New Jersey Devils Exceeding Early Expectations

Travis Zajac is out 4-6 months with a torn pectoral muscle. Photo courtesy of flickr user Brad Blansky.

Before the season, I wrote an outlook on the the upcoming New Jersey Devils campaign, in which I preached optimism for the new look of the team.

While it’s still early, it’s been a pleasant surprise to see where the Devils are at. They are 6-2-0 and are currently second in the Metropolitan Division with 12 points.

The team came out of the gate guns blazing, winning their first three games, including an exciting 6-3 win over the potent Toronto Maple Leafs.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the team thus far is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The foundation has been set, but once everyone locks into their full potential, this team is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

Over the last several seasons, goalie Cory Schneider had to fight tooth and nail most nights to give the team a win, but this year when the team has been scored upon, they have come back with a vengeance.

They are young, talented and fast and they are winning. Screw the rebuild, this team is here and they are ready. Let’s talk about some positives I have noticed so far.

The Youth Movement

First overall pick Nico Hischier is the ripe age of 18. His skill set has been on show since day one, but what is most impressive is the maturity he has shown for such a young player. He, along with Swede Jesper Bratt, has taken his opportunities so far and run with them.

When a player is on an entry-level contract, which Hischier and Bratt are, they can play in nine games before the first-year of their deal kicks in. A lot of times, teams will send them back to juniors or the AHL while still being able to give them an early taste of the NHL.

However, with the high volume of play from both of these youngsters, I doubt general manager Ray Shero breaks up the rhythm of the team and sends them down.

Hischier has two goals and five assists through the team’s first eight games, which is just two points behind Taylor Hall and Will Butcher for the club lead. The line of Hall, Hischier and Drew Stafford has been dynamite, while Bratt has become a force on the penalty kill and has notched six points in his first three games.

On the defensive end, who could ignore the play of the aforementioned Will Butcher? When the team inked him as a free agent before the season, I was particularly excited.

He was one of the most sought-after free agents after graduating from college. When he declined to join the team that drafted him in the Colorado Avalanche and instead signed on in New Jersey, I was ecstatic.

His defense is sound and his game is enticing to watch. A particular play that comes to mind was against Ottawa, when Butcher made a tremendous pass to Kyle Palmieri from the Senators zone that Palms just narrowly missed a goal on.

This team has gotten beat so many times in the speed game over the last few seasons. Seeing how energetic they are and not getting bulldozed over is a breath of fresh air.

Scratching the Surface

It’s hard to ignore that the Devils are missing two of their most prominent forwards. Travis Zajac underwent surgery in August on a torn left pectoral muscle. This has him sidelined for at least two more months and maybe as much as four.

When he returns, it will work wonders for Hischier or Adam Henrique. He will give them ample scoring opportunities at the centre position. While he probably won’t reach the 25-goal plateau like he did in 2009-10, he dished out 31 assists last year and still lit the lamp 18 times.

The veteran presence of Zajac would also work wonders for someone as young as Hischier both on and off the ice.

Then there’s Brian Boyle, who has yet to play in a game after being diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a form of blood and bone marrow cancer. While it was caught early and is highly treatable, he has yet to be cleared for contact, though a return seems sooner rather than later.

The 11-year veteran recently visited the team at practice and was greeted with a parade of cheers. His presence in the locker room and the way he handled his cancer diagnosis in such a positive manner speaks volumes of his character.

His physical presence on the ice will give the team a nice boost, but having him around players like Hischier, Bratt and Pavel Zacha will be appreciated just as much.

The Sky’s the Limit

After being pegged to finish at the bottom of the barrel in the Metropolitan Division, this team has refused to lie down and accept defeat.

There have been contributions from everyone, all the way from Taylor Hall down to the surprising Brian Gibbons who has blown everyone away.

This is a young and raw team, but has a lot of talent from top to bottom. The core of veterans Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson offensively to go along with the aforementioned youngbloods can make this team exciting for years to come. While I am still cautiously optimistic, I think this team can absolutely make a playoff push this year.

If they can remain at least within striking distance by the midpoint of the season, they can add a player or two to help round out the roster which could give them the edge.

With a lot of talented young players in the wings, this team is looking good for the future. A lot can happen, but once Zajac and Boyle return and Palmieri and Schneider get 100 percent healthy, this team will be firing off all cylinders.