By Steve Lichtenstein
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When the Devils announced in August that top-line center Travis Zajac would miss four to six months with a torn left pectoral muscle and then discovered at the start of training camp that Brian Boyle, another center whom the club had just signed to a two-year, $5.5 million contract in free agency, had been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, many expected devastation.
The Devils, last-place finishers in the Eastern Conference last season, were supposed to be done before they started their 2017-18 slate.
Well, the Devils have been far from a lost cause in the season’s opening two weeks. To the contrary, they have rolled to a 5-1 record after Tuesday’s highly entertaining 5-4 shootout victory over the quick-strike Lightning at the Prudential Center.
The Devils have been competitive in every game, skating stride for stride with some of the league’s swiftest teams, including Tampa Bay. They are tied for third in the league in goals scored per game (4.17).
You read that correctly. The heretofore anemic New Jersey Devils are tied for third in the league in goals scored per game.
Though the sample size is small, I started to wonder: With this new flair, is it fair to question whether they would have had similar success with Zajac and Boyle in the lineup?
Given how respected Zajac and Boyle are on and off the ice, it’s decidedly unfair. Both have given everything to the game and now Boyle is fighting for his life.
In addition, in pure hockey terms, it would be irresponsible to opine that Zajac, who excels in every situation, and ultimate warrior Boyle are inferior to players such as Blake Coleman or Brian Gibbons, candidates who might otherwise have been demoted to the AHL but are now contributing forces in New Jersey.
However, while it is way too soon to conclude that the Devils are better off as currently configured, it is quite obvious to me that they are different.
There has been exponentially more jump in their game than last season, when New Jersey was probably considered the slowest team in the league. For all of Zajac’s and Boyle’s attributes, skating fast isn’t one of them.
On the other hand, Nico Hischier, the Devils’ No. 1 selection in this year’s draft, has energized the team with his dash. Coach John Hynes promoted the 18-year-old to the role of top-line pivotman during New Jersey’s 3-2 road win over the Rangers on Saturday.
While the goalless Hischier might be feeling somewhat snakebit after getting robbed a handful of times by Lightning goalie Peter Budaj, he was a major factor in the Devils’ comeback. In a season-high 18:21 of ice time, Hischier recorded two assists, including a terrific feed to the slot on the game-tying power play goal by Drew Stafford, who deposited his second marker of the game on a rebound with 4:06 remaining.
“We are always trying to funnel pucks on net, and (Hischier) has a good knack for doing that,” Stafford said. “I think for him to be able to display that battle and tenacity on the puck is the biggest thing that’s impressed me for a guy his age. The way his body makeup is, he’s only going to get better and stronger. His skill set is a given, but I’m more looking at his battle and tenacity — and he has that.”
The hunger to which Stafford was referring has trickled down to all four lines. Coleman won 8 of 11 draws, an area in which I had anticipated would be most affected by Zajac’s and Boyle’s absences. Gibbons, a 29-year-old career minor leaguer, was not only instrumental in helping kill off a couple of late New Jersey penalties, he also netted his third goal of the season.
That tally tied him for the team lead with Stafford, sophomore speedster Miles Wood and 19-year-old Jesper Bratt, who also came out of nowhere (sixth round in the 2016 draft) to dazzle fans in the early going with his raw talent.
Those who can’t keep up, whether due to diminishing skills (33-year-old defenseman Ben Lovejoy, a healthy scratch in four of six games) or unsatisfactory effort (Hynes stapled an entire line of Pavel Zacha, Jimmy Hayes and Marcus Johansson to the bench for nearly half of Saturday’s contest), just won’t play.
You see, to Hynes, the explanation for his team’s impressive opening run goes beyond simple addition by subtraction. It was initiated by a change in culture following last season’s dismal showing.
“Last year was unacceptable to everyone that was here and everyone that was returning,” Hynes said. “I think there was a lot of hard work that went into the summer — individually from players, coaching staff, management. I think the additions to our team — through the draft, through trades, through free agency — have really aided the culture we want on and off the ice. I think you have to credit the players at the end of the day. They’ve come to work basically every day here. We haven’t had a bad practice. The guys are on time for meetings. They’re ready to play. They’re playing for each other”.
Hynes then continued, “I think the biggest difference between last year and this year is the team culture and the team buy-in, and also we have more players that can play the way we want to play.”
Though deferred until they return to full health, the question as to whether Zajac and Boyle can play that way — at that tempo — will remain open.
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