By Jeff O’Connor
My colleague Dave mentioned yesterday about fans being realists. And the realist thought is that the New Jersey Devils may very likely miss the playoffs. We’re not rooting for this team to miss the playoffs. But you know what…it’s not that bad a thing if they miss out this year.
Does anyone remember what happened the year after the Devils last missed the playoffs? It wasn’t that long ago. Anyone? That’s right….they went to the Stanley Cup Finals. Sometimes, teams need that bitter taste of defeat in their mouth to get going again. The Devils made the playoffs ever year since the 1996-97 campaign until their luck ran out in 2010-11. It happens. Take a look at the Detroit Red Wings this year. Always a perennial powerhouse. This year? They are hanging right around 8th place and it’s very logical that they could miss the postseason tournament.
The goal is to win a Stanley Cup, right? That’s definitely this team’s goal…playoff berths, Atlantic Division titles, etc. really don’t mean a hell of a lot. In just pure terms of reaching their goal, losing 60 games in the regular season is just as much of a failure as it is to lose in OT in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Would we feel MUCH better about this team if they lose in five games in the first round, as opposed to missing out on a playoff spot by six points? Speaking of that competition in the first round…
Can the Devils really run the gauntlet this year? Do they have what it takes to win four rounds? If they play their absolutel best hockey, it would be really tough…but they might be able to pull it off. Since the first dozen games of the year, however, they haven’t come close to playing elite hockey. Let’s look at it realistically if they do happen to get in. Their first round opponent will likely be the Montreal Canadiens or the Pittsburgh Penguins. If they can get by the first round, they would more than likely have to take on the other team in the semifinals. It’s also very plausible that if they pass those two tests, that the Boston Bruins could be waiting in the Conference Finals, a team the Devils haven’t beaten in over two calendar years. Let’s say they make it back to the Cup Finals. The likes of the Minnesota Wild, Chicago Blackhawks or Anaheim Ducks could be waiting. That would be extraordinarily tough as well. It just doesn’t seem probable that this team is lifting its fourth Cup this summer.
There are definitely a few bright spots to missing the playoffs, however. For one, it gives GM Lou Lamoriello a lot of extra time to work on keeping his own free agents. Considering he doesn’t often give extensions during the course of a season, it would be a big opportunity to focus on nothing but player personnel decisions while postseason hockey is going on. Patrik Elias, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus are all up for unrestricted free agency this year. Adam Henrique and Andrei Loktionov are restricted free agents as well. The regular season ends on April 27. The last possible day of the Stanley Cup Finals is June 28. That gives Lou two full months to take care of business, before the first three players mentioned in this paragraph hit the open market. It’s better than trying to sign Zach Parise in two weeks like last summer.
The other bright area is that the Devils will get higher picks in each round of the 2013 NHL Draft. Granted, the Devils only have selections in the first, second, fourth and sixth rounds this year. The common thought is that since the Prudential Center is hosting the draft this year, the Devils will keep their first round pick this year and forfeit next year’s instead, due to the Ilya Kovalchuk contract circumvention from three summers ago. The Devils draft position will be determined after the season is over when they go through the ping pong ball process.
Listen, no one wants to see this team get into the postseason more than I do. Sometimes, it just isn’t in the cards. Devils fans have been very fortunate. Missing the playoffs has some positives to it, more so than making the playoffs and getting bounced in the first round in 2013.
All we can do is hope they play hard. If they get there…great, let them take their chances at a championship run. If not, so be it….we deal with it and hope it makes the organization better in years to come. Heck, if it means another run to the Stanley Cup Finals in the next few seasons, missing the playoffs during a 48-game season won’t hurt that bad at all.