Will This Year Mark The Devils Return?

After missing the playoffs five straight season, will New Jersey make it back in 2018?

With №1 pick Nico Hischier in tow, can the Devils return to the postseason? (Image via si.com)

It’s been a difficult few seasons for Devils fans. What was once a perennial playoff lock, the New Jersey Devils have experienced some unenviable days in the last five seasons.

Since their Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2012, marred by the abrupt ending that came when the Los Angeles Kings hoisted the cup (thanks a lot, Steve Bernier), the Devils have yet to even play a postseason game. It started with the departure of Zach Parise. Following a lockout shortened season, Ilya Kovalchuk went home to Russia, David Clarkson left for Toronto, and New Jersey’s offense became a shell of its former self. A string of aging veterans were marched through Prudential Center, and finally the great architect, Lou Lamoriello, stepped down and eventually took the job with the Maple Leafs — a team that is now in great position. Things got so bad in New Jersey, that for a time, the Devils power play featured names like Tuomo Ruutu, Bobby Farnham, and Jordin Tootoo. Not exactly snipers over here.

This all feels so wrong for a team that was a powerhouse in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the game has come so far from what it was back then and Devils, at times, have struggled to adapt. Finally, under new GM Ray Shero and the leadership of head coach John Hynes, the approach seems to have changed. Shero has pulled off some great trades for the team, including the acquisitions of Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, and most recently Marcus Johansson. In some cases, the Devils avoided overpaying for them, and in the case of Palmieri, have seen more of a return than was probably anticipated. The trade that brought Cory Schneider to New Jersey during Lamoriello’s tenure is also having its impact today, and while Schneider had a down year last season, he remains the obvious starting goalie for the Devils.

The Devils Eastern Conference Championship in 2012 feels like an eternity ago. (Image via All About The Jersey)

This past season and the offseason that followed has given the Devils the chance to hit the reset button, though. New Jersey finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, due in part to the decisive way in which they chose to skate their younger players and look toward the future after the trade deadline. Finishing that low in the standings increased their chances at a high lottery pick, and they came out of the draft lottery with the first overall choice. Picking Nico Hischier has given New Jersey some excitement, which was followed up by another magnificent trade in acquiring Marcus Johansson. The addition of depth at center in the signing of Brian Boyle and retaining many of their other free agents also highlighted a decent offseason. The problem? None of this addressed their biggest need.

While it seems the Devils were very much in play to try and acquire Kevin Shattenkirk, they failed to do so. As a result, the team comes in with nearly the same abysmal defense they ran out there a year ago. Unless a few of their young defensemen can play above expectations, Cory Schneider may go another year without much help. Ray Shero likely isn’t finished, though, and could add a veteran defenseman on a PTO or work a trade during the year.

So while the acquisitions this offseason and the trades mentioned above from years prior certainly have the team trending in the right direction, they haven’t addressed their holed on defense. Everyone knows, especially New Jersey, how important a defense is to playoff success. At the moment, players like Hall seem inspired by the work the team is doing to get back to playoff form. The unfortunate reality is that, as presently constituted, New Jersey would need perfect play from just about everyone — particularly on defense — to even begin to sniff the playoffs next season. If they can add another solid piece on defense, their chances certainly look better. The overall team needs to play a more improved game, and they seem to have the ability to on paper. It just doesn’t look like they’re quite close enough yet.

It feels like I’ve said that every year.