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Lichtenstein: With Playoffs Out Of Reach, Devils Fans Must Embrace Another Tank

Steve Lichtenstein
January 11, 2019 - 1:26 pm

It was “80's Night” at the Prudential Center on Thursday, with the Devils wearing retro jerseys for their tilt versus Toronto.

How apropos, like all but one of those 1980s squads, these Devils are not very good.

As New Jersey was in the midst of losing their third game in a row, 4-2, to the Leafs, it made me wonder whether last season even happened.

The Devils have looked nothing like the team that surprised the NHL by earning a berth to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Instead, they have looked more like the teams from coach John Hynes’ first two seasons behind the bench. Those squads needed every ounce of their will to compete against elite opponents with far superior talent. When they didn’t have it, the results were as dismal as Thursday’s contest, which was not as close as the score indicated.

Other than a two-goal burst in 26 seconds of the second period, the Devils were badly outplayed. They were outshot 15-3 in a third period where they were the ones who should have been pushing for the tying goal.

Here’s the bottom line on where the Devils stand a couple of games past the halfway mark: If the 36 skaters on those two teams were to meet at a pond for a pickup game, at least the first five picks could easily be members of the Leafs.

The Devils’ problem is no longer figuring out a solution to get themselves into this postseason. At 16-20-7, they are 13 points out of an Eastern Conference wild card spot and only two points ahead of last place Ottawa. The actuarial science majors at The Athletic have the odds of New Jersey making such a monumental leap at five percent.

It’s not quite as bad as Jim Carrey’s “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” retort to Lauren Holly’s one-in-a-million proposition in “Dumb and Dumber,” but for practical purposes, the race for the 2019 cup is over in New Jersey.

That means it’s time to tee-up the “T” word.

Once again, Devils fans must learn to embrace the tank.

The Devils successfully tanked two seasons ago and, with a little lottery luck, won the right to draft center Nico Hischier with the first overall selection.

Unfortunately, even with Taylor Hall healthy (he’s missed the last eight games with a lower-body injury) and driving the top line with Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, the Devils still don’t have nearly enough top-end talent. Their roster is loaded with depth players or borderline NHLers.

The only way for that to change is for the Devils to maximize their draft position by drafting better. Ty Smith, a 2018 first-round pick (17th overall), was the sole Devil on’s list of the top 50 NHL prospects going into this season, and he was ranked 42nd. Smith and Swedish center Jesper Boqvist (2017, second round) were the only future Devils rated as high as a “Very Good NHL Prospect” in The Athletics analysis of every team’s farm system, in which New Jersey placed 20th among 31 teams.

In the meantime, Devils general manager Ray Shero has a month and a half before the February 25 trade deadline to shop certain veterans. Kinkaid, Marcus Johansson (when healthy), Ben Lovejoy, and, if he’s amenable to joining a playoff contender at this stage of his medical condition, Brian Boyle should all be pawned off for draft pick assets.

In addition, the Devils will eventually need to get the best of AHL Binghamton up to New Jersey for late-season evaluations. Blake Pietila and Kevin Rooney, two defensive-oriented 25-year-old’s currently on call-ups due to the Devils’ lengthy injury list, do not have the skill level to be part of the future core. It would be better to give Michael McLeod, New Jersey’s first-round pick (12th overall) in 2016, more NHL reps.

Shero massively overrated his returning personnel heading into this season and the team is paying the price. From goal on out, the Devils have not received the necessary production to avoid taking a massive step back. 

The next steps require the Devils to first recognize that last season may have been just a fluke.     

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1