First quarter of Devils season a success, but many obstacles still ahead

On the morning of Thanksgiving, it’s probably a good time to take a snapshot of the Devils’ season as a whole to this point.  Especially since with 21 games played, more than a quarter of the regular season’s in the books.  In a micro sense, the Devils’ play has been up and down since my last blog and not entirely commensurate with the results.  In Toronto, the team played better but Freddy Andersen got well against us after a bad start to the season, making 42 saves in a 1-0 OT shutout loss.  While in Winnipeg and Minnesota the team didn’t play very well, but still managed to win against the Wild thanks to some timely goal scoring early and another John Moore OT special (see his sixth OT winner as a Devil in barely over two seasons in the YT above), despite blowing a two-goal lead in the third period.  Last night against the Bruins the team played reasonably well but a couple of mistakes early and shootout futility after Taylor Hall – to the tune of ten straight misses – led to a defeat in the skills competition.

At least enough positive results have been there to keep the Devils at or near the top of a competitive Metro division (last night they finally dipped a point below the Blue Jackets but still have a game in hand), but there’s been a little slippage lately – going 3-3-4 in the last ten games.  Not to mention the worst news out of yesterday wasn’t even the stupid shootout or the first-period mistakes against the Bruins, but rather the revelation that Kyle Palmieri broke his foot in Minnesota and was gonna be out another 4-6 weeks after already missing eight games earlier in the season with various lower-body ailments.  Honestly this came as a little bit of a shock because well, he finished the game without missing a shift after the shot block that broke his foot.  For a team where depth is still an issue, this extended absence to their best player threatens to derail the good feeling of the first quarter of the season.

Granted, there is a lot of good to build on so far.  In his second season as a Devil, Taylor Hall’s all-around game has gotten better and he’s acting more like a leader on the team.  During the offseason apparently GM Ray Shero gave Hall a bit of a motivational talk, among other things discussed in this Sporting News piece on Shero which served as both a pep talk after Hall had another season of missing the playoffs (while his former team finally made it, and into the second round), and a ‘we need more out of you now’ speech.  As a former #1 overall pick, Hall’s also uniquely qualified to mentor current #1 overall Nico Hischier about handling the expectations and demands.  So far Nico’s been a bit ahead of the curve in almost every way possible as an eighteen-year old, with 15 points in 21 games and only taking three minor penalties, although in two straight games recently he took one in the opening minutes leading to this astonishing exchange with coach John Hynes:

For an eighteen-year old to have that kind of drive and accountability is mind-boggling.  That can only help change the culture.  And for his part, coach Hynes has done a good job in enforcing that culture, benching or demoting guys (sometimes both) who don’t live up to the higher standards that are being strived for this season.  Perhaps my main complaint is he’s left Pavel Zacha too deeply in the doghouse for too long – especially as talented players like Palmieri and Marcus Johansson are still on the shelf – but even Zacha himself acknowledged that he needs to be better in this comment before he returned to the lineup on Tuesday.

“I hope everyone is going to be able to see it, because I know exactly what to do,” Zacha said. “Even coming to the practices, talking to my agent and the coaches, I know exactly what to do. It’s much different in juniors. You can do basically whatever you want there. I was a top player there. If I had a bad practice, no one really cared. Here, you have to do it every practice, every game has to be great. Knowing what you have to do is a much bigger factor than a lower level of hockey, and I hope I’m going to be able to show it as soon as I can.”

Another example of how accountability is helping is Adam Henrique, who was in one of his usual funks through most of November – not only not scoring but going into full invisible man coasting mode.  While he got a bit more rope than the young Zacha (much to the consternation of the Internet complainers), coach Hynes did drop Henrique down a couple lines in practice last week, and finally the intensity switch got activated with four points in his last two games, also playing with the jam you need out of one of your supposed team leaders.

While he’s done a good job with the locker room, coach Hynes still makes some head-scratching personnel decisions that make you wonder why he tries to get too cute or too conservative for his own good – playing Zacha barely ten minutes with an injury-compromised lineup is one, throwing out various seven-D lineups before Mirco Mueller’s injury being another.  To add in an oddity although it didn’t matter last night with the way the shootout went, sending out Brian Boyle fourth was a weird choice and could have been costly if Cory Schneider wasn’t near heroic in the shootout making nine saves, before young defenseman Charlie McAvoy finally ended that water torture of a skills competition that gave me 2013-14 bad acid flashbacks.

Perhaps the dirty little secret on the team so far is they haven’t been as effective offensively since Boyle and Travis Zajac returned to the lineup.  Some of that’s coincidence, some is inevitable rust on both their games, a little is the inevitable team shooting percentage downturn that was bound to take place, but you do have to wonder how coach Hynes will balance out needing to play to the team’s strength (youth and speed), which they did during their 9-2 start – while still integrating these vets who can be important in a potential playoff push.  Of course even with the team’s great start it’s still premature to talk about a playoff push.  The next 20-30 games can change the equation and start to make you wonder again what we can get for guys like Moore, Drew Stafford and Brian Gibbons in a worst-case where we’re selling off at the deadline again.

Brian Gibbons?!  In a season of pleasant surprises, he’s been one of the biggest – going from AHL/NHL tweener and afterthought to an indispensable part of the team’s early play, scoring ten goals and posting a team-leading +13 despite mostly playing on the back six, though with the recent injuries he finally earned a promotion into the top six last night.  True to his early form, Gibbons would take advantage, tipping home a Damon Severson shot for his tenth goal of the season with just five minutes left in regulation to tie the game at two.  Is it possible Gibbons and fellow breakout Blake Coleman can be our new Madden and Pandolfo in the bottom six?  Ironically it’s Coleman who brings the Madden-type grit and intensity down the middle but with a Pandolfo scoring touch (ergo none), while Gibbons is like Madden in terms of being able to chip in offensively to this point.

While Gibbons and Coleman have come out of nowhere to make a name for themselves at age 29 and 25 respectively, it’s still the kids that have been the story of the season.  If Gibbons hasn’t been the biggest surprise of the season, 19-year old Jesper Bratt has been, going from sixth-round afterthought last year to an indispensable two-way player on the team this year, playing in all situations.  After a hot start, his production inevitably cooled for a bit, but last night his power play goal got the Devils on the board after an early 2-0 deficit threatened to derail the pre-Turkey Day return home.  Also making a name for himself as a rookie is Will Butcher, whose point production continues to be outstanding – 16 in 21 games, to be exact.  Butcher even scored his first NHL goal on the most recent road trip – then followed it up with another the next game, but his strength so far has been distributing the puck and quarterbacking the power play, as the fourteen assists show.  Other young defensemen like Mirco Mueller (before his horrific collarbone injury that’s laid him out for at least a couple months) and Steven Santini have also been improving through the course of the season.

Although the young d-men have improved they all still have a ways to go – Butcher being stranded in South Dakota last night while not taking his man or the pass in what turned into a two-on-one last night is one example – and the ‘vets’ (including Damon Severson at this point) still make too many WTF mistakes at this point themselves, but at least as whole the team D’s been a bit better since their run-and-gun shaky start to the season.  Goaltending is the only aspect of the team I haven’t really touched on yet, in part I really don’t know what to make of Cory Schneider right now.  He’s had his share of good games like last night, the shutout in Vancouver, holding the fort early in Minnesota – but he also has a knack for giving up soft or untimely goals (the game in Minnesota also being an example of this too, in the ultimate Jekyll-Hyde moment).  Despite a high GAA, his save percentage is slowly creeping back up towards .920 and this team’s gonna need Cory more than ever now with two key offensive cogs out of the lineup.  Backup Keith Kinkaid has also been shaky at times too, not as solid as he was last year.

In short as I close this Thanksgiving Day post, there is a lot to be thankful for as a Devils fan through these first two months.  I don’t want to focus on the ‘but, look at the challenges ahead’ part today.  That’ll come soon enough with a back-to-back the next two nights, at home against Vancouver tomorrow and at Detroit Saturday night.  Coupled with a home game against the Panthers on Monday there are still winnable games in the immediate future that this team needs to take advantage of before the schedule toughens up in December.

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