The Devils have gotten shocking, and shockingly sustainable, production from their first line. But Adam Henrique’s injury puts it all in peril.
The mood was solemn in the road dressing room Tuesday night after the visiting New Jersey Devils fell to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a shootout at the Air Canada Center. It wasn’t so much the defeat, as the Devils earned a point, but more the concern over Adam Henrique. The Devils’ first-line center sustained a lower-body injury on a collision with Leaf netminder Garret Sparks in the second period.
It’s too early to know how serious Henrique’s injury is. What I do know is (a) Henrique wasn’t available for comment after the game and (b) his right winger, Lee Stempniak, was available, and Stempniak was limping around the room with a massive ice pack on his ankle. He seemed to be in pain, and he was deemed fine to meet the media. What does that tell us about Henrique’s condition? Maybe nothing but maybe a lot.
The Devils have already been without their other top center, Travis Zajac, for three games as he nurses a mysterious upper-body injury. Henrique’s malady is thus a huge concern. Well, theoretically.
“Concern is the wrong word,” said Mike Cammalleri, Henrique’s left winger. “We’ll figure it out. We’ve been a competitive team all season for the right reason: because we’ve been a group. This game’s never about one or two guys. We love and appreciate those guys, but we’ll do it without them.”
It’s an interesting comment from Cammalleri, firstly because it sounds as if he expects Zajac and Henrique to miss significant time, and secondly because Cammalleri should be concerned, especially about Henrique, given how dominant the Devils’ first line has been.
Cammalleri is 33. His prime is over. Yet here he is, not only looking as healthy as he has in years, but also on pace for his best season yet. His 11 goals and 30 points pro-rate to 32 goals and 88 points, the latter of which would best his career high by six. Cammalleri pointed out that he’s a two-time 80-point guy when I asked him about it, so in that sense his 2015-16 isn’t totally random, but it’s even more impressive considering Cammalleri’s 82-point season came in 2008-09, when he was 26. He hasn’t topped 68 games or 50 points in a season since. His shooting percentage of 14.1 this season is close enough to his career mark of 12.6 to tell us he’s not lucky. Something legitimately special seems to be happening. Cammalleri says he feels better and better physically now that he works with trainer Matt Nichol every summer, but that still doesn’t explain the surge. What might explain it is the chemistry Cammalleri has struck with Henrique and Stempniak.
“Adam’s playing great,” Stempniak said.”He plays a strong two-way game, and he’s scoring a lot of goals, and he’s just a really smart player. Mike’s the same player he’s always been. He’s got great offensive instincts. If you give him the puck, there’s very good chance it’s going in the net. He’s got a great shot, great release, knows how to get open. And for me it’s just trying to complement those guys. It’s getting in on the forecheck, using my speed, creating the opportunity to shoot the puck.”
Stempniak, whose 22 points in 28 games put him on track for a career high of his own, believes he’s succeeding because of the team he chose to sign with. He knew the Devils would give him an opportunity to play a significant top-six role, and he finds he’s playing less hesitant hockey, trusting his instincts an allowing himself to take chances and make skill plays.
He thinks the top line works so well together because their abilities are interchangeable. And the bond was especially easy for Cammalleri and Stempniak because they were already great friends dating back to their time in Calgary, where they overlapped from 2011-12 to 2013-14. They spent a lot of time hanging out off the ice and having dinners together.
“There’s some give and take in terms of joking around, but we’re both, when it comes to hockey, really serious,” Stempniak said. “There’s some of that relaxing, jerking around in practice and before games, but we try to talk a lot. We’ll watch video, try and point things out, and for us it’s very constructive. It’s not, if you make a mistake or if you’re open and don’t see someone, you point it out. It’s not malicious. And that’s been helpful for us. It’s gotten better as we’ve gone along.”
That line’s prowess, not to mention Cory Schneider’s brilliant goaltending, have helped the Devils go 14-10-4, good enough to occupy a wild-card playoff spot a third of the way through the season. Not bad for a team many people, including us at THN, predicted to compete for the lottery.
“The expectation thing hasn’t mattered much to us,” Cammalleri said. “You find motivation different places maybe, but for me, personally, Vegas is built out of marble because a lot of people bet on sports. So I don’t really put much into that.”
Henrique’s team-high 13 goals will be awfully hard to replace, though. If he and Zajac don’t return soon, anyone who bet against the Devils before the season started might get the last laugh.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin