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It’s Difficult to Trust That Things Will Be Different

The Devils have had a fairly solid offseason so far, upgrading various positions across the roster and positioning themselves to perhaps finally make good on some of that promise we’re always hearing about. It’s hard to shake the now-perpetual feeling that an inevitable faceplant is on the way once the games begin, though.

New Jersey Devils v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Devils have failed over their past decade of existence as a franchise. At what? Well, most things, save winning draft lotteries and, on occasion, getting plaudits for their offseason moves. It’s been a hard time to be a Devils fan, with the team crumbling in the mid-2010s after a sustained run of excellence that lasted for two-plus decades and largely failing to pick themselves up off the mat since then. The Devils have seemingly been ready to emerge from their doldrums on a few occasions now but have failed to do so, frequently submarining the, frankly, quite modest expectations placed on them in multiple different seasons.

You don’t really have to take my word for it, the results have spoken for themselves since the 2013 season. Over that stretch, the Devils (among teams who have existed since then) are 28th out of 30 in wins and standings points. The only franchises behind the Devils in those categories over the past 10 seasons are the Arizona Coyotes and the Buffalo Sabres. Certainly not the best company to keep. The Devils are similarly 28th of 30 in goals scored over that stretch (23rd of 30 in goals allowed), making their efforts not only futile but crushingly dull as well.

Why bring this all up? Well, wallowing in the wreckage of Devils seasons has sort of just become part of the job here, but the broader point I want to pick at is how difficult it has become to believe that this time will be different when it comes to the New Jersey Devils. The Devils have had themselves a perfectly fine offseason to this point (assuming things don’t go terribly awry with the Jesper Bratt situation). They moved out some disappointing players, brought in some solid veteran help, bolstered their goaltending situation, and hired what seem like a couple of pretty solid assistant coaches. They have checked a lot of the boxes of things they would theoretically need to do to get into a position to compete heading into next season.

And yet...

We’ve all been here before. The Devils have been splashier at times in recent the past, sure, but this is rounding into another offseason where the Devils, coming off of a bad season, have plugged the right holes and put themselves in a position for their young core to take another step and get the team back into the playoff conversation. Overall, Tom Fitzgerald and his staff have done a decent job on paper of improving the squad. Fitz has missed on some big targets, yes, but landing some big targets in the past has also not changed the team’s fortunes much. Even the move I like least, keeping Lindy Ruff, has been mitigated by hiring some assistants with strong recent track records.

So, conceding the above that this has been a decent enough offseason for the team to this point, why can I not shake the feeling of creeping doom that pervades the Devils’ modern existence. Perhaps it’s because the closest the Devils have come to on-ice success was a single playoff appearance on the back of a dominant season from Taylor Hall where they were given the ol’ gentleman’s sweep by a superior Tampa team, with the one victory in that series continuing to represent the franchise’s lone playoff win since June 2012.

The general belief is that the Devils are close. They are right there. If they can just get some goaltending, they’ll be a lot better. If their young core continues to improve the way they have the past couple of seasons, they will be dangerous. The injections of veteran and even championship experience should help teach a young team how to win. If the new assistants can fix the structural issues on defense and the power play, they will be much better. It’s always the “ifs” around here that everything hinges on.

The “ifs” quickly turned into “buts” last season as the Devils, hoping to be plucky upstarts in the East, instead finished 37 points out of the final playoff spot. Did the Devils get 37 points better this offseason? Can any team realistically get 37 points better in an offseason? The assumption that any hopes for the Devils’ near-term success must rest on is that they were not a true-talent 63-point team last season. One must believe that the Devils were an 80- or 85-point team that just caught a bunch of bad breaks. That the circumstances compounded and got away from them. That they were not a cellar-dweller in the same way that, for instance, the openly-tanking Arizona Coyotes were. I think there is a compelling argument to be made on all fronts, there.

The thing is that most of the plethora of bottom-of-the-barrel Devils teams over the past decade have had a similar argument that things were not quite so bad as they seemed. But bad they have been, up to and especially including 2021-22, in spite of any of those arguments. The 2017-18 version of the squad remains an outlier oasis in what is otherwise a desert largely free from fun hockey.

So, I find myself struggling with what to make of the upcoming season. Hope springs eternal in professional sports, of course, but the wells of optimism have been substantially depleted by the past decade of hockey in New Jersey. It’s pretty hard not to get jaded at some point. That doesn’t mean that success is impossible. In a purely detached, analytical sense, there is plenty to like about the Devils squad going into the season. Until we make it all the way through a season without the team circling the drain by January and playing out the string for the last 40 games, it’s going to be hard to believe the team is truly for real. Until they make someone regret betting against them, it seems like a lot of us will just be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Maybe this time will be different, though.