Remember the 2010-11 edition of the New Jersey Devils – the bottom feeding, offensively-challenged laughing stock led by high-priced, under-achieving Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk.
How things have changed.
After finishing 23rd in the league last season, the Devils are one win away from making it to the Stanley Cup final in what has turned out to be a rare and impressive bounce-back campaign.
If the Devils close out the New York Rangers they’ll become just the third team in 20 years to make the Cup final a year after finishing 23rd or worse.
The last team to do so was the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06, albeit under different circumstances due to the 2004-05 season being wiped out by a lockout, thus giving playoff MVPs Eric Staal and Cam Ward an extra year of development. Nonetheless, Carolina finished 23rd overall in 2003-04 and went on to win the Cup in 2006.
The 1992-93 Stanley Cup-winning New York Rangers also rebounded after finishing with the sixth-worst record in a 24-team NHL. Calgary came close to accomplish the feat in 2003-04, taking the Tampa Bay Lightning to a seventh game after finishing 22nd overall the season before.
But it’s easy to see why the Devils took such a significant dip despite strong seasons before and after their downturn.
The Devils got off to a dreadful start (9-22-2) under then-new head coach John MacLean before going on a tear (29-17-3) and staving off further embarrassment under the guidance of Jacques Lemaire.
Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur had one of the worst statistical seasons of his career while missing time with various injuries.
Captain Zach Parise also had his season derailed by injury when he suffered a torn meniscus in November and missed all but 13 games.
And as previously mentioned, Kovalchuk, with the ink still drying on his mammoth 15-year, $100-million contract, had a miserable season, finishing with career lows in points and goals per game to go along with a horrendous minus-26 rating.
Regardless of bad fortune or poor performances, the Devils’ regular season turnaround and intrepid playoff run has shocked the hockey world.
Which begs the question: Is there a current team that finished in the bottom eight of the league that has the talent and fortitude to make a march to Stanley Cup final next season?
A summer of free agency, trades, player development and the draft tends to change things, but as of now there doesn’t appear to be a team that will make the jump next season.
The Anaheim Ducks are likely the closest to contending, given the top-end talent they have up front to complement workhorse netminder Jonas Hiller. If the Ducks can avoid a slow start – they went 10-22-6 before coming to life in the second half – they should be fighting for a playoff berth, and maybe more.
It doesn’t look as promising for the other basement dwellers.
Columbus is, well, Columbus – who knows if they’ll ever make it back to the post-season let alone contend for a championship.
Edmonton has a phenomenal young core that should contend for many titles down the road, although not likely next season.
The remaining teams in the bottom eight – Montreal, the Islanders, Toronto, Minnesota and Carolina – are in varying stages of development, although none seem poised to replicate the success New Jersey has had this season.
And considering no team has done what New Jersey is on the verge of accomplishing, fans of the Ineffectual 8 shouldn’t hold their breath.