Jack Hughes #86 of the New Jersey Devils

Devils Stunning Collapse Brings an About-Face

NEWARK–The Devils debacle to the Panthers on Saturday afternoon, one in which saw New Jersey’s 6-2 lead in the third period erased by Florida before scoring in OT to complete the major comeback, was filled with rarity.

Of course, there was the disaster of the implosion, which saw Florida score four times in the third including two goals on five shots with the net empty inside the final 4:37 of regulation. And, there was the first career hat trick of second-year Devil, Yegor Sharangovich. But the most lasting rarity in the aftermath of the stunning collapse may be that a team mathematically eliminated from postseason contention with all eyes on the future, experienced an organizational about-face.

Because even for the oft-discussed youth of the Devils and the ability to hang around in most contests this season in contrast to prior seasons, there seemed to be something about Saturday that could taint some of the positive visions management has had on this group. The same group that was expected to take a leap ahead and struggled to find consistency at key positions and throughout the season.

“I’m not going to look to blame people,” Damon Severson said. “We couldn’t keep the puck out of our net–it’s a team game. It’s bad–we’re up 6-2. We got to find a way.

“We just let them come at us, we refused to chip the puck in at points in the game. When we turn it over and they come back at us, they’re a good offensive team. A top team in the league–one of them. It’s just mistakes–mistakes in the neutral zone, turning pucks over, sticks in our (defensive) zone, just kind of standing around. You give them credit, they’re a really good hockey team. I’m not taking anything away from them, but when you’re up 6-2 in the NHL, you shouldn’t lose the game in overtime 7-6. Simple as that, that’s brutal.”

Head coach Lindy Ruff, got the kind of start he wanted following Thursday’s 8-1 loss in Boston, said with confidence that the ‘lesson’ of Saturday’s game was “harder.”

“This is painful,” Ruff said. “Part of why I called the timeout and said ‘hey, we got to play–we got to play in the offensive zone.’

“Sometimes you have to make a real tough play when you’re under duress and we didn’t make enough of them. We’ve been in some tough games where we’ve been able to–go back to Colorado, St. Louis those tough games. We’ve been able to make those plays. Tonight we didn’t make them.”

And if Boston’s game was a ‘wash,’ it was a decidedly different tone when asked to look ahead to the second-half of a back-to-back on Sunday with the Islanders.

“This is a tough pill to swallow,” he said.

And that could be the thinking at the top as well. Because you have to think this game, this collapse and the teams inability to close out a four-goal lead in 20:00 is going to be fine-combed and perhaps a piece of supporting data when the team ultimately makes changes to its personnel in all areas–which seems rather apparent at this point.

Tom Fitzgerald has already admitted he tried to make ‘hockey deals’ on and before the trade deadline–none of which came to fruition. His rental of Andrew Hammond, who struggled in his Devils debut on Saturday, allowing seven goals, was the lone move at the deadline. But, others are inevitable. And for what it’s worth, Pavel Zacha wasn’t on the ice for this particular collapse. Which is to say, the product evaluation is not isolated to one position or a small collection of players.

This isn’t a burn-it-down to the core rebuild. And it can no longer be a young group trying to find its way. The Devils, who are 10 years removed from their last successful postseason and have played in just 5 playoff games since–know they need to push the program further. Saturday may not have pushed it back, but it’s understandable to say confidence for the product is murky–even if the destination of this team for the balance of 21-22 was decided months ago. And that is as unusual as it is confirming that changes will be needed and are to be expected.

The defense will almost certainly see a re-shaping as P.K. Subban departs for free agency and the team starts to think long-term with Severson heading into his final season under contract. A possible decision on sticking with Ty Smith following an underwhelming sophomore campaign might also be under consideration.

Up front and getting more creativity while finding realistic prices via trade will likely be an area of emphasis when the evaluation is clearer on 222-23. That could be in the definition of the presumed core pieces–Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer and Sharangovich is altered. Tomas Tatar has turned his season around enough to consider him a tough player to part with. Miles Wood seems to be invaluable based on this group’s construction, but he can’t be the only player that excels in what he does on the roster next season, no?

And goaltending will remain a source of concern and question until Mackenzie Blackwood is able to put together a run that gives management some confidence–and even if No. 29 plays again this season, there may not be enough time for that to sort itself out. If that’s the case, it seems absolutely necessary that the Devils explore all avenues to upgrade its competition in net. Even if the organization gets reason to be optimistic about Blackwood again, it would be profoundly beneficial for the team wanting to move ahead with things, to have an answer and to protect themselves from the revolving door of the position over the last two seasons, but reaching new heights this year.

The season will play out over the final month of New Jersey’s season, so time to be introspective awaits. But, it’s hard to think management can look at the nature of Saturday and not have some emotional, lasting vision for what they need to see addressed this offseason.

And for that, maybe Saturday’s debacle becomes a defining day for the future of the franchise.