By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
Two centers, separated by 14 years, have adjoining stalls in the Devils’ locker room.
Brian Boyle and Nico Hischier were both overcome with emotions following New Jersey’s 3-2 overtime loss to Edmonton at the Prudential Center on Thursday night.
The reasons, however, couldn’t have been more different.
For Boyle, the 32-year-old who signed a two-year free agent contract during the summer, the tears he shed in the moments after his first goal of the season on a first-period rebound were joyous. Boyle missed all of training camp and the first 11 regular season games while recovering from chronic myeloid leukemia.
“I can usually separate it,” Boyle said of his reaction. “It was a wave of a number of different things I was thinking of. My family … my wife has been through the ringer. She’s had a lot more to deal with than I have. I’m able to play, things are good, and they’re getting better, so I’m not here if it’s not for her and my family and these guys in here. I tried to separate it, but I guess it’s a little bit bigger tonight than it has been probably ever.”
It would have been clichéd if Boyle’s goal ignited the Devils in their attempt to halt a three-game losing streak. Alas, New Jersey couldn’t hold a pair of one-goal leads and let multiple opportunities slip away. The end was quick, but not painless, with Leon Draisaitl depositing a puck past prone Devils goalie Cory Schneider off a patented rush and feed from star center Connor McDavid with 16.3 seconds remaining in the extra session.
Hischier was most despondent as he sat in his stall. The 18-year-old No. 1 overall selection in the 2017 draft was running through his failures to capitalize, including a two-on-one break with Taylor Hall late in the overtime. In lieu of taking an open shot, Hischier instead opted to make a return pass to Hall, which went astray.
“It’s a fast game and now I can always say I’d rather do better,” Hischier said. “I’ve got to take the shot. I just thought when I passed it back, if it arrived, (Hall) has an empty net. It was probably the wrong decision, I know, but it’s a fast game and sometimes I make the wrong decision.”
The two newcomers, the young and the grizzled, are big reasons why it would be a mistake to correlate this swoon to the collapse that began almost exactly one year ago. The 2016-17 Devils, after a promising 9-3-3 start, lost 17 of their next 22 games (13 in regulation) and were toast by New Year’s Day.
Of course, this iteration, which opened the season on fire with nine wins in its first 11 contests, has made enhancements besides Hischier and Boyle. Last season, if the top line didn’t produce, the Devils were in deep trouble. General manager Ray Shero markedly improved his club’s depth scoring during the offseason by hitting on contributors though the draft, trades, and free agency.
A player like 32-year-old free agent Drew Stafford, who potted his fifth goal of the season on Thursday with a brilliant move to the net front, epitomizes the shift from last season’s malaise.
“When we talked with Drew this summer, it was for two things,” Devils coach John Hynes said. “We think he’s a very good player, obviously. He’s a veteran guy that has good offensive skills. We thought he was going to be a complement to the players we have on our team. The other part was this guy is a high-character guy. We’re trying to change the culture here. We didn’t like what happened last year. We want veteran players that are going to come in here and they’re going to buy into what we’re doing. They’re going to help the younger players out and they’re going to lead the right way. Drew has been all of those things. As well as his play, what he has contributed to our team off the ice and team culture-wise has been exceptional.”
Last season, the Devils fell apart when Hall went down in mid-November. This group has already withstood a slew of injuries. In addition to Boyle’s scary illness, top-line center Travis Zajac has been out all season with a torn labrum. Zajac’s usual linemate on right wing, Kyle Palmieri, returned to action on Thursday after missing six games with a lower body injury. And Marcus Johansson, another top-six forward, sustained a concussion after crashing into the end boards in Vancouver on Nov. 1.
For the Devils to be sitting at the top of the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division at 9-4-2, with all those man-games lost to key players, shows there’s no reason to panic. That is, as long as they’re playing Hynes’ way.
“If you look at our team in general, I think it’s a proud group in there,” Hynes said. “We talked about finding ways to win and getting ourselves out of last place and getting ourselves to be relevant in the league again. Sometimes you win some you shouldn’t, and lose some you shouldn’t. You just stay the course. We have good players. We have guys that care. We’ll move forward. It doesn’t matter if they’re young or old — you can’t control what the end results are. But what you can control is your process and your mindset.”
The Devils’ young and old have meshed remarkably well over the first 15 games. This next portion of the schedule, beginning with a weekend back-to-back versus Florida and at Chicago, will likely tell us whether this start was something more than the flash in the pan of last season.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1