Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Alright, Devils. I'm In. Let's Do This Thing.

Let's be serious here. About four people read this. Maybe more, but I doubt it. So most of you probably don't know, nor will you know what my thought has been regarding the once-moribund and now flourishing New Jersey Devils, though I've mentioned it a few times. And that thought was this. The Devils haven't had a decent first-round draft position in nearly two decades because, well, they've always been pretty good. New Jersey hadn't missed the playoffs since 1996 and it seemed unlikely that that would be changing any time soon. Some pegged the Devils as Stanley Cup contenders this season and they looked every bit of it the first ten minutes of the year before letting an early two-goal lead slip away against Dallas in a game they'd eventually lose in overtime 4-3.

Then Zach Parise tore up his knee. Then the team was terrible. Then coach John MacLean was fired. Then the team was still terrible.

Ostensibly, New Jersey was awful, having, for most of this season, the worst record in the League, and by a fair margin at that, but then things started to change. The Devils shipped off captain Jamie Langenbrunner and players began buying into Jacques Lemaire's philosophy. Now New Jersey is the hottest team int he League, which left me with a decision to make. Do I lament the loss of what could have been a top-five pick for a team that despite its hot streak is so far out the playoffs are a near impossibility? Or do I throw my emotion behind it and invest myself for what is still an unlikely occurrence?

I opted to wait and see the progress and I decided that if New Jersey could trim a deficit between it and the No. 8 seed, which once was as high as 27 points, down to 10 points by the end of their 60th game, I would start to believe. In New Jersey's last 18 games, the Devils are an astonishing 15-1-2. On Saturday night they played their 59th game, and their third in the last 12 games against eighth-seeded Carolina, and walked away with an impressive 4-1 win.

And just like that, with 59 games gone in the season, the deficit is down to 10.

I'm in.

There are 23 games left for the Devils to make a 10-point deficit disappear, and it's still a tall task despite how well the team is playing. According to Cool Standings.com, the Devils still have just a 1.7% chance of making the playoffs as things stand, but that is still a major improvement over just 11 days ago, when the Devils, despite already playing great hockey and moving up the standings, were given less than a 0.1% chance of reaching the top eight. New Jersey has 54 points, but 32 of them have come in the last 18 games. To continue playing at this pace is highly unlikely, and it may be necessary to pull off the impossible dream, but now that they're this close, I'm jumping along for the ride. And since the Devils' performance clearly hinges on my dedication, this is crucial.

The journey continues tonight in Dallas, where the Devils will be playing those same Stars they faced on opening night, only now they'll be facing them with former-captain Jamie Langenbrunner across the ice, though, it should be noted, Langs is pulling for his old mates. I'm sure most of you are caught up to speed on tonight's game after reading that great preview some guy wrote about it on the interwebs, and you just can't wait to see the Devils drop the puck. I know I can't. This team is real now, they're really in the race and I'm not the only one who thinks it.

If you aren't as excited then you're probably too distracted by the huge trade that broke yesterday. You know, the one in which the Stars shipped James Neal and Matt Niskanen to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski. I'm sure you were highly concerned about the potential ramifications of the trade both in the real world and for your fantasy hockey team.

Of course, there's the chance that you were actually thinking about that trade where Carmelo Anthony, finally, at long last, after what seemed like centuries of build up, was sent to the Knicks last night for Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, several draft picks, cash, Patrick Ewing's retired number banner and the vast French North American territory known as "Louisiana".

Don't get me wrong. I wanted Melo. I'm glad he's here. The Knicks are better today than they were yesterday. But simply put, the 'Bockers got fleeced in this deal, and it isn't difficult to see how or why. Everyone and their mother knew Melo was eventually going to be a Knick. He wanted it, the Knicks wanted it and it didn't matter how many players the Nets were going to offer Denver. Anthony was never going to sign an extension and the deal was never going to land him in New Jersey. Donnie Walsh knew the Knicks had all the cards and wanted to hold out as long as possible to either force the Nuggets to take New York's previous offers or to simply sign Melo in the offseason as a free agent.

But James Dolan is a petulant needy child, and he just had to get his man. And he wanted him now. And as a result, Dolan just had to get involved this weekend and muck it all up. Sure, the Knicks got the man they wanted all along and they have ample cap space in the future to try and get a third big star to power the roster such as Deron Williams or Chris Paul, but they didn't have to give up what they gave up. And perhaps more specifically, they didn't have to give up Danilo Gallinari. Gallo was developing into a quality swingman who could have been a quality player on a championship contending squad next to Amar'e Stoudemire and Anthony. Instead, the roster, aside from these two stars, has been completely stripped bare, and while the Knicks have a blank canvass to work with, they don't have much else.

And perhaps the most frightening thing about this? Despite statements to the contrary, it's pretty clear to just about everyone that Isiah Thomas has been advising Dolan from a far. It also seems apparent that Thomas, the man who single-handedly destroyed the franchise for nearly a decade, might have more influence than Walsh, a man with a proven record of building quality teams. In the end, it seems obvious that Dolan's need for instant gratification and his inexplicable love for Thomas won out. In a bitter twist of irony, the deal brings Renaldo Balkman back to the Garden, a player Thomas inexplicably selected in the first round in 2006 when he was projected as an undrafted free agent, and waves goodbye to Eddy Curry, likely Thomas' worst of several awful moves, whose expiring contract will wind up in Minnesota as part of the deal.

This isn't the first time Dolan's childlike neediness has become readily apparent to just about everyone, and it probably won't be the last. And knowing that New York could have brow-beaten Denver into a better offer for the Knicks instead of giving them everything short of Stoudemire, Landry Fields and the urinal in Dolan's private bathroom is irritating. But in the end, if the Knicks win a championship in the next few years, I, and everyone else, will have forgotten about the pieces that could have been kept and rightly so. In the end, that's all we really want.

And if that doesn't happen, at least I have other reasons for optimism. I mean, come on. The Devils are playing awesome hockey right now.

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