(Stephen Gionta on Tuesday night – @NJDevils)
The message from the Devils at the trade deadline on Monday was clear: this is all about the future, not making a playoff run this season.
The Devils traded their leading scorer, right wing Lee Stempniak, to the Boston Bruins for a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Stempniak led the Devils in scoring with 41 points (16 goals and 25 assists), so trading him definitely dampens their hope for a playoff run.
The Devils lost five of six games heading into the deadline, including a 6-1 loss in Columbus last Thursday and a 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay the next night in Newark.
The Devils have been in the playoff chase all season, either in a wild-card spot or in one of the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division, which they held as late as February 14, when they shut out the Los Angeles Kings.
After Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Devils are 30-27-7, 67 points. They now trail Carolina by one point, Philadelphia by two points, the Penguins by five points and the Red Wings by eight points for the two wild card spots. Detroit and Pittsburgh are in the final two playoff spots.
The eight teams in playoff spots right now are Washington, the Rangers, Florida, Tampa Bay, Detroit, the Islanders, Boston, and Tampa Bay, and it could very well stay that way for the rest of the season.
There was no reason to trade significant pieces for a possible run at the playoffs this year, when one guy really wouldn’t make a difference in their ability to beat Washington the Rangers, or Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
In addition to the Stempniak trade, General Manager Ray Shero acquired forward Devante Smith-Pelly from Montreal in exchange for forward Stefan Matteau. Smith-Pelly, 23, totaled 6g-6a-12pts, including a career-high three game-winning goals, and 22 PIM in 46 games with the Canadiens this season.
The Devils also acquired the Colorado Avalanche’s third-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in exchange for defenseman Eric Gelinas, who played in 34 games, with one goal and five assists, this season.
When Shero took over the Devils last spring, he built a young, fast, aggressive team with a nucleus that could be here for years.
Head Coach John Hynes, also in his first year, likes the team he has and made that clear Friday night.
Hynes said on Friday night ahead of the deadline, “I have a lot of respect for this group as competitors. I have a lot of respect for the guys that are in the room. A couple of games didn’t go our way, but for me, it’s about the guys in the room, the guys that have played hard for us all year long and will continue to do that, so that’s my focus.”
Two other things Hynes stressed were that the Devils have a lot of leadership and that they are gaining valuable experience playing in important games now.
For the Devils, as always, the focus is on goaltending and defense, and those parts of their team are solid.
Cory Schneider has established himself as one of the best goalies in the NHL this season, as he has 26 wins and a 2.11 goals-against average.
The defense is strong, led by captain Andy Greene, John Moore, Damon Severson, David Schlemko, and Adam Larsson, who has had a great year under Hynes. Larsson, in his fourth season with the Devils, struggled to find playing time when Pete DeBoer was the coach.
The Devils’ offense has struggled, but has a nice nucleus, led by their longest-tenured players, Adam Henrique (20 goals, 19 assists) and Travis Zajac (9 goals, 22 assists).
One of Shero’s best moves in the offseason was bringing in New Jersey native Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks. Palmieri is the Devils’ leading scorer with 23 goals and also has 17 assists.
The Devils have gotten a lot recently from Joseph Blandisi, who was called up from Albany in January. In 25 games, Blandisi has five goals and nine assists. The Devils already look at Blandisi, who was drafted by the Devils in 2012, as a key part of the offense.
On Tuesday night, after three days off, the Devils looked like a deflated team as they took on Carolina. There was very little energy in the Prudential Center, as if the fans know it’s over.
The Devils got the early lead, with Adam Henrique scoring on a feed from Tyler Kennedy to give them the lead 10:54 into the first period. That was it for a very quiet opening period, in which the Devils outshot Carolina 9-5.
Carolina tied it on the power play 4:36 into the second period. Derek Ryan got his first-ever NHL goal.
The Devils poured in 30 shots on the night, but none were all that tough for Carolina goalie Eddie Lack to handle.
The game stayed 1-1 deep into the third period and it looked like the game was going to overtime when Carolina got the game-winner from Joakim Nordstrom with 1:29 left.
Nathan Gerbe put in an empty-netter with 22 seconds left to give Carolina the 3-1 win and hand the Devils a heart-breaking loss. New Jersey has now lost three in a row and six of their last seven games.
Devils Head Coach John Hynes said afterwards, “I don’t really have to tell them anything. It’s a point in the season where we didn’t play well enough to win the game. We’ll get back at it tomorrow and get on a road trip and see if we can find a way to be better against Nashville (on Thursday).”
Henrique said of the Devils’ playoff hopes, “We certainly still believe in each other and we will right to the end.”
Devils defenseman John Moore said of them still having time to get on track, “We’ve prided ourselves on our hard work, our compete, and it’s put us in some pretty good positions so far this year. Would we like to be a couple spots up? Of course we would. But the only way we’re going to get through this is through our hard work and getting back to our identity which brought us success early in the year.”
Devils goalie Cory Schneider said, “It’s no fun losing. We can’t have our confidence waiver or try to change the way we’ve been playing all season. We have to dig in and get a win and hopefully that turns into two, three, or four.”