We may only be three games into the 2017-18 NHL season, but these New Jersey Devils on the ice have already established a different identity from years past. They’re fast; they’re supportive; they’re attacking...wait, where have I heard those lines before?
All kidding aside, Devils hockey is fun to watch right now; the team has scored at least 4 goals in each of the games played, and between the defense and Cory Schneider, no more than 3 have gone in on any given night. Winning two games in a row used to be a challenge for this team, yet we just strung together three fairly convincing wins.
A large part of that in my opinion, can be attributed to certain players taking on different responsibilities, growing and/or changing parts of the way they play the game. While a guy like Kyle Palmieri is still the Palms of the last couple of years (and that’s a good thing) others have had to adjust; here’s what I’ve seen so far that is driving the Devils to be successful:
Honestly right now, I think Taylor Hall realizes this season that for the first time in his career, he doesn’t have to be a one man team; while he has yet to pot a goal, he’s still showing up on the score sheet and taking over games with his speed. Just from the eye test, he appears to be more reliant on his teammates; last season he only seemed to mesh with two other players (Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri) but this year, there seems to almost be some more trust and belief from Hallsy. I firmly believe that he will find the goal column sooner rather than later (c’mon Saturday) and that once he does, the points will begin to come in bunches for him.
The difference a year can make for some players is astonishing; Zacha appears to be one of those cases so far this year. While he was held without a point in the first two games of the season, he still looked to be a stronger, more confident player. That strength and confidence was rewarded with two goals last night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, including one of the prettiest power play passing displays that I have seen since 2012:
Zacha has already hit one quarter of his goal total from last season; here’s hoping that he continues to grow and continues to add more points to his total and that the Devils continue to win because of his contributions. The team will be without Zajac for at least two more months; we need Zacha and to a lesser extent, Nico Hischier, to continue to flourish in his absence.
The Fourth Line
When the opening night roster was announced, I was skeptical of a couple of the choices made, as were most Devils fans. Brian Gibbons and Blake Coleman seemed to be questionable choices to join Stefan Noesen, especially considering some of the personnel sent to Binghampton. The fourths have gotten pinned back a few times, but overall have been thriving in the Devils lineup. Of the team’s 16 goals, they have 4 of them, including Gibbons scoring the only 3 on 5 regular season goal in team history.
What was anticipated to be a weakness has proven to be an asset; when Brian Boyle is healthy, I’m having trouble figuring out who should sit for him, and who should be sent down to open a roster spot. Looking at the roster to start the season, I had at least 2 names in mind; now, I’m not even close to certain...and that’s a good thing.
The Devils entered the season opener with 4 rookies in the lineup (by NHL rules, Coleman counts as well as Hischier, Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt) as well as a number of other young players, such as Zacha, Steven Santini, Mirco Mueller and (despite his NHL experience) Damon Severson. It seemed like it could be a rocky transition into a full-blown youth movement, yet it hasn’t fallen apart yet. Severson can be thanked for the defense not falling apart (in spite of a few small errors) but Butcher has been the surprising point producer on the back end, with 5 assists through 3 games. He’s been even better than what we thought we would be getting, at least up to this point.
Jesper Bratt is the one who has to be touched upon; anyone have him as the team points leader even at this point? No? Me neither! I did predict last week in our season preview that he would establish himself as an NHLer this season, and he’s making the case at this point that he’ll be in New Jersey all year. While all of the mentioned youngsters have played well, Bratt and Butcher have been the revelations and arguably the engine driving the team so far.
So what do you all think of this team; it’s a long season, and we probably shouldn’t get too excited, but honestly it is hard not to. Who is standing out to you right now? What do you think the team does when Boyle and Zajac are ready to come back? Are the Devils for real or are they just pretenders that have beaten a couple of bad teams while getting lucky against the Leafs? Leave your thoughts below and thanks as always for reading!