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FanFirst Friday: The End Edition

The Devils historic season ended with disappointment in round two in overtime against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5. The mourning should be short because this team is just getting started.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at Carolina Hurricanes
I feel your pain, Nico.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

I had this overwhelming feeling of sadness all day today. Maybe it was my mind preparing me for the worst, but I kept having that Green Day song “Good Riddance” run through my brain on repeat. You know, “I hope you had the time of your life.” Again, can’t really explain why but it never happened in the first round against the Rangers. Not even for Game 7.

I normally write my FFF column on Thursday mornings, but I didn’t really want to write anything evergreen for Friday this week given the gravity of the Game 5 in Raleigh on Thursday evening. So I put it off. I ran through scenarios all day as I imagine a lot of fans do. What if the Devils can just win one in Carolina? Then it comes back to Jersey for Game 6 and maybe the pressure mounts on the Canes. I actually even worried that the team would get blown out like they did for three games against the Rangers and three games against the Canes. I just wanted a fight in my team. I wanted them to have pride and not roll over completely like they did so many times this postseason whenever adversity hit them.

And they did not, in fact, roll over. They fought, battled and pushed back against a team that humiliated them in three games by a combined 17-3 score. Now I’m not down with moral victories, not once this team showed during the regular season that they could come back and dominate games when they played consistent and used their speed and skill effectively. But Devils fans are left to wonder what to make of their first postseason trip with this core group.

This year was unlike any season in the 40-year history of the New Jersey Devils. I tweeted about it last night, but I mean look at this:

I mean that’s a lot of success. That doesn’t even go into individual accomplishments like Jack Hughes finishing with a franchise-record 99 points. Or Vitek Vanecek becoming the first Devils goalie not named Martin Brodeur to record 30+ wins in a season. Or a Devils record for goals in a season by a defenseman for Dougie Hamilton with 22. Career high points for guys like Bratt and Hischier. The list goes on and on and on.

And yet, the most obvious highlight of the year despite all of the facts above, is taking down the Rangers in Round 1 when most everyone on this earth picked the Rangers to take out the upstart Devils. And the victory has sort of thrown the Rangers franchise into a bit of disarray. The Devils were responsible for throwing another chaos grenade right into the middle of Madison Square Garden and it still makes me smile to think about it. Even with how sad I am about the loss to the Canes.

Now the offseason questions are here faster than any of us anticipated. That’s the thing about the playoffs. One second you’re screaming and your heartrate is through the roof and the next minute, severe depression hits and the question marks about the team are staring you in the face.

Will Lindy Ruff still be the coach of the team? He doesn’t need to look very far for a Jack Adams finalist from last season who wasn’t retained after winning the President’s Trophy. Hello, Andrew Brunette being dismissed from the Florida Panthers. No matter whether you like Ruff or not, it’s undeniable that he led this young Devils team to the best regular season in franchise history while dispatching the team’s biggest rival in the first round. Did the wheels come off against Carolina? Yeah, they did. Ruff sometimes got in his own way by shuffling lines and lineups on the regular and then staunchly sticking with a lineup no matter what if it won the previous game. It didn’t matter if aspects of the game were troubling.

The list of unrestricted free agents is pretty interesting. Damon Severson, Miles Wood, Ryan Graves, Erik Haula and Tomas Tatar. I doubt either of the defensemen comes back. For a while, I was hoping for Ryan Graves to return but my feeling is he’s never had a true big pay day and defensemen are always high in demand. Severson is as good as gone, I believe. The Devils right side has John Marino, Dougie Hamilton and very likely, Simon Nemec. Luke Hughes can play that side as well in a pinch and Reilly Walsh had a very good season in Utica. Unless Tom Fitzgerald thinks that Miles Wood brings something irreplaceable (he doesn’t), I can’t see Wood returning. Lots of other GMs are in love with the idea of gritty that there should be an ample market for Wood’s services. As for Haula, I get the feeling the guy has found a home in Jersey after being a journeyman over the past few years. But don’t take my word for it, take his:

Tatar was really good in the regular season. He was a top play driver on that Hischier-Mercer-Tatar line that seemed to help the Devils rattle off quite a few wins. That being said, given his age (he’s 32) and the fact that he did not provide much for the Devils in the playoffs outside of a crucial Game 7 goal against the Rangers, I imagine the Devils would look for a very discounted rate if he wants to stay and be a part of this. It’s a bummer because I loved Tatar’s game in the regular season a lot, but like a lot of this team, he lost his way in the playoffs.

The RFAs should likely mostly all be back, outside of goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. MacBlack sat in the press box and even when both Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid struggled, there was no trust to even dress Blackwood as a backup. That should tell you where he sits in the mind of the Devils front office.

The biggest question marks are Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt. Both were offensive machines in the regular season, but that’s sort of where the similarities end as Timo was routinely called the best pointless player in a series people had ever seen against the Rangers. He was routinely getting under Shesterkin’s skin and the Rangers were preoccupied with extracting a pound of flesh from Timo. Bratt, OTOH, seemingly went MIA quite a few times. Yes, the advanced stats liked Jesper’s game, but he only wound up with one empty net goal in 12 games of the playoffs. The obvious question is, if Jesper is still sticking to an $8-10 million AAV deal, are the Devils going to be willing to open up their wallets that far with the Swede. Or maybe the Devils decide to deal Bratt? That might not make the most sense since you’d have to figure out how to get his regular season production from somewhere. But the Devils are likely dropping $9-10 million AAV on Timo Meier, so do they want two wingers in that price neighborhood? It’s going to be a lot of tough offseason questions that GM Tom Fitzgerald will have to answer.

I can’t imagine the Devils letting Michael McLeod go, unless the Team Canada investigation ever releases publicly and McLeod’s name is in the report (innocent until proven guilty). But McLeod was stellar in the playoffs and scored one of the most memorable goals in Devils history in Game 7 against the Rangers after Ondrej Palat went full 100 percent monster mode. And there’s probably no reason to let go of Nathan Bastian. He suffered through a few injuries this season but was still a pretty effective player. Kevin Bahl took monster steps in his progress in the latter half of the season. Though him not being in the lineup for crucial Game 5 doesn’t exactly ring confidence in the kid. I still anticipate him being a big part of the team for next season. I don’t really see Yegor Sharangovich or Jesper Boqvist going anywhere.

There will be plenty of time to speculate about what the offseason moves will be. I still believe in an ideal world, Haula is your third line center and the Devils have someone else riding Jack Hughes wing. Possibly even someone like Alexander Holtz if he can have a great offseason and come in with improved skating and faster decision making. As an aside, would love Jack to figure out the faceoff thing and work on it all summer so he can truly and properly center his own line.

But ultimately, all that stuff will be explored a lot over the next few months. And remember the biggest move the Devils probably made all last offseason was the John Marino addition. So it might not be what you think it is.

As of right now, I’m just really crestfallen that I won’t see Jack Hughes dancing around the offensive zone tomorrow. I won’t see Nico fighting like hell for a puck in a corner and emerging with that puck. I won’t see a Dougie bomb from the point. No subtle stick plays from John Marino to steal the puck and send the play quickly the other way. I saw four games at The Rock this year and the experience was something I’ll never forget. I can’t wait to be back for more next season. I got to meet so many great fans out here in California when people traveled with the team this season. I went to Denver to see a game and met more people. It was just simply one of the most memorable seasons ever in Devils history that didn’t end in a Stanley Cup.

And you know, I’ll be the first to say that the window is now wide open for the Devils to close in on the Stanley Cup. While there’s never any guarantees in life, the team should be poised for a long run of success because of the youth and, likely, the experience they had this year and this postseason. But injuries, possible mistakes in coaching, players not developing like they should...whatever the reason, it might be more challenging than we think. And that doesn’t even mention all the teams in the Eastern Conference on the rise. Buffalo, Ottawa, Detroit are three that come to mind immediately. As Ruff said tonight, it’s tough to make the playoffs and even tougher to go on an extend run. It’s partially why I wanted them to achieve that success this year. Just simply because you never know.

It was a joy being a fan with you here this season. I’ll be obsessing over the Devils all offseason as well, so I won’t be going anywhere. Thanks to John and the rest of the AAtJ staff for making me a part of this group. I often process things through writing and I appreciate you taking the time to read it.

While the season didn’t end with a Stanley Cup, my heart is filled with emotions and memories that will last long after this season is lost to the record books. Instead, I’ll leave you with the one memory from the year that should make you smile all summer long in anticipation of what’s next. Hey, I’m no dummy, I listened to Jerry Seinfeld and I’m leaving this on a high note:

...actually one more just for good measure:

Let’s. Go. Devils.