Clearly everyone knows that every game this month has been meaningless in terms of the 82-game marathon about to start in October and a lot of times preseason records are misleading. Yet with this Devils team, there’s cause for real optomism after a 5-1-1 preseason (with the only regulation loss a Devils B team going up against the Isles A team in a split squad game). In preseason, it’s not about results in terms of wins and losses but more in terms of who’s doing well…in this case results were indiciative of many younger players stepping forward and showing they’re ready for the big-time. For a Devils organization coming off a last-place finish, five straight years out of the playoffs and having the de facto #1 center get hurt in offseason training, these seven games provided a welcome dose of sunshine.
If anything about the results did stand out from the team percpective, it’s the increased goalscoring and the fact four of the five wins were no-contest games. Two 4-1 wins over Washington, at 4-1 win at Montreal and the 8-1 win over Ottawa during the Kraft Hockeyville game that could have opened some eyes – from people that actually got to watch it. Because of the inane blackout enforcement rules, most Devil fans couldn’t watch that game though – due to the split-squad game with our B team at Barclays Center also being televised the same night. Another NHLN preseason telecast got blacked out during the preseason too, not that I was dying to watch all the preseason games (especially after going to the first one on Monday where top overall pick Nico Hischier scored that sick goal which set the tone for the preseason), but really why are we bothering with blackout technicalities for preseason games?!
Pretty much the odd telecast rules were the only thing about the preseason worth even an ounce of angst though. No major injuries occured – though 2016 first rounder Michael McLeod got injured late in camp he seems to have avoided anything catastrophic, and will likely start the season back at juniors anyway after other players have stepped up in camp more than he did. He’s still 19 and has plenty of time though…but for guys like sixth-rounder Jesper Bratt that doesn’t seem to apply. Bratt’s also 19, selected in the same draft and unheralded until camp this year where he broke out in a big way with two goals and three assists in four games, with a strong 200-foot game reflected in his +6. Other youngsters have staked their claim for jobs and expanded roles in the forward core as well – 2015 first-rounder Pavel Zacha (5 points and +1 in 4 GP) has shown he looks to be on the verge of a breakout in his second NHL season, earning a top six slot with a strong camp. 2014 first-rounder John Quenneville came on late in camp but might still start the season in the AHL. Even talented pest Joseph Blandisi showed he could take a step forward and push for a consistent top nine role this year.
Yet overshadowing all of them is Nico, both in terms of pedigree and in terms of play during camp. If the other guys opened eyes, Hischier made jaws drop to the floor during the preseason, starting with that memorable goal against the Caps. His point totals (seven points in 4 GP, including four goals) don’t even do him justice, it’s the hockey sense he showed that proved early on to the coaching staff that this kid at least deserved an opportunity to start the season in the top six as an 18-year old.
How he’ll react to an 82-game professional season is a natural part of growth, but you see the talent, desire and brains to be a star and that’s something this franchise could desperately use on and off the ice.
Amazingly it wasn’t just the forwards that looked improved this preseason. Both major defensive additions in Mirco Mueller (traded from Sharks) and Will Butcher (signed as a college FA) had positive camps and even Blue Jackets castoff Dalton Prout showed plenty of improvement, recognizing the changes he needed to make to stick as an NHL player and earning a look in what’s suddenly a crowded room for defensive hopefuls.
Although clearly the Devils still have questions in their top six, competition can only help in the long run.
It isn’t just the kids that look energized in camp either – new addition Marcus Johansson seems to be fitting right in so far with six points in four exhibition games, cheap castoff signing Drew Stafford’s tied for the team lead in goals and points with Nico and earned a top six spot on the right side himself, while holdover Kyle Palmieri is playing with a chip on his shoulder after comments earlier in the preseason how the Devils had become soft and easy to play against:
A main player on the team showing overt honesty, combined with the other changes that were designed to get younger and add grit + speed this offseason is so far looking good. Granted, am I going to sit here October 5 and moan and groan if we lose our season/home opener to the worst team in 2016-17 (Colorado), of all teams? Sure. While this team’s proven it’s ready for the regular season now they have to take that next step and show they can take a step or two forward in the regular season. This division’s still going to be a tough nut to crack, especially in the head-to-head games. And clearly the fans don’t believe yet with thousands of tickets still available for next Saturday afternoon’s home opener.
Speaking of the opener being a week away, I really don’t get the ten day layoff between the last preseason game on Wednesday and the opener next Saturday. This is an NFL-like delay between the end of exhibition games and the start of the regular season. I hope this team will be able to keep the edge they showed preseason during what amounts to a bye week plus. Only having gone to the Prudential Center once during preseason for the very first game I’m anxious to get back there, especially once the giant new scoreboard is finished. While the 2 PM start is weird, at least I don’t have to eat at the arena and can get home in time for dinner, although it’ll be a late dinner if the preseason whistle-happy refs show up for the regular season!
Although I was admittedly a bit blase about hockey returning when camp opened given recent results and the fact this looked like a rebuilding year, the Devils’ strong performance in camp coupled with my other sports teams being a dumpster fire along with all the nonsense going on outside of sports (and bleeding its way into sports) has upped my anticipation for October 4. Not to mention a new fantasy league I’m in where I was able to select every single Devil prospect of consequence for my farm – aside from Butcher – and drafted a strong team around them. I’m also in another fantasy hockey draft tomorrow night, my long-time league where I finally got back over the hump to win a title last year. Maybe I’ll do my own fantasy post next week during the long interim for the heck of it although the actual season does start Wednesday.