Playoffs or Bust(ed up)?

Lee Stempniak doing what he does.

Lee Stempniak doing what he does.

Funny, the New Jersey Devils were practically left for dead and eulogized before the season started. They had a better shot at winning the Austin Matthews sweepstakes than winning a single game in the playoffs. Yet here we are, a week after the All-Star break, and the Devils find themselves jockeying in and out of the coveted 8th spot in the Eastern Conference over the last two months.

In spite of their scoring woes, solid coaching, a stingy defense (5th in NHL in goals against) and an All-World netminder in Cory Schneider have been the catalysts for their good fortune. “A good story so far” as coach Hynes said a few weeks ago. But can the Devils keep it up and wind up in the dance? Whether they do or don’t will largely be decided in these next two weeks. Seven of the Devils’ next ten games are against Metro division opponents. While neck-and-neck with the Isles and Pens, both teams have 3 games in hand. Every point is crucial from here out and the Devs can’t afford to leave points on the table as they did the other night in Toronto.

Further, the Devils have some legit concerns during this period; Mike Cammalleri is still out with a hand injury. Schneider’s workload will need to be managed. And Patrik Elias has yet to begin skating two-thirds into a season that could be his last. Whether he can skate is one thing—whether he can contribute is another. Love the guy, but I’m not holding my breath.

Alas, Feb 29th (NHL fans’ high-holiday) is less than 3 weeks away, and while the Devils playoff picture should be a little clearer by then, what do they’ll do at the trade deadline isn’t.

Even if the Devils find themselves still in the mix around that 8th spot, I don’t think Ray Shero leverages his limited assets to bring in a “rental.” He’s made his plan clear and he’s done an admirable job sticking to it. If a deal doesn’t work for the long term, it simply doesn’t work. I applaud him for that. At the same time, players want to feel supported for their hard work. They’ve battled beyond everyone’s expectations and it’s a GM’s job to try and give their team the pieces they need for a playoff run. I’m sure the fans would like that, too.

But let’s be realistic. What kind of offensive player could the Devils even bring in that would push them over the hump? “Top-six” forwards are a commodity in this league. When teams like Anaheim, Nashville, Dallas and St. Louis, who collectively have some of the leagues top scorers already on their rosters, are clamoring for more scoring, you know it’s a sellers market. Which, for the Devils, could actually be a good thing.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Lee Stempniak.

A veteran of 27 different teams (it’s actually 8, but close enough). The NHL’s 2nd star of the week 14 days ago. The leading scorer (15G/25A/40P) on a Devils team that wouldn’t even be in this situation without him. All for the bargain basement price of $850k (which, by deadline time probably means a pro-rated cap hit of around $49.99)

Maybe after 8 teams, he’s finally found a niche in NJ? Maybe he’s the perfect winger and a veteran presence on an offensively challenged roster? Maybe his price tag (despite an inevitable offseason raise) makes him worth keeping?

Maybe.

But if I’m Shero and have 6 teams calling me in search of that unicorn that is the “top-six forward” and I can pry a 2nd Rd pick (plus+) for him…I’d give him a firm handshake, a heartfelt thanks and a one way ticket on the first flight out of Newark.

That’s not just a good haul for a guy like Stempniak, it’s actually extremely plausible given the market. [Curtis Glencross, who had 28pts all last season, went for a 2nd and 3rd at last years deadline. Yes, really.]

Would that kind of move effectively pull the plug on what’s been a very positive season? Probably. If they managed to scrape their way into the payoffs, that experience in itself would be its own reward and invaluable for a team jelling in its first year under a new coach and GM. Quite the building block.

To which, the Devils would be in great shape come July. Not only do they have a ton of cap space (even more with the likelihood of Elias coming off the books) and some draft picks, they’ll have a solid core of youngsters playing in a solid system, bolstered by an annual Vezina candidate between the pipes. Given how they played all year, that’s an attractive situation for many potential UFA’s to help round out the roster according to Shero & Co.’s plan. And he’ll have the money to make it happen.

Hang tight, Devils fans. This season is already a huge success. In or out of the playoffs, the Devils are positioning themselves to be playing well into the spring for years to come.

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