Perhaps the only good thing about the 2016-17 Devils season is that it’s over, or will be in another hour or so when the last game at Joe Louis Arena concludes, probably with a Red Wing shutout win over our pathetic team as they close an iconic hockey building. Ironically where once the Devils and Red Wings were the gold standard for success and consistency, both entered today’s play in last place in their respective divisions and the Devils will remain last place in the entire Eastern Conference. While last year’s surprising 84-point season provided hope in year one of the Ray Shero regime, this year’s 70-point crash and burn was a sobering slap in the face that not only are the Devils firmly entrenched as losers with their fifth straight season out of the playoffs, but they’ll probably remain as such for a while – particularly in a stacked Eastern Conference where it seemed as if everyone else besides the Devils and Wings were in the playoff hunt down the stretch.
This whole weekend has been a sad reminder of glory days past, between the Patrik Elias mini-celebration yesterday at the Rock and today closing the Joe Louis Arena where the Devils had their crowning achievement as a franchise, winning the 1995 Stanley Cup (and likely keeping the team IN New Jersey as a result). Come to think of it maybe I should have just made this blog a retrospective on the ’95 Finals…but I’m a bit tired of reliving the glory days right now when this team’s present is so dark and the future’s cloudy at best. Not that I really want to have another post of grievances either, but it’s my last opportunity to do one in the next little while until we cede the stage to actual hockey teams and impatiently wait for the draft lottery before our next step.
What’s worse than being a loser is being a loser with few redeeming qualities or hope for the future. Even this year’s high draft pick probably won’t be a game changer or come without question marks. And make no mistake, this team needs talent anywhere and everywhere. Only one player (Kyle Palmieri) has over 20 goals for the season and only three have more than 14. Only two players including Palmieri have 50+ points on the season and four players have 40+. Of everyone on the team only Palmieri and fourth-liner Stefan Noesen who arrived midseason have plus-minuses in the black. Moral of the story is Palmieri is one of the few Devils I have no complaints about after his second really good season in a row, and signed long-term. If this team does have a shining light right now it’s #21.
While Shero made a brilliant move trading for Palmieri at the 2016 draft, he’s going to need a lot more like it to steer this ship back in the right direction. Offensively the Devils are again at or near the bottom of the league (28th) in goalscoring. It used to be the Devils could at least rely on goaltending and/or defense to compensate for a below average offense – but not this year currently tied for 25th in goals allowed, with formerly solid goaltender Cory Schneider having a nightmare of a season. If you want to say every goalie’s allowed an off year on a bad team fine, but I’m going to maintain a healthy bit of skepticism about Cory after this year, especially all the soft goals given up and killer momentum-changing goals. For the most part backup Keith Kinkaid outshined our supposed franchise goalie this year, but to be fair Kinkaid probably would have blown up if he had to start in front of this horrid defense two or three times the amount that he did (23 starts).
Basically any stat you want to use to show how horrible the 2016-17 Devils were, you can use. Power play? 21st in the league. Penalty kill? 22nd in the league. Shots per game? Tied for dead last with Arizona. Shots allowed? 21st in the league. Eleven straight road losses to end the season. Three wins in their last 24 games overall. Shero can’t be picky this offseason, this team needs to fill just about every need possible. A power play QB? None is currently on the roster unless you want to put your stock in Damon Severson and his -31 with three goals on the season. Sure John Moore has eleven goals, and on a power play that used its defensemen as shooters and not just distributors he could make some hay there, but like with Severson his defense is lacking too. Hopefully Andy Greene’s meh year was caused by off-ice factors (his dad passed away recently) and not the beginning of the end for a pretty good Devil.
Up front sure they have Palmieri and Taylor Hall – who was a bit of a dissapointment in the end imo with just 53 points in 71 games and after a hot early start – but they need more, a lot more. 2015 first-rounder Pavel Zacha showed flashes but it might take another year or two before he can really make an impact. Same with Miles Wood, who probably should have remained in Albany a while longer instead of getting on-the-job training here with very mixed (at best) results. At times Joseph Blandisi showed flashes of being a third-liner down the road but that’s all they were, flashes. However other than Palmieri, Hall and perhaps the mercurial Adam Henrique, this team doesn’t have any players that can even masquerade as top six forwards. Travis Zajac maybe if you look hard enough, but even in a bounceback season he only managed 45 points. That still beat Henrique who put up a dud of a season with 40 points and a -19.
Whether you believe solutions will be on the way depends on how much faith you have in Shero and new director of scouting Paul Castron (a lot considering how well his former team is playing in Columbus with young players leading the way). However it seems like rebuilding is a much slower process in the NHL compared to other sports, especially with the new free agency system diluting the available talent and the new draft lottery diluting top teams’ assurances of getting a franchise-changing pick. Perhaps the only thing I can point to and say ‘yeah I like seeing that’ have to do with some of our non-NHL players – prospects like John Quenneville and Mike McLeod, both recent first-rounders who have had good years in the AHL and OHL respectively. Along with Zacha and defenseman Steve Santini, who showed flashes of being a solid blueliner. And Shero’s going to need to pull off another trade or two this offseason, hopefully the upcoming expansion draft and having protected slots available and draft pick currency will give them the ability to do that.
That’s all believing in the hope of a better tomorrow, while the present and immediate future is a lot more murky at best. And since I’m a fan I do prefer to believe in the best obviously, in spite of everything I wrote I do believe Shero will be able to pull off at least one good trade before the draft to get an NHL player and at least one good trade during the draft to move up for a better prospect. I do believe that Zacha and Santini will take the next step and guys like McLeod and Quenneville can make an impact next year. I also think despite the carping about our lottery position that the Devils will get another good prospect.
Until all that happens though, I’ve never been more glad for a season to end to be honest. Between the bad hockey, bad decision-making from both players and coaches and just plain apathy that the players showed I didn’t really want to go to yesterday’s home finale to celebrate the team. I wanted to go to (start to) celebrate Patrik Elias’s great career. For me the only other thing worth celebrating this hockey season was finally winning my roto fantasy hockey league again after four straight second-place finishes. I did stay till the final horn but for only the second time ever I peeled out at the buzzer. The 2016-17 Devils quite frankly didn’t deserve a send-off, other than the end of the Lou era in 2015 I’ve never felt that way about another Devils team, even the other non playoff ones of recent vintage. Hopefully next year’s team will at least be entertaining and worthy of a send-off.