The New Jersey Devils officially punched their ticket to the postseason this past weekend. Over the course of the season, they unofficially announced to the hockey world that their multi-year rebuild and many seasons of losing are now a thing of the past. That this is the team they’re going to be moving forward and that their competitive window is now open. That this is the result of years of taking their lumps, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and the hard work that has gone on behind closed doors.
They have done this with one of the biggest one-season turnarounds in NHL history, having already made a “37 points and counting” improvement in the standings. With eight regular season games remaining, its not impossible that the Devils could get hot over the final weeks of the season and set franchise marks for wins (51 wins in 2008-09) and points (111 points in 2000-01). Whether they get there or not is ultimately irrelevant. Regardless of whether they make a deep run in the playoffs or flame out in the first round, its a successful season when you take a step back and consider the abyss that this Devils franchise is just emerging from.
It’s very easy to take for granted that prior to this dark period, the Devils were a perennial contender, making the playoffs 20 times in a 22 year span between 1989-90 and 2011-12. Making it to five Stanley Cup Final and winning three of them. Playoff hockey in New Jersey was the norm, until it wasn’t. In the grand scheme of things, the Devils are just now getting back to being a relevant franchise.
With all of the ebbs and flows over the course of an 82 game regular season and with all of the constant griping, whining, and complaining about the day-to-day operations with the team, its easy to lose grasp of the bigger picture. It’s easy to be reactionary in the heat of the moment and send a snarky tweet or comment in the gamethread when the Devils give up a goal. I’m guilty of that as well, where I’ve gone as far as to scrap a planned article only to rewrite it and complain about something from that night’s game, like I did a few weeks ago when I wrote about the Devils giving up too many last minute goals.
Mike touched on this theme earlier this week and feeling like your investment in this team is finally beginning to pay off. We are all fans. We all invest our time into watching these games and commenting on these forums as well as elsewhere on the internet. Many of us invest our money as well, whether its tickets, merchandise, or simply paying to watch the games because you live out of market. That shouldn’t be lost on any of us after seeing how bleak things looked as recently as a year ago. It’s not that long ago where these Devils started this season 0-2 and the fans, myself included, were out for blood. Nobody should throw a parade just because the Devils made the playoffs, but I do think its worth taking some time to appreciate it, put it in its proper perspective, and celebrate it as an accomplishment for this group.
The easy part is done. The job only gets tougher from here on out.
Among the many hockey tropes you’ve probably heard over the course of your lifetime is that the Stanley Cup is the “hardest trophy to win in sports”. Whether that is actually true or its just marketing fluff is up for debate. Five For Howling wrote about this years ago and determined that it is not true, but what would Arizona Coyotes fans know about winning the Stanley Cup. Either way, its not easy to win the Stanley Cup. Being talented isn’t enough. Having the best goaltender in the world isn’t enough. Having the best team in the regular season isn’t enough. That’s not to say you can win solely on “desire”, “wanting it more”, “being harder on pucks”, and any other “200 Hockey Men” cliche you want to throw out there either. You need talent. You need goaltending. You need to have a great roster. You need some of those intangibles like playing that “playoff style” brand of hockey. And even all that might not be enough as you need puck luck as well. Sometimes, the bounces just won’t go your way.
We don’t know how this Devils team is going to respond to playoff hockey because we haven’t seen this team play playoff hockey. We’ve seen a few of the players on the team in the playoffs over the years, but as for the team itself, we have no idea how they will react until they are under those bright lights and playing the biggest games to date of their professional careers.
The one thing we do know is that there are signs that would suggest that these Devils are capable of raising their games to another level. They’ve been a top offensive team all year and even with their recent defensive lapses, they’ve been a top 10 defensive team all year too. Vitek Vanecek had his struggles last month, but he has also had stretches where he has played brilliantly. The Devils are good and have earned their way to the playoffs for a reason.
The mini-series against Tampa two weeks ago showed that this team can make adjustments to what the opposition is throwing at them and ultimately come away with a win. The fact the Devils are among the league leaders in comeback wins has shown that they can often make those adjustments over the course of a game and find a way to pull out the win. The fact that the Devils have been able to beat heavier teams doesn’t necessarily mean one should panic when they lose a game like the one they dropped to the Islanders on Monday, or take that as a sign of things to come in the playoffs. These Devils might get punched in the mouth, figuratively and literally, but they’ve shown throughout the season that they usually have a response. And if they don’t have one in Game 1, they’ll probably have one in Game 2.
The Devils best chance of making any kind of run in the playoffs hinges on whether or not they can successfully do what got them to the dance over the course of the 82-game season. Can Jack Hughes be the straw that stirs the drink and play like the superstar that he is? If Hughes isn’t going (or if the other team is selling out to stop him at all costs), can players like Nico Hischier, Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, Ondrej Palat and Dawson Mercer grind out a goal when they need it the most? Can the Devils get back to the level of defensive play we saw earlier in the season when Jonas Siegenthaler and John Marino were being talked up among the best defensemen in the NHL? Can the Devils get quality goaltending that gives them a chance to win, night in and night out? And if all else fails, will someone unexpected emerge to keep a game within reach? To extend a series? To keep the season alive?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, and even if the answer to most of these questions is yes, it still might not be enough to make a deep run. I do know that the opposition, whoever it is, will not make things easy on them. We’re at the point of the year where every team has good players. Every team has their strengths and weaknesses. Every team can win for this reason and lose for that reason. The Devils are no exception as they too have their strengths and flaws. Regardless of whoever advances in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Devils will come up short in a head-to-head comparison of “team that is more battle-tested” or “team with more big game experience”. That’s the reality of the situation as they’re going to be one of the youngest and inexperienced teams in this tournament.
The team has faced adversity all season, found a way to overcome it and win hockey games. The playoffs are a whole different animal and we don’t know the unknown when it comes to this Devils team. I would urge you, the reader, not to be a prisoner of the moment and complain that the season is a failure if they come up short, as disappointing as that might be. The Devils have played the long game for years when it has come to building this team. This has been a multi-year process. They are just now beginning to enjoy the fruits of their labor with the first of what should be numerous playoff appearances with this group. That is worth acknowledging, even if its simply breathing a sigh of relief that the Devils actually know what they’re doing when it comes to team building. It’s an important first step for this team to get out of the way. But now, the hard work begins.