When the New Jersey Devils began training camp last month with 57 players in attendance, it was very unclearwhat the outlook would be for the 2017-18 season. Yes, there was lots of new talent on the ice in the Prudential Center—rookies Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, and Jesper Bratt. And there were the veteran additions (Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle) brought in to fill specific needs. But would it be enough to make this team competitive?
In addition to the infusion of talent, Head Coach John Hynes stated early in camp that he was looking for the “team to be tougher to play against—looking for grit as much as talent.” He explained that, “work ethic and compete level have to be high for your talent to come out,” and that what the Devils would be seeking was a “two pronged approach—talent and hard work.”
Noble goals, but was this team as it was currently composed going to be successful at doing just that? We held off writing a season preview because we were totally unsure. But Saturday afternoon’s 4-1 win against Colorado showed that New Jersey’s players have bought into management’s program and that absent more injuries (Travis Zajac, Michael McLeod, and Boyle are already out), this team should be competitive for a playoff spot. And this year, it may just be the best of the three NHL teams in the tri-state area.
Surprised? Or, is it just me?
Interestingly, several of the pieces were already in place. In goal, the Devils have one of the better tandems in the league. Cory Schneider, an elite netminder, is expected to play 60-65 games this season. He had an off season during 2016-17, with only two shutouts and a 2.82 GAA and 90.8 save percentage, and is looking to bounce back. Actually, the problem was less Schneider than it was the defense in front of him last season. Time and again, he faced impossible shots, which, he of course could not stop, but counted against Schneider’s statistics and affected his mental attitude. Not only has Schneider changed his training regimen, but New Jersey has brought in a new goaltending coach, Roland Melanson, to work with him. Rollie the Goalie is also working with backup netminder Keith Kinkaid, who is now in his seventh season with the team. Kinkaid appeared in 26 games last season and had a career high save percentage of 91.6%. The Schneider/Kinkaid tandem was arguably the best thing about last season’s Devils team. We don’t it expect it to be the weak link now that the team had retooled.
On defense, last year was pretty much a disaster. But the addition of Mirco Mueller and Butcher changes things. Mueller is a solid two-way young blueliner, whose rights were obtained from San Jose in June. Now in his third professional season and still only 22 years old, Mueller has split the last three years between the NHL and AHL. A quiet signings this summer, Mueller could actually end up being one of the more important ones—first, he can actually play defense and second, he is very hard working and willing to block shots. On Saturday he was paired with Steve Santini, another young blueliner, and was on the ice for 21:43 minutes of the game.
As for the addition of Butcher, his coming to New Jersey will have implications for many years to come. It is no secret that, this summer, the Devils had their eye on defensive free agent Kevin Shattenkirk. When Shattenkirk with the Rangers instead, it opened the door to ink Butcher to an ELC. As Butcher showed on Saturday, he is likely to become the defensive key to this franchise in the future. Butcher’s three assists showed his creativity, vision, hockey smarts, and can quarterback a power play. Do not be surprised if, over time, Butcher (who is now on the third pairing) becomes the premier defenseman on this club.
At forward, the Devils had already made one big move prior to last season—they traded for Taylor Hall. In most games last season, he seemed alone out there, frustrated when every opponent keyed on him during games. This season two top players have been added—Hischier and Johansson. In Saturday’s game, Hischier made some moves that brought fans out of their seats. The first overall pick in this year’s entry draft is still only 18 years old, but he can dangle the puck, pass, score, and play in his own end. This will definitely take the pressure off Hall, who now is not the only potential superstar on the ice.
Twenty-even year-old Johansson is in his eighth NHL season. Reliable for 45-50 points per regular season with the Washington Capitals over that time, last season he posted 58 and then was very effective in the playoffs. He should be a top six player in New Jersey and can play both left wing and center. On Saturday, he looked a bit sluggish at times, but big things are expected of him on the Devils’ second line.
And then there is Bratt, the team’s second round selection in 2016. Playing on the third line, short handed and on the power play, Bratt showed on Saturday that he can do it all. He has the skill and the work ethic to be a major player on the team going forward.
With Zajac, McLeod, and Boyle out, right now, the team is weak down the middle. Blake Coleman played center for Boyle on the fourth line on Saturday, but his face off percentage (33) was not adequate. Coleman will probably get another look there this afternoon, but having three centers out really hurts this club early in the season. But, even with this current shortcoming, expect this team to keep winning games.
And expect the Devils to make the playoffs this season.