NEWARK, N.J. (AP) For the first time since spending $340 million to buy the New Jersey Devils in the summer of 2013, Josh Harris and David Blitzer are getting a chance to see the team play some meaningful games in the final months of the NHL season.
Following Saturday’s 2-1 comeback win over the New York Islanders, the Devils hold a five-point lead over Columbus in the race for the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and a seven-point edge over the Islanders for the second wild-card spot with 20 games left in the regular season.
While it is still too early to start celebrating, the Devils’ five-year playoff drought might be ending.
”Yeah, I hope we’re going to the playoffs and long run, we’ve said consistently that we want to be an elite Stanley Cup contender year in, year out and there are no shortcuts to that,” Harris said Saturday night in a rare interview after taking part in the ceremony to retire the No. 26 jersey of Patrik Elias, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.
What makes this turnaround remarkable is that the Devils had their worst season in three decades in 2016-17, finishing last in the conference with 70 points.
Their win over the Islanders on Saturday night gave them 72 points this season.
”We have always said we were going to do things step by step to build long-run winners,” Harris said. ”Sometimes everyone gets impatient and we get impatient. Last year wasn’t great to be me. It’s very exciting to be in the hunt, but we are not done.”
Much of the credit for the turnaround has to go to general manager Ray Shero, who came on board in the offseason in 2015. He has revamped the roster with the latest addition being the acquisition of 25-goal scorer Michael Grabner from the Rangers on Thursday in the first deal between the area rivals since the Devils came to New Jersey in 1982.
It was just the latest deal by Shero who has acquired forwards Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson, defensemen Sami Vatanen and Mirco Mueller and goaltender Eddie Lack in trades and signed free agents John Moore, Brian Boyle, Ben Lovejoy, Will Butcher, Jimmy Hayes and Drew Stafford.
Hall is having a career season with 26 goals and 40 assists. His 66 points are 25 more than any player on the team.
The bad season last year also helped earn the Devils the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. They got a winner with 19-year-old Nico Hischier, who is centering the top line.
”Look when Ray came in in 2015 I still remember him saying things won’t necessarily change overnight, but we’re going to move this in the right direction and that’s all across the organization,” Blitzer said. ”What he has been able to do over the last 2+ years, and I think as we look at the future, it has been incredible.”
New Jersey still faces an immediate obstacle in its playoff push. Nine of its next 12 games are on the road, including eight with teams in playoff positions heading into Sunday’s games.
Blitzer believes the Devils are going to finish what they started this season.
”Certain things happen that you plan and certain things happen that you don’t necessarily plan,” he said. ”We got some really interesting pieces that you could not predict at the beginning of the summer. Will Butcher; for Nico to come and do what he is doing. Taylor Hall to turn over what he is doing this season and the leadership he is showing.
”It’s just been incredible,” he added. ”I just think you see a team really gelling. It’s also a team not just built for today. This is a team that is built for the future and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
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