From the outside looking in, people frequently say that the New Jersey Devils are in the midst of a rebuild. However, that is not an accurate depiction of what is occurring in Newark. Former general manager Lou Lamoriello always made sure that regardless of what happened or who left New Jersey, a rebuild would never be in the cards. Even with Lamoriello no longer at the helm, this time is no different.
When commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the Devils acquired goaltender Cory Schneider in a trade from Vancouver, any chance of a rebuild in New Jersey disappeared. The Devils are merely in a transitional phase. That does not mean that their problems will be fixed quickly or that the team’s struggles are minor. Transitional timelines can be just as unpredictable as rebuilds. Nevertheless, it does indicate that the roster does not have the gaping holes that a true rebuild requires.
The roster is built up through the three units of goaltending, defense, and offense. Only one of those positional groupings needs to be addressed. In a true rebuilding situation, the goalie is typically at the forefront. It is a position that can hold teams back for years until they find the right guy. New Jersey does not have that problem. If a person wants to find a sole reason that the team is not entering a rebuilding period, he or she just needs to look at number 35.
The defense is built for future success. There is no need for the team to abandon their current youth for immediate results. That would be a complete injustice to the team’s long-term product. It is simply a waiting game for the defensive group to fully develop. Even with some untimely mistakes last season, the defensive group showed that they could compete against opposing top lines. The defense and Schneider were being asked to achieve the improbable, which was to win games without consistent goal support. Yet to an extent they were able to minimize the overall damage.
With the exits of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, the offense took an irreplaceable hit and it has yet to recover. It is the only area of the roster that needs changes. When Kovalchuk suddenly departed, Lamoriello began doing what many general managers in that predicament would. He attempted to conceal the situation with short-term solutions.
When the team signed forward Jaromir Jagr, he provided a spark and endless entertainment. Still he was not the long-term answer the team needed. He was a short-term bandage for a bigger problem. Jagr was never going to be the centerpiece of the team or a person they could rely on years down the line. When New Jersey traded him, it was a sad but necessary move for the team.
The team also needs to overcome the shortcomings of certain players. Forwards Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner, and Martin Havlat did not pan out. Additionally, due to concussions, forward Ryane Clowe’s career is questionable. Some argue that there has to be major revisions to the offense while others feel the team only needs a few additional pieces to reclaim their previous success.
The Devils have role players as well as offensive pieces to build around in Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri, and Travis Zajac. Either way the team needs at least one elite scorer. A big x-factor is Zajac. He could be the one to benefit the most from the team gaining an elite scorer. His best years were with Parise but even Jagr provided Zajac with a boost. He is the team’s best faceoff man and a strong two-way player. His value to the team is underrated. If he can rediscover his offensive game, that is one less piece New Jersey has to find.
The last two seasons in New Jersey are defined by the word almost. The team almost won the game. The Devils almost made the playoffs. Unfortunately a middle ground does not exist for the Devils or any other team. There is a narrow line between success and failure in sports. If and almost do not act as excuses or change the results. But they do help to keep the fictional narrative of New Jersey’s complete demise in perspective.
If the Devils had their shootout record from the 2014-2015 season the year prior, the postseason would be marred by inconsistent appearances rather than a complete absence. Furthermore, rarely were the Devils ever completely out of games based on the scoreboard. Other than Schneider and the defense, this was due to the specialty teams unit. That was one aspect of the Devils’ game plan that remained strong. Even the penalty kill, which struggled at the beginning of the season, returned to its previous form.
The team was able to stay competitive even though they struggled to find consistency and a scoring touch. Finding consistency and capitalizing on opportunities is easier than finding answers to unexplainable problems that often surround rebuilding teams. New head coach John Hynes and general manager Ray Shero are arriving in New Jersey at the correct time. Hynes is entering a team that has the ability to turn it around. Depending on the player or players the team adds and the systematic revisions, the transition could be over quicker than anticipated.
There will always be naysayers who believe the sky is falling. When things are going badly, it tends to seem worse than it is. Make no mistake though, a transition is better than a rebuild and that is what New Jersey is dealing with.
Amanda Rosko is an avid hockey fan. This is her second year covering the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. She graduated with honors from Rutgers University in 2014 with a B.A. in Journalism and Media Studies.