Okay, so we as a staff may have been a bit hasty in writing off the New Jersey Devils for this season; granted there's still quite a bit of hockey to play, and November is looking to be tough (as Mike wrote about yesterday) but so far at least one of the team mottoes for this season appears to hold true. No, I'm not talking about #RELENTLESS, as John references frequently in his articles/recaps, mainly because to me it's a number sign and not a hash tag, but the slogan of "New Heart, Same Soul." I think this might actually be a good summary of the team's moves as well as their play so far. There have been some games this season where I said, "That's it, they're done." In seasons past, I would have been right; but this Devils team has been different; resilient; persevering. Maybe it's the coaching; maybe it's the new guys; or maybe, it's everything being put together into a perfect storm here.
Unless you haven't been following the team for about half a year, the new heart of the team is apparent; Ray Shero and John Hynes have come in and put their own stamp on what was viewed as an old, boring team with a near future that appeared very bleak. As the new heart of the team, Shero decided that the team could use some new blood, and opted not to re-sign many free agents and even cut loose long-tenured Devil Dainius Zubrus. He would go on to bring in players such as Kyle Palmieri, John Moore, David Schlemko, Sergei Kalinin, Jiri Tlusty, and Lee Stempniak. While many of these players were established veterans, they fit the new fast, supportive attack mold that Hynes wanted his team to play.
That new system for offense is also part of the new heart that we're talking about when it comes to the Devils. Watching Devils games for the past few years under Peter DeBoer, and even Coach Hydra saw a team that tended to dump and chase the puck in the offensive zone. The problem with that was to be able to retrieve the puck upon dumping it in, a team has to have better speed than their opponents. Outside of a few players, the Devils were one of the slowest teams in the league prior to this season, and it showed especially when attempting to generate chances on offense. While it has been a small sample size so far, the Devils have looked much better on zone entry this year (with the exception of the power play) and it has helped to generate more scoring chances in most of the games we've played.
The heart of the team is not completely new, as several players that remained with the team are still an important part of the core; Andy Greene is officially the team's captain after a season where many considered him the leader with Bryce Salvador sidelined by injury. Travis Zajac returns as an alternate as will Patrik Elias once he is healthy enough to play. Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri have also been named alternates, and the four will rotate, showing that while one of the pieces (Cam) is newer to the team, the rest of the leadership group has already been playing together for a few years in New Jersey.
A soul can best be described in my opinion as an immortal, essential element; it is a requirement that establishes identity and can never be extinguished. The Devils ownership, management, and much of the personnel may have changed over the past few seasons, but the Devils are still the Devils. While building from the net out was certainly an implementation of the old regime, Ray Shero obviously believes in it himself, otherwise he could have entertained offers on Cory Schneider for help on offense; while I don't know this for sure, you have to believe that if Schneider was being offered around, his name would have come up over the summer along with the number of other goaltender names being floated around.
Defense is not only the next step of building from the net out, but is a hallmark of this franchise, with the only numbers currently retired (at least until February) being those of defenders who have played for the team. The Devils emphasize shot suppression, and reducing the quality chances that opposing teams get. As of now, most of our corp are doing that, with 4 of our 7 defenders being ranked in the top 11 for lowest shots against per 60 minutes. The team is tied for 9th in league in goals against (31) which is a testament to how well the defense and goaltenders are playing.
While 29 goals for isn't exactly a stellar number, it's fairly consistent with the team's modus operandi. This time last season, the team had scored only 4 more goals, yet had conceded 12 more. The supportive part of Hynes' coaching strategy is paying off, as it is bringing us back to what Devils hockey has always been: close, lower-scoring games.
What Does It All Mean to Us?
I think that even with the small numbers of games that we've played under John Hynes, the future may not be as bleak as we thought before the season began. While there are certainly pieces needed up front for the Devils to truly become a competitive team again, some pieces (such as Pavel Zacha and possibly players like Joseph Blandisi) are in the process of being shaped to fit the mold.
I think we all figured we would be somewhere closer to 14th in the conference rather than being in a 3 way tie for 9th even at this early juncture, but November, as I mentioned earlier, could be a make or break month for this time. It's time to see how mentally strong this team truly is, though I must mention they showed some tenacity in the game against Ottawa to claw back and take that game. The effort needs to remain, players who are playing well (Zajac, Palmieri) need to continue to do so and players who were playing well but have cooled off lately (Henrique, Cam, Stempniak) need to start finding their names on the score sheet again. If anything changes, the team could find themselves looking forward to the lottery early again rather than looking at playing out a competitive season.
Now I'd like to hear what you think on these ideas; do you believe that "New Heart, Same Soul" is an accurate summary of the team's start this season? Are you worried about the upcoming schedule? Do you think the Devils can maintain this level of play for the entire season? Leave any and all comments below, and as always thank you for reading!