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Devils Reflect Before Cup Finals

The Devils have made quite an improbable run this year on the way to representing the Eastern Conference in the 2012 NEFHL Stanley Cup. Improbable to most on the outside of the organization, as inside, from management to players - all has gone according to plan set in motion years ago. That's not just talking about this year's playoffs but the entirety of the tenure of GM Alex. It's always rewarding when patience and persistence pays off, as it's definitely taken a lot of patience for the team to get to this point.

The first year as the GM saw tons of action between buyouts, signings and trades. Despite having a horrible team handed over from the previous regime, the team didn't have an identity and GM Tous wanted to go for the playoffs. Despite featuring solid veterans like LeClair, Iginla and Brind'Amour - the team had a lack of depth up front, suspect D and a pre break-out Tim Thomas. All this resulted in a team that finished 11th in the conference missing the playoffs by 10 points.

Looking over the roster and seeing not much of interest besides Iginla, the team continued to make moves in a direction towards complete rebuild. while some higher GM's didn't like to see a full rebuild, and wanted teams to remain competitive - management in Jersey deemed that impossible with a team of cut and paste veterans who wouldn't be long for the NEFHL (LeClair, O'Neill, Korolyuk, York, Walz, etc). Some youth had already been brought into the organization in players like Wisniewski, Backes and Edler but those guys were all a few years from making an impact - and at that point it was possible none of them would.

Following that 77 point year in 07 was a year for the ages; only not in a good way. The Devils managed to finish with a measly single digit win total of 8, to go with 64 losses and a total of only 33 points. To put that in perspective, the top team that year had 116 points (Florida) and the worst team in the West had 65 points (Hawks).  Already with a solid pick because of holding the Montreal 1st, one of the few bonuses management had when taking over in 06, the team figured to get to 1st pick - Stamkos. This was not to be, as the team lost the lottery, handing the top selection to the 12 win Hurricanes - who were almost as bad as the Devils, and also very deserving of a star pick.

This is where a team could see flipping on it's side and throwing any plans they might have had out the window. This is where a team could trade it's picks or prospects or young "maybe's" and try to go for broke to get to the playoffs.

But that's the point of making a 5 year rebuilding plan. Targeting players and then aquiring them AND THEN letting them develop in the way you hoped is the key to the plan. Obviously not all projects turned out (Kalus, Fritsche, Boyd, Kobasew) but luckily more often than not the players progressed. Obviously becoming good doesn't happen over night, as after the 33 point season in 08 the team was again near the bottom with a 67 point season in 09. This is where the light could be seen, as the team loved it's 08 draft (hindsight hurts now of course) - picked up some solid prospects in 09 and targeted it's first playoff appearance under Alex in '10. Getting very lucky behind John Curry enabled a playoff appearance for the team. However, the youth and inexperience cost the team, as despite getting up 3-2 on the Presidents Winning Thrashers the team gave up 11 goals in the last 2 games to lose the series in 7 heart breaking games.

The hope was there, the plan was still in place and the team was getting better. This was the summer to trade a little bit to get better and really take aim at the division while still keeping an eye on the future and being a top team for a good sized window. Getting Miller early the next season was huge and despite having Varlamov in the system it wasn't sure when he would be ready to take the  duties of #1 goalie. Seeing that as really the last missing piece, a longterm fixture in net, the team jumped at it. So far it's been a mixed marriage of stretches of dominance and stretches of 3.5 goals a game. However, all things considered it's been a huge success of a pickup. The year after bowing out to the Thrashers, the Devils caught on fire the 2nd half of the season in 2010-2011 and managed to finish with 101 points, 2nd to only the Wilds just ridiculous 131 points. However, despite this - a rash of injuries in the teams last game of the season put the team in a spot it couldn't battle back from. As frustrating as it was, the team remained true to itself and made only a few moves. Trading off Varlamov to Nashville for top six help (jokinen) and then at the deadline picking up a solid 3rd pairing D (Cumiskey) and 2nd/3rd line winger (Lombardi). The team once again caught fire in the 2nd half and despite not finishing first in the East, the team still clinched the hotly contested Atlantic Division and finished 2nd in the East with 103 points, it's 2nd 100 point season in as many seasons.

The team now needed to take that next step forward, and win a playoff series.  Having never done so in franchise history, the team relied heavily on Miller and it's top line. This year, the Devils blew a 3-1 series lead - but after getting beat by the Thrashers two years ago, and embarassed by the Senators last year, the Devils would have none of it, winning in convincing fashion against the Capitals to clinch a 2nd round berth against the Canadiens. A great series followed as the Canadiens had momentum on their side after defeating the highly touted (by one person) Sabres. Despite falling the first game to the Devils the Habs rallied back to win consecutive games.  Leaning on their last, the Devils mounted their own 2 game comeback to take the series lead 3-2. Once again the Devils couldn't finish it off in game 6. However, as with the Caps in round one, the Devils came out in the 7th and played an solid game, stepping up in the middle of the 3rd period to score and ended up holding on for a 4-2 win. Facing the Penguins was the reward for beating the habs in 7 games, a division rival who dispatched 2 powerhouse teams (jets/panthers) in only 10 games, winning both series in 5 in convincing fashion. Fortunately for the Devils, MA Fleury ran out of gas and let in soft goals in games 2 thru 5 as the Devils ran away with a victory in 5 games.

It was a series in which the Devils looked as great as the hopes of the plan introduced years ago thought they would - even if those dreams are usually in the 95th percentile of what actually could happen. Unfortunately it cost the team their #2 D, and best performing D of the playoffs, James Wisniewski. The team has been scratching Kulikov (09 pick) since everyone was healthy however now he'll be looked upon for big contributions on the 2nd pairing. His career in his rookie season is a microcosm of the team as a whole the last few years, as he was horrible for the first half but slowly picked up his game. Despite still finishing with an ugly statline he's been steady in the playoffs thus far. The team needs him to play an important role against the Blues.

Having gone from the worst in the league 4 years earlier to 50% chance at the cup is pretty awesome and I'm just really happy for the chance. All things considered I wouldn't take back any moves I've done (or haven't done) up to this point, even if I lose. With the core of the team still in place and the plan still working, I hope to be back to this point as many times as possible.

Anyways, after all that self jerking- here's hoping a great series unfolds, and all the best wishes to the Blues and Phil and hopefully it's an epic series.