Yesterday was a microcosm of the Devils’ entire offseason – which as a whole got off to a great start with winning the draft lottery, but has been a total dud after that. Ironically, we kicked off the July 1 ‘frenzy’ just after noon with the first official signing – and a good one at that – inking character fourth-liner Brian Boyle to a two-year contract. I mean how can you not like a guy who instantly comes in with a chip on his shoulder against one of his former teams?
And I’d love to sit here and praise that move for a few paragraphs, which maybe in another year I would have. No issue at all with adding Boyle for $2.5 million as a fourth-line-ish player who’ll provide some leadership that was lacking last season. However, that was the only move we did the entire day unless you count the three AHL’ers hopefully ticketed for Binghamton we signed late, like ex-Islander Brian Strait. Predictably the only big-ticket FA who we were in on (Kevin Shattenkirk) found his way to the bright lights of Manhattan, just like so many other big-name FA’s before and after will. How only the Rangers seem to get a hometown discount from big-name FA’s is beyond me.
I guess July 1 is always destined to be a debbie downer for Devil fans. Whether it’s the guys we lose or the guys we don’t have a chance to get or the yearly Ilya Kovalchuk drama, it used to be a running meme how everyone else wins July 1 while we won after that during the Lou Lamoriello era. But now that we’re in the wilderness with no way out in the immediate future it isn’t that funny. Especially considering that July 1 is just the topper on a lot of letdowns this offseason. We were supposed to be making big moves during the expansion draft with our cap space and protected slots available but instead George McPhee hijacked the proceedings more than most anticipated with side deals (plus using their empty cap to take on most of the league’s bad contracts) and shutting out other teams by making clubs they dealt with promise not to undercut Vegas by working out their own trades before the roster freeze. Having eleven picks was supposed to facilitate draft-day moves, and even GM Ray Shero admitted he didn’t want to keep all eleven picks. While technically we didn’t keep all eleven, we did make eleven selections, and the only immediate help we got from our draft picks (not counting Nico Hischier, who’s likely to play with the team this year) is project defenseman Mirco Mueller.
As much as I want to rant and will rant about the team’s current state, I’m not here to blame Shero – at least not for yesterday. Not much you can do when the Russian Hamlet wants to hold things up on that end yet again – I’ll get to that later too – and the only big FA that made sense for the team only had eyes for your biggest rival. Clearly there’ve been mitigating circumstances as to why the Devils have only managed to make the small additions of Boyle and Mueller to this point in an offseason that was supposed to be filled with big moves. If I have any frustration with Shero it’s in the apparent lack of urgency the organization’s had to fix our defensive woes, and not just at the NHL level. We’ve used just seven picks on defensemen out of twenty-eight selections in three Shero drafts and four of the ones we did pick were seventh-round lottery ticket selections. The same criticism I had of Lou the other way in not using enough high picks for forwards seems to be happening with Shero and defensemen. Granted we did need to infuse the forward pipeline dramatically when Shero got here, but with it being even harder to acquire defensemen on the open market you would figure at some point we’d start drafting more guys there. Reilly Walsh was the highest defenseman we’d drafted in three years and he was a late third-rounder this year – probably destined to spend at least three years in Harvard.
Of course to be fair you could count Mueller as a ‘draft pick’ too – a second-rounder at that – but at some point we can’t keep shopping at Woolworth’s for defensive upgrades, especially if we’re not going to stock the pipeline from within. Our bargain basement shopping really hasn’t worked out other than David Schlemko, who we kept through the deadline two years ago and chose not to retain (or trade back for when Montreal gave up a low-level draft pick to acquire him from Vegas after the expansion draft). Ben Lovejoy was supposed to be a decent hold the fort guy but the fort was overrun during his first year of a three-year deal. There was also Yohann Auvitu – remember him? Last year’s preseason sensation from France started with the big club but by the end of 2017 was a healthy scratch in the AHL and now out of the organization. John Moore? Sure he can start on a bad team and he had a nice season last year in terms of goalscoring but you don’t want him in the top four on any kind of contender. Of course we don’t have to worry about things like being a contender for the forseeable future in a division on steroids where everyone else just keeps seeming to load up or reload in a scary arms race, while we continue to ‘trust the process’….oops, that’s a Sixers meme.
I’m not getting into a conspiracy theory on the owners either – assuming the media guys were fed the truth about us being in on Shattenkirk, although there isn’t exactly much to disprove the Devils-Sixers comparisons at this point considering both franchises have been stuck in years of endless rebuilding with cap floor teams. While the Sixer rebuiding was a straight blowup job, our rebuilding seems to be a bit more haphazard since we actually did trade for Taylor Hall last year and still have a fair amount of vets around – who have to be sick of watching everyone else in the division improve while we try to build an almost entirely home-grown team, where our own GM admitted he came into this situation with the mindset of it being an expansion team in terms of rebuilding. My own frustration with this process is in part due to having guys like Hall, Cory Schneider, etc whose prime years you’re wasting and who you might have to make a decision about trading or not by the time this team’s ready to actually compete again – which could again set the process back. It’s like someone put it last night, it seems we’re bleeding out faster than we’re fixing the wound.
It’s obviously not fair to entirely blame current ownership, or blame Shero for inheriting an absolute mess devoid of talent two years ago. There’s only so long you can play the blame Lou, Vanderbeek, Kovalchuk meme before at some point you yourself have to be accountable for continued lack of success though. Sure, they can’t be blamed for the organization being out of the playoffs for five straight seasons since the end of the lockout – only the first two are on their watch – but by the same token you can’t be blind to the damage being out of the race by March almost every year is doing to the fanbase when you have the Rangers being successful and even the Islanders being a perennial playoff contender year in and year out the last few years, this dark period is doing a lot of damage to a fanbase that was only starting to get a foothold in an area with multiple teams that local fans root for, even including the Flyers who are also a perennial playoff team year-in and year-out.
I do appreciate GM’s that at least try to compete while rebuilding at the same time, and don’t just go with the complete nuclear bomb approach. As a Met fan I’m envious about the Yankees having Brian Cashman, who’s perfected the art of being competitive while rebuilding at the same time. Although I do like Cashman anyway cause he’s a true Devils fan hah. Lou obviously tried to do that as well and I won’t ever fault him for that but eventually win-now just became a caricature and not an actual state of being. At a season ticket event a few days back, franchise legend Patrik Elias actually admitted he wished Lou had started the process we were on now 8-9 years ago. When even a player – admittedly one of the smartest, most cerebral ones who’s ever played – can see the writing on the wall, it clearly got to a point where Lou jumped the shark. Perhaps the same thing is happening now in Detroit with Ken Holland. Sure, we were due a downturn after two decades of success, but it’s a downturn exacerbated by bad drafting in the previous administration and nobody wanting to stay here including the double-barreled departures of Kovalchuk and Zach Parise months apart that the franchise still hasn’t recovered from.
Speaking of Kovalchuk though, it’s just time to be done with him. Let him go back to Russia or get whatever pittance you can get for him from the handful of teams he’s supposedly interested in. If he only wants to go to the Rangers too, then let him go scratch in the KHL for a year and only get a one-year contract next offseason from them or wherever else he wants to go. This constant drama year after year is beyond old. I predicted weeks ago that this was going to extend past July 1, nothing’s ever easy or simple with this player (plus I didn’t think the interest in him would be as great as some people did). Despite two months talking to other teams and negotiating with the KHL now we’re even in a longer holding pattern till tomorrow at the very least, which probably extends into next week and beyond with our luck. Clearly he and his agent are sitting back, hoping teams once they lose out on top FA targets will be more desperate and also hoping the KHL gets more desperate to up its offer once the window opened for him to re-sign in the NHL. It’s always about maximizing money with this player no matter where he gets it, he’s the ultimate merc and just like 2010 and 2013, teams in two leagues are once again in a holding pattern with this clown.
I fully admit some of this post could look silly or premature if the Devils do manage to pull a big trade out of the sky somehow in the two months remaining this offseason. I just have that little faith we’ll actually be able to do it at this point, there always seems to be some excuse why we can’t do something rather than actually being able to find a way to improve the team. I’m not asking to be a Cup contender or anything stupid like that next year, but can you at least find a way to give fans hope for improvement, to at least be relevant in March and make the season somewhat interesting aside from pumping up Hischier, second-year man Pavel Zacha and other kids? Who’ll probably be undermined by a horrid defense anyway.