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Dealing With The Devils: Just Win, Baby

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David Clarkson #23 of the New Jersey Devils scores a second period goal against Brian Boucher #33 of the Philadelphia Flyers at the Prudential Center on January 6, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

David Clarkson #23 of the New Jersey Devils scores a second period goal against Brian Boucher #33 of the Philadelphia Flyers at the Prudential Center on January 6, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Max Herman
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After struggling for so much of this year, one might think that the new-found success that the Devils have experienced over the last few weeks would be met with feelings of relief and enjoyment from their fan base.

But lately, I’ve heard many loyal fans (and some well-respected hockey pundits) suggest that the Devils would be better off continuing to lose so that they can give themselves the best chance of securing the number one pick in the next draft lottery.

Right from the jump, I feel it’s necessary to dismiss the notion that any organization not named the Chicago Black Sox would ever intentionally lose games regardless of any potential gain that may result from it.

But now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss whether or not there is any validity to the notion that this franchise would be better off finishing the season in the basement of the NHL standings…

First, we need to establish where exactly the organization’s mindset is with regard to the near future. There are those who believe that the Devils are quickly fading from relevancy, and that a two or three-year overhaul is necessary to restore this franchise back to its former glory. I, however, am not one of those people.

Remember, not only was this a playoff team just a year ago, THEY WERE A 2-SEED. Not only did they win their division, there were only four teams in the entire NHL that accumulated more points than them.

You mean to tell me that by virtue of losing Paul Martin, Mike Mottau and Rob Niedermayer that all of a sudden the foundation of the franchise is now crumbling before our eyes? I’m sorry, I just don’t buy it.

In my mind, this is a good team that DRASTICALLY underperformed throughout the first half of the schedule.

This year simply provided the perfect storm of adversity. They struggled to put wins together out of the gate. And right when their collective mental state was at one of its most fragile points, they lost Zach Parise to what looks like now will be a season-ending injury.

Martin Brodeur also missed extended time due to injury, complicated by the fact that he played so poorly upon his return, some pondered whether or not he would ever be the same. For the first time in his Hall of Fame career, he found himself battling with severe confidence issues along with the rest of his team.

Add on to the mess the perception that John MacLean was as qualified to coach an NHL team as I am to be a NASA engineer, and that sounds to me like a decent formula for a team that would go on to finish the first half of the year with a league-worst 10-29-2 record.

But with Jacques Lemaire back at the helm, the Devils have revolutionized their defensive mindset and are back to playing winning hockey. Until the loss in Detroit on Wednesday night, the Devils had been unbeaten in regulation over their previous seven games, earning 13 out of a possible 14 points.

Now I’m not here to tell you that the Devils have a decent shot at making the playoffs, because to be frank, they don’t. But I do believe that the lasting effects of winning hockey games consistently will do more good for the Devils’ future than the potential of picking up a top-3 prospect in the draft.

To further that point, let’s analyze how the NHL Draft Lottery works. As you should be aware, finishing 30th in the NHL does not guarantee you the first pick in the draft. It gives you about a 48% chance of getting it. However, because no team can slip more than one spot from their final ranking in the overall standings, the worst case scenario for the last-place team would be to have the second overall pick. Also, no team can move up more than four spots, so the 26th-30th place teams are the only five teams that can potentially pick first.

As is the case most years with the NHL Draft, there is a select group of prospects that are considered to be future stars in the league, and then a lot of uncertainty beyond that.  Combine that with the Devils’ recent history of not handling their draft picks particularly well and you might understand why some fans are hoping for a Devils’ tank-job this season.

But history will tell you that not having a high first-round pick does not necessarily mean that your team will be limited to picking from a pool of lower-tier talent.

For example, what do Doug Gilmour, Luc Robitaille, Theo Fleury, Peter Bondra, Tomas Kaberle, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Dustin Byfuglien and Henrik Lundqvist all have in common?

The answer: None of them were selected before the sixth round of the draft. And the list of players who carved out successful NHL careers for themselves despite being late-round draft choices extends far beyond these nine guys.

I’d imagine any fan would be willing to grant me the liberty of saying that all of the guys I mentioned above turned out to be pretty decent hockey players. So don’t be fooled into thinking that only the first-rounders in the NHL draft are worth a damn. It’s just not true.

But for those of you with their hearts set on watching the Devils play out the schedule with hopes of improving their lottery standing, by all means root whichever way you feel inclined. But a lottery pick is just one player. I think a culture change and attitude adjustment would be the far more significant gain to propel this organization forward.

Should the Devils throw in the towel for the chance at a great draft pick? Sound off in the comments below…

Email Max a question or comment: mherman@wfan.com
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