Saturday, March 26, 2011

Devils' season starts to wind down, but with hope for the future on and off-ice

Let's face it, I'd rather not talk about tonight's game in Buffalo (which so far looks like what I feared it would...the mother of all letdowns now that we're really out of the playoff chase) or the prior two games of our road trip where we only got one point in a drab scoreless tie in Pittsburgh that ended with a shootout defeat. First of all, I didn't see either game for different reasons - I caught Limitless at the theater Tuesday, then saw maybe one of the ten best live sporting events I've ever been at Friday with the Kentucky-Ohio State regional semi at the Rock.

Having not attended a basketball game yet at the venue where I've been to over a hundred hockey games, I lucked out both with my seat (on the aisle with nobody directly in front of me and a nice corner view in the lower bowl), as well as with the second game - which was an instant classic. Sad but true, I'm more excited to attend tomorrow's regional final than I am to go to any of the Devils' last few home games. Although I will try to enjoy them as much as possible seeing as if it looks like the last three games I'm going to will be my last in 208, barring a miracle before Friday.

Not that I can knock the team at all, after the Titanic-like disaster of John MacLean's tenure led to a historically bad first half, we got more excitement than we had any right to expect in the second half. Yes, this will be our first non-playoff season in fourteen years - but given everything that's gone on, from the cap issues to start the season to Mac's tenure and the unfortunate end to Jamie Langenbrunner's career in New Jersey to go along with the meniscus injury that caused leading goalscorer Zach Parise to miss the last 63 games, the deck was stacked against us from the start. With the team's second-half run under Jacques Lemaire, there's every reason to think that with even a competent coach and a healthy Parise next season that we'll once again be competing for the division and be a contender to go deep in the playoffs.

Yes, there are still deficiencies - starting with the offense. Even with our two-month winning bonanza, the Devils are going to be last in the NHL in goalscoring by far. While some of that can be attributed to the loss of Parise as well as $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk's nightmare first half, there are issues to be worked out. This season might have proved that those issues can be solved from within though. Clearly we need more scoring from the right wing and on defense but rookies Mattias Tedenby and Matt Taormina (injured for most of the season) look capable of filling those voids. Indeed, the most meaningful part of the Devils' second half run has been the kids - led by Tedenby and fellow rookie Jacob Josefson up front, as well as defensive revelations Mark Fayne and Taormina. Even lightly regarded Anssi Salmela stepped up in his first half-season as a regular to fill a void on defense in the second half.

While the rookies earned their keep, vets like Martin Brodeur, Brian Rolston and Henrik Tallinder also had bounceback second halves and proved they can still play - a development almost as meaningful as having the kids step up. Indeed, the goaltending tandem of Brodeur and Johan Hedberg was one of the league's best in the second half, though Hedberg has strangely been put on the back of a milk carton since his eight-game winning streak ended and Brodeur returned to the lineup. At least there should be a few more Moose sightings down the stretch now that the team's playoff run is officially over.

Both goalies were helped by an improved defense, perhaps the best the Devils have had in the post-lockout era. Considering the potential career-threatening injury to Bryce Salvador, season-ending one to Taormina and defection of Mike Mottau during camp this came as somewhat of a surprise but with the addition of vets Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov in the offseason to go along with the kids stepping up, the Devils look to be in good shape for years to come. Even if the Devils likely still need another puck-mover to go along with Taormina (if you want to consider him 'proven' after 20 games) and might have to replace Andy Greene - the team's biggest UFA in the offseason.

Perhaps the two biggest questions of the offseason will be the RFA status of Parise as well as the seemingly never-ending coaching search. After MacLean's failure it seems unlikely GM Lou Lamoriello will go with another first-time head coach in what could be Brodeur's last season. But aside from Lemaire himself - if he can be talked out of retirement for a third straight offseason - what other vet coaches are out there who are really appealing? Michel Therrien? Ick. And certainly Parise's injury complicates matters toward getting him signed to a long-term deal. To that end, it's a good thing he is coming back for the last seven games this season. At least management can see how their best player has responded to such a long-term absence and Parise himself won't have to go eleven months between playing games.

Parise's return will also help soothe some of the pain for fans attending the Devils' last five home games this year. Ironically as the Devils' on-ice fortunes took a turn for the worse this year, their off-ice issues started getting better due to both the team and fans taking initiative. As Facebook, Twitter and the like continue to grow the Internet, the Devils are trying to make the most of this by launching Mission Control. What's Mission Control, you ask? Basically a volunteer staff of dedicated fans (called 'Devils generals') who use social media to advertise ticket discounts and promotions, as well as inviting suggestions from the fans how to improve the whole gameday experience.

I'm sure the full impact of Mission Control won't be felt until next season since the Devils only began this in the last several weeks but already there have been some changes for the better, with a new feature involving one song played before every game that's a 'random' tweeted request - Runnin' with the Devil by Van Halen was one (that should always be played at Devils games), as well as a couple of Springsteen songs. Also an improvement was the return of the 'Jersey's Team' marketing, at least inside of the arena. Not to mention the anticipated change of the intro this year - which stunk horribly.

Perhaps the most tangible improvement for the gameday experience has come from a different movement though, a fan-inspired idea called the Supporters Section. Basically the idea orginated on various message boards involving a section where Devils fans could stand and chant the whole game. Similar sections do exist with other teams - I think the Isles have one called 'Loudville' and the Blues are also promoting something similar now with 'Bluenatics' - but somewhat surprisingly the idea of this section really caught on in the midst of our darkest days in December. Fans get offered discounted tickets in a designated section or two with the accepted idea that it will be a standing, chanting section.

Admittedly I thought some of the chants were hokey at first - like the 'I believe that we will win' one that seemed like it would be too unwieldy and wouldn't rhyme...but hearing it at games, somehow it works and it's caught on big-time, especially since the Devils were doing nothing but winning for two months. For the most part, the section's been an unqualified success and now it appears as the Devils are going to offer partial or even season tickets in a designated section for next year in the 100's (balcony/mezz area). Having a full-time designated section should only help, since in certain games the supporters got spread out over two sections. Plus the link to the tickets spread too well, and people who had no idea what the section was meant for wound up sitting there for Retro Night as some people bought seats in the section with the express purpose of selling them at a huge profit. If you want to see the Supporters in action one more time before the season ends, they will be standing and chanting at the April 6 game against Toronto.

Generally ticket prices themselves are always a bone of contention between fans and management, I'm sure my fellow blogger can give chapter and verse on MSG's current gouging of Knick and Ranger fans. While there are still issues with the Devils having among the highest ticket prices in the league for a bottom-half attendance team, at least things should improve in some areas next year with price slashing in the balcony and mezz to the tune of $22 season tickets behind the defending net and $28 tickets behind the net where the Devils attack twice. Considering those areas were a ghost town this year - at $56 face and $39 for season ticket price, that should only help matters, as does the anticipated move towards tier pricing (charging more for Ranger games and Opening Night than for a mid-week tilt against Florida for example).

Still, some things could be improved. Having the entire upper bowl remain at $29 season ticket price when the upper corners were also a ghost town most nights was odd enough but now with all the mezz and balcony sections slashed below that, it seems ridiculously dense to freeze upper-level prices in all but the center ice area. There really has been no official indication of sth prices anywhere but the balcony yet as the Devils are pushing this new discount hard, but it doesn't seem like the overall price of the uppers will change.

Of course this doesn't include the extreme corners, still at $15 a seat for 'priviledged' season ticket holders. Unfortunately it doesn't look as if I'll be in their ranks anymore, partly due to the fact the Devils gave my friend (the actual account holder of my tickets) such a hard time about transferring the tickets to me the last couple of years that now when it finally looks as if someone's willing to help us, the friend's been too busy to send a transfer letter so it looks as if I won't be able to retain the season tickets once the deadline expires Friday. I will miss the characters of 208, no question. Then again I'll just miss Devils hockey period, going six months without it after the season ends April 10.

As far as attending games next year, I'll probably wind up getting a partial plan elsewhere and going to a few more games via the secondary market and discounts, doubt I'll know in what fashion I'll be going to games next year until the Devils do finally come out with prices for all sections. Going to games shouldn't be an issue for me in any case, although on principle I don't want to start paying $30 for seats near where I paid $15 for so the uppers are probably out for me unless it's center ice. And most nights I don't like sitting in the mezz when it is a ghost town although hopefully the influx of new and relocating sth's there helps fix that.

Being a season ticket holder elsewhere is probably out since aside from the few 'perks' they give you - access to team-related functions among them - price-wise it probably isn't advantageous to be a season ticket holder elsewhere in the building when I can get a partial plan (with an option to purchase playoff tickets) for the bigger games and pay below face for other games on the secondary market. That latter point is a big bone of contention with other sth's incidentally, especially with all the team-related discount and giveaway tickets factoring into the mix the last few seasons since the team got more agressive on offering discounts.

Whatever may come, I don't plan on missing much next season. Things should be improving on and off the ice and I'm gonna be a part of it, one way or the other.

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