There have been several incredible team surprises in the NHL this season. The Vegas Golden Knights? Yes, quite surprising. Colorado good and Edmonton bad? Didn’t forecast that. In the East, the biggest positive surprise has been the New Jersey Devils, a team that looked to be in the wilderness last season, with little hope for improvement. Even in winning the No. 1 pick overall in the draft lottery, New Jersey appeared to be the runt of the Metropolitan Division, albeit one that now had Nico Hischier to at least inject some offensive excitement into the lineup.
But here we sit, midway through the season, with the Devils sitting in a playoff spot. Hischier has been pretty good for the squad, but a chorus of unexpected heroes have emerged in Newark to help the collective effort: Brian Boyle, Brian Gibbons and Jesper Bratt are all on pace for 20-goal seasons, while the team itself sits top-10 in the NHL in offense, power play and penalty killing (and the goals-against are top-15).
So what the heck happened over the summer? Well, everyone had a meeting – that’s what happened.
After a putrid 2016-17 campaign, the players met with GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes. There was some self-reflection on what had occurred.
“It was unacceptable,” Hynes said. “We thought we had a prideful group, but we didn’t play with any pushback.”
The feeling was pretty much universal. That gave Hynes hope, because it wasn’t only the old-guard veterans like Andy Greene and Travis Zajac who were angry over the embarrassment; it was also younger guys like Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. There was buy-in.
“We wanted to be a tough team to play against and bring back a level of respectability,” Hynes said. “We talked about being a brotherhood, something deeper than just teammates, and battling for each other. Those were the expectations.”
And those expectations applied to everybody, not just the holdovers from last season. When it came to free agency, the Devils had their guys like every other team, but they wanted to make it clear to eventual signees such as Boyle and fellow veteran Drew Stafford that their leadership and guidance in the room was just as valued as their on-ice contributions.
“We told them, ‘This is what we need,’ ” Hynes said. “We like you as a player, but there’s also things we’re going to need from you.”
Boyle in particular has proven to be a savvy signing. The towering shutdown center has already stared down cancer this season and is putting up some of the best offensive numbers in his career – depending on how the second half goes, he could very well post his best points total ever.
What is even more spiriting about Boyle is that he’s a great guy to have around in the playoffs – and it looks like the Devils may dance this year. Boyle has played 73 post-season matches in the past four seasons, more than even the core members of the Pittsburgh Penguins, so he’ll know what to do. But it’s also nice to think of Taylor Hall finally getting his shot at the Stanley Cup playoffs. Hall, of course, suffered through all the dysfunction in Edmonton only to get traded for Adam Larsson right before healthy Connor McDavid took over the league (for a year – let’s not talk about this year’s Oilers).
In the Metro, nothing is guaranteed right now. The Devils will still have to be very good in the second half in order to clinch a playoff spot, but at least they’re looking down instead of up in the standings. And if they can be that brotherhood that Hynes spoke of, the journey will end with the reward of post-season play.