NEWARK–The Devils dropping their 46th regulation loss of the season may have been part-reflective, part-confirming. It was anyway, the farewell to the campaign and exclamation on its indifference. For all that it is though, it is not the story that can immediately follow the 82nd game of the 2021-22 regular season.
The Devils, who won 27 games over 198 days–eight more times than they did in the 2021 56-game season, failed to score a fourth goal against Detroit’s Magnus Hellberg on Friday, falling 5-3 to the Wings. But even if Hellberg was beaten before regulation, it was not going to be the story to follow the 82nd game of the regular season.
The outcome, which more so, saw the Devils rally from down a goal three times while Mackenzie Blackwood, in his second appearance since Jan. 19, allowed four on 34 shots. It was both an unsettling showing while not unexpected given the long layoff following issues stemming from an offseason heel surgery. Even so, it wasn’t the story destined to to emerge in the aftermath of this regular season.
Because, at the time of writing this anyway, the Devils are stunningly living in a reality that, the building process that has been undergone since 2015-16, has entered into a phase that may very well not be a lateral move. After exiting the 2015-16 season, the team knew it had to address scoring and acquired Taylor Hall. After a rocky ’16-17, they jumped the process a bit, winning the right to select Nico Hischier first overall. And, after turning some of that luck into the club’s only postseason appearance in the last decade, ’18-19 struggles helped again jump up with Jack Hughes via lottery and P.K. Subban via trade from the cap-strained Preds on-board.
The COVID-shortened 19-20 and 2021 seasons, which were not without woes, at least followed the rebuilding consequences that included the trading of some of the organization’s most popular veterans for future assets. For its organizational disappointment, it was hard to question by any reasonable logical. On-ice deficiencies were shelved to the summer as is often the way the plan operates while in work.
So it stands good reason to wonder why, even with the extreme and dire circumstances of its goaltending, that a team that has continuously molded into a form they have been eying, has again noted its need to evaluate its core, the makeup of its future pipeline and ways in which they can alter their competitiveness without taking away from the youth and speed that has been the focal point in construction–albeit without dividends to this point.
Perhaps, it means the plan must again undergo detailed review. That could very well mean the Devils, equally exhausted by the last three seasons as they are frustrated, may stand to be more aggressive, particularly after having a crash-course in signing Dougie Hamilton last offseason. It could also mean the phase has not arrived to the point management expected it to be nearing. In any event, it is fair to wonder if sticking to the bit entirely is the most efficient practice.
Going scorched earth of course is neither practical nor is it truly possible. It remains a young squad that can continue to pride itself on that. But, that also can only go on for so long.
“We’re a young team,” Hischier said. “That’s for sure. But, at some point we have to start winning. I obviously didn’t lose trust in our group that we have. I think we got a good core. We just got to keep moving forward and sometimes it hurts. At the end, it’s going to feel even better, if we’re going to win at some point.”
The urgency is echoed beyond the captain, who to his credit scored 60 points in 70 games, including 35 points in his last 30 games. Fans, many of which still can recall the 2011-12 postseason run as the benchmark for a franchise that has become more familiar with losing seasons than it ever had previously, are eager to see changes and improvement. And, the waiting from one phase to the next with incremental growth is unlikely to be the preferred method.
And, as the Rangers prepare for the postseason with their own core that has quickly evolved, there is some added pressure to keep up with the market competition. All of this culminates in a reality that Tom Fitzgerald and Co. may have to, against preference, find ways to accelerate their processes and procedures.
There will be pushing to sign one of the market’s top free agents–perhaps it’s New Jersey-born pending UFA, Johnny Gaudreau, who scored 115 points this season. Or, Filip Forsberg, who tallied 41 goals and 83 points in 68 games and has not reached a deal to extend in Nashville. It could also be Andrew Copp, who has fond a scoring touch in recent seasons and has 18 points in 16 games since being shipped from Winnipeg to the Rangers–not nearly the potent scorer of others in UFA class, but he’s got a bit of Blake Coleman in him.
The 2022 draft, which seems to lack some of the excitement from draft classes prior, could also be means to alter and gamble a bit on the plan. Do the Devils do what the Blackhawks did last offseason–shipping away a likely top-10 pick for a piece that may speed things up in the form of Seth Jones? Jones did manage a career-high 46 assists in 78 games, but the Hawks will finish the season with one more win than New Jersey.
And, of course, how much will the uncertainty in net determine the altering of things? Can the Devils return with Blackwood as a viable piece to the puzzle? And, what kinds of steps do they take to ensure the net? It’s been a seemingly impossible task over the last two seasons. Does that require a shift in decisions in order to find a solution after a 198-day endless maze?
Decisions will come, evaluations are underway. But, it’s hard to imagine this plan is able to operate at the pace and level once desired.