By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Devils closed the book on their 2016-17 campaign by basking in sentimentality.
Patty’s Last Lap — the nom de plume for Saturday’s pregame warmups at the Prudential Center that featured recently retired Patrik Elias, the best forward in Devils’ history — preceded a 4-2 loss to the desperate Islanders. Then on Sunday, the Devils fell, 4-1, in the last NHL game ever played at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, the site where in 1995 New Jersey shocked the favored Red Wings in games 1 and 2 of the Final en route to its first of three Stanley Cups.
Ah, the fond memories.
Quite ironic, for this was a season the Devils should want to forget.
Expected to improve upon an 84-point total from a year ago, the Devils instead took a wrong turn on their rebuilding road. Their 28-40-14 record this season stood as the fourth-worst in the league.
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A promising 9-3-3 start was soon followed by a miserable December spent mostly on the road against high-quality competition. By February, it became obvious the Devils would be sellers at the trade deadline, as a fifth consecutive missed postseason seemed inevitable.
New Jersey then limped to the finish line, winning just three of its last 24 games, including an 0-11-0 slump on the road.
Coach John Hynes, who said he does not intend to again lead Team USA at the upcoming World Championships so he can focus on New Jersey’s crucial offseason, will soon powwow with general manager Ray Shero to evaluate what went wrong.
“I think we all realize — management, players, coaches — we have to get better this summer in lots of different areas and make sure that when we come back here in the fall that we’re a stronger team,” Hynes said following Saturday’s loss. “We’ve got to really dig in here. You don’t want to have this much time off, but we’ve got to use this time the right way. And it’s not a vacation — it’s to get better. We’ve got to make sure we come back here next year and we’re a way harder, better, more thorough team.”
The mission from last summer was to inject more speed and skill into a lunch-pail group that struggled mightily to score. Explosive winger Taylor Hall was acquired in exchange for top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson. Nineteen-year-old center Pavel Zacha led a group of young forwards with potential to replace low-producing grinders such as Jordin Tootoo and Bobby Farnham. And Hynes promised to promote a more high-octane scheme to generate more time in the offensive third of the ice.
The result: One fewer goal scored than their league-worst total from a year ago, a 2.4-percent drop in power play efficiency, and a last place ranking in shots on goal per game.
Well, it turned out that Hall is more of an elite playmaker than finisher, and other than Kyle Palmieri, who led the Devils in goals (26) and tied for points (53) with Hall, New Jersey suffers from a dearth of snipers.
Adam Henrique plummeted from 30 goals last season to 20 this year. Michael Cammalleri netted one goal in his last 43 games. Fourteen goals and 31 assists are about what you can expect at this stage from 31-year-old, two-way beast Travis Zajac, but it’s not sufficient for one who centers a top line in this league.
The young guns, such as Zacha, Miles Wood, Joseph Blandisi and John Quenneville, need more experience to learn how to finish plays at this level. This highly skilled quartet aggregated just 20 goals in 169 combined games.
The Devils’ underachieving offensive production was hard enough to swallow, but their drop in competence in their own end was what really made this a season from hell.
Opening night in Florida was merely the preface. In overtime, Devils defenseman Damon Severson was overpowered behind his own net and coughed up the puck, leading directly to the Panthers’ game-winner.
Severson, who recorded the NHL’s third-worst plus/minus mark (minus-31), went from Hynes’ (unmerited, in my opinion) initial choice to partner with captain Andy Greene on the top pair to a healthy scratch in Detroit after what Hynes called his “soft plays on the puck” cost the Devils against the Islanders.
Now, the 22-year-old Severson could still grow into a solid blueliner due to his puck-moving skills, which is more than I can say for some others. One can only hope that Jon Merrill, who has been soft on pucks as well as opponents in front of the net for much of his entire four-year career in New Jersey, will be transferred to Las Vegas in June’s expansion draft.
Or maybe the Golden Knights will prefer Dalton Prout, the 27-year-old pylon Shero acquired from Columbus in the Kyle Quincey dump at the trade deadline. Inexplicably, Merrill and Prout are both on the books for next season at a combined $2.7 million. Takers, anyone?
There were some qualified positives on the back line. Greene had a down year but was still an anchor, sorely missed in the 16 games he was inactive due to injury and personal matters. Though defense isn’t his forte, John Moore came back from a nasty concussion to finish with a flourish (five goals in his last 10 games). I also thought that rookie Steven Santini showed some promise in his 38 games with the big club.
Unfortunately, all the defensive miscues added up to a nightmarish season for Devils goalies Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid. You wouldn’t know it from the stats, but the Devils’ best player on many nights stood between the pipes all game. Schneider in particular went from posting All-Star numbers (2.15 goals-against average, .924 save percentage) in 2015-16 to also-ran averages (2.82, .908), a poor indicator of his worth this season.
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Will it get better anytime soon? That’s up to Shero, who first has 11 selections in June’s draft and then should have over $20 million in salary cap space — before re-signing free agents like Severson (restricted) and Kinkaid (unrestricted) — to spend in the July marketplace.
However, there is a good chance that no one Shero selects in this draft will provide any significant immediate impact given the low (26 percent) odds the Devils will have in the lottery to land a top-three slot. Maybe Michael McLeod, the Devils’ 2016 first-rounder who is currently tearing up the Canadian juniors playoffs, will be added to the 2017-18 mix should he shine in September’s training camp.
But I believe what Shero does with players currently outside the organization will more determine whether the Devils get back on course next season.
And there’s the rub. In his two offseasons, Shero has preferred the bargain basement section as opposed to going after high-end products. In addition, the most sought-after free agents tend to concentrate their attentions on contending teams rather than on rebuilding ones. That means the Devils would have to vastly overpay for any prime choice.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for that.
Shero did score big by using draft picks to acquire Palmieri in 2015, and I still think the Hall-for-Larsson trade a year ago will eventually land in the Devils’ win column.
So I don’t expect this summer to be uneventful. Who knows how things will play out with the expansion draft and a possible stagnant salary cap?
In my Nets’ coverage, I’ve often mused how their offseasons piqued my interest way more than anything they did on the court. The Devils, unfortunately, have landed in this same boat.
They weren’t just bad this season. They were boring.
Maybe someday in the future the spotlight will again be put on the games like it did during the Devils’ heyday.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1