Nothing encapsulates an NHL season better than the last month for the Devils. After going 1-5 in a six-game stretch that had them on the outside looking in of a playoff spot, suddenly they’re hot again after winning four in a row and are now two points up on the Penguins (who have two games in hand) for the last playoff spot currently. In a fit of dramatic irony the Devils play the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Tuesday for their last game before the NHL’s All-Star break, better known as the John Scott showcase. Of course, a playoff spot can’t be won or lost in game #50 but staying hot going into the break would give an upstart team a tremendous boost. It is the Devils’ first trip to Pittsburgh this season – in our only matchup so far the Devils won fairly comfortably 4-0 at the Rock – which means a fresh batch of stories about GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes coming back to the Consol Energy Center to face their former organization. Though obviously neither man is going to put on a jersey, both men’s fingerprints are on this team’s continued improvement.
If there was an award for best FA signing of the year Shero would win it for bringing in Lee Stempniak, who somehow was without a job heading into training camp and now has 14 goals and 22 assists for 36 points in 49 games making barely an NHL minimum salary. It’s not as if Stempniak’s never shown a scoring touch at the NHL level but certainly in the latter part of his career he was pigeonholed into a bottom six role despite some early success as a scoring forward in St. Louis. Given a legit top six role on the Devils, the 32 (soon to be 33) year old Stempniak’s thrived beyond anyone’s expectations. If there was an award for best trade of the year, Shero would probably be at the top of that list too dealing two picks for Jersey native Kyle Palmeri who’s blossomed beyond expectations already hitting the 20-goal mark and contributing 35 points in 49 games, all career highs for a player former GM Bob Murray admitted he thought could score thirty goals and feared he would have no room to pay him under the salary cap. If there was a GM award for best in-season waiver pickup Shero would also be in the running for that too with Bobby Farnham, who’s chipped in seven goals in 25 games and given the team an emotional jolt despite playing mostly on the fourth line. Coming back off a suspension, Farnham got presented with the team’s hard hat (see goofy Rocky pose above) after the team’s 3-1 win in Winnipeg yesterday in part for making a key breakup of a two-on-one in the third period.
Perhaps Shero’s most important move of all was none of the above but rather his coach hire of John Hynes from the Penguin organization, even giving up a third-round pick for someone that’d never coached an NHL game. Right now that choice is looking good though, as Hynes is getting the most out of a team of mostly young defensemen, overachieving castoff forwards and Cory Schneider. Continually he does little things to show he has the pulse of his team like reaming the team out for a lacksadasical practice last week after the start of their four-game winning streak or calling a timeout on Thursday against Ottawa – with the team still up 5-1 after a five-goal first period – cause he didn’t like how the team approached having a huge lead early in the second period. I’ve literally never seen a timeout called with a four-goal lead and had to work to stifle my laughter in a bar I was watching the game in that night. Not only that but he’s getting the most out of seemingly every player on the roster including the aformentioned Stempniak and Palmeri. To the point where even offensively challenged Jacob Josefson suddenly has become an indespensible part of the power play, or Arizona castoff John Moore and bargain-bin signing David Schlemko both becoming important parts of the defense, though Moore’s back on IR after reaggravating a lower-body injury. When freaking Josefson who can’t score at all 5-on-5 can actually carve out a role as the half-wall distributor on the power play and make a difference that tells you the coaching staff (including assistants Geoff Ward and Alain Nasreddine) knows how to utilize personnel. Another example of managing personnel is how they didn’t bring up young forwards Reid Boucher or Joseph Blandisi before they were ready to contribute in this system but when they have been brought up they’ve both been ready to contribute and certainly the Albany staff led by Rick Kowalsky deserves some credit for that too.
Of course even with the GM and coach’s contributions this team’s position in the standings simply wouldn’t be possible without Cory Schneider in net beasting it up…again. Since October 29 Cory’s posted a 1.96 GAA and .932 save percentage and if it wasn’t for Braden Holtby having a fine year on the one team in the league that’s been clearly above the rest in the regular season (Washington) Cory might be leading the Vezina straw polls. New Jersey’s recent four-game winning streak started in Arizona where Cory had a dominant 36-save performance in a 2-0 win where the Devils were badly outplayed in the last two periods. Since that game which came on the heels of a crucial trip, the Devils have picked up their play mostly feasting on the West, though it’s Western teams they usually do not beat in Calgary and Winnipeg. Our other game against Ottawa on Thursday the Devils had a rare and nearly unprecedented display of offensive skill in the first period scoring five goals in about twelve minutes, earning themselves a standing ovation from the crowd after the first period and less than one month after being booed off the ice repeatedly in flat performances against Carolina and Boston.
To be fair you even have to give former GM Lou Lamoriello a lot of credit for the current roster, starting with Schneider who was a draft day heist back in 2013 and continuing with an improving D that had a good foundation in place with Andy Greene signed long-term anchoring a young defense with Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill (now on IR himself with a wrist injury) and Damon Severson all under 25, all playing important roles. Even the newest young forwards – Boucher and Blandisi – were both Lou acquisitions, Boucher as a third-round pick and Blandisi as a shrewd UFA signing last year. While it was time for a change on and off the ice and the organization needed an infusion of forward talent, the cupboard also wasn’t quite as barren as portrayed. Many had predicted the Devils to be one of the bottom five teams in the league, with even Shero recently alluding to the Hockey News or whatever publication it was picking the Devils 29th in a 30-team league. I didn’t have them quite that low but figured it’d be an uphill grind for the next year or two at least, but right now they appear to be running downhill more than uphill.