By Steve Lichtenstein
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NEWARK, N.J. (WFAN) — Devils general manager Ray Shero didn’t attempt to sidestep his club’s backward step last season.
“That falls to me,” Shero said at media day on Thursday at the Prudential Center.
In Shero’s inaugural campaign with coach John Hynes two seasons ago, the Devils’ plucky band of overachievers hung tough in the brutal Eastern Conference playoff hunt until March.
While the organizational message didn’t change in 2016-17, the execution surely did.
The Devils’ point total plummeted from 84 to 70 points. The team stumbled down the stretch to finish tied for the third-worst record in the NHL.
“I think we were far too soft last year,” Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “We were not hard to play against.”
The biggest question then, as the Devils begin training camp on Friday, is how do they get that grit-and-grind mentality back?
For a second consecutive offseason, Shero and the Devils did a fine job on paper of augmenting their roster with speed and skill. Among this summer’s additions: Dynamic 18-year-old center Nico Hischier was selected with the first overall pick in June’s draft; 24-goal scoring wing Marcus Johansson was acquired via a salary dump by the Capitals in July; and Hobey Baker Award-winning defenseman Will Butcher signed a free agent deal out of college last month.
Unfortunately, the only “paper” that succeeds in today’s NHL has “sand” in the prefix.
“Your work ethic and your compete level have to be high for your talent to come out,” Hynes said. “If you don’t compete on pucks, and have a willingness to block shots, and a willingness to play a skating game, and a willingness to win 50/50 battles and a willingness to get into scoring areas, it doesn’t matter how talented you are.”
Hynes said he believes the players the Devils are bringing to camp have the right mentality.
“We have to control the controllables,” Hynes said. “How hard we play, the commitment to the system that we are going to play — guys have to go out and make plays.”
What will help build that harder edge is that the increased talent should produce increased competition for both roster spots and playing time. Shero said that not even Hischier is immune from a potential devastating cut to a lower level if he doesn’t show enough in camp.
The Swiss native has only played one season in North America, so, despite his draft status, he still feels like he has something to prove.
“I was working on my physical play (in the offseason),” the 6-foot-1, 176-pound Hischier said. “But I was (also) a lot on the ice. Who’s not (disappointed) if he doesn’t make the team? I’ll work hard, but they’ve got to be honest with me and if they say it’s not the time, then we’ve got to figure out another plan.”
Let’s not quibble — Shero’s decision to select Hischier over Nolan Patrick (who was chosen second by the rival Flyers) will be scrutinized for years. Hischier doesn’t have to be a star on Day 1, but he can’t be sent back to juniors. Not with top-line center Travis Zajac out another three-to-five months recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum.
The Devils will need all the offensive firepower they can spare, since the only way they can replace all that Zajac does is by committee. Free agent acquisition Brian Boyle can handle some of the defensive responsibilities, such as penalty kills and crucial faceoffs, but the 32-year-old isn’t expected to see his ice time suddenly increase beyond his customary 13-minute-per-game average.
Hynes said Hischier will be one of “three-to-four” candidates who will have opportunities to step up into that top-line role with wingers Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri.
Hall, who, like Hischier, was a No. 1 overall draftee (in 2010, by Edmonton), was expected to boost the Devils’ anemic goal production upon his arrival last offseason in a trade that sent top-pair defenseman Adam Larsson to the Oilers.
It didn’t happen. Though Hall tied Palmieri for the team lead in points (53), the Devils total goals for actually decreased by a goal from the prior season (184 to 183).
Asked if he expected more from Hall last season, Shero said, “Yeah, and he knows that. We met at the end of the year for a long time. It was more about (Hall) becoming the best player he can be. I think he’s been fantastic, but he’s capable of more. He’s gotten over the one-year ‘grieving period’ –I guess that’s what they call it.”
On the other hand, after last season’s collapse, Shero has lowered expectations for his team this time around. He sounded like he would be happy if the Devils returned to their lunch-pail ways of two seasons ago, even if it meant a sixth consecutive year of missing the playoffs.
“We have to get credibility back and earn our respect back,” Shero said. “We had that two years ago and we were supposed to be better last year. Obviously, it didn’t happen. I was not happy and disappointed, but that was my team and I take responsibility for that. The expectation is to have a team that has pride — plays with pride, practices with pride — competitive. We didn’t have it last year, plain and simple.
“Anything other than that,” Shero continued, “It’s like me saying, ‘I’m going to run the Boston Marathon.’ Well, I can say it. ‘We’re going to make the playoffs.’ I can say it. But if you don’t do the work — I haven’t trained for the Boston Marathon, quite obviously. I have not taken the proper steps. So, (playoff talk is) the same thing.
“You have to have difference-makers in practice. We didn’t have that last year. Those are the type of players I think we have now, but we’re going to see starting (Friday). We can talk about where we’ll be going to be at the end of the year, but that’s hard.
“You know what’s harder? Getting out of last place. So that’s the first thing, getting out of (expletive) last place.”
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