“I’m not saying we’re going to make the playoffs or anything, but I’m going to say we need to start to win games and play meaningful hockey down the stretch,” he said. “Next year we’re going to really focus throughout the year so in Games 80, 81 and 82, we want to be playing meaningful hockey and trying to get into the playoffs.”
The New Jersey Devils are just about to end the first half of their 82-game season with a point percentage below 45% and less than 1% chance at making the playoffs per Moneypuck. The Devils’ terrible December that followed a not-so-hot November doomed the Devils to play for very little in 2022. What adds salt to my intake is when Fitzgerald took to the press on December 21 when the Devils were sitting on ten wins for the season and one win for the month. Some people would make changes. Not Fitzgerald, whom said this as highlighted among other quotes at the team’s official website:
“I believe it has to come from that room,” he said. “They have to keep each other accountable. They have to push each other. They have to be committed to each other, the guy next to you, the guy across from you.
“We can lay down structure, but until they push each other like we were doing at the beginning of the year then you will see change. But I believe in the group because of what we saw coming out of training camp. We have to get that team back.”
When I saw Carolina go up two goals early in New Jersey on Saturday, I snarked online whether the answer was still in the room. Happily, the Devils did comeback and win a stunning 7-4 game over Carolina. More interestingly, I received a response from an anonymous member of the People Who Matter.
“Meaningful games down the stretch” is literally true if you’re talking draft position.
With this comment and that the Devils are set to be sellers at this year’s trade deadline (at least with P.K. Subban’s expiring contract), it hit me. We could be seeing the return of Sherman Abrams for the Devils.
For the unaware, Sherman Abrams is the personification of tanking for a “better” draft position. Named after two famous tanks, Abrams and his supporters want losses and the team to fall in the standings as much as possible. I was hoping the Devils would not need to do this. But with the team just two points ahead of 28th place Buffalo, I fear he will be present throughout the second half of this season. More will join his ranks. More will call for losses as if they are victories for the glory of a higher, and therefore better, draft pick.
So this post is for the People Who Matter who are Friends of Sherman Abrams and those tempted by them. And especially for Tom Fitzgerald, General Manager of the New Jersey Devils. This post is a set of arguments, reasons, and ultimately a plea: Please say no to Sherman Abrams in 2022.
The Gains in Lottery Odds Aren’t Worth the Amount of Bad Hockey Involved to Improve Them
The first main argument why the Devils should avoid the temptation to throw the 2022-23 season away are the odds. The 2022 NHL Draft Lottery introduces some new rules to the drawings. Per Tankathon, these two rules apply the most to the Devils’ current situation.
The 1st overall pick is awarded by a drawing of ping pong balls. A team can only jump ten spots, so only the top 11 teams are eligible for the 1st pick. If a team in the 12-16 range wins the first drawing, the first pick will remain with the worst team.
The 2nd overall pick is awarded by a drawing of ping pong balls. If a team in the 12-16 range won the first drawing, the worst team keeps the 1st pick and is excluded from the second drawing. Like the first drawing, the second winner can only jump ten spots.
The most a team can improve in their draft position from the lottery is ten spots. The Devils will either win first overall, second overall, stay where they are, or drop one or two spots. At the 2-3 loss to Los Angeles, the Devils’ odds of winning first overall was 6.7% and winning second overall was 7.0% according to Tankathon. The Devils would need to finish in the bottom four of the league to see either odds jump past 9.5%, the bottom three for the odds to go above 10% each, and dead last for the best odds - which are still just 25.7% for first overall and 18.7% for second overall (and a mortal lock for third overall). In other words, it is still unlikely that in one given drawing that the team with the best lottery odds will actually win a lottery.
Yes, the odds get higher with a lower position in the league. But they are not significantly better enough to make it really worth it. The real value would be in increasing “the floor,” or the positions the Devils would end up if they do not win a lottery or teams better than them win it.
Furthermore, the Devils are going to need to just about throw games intentionally to even get to those bottom few spots. Consider the Second Rate Rivals. The Philadelphia Flyers, who are just behind the Devils in the league standings, are winless in 11 games as of this writing. They are still six points ahead of 29th place Seattle, seven points ahead of 28th place Ottawa (who has a lot of games to make up, so they could rise), ten points ahead of 31st place Arizona (who just beat the Devils, by the way), and eleven points of 32nd place Montreal. The Philadelphia Flyers may have the most hopeless second half of the season coming up in the Metropolitan Division, and they would need to somehow be even more hopeless to fall into those bottom spots where the better odds are. They are winless in their last 11 and winless for 10+ games for the second time this season and they are still well ahead of these teams at the bottom of the league standings. That is, well, sad.
Moreover, Seattle, Arizona and Montreal would need to win a lot more games than they have done so far this season. Being successful is not like flipping a switch. They are not just going to step it up somehow and charge up the standings to make that 31st or 32nd spot up for grabs. If the Devils really wanted to finish as a low as possible, they needed to fail immediately, not swoon in December while Montreal and Arizona were already established in the mud for this season.
Again, for the Devils to join the basement of the league standings, they would need to be worse than all of those teams. Possible? In a theoretical sense. But for what? Not a lot. Especially when you consider this year’s draft class.
The 2022 Draft Class is More than A Guy
The 2022 NHL Draft Class is starting to take shape in terms of a perception. While Shane Wright has been the projected #1 overall pick for a few years now, it is not a sure-fire bet that he will be. Or that he will be a generational prospect on par with Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid. TSN recently released their midseason draft rankings, written by the semi-retired hockey media legend Bob McKenzie. TSN is not the end-all, be-all; but the rankings are put together with a collection of 10 anonymous NHL scouts. It at least gives one a sense how the league’s teams see these players. Wright ended up in first, but the lede at the article makes it clear: it is not Wright dominating the class. I think he may be a lot better than he has shown given he (and this entire draft class) lost a lot of development with the pandemic. I think he could be a very good player in this league (being compared to Patrice Bergeron is a good thing). But he is not Connor Bedard or Matvei Michkov either.
Nor is it just a bunch of guys after Wright. Whoever the #2 or #3 or even the top ten may end up being may be dependent on what teams look for. But that does not mean they do not have some intriguing or talent that can help a team be better down the line. The United States National Team Developmental Program has roared back from a prospect sense with Logan Cooley becoming a popular name for the top five of this draft. Matt Savoie may not be big, but he has been putting up big numbers with Winnipeg in the WHL. Juraj Slafkovsky may be that big “power forward” that has become rare in youth systems across the world. If you want a mean defender, David Jiricek may be your man. If you want a right-sided defender with some offense, then Simon Nemec may be the one. If you did your homework on Russia, then you know about the potential that Ivan Miroschnichenko and Danila Yurov has despite their limitations this season. Over in Finland, Joakim Kemell may have the shot and goal totals to make him desirable, while Brad Lambert’s talent has yet to wane despite a lack of numbers in the Liiga. The main point is that these are all good prospects. Very good ones. And that’s just nine guys. A team picking in the top ten will have to consider them all - among others that may emerge between now and July 7.
(Aside: And if you want some other takes from someone who does this independently, check out Will Scouch’s December list, where he is not ashamed to stake some big claims.)
As the Devils are likely to finish in the bottom ten spots, they will be able to draft a very good prospect. No, they may not be immediate game-changers, but the vast majority of 18 year old picks are not. A lot of teams have improved by letting the players they pick develop and form a game that suits them in the NHL. And these players can and are found outside of the top ten of a draft class too. It may be murkier with the 2022 class as to who that could be, but a team that scouts well and analyzes the prospect fully will find talent - as they do in any draft class.
I do not believe the Devils should try to burn this season to get a slightly higher draft pick to pick someone that A) could be there where they may end up anyway or B) someone comparable in terms of quality. The 2022 class is deeper than Wright, who is not a prospect so amazing that he can justify a throwaway season anyway.
Plenty of Guys Have Plenty to Do to Get That Money
Of course, to throw away a season, the team needs to be set up to do just that. The 2022-23 Devils really are not. Disappointing as they have been this season, they have not been so bad like Montreal or Arizona. It is fair to question what the Devils actually have to play for the remainder of this season given that the playoffs are a miracle and a half away. For 18 players in the organization, they have a very good reason to care for the remaining 42 games. They will be free agents after this season.
I covered this last week with a very early look at the free agents. The Devils have six pending unrestricted free agents and twelve pending restricted free agents. While keeping the RFAs is a simple matter (qualifying offers are at the team’s discretion), deciding how much to pay the likes of Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha among others is not. Now with Dougie Hamilton on the books, Nico Hischier early into his big contract, and Jack Hughes beginning his massive extension next season, Fitzgerald will need to be careful to not get into cap trouble just by re-signing players.
More to the point, those players up for new contracts are not going to get rewarded for mailing it in to help the team suffer. No. They will get rewarded for performing well and producing. Bratt is arguably the team’s best player this season and continues to fill the scoresheet. It is not even halfway through the Devils’ season and he has set a career high in points. He’s not going to stop nor should he. Bratt will command a lot of money either way.
Consider players like Wood and Zacha. Wood has been hurt and has not played a single game all season. It is going to be tricky enough to figure out how long to keep him around and for how much, if at all. Putting the team in dire straits when he is ready to return is not going to help. As for Zacha, this second half of the season could be huge for #37. Showing some consistently good performances and production may convince Fitzgerald and the organization to keep him around and for good money. Staying unimpressive as he has been this season may help the cause for losing, but will not help the cause of getting Zacha paid. Both have incentive to perform well.
As do the free agents representing the depth or fringe of the lineup. Marian Studenic, Jesper Boqvist, Christian Jaros, Colton White, AJ Greer, Fabian Zetterlund, Chase De Leo, and Nathan Schnarr are all pending RFAs. Neither has played well enough to become a regular on a bad hockey team. For them to stay in the organization and/or help them get a deal elsewhere, they can only help themselves by impressing if and when they get an opportunity to play again in New Jersey. Jimmy Vesey and Jon Gilles are pending UFAs. This means the Devils can let them walk. Again, should they want to stay in New Jersey or even in the NHL at all, then they need to do as well as possible.
The main point is that there are plenty of people in New Jersey and Utica with incentive to play as well as they can just for their own career. This means they should seek to score goals, complete passes, backcheck, cover their men, communicate, and all of other things good players do to help their team. It could even lead to some wins or post-regulation losses. Rather than trying to discourage this through a tank, the Devils should try to at . Especially for the depth players, it can really help Fitzgerald and his staff identify who is worth keeping and who may be worth trading away or letting go free.
You Need to Still Take a Step Forward - For the Culture and the People Who Matter
The Devils really do need to take a step forward at this point. Whether the Devils organization wants to admit it or not, the platitudes about building through the draft and developing players and being a young team are simply that. It sounds nice. It makes some sense. But at some point, the seeds need to bear fruit. Kneecapping 2022-23 to ensure a shot at a top-five pick is not that. Re-building, by its name, means there needs to be something built.
It certainly does not look good for the organizational culture. I know that culture in a sports or corporate sense has been beaten to death as a word. However, it is still an actual thing that helps or hinders how business gets done. I consider professionalism to be a good thing for a sports team. You would want players, coaches, and staff members to do their best and put in a full effort even when there are no stakes. It means the people involved may be worth keeping around and adjustments can be made elsewhere. It also attracts like-minded people to want to join the organization. Similarly, following Sherman Abrams’ ways will attract people who are willing to give a lesser effort and not perform as well as they can provided they can be convinced of a “greater good” like a better draft pick. Often times, those people do not last long when it is time to be good. The lack of professionalism makes it unknown whether they can truly step it up or not. The Devils have been a bad hockey team for a while, rebuilding since 2015-16 with a brief break in 2017-18. If anything, they need to take actions to add or maintain professionalism within the organization. Tanking is the opposite of that.
It absolutely does not look good for the People Who Matter: the Devils fans. Sure, there will always be supporters of the team. Some of you will jump into the comments to proclaim how you’ve been a fan since the 1980s and it is not this bad and it can get better and so on and so forth. But this number will continue to decrease. Even hardcore fans have limits to their patience. It is a lot to ask for the people who care about the team, especially those who buy tickets to go to games, to be onboard with bailing yet another season for a better draft pick. The Devils have two first overall picks on the roster (Hughes, Hischier), another top-ten pick (Zacha) in New Jersey, another top-ten pick in Utica (Holtz), another top-ten pick in college (Luke Hughes), and a lottery pick who can take draws and play fourth-line minutes (McLeod). The 2021 Top 25 Under 25 list was loaded with excitement as it has ballooned to a wide variety of prospects and young players, some of whom have received a taste of NHL hockey this season (and in Dawson Mercer’s case, a full-time job). To ask again that the team needs another high-level prospect when they are already on pace to be able to draft one right now will not be met so well. Fans really liked a lot of the picks and the offseason moves, expecting a better team for it. They have not received one. Eventually, they may start to think they will not even with better odds. At least looking to win games in this second half and aiming for a point percentage better than (this was the team’s point percentage in Lou’s final season as GM). makes the argument of “we’re still on the right path” carry some more weight.
Most of all, consider yourself, Mr. Fitzgerald. (I will now address the GM or the people working for him reading this directly.)
Tanking the remainder of this season is not congruent with what you did this past Summer. You convinced ownership to spend big on Dougie Hamilton, signed Jonathan Bernier and Tomas Tatar, and acquired Ryan Graves among other transactions. These were moves made specifically to address holes in the lineup and team needs. These were not cheap moves. These were easily justifiable ones provided the team improves on where they were in 2021. Being slightly better than Philly or Buffalo is not really a big enough improvement to justify them. Even with the consideration that Bernier was hurt enough to be out for the season. Were I Josh Harris or David Blitzer, I would have to ask you: So what are you going to do now that we spent all this money and the team is still in the bottom? An answer of “Be bad to get a better draft pick and re-start in 2023,” may not be a good one. It may me start thinking of who else can manage this team to success.
I am not stating you are on a hot seat now. However, please recall the events that led to your former boss, Ray Shero, to lose his job. The Devils made the playoffs in 2018. The team ran it back for 2018-19 and everything failed. Taylor Hall publicly demanded an improved roster. Shero got to work on that while drafting Hughes first overall over Kaapo Kakko (an amazing decision in retrospect). People and Hall liked the moves to bring in P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds. Then the 2019-20 season began with an epic failure against Winnipeg and things went south before 2020. The team stunk. Hall was dealt away to Arizona. Shero was fired in January 2020. Had the team performed better in 2019-20 after, again, committing plenty of Harris’ and Blitzer’s money to make the team better and please then pending free agent Hall, then perhaps Shero still has this job. While there is no MVP on the team demanding changes, I can see some parallels to this should the Devils fade away this season and seek to be as bad as possible. They would not look good for you, Mr. Fitzgerald. Please do not fall for the temptation of Sherman Abrams for your own sake. (I am now done directly addressing Fitzgerald.)
Look, the 2021-22 Devils are a Bad Hockey Team. Their odds for making the postseason are astronomical. Goaltending has become abysmal. The defense is great in terms of keeping HDCAs down but regularly make errors that burn them. The team’s tactics get “downloaded” by opponents more often; Arizona did so last Wednesday. Their offense is in this odd spot of being too aggressive (e.g. defensemen activating, committing numbers to rushes) and not aggressive enough (e.g. settling for 50-60 foot shots from the point, committing 2-3 forwards on the perimeter). As much as the power play has bloomed recently, the pain it has yielded still cost them plenty of games. The Devils are literally just ahead of a Philadelphia team that is winless in their last 11 games in the standings. The Devils do not need to add to the dulling pain by trying to be even worse than they have been.
The Devils are on pace for getting a pick in the top ten of the 2022 NHL Draft regardless. It will be more productive to identify where the Devils are bad, where the Devils are not good enough (this is not the same as being bad), and what options are available to make 2022-23 better. This can be done with the team’s next 42 games. This can be done as the Devils lose what will likely be a lot of those games. Their recent 2-3 loss to Los Angeles is a great place to assess where the team has shortfalls. This can be done without an unofficial edict to tank the season to the end. In fact, it can be done better without it since there would be no discouragement of the personnel through certain lineup selections or combinations that would point to the team throwing away the remainder of the season.
There are players who have their own interests in playing well. Let them play well. There are fans who ultimately want to see a competitive team. Try to make it worth their while more than just once in a while. There is a culture to cultivate with a young team. Do not let them get the message that it is OK to not care or not put in a full effort with little to play for. There are personnel to assess beyond the players; even the training staff. There is Fitzgerald’s own job that could become at stake if the lost season becomes intentionally worse. There will be good prospects after Shane Wright in this year’s draft class. And more if they dig in deep and find the “hidden gems” later on the second day of the draft. Please, please, please, do not listen to the siren song of Sherman Abrams in 2022. Just say no to Sherman Abrams this year.