Pretty much everything about the Devils’ 4-0 shutout win at the Rock against a surprisingly ineffective Penguin offense felt like a symbolic purging of the last three years of misery that’s befallen the Devils since Game 6 in 2012. It’s been rare in the last three years to see a dominant start-to-finish performance (still rarer when it manifested in the final score with our offensively challenged teams), tonight was the first I can remember in a long time. Perhaps almost as significantly, this is the first time in a long time it seemed as if the crowd was actually having fun at the Rock. And I say seemed only because I had to be a late scratch from going to this game thanks to a bad cold I’ve had the last few days, but the ‘Crosby Sucks!’ chants in the third period came across loud and clear among other things. Certainly the performance itself gave reason for a sellout crowd to be upbeat, but coming off the heels of a home-and-home sweep of the defending champ Hawks, this week and really this season has finally given the Devil fanbase hope again.
Most of the pundits thought it would be years before this team could be competitive between a young defense, a rookie coach and a questionable talent base up front. At best I figured this would be a 75-80 point season where Cory Schneider could drag the team into being in games most nights and we’d see some progress from the defense but overall there was still too much maturing and work to done up front to expect anymore than that. However, this version of the Devils doesn’t want to hear about next year or waiting to win…they’re winning right now. Even more shockingly, they’re acting like they expect to win. For most of the season the results bear that out, after an 0-3-1 start the Devils are 10-3 in their last thirteen games against some tough competition including the streak-starting game at Madison Square Garden beating the Rangers in OT.
There hasn’t been much reason for anyone associated with the Devils – least of all the fans – to harbor optomism about the direction of the franchise during three bad years and a summer of upheaval. Even most of us that were fed up about the team the last few years were sorry to see most of the people who’d been responsible for our greatest successes leave the organization one way or another, but acknowledged change was inevitable. I among others cautioned that change wasn’t automatically good by rote. Right now however things couldn’t be going better for new GM Ray Shero and new coach John Hynes, both of whom I’m sure took some personal satisfaction from tonight’s win over a team they were a part of for years, and in Shero’s case fired from.
Shero in particular had a lot to live up to in the shadow of now former president/GM/czar Lou Lamoriello though ironically he also took over for a longtime successful GM in Pittsburgh (Craig Patrick). Still given the team had one of the lowest payrolls in the league with few big-name FA or trade additions it was hard to envision positive results immediately. So far however, just about every move Shero’s made has paid off. On defense signing John Moore and David Schlemko certainly didn’t gain as much ink as say, the Flames trading for Dougie Hamilton. However, both Moore and Schlemko have both become regulars and stabilizing forces in our young defense, playing 16-18 quality minutes most nights. It was thought Shero wouldn’t be able to address the forward core to a big extent immediately but his draft-day steal of Kyle Palmeri (six goals and fourteen points in 17 games) combined with offseason pickup Sergey Kalinin and camp invitee Lee Stempniak (also fourteen points in seven games) has actually pumped life into what last year was a lifeless, decrepit forward core. Kalinin only has four points on the season but three of them have come in the last four games including the game-winning goal in Chicago and an assist that same night, as the KHL import is playing with more confidence in his first season and getting time in the top six. Even recent waiver pickup Bobby Farnham has scored two goals, gotten in several scraps and already become a fan favorite, especially after trolling the team that cut him earlier this season with a goal tonight.
Perhaps chief among Shero’s apparently solid moves though was his head coach hire – first-year man John Hynes. Hynes had a good AHL record to be sure over the previous few years but given the fact he was the youngest coach in the NHL it seemed only natural to expect growing pains, especially with a ‘rebuilding’ team. From day one though, Hynes has walked in the door with the confidence of someone that had been coaching for years, knowing exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, even bringing in a skills coach to work with the players on the basics. Many coaches find it easy to challenge younger players and fringe guys while rarely going after big names, but Hynes challenged holdovers Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique during camp and said he expected more from them this year. So far, they’ve delivered with Henrique leading the team in goals with eight so far, while Zajac has 11 points in 16 games a season after a pitiful output of 27 points. By the same token Hynes has also attempted to spur on younger players like Damon Severson to be better, even scratching the highly-touted and skilled defenseman earlier this season for a game.
While admittedly I mocked all the slogans the PR department was coming up with during camp, the team IS living up to the #RELENTLESS motto. Very seldom this season has the team been out of any game, even during the 0-3-1 start. Not only has this team shown the capability to come from behind like the Ottawa game earlier in the year where they rallied from two goals down late, but they’ve also shown an ability to hold a lead late (one of our biggest bugaboos in recent years), even against quality opposition. Certainly coach Hynes deserves credit for getting the most out of almost everyone on the roster to this point but obviously the players themselves deserve credit for buying in to the system and not the outside hype about their lack of a chance this season. Schneider’s obviously been the stabilizing force in goal, with his usual stellar numbers and his equally usual soft-spoken humbleness always crediting his teammates and never throwing one under the bus in three years as a Devil. Certainly new captain Greene has been a rock for a young defense and the pairing of he and Adam Larsson has been the backbone of the unit, frequently playing in the neighborhood of 25 minutes a night against the opponents’ top lines including on the first PK unit. And up front even with a pro like Mike Cammalleri, in my opinion Adam Henrique’s been the guy who’s stepped forward the most to provide leadership after the team got younger and quicker this offseason, and began without icon Patrik Elias – who’s only now started to skate with the team after an unspecified knee injury. Henrique’s been the go-to-guy for scoring as well as one of our main PK forwards – and perpetual shorthanded threat.
Enjoy it Devil fans, right now things are looking up – not only for the short term but in the long-term as well. Top 2015 picks Pavel Zacha and Mackenzie Blackwood are both off to strong starts in the OHL. Heck, even Albany is 8-3-2 so far in the AHL. After years of allowing the farm team to atrophy it appears as if there’s accountability there too, as well as other young legs who look like they’ll be able to help in the near future.