In a lot of ways last night’s penultimate game was a look back at the way things used to be for the Devils. Specifically, last night’s game in Carolina which clinched a playoff spot for a resurgent Canes team returning to the postseason for the first time since 2009 being eerily similar to our own game #81 last season at home against Toronto, which clinched a playoff spot for an upstart Devils team returning to the postseason after a five-year drought. Perhaps our own season this year can serve as a cautionary tale for the Canes and their fans…but also as a reminder to enjoy this moment. You’re certainly not gifted the postseason every year although for the longest time as Devil fans we were spoiled under Lou Lamoriello to believe the postseason was a given, which it was 95% of the time.
This won’t be so much a recap of last night’s game (which I couldn’t watch much of) as it will be a general season rundown. I have no motivation to even watch tomorrow’s finale at Florida, let alone do one more recap. What’s the point…it’s a snoozer between two non-playoff teams for draft position only. I suppose it is one final chance to see the MSG on-air personalities and/or hear Matt and Chico on the radio before the long summer. So maybe from that standpoint I’ll at least turn on the pre and postgame along with perhaps the final few minutes, even if emotionally I waved goodbye to this season last Saturday with my final home game. And it’s always tough to watch games when your loyalties are divided anyway. I admit I was glad that we lost and the Sabres won last night, improving our lotto odds. With nothing on the line for the Panthers it’ll be that much easier to be ambivalent about the finale as well.
Make no mistake, it’s embarassing it’s come to this – again. Missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, and having one of the worst years in franchise history the season after showing so much promise. It’s certainly the most dissapointing season I’ve experienced as a Devils fan given the expectations and anticipation, even more so than missing the playoffs as a defending champion in 1995-96, or the 2014-15 and 2016-17 fiascoes where I didn’t expect much beforehand anyway. Not that I really expected to build on last season given this offseason’s recent inactivity from Ray Shero, but I was hopeful at least for a more competitive team. Even last night ticked me off from the standpoint that coach John Hynes seemed really zeroed in on effort and mistakes the way he and the team seemingly hasn’t been for much of the season. Sure, it was important to see how younger players handled an obvious playoff atmosphere but if we had more nights with this kind of focus from the top down maybe this season doesn’t get out of hand as quickly as it did.
Of course given Hynes’ in-season extension (which came just in the nick of time before the roof completely fell in), he’s not likely going anywhere this offseason and neither is Shero so it’s on both of them in year #5 of this regime to really take the step forward many feel they should have taken this season. At the very least, another offseason of complete passivity with $20 million of cap space going to waste can no longer be tolerated. I know, I know, we’re not likely to attract many top-end free agents and you don’t want to overspend on the mediocre ones – I’ve been a fan for 25 years, there’s other ways to use cap space besides on free agents. Specifically trades with teams that are tight against the cap. And sometimes you need to take a chance and get the right B and C level free agents anyway, and not rely on filling every single hole from within and through straight trade robberies.
Certainly trying to fill every hole from within this offseason backfired spectacularly. Even if Taylor Hall missed over half the season and the goaltending went splat until it was too little, too late, they still had a number of dissapointing performances from younger players. Up front, Miles Wood took a step or two backwards this year after signing a long-term deal this offseason, while Pavel Zacha’s horrendous first half was only partially salvaged by a better second half. Still it’s telling when you’re touting a 23-point season in 60 games as improvement just because…but the second half. Next year he’s gotta really take a step forward and for the whole season. Former first-rounder John Quenneville was a total flop, scoring just one goal (with zero assists) in nineteen games after being handed a job out of camp. Joey Anderson’s first season got interrupted with a horrible injury but he didn’t show much in his 33 games either with just four goals and two assists. Brett Seney showed a spark at times, but just didn’t add enough offense to survive with his small frame, producing just five goals and thirteen points in 50 games. Another former first rounder in Mike McLeod playing twenty games with zero goals? Child please.
Obviously there were dissapointments with the young guys defensively too, specifically Mirco Mueller and Steven Santini. Mueller was okay at times but just didn’t add enough offense to be only okay defensively, and again had his season derailed with a freak injury while Santini’s just gone completely backwards defensively and adds even less offense than Mueller with just four points in 38 games. Damon Severson and Will Butcher were mixed bags. Severson started his usual maddeningly wild self, seemingly got better down the stretch but still is prone to gaffes. Can’t really argue with eleven goals and 38 points, but that -26 with those offensive numbers is just woof-worthy. Yeah, yeah I know plus minus is so 1960’s, but when you have by far the worst plus-minus on the team for multiple years and also have a bad plus-minus with solid offensive numbers those are both pretty good indicators you’re bad and/or derelict defensively. Butcher stagnated offensively with just four goals and 29 points after a solid rookie season but seemingly did get better defensively in the second half with more responsibility.
Not that the kids were alone cornering the market in dissapointments. Starting with our vet goaltending tandem in Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid, which completely imploded left and right throughout the first 2/3 of the season and was a big reason the season melted down at warp-speed almost before winter got started. Sure Cory did better down the stretch in junktime but how seriously can I take his post-injury play? Especially since Cory has gotten hurt left and right and you can’t count on him to stay healthy for any long stretch. It was somewhat encouraging to see a .920 save percentage post-second injury return but my memory of his horror show 2018 (specifically his first few starts this year off of the first injury return) is still giving me PTSD. As far as Kinkaid, he went from zero to hero back to zero all in about a calendar year from last February till the time he got unceremoniously dumped to the Blue Jackets’ scratch box for a high school player – a 2022 5th rounder, to be exact. It was a shame to see it come to an end for Keith this way after he was arguably the second biggest catalyst in getting the team to the playoffs last year but you couldn’t really have expected a career backup to stay on that kind of roll.
Ironically, most of our other vets you can’t really say were dissapointing other than the departed Marcus Johansson (much like some other players, produced too little too late) and Sami Vatanen who had an injury-plagued season and his level of play certainly plummetted this season in general when he was in the lineup. Maybe he never truly got over last season’s Nikita Kucherov-induced concussion in last year’s playoffs. Hall certainly followed up his MVP campaign with a similar statistical pace, putting up 37 points in 33 games but his torn meniscus torpedoed his season and he wasn’t seen at all in 2019. Other vets like Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac and Andy Greene basically met expecations for their various roles. You’d eventually like to find better replacements for Zajac in the top six or Greene on the top defensive pairing but that can’s been kicked down the road for another year, while Palmieri was having an even better year than his 27 goals and 50 points would suggest but he’s gone ice-cold the last few weeks, perhaps either playing hurt or just dispirited from the state of the team.
To find actual bright spots or unexpected you generally have to look far and wide, or stretch the definition of what a bright spot is. Except for the obvious one in Mackenzie Blackwood, who was surprisingly successful in his first NHL season with a GAA of 2.59, a .917 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 games heading into tomorrow’s finale. His splits would be spectacular if it wasn’t for the one horrific nine-goal meltdown in Calgary he was unfathomably allowed to give up all nine goals in, but he recovered from that nicely to maintain his solid play down the stretch. Aside from Blackwood though, you really gotta search for an obvious bright spot. Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt having solid second seasons? They didn’t really take a huge leap forward but in the case of Nico, he did maintain his solid level even after Hall’s injury while in Bratt’s case he overcame an early-season injury and was able to maintain his play through the second half unlike last year, until another injury ended his season anyway. Kevin Rooney and waiver pickup Kenny Agostino showing some flashes of being everyday NHL players in the back six? Meh. Blake Coleman with 22 goals and 35 points in a third-line role would qualify as a positive but even his play has deteriorated as of late in a slew of penalties and a second-half slump.
Clearly there were a lot of problems with the 2018-19 season of the Devils, not all of them will go away with better health next season. Some go away with better goaltending from a presumably healthy Cory and a confident Blackwood splitting the netminder duties in some fashion or other, but Shero is going to have to take care of the rest. Hoping that recent draft picks Ty Smith and Jeremy Davies can add to the defense is a…hopeful plan I guess. I do have high hopes for Smith and people talk highly of Davies but it seems like counting on one or both to win spots in the top six is just a inviting rerun of all the young forwards we gave shots to this year dissapointing, only on the blueline. I’m not sure any of the young guys we’ve seen up front will really take a step forward next year and as far as I can tell, I don’t think any of our juniors/college forwards will be ready to win a spot in 2019-20 either.
Sure, you may think I’ve painted a bleak picture but really there is a way out. Spend some money in free agency, make a trade or three using some cap space, draft a good, solid prospect with a first-rounder now assured of being in the top six even in a lottery worst-case, and take advantage of having three second-rounders either in trade or to stock the pipeline even more. Find a way to add a legit top six winger and a legit top two-four defensemen plus hope Ty Smith can develop into one. This team can get back to at least a 2017-18 level with the promise for more but they can’t have another complacent, passive offseason. Otherwise the fanbase will start to become more disgruntled with the new regime and passive themselves over extended losing.
For now at least, that’s all from me for a while. Sure I’ll probably have a draft post next week once the Devils’ spot gets determined but after that I’m going underground for a tbd timeframe. Like Tommy Lee Jones said at the end of the Fugitive, ‘It’s over now…you know, I’m glad? I need the rest’.