By Steve Lichtenstein
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Add the Devils to the list of local teams loading up the tank.
Like the Jets and the Knicks before them, the Devils have reached the no-turning-forward point of their season. With just 13 games left, there is virtually no way this 26-31-12 team can make up enough ground to earn a postseason berth for the first time in five years.
Which means winning (and even tying in regulation) has become counterproductive — every point the Devils accumulate for the rest of the season has the potential to worsen their position in the draft, which will be held on June 23.
Yes, it’s tanking time in New Jersey.
Of course, they couldn’t even get that right Thursday night, as the Devils demolished the obviously fatigued Flyers, 6-2, at Prudential Center to snap a 10-game winless streak (0-8-2).
While professional players and coaches do not lose games on purpose, there are subtle ways for teams to run the table with negative outcomes. The Devils, for what it was worth, seemed to have checked all the boxes in advance of Thursday’s contest.
Like overloading the lineup with prospects, which Devils coach John Hynes made abundantly clear he was willing to do following his club’s hideous three-game road trip that concluded with a 5-4 loss in Arizona last Saturday.
The Devils dressed six rookies among their 12 forwards against Philadelphia. Two other rookies who started the season in AHL Albany, center Blake Coleman (upper body injury) and defenseman Steven Santini (healthy scratch), are also currently with the big club.
The problem was Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique tallied two goals apiece on beleaguered Flyers goalies Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth, while Kyle Palmieri notched his team-leading 23rd goal of the season (and eighth in his last 11 games). Second-year pro Joseph Blandisi scored the game-winner midway through the second period.
Hynes also said that he would be giving more starting nods to backup goalie Keith Kinkaid. Not that starter Cory Schneider hasn’t been the better netminder this season — he just wasn’t exceptional enough to make up for the horrific blue line corps in front of him. Only now it’s more important that the Devils fully evaluate Kinkaid before deciding what, if anything, to bid for the 27-year-old when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer. Kinkaid entered Thursday’s game with just six wins in his 16 starts and none since Jan. 21.
Kinkaid was stellar when he had to be in stopping 17 of 19 Flyers shots, including glorious scoring chances by Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn.
And the icing on the cake for the Flyers on Thursday should have been Hynes’ third defensive pairing of John Merrill with Dalton Prout. That’s a presumptive train wreck. The duo, especially Merrill, delivered as promised, culpable on both Flyers goals. (By the way, can the Devils just give Prout back to Columbus? We’ll let the Jackets still keep Kyle Quincey.)
Again, it wasn’t enough, as the Flyers appeared to be to too busy daydreaming of their 4-0 victory over the Penguins the previous evening to take full advantage of their opportunity in New Jersey.
As a result, the Devils maintained their one-point deficit below Detroit, who also won on Thursday night, at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and are now three points ahead of Arizona, the shootout loser to the Red Wings. A Devils’ hot streak could vault them over teams a few points in front of them, while Colorado, with a measly 43 points in 69 games, isn’t catching anyone.
With the league’s relatively new lottery system, there’s a statistically material difference between finishing 27th versus 29th. Per tankathon.com, the Devils would have a 12.1 percent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick and a 35.3 percent chance for a top-three selection should they tank to 29th. The odds drop to 8.5 percent and 26 percent, respectively, should they finish with the NHL’s fourth-worst point total. Expansion Las Vegas is guaranteed to have the same percentages as that of the league’s third-worst team.
Unfortunately, the 2017 draft is projected to pale in comparison to the hauls at the top of the previous two classes. Forwards Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier seem to be the consensus 1-2 selections, but reports from the NHL’s Central Scouting Department indicate that there could be a significant drop-off in talent at an earlier-than-usual slot.
So it would behoove the Devils to go all in on the tank. They don’t have to look far to see how it has been done.
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