(Devils goalie Cory Schneider – @NJDevils)
The New Jersey Devils exceeded expectations this season, as they stayed in the playoff hunt until the final week, and are set to take the next step next season.
The Devils entered this season with a big change at the top, as Ray Shero took over as General Manager from Lou Lamoriello, who was with the team since 1987.
They also had a new coach behind the bench, John Hynes, who coached the Penguins’ AHL affiliate when Shero ran that team.
Hynes established an up-tempo, attacking style and the players committed to it.
It is a style similar to what the Devils have always played. It’s based primarily on defense, led by Andy Greene, John Moore, and Adam Larsson; and goaltending, with Cory Schneider having a career year.
On the identity the team established for itself this season, Hynes said, “One was, I think, extremely competitive, if you look at how we played and how we had to battle throughout the year to be able to have success. We weren’t gonna get by, we weren’t a team that could just show up and throw the puck around, score goals and play loose.
“We had to come play a hard style of hockey basically every night to give ourselves a chance – we did that. One of our objectives was to be a tough out, that when you played the Devils, it wasn’t going to be an automatic win. I think that we took a lot of pride in that and we established, I think, a foundation of a very competitive group and a very competitive team and we need to now build off of that going into next year.”
Cory Schneider established himself as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, as he had a superb 2.15 goals against average and went 27-25-6 on the season.
After the Devils’ 5-1 win over Toronto to close the season on Saturday night, Schneider said of the Devils being closer to their goals than at the end of last season, “I think so, yeah. I know there were a lot of changes after last season, and there were a lot of changes in the offseason and no one really knew what to expect. Honestly, I think the expectations were quite low, and I thought for the most part we defied those and just stuck to our expectations and not anybody else’s. A step in the right direction, but not the ultimate goal that we wanted to achieve, so hopefully we can build upon that for next year.”
On his personal goals for the offseason, Schneider said, “As I get older here, I just have to make sure that I’m smart and take care of myself and prepare my body to hopefully play another 60 to 65 games next season. There’s always things you can work on, you know, I’ll sit down with Chris (Terreri) and the coaches and kind of just go over what I can be better at, what I can focus on this summer specifically and, even from an off-ice standpoint, strength and conditioning, so there’s always evaluation to be had, and we’re all gonna do that here over the next few days.”
Schneider said of what the Devils learned about itself this season, “I think we learned that you don’t always have to have the most talent on the ice, as long as you work hard and you stayed focused and disciplined and you can out-compete other things. We did it for a lot of the season, but not all of it. I think if we can do that for a longer stretch of time next year, we’ll have a better result.
“It’s funny, you look at the standings at the end of the year, and in terms of wins, we’re not that far off from some of the teams that are getting in. It’s, can we turn a couple of those losses into overtime points here? Just scratch away and claw, and we were close in a lot of games, there weren’t many games we were just out of it and didn’t have a chance. I think we can build on that, just try to scratch and claw, get points any way we can next year and hopefully it’ll be enough.”
Schneider said of his achievements this season, such as making the All-Star team, “It’s nice, some of those things, but at the end of the day, I think you’re judged by how far you can take your team and what you can accomplish in the playoffs. For me, I haven’t had that chance, haven’t been able to do that here. All the other stuff is just sort of secondary, and I think next year, I really want to focus on upping that win total and really carrying this team into the playoffs.”
Hynes said of Schneider and his role in this team taking the next step, “That’s another guy that we know that had a very good year, and that’s the next step for Cory, is I think, anytime you feel like you have good goaltending, it gives you a chance to win games. We feel like we have that with Cory and Keith (Kinkaid), and I think this year, you saw, when our depth got tested, that (Scott) Wedgewood and Kinkaid, specifically, were able to come up and play well for us. We need Cory to get fully healthy, relax here a little bit, but then get back to his training, and he’s going to be a big piece again, obviously, next year.”
Kinkaid had a good year as he went 9-9-1 with a 2.81 goals against average, and Wedgewood stepped in for four games in late March, and did a superb job, as he got two wins, including a shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Hynes said of implementing his system and what the next step is for the Devils, “We talked to the team a little bit about that, and when you look at it, we all have to take a step. I think this year, we put ourselves in contention to get in the playoffs late in the year, but we fell short.
“So, there’s another level we all have to get to, and I think when you look at the next challenge for us is how good a summer are all of us going to have. How are the coaches going to get better?Are we going to find ways to improve the team and play better, manage better, and motivate better? I think for the players, there’s a lot of guys on our team, that they need to take a big step physically in their conditioning, nutrition, individual skill development.
“All those concepts have to be better this year because, as good as we think we had, we’re still not in the final 16. So, for us to take the next step and maybe be a stronger team and a harder team in February, where we faltered, when the rubber meets the road, all those things are going to come into play.”
Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique led the Devils’ offense, as they both had 30 goal seasons. Incredibly, both got their 30th goals in the season finale on Saturday night against Toronto, as Henrique got two and Palmieri got one late in the third period.
Palmieri was brought in from Anaheim and led the Devils with 57 points (30 goals, 27 assists)and played all 82 games this season. Henrique, who has been with the Devils since 2010, was second on the team in points with 50 (30 goals, 20 assists).
“I think both of them certainly deserve it. These guys, they were big factors for us all year long,” Hynes said of Henrique and Palmieri each getting 30 goals this season. “I think, on both sides of the puck, power play, penalty kill, we rode some guys hard this year, with hard minutes and, a lot of times, they drove our team. Very gratifying for them, but I think as a coaching staff, and a team, and management, it’s great. We had two guys who that scored 30 goals and they certainly deserved to do that and had some career years. Great for them, and it was nice that they were able to accomplish that together.”
One thing that hurt the Devils’ offense was when Mike Cammalleri went down for the season with an upper-body injury in early February. At the time of his injury, he led the Devils in points, with 38 (14 goals, 24 assists) in 42 games.
The Devils’ offense will get a lift at the start of next season, as two key contributors from the second half this year, Joseph Blandisi and Devante Smith-Pelly, will be on the team from the start of the season.
Blandisi came up from Albany in January and had five goals and 12 assists in 41 games. His biggest goal came in a win over the Rangers on February 1.
Smith-Pelly was acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline and provided the Devils with some speed and became a key contributor, with eight goals and five assists in 18 games.
Hynes said of whether his first year as NHL head coach went as he expected it would, “I didn’t necessarily know what to expect coming in because I hadn’t had the experience in the league. It was very challenging, it’s the best league in the world for a reason. I think, as a coach, it’s exciting and really motivating to be able to work with the type of players that are in the National Hockey League every day on our team, and it’s a challenge every night that’s really motivating if you’re going against great coaches and great teams.
“It was a great year. I’m just happy that I was able to work with the type of players we had this year because they made it very enjoyable to come to the rink, very coachable. We think we got a lot out of our group and had a fantastic coaching staff and management group to work with. So, lot to learn from, really enjoyed it, but we’ll spend the summer trying to improve ourselves and make sure we’re better for next year, too.”
On the single most important thing he learned this season, Hynes said, “I’d say the biggest thing you go through the years is time management. I think just understanding time management with the players, time management with the team, managing your staff throughout such a competitive league, and I think a lot of times it’s really trying sure that the team has energy and how you use that time in between games, game days, days off. I had a lot of good people around me to assist me with that. That would be something I would take away from because it’s the only league you play 82 games.”