The New Jersey Devils bowing out of the first round of the playoffs this season doesn’t exactly classify as an earth-shaking experience. Clearly, the Philadelphia Flyers were playing possum and were much better than your typical No. 7 seed. And after being ousted from the first round for the third straight year, it’s not as though the Devils haven’t done this before.
What was absolutely as mind-boggling as it was shocking, though, was how the Devils lost, how they exited the playoffs with barely a whimper. How they showed the hockey world that the era of fearing the Devils has almost certainly come to an end.
There was a time when a Devils team still might not have won this series, but at least they would have fallen on their pitchforks in a far more valiant effort. For an organization that prides itself on winning, the Devils sure seem to have learned to accept defeat in the playoffs, their jam-tossing GM notwithstanding, of course.
But when the Devils sit back and look at what has gone wrong, they’ll have a host of things to consider. Chief among those is that somewhere along the line, the Devils lost their identity or perhaps left it behind somewhere in the Continental Airlines Arena.
There was a time when the Devils operated unlike any other team in the NHL. They knew exactly what they were and didn’t care whether people liked them or not. They drafted and developed players better than anybody else and were the best at placing a value on a player and never wavering from it.
The Devils were once the toast of the NHL when it came to player development, but that time has long passed. In THN’s annual Future Watch edition, New Jersey was always among the top teams, even in years when it was winning Stanley Cups and picking late, while the farm team was always stocked with good talent.
But since the lockout, the Devils have been pulling up the rear in Future Watch rankings, finishing 20th in 2006, 27th in 2007, 29th in 2008, 30th in 2009 and 25th in 2010. Their AHL farm team, meanwhile, made the playoffs for the first time in nine years this season, but was bounced in the first round.
The last impact player the Devils chose in the draft was Niclas Bergfors, whom they dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers to get Ilya Kovalchuk. And without a first round pick in this year’s draft, also because of the Kovalchuk trade, there won’t be any help coming from there in the near future.
Jersey has never been afraid to make a big trade, the way it did with the Kovalchuk deal, but the difference before is that it was brimming with prospects and had more NHL-caliber players than it had spots for them to occupy, so it could afford to part with assets. When New Jersey makes a trade like that now, it simply strips the organization of assets it needs and that is so unlike the Devils it’s difficult to comprehend.
It doesn’t help when Kovalchuk is brought into an atmosphere where it was impossible for him to be a good fit. He played well; actually it looked like he was playing his heart out, but an individual talent such as Kovalchuk can’t be incorporated into the Devils culture that quickly and seamlessly.
By all means, the Devils have to start thinking about the day when they’ll have to replace Martin Brodeur. And they can’t do that by bringing in a conga line of career backups and cast offs to keep the bench warm. They must develop a good young goalie who can spell Brodeur during the regular season and be groomed properly knowing he won’t play just six or seven games a year.
But most of all, the Devils have to go back to doing what they do well. The team’s defense corps for the past couple of seasons has been uncharacteristically thin and there was a time when they didn’t have to go out and sign guys such as Rob Niedermayer and Dean McAmmond as free agents because they had half a dozen guys in their system who were younger and could do the job they do better and on the cheap.
It looks as though it’s time the Devils realize they have to rebuild, not reload, if they want to have anything beyond regular season success and playoff disappointment. And that takes far more patience than they’ve shown in recent years.
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Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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