This is as much about the Devils in the background as it is about the Devils in the foreground. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
With the 4-1 loss to Boston, the fate of the New Jersey Devils is all but sealed: they aren't making the playoffs. The loss alone means the maximum number of points they can earn this season is 90, which will not guarantee a playoff spot. They need help from other teams; help they are not getting. Last night, Buffalo (beat Montreal 2-0), Carolina (4-3 comeback win over Ottawa), and Toronto (beat Minnesota 3-0) all won. Even a Devils win last night would not gain any ground on these three teams ahead of them (Atlanta was idle at 72 points).
Short of busting out a 9 game winning streak (ridiculously unlikely) and getting some help from the Sabres, Canes, Leafs, and Thrashers, it's over. The team that had 9 wins at Christmas isn't making the postseason for the first time since 1996.
I can understand if you're already "done" for this season and you want to move on to other things. Still, I want to offer a few reasons why Devils fans should still pay attention to the remaining 9 games of the season.
Item: The Potential Return of Zach Parise - Last Friday, Tom Gulitti reported that Parise is progressing as he began skating again, though there was no timeframe on any return. He has yet to practice with the team, much less have there be any shot of getting any games in. With the Devils being where they are, the decision may be to shut it down for the rest of this season. This is a defensible move; I would certainly understand and accept it.
Let me argue the opposite. I feel all parties involved have a reason for Parise to at least play a game or two before the end of this season, if it is possible to do so. Zach Parise is a restricted free agent this summer and will either command a large contract from New Jersey or a short, one-year deal that may lead to leaving the Devils as an unrestricted free agent in 2012. Regardless of what Parise wants, it's in both the team's and Parise's best interest to show that his knee injury will not be an issue in the future. The only way to do that is to play in a game if it's possible to do so.
If it is fine, then Parise and his representation can better argue for the money he desires. The surgery will be seen as a success and Parise will be back to owning possession and piling up points in 2011-12. As for the Devils, they would have the confidence to know that his knee will not be a long-term issue. It is only with that confidence will the Devils offer another long and substantial contract to a player.
If it is not, then the Devils as well as the rest of the league has every reason to not give him a big contract and so Parise may not be able to get as much as he and his agents feel they should earn. After all, much of Parise's game is predicated on his seemingly constant movement, his explosiveness down low, and his hustle going forward with the puck. He can't rack up shot after shot if he's lost a step or can't burst away from traffic to find some space to shoot. That cuts into his effectiveness, which in turn cuts into the team's effectiveness.
The knee is a big wild card. Being able to play a game or two and not do too badly would reduce that concern greatly. He's not going to be in perfect shape, he's not going to be The Zach Parise We All Love, but he can at least show he's healthy. That would be enough and it's something to watch for in coming weeks.
Item: Can Kovalchuk Get 30: Ilya Kovalchuk has been the focus for many Devils fans and outside opinions all season long. A summer-long dragged-out-by-a-petulant-league-who-got-embarassed-by-their-own-CBA contract saga will do that along with the contract itself and the pedigree of the player. While Kovalchuk started off poorly like all of the rest of the Devils, he's turned it up from December onward. Just look at his shooting percentages by month as evidence.
Currrently, Kovalchuk is sitting on 27 goals. With 9 games left to play, can he get to 30? It's disappointing that he's dropped off from 41 goals last season, but again, the team was awful for the first 3 months and he struggled just as much as the rest of the team offensively under John MacLean. If he does meet 30 goals, at least he can claim that 2010-11 is not his lowest scoring season of his career - his rookie season with Atlanta: 29 goals, he's already above 51 points.
Item: Trolling for Points Trolling is not allowed at In Lou We Trust. But the Devils can certainly troll their opposition, and I highly encourage that. One could argue they have been doing this for the last two months. Besides, sports provide some of the best examples of trolling in real life.
The more familiar one is the old "spoiler" role. The Devils can put a big damper on Buffalo's good vibes this Saturday and seriously hinder Toronto's hopes on April 6 assuming they still have them then. New Jersey can also put a crimp into Montreal's and Boston's positioning for the playoffs within the next few weeks.
The less familiar one is messing with a rival. After all, trolling is at it's best when you do it to someone you want to frustrate. Who better than rival teams in the Atlantic? The remaining schedule allows for the Devils to do this to each of them. The Devils play Pittsburgh two more times (this Friday and April 5); Philadelphia one more time (April 1), the Islanders one more time (March 30), and Our Hated Rivals (April 9). Even if the games won't mean much in the overall standings, New Jersey taking points from these teams will certainly bother them. Given the opponents, I really doubt the Devils will let up against the Rangers or Flyers just because they'll miss the playoffs. And who knows? Maybe the games will mean something when they happen.
Just for the potential schadenfreude alone, there's a reason to pay attention to the next 9 Devils games. And hopefully a reason/excuse to use more awesome pictures like the ones created in this thread at Hockey's Future. (I'll admit, they're the inspiration why this is called trolling).
Item: Can the Devils Get to 50% in Points Percentage: With 39 total non-wins, it's not likely that the Devils will earn a true .500 winning percentage. But a more attainable goal would be to rise above .500 in terms of possible points. They are only one point behind it right now, after all. Given where they were after January 8, that would still be an impressive feat.
Item: Fighting for Respectability I know this may sound strange, given the Devils are 24-6-3 in the second half of the season. Yet, is it really respectable if the Devils take the next 9 games off? What message does that send? The team will only put in a good effort if they have something to play for? I can't respect that. I doubt the the Devils would either. They didn't have this mindset back in mid-January when it happened, why change it now?
As for those who wish the Devils would "tank" a little for a better draft position, I invite you to look at the overall standings. Even with this awesome run, the Devils are still 25th in the NHL. They are a slump away from falling back into the lottery. While they could crawl up to 20th (8 points away), they would need help to do so. It's entirely possible that the Devils could win most of their last 9 games, and still get a top-10 pick. This coming draft doesn't have a once-in-a-generation prospect available; and the Devils will come away with a very good prospect regardless if they pick fifth, sixth, seventh, or even tenth. There's little to gain by "tanking" at this point, in my opinion.
I believe the Devils will want to finish strong, which should make the coming games more than just a formality.
Besides, there's next season to worry about for the players. While I don't think the Devils are going to call up any more rookies unless it's necessary, the next 9 games are the last chance for the players to make their mark on management. While some players are locks for next season, others (the youngsters, those going onto expiring contracts) may not be and should want to convince management that they should stay in NJ for 2011-12. There will likely be a new head coach this summer, and there will be other roster changes. A quick look at the salary cap makes me think it would behoove Lou to clear some space in this coming offseason. These 9 games could sway his opinion one way or another as to who to dump, who to deal, and who to keep. And Lou will inform his new head coach, whoever that may be, of the roster situation.
Item: It's Devils Hockey: I don't know about you, but I tend to really miss watching Devils hockey after the season's over. Not right away, but definitely during the offseason at some point. It may sound hokey, but being a fan requires one to enjoy watching the team on some level. Sure, it can be frustrating, enraging, and/or depressing at times, but that happens. We keep watching, reading, talking, writing, and thinking about the teams we support because we get something out of it. And if it sucks one night, we hold out hope it'll be better later on.
From that stand point, there are only 9 more opportunities this season for Devils fans to enjoy what they see on the ice. 9 more opportunities to see Kovalchuk flying up ice or Patrik Elias making plays in the offensive zone. 9 more opportunities to see Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson develop together as a sign of things to come. 9 more opportunities to see Anton Volchenkov throw a big hit, Henrik Tallinder close out an attacker, or Mark Fayne to fire a low shot from the point. 9 more opportunities to see Jacques Lemaire chew gum on the bench and give orders to the players. 9 more opportunities to see a legendary goaltender do what he has been doing so well since 1994. Just 9 more games and then no more Devils hockey until preseason in the fall.
Savor them if you get the chance because you will miss it when it's gone regardless of how ultimately disappointing the 2011-12 season has been.
I may be preaching to the choir here. After all, who else would read this much about the Devils now and want to jump ship early? If you feel that way, then you probably already did so and aren't reading this. Still, I wanted to make my case. Feel free to argue any these items or offer your own suggestions for fans to still watch the rest of this season in the comments. Thanks for reading.