A few weeks prior to this season’s NHL trade deadline, New Jersey Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello remarked that the Devils weren’t rebuilding, but “transitioning.”
That is, to say, transitioning to another year of non-playoff hockey?
From Rich Chere of NJ.com,
“It’s a transition. It’s not a rebuild,” Lamoriello said Friday morning when the subject was raised by NJ Advance Media.
So what is the difference between rebuilding and transitioning?
“Rebuilding is a totally different word. Transition means the amount of time it takes for that chemistry to get together or that new person to get comfortable in what he’s doing within the system. That’s a transition,” Lamoriello explained.
Since this mid-February analysis, the Devils are on 9-7-4 in 20 contests. That’s better than some current playoff teams over the same span, but a measure of standings purgatory after all — too good for the good lottery balls, too bad for the playoff berth.
The Devils are currently working on a current six-game losing streak that has seen them outscored by a 17-7 margin and eliminated from the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Also taking place since Lamoriello’s assessment of the Devils as a team in transition? The trade deadline, which saw the Devils and their league-eldest roster pass by with only a few deals of significance — Marek Zidlicky was sent to the Detroit Red Wings for a conditional third-round pick, and Jaromir Jagr went to the Florida Panthers for a second-round pick.
This roster, going into the deadline, had 16 players at 30 or older and 14 players on contracts that are set to expire at the end of this year.
Those totals now stand at 14 and 12 players, respectively. That’s 14 players who are probably too old to be worth what they might have fetched in picks and prospects, and 12 players who might walk this summer without bringing anything in return, no matter how minimal.
For all the Devils could have moved, they’ve got (at best) a pair of second-round draft picks this summer and, more likely, a second and a third.
Meanwhile, the Devils transition continues its slide towards so-so draft lottery odds.
New Jersey got by just fine for two decades by operating in a very in-house manor, from drafting and development to re-signing their own players and staying largely quiet in trades and free agency. Having Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens and a host of other mainstay names on the roster for most of that time surely didn’t hurt. However, as with all teams not named the Red Wings that have sustained success for a great period of time, a need to clean house and
rebuild do a better job of transitioning is inevitable.
New Jersey, clearly, is at that precipice. Stubbornly, that change did not begin at the trade deadline. If it’s going to begin in earnest this summer, there are a few places ownership could look to start.
More from Chere at NJ.com,
“I don’t think you tear down by any means. That’s not in the philosophy of this organization. Nor do I think that’s something that can be done in this day and age. Simply because of free agency and the way the draft is, it’s almost impossible to do.”
On the contrary, that is precisely what is done in this day and age.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 on the strength of players who were drafted by the organization (centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury). Ditto the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, whose twice-a-champion roster cores were developed in-house after a similar timeline of struggle and high-round draft picks. Right this second, the Florida Panthers seem to be on the edge of seeing their own high draft selections turn into a contending core. The Buffalo Sabres, Phoenix Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes are in the early stages of similar controlled burns aimed at improving in the future.
Free agency is a perilous thing, of course. Most summers see GMs spend through the nose to get themselves fired in a few years. The draft is a bit of a crapshoot once you get past the first or second round. But both exist as ways for teams to upgrade on the perimeters of a roster that has a good core in place.
But that core has to come from somewhere, right?
Sometimes, the Devil you don’t know is better than the one you know (pun so, so intended). Making obvious if uncharacteristic deals at the trade deadline would have been a great place to begin putting that next core together.
Keeping things in-house means beginning in-house. The Devils are eyeing a 25th-place finish this season with an outside shot at a top-two pick in a loaded draft class. They’ve got ten selections in this year’s draft, and three in the first two rounds. That’s a great place to start. It could have been so much more.
It’s not as though loading up with an excess of draft selections, year after year, won’t consistently replenish the NHL team while occasionally yielding a gem here and there.
Those within the organization are right when they say there are good pieces in place. Cory Schneider has been excellent all year long, despite the struggles of the rest of the team. Adam Larsson and Damon Severson give New Jersey legitimate top-pairing talents on the backend, and the team still has the likes of Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac to lean on up front.
But there was so much more that could have been done to support those players as soon as next year.
We know the Devils roster is too old to compete. And after four misses in five playoffs, the big thinking within the organization is starting to prove long in the tooth, as well.
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