Devils’ first half a smashing success

In a first half of the season where basically everything that you could have hoped went right for the Devils did, and then some…their come from behind win in Dallas last night to head into a nine-day break was a fitting coda before the All-Star break. Technically, the Devils already passed the ‘first half’ eight games ago – now being 49 games into an 82-game regular season – but there should be at least a few more playoff games so it’s closer to halfway through the season this year. In most recent seasons, the Devils’ season was already over in terms of having any playoff meaning so already this season has exceeded expectations, which were to hopefully challenge for a playoff spot.

After a 3-8-2 stretch from early December into early January, the Devils’ emotional comeback win over the Rangers at the Rock got them back to their winning ways and they head into the break on an 8-1-1 roll in their last ten games, with many of them insanely dramatic wins. During this stretch, the team had three separate two-goal comebacks – the aforementioned Rangers game, as well as in Carolina the game after along with last night – plus late game-tying goals against the Sharks and Vegas as well as the OT thriller over the Penguins. All of that provided more than enough excitement for a normal January month of hockey and likely a preview over what to expect in April.

It’s almost like we’ve experienced three or four seasons already – the 0-2 start where the team was getting booed and the coach was getting ‘Fire Lindy!’ chants already seems like a distant memory but even with those first two games included, the Devils’ 21-2-1 stretch immediately after still ensured an insanely good 21-4-1 record after a third of the season. Our growing pains in December gave way to some growing up in January, as an organization that has been finding ways to lose for years is now finding ways to win. Now just two points back of the first-place Hurricanes and thirteen points up on the ninth-seeded Sabres, the question is more about what happens when we get to the playoffs, as opposed to if.

Our position in the standings certainly will influence what GM Tom Fitzgerald does at the deadline. Being on the playoff bubble with a young team would make it nearly impossible to justify going all-in, but challenging for the division lead and a 100+ point season, with solid players everywhere and a guy who’s going to get Hart votes in Jack Hughes suggests this team could be more ready than originally thought. Considering there are no real behemoth teams in either conference this year other than Boston – who the Devils likely wouldn’t face until the Eastern Conference Finals – that also makes it a bit more tempting to try and accelerate our timetable even more. And why not…eventually all contenders are going to need a big move or two to help put it over the top no matter how many home-grown players you have.

It’s also fairly easy to pinpoint where this team needs help – another legit top six winger, and some more depth up front and on the blueline. At least health isn’t an issue for the moment, although defenseman John Marino’s been out over a month with a reported shoulder injury, word is he should come back after the break and after the return of wingers Nathan Bastian and Ondrej Palat earlier this month they should be icing their optimum lineup by early February. Despite the team’s recent winning, they clearly miss Marino on the back end with both Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotyuk showing they’re not really ready for primetime, and veteran Brendan Smith being asked to do too much. Still, it’s not likely the Devils make a major move for a defenseman – especially since it’s all but certain Luke Hughes will get at least a few games with the big club after his college season ends, which could provide an opportunity for important minutes in April.

Conversely, with the team’s playoff position they likely won’t be trading UFA defensemen to be Damon Severson or Ryan Graves. Nor do they seem to be in a hurry to extend either, given that Hughes and #2 overall pick Simon Nemec both aren’t far from contributing at the NHL level. New Jersey is uniquely set up well for both the near term and the long term on the blueline, adding Hughes and Nemec to a set group of Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler and Marino…what a change for when we were counting on a home-grown D of Severson, Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Steven Santini! Although Larsson’s having a nice second season in Seattle after his stint in Edmonton, Severson turned out the best of the bunch and even he’s only a top second-pair defenseman at most.

It also doesn’t seem likely they’ll make a move in goal this year, thankfully. Vitek Vanecek has given the Devils arguably their best goaltending since Martin Brodeur was still playing at a relatively high level in the team’s 2012 playoff run, and he heads into the break on a personal nine-game winning streak, the most in Devils history by any goaltender not named Brodeur. If it wasn’t for Hughes (or even Hamilton, who’s put up an impressive 47 points in 49 games from the blueline – including a lot of heroics this week), Vanecek would get some serious consideration for team MVP. It’s far less of a stretch to say he was the most important acquisition this offseason, even including Marino in the mix after he’s broken out to be a legit top-pairing defenseman.

After the Devils’ goaltending woes last year, Vanecek has provided much-needed stability to the revolving door in net with a 21-5-2 record, a 2.29 GAA, .917 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. Even backup Mackenzie Blackwood and rookie Akira Schimid have both had highlight moments this year but clearly Vanecek’s been the man in net and should be for the foreseeable future. My only concern with him is the workload – his high in starts for any season (AHL or NHL) was 39 last year, and he’s already at 29 this year, so he should clear 50 easily – starting at least twenty-one games out of thirty-five remaining is a fair estimate – before we even get to the playoffs. Thankfully it seems like Blackwood’s at least healthy enough to play this year although most of his starts have been high-event as the team – and his shoddy rebound control – have allowed a lot of extra shots, and goals. Still, with the team not in any realistic danger of missing the postseason, coach Lindy Ruff can deploy his goalies how he sees fit with a long-term view.

Now we get to the forwards, and it really shouldn’t have been this long in the blog before I discuss Hughes possibly having the best season by any Devil skater ever, and that includes Taylor Hall in his MVP year, Patrik Elias in his 96-point season and whoever else you want to throw in – maybe Brian Gionta’s 48-goal, 89-point season after the lockout or some other Devils of an earlier era like John MacLean and his multiple 40-goal seasons. Even in a live(lier) puck era, Hughes having 64 points in 49 games is beyond eye-opening, including 33-goals, which puts him in prime position to smash both Gionta’s goals record for a season and Elias’s points record…and he’ll still be 21 years old for the rest of the regular season. After being shelved through the All-Star break last year, Hughes will get to take his talents to South Beach for the celebrity classic this year.

There really is nothing left to say about Hughes at this point, we’re all lucky to have him – and locked up long-term to boot – and he’s certainly lived up to a #1 overall pick expectations. Just like the Devils as a team went into the break on a fitting high, so did Hughes individually as his two goals once again led the team to victory in a tough game at Dallas. Although Hughes has deserved all the accolades, Nico and Jesper Bratt haven’t exactly been slouches this year with Nico adding in 21 goals and 46 points in 48 games, while Bratt has 19 goals and 50 points in 49 games.

Certainly, the Devils could use a little more help for the big three though. Palat returning after a long injury absence helps but still, do the Devils really expect Hughes to continue to be a one-man show when the playoffs start and he’s got Erik Haula (four goals in 49 games) stapled to his line because of faceoffs? Hughes’s best winger so far has basically been Hamilton, who he’s combined with on a lot of heroics – specifically the game-ending assist against the Penguins a few days ago.

Given that Fitz publicly tried to acquire both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Thachuk this offseason, he knows the team could still use one more legit threat in the top six – hence the Timo Meier rumors which are heating up. Meier would be perfect, especially being a Swiss compatriot to Nico and Siegenthaler, but it’s unlikely that we’d acquire him without a long-term agreement in place. Whether the player wants to sign – and whether the Sharks find a deal from us worth taking – is another story.

If the Devils made any truly big move this deadline it’d be in that ilk for a top six forward. Otherwise it’ll probably be similar to 2018 and just do some depth hunting. There certainly shouldn’t be a coaching change at this point, as Lindy Ruff has more than earned the chance to ride it out with this team. Even if he’s still on a lame-duck contract with no talks of an extension yet.

In any case, this group has earned their long break – well all but Hughes who’s certainly earned his time in the spotlight and then some. Hopefully rest and health will have this team firing on all cylinders after they get back on the ice. For all the team’s winning lately, there’ve been holes in the overall performance that have been covered up with goaltending, heart and stars giving star performance but with a healthy lineup maybe the Devils can even step their play up another notch closer to the level they were at during the season-defining thirteen-game winning streak.

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