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Missing the Playoffs is Not an Acceptable Outcome for this Devils Team

When the window is supposedly open as Tom Fitzgerald has said, falling short of the playoffs is unacceptable.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at New Jersey Devils
The loss to Anaheim was yet another on a list of unacceptable performances by this Devils team
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After the New Jersey Devils were eliminated by the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Semifinals back in May, GM Tom Fitzgerald said what a lot of us were thinking at the time. The window for the New Jersey Devils is open.

Your mileage may vary on what specifically that entails (especially with the benefit of hindsight thirty games into this season), but I think for most people who follow this franchise, the message being conveyed is fairly obvious. Nothing is ever a given, but making the playoffs perennially going forward is the bare minimum of what should be deemed acceptable when it comes to Devils hockey. After a record-setting season, it is fair to hold the Devils to a higher standard...and that higher standard would entail making deep playoff runs. That standard should be competing for and winning a championship in the not-too distant future. It might be a little ambitious to hold Fitzgerald (and by proxy, head coach Lindy Ruff) to that standard, but when they’ve said throughout their time here that the goal is to build a team to compete to win the Stanley Cup, then that’s the standard we’re going to hold them to now that the team has indeed been declared good and ready to go.

Fitzgerald played the long-game when it came to building this roster. From homegrown stars like Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt to big money exports like Dougie Hamilton, Timo Meier, and Ondrej Palat to sneaky cap-savvy moves like the acquisitions of Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino, Fitzgerald has overhauled the roster he inherited to the point where only a few holdovers remain from the Ray Shero era. Fitzgerald has made calculated gambles that have paid off, and he has locked up the core players on this roster for the foreseeable future. For better or worse, the Devils have tied their fate to their core by spending up to the salary cap ceiling this season. You don’t do this as a general manager unless you believe in the players you have in place and you believe you have a chance to win.

One should keep this in mind when considering the end result of this season and every season moving forward over the life of those deals. John said as much back in July when he said the Devils window was open through 2027 at a minimum. The Devils core is locked up and they’ve made win now moves. They are ready to win.

Unless they are not ready to win.

The future is supposedly bright for this Devils team, which makes it all the more confounding when you look at the results from the last few days. Between the no-show against Anaheim on Sunday and the team literally giving away last night’s game against Philadelphia, the Devils are leaving an obscene number of points on the table where one has to begin wondering if they’re going to find a way to miss the playoffs entirely as a result. For a team that has self-declared that their window is indeed now, that can’t happen and shouldn’t be tolerated by this fanbase.

Some may believe that this line of thinking may be a little premature. There’s a lot of regular season left to go, with 52 games remaining. A lot can happen. But as I warned back around Thanksgiving, its not easy to make up even a small handful of points in the standings. There’s a reason why Thanksgiving is viewed as a sort of soft deadline or cutoff date when it comes to teams that are holding a playoff spot at that time. The fact that the Devils played arguably their best stretch of hockey of the season over the previous ten games (before these last two games against the Ducks and Flyers) and made up zero ground in the standings should be a fairly strong indicator of just how hard it is to make a comeback.

Every team that just misses out on the playoffs has those games against so-called inferior teams where they look back on it and if they just took care of business that given night, things could’ve been different. The Devils have already had three of those types of games this season between Columbus, San Jose, and Anaheim. Winnable games like Arizona and now Philadelphia, a team the Devils are chasing in the standings, have slipped through their fingers as well.

This is the National Hockey League. Teams aren’t just going to roll over and cower in fear because the Devils are next up on the schedule. They’re trying to win too. These types of games happen to every team. It is difficult to be on top of your game every night. That said, we’re seeing plenty of teams that do bring it night in and night out far more consistently than these Devils do. One noteworthy example of which is this Flyers team that just beat the Devils last night, as they are finding a way to do it despite having maybe 1/3rd of the talent the Devils have. It’s a credit to a great coach like John Tortorella that he finds a way to squeeze every last point out of his rosters regardless of talent level. Juxtapose that with the Devils and the only team they find a way to beat consistently is themselves.

With each game that gets away from this team, it further raises the question whether or not this is even a playoff team in the first place. It’s easy to take a Chicago Cubs-esque “We’ll get ‘em next year” approach if things don’t work out. After all, the supposed window is open through the Hischier contract. It’s easy to make excuses, blame injuries, or to say “But Jared, the window is just opening up, it’s gonna be fine.” But when you’re wasting an opportunity to do something special with a talented team, it’s not fine. When you have that level of expectations, its not fine. Go ask Connor McDavid if its fine whenever the Oilers miss the playoffs. Or Sidney Crosby. Or Alex Ovechkin.

Yes, Crosby and Ovechkin have won their championships and are older players, but when you’re as driven as that caliber of elite level player is, you don’t really look at each individual season as anything but a missed opportunity if you do come up short. Players like them, as well as the aforementioned McDavid, ultimately view it as a wasted season. Perhaps that is a little dramatic in this era of “anything short of a championship and you are viewed as a failure” social media era we live in, but when the players themselves are looking at it as a failure, how exactly am I suppose to argue against it?

There needs to be a bit more of a sense of urgency from these Devils than what we’ve seen. It’s not enough to hope you stumble into competent goaltending. Poor decision making, both on and off the ice, has been a detriment to this team. I’m not necessarily saying that Fitzgerald and/or Ruff need to be fired after the year, as this is a player issue as much as its a management issue. But thirty games in, something is off with this group that is difficult to quantify.

Fitzgerald assembled this roster, yet they’re a capped out team doesn’t have a goaltender they can rely on. This is Ruff’s team, yet, they have a propensity for falling behind in over 23 of their games this season because they never start on time. Those two issues go hand-in-hand, but the fact it keeps happening makes it less likely the Devils are just unlucky and more likely they’re somewhere between flawed and bad as a hockey club. Add in the team running Timo Meier out there when they know he’s nowhere 100% and has been ineffective (not the first time this team has done this with players nowhere near 100 percent). Add in goaltenders who don’t make routine saves. Add in players that continue to make boneheaded plays instead of simple plays. Add in foolish penalties and everything else losing hockey teams do, and it results in the Devils beating themselves. It results in points left on the table. Those points that the Devils aren’t banking right now add up and may be what turns 2023-24 into a wasted season. Whether you agree with the public models that say the Devils are a playoff team or you disagree, the results are what they are. The Devils are showing you who they are, and maybe its time we begin to see that.

Of course, the Devils COULD go on a run at some point. We know they’re talented enough to do so, but when they’ve been as inconsistent and undisciplined as they have been, its not enough to just be talented. Eventually, you have to show it for more than flashes here or there. So far, the 2023-24 Devils have shown us that we have no idea if the goaltenders will be on on any given night. We have no idea what kind of defensive effort we’ll see, or if the team can avoid being careless with the puck and ultimately making things harder on themselves. We have no idea if the coach will reinsert his worst defenseman into the lineup because reasons. The Devils could go on a run. Much like how I could run errands and be productive today. Or I could get hit by a bus when I step outside. Anything and everything is on the table.

Maybe the Devils figure it out, make a trade or two to shore up the holes on the roster, and put themselves in a position to go on a run. Or maybe they’re the team they’ve been all year and it’s time we start believing them when they’re telling us exactly who they are.

At some point, the people who declared the window to be open are going to have some explaining to do if this is indeed who they are.....if and when they come up short.