The New Jersey Devils have been re-building since 2015. This was apparent when Lou was no longer General Manager in after the 2014-15 season and outright left the organization that Summer. GM Ray Shero was given the task to tear it down and build up a team that could compete in the long term. Shero was fired in January 2020 and was formally replaced later that year by his assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald. The team is all but set to not make the playoffs for a third straight season and for the ninth time since the 2010-11 season. More recently, the Devils are winless in their last 11 games at home and are only better than Buffalo in the East, who has an argument with Arizona right now as the worst-run organization in the NHL. Clearly, the Devils’ re-build has yet to yield the results one would have hoped for back in 2015.
As Mike wrote on Friday, fans have been rather patient as the Devils are going now six seasons into this effort. So far, it has yielded two NHL Draft Lottery wins, four top-ten selections in the NHL Draft, and one playoff appearance where the team secured the postseason in their 81st game of the season and needed Taylor Hall to put in his best season ever and one of the best in Devils history to do it. Instead of building on that success, the Devils reverted to being doormats. Fans may have been patient but they are yearning for any kind of sign of hope. Hence, they were hyped after a 4-3-2 January and are remarkably (and understandably) frustrated with every setback since February 18. The latter led me to write this long, long, long rant of a post last Monday. In it, I had this to write about the re-build:
Can We Discuss the Re-Build?
Yes, but in another post. I will state that re-litigating the past six-plus years every time a loss in 2021 happens or a goal is allowed in a game is not really constructive.
This is that post. Let’s discuss the re-build. I have a feeling that it will not be the last.
Is This the Right Time to Do This?
Not really. Evaluating where the organization is going and whether they are meeting their goals when everything is going well or poorly will yield false results. The Devils are in a huge slump with a heinous winless streak at home games. As many of their wounds are self-inflicting, very little has gone right in general. No one wants to look at what are objective positives or trends. Likewise, evaluating a team during a hot streak may yield over-confident opinions. If everything is going right and players are getting things done, then few fans want to look at objective negatives or trends.
That stated, this larger issue has been central to a lot of the fans’ feelings and reactions to this season. Some are out of initial frustration and venting after goals allowed and losses. Others are out of general frustration with how the season has been going. These feelings are compounded by the lack of actual postseason success since 2012 and the fear that this re-build is nowhere near close to done. It may not be the right time, but given how often it keeps coming up, I cannot ignore it for much longer.
What is the Goal Anyway?
That is a good question. Your mileage may vary on who you may ask. My opinion is that the eventual goal is to be a contending team again. A team where making the playoffs is expected and the team is striving for playoff success. I personally think that a teams do not often from the basement to the penthouse and stay there in a short time. So the more immediate goal is for the team to be more competitive so they can push to make the playoffs in the near future.
My opinion is just that. In terms of the thoughts of someone with some more juice than I do, Corey Masisak asked a similar question to David Blitzer, one of the team’s principal owners, at the press conference where Tom Fitzgerald and Lindy Ruff were announced as general manager and head coach, respectively. Here was my summation at the time:
Third question from Corey Masisak, which was for Blitzer. What sort of timeline do you have for seeing the team to compete for a playoff spot. Blitzer said it was a difficult question, but he thinks the core the team will be “excited for a long time” and there will be “different dynamics” that will have to be managed. There are moves they intend to make over the summer. They want to be contenders in “the coming years.” But Blitzer believes “the players will tell us” Blitzer emphasized there is no line in the sand that they intend to make the playoffs next season.
My interpretation of Blitzer’s answer is that ownership was (and is) under no delusions that the Devils were ready to take a step forward in 2021. They have higher expectations in 2021-22. In a sense, a more competitive Devils team this year would make meeting that goal in 2022 more attainable. That stated, Blitzer keenly pointed out that it would be the players and not necessarily the coaches or the management that would indicate that they are ready. To that end, I would expect ownership to be more concerned about development than results at the moment.
Are the Devils On Track to Meet This Goal?
No, the 2021 Devils really are not on track for this. Again, the Devils are mired in a terrible run of games since their return from a Coronavirus outbreak on February 16. After winning their first two games, they have won just two of their last fourteen games. The team has been winless at home since January 24 and a controversy-filled 2-3 shootut loss to the Islanders on March 14 was their best result at the Rock since that date. While results alone do not tell the whole story of how a team is playing, a record with that much failure means that the Devils have not been nearly good enough to say that they are competitive.
As of this writing, they are better than Buffalo in the East and, again, their organization is in a state of a a dumpster fire that was lit by a tire fire that has yet to end. That is not really a step forward. Neither are the facts that the Devils are sitting 28th in the NHL with 20 points in 25 games and 27th in points percentage with 40%. It is not a real improvement over their previous five seasons and especially in comparison to the 2017-18 season when the Devils made the postseason.
While looking at season stats for the team in the middle of a slump is, again, not a good idea as it is taken at what I hope is the team’s lowest point of the season, let’s take look at an overview of the Devils’ team stats after last night’s game and compare them with each season since 2014-15. That season was the last one before the teardown in 2015-16 when the re-building effort began by GM Ray Shero.
In 5-on-5, the 2021 Devils may actually appear to be on the right track. Note: These stats from Natural Stat Trick are score and venue adjusted 5-on-5 stats.
Believe it or not, but the Devils’ 5-on-5 play over the season so far has been not bad. The last season of DeBoer and the “bench” option of Lou, Adam Oates, and Scott Stevens was not good in 5-on-5. The Devils became worse during the tear down seasons of 2015-16 and 2016-17, rebounded a bit during the Hart-worthy Hall season of 2017-18, and then fell back down. My conclusion is that John Hynes and his staff were not good at all in 5-on-5 play with the personnel he had to work with. (Nashville is actually near NJ in a few 5-on-5 stats, so it is not solely Hynes’ fault). Not that the 2021 Devils do not have issues of their own to address, but Lindy Ruff in 5-on-5 has been not heinous. Also, even with recent losses, the Devils are finally above 7% in 5-on-5 shooting, which is a plus going forward in 2021. Still, the Devils have not been a legitimately good or great team in 5-on-5 for over seven seasons. There is still much more improvement to be done.
The Devils’ power play has also struggled much over the last seven seasons with the 2021 Devils representing a new low in comparison. Shoutout to the 2021 Devils actually scoring a PPG last night.
The Devils have out performed the expected goals model in every season on the power play except in the last two. The 2019-20 Devils’ power play did get some results and did create a higher rate of high-danger chances than all other seasons. The 2021 Devils’ power play has both the lowest expected goals rate by at least a goal and the lowest actual goals rate by at least two goals. The Devils have also been relatively anemic at creating offensive opportunities from shooting attempts to scoring chances regardless of danger. The decision to have Mark Recchi run this power play is looking worse by the game. And that is in comparison to some really frustrating power play seasons like 2016-17 and 2018-19.
On the penalty kill, the Devils’ success has been more apparent in recent games. It has been enough to pull the Devils above 70% after last night’s game. Over the course of the whole season and especially in comparison to the last six seasons, it remains abjectly horrible.
Should the 2021 Devils keep up their recent good work, then they can salvage some of their penalty kill this season. That said, this is a huge drop off from six seasons where the PK has ranged between OK to elite. The low save percentage for this season does stick out, but I have written phrases like “Help your goalies out, Devils” in Gamethreads and Tweets too many times to lay the issues at the pads of the goaltenders. Also, goalies do not control a team’s SA/60, SCA/60, HDCA/60, or a high xGF/60 of 7.68.
In summary, the 2021 Devils have shown progress in their 5-on-5 performances over this whole season. There is still room for improvement, but they do boast the team’s best CF% and SCF% in recent memory. They are not far off in SF% or xGF% either. They could stand to be much better in high danger scoring chances in terms of generating more of them and allowing fewer of them. And the finishing has perked up in recent games to get back above 7% as it was as low as 6.4% not that long ago.
However, special teams have taken a huge step back. Not that the Devils had a very potent power play over the last six seasons, but they have not been nearly as wasteful as the 2021 team. As much as the penalty kill has been more successful in recent weeks, it has been a huge reason for their struggles during this season. It has also been a huge downgrade compared to past seasons with and without Blake Coleman and with and without an aging Andy Greene that became a shell of his former self over this time period. In case you want to point to two missing PKers on the 2021 roster as the cause for such a steep drop off in penalty killing performance.
Again, I understand you do not really want to see this written after the team’s eleventh winless game in a row at home in a bad season that is all but lost at this point. That is why it is not the ideal time. But if we are to evaluate and re-litigate the re-build, then we have to look at the data we do have and not the data we wish it was. And I do agree that while some of these more positive stats in comparison with past seasons represent progress, an improved process should yield improved results. We have not seen improved results in 2021. If it does not come, then I do agree that the process improvements may have not been that significant. Which would fall at the feet of Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald.
In short: a lot more work needs to be done.
Why Has This Re-Build Taken So Long?
There is no hard and fast rule as to how long a re-build in professional sports should take. There is no formula to state that for a team who has been successful for X years that they must wander in the proverbial desert for Y years. I can tell you that, to reference Ben Massey, it is definitely not, “The Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby and then BAM! Stanley Cup.” It is worth noting that since that post in April 2011, the Oilers have drafted first overall three more times and in the top-ten five more times. Even with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl being the scoring machines that they are, the Oilers have made the postseason once (2017) and crashed out of the play-in last August. They are in a good spot to make the playoffs this year in the North. Although there is a lot of hockey left to be played and if anyone knows about making the least out of their situation, it is the Oilers. (Aside: Hope the 38-year old Mike Smith keeps performing as well as he has been, Oilers fans.)
One of the more common arguments that come up is how the Devils were left in a bad place by Lou. It is true that the Devils did not have a lot of cap flexibility in 2014-15. It is also true that the Devils’ drafts turned out to yield few NHL players and even fewer players that could make a team’s impact. The players picked from 2008 through 2014 would have been or currently are in prime years of their career in this re-building timeframe. Seeing David Conte and his staff whiff on picks for multiple years really hurt the future. It is also true that Lou’s management style was very much (and still is based on the Islanders) trying to succeed now and worrying about the future whenever it comes. The Devils did need to change a lot.
However, this argument is losing relevancy with every passing day. The failed actions and inactions of the distant past are increasingly distant. There was someone else in charge from May 2015 to January 2020, whose actions and inactions have more recent impact on the current team. Ray Shero was made GM to follow Lou and after Lou left the organization in the summer of 2015, the re-building effort began. Under Shero, a lot of players, coaches, and team personnel was overturned. Different people came into the organization with the intention of making something new. John Hynes was named head coach. Alain Nasreddine, his longtime assistant from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, followed. Tom Fitzgerald was brought in as assistant GM. Paul Castron would take over for Conte after the 2015 NHL Draft. The Devils ended the 2015-16 season, Shero’s first as GM, with a payroll of $62.6 million (or $8.73 million). He created cap flexibility in short order and reduced the number of inherited contracts over time. The tear down was largely a success and that did not take long.
Of course, the whole point of re-building is to build something. This is where Shero and his approaches came up short. If you go through this blog’s archives, then you will find that most of us - the writers and you, the People Who Matter - liked a lot of what Shero was doing. In retrospect, some of the moves made did not turn out as well we hoped. In my view, some of Shero’s biggest failings was what he did not end up doing. Some of these are familiar to you as they have been discussed to death. Some of these may not be. Here is a quick list of the more major ones.
The Failure to Build Off of 2017-18. The Devils’ best season under the Shero Era was the one where the Devils made the playoffs. They barely made it. It took a MVP-level season from Taylor Hall, who became the first Devil ever to win the Hart as the league’s MVP. It took Keith Kinkaid playing above his level for two months after Cory Schneider fell off after the first half of the season. It took Patrick Maroon making up for where Michael Grabner faltered as in-season acquisitions. It took Nico Hischier showing he can be a #1 center in the NHL right after being drafted. It took a huge win over Toronto to block off Florida in Game #81. Sure, it ended up with a 1-4 series loss to Tampa Bay. But for a team re-building, making it to the playoffs was a clear sign that the team was heading in the right direction. However, instead of building on it for the future, the team did not do much to improve. Combined with a massive injury to Hall, the team took a big step back. It would be one thing if they missed out on the postseason by a little in 2018-19, but it was not a close miss. This led to Hall publicly demanding an improved team for 2019-20, Shero and management attempting to make that happen, and then 2019-20 happened and it all fell apart. To me, the big miss was not being more aggressive to make improvements and hoping to succeed by just running back the same roster.
The Insistence on Keeping John Hynes. One of the larger lessons from the growth of hockey stats and how we think about the game is that coaching matters a lot. We can see it pretty easily now in the East Division. Barry Trotz has got the most out of his charges in Long Island. When their hot streak ends, they will not wilt like a flower without water. They will still compete. On the flipside, Shero endured with Hynes and his staff for over four seasons. We can see with the 5-on-5 numbers that the Devils really did not play all that well under Hynes in the game’s most common situation. Even with an elite penalty kill, the Devils were generally stuck in their own end more often than not and increasingly lost on what to do about it. In retrospect, Hynes should have been replaced in 2018-19 instead of being given an extension - which I’m still baffled as to how he received one. His firing in 2019 was well-earned and also too late. Ruff is in a unique situation between the compressed schedule and the pandemic as he is picking up the pieces and trying to make something else work now. It remains to be seen if Ruff is truly the right guy, but it is telling that some team’s 5-on-5 numbers have been markedly better this season than some of Hynes’ seasons even with the Devils’ poor record in 2021. Hynes may be a better fit in Nashville, but he absolutely was not in New Jersey. Which is worse because Shero literally built a roster that could and should have played to Hynes’ strengths as a coach.
The 2015 and 2016 First Round Draft Picks. Imagine if Mat Barzal was selected at sixth overall instead of Pavel Zacha. Or Mikko Ratanen. Or Timo Meier. Or Ivan Provorov. Or Zach Werenski. This was a contentious pick then. I admitted I liked it then but I did want other players instead. It turned out that other players would have been better. It could be argued this was Conte’s last draft and so he had the influence on this pick. But the man in charge was Shero and he at least allowed it. I imagine if/when Zacha starts to struggle to produce, the arguments over Zacha being picked will begin anew.
The 2016 first round may have been a rougher one. It was not clear ahead of this season of whether Michael McLeod, picked twelfth overall, would be a NHL player. He was not impressing at the AHL level. But he got his shot in camp this season and he has been making the most of it as a fourth liner. While the 2016 Draft Class was not as stacked as 2015’s class, getting a fourth liner at 12th overall is a let down. Like with Zacha, there were a couple of better prospects to select at that spot who went after that one. In Shero’s and Castron’s defense, the 2016 class will likely be better remembered for the other picks. Namely: Jesper Bratt (actual top-six winger out of the sixth round), Mikhail Maltsev (fourth rounder trying to establish himself in the NHL now), Joey Anderson (third rounder flipped for Andreas Johnsson), Yegor Rykov (fifth rounder sent to Our Hated Rivals for Grabner), Nathan Bastian (also a fourth liner, but a second round pick should be aiming higher than that), and Jeremy Davies (seventh rounder and part of the package to bring P.K. Subban to the Rock).
The Reliance on Andy Greene and Cory Schneider. Cory Schneider was fantastic but his body gave way and his poor goaltending performances started to become more frequent. As much as he had nights where he did as well as one could reasonably expect and he showed he still had it, they were becoming fewer and far between. I think some fans still had it in for him for stupid reasons, but I do have to concede my stubbornness - the Devils moved on from Schneider way later than he was, big contract and all. Shero needed to sort out the goaltending much earlier. Even if you think of it as a weakpoint now, imagine if Mackenzie Blackwood did not impress at the NHL level and warranted NHL performances. It would be a bigger fault on Shero for not addressing this crucial, high-variance position. But the Devils are away from it now.
The Devils are not away from the other issue of Andy Greene. Greene was great at the beginning of this timeframe. But Father Time always wins and he was winning Greene over with season after season. Before one knew it, he was an anchor in possession, his lack of speed hindered him in 5-on-5 but not in close-defending situations on the penalty kill, and his level of contribution fell off. Shero never sought out a Greene replacement for the left side on the team’s top defensive pairing. After Greene was traded, the Devils still do not really have one. Ruff & Co. have tried Ryan Murray, Damon Severson on his offhand, and Dmitry Kulikov with varying results. The more recent defensive issues come down to defensemen making bad decisions and not putting in a professional effort at times. But the overall talent issues remain. The Devils do not need an all-star caliber defenseman or a top draft pick to get one, as nice as either would be. They need someone to handle significant minutes, kill penalties well, and do so responsibly. The Devils do not have this player for the left side of the blueline at the moment and they may not have it in their prospect pool. Shero should have been looking for a replacement as Greene entered his mid to late 30s. He did not and the Devils are currently paying for it.
The 2019 Moves Went Awry. After Hall made it clear he wanted more talent, Shero wowed the People Who Matter with an active 2019 offseason. There was the trade for P.K. Subban with his $9 million cap hit (and $10 million salary for 2019-20). The trade for Nikita Gusev and the subsequent $9 million, two season signing. Snagging Wayne Simmonds for $5 million for a season of beefiness and making things happen on the power play around the crease. New deals for Will Butcher, Pavel Zacha, and a huge extension for Nico Hischier. All this and an incoming Jack Hughes from the 2019 NHL Draft. I was excited. You were likely excited. We expected the playoffs to return.
Then the Devils fell flat on their face against Winnipeg, spent the beginning of the season on a losing streak, and slipped into further losses. Subban showed he was far from the Norris Trophy winner he was in Montreal. For an eight-figure salary, one would expect more than just being better than Mirco Mueller, but alas, it was what it was. Gusev struggled hard in his first few months in the NHL. He did salvage his season and played much better after getting acclimated to NHL hockey. He has since regressed. Simmonds did not play particularly well and his usage on the power play was ineffective. Zacha was frustrating as ever. Butcher had a bad season. Hughes showed everyone that jumping from the USNTDP to the NHL was really hard. This all ended with Hynes being fired in early December, Hall traded in mid-December, and Shero fired in January. The one time Shero went for it was when it was needed to succeed to keep Hall happy and, presumably, ownership happy. It ended up dooming the effort overall.
And these moves are impacting the Devils now. The good news is that Hughes has been playing much better and has shown he can be someone to build around. Which is good because he will be. Subban has been better in 2021 than he was in 2019-20. Your mileage may vary on how much that is worth, but it is what it is. Zacha is having his best season so far, which is a positive in what has been a challenging career. The bad news is that Butcher has failed to take an opportunity to get his groove back earlier this season; Hischier has been too hurt to make that first season of his extension count; and Gusev has regressed hard to his pre-acclimation level of play. But they needed to all work out in 2019-20 and they very much did not.
This is not to say that Shero did nothing right. He did plenty of good moves. He will be best remembered for commenting to Peter Chiarelli that if he wanted Adam Larsson in Edmonton, then he wanted Taylor Hall in return. And they made that one-for-one happen before anyone with a clue in Edmonton could tell Chiarelli not to do that. But some of the ones he did make and ones he never fully acted on have hurt in retrospect and they are hurting the 2021 Devils now. Ultimately, we have to be honest and admit that Shero’s building up of the Devils was a failure. And after five seasons of that, it will take more than just a few months from Fitzgerald to make things more right. Going back to Blitzer’s answer to Masisak, it is on Fitzgerald to find the players who will make them ready to take a step forward.
So What Should the Devils Do Now to Take a Step Forward?
Some of what the Devils are doing now is what they should be doing.
First, they should remain as flexible as possible with respect to the cap. Spare me the complaints about an internal cap from ownership. A bad team with cap issues is a horrible place to be in and it only serves to make the GM’s job harder to make the team less bad. Buffalo, for example, are only about $410,000 under the salary cap after accounting for LTIR. While they will have some relief coming in 2020-21, they have some significant RFAs to pay and the pending UFAs are not easy players to replace (namely, Taylor Hall). Buffalo cannot really do much at the moment to bring in players or swing favorable trades to make themselves better for the future. I understand cap space cannot score goals or make saves, but the Devils having $8.58 million in cap space means they have a lot more options for this season and this offseason to make themselves better tomorrow. It is a far better situation to be in than having little room to maneuver. If the team is going to be bad, then do not double down on it and make the cap situation bad too.
Quick aside: This is usually where I see a complaint about the owners being cheap. The owners were fine with Shero bringing in P.K. Subban and his massive deal that saw him get $10 million in salary in 2019-20 and $8 million for 2021 with a $6 million signing bonus. Can owners be both cheap and bring in a gargantuan contract that the player is clearly not able to live up to? I think not. Definitely not in an offseason where Gusev got $9 million deal after the trade and Simmonds received $5 million for just one season too. Definitely not when Hischier was given a massive extension early that season as well. Also, the Devils’ payroll of $72.9 million is the most since 2015-16 per CapFriendly’s archives and a huge jump from the $64 million in 2018-19. This would have a lot more merit if players were not being given raises or dumped on other teams shortly before getting one.
Second, the Devils should continue playing their younger players. More and more, I see fans wanting the Devils to play their kids. They have been doing that. This team is set to be built around a core of Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Mackenzie Blackwood, Jesper Bratt, and Ty Smith. The team already named Hischier captain and got a blessing from Hughes before announcing it. Those two are the cornerstones. Most of the forwards are under the age of 25 anyway. Only Miles Wood, Andreas Johnsson, Nikita Gusev, Kyle Palmieri, and Travis Zajac are over 25. Kids are absolutely playing this season. The defense is older, but Ty Smith continues to get regular minutes. The main man in net for the Devils is the 23-year old Mackenzie Blackwood. There really is not anyone in Binghamton who is ready for NHL minutes that has not already received a chance this season (or last season). As I (and maybe you) have lamented, it has been the veteran players who have let the team down more often than not this season. This leads me to the third point.
Third, not that Hughes and Hischier are Crosby and Malkin, but Devils management needs to find the right complementary players for them. Part of what has made Pittsburgh a contending team for so many seasons is that they find players that work well with their top skaters. They may not be well-known or highly-regarded prospects. They may not have been be players who excelled in the past. But they have made it work with Chris Kunitz, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Patric Hornqvist, Maxime Talbot, and others. Those are the players the Devils will need to find to support their identified core. Maybe they are on this team already. I am uncertain about that, but they may have a few already. Bratt comes to mind, immediately. If they do not think they have those players, then they need to actively find them either through the draft, free agency, or trades. And they need to find them sooner rather than later as Hischier is just about in his prime, Hughes’ ELC will end real soon, and some of those bridge deals will be ending around when Hughes has to get paid. It is a shame that two of Hischier’s ELC years came with the Devils regressing within their re-build. It is a shame that the first two of Hughes’ ELC years are in throwaway seasons. But there is still time to do right by them and others.
Fourth, ownership has to make it clear that they trust who is in charge. Fitzgerald’s contract as a GM is only for this season. If Harris and Blitzer do not think Fitzgerald can get the players to make the team take a step forward soon, then they need to find a new GM. Waiting on Fitzgerald to get it right is more time spent on the re-build and increased frustration and apathy from a fanbase that wants some success already. This is a challenge as it is easy to think Fitzgerald isn’t the guy amid a horrible run of games. No one said this would be easy.
Fifth, the Devils organization needs to get more aggressive in their pursuit of higher standards and performances. The more I think about it, the more I think Shero’s lack of actions in some areas were costlier than the moves he did make. That makes me think the current regime needs to yield some progress sooner rather than later. Part of what makes a culture less successful is accepting complacency. Sport is cut-throat enough as it is, but there are teams that seem to be OK with playing for lottery balls year-in and year-out. The decision makers may say otherwise to the media, but actions speak louder than words and hoping for a top draft pick years in a row just says to everyone, “Don’t bother, the next 18-year old draft pick will kick start our road to success.” I’m not saying that if the Devils lose to Buffalo tomorrow, that everyone should be fired. I may feel that way, but I do not think it would be helpful. But there is a huge difference between firing someone less than a season into their position, especially this abnormal season, and rationalizing their lack of success for over four seasons. I want to believe that those involved with the Devils are not happy with where the team is at and how they have been performing for the last four weeks. But this necessitates some kind of action, not inaction. Don’t wait to change Recchi’s role or fire him if the power play continues to be a whole lot of nothing. Don’t wait to change Nasreddine’s role or fire him if the penalty kill reverts back to being a total disaster than the aftermath of one. Ruff has benched and scratched veterans for poor performances; he should not be concerned (and likely will not be) to continue. Should a player not improve and act like they do not need to fix their issues, then that player may need to be dealt away. Fitzgerald and others needs to be mindful, but delaying decisions until the following season are missed opportunities to make other ones later.
Sixth, do not forget to sustain the gains. The Devils have been more successful on the penalty kill recently. Great. Learn from video and in sessions why they have been more successful and work to keep that going instead of just addressing mistakes. The Devils’ 5-on-5 play has been much better compared to past seasons. Great. Same thing applies; identify why they have made improvements and work to maintain them while addressing other ones (e.g. high danger chances). This is on the coaches, the analysts, the managers, and even the players to work together. If the goal for 2021 is to have the team in a better place than they were in 2019-20, then there is absolutely time to do so. I know it is not easy with a compressed schedule, but this is where organized systems by the support staff and analysts can shine. The Devils still need results to justify that their work is paying off. They will not get it based on a few bounces or breaks; it will come with continuing to work on their systems and how they play within them. This means more than just fixing issues that enrage fans like me; it means keeping up the good work when good work is done.
Seventh, establish an actual identity. The Islanders are many things, but people know what to expect from them and they play their defensive, counter-attacking style quite well. The Bruins are great at cycling and they have more skill among their players to make teams pay if they think all they can do is cycle the puck. The Devils would do well to sort out what kind of team they want to be and work on building that up along with their talent level. Lindy Ruff’s systems that involve activating the defensemen in the offensive zone and wingers to drop deeper to let the defensemen go after puck battles in the defensive zone require players who can do those things. If the Devils want to play like that regularly, then the team needs to get those players with those skills and desire to buy-in to those systems. If the Devils do not think that style will work or it is only a stop-gap for something else, then they should go in that direction. But the Devils need to pick some direction if only to help guide what Fitzgerald & Co. are building towards. “Fast, attacking, supportive” is a nice statement. It is not an identify that the Devils actually built towards under Shero and certainly not with Hynes’ coaching. This can and should be sorted out sooner rather than later.
I am not saying that if the Devils do these seven things, then they will definitely stop re-building in a season or two. I hope it does. But they are they can do now to show they learned from the past re-build, which has failed and led the Devils to this current situation. Some of them are things the Devils are doing and likely will continue. That is good. They just need to keep doing this work to eventually end this re-build.
How Much Longer Will This Take?
I wish I could say this is the last season of it. I want it to be. I am beyond tired of hoping for a brighter future to come after hearing about it for six seasons. I want that future I was hoping for in 2015 and 2016 to come real soon. I can understand this season as one to punt on between the pandemic, the shortened and compressed schedule (the lack of practices, I think, hurt more than we realize), and the division-only schedule. But time in sports is short. Players are getting older. Players only have so many seasons in their prime. Fan patience is waning.
Going way back to Blitzer’s response to Masisak about when he expects the team to make it to the playoffs, I suspect Fitzgerald is not going to get four-plus seasons like Shero did. Even if he does, Fitzgerald should act like will not if only to make something happen. Unlike a lot of bad teams, the Devils have cap flexibility, a stronger prospect pool than they had in 2015, two studs at center to build the offense (and that identity) around, a young goaltender who is very capable of being great, a young defenseman who belongs at this level for the first time since Damon Severson, and rich owners who are willing to spend if they agree with the plan to spend the money. There is even some signs that the 2021 Devils are performing better in some areas than past seasons, even though few want to read or hear that now. After five seasons, the Devils’ re-build is in a better place. I do not think the People Who Matter will question that. Of course, this means it should be expected that it should take another five seasons before the Devils can be better than half of their division or half of the NHL’s teams. And if Fitzgerald is not the guy, then Harris and Blitzer need to find the one to do it as soon as possible.
Like last week’s post, this was more of a rant and a venting session and dumping of all kinds of thoughts about the re-build and where this team is going. I know some ideas will be well-received. Some will not. But at least you know where I stand.
Now I want your take. What has went right in the Devils’ re-build? What has went wrong in the Devils’ re-build? Are Fitzgerald and Ruff the right GM and head coach to get the Devils to take the next step? How much longer do you think this re-build will take? More importantly, how much longer can you stand the Devils re-building? Lastly, what will the Devils need to do in order to proclaim the re-build as completed? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the re-build, which will no doubt be re-litigated because this is the most appropriate place to do so, in the comments. Thank you for reading.
P.S. My decade long review of the 2010s, season-by-season, may be worth perusing if you want to dive deeper into some of these re-building seasons and what was thought at the time and how it looked back at the end of 2019. The link goes to the summary of the whole series, and the individual links to each season are at the beginning of it.