Hockey in New Jersey over the past few seasons has felt like a bit of a chore for Devils fans. Three straight playoff misses in seasons where playoffs were expected a has lead to a considerable amount of frustration for the Devils and their supporters. The combination of an underachieving team, an old roster, some frustrating roster decisions, an unfathomable 18-game shootout losing streak which spanned three seasons, and plain old bad luck have conspired to generate a fair amount of misery at the Prudential Center. Simply put, hockey has just not been a whole lot of fun for those of us who cheer the Devils since the Devils' Cup run was ended in the Finals in 2012. This season, while representing a new beginning for the organization, was expected to continue the trend with some lean times through a rebuild. Through the first month-plus of hockey in New Jersey this season though, the Devils have felt fun to watch again.
Heading into 2015-16, expectations were low, perhaps the lowest since the Devils were a perennial cellar-dweller back in the 80's. Nobody was expecting much from a team that, after a big time changing of the guard in management, seemed to be positioning itself for a rebuilding effort. But with low expectations comes considerably less pressure to perform and also a lower bar to clear for people to be happy with the team's performance. Fans in New Jersey, after years of stop-gaps and band-aids, readily accepted that the team might have to stink this year in the service of building a Cup contender. A funny thing has happened thus far, though, with the Devils scoring and winning games and even sitting in a playoff spot here, over a month into the season.
Not only are the Devils winning, but they are looking like a competitive squad right now that isn't just crossing their fingers and hoping that their star goaltender can carry them to victories (which is more of what was expected). The Devils have been holding their own in the possession battle to this point in the season, though the stretch of tough games over the last week and a half has pushed them down a bit (21st in CF% at the moment). They are a team that hasn't really looked overmatched too much this season, and their play in transition has looked about as good as it has in years. The team is scoring pretty goals in bunches for the time being and going toe-to-toe with some of the stronger teams in the league, which is certainly a lot more fun than what was expected out of a team projected to finish somewhere between 29th and 30th by a lot of folks around the league.
A big part of the excitement for the Devils has been the performance of a lot of their bigger names (relatively speaking, of course), who have met and exceeded expectations in a lot of cases, thus far. Travis Zajac, while certainly riding some of the percentages, has been a big contributor on offense with some nifty shots and nice feeds that had been largely missing over the past few seasons. Adam Henrique, a player needing to take the next step to be a legitimate top-line presence, has been a force to be reckoned with thus far. Kyle Palmieri, the Devils one big NHL acquisition from the summer, has not disappointed, peppering goalies with shots everywhere and scoring big goals. Mike Cammalleri, the veteran winger, has looked like one of the league's best. And not least of all, Adam Larsson has looked like a legitimate top-paring defender and has been leaned on as such alongside newly minted captain Andy Greene. These performances have been great to watch for Devils fans, and while it's early to say how many of them continue, it's definitely been enjoyable to see some of these names producing.
Last night's Blues game perhaps showed some of the cracks for the Devils, with the team being outclassed by a top team in the latter two-thirds of the game, despite a good first period, but the Devils have also held their own against some pretty decent teams over the past couple weeks. A convincing win over Chicago and a hard-fought win in a sloppy game against Vancouver were encouraging signs and, with 4 goals scored for New Jersey in each game, pretty good games to watch for New Jersey fans. It remains likely that the Devils will struggle a to keep up with a lot of the deeper teams in the league, but at least for now, they are finding ways to generate offense and are a young, quick, and feisty team that the fanbase is understandably starting to grow attached to.
Now, there is certainly no guarantee this stretch of good feelings lasts in New Jersey, and expecting the Devils to finish within the playoff picture remains a considerable stretch, but this Devils team has produced more enjoyable hockey through the first month and a half than I think a lot of us were expecting for the entire season. The low expectations have obviously played a part but it's nice to see some organic excitement building around this Devils team. Hopefully, they can let us dream and keep having fun for at least a little while longer.