It’s been quite some time since the Devils were good. Most of the names on the backs of the jerseys have changed since the ‘11-12 run to the Stanley Cup Final. Only captain Andy Greene remains. Long gone are Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise along with David Clarkson’s NHL career. Former coach Pete DeBoer has since guided the Sharks to a Stanley Cup appearance also losing. He’s still in San Jose.
These days, the Devils are coached by third-year man John Hynes. Martin Brodeur has since had his Number 30 retired and moved onto a management role with the Blues. Patrik Elias will have his number 26 retired in what’s turning out to be a promising season.
As Hasan has documented, every time it looks like the Devils are about to go into a slump, they respond. They have something special going. With a hard fought 4-3 overtime win at Detroit, they won their second straight to move back into first place in the Metro Division. Sure. They blew a 3-1 lead. But once again, their resilience paid off. Unsung hero Brian Gibbons scored his team-leading 11th at 2:32 of OT to improve New Jersey to 14-5-4 through the first 23 games. They lead a crowded division with 32 points. One up on idle Columbus with the Islanders and Capitals also winning to stay right behind. The Pens leapfrogged the idle Rangers with a badly needed win over NHL leader Tampa. Updating the story, the Devils remain in first due to Columbus losing Monday night despite a home loss to the Panthers.
The race should be fun to follow all year long. The Devils are proof that anything can happen. Written off by many due to a rebuild featuring first overall pick Nico Hischier along with first-year players Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher, they’ve proven to be much better than expected. The dynamic rookie trio advantage a big part of the Devils revival.
Butcher tops all freshmen defensemen with eighteen points (2-16-18) to rank fourth in rookie scoring. A smooth skater who is dangerous in transition, The Butcher has been especially good on the man-advantage putting up 10 power play points for over half his production. He plays on the third pair with Ben Lovejoy posting a solid plus-7 rating.
Hischier hasn’t finished as much as expected. But he’s quietly gaining steam. With a goal in a recent win, he’s up to four goals and 13 assists with his 17 points ranking fifth among rookies. As he continues to adjust, look for more progression from the gifted 18-year old playmaking pivot. Update: He scored his fifth on Monday in a 3-2 loss to Florida. That gives him 18 points.
Bratt was the biggest surprise in the first month. A former 2016 sixth round pick selected 162nd overall, the 19-year old Swede impressed in preseason enough to make the roster. He then got off to a hot start scoring big goals and proving to be a dependable penalty killer with a knack for scoring shorthanded. Though he’s cooled down, his 14 points (6-8-14) rank ninth among rookies. He notched his seventh goal last night. That gives New Jersey three young talented players who have a bright future.
With team speed improved along with depth, it’s allowed Hynes to balance out his lineup. They’ve gone from a anemic offense to one of the game’s best averaging 3.22 goals-per-game which ranks seventh.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is 29-year old veteran Gibbons. A player who’s bounced around having spent much time in the AHL, he made the team out of camp and has been clutch. His 11 goals lead the Devs. That included his overtime winner against the Red Wings. With 15 points and a team best plus-12 and two shorthanded goals, Gibbons has been a godsend. It’s a great story.
The story of proud vet Brian Boyle is one of perseverance. Diagnosed with Leukemia prior to the season, Boyle has returned with a vengeance. Always well respected by his peers and fans for his tenacious work, he now is the most popular player everyone is rooting for. Devils fans gave him a loud ovation for his first game back. There was a special moment where he scored and shed some tears as he celebrated with teammates along the boards.
It’s obviously been a whirlwind of emotions for the 32-year old big checking center. He’s scored three goals including a huge one on the Devils’ Hockey Fights Cancer night. The goal brought more cheers and a “Brian Boyle,” chant from supportive admirers who understand the ordeal he’s going through. He again was emotional talking to MSG’s Deb Placey about how much the overwhelming support meant. It really is touching. He’s a likable guy who I still root for even if he wears the Hudson rival jersey. I love him. The Rangers don’t advance to the Stanley Cup Final without him in 2014. It was his pass to Dominic Moore for the only goal in the clincher over Montreal. Still the best game I ever attended. We are all #BoyleStrong.
In order to be successful, your best players must be your best. For they Devils, Taylor Hall has rebounded with a much improved second year after coming over from the Oilers for Adam Larsson. While it’s been a struggle for Edmonton unlike last season, it’s been a role reversal with Hall leading the way with 26 points (8-18-26). In particular, his passing has been on full display with some excellent set ups for open teammates including Boyle for his third goal over the holiday weekend. Hall is scoring too. His eight goals place second on the club behind Gibbons. The 18 helpers pace all skaters. With Hall performing, it’s made everyone better.
They’ve gotten good contributions throughout the lineup with Miles Wood supplying six markers including his first career hat trick. He’s similar to David Clarkson in that he’s not the best skater, but is always around the net. That grit and hustle has paid off.
Hynes deserves credit for not being afraid to send messages. Henrique was in a November funk. So, the third-year coach put him on the fourth line. He responded well posting a goal and assist while earning a promotion in a win. The four goals is low but 14 points is alright in more of a supporting role. He kills penalties and is a shorthanded threat.
That the Devs have done this without Kyle Palmieri (4-5-9 in 13 GP) and Marcus Johansson (concussion) speaks volumes about the job Hynes has done along with the players. Every time they’re doubted, someone steps up.
They have also gotten solid goaltending from Cory Schneider. At times, he can still give up the odd goal but for the most part, has bounced back. There have been moments where he’s had to stand on his head. He’s come through with clutch saves to the tune of nine wins, a 2.76 GAA and .918 save percentage. Keith Kinkaid has won six games but in many cases, he’s gotten offensive support. He can play better.
Steven Santini has formed a solid top pair with Greene going up against quality competition. While Greene logs the tough minutes, Santini is the physical element the team has lacked in recent years. He delivers big hits and blocks shots. That’s taken some pressure off of Damon Severson, who is a better fit on the second pair with Moore.
Hynes has Zajac back. He hasn’t gotten on track offensively with no points in seven. But he remains a important cog due to his checking ability and face-offs. He also plays penalty kill. The elder statesman of the group, the younger Devs can look to him for leadership.
GM Ray Shero added vets Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes. Stafford still brings some scoring touch and skill. He plays in the top nine. After a good start, Hayes has fallen out of favor. He’s been a healthy scratch lately. He’ll have to earn his keep. Blake Coleman’s been a surprise as a solid fourth liner along with Stefan Noesen.
They’re still waiting on second-year center Pavel Zacha to find consistency. His assist of Hischier’s goal yesterday was only his sixth point. It’s about untapping his potential. Hynes has scratched him four tunes making the kid accountable. He knows he must be better.
Overall at 14-6-4, the Devils remain a great story. They play a exciting style and have good chemistry. It’ll be interesting to see if they can sustain it. They haven’t always been effective at even strength with the power play ranked in the top eight. But there’s no doubting the improvement. We’ll see if it continues.