Let’s face it, even if the NHL manages to come back in a few weeks and play a handful of regular season games to have a mini-playoff chase, the Devils’ season for all intents and purposes ended in early December when in a matter of days, 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall was traded and coach John Hynes was fired. Really, the season was over by Halloween as the Devils’ 0-4-2 start put them fatally behind the eight-ball from the outset, and even when the team started to play better under interim coach Alain Nasreddine, it was far too late for any of it to matter in terms of being a ‘contender’.
I’d like to give a dispassioniate ‘well here are the highs and lows of the season’ blog, but if you read my blogs regularly (even as I wrote irregularly), you know there sure as shooting weren’t too many highs to look back on in 2019-20. Ironically the Devils’ best stretch may well have been their last ten games before this virus-caused season postponement, as they went 6-2-2 and even got back to NHL .500 before a dull 5-2 loss to the Penguins on Tuesday, which could be their final game of the season as it turned out. I was going to go to the game, in part because I was starting to get the feeling every home game could be the last of the season, at least in terms of fan attendance. Fortunately my friends got me out to trivia at the very last minute so it was good twofold, I avoided a hideous game and with society all but being totally quarantined, it may also be my last big social gettogether for a few weeks.
Don’t get me wrong, even I don’t plan to be a total shut-in the next few weeks though I’m not the most social person in the world anyway, I’ll still find a way to get outside for at least a walk around the local park or town – unless and until we have to literally quarantine society. If you think that’s too alarmist, look at what’s happening in Italy these days. Unfortunately it may not be too alarmist, heck I didn’t think we’d even get to a point where every sports league and most entertainment in America would be shut down for the better part of the next few weeks. Shoot, my local rec sports leagues are on hold as well, so I’ll have to be more vigilant going for jogs in the park as the weather gets better (hopefully) to try and avoid putting on too many pounds.
Anyway, back to the team eulogy if you want to call it that. Again, like I said this isn’t so much assuming the NHL regular season is dead as it is recognizing there won’t be all that much left of it to really care about as a Devils fan or the fan of any other team out of contention. At least with Derek, extending the regular season a handful of games could get the Rangers a playoff berth. What the heck is 5-7 more games going to prove for anyone in a Devils uniform this season? We’ve already played 69 of the 82 scheduled games as it is. Depending on when any potential makeups are held, I may even attend a couple of the stretch games for the heck of it if they do come back to finish out part of the regular season before the playoffs. It’ll certainly be a weird feeling though. We’re used to shortened regular seasons as hockey fans, but this is entirely new for not only the sport but society as well, given the total mystery over when ‘normal’ returns to life, or starts to at least.
Perhaps the break will make me appreciate the fun of simply watching hockey and my team again. This season sure wasn’t a lot of fun. Look at it through the eyes of #1 overall Jack Hughes for example…you’re in your first pro season, going through expected growing pains and then some on the ice with just 7 goals, 21 points and a -26 in his 61 games played, and the team flops out of the gate after a certain amount of preseason expectations to at least be competitive. Off the ice, the GM who picked you and had a relationship with your family (Ray Shero) gets fired, just weeks after firing your coach only 26 games into your pro career. Everyone from Hall to captain Andy Greene to vet mentor Wayne Simmonds gets traded with still no idea of what the future holds with both an interim GM and head coach.
As critical as I have been of Hughes’ rookie season that is a lot to work through, even with the admission that most #1 overall picks aren’t exactly getting drafted into stable situations. And certainly Hughes wasn’t the biggest dissapointment for the Devils, as much as I like the guy that title has to go to former Norris winner P.K. Subban, who put up just seven goals and eighteen points with a -21 in 68 games in his first season as a Devil. Sure, Subban played just over 22 minutes a night (2nd on the team) and his game improved after the coaching change, but that’s not exactly what anyone including he had in mind after this summer’s blockbuster trade.
Even in a season of dissapointments, the game that stands out the most will always be Opening Night, and the ghastly blown 4-0 lead starting late in the second period in a 5-4 OT loss to the Jets that was the ultimate harbinger of bad times to come – especially given the 0-4-2 start it led to. Maybe second on the list in terms of dubious games this season would be a tie with the back-to-back gutpunches that finished Hynes in early December, the 4-0 thumping at the Garden followed by a listless 7-1 loss in Buffalo. Even with the coaching change, those games started a particularly awful stretch where we lost seven straight games and nine of ten. Really there aren’t that many other games which stood out in terms of annoyance, other than the Winnipeg lead each late blown lead – especially with Hynes – sort of ran together, and the roster is what it was after the trade of Hall and the injury to and subsequent trade of defenseman Sami Vatanen.
Yes there were good things that happened this year, but indiciative of how crappy this season was, one of the season’s biggest bright spots (Blake Coleman) was himself traded just before the deadline. Coleman became a fan favorite with a hard-working all-around game that featured a surprising scoring touch in 2019-20, arguably putting up the goal of the season on that very same Opening Night where we suffered such a disasterous meltdown afterward. Coleman finished second on the team with 21 goals only behind Kyle Palmieri’s 25, and even if the season resumes with some regular season games I think they’ll remain 1-2 in goals, since the closest to them was Jesper Bratt with 16 in 60 games.
Bratt’s play at least improved down the stretch in his third year and he started to look more like the former 6th-rounder that opened eyes as a rookie two years ago, but he still has limitations in terms of stamina and overall game aside from scoring. Palmieri did what he does, put up his 25-30 goals and play with a workmanlike atitude, leading the team in points as well (though KHL import Nikita Gusev finished just one behind Palmieri’s 45, with 44 points of his own). Fortunately K-Palm was exempted from the late-season purge by interim GM Tom Fitzgerald and the Jersey native will hopefully don the red and white for many years to come – whether it’s Fitzgerald or the next guy who has to make that decision in contract negotiations. If it’s Fitzgerald clearly we know which way he’s leaning, judging by his comments at the trade deadline when asked why he didn’t also deal Palmieri.
Perhaps the biggest bright spot of all was ‘rookie’ goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, rookie being in quotes cause he played 23 games in 2018-19, just under the Calder qualifications so by the NHL standard he was still a rookie this year. This time around he played 47 games, somehow compiling a 22-14-8 record, a 2.77 GAA and a .915 save percentage despite a slow start of his own and a dumpster fire of defensive breakdowns and offensive meltdowns around him. On a better team, Blackwood would have gotten serious Calder consideration, but Devil fans who braved watching the dreck that was the 2019-20 season all know how well he had to play just to put up those numbers. In a division with a bunch of young, talented netminders at least the Devils can stack up with the better teams in the division in that area.
Among other positives, defenseman Damon Severson took a step forward after the coaching change, improving defensively and being entrusted with more responsibility after the trades of Greene and Vatanen. Severson led the team in ATOI per night, quite a statement with Subban on the team, even a Subban having a subpar year. Gusev overcame a rocky start and his skill shined through not only during games but in the shootouts as well, as his slick moves stole at least a couple wins in the skills competition. I could throw in Pavel Zacha and his 32 points (in 65 games) as a bright spot, but I’m still not much of a believer, especially with just eight goals of those 32 points.
Honestly, I’m surprised I was even able to do four paragraphs’ worth of positives about this season. Maybe it’s part wistfulness now knowing that we’re not only going to miss the NHL for a long time but pretty well all sports and a lot of our non-sports entertainment as well. Even freaking Disneyland closed for the first time since 9/11. Though I hadn’t been watching the Devils all that much lately, there’s still a difference between voluntarily not watching but still at least paying attention from afar, and not having that diversion in our lives at all. I do know there are more important things to worry about, but that’s for another day. Thankfully I’m not among the sick at the moment nor are any of my friends, but the virus is getting closer to all of us, myself included with the first reported case in our town just today.
Still, we’re all entitled to commiserate over losing one of our biggest sources of recreation, joy, fun – whatever adjective you want to use. Especially now before we do have to account for real-life problems. We wouldn’t be the hockey fans we are without feeling passion for this sport and our teams. Even if I love all my sports teams (Devils, Mets, Jets) equally, I’ve always felt in a vaccum hockey was the best sport of the three, and the best sport going with its combination of skill and physicality – even with less of the staged fighting and dirty plays that marked the game for many years.
If hockey should come back I suspect I’ll watch most of whatever games the Devils makeup simply because of more appreciation of having it around, and after being completely without it for a while. Even if it is just a stopover toward another long summer, and one where so much is unknown. Who will be the coach and GM – and will it even matter? Will the owners and whoever they pick as the full-time GM want another aggressive offseason or will this be a long rebuild? Can our supposed franchise players (Hughes and Nico Hischier) take another step next year? Namely can Hischier improve from being a solid all-around player to something more, and Hughes from being a scrub to being a competent NHL’er. Will Palmieri and Gusev sign long-term or be shipped out this offseason?
There’s so much unknown right now both with life in general and the Devils specifically. I can’t really do much about either other than hope for the best, and in the case of real life walk the line of taking neccesary precautions while not living in a bubble. There’s still a lot to enjoy about life both now and after the imminent danger from this virus passes. There will be a lot to enjoy about hockey when it returns in the months and years to come, whatever team you root for. Whatever hardship and nonsense comes our way in the days and weeks ahead, it’ll make everything on the other side of it more enjoyable.