Another symbol of happier times gone by…Matt and the Maven is no longer a nightly segment on the Devils’ telecast but rather a short-run series of a few different segments over social media this year. Makes sense as Stan Fischler is enjoying quasi-‘retirement’ no longer working every day at MSG but rather going back and forth between here and staying with family in Israel, while Matt Loughlin is busy with his day job doing radio for this now-sorry team.
While the Devils have been back from the All-Star break for almost a week, tonight and being at the 20th anniversary celebration of the 2000 Cup at the Rock will be the first time I’ve actually watched the team in a couple weeks. I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch a minute of either of their two games so far. What’s the point? We’re nearly twenty points out of a playoff spot, in hopeless limbo waiting till the trade deadline and the draft lottery for the next significant days in this franchise’s history (and finding out what management team will be presiding over the future). Looking at the standings recently I realized just how pitiful the Red Wings are, with a clear fifteen-point seperation between them and anyone else. So obviously they’ll get the best lottery odds and will draft no higher than #4. Among all the other teams though? There’s a very real chance the Devils could finish back of everyone else in the NHL and get the second best odds, which are actually better than in the years we won lottos.
Not that I’m really going to sweat out the lottery anymore. Especially since I’m not expecting to get lucky three straight times in a system designed to prevent the worst teams from automatically getting the top three picks. Plus look at where the Devils are in the standings…winning two lotteries haven’t exactly been a salve for everything else that’s been wrong with this organization in the last several years. Just like winning multiple lottos weren’t enough to get the Oilers out of their post-2006 doldrums. Even our lotto picks themselves haven’t exactly provided much reason to be hopeful of being the centerpieces of a turnaround in the near future.
Sure, there isn’t much to complain about with Nico Hischier – he’s a two-way player, just came off an All-Star game appearance and seems like a good kid. However, his long-term extension kicks in next year and they are going to need Nico to take another step by then toward being a player the new Devils can build around. Twelve goals and 31 points in 45 games is just meh in his third full season considering it was basically the same level he played at as a teenage rookie, a nice complementary player but not a true building block with a solid but unspectacular 55-60 point total. Maybe I shouldn’t complain cause winning teams need players need guys like Nico, but winning teams need difference makers first and foremost and getting a #1 overall pick is the best chance for a rebuilding (again) team like the Devils to get one. Nico hasn’t been that yet.
While with our more recent #1 in Jack Hughes, he needs to take a couple of steps just towards being what Nico was as a rookie. Sure, coming up in this environment where the GM and coach have been fired, and the best player was traded in December doesn’t help but most #1 picks don’t get the soft landing of being part of a winning culture. There’s a reason you’re picking #1 generally. Nico got lucky in a sense that he was part of a team that did make the playoffs as a rookie and got to ride shotgun with Taylor Hall during his Hart year. Yeah I get the whole undersized thing, the first kid to come directly from the US development program to the pros yadda yadda yadda. At some point the excuses need to end with Hughes. 6 goals, 17 points and a -13 in 42 games just isn’t good enough for a #1 overall and one that was supposed to be ‘better’ than Nico. Being benched for long stretches against Nashville for sloppiness just can’t be tolerated whether it’s the golden boy pick or a veteran leader.
Even our other young building block in Mackenzie Blackwood hasn’t quite been the same in recent weeks with only one win in his last six starts, allowing twenty-three goals during that time as his GAA has climbed back to 3 and his save percentage creeping back down towards .900. We don’t even have a ready-made second goalie in the system – Cory Schneider completely bombed, Louis Domingue hasn’t been good in spite of a couple of decent games before the break, nobody else is really ready to contribute at the NHL level. This isn’t exactly an ideal situation for a goalie but sooner or later we’ll need to find out about Blackwood in a non-dumpster fire situation, before the constant dumpster fires ruin him long-term.
In a nutshell, this is why this team is so depressing. Not just that we’re still rebuilding eight years later from 2012 with only one quick playoff appearance to show for it, but it’s that the guys you really need to point to as beacons of hope for the future really haven’t been that during the dog days. How many other long-term pieces are already in place? You would hope Kyle Palmieri and Blake Coleman would be two – Palmieri is a solid 25-30 goal and 55-point player year in and year out while Coleman’s improved every year as a pro from a defensive player to a solid two-way threat and even has a chance to get 30 goals himself (he’s at 19 through 50 games played). However, Coleman, Palmieri and Nikita Gusev (9 goals and 31 points in 47 games) are all up for extensions this offseason and can become free agents after next year. Will any of them be able to see this franchise turn around or will they be casualties of another long-term rebuild with another GM?
Right now, the Devils and their fans are in a perennial waiting game with both an interim GM and coaching staff. Who’s going to be the next GM? Who’s going to be the next coach? What happens (and when) with immediately pending FA’s like Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene and Wayne Simmonds? A lot of uncertainty is swirling around the team, and there’s only been silence from above since the surprising though not undeserved firing of GM Ray Shero a few weeks ago. With the trade deadline less than a month away eventually ownership and interim GM Tom Fitzgerald are going to have to start playing some of their cards. Ownership claims they want to win and want to win soon but is it really feasible with this team? Can any GM come in with a realistic plan to improve the scoring depth, improve the D and improve goaltending depth in the next three years all without gutting the farm system – assuming the farm system’s even good enough to put long-term stock in? Sure, there’s still a lot of cap space available to the next GM but it doesn’t mean much if nobody’s willing to take your money to play on a loser in a limited market.
Part of the cynic in me believes that while ownership’s paid lip service to wanting to win they really would be content with playing the long game forever – they did that essentially with the Sixers before the NBA had to step in and make them try to be competitive – and that they are willing to do stuff like trade Palmieri, but would rather wait till season ticket renewals go out the middle of next week so as not to further up the cancellations. I’m already dreading the renewal despite all but committing to another year out of general apathy (I’ve already used my buyback games for this season as credit toward next, and I have more reward points than I know what to do with, given the Devils’ limited offerings that I actually want). Still, don’t annoy me and don’t annoy other people who are even more likely to bail with yet another substantial increase. Especially not if you’re just going to bait and switch and put us through another long rebuild that could go nowhere in the end.