While admittedly part of me is annoyed that I haven’t been able to watch or attend as many of these first ten games as I’d have liked to (for various reasons), part of me is also finally starting to be hopeful that…maybe this is just the beginning? To be clear, I know all too well this franchise’s recent history – their 6-3-2 start in the post-COVID shortened season followed by a crash and burn, along with last year’s 7-3-2 start followed by a similar crash and burn. And other than the Caps who we got clowned by, and an injury-plagued Colorado team, the Devils’ schedule this year in their 7-3 start has been Gonzaga college basketball type soft…one patsy after another.
And yet…it’s one thing to merely beat bad teams – but it’s another to completely eviscerate them as the Devils have done throughout their most recent winning streak, scoring a combined nineteen goals against Detroit, Colorado, Columbus and Vancouver – which includes the 1-0 shutout against the Avs. So in the other three games the Devils ‘averaged’ six goals a game, a seemingly unheard of run of scoring in franchise history. Most of my skepticism over the first few games of the season where the metrics weren’t resulting in goals has been swatted away with the force of a Scott Stevens bodycheck.
It’s not just the Devils scoring that gives fans reason for hope going forward though, in fact you have to give perhaps even more credit to our stifling defense, which has allowed only 21.8 shots per game (an NHL low) through ten contests. In comparison, the Devils allowed 30.98 shots per game last year. If you were going to list the differences between last year and this year so far it’s hard to rank them, but I’d say perhaps changing over the staff and simplifying their ‘unique’ system a little bit has helped. Also you have to credit GM Tom Fitzgerald for his adds of John Marino and – to a lesser degree – Brendan Smith to the blueline. Marino in particular, has been a revelation although you could argue maybe he shouldn’t have been given his icetime this year was remarkably similar to his last two seasons in Pittsburgh at just under 21 minutes a night, but his impact and adding another reliable d-man to the top four can’t be overstated. You also have to say good health is factoring in too, specifically with Dougie Hamilton who was never the same last year after multiple injuries in January derailed his season. Now he’s once again become the top-pairing defenseman that everyone expected him to be.
Perhaps the best part about our D is that three of our top four (Hamilton, Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler) are locked up for quite a few seasons after this, and our top two prospects in Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes should both shore up the blueline long-term even more, ideally starting next season. While Fitzy clearly put us in good position with the D, the goaltending was a question mark for the third straight season. However, this is starting to look like it’s not going to be a rerun of the previous two. Indeed, both Vitek Vanecek and Mackenzie Blackwood have been solid in the last eight games after a rocky beginning for both in the first week of the season. Of the two, Vanecek has more financial security – having inked a three-year extension soon after the Devils traded for him this offseason, but clearly Blackwood is still in the team’s immediate plans as well given the fact he started last night’s game in Vancouver after Vanecek won three start in a row. Heck, even Jonathan Bernier returned to practice last week, so who knows what happens with him. At least they won’t have to go through cap gymnastics if he is ready to return soon, although the roster gymnastics with three goalies would be interesting, especially given both starting goalies each have three-game winning streaks to their name on the young season.
Unfortunately the reason we won’t have to go through cap gymnastics with Bernier has to do with the recent groin injury to Ondrej Palat, which has put him on the IL for an indeterminate length of time (likely at least weeks, if not months). If the Devils can survive the next few weeks without Palat though, maybe it’ll prove to be a blessing to miss some time in the long run after all the games he’s played the last three years in deep playoff runs for Tampa. Of course, that’s still a big if – the Devils aren’t yet in a position where they can take anything for granted, despite the at least temporary nirvana that’s resulted from seeing New Jersey on top of the Metro standings this late in the season for the first time since probably 2017, when the Devils 9-2 start helped lead the franchise to their one and only playoff berth since their trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012. Palat’s already missed all the games in this recent stretch, so as impactful as he was starting to become maybe this team’s forward corps is deep enough to sustain even that kind of a loss.
If the Devils’ defensive shot total has been impressive so far, their offensive shot total of 39.1 per game over the first ten is almost unheard of, especially for this team. Everyone who you would want contributing to the start of the season has, starting with Jesper Bratt, whose 16 points in ten games jump off the page even with franchise cornerstones Jack Hughes (ten points) and Nico Hischier (nine points in nine games) off to fine starts themselves. To say Bratt is pulling an Aaron Judge in betting on himself with a one-year deal isn’t completely accurate though there are some similarities. For one, he’s not a UFA until after next season – although everyone knows another big year will probably see him get his big extension either here, or somewhere else if he’s obstinate. And there’s probably no league record Bratt is going to set this year, though a team record for points isn’t exactly out of the question right now. Maybe a Mitchell Marner deal isn’t exactly out of the question if Bratt has that kind of year.
Of course his contract is still next offseason’s problem barring an in-season extension…for the time being, the Devils’ big three of Bratt, Hughes and Nico have finally all been healthy and living up to expectations at the same time and the resulting offensive explosion has been the product of that. Not surprisingly, Hamilton also leads the blueline in scoring with seven points in ten games, which is good enough for fourth on the team behind the big three. That old adage of the best players needing to be the best players has so far proven true for this Devils team, although they clearly have other contributors as well. Dawson Mercer and Yegor Sharangovich have rounded out our top six nicely with six points apiece in their first ten games, and a combined seven goals while Palat had three goals of his own in his six games before going on the shelf. While Erik Haula hasn’t produced offensively yet in a middle six role, his all-around game has lengthened the lineup and his faceoff prowess is the biggest reason the team has gone from poor at the dot to one of the best teams in the league at it.
Finally, you have to give a tip of the cap to coaching. Given the results, you can’t really argue with many of Lindy Ruff’s decisions so far starting with the surprising decision to roll with Blackwood last night (though given his career record against the Canucks maybe it wasn’t that surprising), as well as the controversial 11-7 lineup during the team’s first three-game winning streak. Our special teams and D have been improved, so you have to give everyone including the new assistants credit for that. You also have to give coach Ruff props for his classy response when asked about the fans booing during the first few games of the season. Whatever my issues with his record or his coaching since going behind the bench as a Devil – as a person he gets it and always has, for lack of a better term. Which is why it was tough for me to criticize him not that long ago. Just look at this quote about having a certain assistant coach speak to the team before Ken Daneyko was honored for forty years as Devil last Sunday:
While this team still has a ways to go to even think about championships, it’s nice to see some evidence of a substantive turnaround perhaps, at long last.