By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
Normally, the finale for a hockey team that is 12 points out of a playoff berth comes with all the anticipation of a trip to the dentist. Get out of there pain-free, and we’ll see you again in six months.
The Devils had been confounding experts for much of this season, so why would Game 82 be any different?
Thanks to the professional debut of three top prospects and the possible send-off of one of their legends, the Devils’ 5-1 victory over hapless Toronto on Saturday had a sellout crowd at the Prudential Center wishing for more.
Center Pavel Zacha, New Jersey’s first-round pick last summer, displayed the vision and quick stick the Devils so desperately lacked all year, picking up a pair of assists in his first NHL game. He could have had at least three more if only he were passing to 2003 Patrik Elias instead of 2016 Patrik Elias.
Alas, the soon-to-be 40-year-old winger has often been a step behind in his three games following a long-term absence while recovering from right knee surgery.
Elias, the franchise’s career leader in goals, assists and points, did have a potential Ted Williams moment, wristing a Kyle Palmieri feed into the net with 16 seconds remaining for his second tally of the season.
I used “potential” because neither Elias nor the Devils have made clear their intentions for next season.
After Saturday’s game, Elias appeared to be energized by playing with Zacha, his 19-year old Czech mate, and indicated he would return if he felt his body could endure another season.
Devils general manager Ray Shero and coach John Hynes, obviously, remained coy about how the free agent Elias fits into the team’s future.
That future looks much brighter now than it did a year ago, which is another reason, aside from saluting the two-time Stanley Cup-winner Elias, why the fans didn’t want to leave the Rock on Saturday night.
A first glance at the numbers doesn’t reveal how far the Devils have come in the first year of the Shero/Hynes partnership.
The Devils had the same amount of regulation losses (36) as last season — the meager six-point year-to-year improvement was all due to turning six overtime/shootout defeats into wins. They scored just three goals more than in 2014-15 and yielded only eight fewer.
Former New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, who is now occupying the GM chair in Toronto and was featured in a classy video tribute during the first period on Saturday, populated last season’s roster with a slew of veterans on their downside, such as Michael Ryder, Scott Gomez, Dainius Zubrus, Martin Havlat and Marek Zidlicky.
The organization required a massive rebuild, with an emphasis on youth. Shero made some shrewd trades and signings — the deal with Anaheim for 30-goal scorer Palmieri was a heist — and for his first hire installed the 41-year old Hynes, a rookie coach, behind the bench.
I won’t go as far as saying that Hynes has had an Al Arbour effect on the Devils (though the Islanders also missed the playoffs in Arbour’s inaugural season in 1973-74, they did chop 100 goals off their prior-year goals against), but there’s no question Hynes has attempted to implement a similar standard.
The Devils were a hard team to play against on the vast majority of nights. Despite an overwhelming skill deficit against many of the teams they were playing, their work ethic and responsible positioning allowed them opportunities to win games they had no business being in.
The specialty team units were both top nine in the league, with the power play achieving a 19.9 percent success rate and the penalty killers denying the opposition on 83 percent of their man-advantage opportunities.
The hockey community noticed. USA Hockey announced on Saturday that Hynes will guide its World Championship team in Russia next month. This in addition to the honor of being selected to serve under head coach John Tortorella as an assistant during September’s more prolific World Cup of Hockey.
Hynes earned such respect for the way the Devils overcame all their limitations to stay in the postseason hunt until about two weeks ago.
Think about that above power-play number again — the Devils, the worst offensive team in the NHL (last in goals per game, shots on goal per game, etc.) manufactured a goal at almost the exact same rate as the star-studded Kings. That was with castoffs Jon Moore and David Schlemko manning the point and bottom-six (if they’re lucky) forwards Tyler Kennedy and Jacob Josefson coordinating from the half-wall.
With his assistant, Geoff Ward, Hynes designed schemes that routinely set up their few snipers (Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and, before a hand/wrist injury prematurely ended his season, Mike Cammalleri) for one-timers at the circles. They scored off set plays such as faceoffs and back doors and, if all else failed, they were trained to just throw pucks toward the net in search of a fortunate deflection or bounce.
Of course, the Devils, as has been their tradition, were first and foremost a defensive-oriented team this season. Hynes held everyone accountable to ensure his players’ diligence with their rigid defensive responsibilities. Skilled rookie forward Joseph Blandisi was often sentenced to Hynes’ doghouse for repeated violations.
The defensive emphasis helped All Star goalie Cory Schneider post the league’s fourth-best goals against average (2.15) and the sixth-best save percentage (.924) en route to establishing a career-high of 27 wins.
All this was accomplished with a group so young that 10 players on Albany’s AHL roster for the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs gained experience this season with the big club.
That number would have grown to 12 if left winger Miles Wood and defenseman Steve Santini weren’t headed back to Boston College after their big night against Toronto. Santini made an immediate impact on Saturday with a Scott Stevens-like, albeit illegal in the current concussion era, body check on Maple Leafs defenseman Andrew Campbell, while Wood impressed with his size and quickness on the forecheck.
Shero has the means to supplement these youngsters with select acquisitions over the summer. Of the Devils’ 15 skaters on Saturday (not including Zacha, Wood and Santini), only six are signed for next season. The benched Blandisi and the injured Cammalleri are also under contract, but the Devils are still projected to be approximately $35 million under the salary cap for maybe 10 spots going into the new league year.
Of New Jersey’s own free agents, I would only deem Palmieri a must-sign. Fortunately, he is restricted, which gives the Devils an opportunity to match any competing offer. Get it done, Ray.
I would think that fellow restricted free agent forwards Reid Boucher, Sergey Kalinin and Devante Smith-Pelly will also be brought back at reasonable prices, which would still allow Shero to go fetch a premium goal scorer in the marketplace. My summer wish list would also include farewells to free agent underachievers such as Josefson and Jon Merrill.
And then there’s Elias, the last remaining link to the franchise’s glorious past.
As I wrote last week, the Devils should gracefully allow Elias to find a new home, if indeed he is serious about continuing on with his career for a 20th season.
Shero and Hynes have the right ideas as to how to build a winning organization. Let’s give them another year and see if the results are more of a leap than a baby step.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1