For the Devils, today’s 3-1 loss to the Lightning in Tampa represents both an end and a beginning. Of course, the end being that today represents the last game the Devils will play until they open the 2018-19 season next October in Sweden. Yet, this game also represents a beginning in terms of what will be expected of this organization down the road. I as a fan can believe this is only the start of bigger and better times ahead (and I do), obviously if GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes have their way this team will be followed by a better, more mature outfit ready to build off of the strides this organization made during 2017-18. Hynes perfectly summed up what should be the mentality in a quote I saw just now…’we can be proud, but we can’t be satisfied’. I’m not up to talking about 2018-19 right now though and speculating about FA signings, departures, trades or what happens with the seventeenth overall draft pick. That can be saved for the actual start of the offseason once the Stanley Cup is awarded in June since it’s highly unlikely there’ll be major news before then coming out of Newark, plus today’s not about 2018-19 anyway.
I’m not doing a big recap of this afternoon’s game either. What’s to say, and what does it matter anymore? Many including me felt today was the eventual, inevitable result against a more talented, seasoned team, particularly once Sami Vatanen went down in Game 4. Of course we again weren’t helped by the one-sided refereeing which called a couple of very questionable penalties on us while not penalizing the Lightning for the same clutching and grabbing they couldn’t wait to put us in the box for…but I wasted all my rage on that in between yesterday’s blog and my griping watching this game with my friend at a bar uptown. At least this team went out on its shield and not with a whimper, though it was mostly due to the rejuvanated Cory Schneider who had by far his best game in 2018 this afternoon and at least gave me hope he could again be the caliber of goalie he’d been hyped up as in previous seasons. Plus once this team went down by two goals at last in the third period after bravely killing off penalty after penalty, they held true to their character not giving up and came back to score an empty netter, nearly tying the game after that.
I’d rather take this final blog of 2017-18 to salute a team that deserves thanks and appreciation for bringing pride back to the crest, not to mention the enjoyment back of watching Devils hockey after years of offensively challenged teams who had more drama off the ice than on it. Pretty much every member of the organization deserves a stick tap starting with Shero himself, who has tirelessly worked over the last three years to rebuild an organization that hit rock bottom and is the person singularly most responsible for the turnaround. From trading for guys like Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and Vatanen to improved drafting that brought in guys like Jesper Bratt (not to mention Nico over Nolan) and signing guys from college FA Will Butcher to Masterson nominee Brian Boyle, Shero’s fingerprints are all over this team. Starting with his hire at head coach Hynes, who was the leader this organization needed this season – holding guys accountable while at the same time showing patience and developing a younger core of players.
Of course the players themselves also deserve their just due. In goal it was a tale of two seasons for Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid. Without the latter’s 16-3-1 stretch drive run the Devils don’t make the playoffs. Without the former’s early season play they might not have had the cushion that sustained them through a long period of up and down play, before the season-saving stretch drive. If Kinkaid showed during the drive to the playoffs he can be a legitimate NHL goalie, then Cory got his chance to prove during the playoffs that he can still be the starter this team will need going forward.
Among the defensemen, it wasn’t always the easiest season for Andy Greene but he perservered through another campaign of handling tough matchups at age 35 and as one of the few Devils who had previously made the playoffs with this organization, this season had to give the captain a tremendous amount of satisfaction and pride. For Vatanen, many including me viewed him curiously when he arrived in the much-discussed trade for fan favorite Adam Henrique, but he won everyone’s respect by becoming a legit top-pairing D on both sides of the ice this franchise needed. Butcher had a tremendous season as a rookie and (like the organization as a whole) showed potential for still better things ahead. Though not always popular with fans given his stay-at-home style, Ben Lovejoy provided more vet leadership that a young D needed. For Mirco Mueller to come in cold down the stretch and play as well as he did in crucial games was vital.
Up front, it starts with Hall whose ascension from good player to star and Hart candidate this season was a joy to watch and he more than anyone on the ice deserved to feel a moment of accomplishment when he finally made the playoffs for the first time in his career. Hall’s 2017-18 season will go down among the great seasons in franchise history and the most fun I’ve had watching any single Devil since 2006 Patrik Elias in his spectacular comeback from hepatitis. Top overall pick Nico Hischier exceeded all reasonable expectations in his first NHL season as an 18-year old, playing every game and more than holding his own against the world’s best hockey players. Not just that but his demeanor and character show he’s a young man worth eventually being dubbed a franchise player. Palmieri fought through injuries all year and put up another solid season, showing once again he’s a legitimate first-line wing and character player whose recent long-term extension is well-deserved. For Travis Zajac (like Greene) it also had to be a tremendous satisfaction in being around for the full cycle of the rebuild after going through all the dark seasons here – and in Zajac’s case personally satisfying to rebound after an offseason injury and a frighteningly slow start, back to being the Travis of old in the second half of the season through the playoffs.
Fellow vet centerman Boyle provided a first-half jolt that compensated for not having Travis return to full strength till later on in the season, and also provided locker room leadership and emotional toughness tested in more ways than one on and off the ice this season for the likely Masterson winner. Also deserving of praise were role players like Brian Gibbons whose first half showed he can play in the NHL and gave us an early lift, Stefan Noesen who blossomed into a legit NHL contributor this season, and same thing for his fellow Plato, Texas native Blake Coleman who was one of the biggest surprises on a team full of them this year. Younger than any of them was Jesper Bratt, who dazzled in the fall – but like most 19-year olds eventually ran out of gas, though he saved one of his best games for his playoff debut this afternoon. Miles Wood also showed promise in his second year, though he became too tentative after his suspension he still clearly has the tools to be a part of the team’s future. Deadline arrival Patrick Maroon acclimated to the team surprisingly well and might be offered a deal to stay, depending on what both player and team want this summer. Finally, Marcus Johansson rebounded from a tough year physically and on the ice to return and showed flashes of being the player Shero traded for this offseason.
Even if today the season didn’t end the way many of us hoped for as a Devils fan, there are still a ton of happy memories that can be looked back on fondly this season (not even counting Elias retirement night which was spectacular on its own). Just to name a few:
- Opening afternoon against Colorado, where the team’s high-octane 4-1 win at the Rock was a harbinger for better things to come and helped power the 9-2 start to the season
- Hischier scoring his first two NHL goals in Ottawa, and against former juniors coach Guy Boucher in a wild 5-4 OT win
- New Jersey’s wild pre-Thanksgiving 7-5 comeback win over the Blackhawks in Chicago that portended two franchises going in vastly different directions this year
- Boyle scoring a poignant, key goal on Hockey Fights Cancer night the day after Thanksgiving in a 3-2 win over the Canucks
- Henrique’s return to the Rock which turned out right for everyone involved with the fan favorite getting a well-deserved standing ovation on his return (and a not-so-welcomed breakaway goal) while the home team got a 5-3 win
- Boyle again doing a star turn just before Christmas, scoring both the tying goal and shootout winner against the hated Rangers (and one of his former teams) in the middle of a five-game winning streak
- Hall being Hall, with one of his first big moments coming from an electric OT winner against the Caps in January that started momentum toward the MVP chants which beame a staple down the stretch at the Rock
- Kinkaid coming up big in a mid-February comeback win in a shootout at Philly to stop a four-game losing streak and begin a memorable trek from zero to hero
- Most importantly, our 10-2-1 stretch drive starting with that six-game do-or-die West Coast trip that might as well have been called a playoff month since just one more point dropped would have written a very different end for this Devils team
- Finally, winning a playoff game at the Rock in front of a raucous, sellout crowd which gave fans and players alike both a taste of what went on here in the past and what can happen here again in the future
In short, there are many things to be thankful for as a Devils fan and many reasons to be hopeful for better times ahead. For now I’ll just salute one and all, the 2017-18 Devils, a team to be proud of.