In what has been a surreal seven months since the Devils’ last game, even having the true 2020 offseason begin this week has a different feel to it. If you’re not paying attention you might not have noticed the NHL Draft begins on Tuesday night with the first round, and the rest of the draft will be held on Wednesday before free agency begins Friday afternoon. Of course, like most of life nowadays the draft itself is completely remote. If we were in a normal offseason, it would already be over – in fact the beginning of October would have been the start of the 2020-21 season.
I’m conversely not emotionally ready for the hockey offseason, but yet from a sports perspective it’s something I can actually look forward to for a couple of weeks. With the Jets 0-4 and the Mets long since done it’ll be nice to at least be able to pay attention to one of my teams this week. And on the whole, it’ll be good that the Devils and the other several teams who never got to finish their 2019-20 season can at least start planning for 2020-21 and beyond in earnest this week.
Despite our coaching change I can’t say it’s been a busy offseason for the Devils so far. Our entire offseason till today can pretty well be encapsulated into this: The Devils hired Lindy Ruff as head coach, retained previous head coach Alain Nasreddine as an assistant under Ruff, and took the interim tag off of GM Tom Fitzgerald – who’s now the unquestioned decision maker for the Devils in the forseeable future. What else is there to report, signing 2017 draft pick Reilly Walsh away from Harvard? Okay that’s nice, but probably inevitable since the state of the country has put indoor winter college sports in peril. Hiring Mark Recchi as part of the coaching staff? Meh.
There’s your recap of the last seven months from a Devil perspective. I honestly can’t believe it has been that long since I was last at the Prudential Center (and it probably will be as long or longer before I am back there again), albeit I left the Devils’ last home game in March early to go to a social outing with a couple of friends. Which was both fortuitous since I didn’t get to see either of them for a while and also fitting, since having my last game cut short was a perfect metaphor for the season as a whole. It did turn out the Devils were just a game or two short of qualifying for the bubble in Montreal’s spot. Who knew?
Of course a lot of note went on in the bubble for the twenty-four teams who were able to get some closure for their season, and hats off to Gary Bettman, the NHL and all the players for a successful playoff run. And congratulations to the Lightning on being a worthy 2020 champion, particularly alum Blake Coleman. Hopefully in the years to come trading him will prove to be a win-win for everyone, it already has been for Tampa and Coleman alike. Acquiring another first-round pick plus prospect Nolan Foote at least gave us a nice return on paper for a sparkplug role player who was only under contract through next season.
I can’t say I watched much of the playoffs, but then I hardly do in a normal year when the Devils are long gone anyway. Plus the timing of a lot of the early-round games (particularly the weekday afternoon starts) was very odd, albeit out of neccesity considering you had twelve teams in each bubble when the return to play tournament started. My main sources of angst during the playoffs had to do with draft positioning, specifically Arizona winning its five-game play-in series with Nashville to bump the draft pick we received from them down from a potential top ten selection to eighteen. And of course the Rangers winning the lottery, but I can’t complain about that too much considering we won it twice. Still, can some other team outside of the Metro get lucky with the lottery too?
Lottery and playoff results cemented our three first-rounders in 2021 at 7, 18 and 20. Although we traded our 2nd and 3rd rounders last offseason in deals for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev, we did at least gain a third-rounder back in the Sami Vatanen trade in February, along with a second 4th rounder from the Bruins via a 2019 Marcus Johansson deal. So things will still be busy for Fitzgerald and director of scouting Paul Castron at the draft table this week. Having three first-rounders provides endless speculation over not only who we pick at our spots, but will the Devils decide to trade up even further by packaging a couple of their picks?
To his credit Fitzgerald has been very transparent over one thing he will not do, which is trading a first-rounder for NHL talent unless he’s getting a top four defenseman or a top six forward. He’s also put some cold water on the speculation over the Devils going after a top free agent a la the Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo in a recent interview with NJ.com:
“Sometimes it may be hard to not have a trigger finger and pull things off because they look great, but it just has to make sense for where we’re at and where we want to go,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t know if that makes any sense to anybody, but it’s clear to me that it’s easy to be seduced by certain type of players and then get caught long term and then regret some things potentially.
“The only thing I’m looking forward to is helping these young kids – Jack, Nico and the rest of the prospects and core kids – develop and grow, so they grow together. We’ll watch them continue to grow and create that winning culture.”
After seven of the last eight seasons without playoff hockey, a rebuild around the kids message may not be what Devil fans want to hear, and it certainly isn’t ideal from a business perspective for keeping an audience engaged after what’ll be a nearly year-long wait for the Devils’ next game, and likely a game with reduced fan capacity at best. Still, as I was saying throughout last year when 2019-20 blew up to such an extent that all of our key FA’s got traded and the GM got fired, it was probably inevitable we’d need rebuild 2.0. Ironically Fitz’s message now is just like one time boss Shero’s was for most of the last few years – payroll flexibility, not making big moves until you can match up with some idealistic timeline, yadda yadda yadda.
In Shero’s case the idealistic timeline was apparently five years given all the moves he finally made last offseason, but unfortunately things continued to go backwards in year five and with key players like Taylor Hall set to become free agents this offseason, things came to a head and his plan ultimately failed. Fitz has more immediate concerns with potential free agents, specifically leading goalscorer Kyle Palmieri (photo) and Gusev, who are both on expiring contracts. Although Fitz didn’t trade Palmieri at the deadline, there’s no assurance he won’t deal him now or at some point next season if Palmieri wants to move on or Fitz doesn’t see him as fitting the ‘Hischier-Hughes’ timeline.
What happens with those two players may prove to be the biggest event of this offseason, perhaps other than continuing to add to a prospect base that is rated highly by outside sources such as the Atlantic (2nd) and McKeen’s (1st). Admittedly I do roll my eyes at the whole prospect watching, not to mention the ‘but Shero improved the prospect pool so much!’ rationalization of five years with one wham, bam thank you ma’am playoff appearance and no sign that things will get better in the immediate future. Heck, I would hope the prospect base would be much improved with seven playoff-less seasons since 2012 and two lottery wins.
What can’t be disputed is this team is going to need Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes to be franchise centers if their improvement is going to come sooner rather than later and be more long-lasting, not to mention other on the cusp prospects like defensemen Ty Smith (17th overall pick in 2018), Kevin Bahl (acquired in the Hall deal) and forward Jesper Boqvist making an impact in the near future. Hischier took a slight step back in year three, while Hughes didn’t make much of a positive impact in his rookie season. It’s to that end that hopefully improved coaching will help, and Ruff did do a good job developing a lot of younger players for a Dallas team that just made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Things also looked promising at Binghamton last year, as the Devils’ AHL affiliate was making a strong run toward the postseason before the AHL season got scrapped entirely.
Even with all the unanswered questions that’ll be answered this week, there’s still an uncertain future for both the Devils and the NHL as a whole. One of the many good things the NHL accomplished during this pandemic was come to an agreement for a four-year CBA extension while nobody was looking. Who would have thunk it, labor peace with Bettman and Donald Fehr? Ironic it took a global pandemic to accomplish that.
Still, there is as of now no clue what a 2020-21 season will look like at not only the NHL level but in all levels of hockey – the AHL, colleges, etc. Even assuming we do have a season, will it be one with fans in the stands? And when will it even start, with what number of games? Latest speculation has the next NHL season starting in January (which would mean camp and a limited preseason in December) but nothing is finalized yet. All we can do for now is enjoy this week and be reminded that sooner or later, better times are ahead for all.