WASHINGTON -- After trading away nearly all of their rental players prior to the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline on Wednesday, the New Jersey Devils started the final 20 games of the regular season with a 1-0 loss to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Thursday.
With a lineup that included rookies Steven Santini, Miles Wood, Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman and Kevin Rooney, the Devils battled hard against the Capitals, who lead the NHL with 93 points, but were limited to 15 shots on goal and weren't able to match a third period power-play goal by Jakub Vrana. The result was their fifth straight loss (0-3-2), leaving them eight points out of the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference with 19 games remaining.
Although the Devils have not been mathematically eliminated, the players understand it's likely they will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth consecutive season.
"Every year you miss, it's a lost opportunity to play," Devils captain Andy Greene said.
Greene, 34, is one of four players who were with the Devils in 2012, the last time they qualified for the playoffs. That team lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final in six games. Centers Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson also remain from that team.
Video: COL@NJD: Greene rips a power-play goal past Smith
The changes, which began with left wing Zach Parise's departure via unrestricted free agency to the Minnesota Wild in 2012 and left wing Ilya Kovalchuk's decision to retire from the NHL to play in Russia in 2013, have been well documented. General manager Lou Lamoriello is now with the Toronto Maple Leafs and trying to end their three-season playoff drought, and coach Peter DeBoer is with the San Jose Sharks with aspirations of reaching the Cup Final for the second season in a row.
In New Jersey, this is Year 2 of GM Ray Shero's rebuild. After exceeding expectations in 2015-16 under coach John Hynes and staying in the playoff hunt until the final quarter of the season, they have taken a step back this season.
Sometimes that happens during rebuilds. But after talented left wing Taylor Hall was acquired in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers on June 29, the bar was raised and the Devils weren't able to reach it. Before the deadline, Shero traded away defenseman Kyle Quincey and forwards PA Parenteau, Sergey Kalinin and Vernon Fiddler, getting back whatever assets he could before looking ahead to Year 3.
"Ray, it's his second year on the job and he's done a lot of good things," goaltender Cory Schneider said. "It's hard to disagree with any of the things he's really done. It takes time sometimes. … We need to figure out how to take that step and a lot of that's on the core guys who have been here and are going to be here for a little while."
Schneider, who will turn 31 on March 18, is nearing the end of his fourth season with the Devils and has yet to skate in a playoff game with them. During the summer of 2014, Schneider believed enough in the Devils that he signed a seven-year contract extension rather than wait until the following summer to explore unrestricted free agency. Greene did similar by signing a five-year extension in the summer of 2014.
Video: NJD@WSH: Schneider denies Ovechkin's wrister
Less than a year later Lamoriello stepped aside and Shero took over. Schneider and Greene knew then that the Devils were starting over. As frustrating as it is not to be in contention for a playoff spot, they say they have not lost faith in the process.
"This year we'd have liked to have taken probably a bigger step than we have, but I think it's been a good step," Greene said. "It's been more of a learning type of year for the team. Obviously we'd like to be a little further along but it's not going to happen overnight and I definitely have full confidence in management and in coach Hynes and the coaches."
If you're looking for positives, Shero has added a top-six forward each of the past two summers in the trades for Hall and Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks. And some of the young players have shown promise in the NHL and the American Hockey League.
But the defense took a hit with the departure of Adam Larsson in the trade for Hall. Finding top-four defensemen isn't easy. Shero will have to figure out a way to get at least one this summer.
Perhaps the Devils will take a run at Kevin Shattenkirk, who was acquired by the Capitals in a trade with the St. Louis Blues on Monday but can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Shero also has a host of draft picks to use in potential trades, including seven in the first four rounds of the 2017 NHL Draft and six in the first four rounds of the 2018 draft, according to CapFriendly.com.
But potential and hope for the future only can carry a team and its players' faith so far, especially during the final month of another season when there's little hope of making the playoffs.
"Eventually the results have to come," Schneider said. "That's why I think finishing this year strong and winning as many games as we can and seeing what happens, that's going to be the best thing for our group. But it doesn't just happen. You have to be committed and be determined and play the right way, the way we have wanted to play all year. We'll see what happens if we do that, but it's a long process."