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The Long Road Back

Your humble blogger takes a look back at a long, very-frequently-maddening ten-year stretch of Devils hockey that he wrote a whole lot of words about.

Minnesota Wild v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When I started writing for this blog a little over ten years ago, the Devils were still among the model franchises in the league, or at least they still had that type of lingering shine about them. The Devils were stumbling through a lockout-shortened 2013 season, having just lost their captain and (arguably) top forward to free agency after falling two wins short of the Stanley Cup in 2012. The Devils had started off that season well, but things had cratered after a 9-2-3 start, thanks primarily to poor goaltending and a lack of scoring. The Devils were controlling the run of play well enough, though, to think that this was just a hiccup. It was just a team searching for its footing after another major free agent departure and going brutally ice cold for a while. I signed off that opening piece as such:

Here’s hoping we’ll see some winning hockey return to this site some time soon. Go Devils.

Define “soon,” Ten-Years-Ago Mike.

I did not witness much winning hockey over the ensuing ten years, it turned out, but with the Devils now finding themselves back among the league’s contenders, I did make it to the other side of the toughest stretch this franchise has seen since its earliest days. I wrote a lot of blog posts about a lot of disappointing, dull, and at times truly awful hockey in my time on this site, though the perspective on those disappointments shifted over the years. I think the past ten years can be broken up into a few distinct sub-eras, each reflecting how the fanbase experienced the (mostly bad) hockey put in front of them.

Phase 1 — Clinging to Relevance (2013-2014)

From 2013 to the fall of 2014, I think there was a general feeling that the team and the franchise would somehow find their way through the muck and back into the playoff picture. The team still regularly outshot opponents and was typically in every game, they had a coach who was generally well-regarded in Pete DeBoer, and Lou Lamoriello had never overseen sustained struggles for this team since he took over in 1987(!). I (and anyone in my age cohort) had never lived through the Devils being a complete also-ran. They were a team so ruthlessly competent that it seemed to aggravate many other fans around the league, particularly the throngs who would blame the Devils for “ruining hockey” in their dominant years.

Sure, there were major cracks starting to show for the franchise circa 2013, especially with the departure of Zach Parise, but they had survived major exits before, from Scott Niedermayer, to Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski, to Brian Gionta and they just kept on winning hockey games. The departure of Parise and then Ilya Kovalchuk’s shocking “retirement” in 2013 ended up being just too much to bear, though. The Devils had drafted too poorly for too long to fill the cracks internally anymore and attempting to fill the gaps with free agents had (in retrospect) predictable results.

Martin Brodeur was at the end of his road, Patrik Elias was nearing the end as well, and the arrival of Jaromir Jagr could only serve as a temporary bandage. The team had acquired Cory Schneider to succeed Brodeur but didn’t use him as the full-time starter until it was too late to make a difference. They also lost roughly six-trillion consecutive shootouts (number may be inflated) in their last best shot to prolong the old era in 2013-14.

My optimism that they could duct tape it all together and figure out a way to compete lasted until around November 2014. The Devils reeled off a four- and five-game losing streak within a calendar month and that was all she wrote. It was time to sell.

Phase 2 — Bottoming Out (2015-2017)

Once the wheels were fully off in late fall of 2014, it was clear that the Devils had arrived at a franchise crossroads. The system was too depleted, and the roster was too old and too injured to move forward without a major reckoning. It was time for a rebuild, something that had essentially never happened under Lamoriello. In the end, it turned out that it never would. New owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer pushed Lou Lamoriello upstairs to make room for a new voice at GM, but Lou (understandably, given what we know about him) had no interest in being a figurehead and moved on to Toronto to oversee their nascent rebuild.

Resigning yourself to a rebuild does make things a bit easier as a fan, at least at first. It was also kind of a new experience for the members of the Devils fanbase who were born after, say, 1980. The fall of 2015 was the first time that Devils fans weren’t considering the playoffs much of a possibility since probably the late 1980s. It was a new outlook and when one took a look at the prospects the Devils had in wait, it was easy to see this was not going to be a quick fix. New GM Ray Shero had his work cut out for him, and we had a lot of losses in our future.

That’s not to say there weren’t some fun times to be had in these lean years. The NJD Bench of 2015 has an enduring coaching legacy to this day. The 2015-16 was a surprisingly spunky group that was in the playoff mix well past the halfway point of the season and even had two 30 goal scorers in Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri but was hampered by an injury to their top forward, Mike Cammalleri (strange times indeed), and tailed off in February. The Devils made the legendary One-for-One trade and even thought they could maybe compete in 2016-17 before the cold slap of reality kicked in that fall.

They would close out that 2016-17 season losing 21 of their last 24 games, a mind-bending run of futility made decidedly worse when you’re someone who writes about the team and cannot just tune them out completely. But that putrid stretch of hockey would help land them the first overall pick in 2017 and lay one of the critical foundational pieces we see today.

Phase 3 - The False Spring (2017-2019)

The 2017-18 season was the brief oasis in the wide desert the Devils traversed between 2012 and 2022. Taylor Hall made good on the hilarious promise of the trade that brought him to New Jersey and found a gear that has rarely, if ever, been matched by a Devils player. With the rookie Nico Hischier serving as the team’s new top center and the Devils scraping together just enough great goaltending to get a team with three (3!) regular forwards with over a half point per game to the playoffs, it was a wild and unexpected ride that ended in the first Hart Trophy won by a Devils player in history. The Devils would return to the playoffs for the first time in six years, and even with the team being dispatched by a superior Tampa Bay club, it was hard not to be excited.

That cold slap of reality would return in the fall of 2018, as the Devils would again rapidly spiral out of the playoff picture in November after a 4-0-0 start that had expectations running high. Hall ended up injured, the team would never climb back to NHL .500 post November, and the late season Devils Fanbase Tank Wars would reach a fever pitch. The Devils would finish third to last in the league starting a fresh, even more pronounced run of futility between 2019 and 2022.

The Devils made big moves in the summer of 2019, acquiring PK Subban, drafting Jack Hughes first overall, and landing coveted Russian import Nikita Gusev. With Taylor Hall returning from a long-term injury that had ended his 2018-19 season in December, the Devils figured to be a much different team in 2019-20. The excitement lasted for roughly 39 minutes before catastrophe arrived. I vividly recall being otherwise engaged for the opener in 2019 and recording the game/avoiding social media that night while I was out. The result:

Ah, memories. The team seemingly never recovered from that game and what I consider the darkest days of the rebuild would soon arrive.

Phase 4 — The Re-Rebuild

The Devils cleaned house after the doomed 2019-20 season reached December, with a 7-1 destruction at the hands of a bad Sabres team serving as the literal end to the John Hynes era and the symbolic end to multiple others, including Hall and Shero. On the heels of the third-to-last finish in the league in 2018-19, the Devils would follow it up with a seventh-to-last finish in 2019-20, third-to-last in 2020-21, and fifth-to-last in 2021-22. This was the bad place.

The high hopes of 2019 were rapidly dashed and then, the world far beyond hockey got flipped upside down in the spring of 2020. In the strange environment of the bubble season in 2020-21, the Devils got some decent contributions from the younger players on the roster but would ultimately match 2019 for the worst standings finish since the mid-80s. A roster led in scoring by Pavel Zacha understandably would not seem to be one built for success. Zacha’s scoring lead had the bonus effect of igniting round 612 of the Zacha Wars, accentuating the environment of misery. Travis Zajac, one of the last vestiges of the old Devils, left and then retired.

I would call 2021-22 another false spring, but I don’t think it ever really got far enough off the ground to qualify. Not unlike the 2019-20 season, the Devils had a splashy offseason with a big-time offensive defenseman acquisition and the drafting of a dynamic Hughes brother in the top-five, and also not unlike the 2019-20 season, high hopes gave way to despair in 2021-22. A combination of injuries, leaky defense, and horrifying goaltending resulted in yet another bottom-five finish for a team that was getting some “dark horse” buzz in the leadup. In some ways, it really felt like the Devils were just never going to get there. This was a very tough season to have to cover and even another draft lottery win to jump the Devils up to second overall barely lightened the mood for a fanbase at its wit’s end.

Phase 5 — The Devils are... Good?

Seven periods into the 2022-23 season, the Devils had been outscored 12-4 by three pretty bad teams. (Very) tentative preseason optimism gave way to an incipient mutiny from the fans. If they couldn’t pull out of the early stages of a season-opening tailspin, heads would have almost certainly begun to roll. The resignation of earlier seasons had metastasized into anger. Chants to fire the coach echoed through the home opener and boos rained. I was a man at the end of my rope. It really felt like nothing would ever change.

And then, it just kind of... did.

Years of promise that had been building in the Devils system finally made good. Jack Hughes was a dynamo, Hischier was a two-way machine, Jesper Bratt looked elite, and the team as a whole just started firing on all cylinders. They reeled off a franchise-record-tying 13-game winning streak starting less than two weeks after fans called for the coach’s head. The started strong, they stumbled but did not falter, and they became buyers and a team with real aspirations. They won a playoff series. I got to see them win a game seven in person against their most hated rival. The years of pain, the endless rebuild, the incessant returns to the drawing board finally paid off with something.

Where will the Devils go next? I’ve never been a particularly strong prognosticator, so I can’t say. The future does seem bright, though.

That’s why it pains me to say my days of writing about this team weekly has reached its conclusion, at least for the foreseeable future. The responsibilities of work and life have a way of stacking up, and it’s difficult to keep up with them, let alone do the research and writing for a weekly blog post. For now, I will be taking a step back from All About the Jersey, assuming a role of, I don’t know, blogger emeritus or something, and allowing for a new voice to have an opportunity here. I will still be around, commenting and occasionally dropping a post here or there, but my takes will be much fewer and farther between.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented over the years, thanks to all of the writers I’ve worked alongside here (which has to be in the dozens at this point), and thanks most of all to John, who has created this awesome place where fans can read well-researched and in-depth analysis of the Devils every single day. I appreciate the opportunity he gave me to write for the site back in 2013 and I hope you all enjoyed the many tens of thousands of words of takes (some good, some bad) I’ve posted across the past decade-plus.

Go Devils.