This is a scenario that no Devils fan wants to see, and one that the Devils have rarely found themselves in before.
The team is currently seventh in the East but stands only five points ahead of the 11th-place New York Islanders. The Devils play four games before the deadline: tonight against the Ottawa Senators, then the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Isles.
The Senators, who are lose to the Devils and are competing for positioning, could prove a difficult team. While Tampa is seemingly out of playoff contention, the Lightning still have a Hart finalist in Steven Stamkos and a dynamite offense backing him up, including Martin St. Louis and rookie Cory Conacher. The Isles will be playing hard to remain in contention, and the Panthers are the worst team in the league, though they played the Devils very closely just two nights ago.
If those four games go poorly and a few other select teams win, it could push the Devils out of the playoffs and even conceivably out of contention. It would just be too late into a 48-game season to lose four straight and have time to recover. And if that happens, things might start to get ugly.
I've already mentioned the "keeper" free agents, but this is where fans would say goodbye to them. I truly believe that Patrik Elias will finish his career as a Devil, and I don't think there's any risk of losing him no matter what happens. But what about a player like David Clarkson?
Clarkson had his breakout season last year, when he exploded for a career-high 30 goals and 46 points. He got off to an even more impressive start this season, netting 10 goals in his first 14 games. He's slowed considerably since then, but still leads the team in goals with 12.
Should the worst happen and the Devils know they will likely miss the playoffs, it would make sense to dump David Clarkson. After losing Zach Parise for nothing last postseason, fans must be wary about losing a top player for nothing again. It would hurt to lose Clarkson in a trade, but it would hurt a whole lot more to have a lackluster postseason and then lose him for nothing.
In this scenario, just about anyone could go. All of the UFAs are on the table (though again, probably not Elias), and the rest of the roster could be considered in play, too. No, the Devils aren't going to dump Kovy or Travis Zajac or Adam Henrique or Martin Brodeur, but they could certainly part ways with just about anyone else.
The Devils wouldn't get much of an immediate return; they'd likely get back picks and prospects for most of their players. Still though, a few high-end prospects in exchange for a few pending UFAs could be quite attractive depending on how things go leading up to the deadline.
This all requires the Devils to be confident they won't make the playoffs, which is not a position they are currently in. But as a last-ditch effort to get something out of a failed season, it's still an attractive out to have.