By Steve Lichtenstein
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In case the Devils’ lackluster performances at the end of last week weren’t enough, general manager Ray Shero officially ushered his club into full-bore tank mode at the trade deadline on Monday.
On Tuesday night at Prudential Center, New Jersey lost in desultory fashion, 3-1 to Carolina in its first game following the deal that sent leading scorer Lee Stempniak to Boston.
The defeat was the Devils’ sixth in their last seven games and sent them plunging further into the deep end of the Eastern Conference. Standing in a playoff position only two weeks ago (albeit with rivals holding games in hand), New Jersey is now tied with Ottawa for 11th place.
Pittsburgh, the current occupant of the eighth and final seed, is five points up on New Jersey with two games in hand.
Though everyone in the Devils’ organization toed the party line that there’s still “plenty of time” to catch fire, it was put out prematurely when Shero not only didn’t improve the team at the deadline, but also undermined its chances by trading Stempniak away.
To be fair, Shero got decent value for the 33-year-old winger, picking up the Bruins’ fourth-round pick in this summer’s draft and their second-round selection in 2017. It was also a very good return on the initial investment, as Shero had signed Stempniak to a cheap $850,000 contract following a training camp tryout.
Still, goals have been hard to come by in New Jersey, which made the Stempniak trade difficult to swallow for those fans who held out hope for a late-season run. In his 63 games as a Devil, Stempniak recorded 16 goals, including three game-winners, and 25 assists.
Equally important, Stempniak embodied the Devils’ rugged attitude with his play along the walls and in the hard areas around the net. He may not be a top-six forward on any other team, but he was an important cog in the New Jersey machine that surprised the rest of the league for the first two-thirds of the season.
But back to the goals, and the Devils’ lack of them.
New Jersey is dead last in the NHL in both total goals and goals per game. The Devils’ best sniper, winger Mike Cammalleri, hasn’t played since the end of January after aggravating an upper body injury (hand/wrist) and could be done for the rest of the season.
Against Carolina on Tuesday, the Devils suited up only two players (Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique) who have reached double digits in goals scored.
“I think one of the things we have got to do a better job is shoot the puck more,” Devils coach John Hynes said after Tuesday’s game, which featured his team pumping 30 shots on Carolina goalie Eddie Lack. “We had opportunities tonight where we spent a lot of time in the offensive zone with possession, but we didn’t shoot the puck enough. When we’re in those situations, we have to get the puck to the net more and have more of a shot mentality.”
Of course, Hynes, who has done a masterful job this season but has likely run out of the magic elixir that kept the Devils competitive for so long, was glossing over the real issue, which is the utter lack of talent on this roster.
That’s far from his or Shero’s fault. Both inherited a club prior to this season which Lou Lamoriello, to whom the State of New Jersey is indebted for the three-Stanley Cup mini-dynasty he created from 1995-2003, decimated in his last decade as the team’s president and general manager.
Check out Lamoriello’s last 10 drafts — they’re chock full of guys who severely underachieved, if they ever even made it to the big show at all. Only Henrique and defenseman Adam Larsson, who was chosen fourth overall in 2011, have shined as Devils.
Shero on Monday also found time to jettison two of Lamoriello’s prime choices from past drafts — 2012 first-round winger Stefan Matteau and defenseman Eric Gelinas, the Devils’ second-round selection in 2009, paving the way for what exactly?
Part of the beauty of playing out the string is evaluating which young players have what it takes to stick around for the rebuild.
The Devils’ cupboard, unfortunately, is mostly devoid of such prospects. There’s wingers Reid Boucher and Joe Blandisi, and maybe defenseman Damon Severson.
That’s about it.
I don’t want to hear about guys like center Jacob Josefson, who continues to earn first-unit power play ice time as if he had a pact with the devil. The former 20th overall selection in the 2009 draft rarely moves off the half-wall, which is why he has registered a whopping three goals and nine assists in 52 games this season.
I’m also souring on defenseman Jon Merrill, the Devils’ 2010 second-rounder who usurped Gelinas in the lineup 10 games ago. While he hasn’t been as visibly derelict in his own zone as Gelinas, Merrill has certainly taken a step back this season in terms of defensive consistency.
The Devils would have been a longshot to reach the postseason even if Shero had stood pat at the deadline, so I’m not dismissing the strategy of prioritizing future campaigns over this one.
However, the Devils shouldn’t keep kidding us or themselves. They should embrace the tank. Instead of, for example, promoting 33-year-old Tuomo Ruutu, who has yet to register a point in his 20 games played, to the third line, let’s see what they have in Albany. Take a chance on some other young players.
Remember, losses are now the Devils’ friends. Every point earned inches them further away from the top selection in this summer’s draft, which many experts maintain is more bountiful up front than on the back end but drops off after around pick number 5. The Devils would own the 11th selection if the season ended today.
Of course, professional athletes and coaches know no other way than to play to win, so I’m not hopeful that the Devils will fall much further. Unfortunately, the season has proven that they’re just not good enough to reach loftier goals, and then Shero used the trade deadline to make them worse.
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