A 2014 storyline for hopeful Jays fans

Fifth place.

That’s the result baseball fans in Toronto are predicting following a disastrous 2013 campaign that left little room for Blue Jays optimism in 2014.

But what if there were an alternative yarn that didn’t paint the glass quite so empty?

Consider, if you will, the 2011-2012 New Jersey Devils.

Now I hear you groaning, “oh no, a hockey analogy for Canada’s only baseball team.” Yes, I know it’s cliché and yes I know the hockey playoffs are a very different beast than the baseball post-season.  But if nothing else, the 2011-12 Devils offer an intriguing storyline that Jays fans can follow for a beacon of hope following an offseason of despair.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.

In the 2010 offseason, the Devils made a series of moves that saw them become an instant favourite for the Stanley Cup.  Coming off a season where the team had finished first in their Atlantic Division, the Devils surprised many by re-signing elite free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk and adding sizeable centre Jason Arnott to anchor their top six forwards.  After adding Henrik Tallinder to the blue line, many predicted New Jersey would be in store for a long post-season run with an explosive offence to go along with their perennial defensive stringency.

What followed was nothing short of a disaster.  The Devils opened the season with a 9-22-2 record and fired their head coach while sitting 30th in the league on December 23, 2010.  Top forward Zach Parise was lost for most of the season in November, and the team’s hyped-up offence produced the fewest goals per game at 2.08.  Despite an impressive late-season run, the Devils missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.

Needless to say, the Devils entered the 2011-12 campaign with lowered expectations.  After off-loading some of its talent over the previous year, the team had made minimal moves over the off-season, adding only ageing winger Petr Sykora in a quiet summer for GM Lou Lamoriello.

But despite all the pessimism, the Devils were able to put together a far more successful season, winning 10 more games and finishing with 21 more points in the final standings.  Receiving a strong return campaign from the likes of Parise and Kovalchuk and unprecedented production from role players such as David Clarkson, the Devils put everything together at the right time, not only making the playoffs in a tight Atlantic Division but making an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

What does this mean for the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays?  Simply that all the hype of a winter ago shouldn’t be discounted due to one poor campaign.  The 2012-13 offseason saw a strong wave of talent enter this city, and as such, should inspire some optimism moving forward. One abysmal and injury-laden season of underachievement shouldn’t serve to remove all sense of hope from the competitor-starved Toronto fan base.

Now needless to say the parallels are largely problematic aside  from the storyline.  The failure of the 2010-11 Devils was in large part thanks to an anaemic offence (the team had the fifth fewest shots per game in the NHL) and not a porous defence (New Jersey allowed the fewest shots per game).  The 2013 Blue Jays, by contrast, struggled with run-prevention with their pitchers posting the sixth-worst ERA in the majors.

But despite these problems – not the least of which being that the Jays are returning with a virtually-identical pitching staff save for the addition of an unproven youngster and a walking MASH unit – it is worth noting that it might not be time for Jays fans to jump off the deep end just yet.

Talent may sleep and take years off, but the Jays undeniably still have plenty of it on their roster.  And if they can take some inspiration from the hockey Devils, they would be wise to maximize it in making the most of their vaunted off season of a winter ago.

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