I wasn’t sure we’d see a four-game winning streak all season from this year’s Devils, and certainly not in October when they were still going to be adjusting to everything being new from the system to the coaching staff to personnel changes. Particularly after the team’s 0-3-1 start seemed to confirm all the prophecies of doom surrounding this team. And really who could blame anyone for thinking this team was going to be bad? Last year they were far worse than their record, and still had severe offensive deficiencies on paper coming into this season with stalwart Patrik Elias still on IR with no schedule for return. Everyone from experts to opposition fans to the team’s own fanbase (look at the attendance numbers the first few games, after all) thought this was going to be a lottery team.
Everyone that is, except the team itself.
Not even a week after the aformentioned 0-3-1 start the Devils won their fourth in a row at Buffalo last night, coming from behind twice in a 4-3 win. After winning two OT games and one in the shootout, last night was also the team’s first regulation win of the season. People wondered where the goals were going to come from with Elias still on IR and Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez and Steve Bernier no longer here. FA scrapheap signings Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty were among their replacements, along with KHL import Sergey Kalinin. So far the goals have mostly come from the first line, specifically the combo of Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri – both among the league leaders in scoring with Henrique having six goals and Cammalleri eleven points. One or both factored in on every goal last night, with Henrique scoring twice, including a sweet SH goal that turned out to be the game-winner (see above). Fellow linemate Stempniak’s also been a huge factor early with his two regulation goals both tying games late along with a shootout winner against the Sens on Thursday.
One thing I have said all along is that while people were focusing on the team’s shortcomings up front, they also glossed over an emerging blueline which for the most part has done very well early in spite of the absence of Jon Merrill who missed a couple games with the flu and has since become a victim of coach John Hynes ‘sticking with a winning lineup’, in spite of fellow youngster Eric Gelinas’s struggles. However, new captain Andy Greene and d-partner Adam Larsson has provided stability with the top pairing, proving it wasn’t just the system that led to their emergence in the second half of last year. Our other defensemen haven’t contributed much offensively but have mostly been fine defensively. David Schlemko’s tiebreaking goal late in the second period last night was his first point of the season but he’s won a spot in the everyday lineup despite being a bargain-basement signing just before camp.
Of course behind them in goal, Cory Schneider’s been his usual reliable self, starting the season with a 4-1-1 record and so far his splits are right in line with what he did over the full season last year (2.26 GAA and .925 save percentage last year, 2.28 GAA and .922 save percentage this year). Consistency in net’s so key for building around a young defense and this team has it despite the section of a fanbase that whines about how the Devils need to trade Cory, trade Greene, trade Cammalleri and dump Travis Zajac – who’s also surprisingly awakened offensively during this stretch – in favor of a flat-out tank, with the rationale being ‘well we’re not contenders anyway, just get assets and rebulid the system!’ The tankers have mostly crawled back under their rock this week, though they’ll surely pop up again with the next sustained losing streak.
What all the trade everything that isn’t bolted down people overlook or gloss over is that you DO still need vet leadership around if you’re going to build and integrate youth. You need Cory to help give a young D confidence, you need Greene to help shelter kids like Merrill and Severson from having to take top-pairing responsibilities and continue to help Larsson grow as a top-pairing guy, you need a guy like Cammalleri up front to be a bridge until they can get kids or younger options in the top six, and this team can’t afford to auction a 30-goal caliber player with three years left on his deal after this at a reasonable price. Zajac was among the most polarizing of the holdover Devils given his dreadful (27 points) performance last year. So far he has a couple goals and four points in seven games. Not great but with a new system if you ever could unlock the offensive potential that once existed in Travis that would be huge for this team going forward. And you don’t trade a guy for ten cents on the dollar anyway, especially with a NTC limiting any ‘market’ that might have still existed for Zajac this offseason. Plus let’s be honest it’s not like the center depth is all that great around him, past Henrique. Jacob Josefson only has three assists through eight games and hasn’t done much at all 5-on-5.
Perhaps the only downer during this recent streak is that a lot of the kids haven’t been a part of it. Up front, Josefson has been strictly a special teams and shootout specialist. Reid Boucher was demoted to get more playing time in Albany, while Stefan Matteau has been a healthy scratch at times and only played six minutes last night. Defensively I already touched on Merrill before (and there’s no way he’s not one of the six best defensemen on this roster), though if it wasn’t him sitting it’d probably be Gelinas. Or Damon Severson when he was benched for a game. Unlike some who just wanted to throw out all the vets and play all the kids and newcomers, I never thought that was the way to go since many of the organizations that get in a cycle of losing have too many kids and too few vets to show them how to play, but still I’ll feel better when Merrill’s back in the lineup – though I can’t really complain if we win ten in a row without him either, even if I’m not a big fan of the ‘play a winning lineup’ default switch. After all the best lineup today may not be the best lineup tomorrow, just look at the most successful NFL franchise (ick) as proof of that up in New England.
Still, while others complain we should be developing more this season I’m just going to enjoy a season that so far isn’t the total black hole it appeared to be early, and enjoy the fact there’s actually a little hope at least short-term. I’ve been through this rant before but it would be nice to have something sportswise besides the NFL to watch for the next few months when the Mets’ surprising postseason run comes to an end in a couple weeks. Of course I’m not nieve enough to think this recent winning streak is proof we’re going to have a good season, just last year we started the season with wins in our first three games (one of the few rare winning streaks we had the last couple years). And eventually this team’s going to have to get consistent production from more than one line to be able to sustain this run. That said, I just want to keep up hope as long as possible and not have six months of watching meaningless games.