It was the end of the 2015-2016 season. My friend and I were in our second year of season ticket ownership, and our second year of watching a bad on-ice product. The Devils were about to start their final game of the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs — an 82-point team vs a 69-point team in a pointless last game of the year is not something you sign up for as a season ticket holder, but I attended because, hey, I paid for the ticket. And there were a few interesting things to watch for, actually. Partially to psyche myself up, I researched a piece on some landmarks that could feasibly be achieved in that game and posted it here (a practice I continued the next year).
That game turned out to be one of the most enjoyable games I ever remember attending. If you’re interested in the nostalgia, John recapped the game here. Henrique and Palmieri, who entered the game with 28 and 29 goals respectively, BOTH got to the 30-goal plateau in this game. And that was just the beginning! Patrik Elias had 1 goal and 2 assists in what would turn out to be his final game in the NHL. He did it with countryman, Pavel Zacha who was playing in his first ever NHL game, and logged 2 assist of his own. By the way, this was all with Lou Lamoriello in the building. As an attendee of the game, I can vouch for the fact that, at the time, this game was felt like a perfect tribute to the Devils past (Elias, Lamoriello), present (Henrique, Palmieri), and future (Zacha).
So even in a lost season, there can be things to watch for. What might those things be this year?
Will Butcher needs 1 point to get to 30. He would be just the 2nd New Jersey Devil defender ever to record 30 points in each of his first two seasons (source).
Nico Hischier sits at 29 assists and if he gets his 30th, he’ll be only the 3rd Devil to get 30 assists in each of his first two seasons (Kirk Muller, Scott Gomez: source). With 27 each, Travis Zajac and Damon Severson also have a shot at this.
Andy Greene is one point away from 25. There are less than 50 defenders in NHL history to record a 25 point season at 36 or older (source). Scott Stevens played until he was 39 and only managed to do that once.
If Travis Zajac scores one more goal, it will be his 186th which will put him past Kirk Muller and into 5th most all time among Devils (Patrik Elias 408, John MacLean 347, Bobby Holik 202, Zach Parise 194). Also, a shorthanded goal would be his 12th breaking a tie with Doug Brown and Stephane Richer for 4th in franchise history.
Speaking of which, Blake Coleman, after only 2 full seasons, is already only 1 goal away from the top 10 in franchise history in shorthanded goals. Zajac and Greene are 1 shorthanded assist away from joining the top 5 and 6 respectively.
Nico has a GAR of 14.3 which is only 0.2 goals behind Palmieri’s 2016 season for 10th best for a Devils skater in the analytics-era franchise history.
Part of what made the game I described in the intro exciting was the young players. It featured Pavel Zacha (OHL season ended), as Miles Wood (NCAA ended), and Steve Santini (promoted from AHL) all in their first ever NHL games.
The Devils have some prospects whose seasons are over. If a player is not in the postseason and their leagues regular season is over, they’re normally free to join the NHL team. The Devils have a few guys that are going to play for their country in the world championships like Jesper Boqvist and others have made it to a round of the playoffs that locks them in for the remainder of the year like Ty Smith. Of the list of eligible Devils that may squeeze in a GP with the NHL club before the season ends, the most interesting is probably Jeremy Davies.
Davies and Reilly Walsh have both been super productive defencemen for their respective NCAA teams, but Walsh is expected to go back to college for his Junior year. If Jeremy Davies signs, that’s big firstly because it means we don’t risk losing him in his Senior year (like the Avs lost Butcher to us, or we lost Kerfoot to them), and secondly because we’d get to see him! The high-scoring defensive trio of Smith, Walsh, and Davies have the potential to completely change the complexion of this defense, and, as a result, the franchise. An actual NHL appearance could be riveting.
EDIT: Jeremy Davies signed a 2-year contract, starting in 2019-20 with New Jersey today (Source: NJDevils Official Twitter)
What about players from the AHL rather than juniors? Would we see any pull a Santini and get one game up with the big club before the end of the season? Sure why not? Of the guys that could reasonably be called up, the one I’d be most interested in seeing is Marian Studenic. He was really impressive in he preseason, and there were times when, due to the NJ injuries pulling Binghamton’s top forwards, he was the best player in the Bing. For someone selected 143rd overall, the 20-year-old been pretty exciting to watch.
And, to tie it all into the theme of “record-setting” from this article, if someone does get a game in, that will tie the Devils franchise record for number of rookies to play in one season. If multiple play, it will set the record.
In seasons like this, we are long past the point where I stop paying attention to how well the Devils are doing in the standings, and start focusing on individual player narratives. Coleman’s season has been a privilege to watch. Severson has really come into his own. Nico is already an elite forward in this league. And Greene and Zajac continue to cement their Devils legacy.
These benchmarks give us things to pay attention to. It gives us a reason to be grateful for this season where not much gratitude is warranted. It allows us to be happy for the vets who kept up the compete level all season, and the young guys who we may watch for years to come.
Maybe this will swing and miss catastrophically. Or maybe we’ll get the 2016 game #82 all over again...
One can hope.
Thanks as always for reading and leave your thoughts in the comments section below. #LGD