Many pundits, including me, were skeptical as to whether the New Jersey Devils could make the playoffs again this season. After a Cinderella season last year, going from last place in the Metropolitan Division to a playoff spot, could New Jersey match its 97 point regular season total and hold off a surging Carolina (or even the Islanders)? After all, number one netminder Cory Schneider was out following off-season hip surgery and the two prominent February 2018 forward trade-deadline pickups signed elsewhere for the 2018-19 season.
But here it was, at 10 o’clock last night, this team was 2-0 to start the season–after playing Edmonton and the 2018 Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals. Yes, the Caps had faced Las Vegas the night before in DC and a let down from them was expected—but how much of a letdown to allow New Jersey to take the lead and eventually win the game by a score of 6-0?
Not only is Schneider on the IR, but so is Jesper Bratt, who suffered a freak accident last week that broke his jaw. Bratt is an integral part of this team’s top six, and Stefan Noesen (who took Bratt’s place on the second line last night), does not have Bratt’sskill set. So, how did the Devils pull last night’s shellacking off?
First, never underestimate a John Hynes-coached team that has bought into his system. Hynes stresses defense and last night, it was on full display. After the game, Hynes explained, “there is a certain way that we want to play offensively, but for us to continue to get better as a team, and become a team that is difficult to play against in the league night in and night out, there were some things defensively we wanted to do better, and the guys have made a commitment to that, and when they are in situations to defend, they’ve been detailed in the structure and there’s a strong commitment to play in the defensive areas of the game when called upon.
No team gets shutouts, however, without excellent performances from the man between the pipes. Keith Kinkaid has been fantastic in net—the 29-year old career backup has made the big saves in the two games played thus far and was excellent last season to help the Devils get into the playoffs.
Then there is the emergence of Kyle Palmieri, who has four goals in two games (including two last night). Palmieri, who has been playing right wing on the first line, has actually made the combination of Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier much more effective by being such a potent scorer himself. As Hynes explained it, “when Kyle Palmieri plays really well, he moves his feet, he’s tenacious on the puck, … and he has a shooting mentality, he has a shoot first mentality, and that’s what he has done.” That takes nothing away from Hall and Hischier who you can see clicking more and more on the ice.
Absent injury, the Devils top line could be one of the more productive ones in the NHL. However, in order to be so, more offense is needed. Marcus Johansson and Bratt have the skill to provide that; the question mark here is center Pavel Zacha. Last night, Zacha had chance after chance (and, according to Hynes, Zacha is playing the game correctly, “if he continues to play the way he played tonight, the puck’s going to start to go in for him”), but I am less certain than Hynes that Zacha is truly a top six center.
As an aside, let’s say, just for a second, that Zacha cannot fill that role. There are several young players who could take a top six spot (John Quennville or Michael McLeod? Or next year, Jesper Boqvist?). After last night though, there may be another contender. Twenty-four year old Jean-Sebastien Dea, who was picked up on waivers from Pittsburgh in late September, has been a scorer on the AHL level and is a natural center. Last night, he was only on the ice for 10:13, but he scored a goal (after the game was already won), and was noticeable all over the ice. Dea may turn out to only be a borderline NHLer, but he can play both ends of the puck and he has the potential to be special—if he moves his feet and is tenacious on the puck (two top priorities for Hynes).
So, after the Devils two early-season victories, I am optimistic. Always a defensively good team, the question is the offense—do they have enough throughout the lineup to provide secondary scoring to Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri? So far, so good.