NEWARK, N.J. (AP) If anyone needs the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft, it is the New Jersey Devils.
After making the playoffs for 20 of 22 seasons, the Devils have fallen on hard times. They have missed the postseason for the last five years and they are coming off their worst season in nearly three decades.
In some ways, it’s not surprising. After years of success that included three Stanley Cup championships and two other trips to the championship round, New Jersey ran into problems after going to the final in 2012.
The team was aging. It drafts were weak. High-scoring wing Zach Parise used free agency to sign with Minnesota after losing the Cup to the Kings. Forward Ilya Kovalchuk returned to play in Russia after the following season. There was a lack of scoring, a little less defense and little depth throughout the roster.
A team that knew how to make the postseason suddenly didn’t have the assets to get there.
The Devils finished seven points out of a playoff spot in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, a campaign that saw long-time goaltender Martin Brodeur miss a month with a pinched nerve in his neck and had Kovalchuk battle a shoulder injury down the stretch. While they collected 88 points in 2013-14, Pete DeBoer’s team missed the postseason by six points, in large part to 18 overtime losses, including 0-13 in shootouts.
DeBoer was gone the following December after New Jersey started 12-17-7, and the team eventually finished 20 points out of a playoff position with Scott Stevens and Adam Oates sharing head coaching responsibilities.
Ray Shero was hired as general manager in 2015 and picked John Hynes, the coach of the Penguins’ top farm team, to run the Devils. The team exceeded expectations in 2015-16, posting a 38-36-8 mark and staying in contention until the final two months as goaltender Cory Schneider and forwards Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique had big seasons.
Despite the addition of Taylor Hall in an offseason trade, last season was a disaster. The team opened 9-3-3 then went 19-37-11 in finishing last in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey’s 70 points were its fewest since 66 in 1988-89.
The Devils need help everywhere on the ice, particularly at center.
The problem with this year’s draft, which begins Friday in Chicago, is that there seemingly is no franchise-changer on the board. There are a lot of good players, but no Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews.
Shero is not saying who the Devils will take with the top pick, if they use it.
However, most experts think it will be either center Nolan Patrick of Brandon of the WHL or center Nico Hischier of Halifax of the QMJHL. Both fit into Shero’s desire to have a fast team on the ice.
It’s the model the Pittsburgh Penguins have used to win the last two Stanley Cup championships, and one that Shero is familiar with since he was the Penguins’ general manager until after the 2013-14 season.
“When I came in, I said to ownership, we have to get younger, we have to get more assets and that was not going to happen overnight, but that is OK,” Shero said. “When you see the teams that are having success, that’s the way it has been done. There are no shortcuts or patchwork in signing a bunch of free agents, or you get back in the same spot you were before.”
Patrik Elias just retired, and over the last five years Brodeur, Dainius Zubrus, Scott Gomez, Martin Havlat, Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky were either traded or left to sign with other teams.
Still, the Devils have a way to go, even with the No. 1 pick and 10 other choices in the draft this weekend.
Shero isn’t certain how long it will take the Devils to get back to the playoffs.
“I don’t know, it’s a tough league, a tough division,” Shero said. “Nashville made the playoffs in the West as the eighth seed, and they were picked for the Stanley Cup by some before the season. That’s how close this is. It’s not like the NBA, where there is no competition.”
The Devils played like an also-ran NBA teams last season. They were not competitive most nights.
They need more talent, more depth – and maybe a top pick who surprises the league next season.