If you are reading this article, and definitely if you read articles on this website regularly, you most likely watched every minute of the New Jersey Devils’ season opener on Thursday night. In fact, you may have watched more than me as I missed the first couple minutes of the second as I had the football on during intermission and wasn’t paying attention to the time. If you did, you probably had many different thoughts about the team throughout the game, sometimes later thoughts being contradictory to earlier ones. I certainly did. There were times during the game where I felt optimistic about what I was seeing and what I could hope to expect as October progresses. Then, however, there were other times where I felt like I was watching many of the same mistakes that plagued this team last season, and that is never a good feeling to have when said team didn’t make the playoffs the year prior.
After the game was over, I was somewhat unsure how to feel. Should I feel excited that some young players had some pretty good debuts, or that Cory Schneider is still a top 3 goaltender in the NHL? Or should I feel anxious that this team still could not score and looked very out of sync with its passing and overall cohesion? Perhaps I should feel a little of both actually. Looking back at game 1 and projecting forward based on what the Devils showed us, here are both the optimistic and pessimistic views from a fan’s perspective.
Optimism is the Key to Life Baby!
There were definitely reasons to be optimistic about what was going on in Sunrise Thursday night. First off, the young guns getting their debuts did somewhat well, at least from the eye test. Pavel Zacha was visible on the ice on several occasions. His near goal towards the end of the first where the puck just sailed over the net was an excellent effort from him that makes you excited to have him on the ice. He is out there giving it his all on every shift, and that one in particular ended with a goal, so his effort was not in total vain. I personally did not think that he looked overwhelmed or out of place despite being only 19 years old. There were also a couple shifts where I saw the fourth line, including Blake Speers and Miles Wood, spend a decent amount of time in the offensive zone. Yes they came after offensive zone faceoffs, but they were able to maintain the zone and cycle the puck around to create chances. They may not have generated goals, but I did not think that either of them were particularly invisible either, though I definitely do think Zacha was more visible than they were. And it also helps that Speers was positive in relative Corsi, which helps with his underlying numbers.
Next, the best debuts came from guys who cannot be sent down to juniors for further development. Yohann Auvitu was awesome out there. Not only did he have that excellent assist, but he was a beast in possession with a 54.17% Corsi and a 17.66% relative Corsi. Those are absolutely dominant numbers, even on the Devils which were a bad possession team in game 1. He absolutely made a case that he should be given more minutes, as he was dead last in 5v5 minutes amongst the 6 defensemen. If he keeps that up all year, he will become a staple on this defensive corps and will put to rest a lot of the questions that many have about the Devils defense this season. PA Parenteau also was a bright light, and he instantly made Ray Shero look like a smart man by claiming him off waivers. Not only did he have the lone goal, but he was also a beast in possession with a 53.33% Corsi and a 14.44% relative. Yes he did take that terrible penalty later in the game, but overall you have to like what you saw from him. He made a case for top 6 minutes over someone like Devante Smith-Pelly.
Finally, how can you not be optimistic about this team overall when Cory Schneider is in net? Even when they are not playing at their best, which clearly they were not on Thursday, you can almost always rely on Schneider to keep them in games. And not only did he keep them in the game, he basically singlehandedly got New Jersey the point by getting that game to overtime. He made the game worthwhile, as while it is never great to lose anytime, grabbing a point from a very tough Florida team is nothing to shake your head at. He is MVP caliber, and I don’t think it is out of the question that by March we are legitimately discussing him as a possible Vezina candidate. He is worth every penny he makes.
Pessimism is Just Realism!
On the other hand, there were definitely reasons to be pessimistic as well. As I did before, let’s start with the young guns. Despite what I wrote above, Speers and Wood really did not contribute a whole heck of a lot either. Speers did have a positive relative Corsi, but he played the least of any Devil last night at just under 8 minutes, which clearly showed that as the game was tight in the third, John Hynes did not trust him out there. Zacha and Wood were also negative in relative Corsi on a team that produced a completely miserable 41.38% Corsi as a whole. Both were exactly a -7.56 relative Corsi, which is quite bad on a bad possession team. Zacha may have had some good attacking shifts on net, and Wood may have had a couple shifts where he wasn’t buried in possession, but overall when both of those guys were out there, the puck was going the wrong way, even as compared to other Devils. Given their performances after game 1, I think Zacha could possibly remain up, but both Speers and Wood would need to showcase more if they expect the Devils to burn a year off their ELCs.
Next, it is very obvious that team chemistry is just not there yet. Watching the Devils try to navigate the neutral zone, and even sometimes try to get the puck out of the defensive zone, gave me fits. Florida looked very smooth most of the night while bringing the puck up ice, making crisp passes and generally looking like they had a clue as to where their teammates would be. I felt like this was not so with the Devils. Passes would not connect, defensemen would double back and hold the puck way too long waiting to find an outlet up ice, and often would instead pass it to a Panther going the other way, leading to a long shift of defense for NJ. Whenever I saw a Devil look to pass it up ice, I had zero confidence that a skater would actually be there ready to cleanly accept the pass, and that is never a good feeling. It could be a main reason as to why the Devils had such a miserable time in possession.
Finally, the Devils looked completely out of sorts at 5v4, 4v4, and 3v3. They looked great at 4v5, killing penalties very well, but that was it for non-5v5 play. The 4v4 was atrocious, but the 3v3 could have actually been worse except for the one chance Adam Henrique had thanks to an amazing play and setup by Taylor Hall. In both cases, the Devils had no idea how to cycle the puck, pass someone open, or set anyone up for anything decent. Most of those times were spent either aimlessly passing it around until Florida took control, or simply playing defense. Then, there were the power plays as well, which were equally as bad. The Devils did carry the puck into the zone a couple times which I was thrilled to see, but did absolutely nothing with it even then. There were other times as well where the puck was dumped in, which never worked at all. This may all be related to the former gripe of no team chemistry, but overall apart from the penalty kill, no non-5v5 time was good time.
So there you have both the optimistic and pessimistic views one could possibly take after Thursday night’s season opener for the Devils. There could definitely be more arguments for either side, and you could certainly argue against what I wrote, but I personally feel that both sides are legitimate in their thoughts, and it is tough to simply take one side or the other. And in the end, that could be alright. There are still 81 more games to go. Maybe Zacha builds off his decent start and really turns it up and keeps a spot on the roster and becomes a productive player, or perhaps that mantle goes to Wood or Speers. Maybe over time, as they continue to play together, the overall team chemistry improves and they begin to connect on passes and look crisp through the neutral zone. Maybe they are actually a good power play team who just started against a strong penalty killing team. On the other hand, maybe the young guys are duds this year and clearly need more seasoning, the team never really builds strong chemistry as the lines change regularly to look for a spark, and Schneider’s back gets extremely weighed down from having to carry this team night after night. Optimism vs. pessimism, it’s your call.