When the New Jersey Devils showed up for the first day of training camp this season, they didn’t do so with the goal of having the third-best winning percentage in the NHL in mid-November. The certainly didn’t set a goal of being the top team in the serving of scrambled eggs that is the Metropolitan Division, but that’s exactly what has happened.
The losses had really started to pile up and the Devils were getting a little ornery about it. It had seemed like forever – and in hockey five years pretty much is forever – since their Stanley Cup final run. Five years out of the playoffs and a lot of bad hockey had GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes asking the veterans, almost to a man, in their exit interviews, “Look, aren’t you getting tired of this crap?”
Fast-forward seven months later and the Devils look like a new organization, one that’s built on speed and skill, one that can get down 4-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks and come back and put up five straight goals to win a game. There’s a lot of optimism fuelled by young players such as Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher and, suddenly, everyone is having fun coming to the rink again.
“Starting into training camp it was never about what our record was going to be,” Hynes said. “We had a pretty simple mission statement. We had to become a tougher team to play against, we had to have a clear identity and we had to earn respect back in the league and be a competitive team. I’ve been here three years and this was the most focused, intense training camp we’ve had and the results follow from that.”
Much of that identity the Devils have forged for themselves is based on team speed. The Devils are fast. They move the puck quickly, they pass it off and get it back with speed and they come out of their own end with some serious horsepower. One of the reasons for that is the emergence of college free agent Will Butcher, an undersized defenseman who might as well have the name ‘Rafalski’ stitched on the back of his sweater. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder from the University of Denver thinks the game on a high level and is adept at getting the puck up quickly to the Devils speedy forwards. People thought Butcher might be pretty good, but nobody saw this coming.
“He was, and always has been, a really good offensive defenseman,” Hynes said of Butcher. “But if you watch our last few games, he’s played a lot of 5-on-5 and his game has gotten better and better. He has a lot of points (13 assists in 17 games), but he’s going to be a real strong player. He’s not just a specialist.”
It will be really interesting to see how veteran center Travis Zajac incorporates himself into this lineup. When he was injured in training and required surgery on his pectoral muscle in August, Zajac was expected to be out four-to-six months, but will make his debut tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs, just three months after his surgery. Zajac has always been counted on to provide offense because the ranks of the Devils have been so thin, but now Zajac comes to a team where he can concentrate on what he does best – playing a strong two-way game and giving a young team a defensive conscience.
“He’s a valuable piece on both sides of the puck and the way that he can play defensively, he pushes everyone down a peg,” said Devils winger Taylor Hall. “He takes a lot of responsibility that way.”
It’s easy to say you want to increase the tempo and play a fast game, but it’s another to have the players who can play that way. The Devils have that now and when they don’t play to their identity, they’re usually pretty quick to recognize it and make adjustments. A good example was their 7-5 win over the Blackhawks Sunday afternoon. The Devils started the game by reverting to their old ways and simply were not competitive enough. By the time Miles Wood scored to get them within 4-2, there were still two periods for them to turn their game around.
“When we get away from our game at times, this year we’ve done a really good job of being able to stop that and get back to our game, whereas in years past it seemed to linger that way and snowball,” said Devils winger Adam Henrique. “With the guys in the room now, it just seems like we’re a smarter bunch.”
Smarter, but faster and far more competitive, according to the man behind the bench. “Last couple of years we didn’t have enough,” Hynes said. “This league is so hard to win every night. You can be fast, but if you’re fast and not competitive, it’s not of good. I think it’s the combination of speed and competitiveness that has helped us be able to have some success here.”
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