By Steve Lichtenstein
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In almost every respect, the Devils’ 5-1-1 run through the preseason, with their sole regulation defeat using a “B” split squad against many of the Islanders’ regulars, was meaningless.
It will be a long 10 days between New Jersey’s shocking four-goal first period outburst in their denouement in Washington and Saturday’s regular-season opener against Colorado at the Prudential Center. Better rust-proof those game skates.
I was also reminded that the NHL preseason points leaders a year ago went like his:
In case you forgot, those turned out to be three of the worst six teams in the league.
The Devils were also in that lowest percentile, failing to qualify for the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season with a record of 28-40-14.
However, New Jersey general manager Ray Shero and coach John Hynes have a blueprint for getting the rebuild back on the right track. It involves playing with both the speed and the grit the Devils showed throughout the exhibition season.
The Devils were dynamic in the transition game, were diligent in their own end and received strong goaltending from both starter Cory Schneider and backup Keith Kinkaid.
Will they be able to sustain these attributes for a full 82-game season to sneak into postseason contention?
I doubt it, but it will be a lot more fun watching it play out.
Though the Devils struggled last season with their back end, Shero spent all offseason looking for offense, offense and more offense. Even the newest defensemen — Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher and former Sharks first-round draft pick Mirco Mueller — have displayed plus puck-moving and shooting skills throughout the preseason.
With regard to Shero’s other additions, the Prudential Center will be buzzing every time Nico Hischier, the first overall selection in June’s draft, steps onto the ice. The Swiss native was so dynamic in training camp that Hynes has him centering the second line between two other new arrivals: free agent veteran Drew Stafford and 24-goal scorer Marcus Johansson, whom Shero deftly poached from the cap-squeezed Caps in a July salary-dump trade.
The 18-year-old Hischier is not going to maintain the goal-a-game pace he did in the preseason, but he has the tools to be a gamebreaker on certain nights.
The Devils’ top line of Pavel Zacha, Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall, on the other hand, will have to be a lot more consistent than last season, when New Jersey finished tied for last in five-on-five goals scored.
Zacha, the 20-year-old former first-round draft pick (sixth overall), is coming off an up-and-down rookie season. He seemed to be in better physical condition this training camp, which is why he earned the job of filling in for the injured Travis Zajac. Whether Zacha can take his game to the next level just might be the biggest indicator as to what kind of season the Devils will have.
The jack-of-all-trades Zajac will likely be out until after the new year following surgery to repair a torn pectoral. With free agent acquisition Brian Boyle still recuperating from treatments for his recent diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia, Hynes will likely rely on third-line pivotman Adam Henrique to take all the important defensive-zone draws and check the opponents’ top centers.
And this is where things get dicey. You can be critical of the Devils’ puny goal totals all you want, but the biggest problem last season was that they spent too much time in their own zone. They had issues with both retrieving the puck and then making the proper transition plays to initiate offense. Fault lies with all six players on the ice.
Shero and Hynes attributed much of the Devils’ defensive-zone misadventures to a lack of grit, but I wouldn’t discount the personnel issues.
The hope for this season is that the Butcher/Mueller additions and some maturity on the part of newly minted $25 million man Damon Severson will enhance the club’s zone-clearing capabilities. Captain Andy Greene, who will turn 35 at the end of the month, is still a minutes-eating horse, and John Moore is coming off a career-high 12-goal season. Only Ben Lovejoy bears watching, but Hynes can turn to sophomore Steven Santini if the 33-year old Lovejoy’s game has gone too far south.
The Devils are just a much deeper team all around than they have been the last few seasons. The bottom six forwards are loaded with hungry, young players like Jesper Bratt.
The key is if they can stay hungry, especially if their current injury toll and relative inexperience leads to a rough start.
Shero has been a seller at his last two trade deadlines, peddling the Devils’ ancillary pieces to stockpile draft picks. Wouldn’t it be a hoot if in February Shero took some of that inventory and the Devils’ approximately $9 million in salary-cap space and used it to try to make a run for a playoff bid this season?
I don’t see it happening. The Devils will have to settle for a good-sized step in the right direction.
Prediction: 82 points (no playoffs)
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