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Devil of a surprise: Gibbons emerges as scoring threat in New Jersey

The New Jersey Devils' Brian Gibbons is one of the most surprising stories in the early going of the 2017-18 NHL season.

At 29 years old and a veteran of more than 300 AHL games, it only makes sense Brian Gibbons was approached about the possibility of taking his game overseas. After all, he was coming off the best season of his career in the AHL, a 16-goal, 36-point campaign with the Albany Devils, and, after spending the entirety of the past two seasons in the minors, no one would have thought twice had Gibbons taken his shot at an opportunity across the pond.

To hear Gibbons tell it, though, playing in Switzerland, Sweden, Finland or Russia never really crossed his mind. He’d listen, of course, and he understood that his skill set as a speedy, diminutive forward might be a fit in one of Europe’s top leagues, but he never really considered leaving North America in search of greener pastures. Instead, his focus was on battling his back into the NHL for the first time since a 25-game stint in 2014-15 with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“That’s always the goal and has always been the goal for me. I’ve never really lost faith in it,” Gibbons said. “Sometimes it’s been harder than others, but last year I really enjoyed my time (with Albany). It got me refocused and reenergized to try to make it back up here.”

And “make it back up here” he has. Signed by the New Jersey Devils on July 1 to a one-year, two-way deal worth $650,000 in the NHL and about a quarter of that in the AHL, Gibbons turned some heads in the pre-season with his quickness, his acumen on the penalty kill and his ability to chip in offensively, enough that he was brought into the lineup for opening night and he hasn’t looked back. In fact, Gibbons is one of the most surprising stories in the early stages of the 2017-18 NHL season.

With eight goals in 17 games, three more than his previous career-high of five in 41 games with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2013-14, Gibbons has become somewhat of a scoring sensation in New Jersey to start the campaign. In his first six games, he had three goals and five points and he hasn’t slowed down, putting his name among the league’s top goal-scorers. At this point, the list of players he’s scored more goals than is remarkable, and includes, among others, Evgeni Malkin, Johnny Gaudreau, Max Pacioretty and Brandon Saad. If Gibbons were to continue at this rate, he'd easily be a 30-goal player at season's end. That's not to mention that there is presently no better value contract when it comes to price per goal. But asked what he believes is helping him put up already career-best NHL point totals, Gibbons only points to the same things that got him back to the NHL in the first place.

“I just try to play a consistent game from shift to shift and do the right things on the ice. I work hard defensively and earn some ice time, and once you get some ice time you’re able to try to make some plays or get more chances offensively with that,” Gibbons said. “I’ve been fortunate to play with some good players, even on the penalty kill a lot with (Adam) Henrique. We create some chances there, too.”

With what Gibbons has been able to accomplish, though, it’s difficult not to draw some parallels between he and Paul Byron, another small, speedy winger who battled his way to a full-time spot and a breakout season.

Byron potted 22 goals for the Canadiens in 2016-17, doubling his previous career best, and was one of Montreal’s most consistent contributors, and Gibbons is seemingly cut from the same cloth. It’s believed Byron — who, like Gibbons, had a low shot volume and high shooting percentage — was able to consistently score because he was getting to good ares of the ice. Gibbons has done much the same this season. Comparing the two players’ individual metrics paints a picture of that. For instance, for every 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Byron averaged 8.3 shot attempts, 5.9 scoring chances and 3.8 high-danger attempts last season. While a much smaller sample size, Gibbons has similar rates with 9.9 shot attempts, 6.0 scoring chances and 2.7 high-danger attempts through the early part of this campaign.

It might be that Gibbons is simply creating because he’s playing straight-line hockey, not overthinking things with or without the puck, a benefit of playing with the Devils after spending last season with their farm team. It doesn’t hurt that he’s familiar with the coaching staff in New Jersey, either. Coming out of Boston College back in 2011-12, Gibbons landed with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and spent two-and-a-half seasons playing under now-Devils coach John Hynes and assistant Alain Nasreddine. 

“The more familiar you are with the systems and how things are run, the more comfortable you can be on the ice,” Gibbons said. “It allows you to play faster, not think too much, just react and trust your instincts. The more you know the system the faster you’ll be able to play.”

Speed has been key to not only Gibbons’ success but the success of the Devils overall, as well. But Gibbons also said what has allowed New Jersey to get off to such a hot start and unexpectedly leap to the top of the Metropolitan Division at this point in the campaign is they’re finding ways to win each night. Be it goaltending, offensive success or a power play that clicks at just the right time, the Devils keep defying expectations. That goes for Gibbons, too, but he says it’s not about the goals he’s scoring, it’s when those pucks are going in.

“The best part is that, for the most part, the goals have come in wins,” Gibbons said. “As a team we’ve been off to a good start and on a roll. To contribute to a winning team has definitely made it a lot better.”

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