How many of you would have predicted in the pre-season that the Devils would be in second place in the Metropolitan Division after 33 games? Certainly, not me—making the playoffs was definitely a possibility; sure, as a wild card team, sneaking in at the very end. But, the Devils have been consistently good since the beginning of the season.
Early on, some thought that New Jersey would be like last year’s team—off to a quick start and then fade away to oblivion. But, that is not this team. That is not this year. The team plays for each other and despite having endured some difficult injuries to top players (Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri, and Marcus Johansson—top six forwards— as well as Mirco Mueller have all been out at various times), the team continues to win.
The Devils have a first line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt that rivals any young up-and-coming team in the league. Hischier is still learning (he needs work on face offs and will occasionally disappear during games), but his talent is undeniable. Hall has maintained a point per game pace this season and can easily bring fans out of their seats. His acceleration and puck handling abilities are some of the best in the league. At 19 years old, Bratt is the surprise of the group. With excellent playmaking skills and the ability to finish, the Devils 6th round 2016 draft selection is incredibly dangerous in the offensive zone. In addition, New Jersey continues to win because the third and fourth line forwards (or players who would usually be third or fourth liners) have contributed mightily to the offense. Brian Gibbons, Blake Coleman, Stefen Noesen, and Miles Wood have all stepped up and posted a total of 54 points, including four game winning goals between them.
The weak spot this season was supposed to be on defense, but thus far, it has not hurt the team as much as expected. This despite the injury to 22-year-old Mirco Mueller, who was supposed to bring solid defensive play to the Devils this season from San Jose, but thus far he has missed 16 games with a broken clavicle. Plus, late last month, management took further steps to shore up the blueline by trading Adam Henrique to Anaheim for Sami Vatanen. The 26-year-old right-handed two-way defenseman put up some excellent numbers over the past few years for the Ducks, while being very responsible in his own zone. Now playing on the first pairing with John Moore, it has thus far been a tough season for Vatanen, but the hope is that he will return to his excellent form in short order.
The bright star on the back end has been the diminutive Will Butcher, the free agent signed by New Jersey last summer out of the University of Denver. The 22-year-old Butcher, who is third on the team in scoring, is expected to be the Devils’ power play quarterback for many years.
Generally, Cory Schneider has been excellent in goal, making the big saves when necessary. It remains to be seen whether he can be consistent enough when the pressure gets higher in the playoff run that is bound to happen in the Metropolitan Division, but, for now, he is sporting a 2.60 GAA and a 92.0 save percentage (14 wins, six regulation and 4 OT losses).
In summary, this is a very good team that is built for the future. No longer a trapping team, these players have speed and offensive skill. And the prospects that are coming soon are in the same mold. Forget your father’s Devils and take a hard look at this team. They are coming on strong and will be Stanley Cup contenders in just a few years.