In a season unlike any other this schedule still feels weird. On the one hand I feel like we got swept by the Rangers a month ago because of all the games that have been played, but it’s only been two weeks. That’s what happens when you play *checks notes* seven games in just under two weeks. Predictably the Islanders were the Globetrotters to our Washington Generals in a three-game washout last weekend. Of course all the games were close, the Islanders don’t have a great offense (even before losing Anders Lee for the season) and play close games. And we obviously should have won the third game with no fewer than two disallowed goals.
I didn’t really see either, but the one that overturned our apparent OT winner last Sunday was the NHL’s new ‘replay for a half millimeter offside’ rule that reduces scoring and fixes a problem that wasn’t really an issue to begin with. As much as I think it’s a pointless rule, I could do nothing but laugh when I saw Twitter going nuts over the disallowed goal. Let’s face it, losing teams find ways to lose games. Especially against teams building a winning culture like the Islanders now. Tomorrow’s matinee against the Penguins marks the official halfway point of our season and we’re twelve points out of a playoff spot. Even with such a long break between games and another one looming soon enough, there’s just no motivation for me to watch right now.
It’s been said before that if you’re an owner, you would rather have your fans be emotionally nuts as opposed to apathetic. I’ve pretty much reached the apathy stage with the Devils right now and I’m sure I’m not alone. I came to that realization when it dawned on me that I haven’t really ranted a lot on the team this year. Of course part of that is probably due to the fact I’m not as emotionally invested without having to go to games this year. That’s gonna be a real problem once this pandemic is over, re-engaging your fanbase on a personal level. YouTube videos and podcasts aren’t enough, as cool as the interviews and the postgames can be, nothing replaces live action with the fan camraderie. You feel more invested with the team when you are investing time and money in seeing them play.
To be fair there’s also an implicit understanding (at least for me) in how annoyed can you really be when 80% of the team had COVID not that long ago and 100% of them are affected by this crazy post-break schedule? You can’t properly evaluate anyone with this schedule, and especially considering the lack of different teams we’re playing. Are we as bad as we are because we’re still god-awful, or does this division make us even look worse than we are? Probably the truth is some combination of the two. However much you want to excuse the Devils’ performance due to COVID, the schedule, the toughness of the MassMetrowhatever division, this is another season where trade deadline day is going to be our highlight until the lottery, and it just sucks whatever the reason. This team may deserve some slack but I find myself not wanting to give it to them because this season is just more crap piled on top of our post-Lou loserdom.
I’m not here to rant about how we should never have let Lou Lamoriello go, I acknowledge things got stale here, he was slow to adjust to the post-2005 NHL and too wedded to guys who had won for him (chief among them head scout David Conte) to make necessary changes. Lou didn’t want to admit this team needed a rebuild or a philosophy change – and he wasn’t going to stick around for a rebuild either. That said, getting in trouble with a win-now philosophy beats the alternative which is the last several years, particularly 2020 and 2021. Guys who should have been part of the solution as we finally turned back into a winner – Taylor Hall, Blake Coleman, now perhaps Kyle Palmieri – are just being flipped for more futures as we kick the can further down the road.
If I am gonna rant on anything now, it’s the blase nature of two straight years where we don’t even attempt to sign guys, we just run the clock down toward the deadline and look to flip them. I get the whole ‘you never want to overpay for guys on the back end of their career’ moneyball philosophy in a salary cap league but at some point when you’re losing talent faster than you replace it, it’s penny wise and pound foolish to just continually boot guys out the door when their contracts expire. Especially when you need talent to help the development of the under-28 brigade you ostensibly want to build around.
I also recognize they were probably right to cash out on Hall, his stats have declined post-injury and he’s had an awful year in Buffalo (who hasn’t?). Clearly they got more than they had any right to expect in a Coleman trade in terms of potential future value but ultimately that’s all it is right now, potential. That said, when you look at the fact we’re rolling out a rookie fifth round pick and a Carolina castoff in our top six and cursing the fact that ubertalented Jack Hughes has no wingers to pass to, you wonder what we’re doing here. That’s not to pick on Yegor Sharangovich or Janne Kuokkanen, who’ve both shown they have talent enough to play in the league. But if you’re trying to build around Hughes and Nico Hischier – who’s still in the Bermuda Triangle of injuries at this point – you would at some point in the near future want wingers that can consistently score at the end of their passes, no? Having developmental wingers for your developmental centers isn’t exactly the best way to…develop either.
Which brings me to Palmieri. Sure, he just turned 30 this year and he’s had a very meh year to put it mildly with four goals and thirteen points in twenty-six games. This is a guy that usually is good for around 25 goals and 50-55 points a season, which isn’t something you can say about any other winger on our roster at the moment. Even Jesper Bratt hasn’t hit 20 goals or 40 points yet in his career and his advanced stats belie his actual lack of production (one goal in 21 games so far this year). Maybe Pavel Zacha now that he’s moved off center can become a winger who can score with seven goals and seventeen points in twenty-six games. Everyone else is either potential or future stock. And after last year’s deadline, GM Tom Fitzgerald was effusive in his praise of Palmieri. But that hasn’t translated into any kind of real movement toward a contract after this season.
Since the Atlantic’s a pay site I’ll summarize it this way: Fitz is still a Palmieri fan but if you read between the lines it seems as if he’d prefer a shorter-term deal (what GM wouldn’t?) while player and agent would want a longer-term one – again not a shocker, hence the standoff, albeit one where both sides have said there’s been total transparency. Fitz also mentioned what the market would look like this offseason while we’re still trying to get out of a COVID world with a flat cap in the NHL. Much of what both sides say sounds good on paper. What bugs me – besides the no wingers for Jack and Nico problem – is we’ve been sitting on cap space for multiple years waiting for the right time, the right players to use it on and that time never seems to come. And we still wind up with unused cap space and holes to fill.
When it’s all said and done, we’re going to have more holes than we did two years ago and again, we’re losing talent faster than it’s coming in. That isn’t a good place to be after you’ve ostensibly been rebuilding for the better part of six years and your roster’s only getting younger. Fitz says he knows we need vets to help the kids, but we’re coming up on a deadline where a bunch of vets are likely to be out the door. Palmieri’s just the biggest name on the trade block, but defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Ryan Murray, franchise stalwart Travis Zajac and another guy we’d once pegged as a hopeful top six winger (Nikita Gusev) are also likely on the block themselves as their contracts expire. Perhaps that’s also part of my apathy this year, I know at least a third of the roster is basically dead man walking anyway.
It’s the possible departure of Palmieri that cuts the deepest though, especially with him being a local guy who’s handled himself in a first-class manner and has been a bright spot in some dark days for this franchise. Maybe management will be right about the market, and Palmieri won’t get longer-term deals this offseason – his chances for that are declining the longer his slump lasts – but I doubt he’ll come back here on a shorter-term one. Other than the local angle what’s the draw for signing a one-year deal here as opposed to with an actual contender where he can have a deep playoff run for the first time since his early career in Anaheim?
At some point we don’t see the forest for the trees and account for the human angle or intangibles, in the obsessive quest to worry about our 2025 cap and only pay what a guy is worth for as finite a term as possible. It’s doubly silly to worry about the cap three and four years down the road when it’s not like free agents are just flocking to come here anyway. Even in the best of times we had to overpay to get free agents and seldom got the first-choice ones. Truly a far cry from the days where when one-time beat guy Tom Gulitti queried Lou about his cap problems, Lou deadpanned ‘don’t worry about my cap’.
I do credit current GM Fitzgerald on one thing – he’s at least tried to address the lack of scoring winger problem longer-term by drafting Alexander Holtz with the first of his three first-rounders this year, and also trading for Nolan Foote as a part of the Coleman deal. It’s not likely either will be a real factor before 2022-23 though, if they can even live up to their draft billing and skillset at the NHL level. It’s just hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel overall at this point, after our fluke start this season’s lived down to my expectations and next year doesn’t look any better either. Am I supposed to get excited we actually won two meaningless games in a row over the Sabres (finally) and Penguins?
Especially when we didn’t exactly walk away unscathed from the latter with Zacha and Nathan Bastian getting injuries during the game, while Mackenzie Blackwood aggravated an apparently existing issue in warmups and had to miss his start, which is also insane. You’re in an already lost season and are letting one of your keys for the future play hurt?! We are literally bad enough to get coaches fired – ask Ralph Kreuger. At least they finally broke their insane home losing streak, whoopdie damn doo. Maybe the two wins in a row will get me to watch some more this weekend at least although it’s depressing when even your wins are littered with carnage.