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Failure is Always an Option: A Pessimist’s Look at the 2021-22 New Jersey Devils

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As the New Jersey Devils begin their offseason, this post takes an pessimistic look at the 2021-22 Devils. As bad as 2021 was, the Devils could choose to fail either by inaction or not changing enough to help ensure a bad Devils team for next season.

New Jersey Devils v Philadelphia Flyers
No, it doesn’t always get better. Failure is an option and the Devils could very well choose it for 2021-22.
Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Mythbusters was a rather popular show about people taking myths and determining whether they were actually true or not through experimentation. Among its contributions is this brilliant line by one of the hosts, Adam Savage: “Failure is always an option.” Savage has explained that it is more than a cute line. It described the show’s approach to the scientific method. That it is possible that whatever you try will not work and one must know that. This tagline is also the best way I can charitably sum up the mindset of every pessimistic sports fan of their favorite team. It is also how I am approaching this post. The optimists had their time in the Sun yesterday. Today, it is time for the other side. One that can reasonably argue that the 2021-22 Devils can be a Bad Team just like they were last season.

Development is Never Guaranteed

Fans of all kinds want to assume the best with young players. Rarely will you see fans complain about a drafted player as being bad immediately. The complaint is usually more about how a pick is bad because someone better was available. But we know that in the NHL, draft picks are usually 17 to 19 years old, so we do not want to be unusually harsh to someone who really just needs time, experience, and training to become a NHL player in the future. This is fine. This is also where the problem starts.

There are always fans who want to believe that a young player, someone under the age of 25, will absolutely get better. All they need is an opportunity. All they need is to work on something that has been identified as a flaw in their game. All they need is a break. All they need is more experience. Defensemen need 200 or 300 or 400 games to figure it out. Forwards need different linemates. All need a coach who will let them play regardless of how bad their mistakes are. They just need the offseason to work on something that has been identified as an issue in their game since age 17 that somehow, someway will And repeat over and over until there is a point where they realize, often too late, that the player is just not going to get any better. A lot of prospects just do not make it and a lot of the time it is because they do not have what it takes to play in the best league in the world.

Related to this, player development is rarely linear. This is not a video game where a player if plays X games or does Y things or scores Z goals, then they will simply level up and their attributes will just get better. No. There are drawbacks. It is so common for players who have good rookie pro seasons - the Devils had 11 of them last year so take your pick - to struggle in their second pro season. The sophomore slump is not a cliche. Players realize that the league now knows who they are and they need to work on not just their weakpoints but to strengthen what they are good at to respond to the inevitable changes they will face after their first season. Take Nathan MacKinnon for example. He won the Calder in his first season in 2013-14. The next three seasons were not as impressive. But that fifth season established him as one of the better forwards in the world. If that happened to MacKinnon, then it could very well happen to any of the under-25 Devils.

Examples are good. So let us get sad about some past examples from the last decade. Let’s recall the end of the 2010-11 season. By that end, there was excitement - even from me - about what Nick Palmieri (unrelated to Kyle), Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Adam Henrique (made his NHL debut), and Vladimir Zharkov could do for the team in the following season. There was even more excitement for the defense as the Devils drafted Adam Larsson to join a possibly burgeoning blueline that included the following under-25 players that played in 2010-11 or were in the system: Matt Corrente, Matt Taormina, Mark Fayne, Alex Urbom, Mark Fraser, Jon Merrill (prospect), Eric Gelinas (prospect), and Brandon Burlon (prospect). They were all young. They were inexperienced. They could all be better! Were they? Guess how many of those players managed to be actually valuable players for the Devils in the following season and beyond? Fayne, Henrique, Larsson, and that is pretty much it - and I write that as a huge fan of Zharkov.

Most of those players listed got their chance. Some were dealt away and proceeded to not play all that well or long with their new team. Some could not really stick in the NHL. Despite being at a young age, their game was flawed enough that they could not overcome playing beyond a limited and easily-replaceable role. As much as fans correctly criticize the blueline today, longer time readers can recall how much hope there was in the group of Larsson, Merrill, Gelinas, Burlon, Urbom, and eventually in 2012 Damon Severson. Surely the Devils defense would be great with those young guys getting involved. Out of these six, only Severson and Larsson turned out to be any good. (And Larsson’s best contribution as a Devil was being worth Taylor Hall to Peter Chiarelli.) Larsson is currently on a second pairing in Edmonton when he is able to play. And some fans want to tear their hair out and/or mark him with the scarlet ‘S’ (for SOFT) anytime Severson breathes the wrong way.

The main point is that you can fill a team up with prospects with tantalizing talent. They can go onto have rookie seasons or seasons as a young player where they showed a lot of promise. It is possible that they can not reach that point ever again. Or develop to be less than what was hoped for when they were drafted or what they did after the draft but before getting into pro hockey.

Here is the pessimism pill to swallow: The 2021 Devils had 11 players have a rookie-eligible season and not all 11 will necessarily be better next season. I could not tell you who will struggle among Ty Smith, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, and others but it can and perhaps likely happen to some of them. The 2021 Devils also had 8 under-25 players who weren’t rookies: Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Jesper Boqvist, Michael McLeod, Jonas Siegenthaler, Pavel Zacha, and Mackenzie Blackwood. There is no guarantee all eight of those players will be better in 2021-22 compared to their 2021 season. The Devils, as constructed, have put all of their eggs in the basket of youth. The reality is that all of those eggs are not going to come out as Grade ‘A.’

Remember: Failure is always an option.

Fortune Doesn’t Always Repeat

Fortune? Did a 29th-place hockey team have something go unexpectedly right for them? Actually, yes. Even beyond how well Smith, Kuokkanen, and Sharangovich played last season. Two players immediately come to mind: Miles Wood and Mr. Corner-Turner himself, Pavel Zacha.

Wood scored 17 goals and was the goal-scoring leader on the team until Zacha tied him in the last full week of the season. Wood is one of those players that some fans absolutely love. He’s apparently big (officially 6’2” and 195 pounds, or the same height and 10 pounds lighter than the apparently soft Severson). He skates really fast albeit only in a straight line and when pursuing a puck. He plays with a lot of grit and makes Ken Daneyko excited; all codes for that he occasionally fights sometimes. Wood did have a good 2021. He only took 29 PIM, he did not always fire the puck at any given opportunity, and putting up 17 goals and 8 assists in a bottom six role is hardly unwelcomed production.

Zacha also had a good 2021. He put up 17 goals and led the 29th place Devils in scoring with 35 points. It is a career high for both categories despite the 56-game season and Zacha only played in 50 games of it anyway. The man was hot in February and produced in every single game. He was moved to Hischier’s wing in April and the production returned after a super-cold March. He also shot the puck at a career high 2.06 shots per game average and nearly matched his previous season high in shots of 112 with 106 in 50 games last season. He has always been a point of contention as most of the players picked after him in the first round in 2015 have had far better seasons and careers than him. But perhaps this time the 24-year old has Figured It Out.

You know what both Wood and Zacha had in common? They both had the highest shooting percentages of their careers.

Wood shot at 13.4% in 2021. That is more than 2% of his previous high in 2017-18 (when he scored 19 goals) and pulled his career shooting percentage to 9.2%. While someone shooting around 13% on its own is not that notable, it is to Wood given his prior four seasons in the NHL. It is also worth pointing out that among Wood’s 17 goals included a 60-footer seeing-eye shot from the blueline that went in among other flukes. This does not bode well for those who think Wood is going to rack up a goal scoring rate of 0.31 per game again.

It is even worse for Zacha. Zacha’s shooting percentage was a whopping 16.5% last season. That was a huge jump from the 8.2% he shot at last season and even his previous high of 13.1% in 2018-19, where I am sure he turned some kind of corner then too. As much as Zacha shot the puck more, how much of it was a result of it being more successful instead of realizing he should be doing that? It’s great he scored 17 and set a career high in points and did not have huge flukes like Wood’s long-range bomb. But his season ended up hitting a straight with a 2-7 offsuit hand in Texas Hold-Em. The Gambler’s Fallacy would warn about betting against the exact opposite, but it would be just as much of a fallacy to think that Zacha has found some way to double his shooting percentage.

This is an issue for next season as both will be highlighted as producers and they are not likely to repeat that level of production. Zacha can do some things well without producing, such as killing penalties - this past season excepted. Wood really does not; off the puck play is simply not his strength. This is also why some astute fans think it may be wise for the Devils to deal them sooner rather than later. But I fear the current management will want to exalt both and keep them in significant roles expecting similar results that are not likely to happen.

And this is not even to consider other players in a similar situation. Here is a third example After struggling to get his first NHL goal within his initial tenures in New Jersey, Michael McLeod got nine last season with a shooting percentage of 15%. Sure, some of those goals were beautiful but are they repeatable? I hope the Devils are able to realize that they may not be and prepare for ways to work around it be it for McLeod, Wood, Zacha, or anyone else you can think of. If not, they might as well be choosing the failure option.

One more downer of a point about fortune: It is not always good fortune. Injuries are a good example of bad fortune. Despite Nico Hischier’s orbital bone and sinus fracture shortly after his return from a leg injury, the Devils were fairly fortunate with respect to injuries last season. Outside of the Coronavirus, only Hischier and Nathan Bastian sustained a long-term absence in the season. I do not want to wish injury on anyone. But I would be foolish to ignore their possibility. Injuries are usually uncontrollable setbacks. A rash of them could hinder the 2021-22 season after it was not a massive issue in the 2021 season.

Can You Expect Different Results with the Same People?

Technically, the answer to this question is yes because of the variation present in hockey and the reality that coaches can make changes to their own tactics. Generally, the answer is no because the variation can only impact so much and coaches tend to stick to their tactics philosophically and/or in practice. And that question crossed my mind when the word came out that Lindy Ruff intended to return all of his assistants.

The decision is up to GM Tom Fitzgerald. However, if Ruff felt comfortable to state he expects his staff to return in-full, then I think he has some support that they could all come back. This would mean Mark Recchi and Alain Nasreddine would return. Recchi’s duties included the power play while Nasreddine focused on the penalty kill and the defense. The 2021 Devils finished with a power play success rate of 14.2%, which ranked 28th in the league and just 0.1% ahead of 29th place San Jose, and a penalty kill success rate of 71%, which not only ranked dead last in the league but was also 2.1% behind 30th place Philadelphia.

To add more pain to this pessimistic look at next season, consider if the 2021 Devils had a league median success rate at both. Using the 15th best stats for both, here is the results. The Devils would have scored at least 9 more power play goals (20.5% of 155 is 31.775, I’m rounding down) and 16 fewer power play goals against (80.4% of 148 is 118.992 kills for 29.008 goals allowed, I’m rounding down again). That’s at least four wins right there if we assume that a goal differential improvement of six guarantees a win. It could have been much more. It is not hyperbole to say that the Devils’ special teams really hurt this season.

It is also not hyperbole to bluntly ask the question: Why the hell are the two assistants responsible for these awful special teams expected to return? It would be one thing if the team had fine underlying numbers on either special team and were undercut by bad puck luck or goaltending or something else. But that was not the case at all. Especially as the Devils repeatedly made zone entries on power plays and lost the puck within seconds so they can re-start their long, sometimes-back-pass ridden breakouts. And I’m loathe to blame the goalies. when the passive diamond - a brand new scheme after several successful years under the wedge plus one - gets beaten weakside for the umpteenth time. Is the team that reliant on hoping the players get better to out-perform the coaches’ crummy systems?

This is especially bad for Nasreddine. The PK was at historical lows during the season and their modest gains as the season went only turned a PK from a broken car with four missing wheels into a broken car with four missing wheels and a half-inflated spare in the trunk. Back on July 9, 2020 when the team announced Ruff as head coach and Fitzgerald as the full-time GM, Fitzgerald specifically highlighted Nasreddine for his work with the penalty kill and how he was proud of him for it. At the time, he was right to do so. After this season of abysmal PK play, they’re apparently going to give him a mulligan and let him have another go at it? And somehow, as if by magic, the penalty kill will be better? Come on.

And if Nasreddine was in control of the defense, then bringing him back would even be harder to defend. If you thought the Devils defense was not good enough, then bringing back the coach whose strategies caused this team to get beaten so many times in similar ways by different opponents is nonsensical. The 2021 Devils general approach to defense was to commit to the puck carrier and leave all others alone. It didn’t work very well! Unless Fitzgerald blocks that and the team understandably goes in a different direction, then why should anyone expect a better defense next season?

While I am not saying the Devils need to blow it all up and start over like a certain group of Blueshirts, a 29th place team can easily justify changes in the organization based on performance. Especially after a season where the team arguably had the worst special teams units in the NHL. That the head coach is fine with having them return despite horrid results and performances on both suggests the team may be choosing to fail again here. And, no, going from 31st to, say, 28th on the PK is not a worthy improvement.

We Fired His Boss, Maybe He’ll Be Different Too for Reasons?

Of course, the Devils could surpass the past points by bringing in new players. Veteran players with experience. Players who can serve roles if or when the younger players are not ready to fill them. The Devils have identified a core to build around. So this offseason is a time to, you know, build something around them. This will be one of Tom Fitzgerald’s main task and one of his more important ones.

Fitzgerald was named as the full-time GM back in July. He was the caretaker after his boss, Ray Shero, was fired in January 2020. Fitzgerald was Shero’s assistant GM since Shero became the GM back in June 2015. We got a taste of what kind of free agents he could bring in the 2020 offseason, which was understandably unusual given the pandemic. The players brought in were meant to do the same thing he needs to do now: veterans to fill in spots in the lineup others may not be ready to do. In came Corey Crawford, Scott Wedgewood, Dmitry Kulikov, and Sami Vatanen. Ryan Murray and Andreas Johnsson were brought in on trades where not a whole lot was given up: a fifth round pick and Joey Anderson, respectively.

I do not think it would be fair to fault anyone for Crawford retiring. That did throw a wrench into the plans in the net, as Fitzgerald claimed Eric Comrie and Aaron Dell to beef up the goaltending depth for a given definition of beef up. Your mileage may vary on the other acquisitions. Johnsson looked lost, ended up in a bottom six role, and was cold for most of the season, although he had some very fine numbers in 5-on-5 play. Kulikov played quite well, Murray not as much, and Vatanen was the least impressive among the veteran defenders brought in. Fitzgerald shipped out Kulikov, lost Vatanen to waivers, and who knows if he tries to convince Murray to return instead of hitting free agency this Summer. While I can understand the circumstances, it was not exactly a demonstration that Fitzgerald can get better talent from outside of the organization better than his previous boss.

This is a crucial point heading into this offseason. On what basis can we believe Fitzgerald can bring in free agents that will help the team? With the expectation of a flat salary cap, Fitzgerald is in an unique position to spend. But will he after four seasons of not doing so under Shero and the one season where they did ended up all wrong with Shero getting fired? On what basis can we believe Fitzgerald can overcome the challenges New Jersey faces in free agency beyond the team not being good? Remember the Devils share a market with a rich team in Manhattan with cap space and an owner who wants results now, a team moving to Belmont without cap space but a crafty and legendary GM who will make things work if he thinks it will help the team, and a team in Philadelphia that looked to reload than go through a sustained re-build for at least three decades now. Is Fitzgerald able to be persuasive like Shero was to Will Butcher? Trading away players on expiring deals for decent returns is one thing, but this is another - and yet it was those deals that helped convince ownership that Fitzgerald should be in charge. This offseason could show whether or not they are right.

And this offseason and its results will have a big impact for the future of the core. Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt will need new contracts after next season. Ty Smith becomes available for an extension. Mackenzie Blackwood will be a season away from one as well. If this team is not performing significantly better after next season, then A) these negotiations could get more expensive than they could be and B) Fitzgerald may not get to make them.

That in of itself is the issue: What confidence can we have in Fitzgerald? Sure, he could succeed. I’d like him to. But I don’t know if I can trust that. And if he comes up with just fill-ins for backup goaltender, the blueline, and depth forwards to continue to put all of his proverbial eggs in the basket of the youth, then it could all backfire real badly and the re-build will have to continue. Then the question will become: What do you do with Fitzgerald? To ask it would be a failure, which, again, is always an option.

Effectively Status Quo

One of the memes to come from the legendary era of Lou being in charge is status quo. Yes, the scouting fell apart. Yes, the band-aids could not full cover the wounds to heal. Yes, the cap management was not well done. The tight-lipped Lou way led to a lot of answers being answered with one English word and one Latin word: Status quo.

Fun as it was sometimes, it was not particularly well received as the issues caught up to the Devils and eventually led to where the team is today. Still, even the last few seasons of his time in New Jersey did not miss the postseason by over 20 points like the 2021 Devils did. Shocking to some of you, there is a difference in missing out by a few games and missing out over a month ahead of the season ending. But in a results-oriented business, the results weren’t achieved and so Josh Harris and David Blitzer came to the conclusion that Lou was out. In came Ray Shero to start the re-build the team is still effectively mired in six years later.

This phrase came to mind in both writing this negative perspective piece and in response to some of the news and reactions from fans coming out of the end of the season. The Devils finished 29th overall, but we’re supposed to expect that the young players will all get better and make the team better. The Devils had the worst penalty kill in the NHL and one of the worst power plays, but Ruff wants his assistants back and this is OK because Nasreddine ran a better penalty kill (with a different system) years ago and Recchi supposedly helps develop players. The Devils have had a ton of cap space for years, they have not spent it, but now we’re to expect Fitzgerald to spend it now but if he does not then it is fine because the team may not be good next season. The young players are being built around, but there is no urgency to bring in better veterans because the U-25 players will be better and some others have had great seasons despite being unlikely to be ever repeated. And even if Harris and Blitzer feel otherwise, their actions (or lack of action) belies compliance with the current situation.

I hate to write this, but accepting all of this as status quo is how a losing culture is developed for a franchise. The team has assets in terms of the cap, they added picks, they have a prospect system teeming with talent, they have young talent in all three positions, and they are honestly not making the most of it. Not making the most of the available tools shows that that the organization is not willing to make the changes needed to improve the team. Sure, ownership has done some behind-the-scenes improvements. But the team just had a horrid season and there is apparently no accountability for it for the areas directly impacting the team on the ice. Not when coaches are expected to return in spite of their results. Not when the team has players who out-performed past seasons and are pretty much done in development and are likely to keep them hoping it will happen again instead of moving on. Not when the man to replace the GM ownership fired is the prior GM’s assistant and has yet to show how he’s different from his past boss. The overall message from the end of the 2021 Devils is effectively status quo.

Again, I am not writing that Harris and Blitzer need to get their Dolan on and have everyone in a position of leadership fired. But there does need to be some changes. Public changes. And outside of the one offseason where Taylor Hall demanded it, this has not been a team who has made a whole lot of them to build the team up. If this offseason turns out to be Fitzgerald retaining the coaches, getting a bunch of veterans to fill in spots for a year only to be traded away by the deadline, and still waiting for the young players to tell them that they’re ready - regardless of whether their improvement is real or just a hot stick, then you might as well write off 2021-22. Or write: status quo.

This should be seen as a growing concern on the business end. This is not a fanbase that has accepted that the team needed to re-build after decades of not needing to do so. This is a fanbase that accepted that six years ago. More and more, they’re expecting improvements or they’re checking out. I speak from experience as a hockey blogger entering my 15th season of writing too many words about my favorite team in my favorite sport. Angry fans still pay attention. Apathetic fans do not. If they’re not going to read a free hockey blog, then they’re not going to spend to go to games at the Rock, buy overpriced food, purchase some nice-looking and not-cheap merchandise, and procure parking somewhere in Newark that is not sketchy at 10 PM. And I can’t blame them. Not in a world every fans has thousands of other easy-to-access means of entertainment. Not in arguably one of the densest markets when it comes to sports, hobbies, and pastimes. Not in a hockey world where there is no written rule that states that re-builds have to last ten years at a minimum. Harris and Blitzer, I remind you that you have actual skin in the game here. Status quo isn’t a winning answer, even if it is unsaid. It is a losing answer and guess what that means: it means that failure is indeed an option. That’s bad for business.

And I have to be this doom and gloom about it because, well, look at the past six years again. Eventually after multiple seasons of “Wait, the youth is coming and the youth will make the team better soon,” one doesn’t need a large, dark helmet to ask “When will soon be now?” And I fear it will not be next season unless some big changes happen.

If not, then we will see if the core this team is built around forces some big changes of their own. I remind you that Hughes’ ELC ends next season, Bratt’s current contract is done, Smith’s ELC will almost be over, and Blackwood will be a season away from his contract ending. I can easily see Jack Hughes demanding and commanding improvements. I hope ownership is not waiting for the demands from the young stars instead of being proactive. That is another failure chose in of itself.

Concluding Thoughts

Not all failures in hockey, sports, and life are controllable. Bad things happen outside of our control. But how we react to them and how we deal with it is indeed in our control. And I want the New Jersey Devils organization to not tell me they want to be better, but to actually do it. But I have no reason to believe they will do it now for some reason. The coaches are returning. Next season may see a very similar lineup that will go as far as the young players will improve - which is definitely not guaranteed to happen next season if at all. If, or more likely when, Wood and Zacha (among others) struggle to score along with those young players having a tough time on the ice, then the same fans praising them for turning a corner will be lamenting what happened beyond the obvious answer of puck luck not being on their side. And when the special teams play doesn’t improve by a significant amount, we will be wondering why in the world the same coaches came back to run it. And if the free agents brought in to help are not doing so well, then we will be wondering why ownership thought to fire Shero only to promote his assistant instead.

The Devils can make a lot of things better going into 2021-22. But I have doubts as to whether they will. Will they prove the pessimistic outlook wrong? Will they make the hard choices to actually improve the team or show to the personnel and the fans that finishing 29th really isn’t that acceptable? Will they choose to avoid a status quo approach, which would all but guarantee a similarly bad 2021-22 season after a bad 2021 season? If the answers are no, then they have chosen the option to fail. In what they could control, they could still choose failure.

Sad as it may seem but we must accept it: Failure is always an option.