R.I.P. 2015-16 New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils still have 15 games left in their season, but they sit six points back of the final playoff spot (held by the Detroit Red Wings), with multiple teams in front of them. By the way, they have gathered only four points over the past ten games. Oh, we forgot to mention that they are missing their starting goaltender for at least the next two weeks, and their leading point per game player has been sidelined since January. To say the odds are stacked against them could be the understatement of the century.

“I certainly believe in this group right to the end,” said Adam Henrique after the Devils’ latest loss, “we believe in that and each other every single night. You play in here for the guy next to you, no matter who is in or out of the lineup.”

They’ve defied the odds all season, hanging around (and sometimes in) a playoff spot, and the team has seemed to have been revived by the addition of new head coach John Hynes’ uptempo system, following three consecutive disappointing seasons. But right now, at this juncture of the season, they are simply outmatched on most nights with so many injuries up and down their lineup.

Let’s say the Devils do miss the playoffs, for a fourth straight spring, for argument’s sake — the season has not been a total disaster, and that’s a good thing. There have been positives, a few of them actually.

  • Young players like Joe Blandisi (4 PPGs) and Reid Boucher (3 GWGs) have been given the chance to play with top-6 NHL players on a consistent basis, and each of them has excelled in stretches, setting the foundation to build upon.
  • Kyle Palmieri has 25 goals already, turning out to be a draft day steal, after GM Ray Shero acquired him from the Anaheim Ducks for a couple of draft picks (2nd in 2015, 3rd in 2016).
  • Shero’s ability to flip Stefan Matteau (3 career goals in 44 games with NJ) to the Montreal Canadiens for Devante Smith-Pelly (2 goals in three games with New Jersey) has already panned out in the short-term, perhaps even more so after a full training camp with the team.
  • The Devils GM was also able to turn the ever under-achieving Eric Gelinas into a draft pick (Colorado’s 3rd rounder in 2017) and Lee Stempniak (who could have been signed by any of the 29 other teams this summer) into two Boston Bruins draft picks.

This season though, they have been their own worst enemy. After beating the Los Angeles Kings 1-0 on February 14, they were 29-21-7 and in full control of their own destiny. Since then, they have gone 2-8-0 — twice losing three consecutive games in regulation, twice losing 6-1 and twice they’ve been shutout. With points at a premium right now, the path to a playoff berth isn’t going to be easy — starting with a road trip through California to face the San Jose Sharks, Kings and Ducks. Three big teams, that play a heavy game — the style of play that New Jersey has tended to struggle against over the past few seasons, starting with the 2012 Final.

Did we mention that Cory Schneider is out at least two weeks with an MCL strain yet? The goaltending duties now fall on the shoulders of Keith Kinkaid, who was shelled in his first game as the no.1 goalie — losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-1. “The whole game was totally frustrating,” a somber Kinkaid would say afterwards. “I know I’m better than that and I have to give a better effort.”

The biggest blow to their season has been the loss of Mike Cammalleri, who had 38 points in 42 games (and was their leading scorer at that time) before he was felled by an injured hand/wrist. His absence over the past 17 games has been a gut punch to the Devils’ roster. Everyone has been playing in different positions, different slots, trying to overcompensate and the wheels have completely fallen off since that win over the Kings on Valentine’s Day.

The injury itself is a mystery as the team has been tight-lipped about the specific nature of it. In mid-February coach Hynes seemed to think Cammalleri was close to returning, deeming it a ‘day-to-day’ thing. A few weeks later, following the trade deadline deals on the 29th, Shero indicated that he was “hopeful that he could play again this season.”

It appears that New Jersey will be a lottery team again, and this summer they will have a plethora of salary cap space, which is like a golden ticket in today’s NHL financial landscape. They will be in a position to add players from other teams via trade (like the Palmieri trade, where the Ducks knew they wouldn’t be able to sign him and pay their star players), they can package some of the draft picks they have to team’s hovering at or near the salary cap and perhaps add a player or two of significance during free agency.

The franchise would certainly be making a move in the right direction (and a humongous big splash) if they could convince/lure the above mentioned Steven Stamkos to the Garden State with buckets of money and the guarantee that he could play center (which is what some rumors suggest is a high priority for no. 91). A top-6 that could include Stamkos, Palmieri, Smith-Pelly, Henrique, Cammalleri, Travis Zajac and possibly Pavel Zacha or Blandisi/Boucher (if someone is traded) could be enough to turn the Devils into a playoff team again.

But for now this season is a dead-end. Unless of course they win the final 15 games of the season with a run for the ages.

Anything can happen, this is sports after all, but don’t feel bad about writing off this season as a fan and starting to look forward to the summer and the future.

Dan Rice can be reached via Twitter: @DRdiabloTHW or via Email: drdiablo321@yahoo.com.