For the classic adage of being stuck “between a rock and a hard place,” the modern day NHL equivalent is “being stuck between competing and rebuilding.”
Powerhouse franchises like the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings sit on the more glamorous end of the spectrum, stocked full of talented players that help the teams go on deep playoff runs (and win Stanley Cup championships) on the regular. The other end of the spectrum, though, is also a great place to be, as teams like the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maples Leafs lounge in the basement of the NHL standings in the short-term but, at the same time, actively set themselves up for sustainable success in the long-term.
Other teams, such as the New Jersey Devils, sit perilously in the middle, which is the worst spot to be of them all.
For the Devils, the 2015-16 NHL season was launched with a hope and a prayer. The organization has missed the playoffs three straight seasons after a remarkable Stanley Cup run that ultimately came up short in 2012, and barring a late-season miracle, seems destined to make it four in a row. But, if we’re all being completely, brutally honest, the team’s current pace is more or less what everyone should have been expecting from the start.
Outside of goaltender Cory Schneider, who deserves recognition as being one of the best puck-stoppers in the world right now, the Devils roster is pretty thin. Most of their highest-paid forwards are on the wrong side of 30, with some having a recent history of injuries (Mike Cammalleri, Patrick Elias) while others just don’t seem to have much left in the tank anymore (Tuomo Ruutu). Their top defensive pairing of Andy Greene and Adam Larsson is capable and mostly reliable, but the defensive core behind them is lacking. All-in-all, it’s simply not a roster of players that can consistently compete with the best teams that the NHL has to offer.
Making matters even worse for New Jersey, however, is that the team is likewise thin when it comes to blue-chip young talent.
Sure, there are certainly a few good future pieces in place. Larsson is just 23. Reid Boucher is small but has the potential to be a dynamic goalscorer one day. Goalie Scott Wedgewood has shown promise this year both in the AHL and the NHL. Recent 1st round draft picks Pavel Zacha and John Quenneville are having strong seasons down in junior.
Still, it’s not the deepest prospect pool by any means, especially compared to the arsenals that are being stockpiled by the Sabres, Leafs, and others. The Devils have only had two high draft picks to work with over the past few seasons, and additionally, haven’t uncovered many gems in the later rounds, something that’s significantly boosted the fortunes of teams like the Dallas Stars, who found both Jamie Benn and John Klingberg in the 5th round.
Possibly worst of all, because of New Jersey’s modest success this season they’re now going to have minuscule odds for the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes. The team will likely be picking somewhere outside the top ten spots in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, and while they could easily snag a great prospect in that area, it’ll be harder to do so because they’ll likely be picking from the second or third tier of draft-eligible players.
While it will be a long summer in New Jersey once the Devils are officially eliminated from playoff contention, it could be a long few seasons for the franchise if they continue down their current trajectory of being caught in the unenviable spot of between a rock and a hard place.