The last time the Devils were in the midst of a lengthy losing streak, Pat Pickens and I got together and debated whether the Devils were in real trouble. Pat was a little more optimistic than me, although we both saw a chance for redemption. Then Ilya Kovalchuk got hurt and the Devils went off the rails. With eight games left, Pat and I faced a simple questions: Will the Devils make the playoffs? What follows is a quick answer to that question followed by a debate over why it happened, how to fix it and whether Pete DeBoer should be part of the solution or on the chopping block.
From: Corey Griffin
To: Pat Pickens
OK Pat, so after last night's loss, the Devils are four points out of the playoffs with eight games left. Out of the Islanders, who are in seventh, and the Rangers, who are in eight, the Devils only have a game in hand on the ninth-place Jets, who are two points ahead of them. They're also behind all three teams in both of the NHL's top playoff tiebreakers (points percentage and ROW).
So I ask you, will the Devils make the playoffs?
From: Pat Pickens
I was asked this same question by one of my friends last night while the Bruins were ahead 4-2. I started with a "you know, it isn't out of the question because..." Then he told me to shutup and give him my answer.
And I had to say no.
Is it possible? Most definitely. The Devils will be able to control their own fate with a game Friday against the reeling Senators, plus two with the Rangers in the final week. They have games against the lowly Panthers and the Flyers. Would it stun me if they closed 7-1 and made the playoffs with 54 points? Absolutely not.
But, I don't think it's going to happen.
Ilya Kovalchuk's going to come back -- and that means goals are coming. New Jersey can build off a spirited comeback Wednesday night and take some good feeling into Friday's game. But, I think it's time to face reality. Bryce Salvador's likely out for the season, Anton Volchenkov will miss at least half of those eight, and even when Kovalchuk returns, he won't be 100 percent.
Devils fans have had a nice run of success through the Lamoriello years -- many have never endured a losing streak quite like this one. One can blame injuries -- or the abbreviated season -- for the Devils' circumstances. But at the end of the day, this team is not built to win this year. Zach Parise was this team's guts, and he's in Minnesota.
Plus, arithmetic is against the Devils. If the Devils go 7-1 in their final eight, the Rangers and Islanders need only to go 5-3 in their final eight to finish with 54 points and the tiebreaker.
I think New Jersey's only hope is that Ottawa continues to freefall, or the Isles suddenly come back to earth. But I don't see the Isles missing the playoff party.
What say ye, Corey? Is this Devils team top-eight bound.
Medieval Times -- good times for everyone! Well, everyone that can drink.
Corey: First of all, "What say ye?" When did this become a discussion at Medieval Times? Where's my turkey leg and my cask of ale that tastes remarkably like Bud Light yet resides in an imposing tin mug? Also, for the record, I don't know about other people, but I had a damn great time at Medieval Times. I also had about eight of those casks, but that's besides the point. I don't understand why it gets such a bad rap. As long as there's people "jousting" and cold beer in large cups, I see no problem with it at all. Long live Medieval Times.
As for the Devils' playoff chances? They're somewhere between faint and "Can we just bleeping end this year already?!" The math is not in their favor as you pointed out and they've yet to prove to me they're capable of winning four out of five, let alone seven out of eight. Last night, a fan tweeted me that he's torn between wanting the season to end and wanting to make some extra money off re-selling his playoff tickets. I mean, that pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
People will look back on this season and cite the injuries and that's a fair point, but it's not the sole reason they're in this position. Lamoriello basically mothballed this season before it began, hoping to sneak with a chickenshit roster that was counting on at least one 20-goal-pace season out of the Jacob Josefson-Mattias Tedenby-Bobby Butler triumvirate. Think about how ridiculous that sounds in hindsight. Also, keep in mind the Devils were hoping for some sort of repeat of David Clarkson's 30-goal breakout while also banking on legit growth seasons from Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac, the latter of which had to do so without his binky and best friend, Zach Parise.
So no, the Devils will not make the playoffs and I think a lot of Devils fans, and the Devils themselves, are about to start looking for reasons why.
Pat: What's crazy is the Devils' start warranted all that excitement -- they were 8-1-3, Clarkson was scoring goals en masse, the goaltending was great and all was fine.
I agree that Lamoriello deserves blame. DeBoer may take the fall for this, but he's playing the hand he is dealt. Butler was clearly a mistake. Tedenby and Josefson haven't even played.
With a shrinking salary cap and looming free agency for Elias and Clarkson, it's sad to think that it may get worse before it gets better.
As for Medieval Times, sadly we'll have to agree to disagree.
Corey: One of the biggest problems for the Devils this season -- and it's one they're going to have to address entering next season -- is the lack of a true leader that sets the tone on the practice rink, during games when they're trailing and in the locker room. The Devils could've gotten by without Parise the player, but they never really replaced his attitude or his heart in the room or on the ice. I wrote last night that this team is fragile, which is a word Pete DeBoer used to describe his own team during the first period Wednesday. In today's NHL, it can't just be about the coach calling a timeout or striking the right tone during intermission. There needs to be a player in the room whose presence translates into the way the team responds to adversity. I get that Bryce Salvador is well-liked by his teammates, but he was never going to be that guy. Is Clarkson that guy? Maybe if he re-signs they can hand him the captain's "C" and make the Devils his team, but that's a major question mark entering this summer. What if Toronto opens the vaults for the hometown kid? What about the "mystery team" that is always lurking with every semi-big-time free agent?
You mention DeBoer possibly taking the fall for this, but I think that would be absolute idiocy. I think DeBoer is far from the problem with this team and his firing would be a massive mistake by Lou, who I think would be firing DeBoer to cover up his shoddy roster. I don't see this team tuning him out. In fact, I see the
opposite. When DeBoer calls timeouts, the Devils respond, like they did last night. When they enter the intermission and DeBoer talks to them between periods, they
respond. Slow starts? There's only so much a coach can do after giving his players scouting reports, video tape and the overall gameplan. At some point, it's up to the players to take ownership inside the room before the first period begins and find a way to play a solid first 20 minutes for more than one or two games at a time.
When the Devils miss the playoffs, this season might be disappointing but it's not wholly unexpected outside of Devils fans. If Pete DeBoer gets fired, this season will be an outright disaster.
Are things still all good between Pete DeBoer, left, and Lou Lamoriello, right?
Pat: I wholeheartedly agree that firing DeBoer would be a huge mistake. In the, albeit limited, interactions I've had with him he seems to have a great demeanor, is a
standup guy and has his players' backs. Look no further than his willingness to take on John Tortorella during last year's playoffs as proof that DeBoer senses timing and knows when to push and lay off.
Still, would it be so unprecedented if Lou DID pull the plug? Robbie Ftorek, Kevin Constantine and Claude Julien would beg to differ.
I love your point about Parise. The Devils are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the second time in three years. What is the common denominator? No Parise.
I believe this is Kovalchuk's team, and he will be the "C" after this year. You could make the case that no team misses one skater worse than New Jersey misses Kovalchuk.
If I'd have told you before the year that the Devils would play a month without Brodeur and three weeks without Kovalchuk -- in a 48-game season -- would you think that team would even be in playoff contention?
Can we honestly view this year as anything more than an outlier? In a 48-game season last year, I don't think the Devils would've been a playoff team either.
Corey: Honestly, I think if this were an 82-game season, the Devils would be in nearly the same position they're in now. They might be in seventh or eighth instead of 10th, but I still think they'd be a team in the bottom of the playoff picture fighting to make the postseason in the final weeks. For all the talk about the shortened season "wearing down" veterans, I think it would've been even more pronounced over a full 82-game campaign. With how banged up Bryce Salvador is right now, do you see him making it through a full season? How do you think Henrik Tallinder or Dainius Zubrus' bodies would respond to 82 games? I think this roster is a fringe playoff team whether they play 48, 65 or 82 games. Also, keep in mind that a player like Kovalchuk is clearly rushing back before he's healed before a shortened season. If this were a regular season, he'd likely miss at least a month to six weeks with this injury.
Yes, the injuries to Brodeur and Kovalchuk sabotaged what was an impressive start, but I think that start was the real outlier. It's also the only reason the Devils are still in contention. You can't tell me this team was a .600 or better hockey team like they were the first month of the season. Even when they're healthy, the Devils have been exposed for their flaws, which would've been exacerbated over a long stretch of games. In fact, I think the Devils are fairly similar to the Islanders in that respect. Over 82 games, there's more time for your inefficiencies and flaws to show, which would be the case with both of those clubs. Eventually the NHL will figure out they only have to respect Kovalchuk and pretty much no one else up front. Eventually the league would realize that you can blow by most of the Devils' defensemen. And eventually the NHL would come to find out that Brodeur can't go side to side as quickly as he once could and the Devils leave an awful lot of room open on the backside.
Yes, there would be advantages to this team playing a full season, like perhaps Travis Zajac and David Clarkson would find their offensive grooves for a decent stretch. But there's no way Patrik Elias would keep up his current scoring pace over 82 games, not with this supporting cast. The shortened season was probably a best-case scenario for the Devils and I think Lou knew that the team could compete within a restricted budget because of the lack of games. He obviously didn't count on losing his two stars for a combined two months, but they're only in the playoff chase because that hot streak gave them enough points early to weather injuries and their flaws becoming readily apparent.
In the end, this was an incomplete roster with an aging defensive corps coming off a bit of a miracle run last and losing its best player during free agency. How else could this have ended?
Are young prospects like Reid Boucher the answer next season?
Pat: I think what this season -- 48, 65, 82 games -- exposed is that this team is OLD. They were among the oldest clubs a year ago, and this season exposed that. Injuries happen to old teams, and the Devils proved that.
I think Lamoriello will address that this offseason. He has to, right? Adam Larsson has to be able to play every night. Perhaps New Jersey would be wise to give Jon Merrill and Reid Boucher the opportunity to make the club out of camp next year. They've shown, albeit briefly, that they can compete in the AHL, maybe a youth infusion will inspire the veterans. It's been good historically for New Jersey -- look at 2000.
This team looks old, slow and uninspired. I know losing will do that -- especially losing a player like Kovalchuk -- but that's the Devils in 2013.
The benefit of this year could be the East doesn't seem to be open for a Devils-type run like last year was. Boston and Pittsburgh have separated themselves as the class of the East. Washington looks poised to strike. Even if the Devils get in, they're no better than a one-and-done team.
Corey: I definitely agree that even if they make the postseason, it'll be a swift exit, likely at the hand of Pittsburgh. This team can't keep up with the Penguins or Bruins in a playoff series unless there's poor goaltending on the opponent's side or a herculean effort from New Jersey.
As for the offseason -- and next season -- I agree, a youth infusion would be wise, and I think that's what the Devils will get. I'd be shocked if Merrill and/or Boucher don't get at least a shot to make the team. But then even, they'll just be rookies. If the Devils replace Elias, Zubrus, Clarkson and Zidlicky with Boucher, Merrill and maybe Stefan Matteau, I'm not sure I see much of a wins increase next season. There will obviously be more in an 82-game slate than this year, but I don't see a markedly better team just because it's a younger team. The truth is that the foundation of this team likely missed it's window, at least with Brodeur in net. Next season will likely be a fringe playoff year based on the composition. But that's a debate for another day.