The team motto is #Relentless. That’s what the ’15-16 New Jersey Devils are under rookie NHL coach John Hynes. No matter what the score is, a team that was counted out from the beginning continues to battle and claw.
Under the leadership of Hynes, these Devils never stop hustling. They’re a resilient bunch who have proven themselves. Entering the season, I had my doubts. Of course, from the looking glass as a outsider I took one look at the roster and saw what everyone did. Little in terms of offensive talent and a young rebuilding defense with question marks.
Aside from Cory Schneider in net, I figured they would be in the race for Auston Matthews. After four games, it looked like that would be the case. The Devils went 0-3-1 scoring one goal in three of the four. Then came an early visit to MSG for the Hudson rival Rangers. Facing a bitter rival, the Devils were scrappier clawing back from a one-goal deficit on goals from Adam Henrique and Lee Stempniak to win 2-1 in overtime.
That the winner came off the stick of Stempniak who made the team after a pro tryout symbolized what Hynes is selling. If you work hard enough, you’ll earn ice-time. Stempniak was an after thought most of last season for the Rangers before they dealt him to Winnipeg at last trade deadline. Coach Alain Vigneault didn’t have much use for a veteran who’s always been a solid secondary scorer.
It was fitting that Stempniak jump started the Devils season. They won four in a row with Stempniak also having a hand in Adam Larsson’s overtime winner. The topper was a comeback win at Ottawa. Trailing by two late in the third, Henrique cut the deficit in half. With the goalie pulled, there was Stempniak steering in the tying goal at 19:28. He would also win the contest in a shootout.
Stempniak’s surprising success continued in Friday night’s 4-3 overtime defeat to the nemesis Flyers at home. Even though they lost, the Devils again rallied late from a one-goal deficit with Stempniak setting up leading scorer Mike Cammalleri with a minute left for a tying power play goal. On a team that doesn’t have a plethora of scoring, Stempniak ranks third on the club with 20 points (5-15-20). To put that in perspective, he totaled 18 points in 53 contests with the Rangers last year. He improved to 10 in 18 games with the Jets helping them make the playoffs.
Astonishingly, the Devils have scored six goals after Hynes has pulled the goalie this season. He’s had the magic wand. Tonight, it was a six-on-four that got them a point. New Jersey is 13-10-3 with 29 points in 26 games. That’s good for fifth in a crowded Metropolitan Division. Two clear of the Flyers who got the extra point on Matt Read’s winner in three-on-three. The Devils are only one behind the Pens for fourth. With a shootout win in Brooklyn, the Islanders have 34 points. The Caps and Rangers are tied for first in points (37) but Washington’s played three fewer games.
Here’s the thing. After a hot start mostly due to the play of Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have come back down. The Caps are the best team in the division. The Pens have come on thanks to Evgeni Malkin, who has rediscovered his MVP form. The Islanders are right there in their new home at Barclays. Then you have the Devils hanging around.
Jersey’s team is in the mix due to key performers stepping up. Hynes told his guys he expected more from them. That’s resulted in Cammalleri responding with a club best 28 points (10-18-28) including a goal and helper at The Prudential Center tonight. Henrique has also found his form pumping home 12 goals with eight helpers. Stempniak has been a godsend meshing well in a primary role. Not bad for a 32-year old out of West Seneca, New York written off.
New Devils general manager Ray Shero also made some other good moves that have worked so far. He acquired Kyle Palmieri from the Ducks and signed another ex-Ranger John Moore. So far so good for the 24-year old Palmieri who notched his 10th of the season on the power play. On Anaheim, he was buried behind Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and overpriced Ryan Kesler. Palmieri’s career high in goals is 14. A mark he hit last season in 57 contests. Considering their offensive struggles, think the Ducks miss him?
As for Moore, he once was part of the Rangers’ future on the blueline but never got consistent playing time under Vigneault. We’re sensing a theme here. Eventually, Moore was part of a package that included Anthony Duclair and picks to the Coyotes for Keith Yandle. After the Coyotes declined his option, he became a free agent. He’s become a trusted regular on the back end under Hynes. Astonishingly, Moore’s still just 25 and leads all Devils defensemen in scoring with eight points (2-6-8). He was the overtime hero in a 3-2 win over the Canadiens allowing the Devils to take three of four points against the league’s best.
Another player who has found himself is Travis Zajac. No one disputes that the solid two-way center who is superb on the dotted line is overpaid. He has five years remaining earning a healthy $6.5 million average salary the next four with a cap hit of $5.75 million. Zajac is signed thru 2020. A contract former Devils GM Lou Lamoriello signed him to. He was never gonna live up to it due to not being the most offensively talented.
Zajac battled injuries last year turning in his worst season. In 74 games, he tallied 25 points (11-14-25). Most Devil fans wanted him gone. With Lamoriello taking over the Maple Leafs under Team President Brendan Shanahan, rumors floated that Zajac could be dealt to Toronto. Of course, they were unsubstantiated.
It’s been to the Devils’ benefit. Zajac has turned in some of his best work starting out with six goals and nine helpers. He’s combined with Henrique to form a dangerous penalty killing duo who have totaled three shorthanded goals. As usual, Zajac is taking care of business winning 53.9 percent of face-offs. He’s always been a solid overall center. Under Hynes, he has more of a role also matching his ’14-15 total in power play goals with four. He missed tonight’s game due to an “upper body” injury sustained in a 5-1 road win at Carolina. Hopefully, he won’t be miss significant time.
The Devils can ill afford it. After Zajac, no other Devils forward has over five points. Jacob Josefson finally scored one in the win over the Canes. He’s been utilized in a penalty killing role. Hynes has gotten the most out of Bobby Farnham. A waiver pick up, the fourth liner has provided surprising offense with three goals while supplying energy.
Though he was a healthy scratch, Sergey Kalinin contributed early on. The first-year NHLer is still learning. The Devils have also gotten a positive contribution from David Schlemko. With two markers, he returned to action pairing with Jon Merrill. Schlemko has been steadier than Eric Gelinas, who sat out.
Without captain Andy Greene and Schneider, it wouldn’t be possible. Obviously, Schneider’s important is critical to the team’s success. He entered play with 11 wins in 20 starts with a 2.03 goals-against-average, .927 save percentage and a shutout. If he continues to perform, Schneider might finally get some recognition as one of the game’s best goalies.
Greene is in his first year as team captain. He’ll never blow you away offensively. But he’s a steady defensive defenseman who plays his position well. He and Larsson have formed a solid top tandem. Larsson has finally developed into a shutdown D. It took a while. Credit goes to former Cup hero Scott Stevens who now works on NHL Network. Someone who knows a thing or two about great defense.
In order for the Devils to succeed, they’ll need more from Stefan Matteau and Damon Severson. Matteau scored his first in the loss. Severson has seven assists so far in his second year. Eventually, Reid Boucher should get another chance. He’s been scoring in the AHL with Albany notching nine goals in 15 games.
It could be the swan song for Patrik Elias. The proud franchise scoring leader has a goal and three assists since returning. A borderline Hall Of Famer who’s totaled 407 goals and 614 assists for a club record 1,021 points, Elias is coming to the end with the only team he’s known. It should be interesting to see how it finishes for the two-time Stanley Cup winner.
Whatever happens, it’s already been a surprising season in Newark. The credit goes to Hynes and his players who have bought in. It’s the familiar story of the gritty underdog. When the Devils are on the schedule now no one takes it lightly.