The New Jersey Devils are admittedly little more than a flimsy house of cards at this point. With John Hynes fired as head coach, a solitary card has just been removed, adding to the instability. Even if a single gust of wind can bring the whole thing down at a moment’s notice, it should still be a while yet before the one with Taylor Hall’s face on it is dealt away.
There’s no sugar-coating it. With a record of 9-13-4, the Devils are in a downward spiral of sorts. The only difference is, they have rarely if ever spread their wings this season and are longshots to so much as make the playoffs.
Consider the argument that their highest point was the first game of the season, which they lost 4-3 to the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout. That’s actually the closest they’ve come to a .500 record. So, a third of the season in, there’s just about every good reason to call this thing and start dismantling the aforementioned house of cards. Just about.
Are the Devils Actually Done?
With Hynes now gone, the dismantling process may have already begun. “May” because it’s not necessarily over. Hell, it shouldn’t be, really. If the St. Louis Blues can come back from last place in the entire league at the start of this past January to win the Stanley Cup, it’s inherently possible for the Devils to at the very least make a go of reaching the postseason.
After all, on paper, this is a very good team. Goaltending was always going to be a question mark and it has continued to be this season with Cory Schneider having justifiably been demoted and Mackenzie Blackwood struggling to rekindle the chops he showed last season. Nevertheless, in many respects, the Devils were built to win now.
Look at the facts: P.K. Subban, a James Norris Memorial Trophy-winning defenseman, who has been nominated on two other occasions, was just acquired at age 30 with only two more seasons left on his deal and his effectiveness admittedly dwindling. He complements a well-rounded defense corps that faces significant changes this coming summer with captain Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency.
Up front, Nikita Gusev, the reigning top scorer in the Kontinental Hockey League, was brought in to add even more skill to what was supposed to be a well-balanced attack. Obviously one hasn’t materialized, with the Devils icing the third-least-prolific offense in the league. Neverthless, Hall, who’s a pending unrestricted free agent himself, remains its centerpiece.
It’s true that, if the Devils trade him away now, they’ll likely earn a king’s ransom. However, they’ll undeniably still take home quite the haul if they do it at the trade deadline. So, why not chance it and wait? What’s the worst that can happen, really? The Devils will get a slightly lower draft pick with which to pad the strength of their top-10 farm system?
In fact, if circumstances were different and they were winning, considering the Devils’ favorable cap situation, we’d instead be discussing who the Devils can acquire to supplement Hall and which futures of their own they can afford to give up in the process. In spite of it all, the Devils as an organization are in good shape, in other words.
The Flawed Case to Trade Hall
There is an alternative school of thought, that trading Hall as soon as possible will provide his current teammates with some closure and prompt a turnaround of sorts. However, considering the lone playoff appearance Hynes made in four seasons behind the Devils’ bench as a first-time head coach, he and his inexperience have been at least largely to blame. Logically speaking, the in-his-prime Hall, two seasons removed from a Hart Memorial Trophy win, should be pretty far down the list of reasons for the failure to launch. You know, in case it needed to be said.
Of course, ex-assistant Alain Nasreddine is now a rookie head coach himself and there’s no telling how much of a positive influence he’ll have on the Devils moving forward. It’s worth giving him a shot, especially with as much runway as there is left in the season. And, because of that fact, because Hynes wasn’t let go in April, Shero must recognize there’s something that can be salvaged here.
For that to be the case, you need to keep Hall around as long as possible. He may be in the middle of a bad season, but so is pretty much everyone on the roster. He’s still contributing points-wise, which is quite telling with regard to his skill.
Look at it this way: Objectively speaking, he’s the Devils’ best player. It may be a house of cards, but Hall is its foundation. If you have the choice, you play that card only if you absolutely have to and, even then, at the last possible moment.
Admittedly, the Devils will be in tough to re-sign Hall. So would any team looking to acquire him from the Devils, though. He’s a rental through and through, for all intents and purposes. That’s how the Devils should look at him, themselves, though.
Teams like the Montreal Canadiens, who are also struggling, are reportedly interested in Hall, as he would theoretically help them turn things around. So, why can’t the Devils correct course with four months left in the season? Other teams have done a lot more with a lot less, least of all a healthy Hall. Instead of collapsing everything around them, that gust of wind can just as easily right the ship. It’s worth seeing this thing through. Hall may not be able to save the Devils’ season, but at least with him they have a fighting chance.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.