By Steve Lichtenstein
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Devils coach John Hynes wasn’t kidding about having to make difficult roster choices after what he called the most competitive training camp in his three years on the job.
In surprising fashion, Hynes made defenseman Ben Lovejoy and wing Miles Wood healthy scratches for the Devils’ season-opening 4-1 victory over visiting Colorado on Saturday afternoon.
Defenseman Dalton Prout was also benched, but that was an obvious move. Lovejoy and Wood, however, did not look particularly thrilled on the new ginormous scoreboard at Prudential Center when seemingly everyone in the organization was introduced to the passionate sellout crowd before the opening faceoff.
Lovejoy had been one of two Devils (with center Adam Henrique) to suit up for all 82 games last season and is slated to earn about $2.6 million during each of the next two years, the third-highest salary at his position on the team.
As for Wood, who’s speed and physicality made him a fan favorite last season, I never even thought he was on the bubble.
Ah, but this could indeed be the dawn of a new era in New Jersey. General manager Ray Shero has infused the organization with skilled young players and we’re starting to see them bear some fruit. Anyone with signs of rot won’t play.
“If you look at some of the decisions the players forced us to make, not everyone that’s in the opening-day lineup you would have expected to be in, but that comes through the competition in training camp, and we’ve tried to live by that,” Hynes said in his pregame media chat.
I know this was just one game of 82 and future guests won’t be as gracious as the woeful Avalanche, who, despite rope-a-doping to a win over the Rangers on Thursday, could easily return to the NHL’s basement this season. Still, Saturday’s win was important for Hynes to show that he will hold players accountable. Lovejoy and Wood underwhelmed in training camp, so Hynes went with the better options at his disposal.
Sophomore Steven Santini was bumped up to the second defense pairing and Hynes inserted Will Butcher, the Hobey Baker-winning defenseman who ditched the team that drafted him — the Avs — after finishing his college career to sign with New Jersey as a free agent in August. In a bit of further irony, center Alexander Kerfoot did the same thing to the Devils — and played for Colorado.
While Kerfoot was limited to one shot on goal, Butcher recorded three power play assists, the first three-point day in an NHL debut in franchise history. The Devils’ power play looked much smoother with Butcher as the quarterback than it did with veteran Damon Severson.
Butcher only received 9:22 of even-strength ice time, so he still needs to earn Hynes’ complete trust. However, he did impress a rather significant on-ice observer.
“Sometimes you don’t really notice a guy defensively — that’s a good sign,” victorious goalie Cory Schneider said after stopping 40 shots. “(Butcher) clearly was in the right place at the right time and wasn’t overwhelmed by anything. It makes it easy to play defense when you can move the puck out of trouble or skate it out of trouble like he can.”
Skating is not one of the 33-year-old Lovejoy’s strengths. He was left in the dust enough times during the preseason that Hynes opted to forgo the benefits of Lovejoy’s grit and leadership.
Wood can certainly motor down the ice as he’s often the first to pucks. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been consistent in turning puck possession into goals for himself or others (17 points in 60 games last season). It’s not enough to be fast. You have to be able to play fast.
Enter Jesper Bratt, an unheralded sixth-round pick in the 2016 draft, as opposed to very highly-touted Nico Hischier, June’s No. 1 overall selection who was held pointless but energized the crowd with several “wow” moments of stickhandling through tight spaces and by sticking up for teammate Kyle Palmieri after he was kneed by Avs defenseman Erik Johnson in the second period. Bratt played his way into the lineup after he impressed in the Devils’ rookie camps and then the preseason.
The patience Bratt showed during both his goal and assist on Saturday belies his mere 19 years of age. Such poise with the puck is a trait all three rookies share.
“Those guys are special players,” Henrique said. “Obviously, there’s a reason we brought them here. (Poise is) a big part of their game. Another part is they’re relentless on the puck. When they don’t have it, they want it, and they get it back.”
Bratt is also an excellent penalty killer, something Hynes said was a primary consideration when he configured his roster around the long-term injury to center Travis Zajac and the uncertainty surrounding Brian Boyle, who was recently diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. In addition to Bratt, 25-year-old rookie Blake Coleman and veteran journeyman Brian Gibbons made the cut over Wood due to their PK prowess.
Wood is at least in New Jersey. Joseph Blandisi and John Quenneville were sent down to Binghamton of the AHL despite quality work in the preseason.
“At the end of camp, you have to look at your lineup and sometimes it’s not just all the best players — it’s the right players,” Hynes said. “In today’s game and the way things have been called, special teams is a key element in tonight’s game and almost every game to start the year. It’s nice to see those guys get an opportunity and earn an opportunity in the opening-night lineup and they performed in the roles that we expected them to.”
It’s a standard Hynes needs to maintain for the entire season. No more passengers.
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