Pressure is already mounting for John Hynes only six games into the Devils season. AP Photo by Fred Kfoury III via Getty Images
When they won the lottery and selected Jack Hughes first overall last June, there was plenty of excitement surrounding the New Jersey Devils. Landing the 18-year old top rated American center was a home run for a franchise that struggled mightily in ’18-19.
Hughes is the kind of kid who can dramatically improve a team. He has terrific speed, vision and scoring instincts. The season is only six games old. It hasn’t gone well so far. He’s without a point despite having some close calls. He’s getting closer to his first career milestone. Something Rangers second pick Kaapo Kakko did this past Saturday in a loss. They’ll face off tomorrow in Newark.
This isn’t Kakko versus Hughes. Something the Rangers rookie right wing reminded reporters. It’s the Rangers against the Devils. The latest installment of the Hudson Rivalry. A epic battle between bitter rivals with the Holland Tunnel separating them. It used to be the Lincoln Tunnel. But the Devils play in Newark at The Prudential Center. The site of Thursday’s first meeting.
While the schedule has been ridiculously light for the Rangers, the Devils have played six times. They still are without a win. Something that eluded them in the season opener on home ice. A game they led 4-0 became a gut wrenching 5-4 shootout loss to Winnipeg. It was a harbinger of things to come. Recently, they blew a 4-1 lead on Columbus Day in a jaw dropping 6-4 home loss to the Panthers. They were greeted with boos off the ice.
That defeat dropped them to 0-4-2. They’re in last place overall with two points. That’s tied with the Wild and Senators for the least. But at least Minnesota and Ottawa have wins. The Devils are at rock bottom ranking 31st. They’ve been outscored 29-13. The worst differential so far.
Alright. Not much has gone right. However, it’s only six games out of 82. Last year, they started much differently by winning their first four before becoming one of the NHL’s worst teams. That’s just some perspective for panicked New Jersey fans. Even the best teams can get off to bad starts. However, let’s not compare this team to the Stanley Cup winning Blues, who celebrated the franchise’s first ever championship by visiting the White House on Tuesday.
Rebuilding teams take longer. I’m not suggesting the Devils are in a total rebuild. Not when GM Ray Shero acquired former Norris winner PK Subban to help the defense. He also took a risk by signing former KHL star Nikita Gusev after acquiring the Russian forward from Vegas. The results have been mixed with Gusev scoring two goals and one in the shootout. However, he’s not playing top six minutes. The NHL is an adjustment for him.
Which brings us to coach John Hynes. A nice guy, who has guided the Devils to one postseason since Shero brought him in a few years ago. Granted. Those were bad teams. In ’17-18, Taylor Hall carried the team to their first postseason since they played for the Stanley Cup in 2012. He deservingly won the Hart Trophy as league MVP to become the first Devil to do so. However, they were quickly eliminated by the high powered Lightning in the first round.
That team had a good top line centered by then rookie Nico Hischier, who also went first overall to the Devils. He’s a good two-way player that can be trusted in any situation. However, Hischier still hasn’t reached his full potential. But he’s already proven a capable center, who can play in the top six. It’s easy to forget he’s only 20. With two assists in six games, he just eclipsed 100 points. He’s 37-64-101 over 157 games. The only way to go is up.
Right now, it’s Hischier centering the familiar first line with Hall and Kyle Palmieri. The trio have good chemistry, but haven’t found their stride yet. Most importantly, Hall is in a contract year. He only has one goal with four assists. They need more goal production from him and Palmieri, who’s at two. If the team continues to struggle, that could make it tough convincing Hall to stay. He is going to be an attractive free agent that should draw considerable interest given his age (28 on Nov. 14) and talent. If he ignores the rumors from annoying media, he should do well. That could mean a huge payday in estimation of $12 million AAV over the long-term.
At the moment, the Devils have plenty of issues. They’re very easy to play against due to not always making it hard for opponents defensively. Former Hall of Fame captain Scott Stevens said as such along with ’03 Cup hero Mike Rupp on NHL Network following Monday’s debacle. Stevens said there should be a lot of soul searching. Both he and Rupp pointed the finger directly at the players instead of the coach, who’s clearly on the hot seat. So much so that fake Twitter accounts were tweeting his demise, which sadly many people believed. They didn’t look for a blue check mark to make sure they were verified. Oops.
When you’re struggling as badly as they are, it will just increase the scrutiny. Hynes is in his fifth year behind the bench. There are increased expectations due to the additions of Hughes, Subban and Wayne Simmonds, who is without a goal. Subban has struggled defensively having been caught out for quite a few goals against. He acknowledged that he must improve his play along with the team. He also went out of his way to defend the coaching staff.
The thing is even if you’re an outsider like me watching from the opposite side of a unique rivalry, some of the lineup decisions have been puzzling. With Hughes struggling defensively, Hynes decided to slide him down to the third line to ease responsibilities. A center has more to learn. Hughes will in due time. It’s hard to understand having Travis Zajac as your second center. Sure. He’s been a staple and by all means is a good all around player that remains a top penalty killer along with shorthanded threat Blake Coleman. But at this stage of his career, he can’t be asked to fill that role.
They should let Hughes learn on the job. Due to Hischier leaving the game the other day, he got to play with Hall and Palmieri. A good experience that we could see more of. While Hynes figures out where Jesper Bratt fits along with Gusev, Miles Wood looks like a fourth liner instead of a top nine forward. If he didn’t take so many undisciplined penalties and buried some chances, it would be different. He’s a frustrating player.
The blueline is weakened without veteran captain Andy Greene. On the injured list, that’s forced the coaching staff to play both Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller. Not exactly the plan. Sami Vatanen has probably been their best D so far. He just needs to stay healthy. Damon Severson has the capability to be more than he is, but he struggles with inconsistency defensively. Will Butcher has the skating and offensive instincts to get back to producing as he did in ’17-18. But he’s still developing.
So, where are the Devils? They certainly haven’t made it easy on Cory Schneider, who’s already left a game trying to make a stretch save due to a cramp. He’s got over a 4.00 GAA and .876 save percentage in four games. The sad part is it could be worse if not for some of the tough saves he’s had to make.
Mackenzie Blackwood is struggling badly in his second season. The numbers are ugly. Not worth mentioning. That’s what happens when you play on a team that doesn’t look committed to winning. Have they tuned out coach Hynes? Every coach has an expiration date. There’s also this development.
This looks like something the Rangers once did when they were awful. Tom Fitzgerald is the assistant GM. Now, they’re asking him to be on the bench next to Hynes? This reflects poorly on the organization. So, Hynes needs a watchdog this early in the season. Holy moly.
It might be early. But these aren’t your father’s Devils, who once won three Cups. Something must change soon.