back to 2007-08 (it was also the first NHL game since 2014 where one of the teams did not register a high-danger scoring chance). That the Devils have won two of these three games instead of losing them all by a combined 10 goals is a testament to just how good the goaltending has been from Blackwood of late.
I don’t point this stuff out just to be doom-and-gloom, it is just a big concern for me if this team crashes and burns and loses 80% of their games down the stretch again (which feels like a distinct possibility if Blackwood cools off). The Devils are inching closer and closer to feeling like a perpetual losing machine, a la the Buffalo Sabres, and another embarrassing run of March/April results will only further bake in the losing culture that is becoming the new normal in New Jersey. I don’t know how to avoid it at this point, and I don’t know if we should expect Alain Nasreddine to find an answer as the talent pool thins ahead of the deadline (and sidebar: If you weren’t already beyond any thoughts of Nasreddine becoming the permanent head coach, hopefully Tuesday’s display of pointless mind games in the benching of a third-year player in the midst of a very strong run of games pushed you closer to the conclusion that he’s not the answer).
So what should the Devils do? At this point, continuing to get solid value out of players unlikely to be part of a future contender is the right choice from the GM’s perspective, given the seller’s market we seem to be in. On the ice, there’s no simple answer. But the absence of any defensive structure whatsoever and the deterioration of any offensive flow now as well is concerning. It’s clear that the Devils need new voices in the locker room this offseason and the GM, whether it’s Tom Fitzgerald or someone else, will have their work cut out for them with the roster. In the meantime, I think we need to hope for the portion of the roster that remains after the deadline to find their footing and play at least a reasonably competitive brand of hockey down the stretch. Another season of coasting to the finish while getting bludgeoned nightly will be a tough pill to swallow, now five years removed from the start of the rebuild we still reside within.