The 2016-2017 NHL season is winding down and the New Jersey Devils currently find themselves in the basement of the Eastern Conference standings. It has been a long, rough year for both the Devils’ players and fans. This season has capped the end of five years of Devils’ struggles, as the team has been rebuilding at very slow pace since reaching the Stanley Cup in 2012. Part of the reason for this was the passing of the torch from Lou Lamoriello to Ray Shero in the 2015 offseason.
Lamoriello always wanted the Devils to make the playoffs. This translated to the Devils being buyers at every trade deadline and trading assets for short-term players that could aid in a playoff run. This strategy proved successful for many years but has since come back to haunt the Devils. Once the Devils lost Zach Parise, David Clarkson, Ilya Kovalchuk, Petr Sykora, etc., the wheels began to fall off and the buying mentality only proved to hurt the Devils more than it helped. Those players were key pieces to the Devils-spirited 2012 playoff run, and their loss for nothing in return still continues to hurt the team.
Since those players left through free agency and retirement the Devils have failed to replace them with home-grown talent. Countless years of drafting inefficiency have led the Devils to the miserable state they are in n0w. Recent former first round picks Mattias Tedenby, Stefan Matteau, Jacob Josefson, and Adam Larsson all underperformed. Out of those four picks, only Josefson remains with the team, and at a very limited role at that. The buying mentality, coupled with poor drafting left the Devils with a roster with much to be desired. With such decline in such a short period of time fans called for change within the Devils, and they soon got it.
Ray Shero was named General Manager in 2015, and John Hynes was named head coach. This shift was a sign that the Devils knew they had to change, and immediately entered a rebuilding period. Over the past two seasons Shero has acquired numerous players and draft picks through selling at the deadline and draft. This strategy has yielded positive results already, with names such as Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, and Pavel Zacha finding success for the Devils. Palmieri and Hall are the new leaders of the team and will be a part of New Jersey for the foreseeable future. Zacha is not having an amazing rookie year but remains only 19-years-old and has the skill set to succeed in the seasons to come.
This has marked the changing of the guard in New Jersey. The players that led the Devils too much success, Parise, Kovalchuk, and Patrik Elias are all gone now. Some veterans remain, such as Travis Zajac, and Andy Greene, but they are not the Devils’ future. After almost two decades of regular season success, the Devils entered a painful rebuild. The Devils were at the top and came crashing down in the span of two seasons. However, the time has almost come for the Devils to turn to their future players and begin to ascend back into the NHL playoffs.
It has been slow and patient rebuild, but it is nearing its end. The Devils have made the most of their early draft selections with Pavel Zacha, Mike McLeod, and Nathan Bastian. McLeod and Bastian are still in juniors but are having very successful seasons, and will hopefully crack the 2017 lineup. The Devils will also have another top-1o pick at the 2017 NHL draft and it could end up being in the top-five if they continue to play at the level they have been.
This 2016 season marks the turnaround the Devils have needed. The youth movement has already begun in Jersey. Prospects like Joseph Blandisi, John Quenneville, Miles Wood, and Steven Santini are getting good minutes and are seen as the future starters for the Devils. Soon they will be joined by McLeod, Bastian, and whomever the Devils draft in June. With the Devils hitting rock bottom this season they will draft a very good player and then use their remaining ten picks to trade for other assets and pick pieces for the future. The new direction has officially begun for the Devils, and they begin their way back to the playoffs in 2017.