Flashback with me if you will; it’s April 11th, 2012 and the New Jersey Devils are about to enter the 2012 NHL playoffs as a noise-less sixth seed, having finished fourth in their division behind three rivals. Even with a six game winning streak, little was made about this team outside of the fan base. Oh sure they had two superstar wingers, a couple of young centers leading the top six, and a pair of aging veteran wonders who still appeared to have some magic left in the tank. Iit didn’t seem to matter to the media; while the Devils were favored against the Florida Panthers in most cases, after round one, it was almost a consensus that they wouldn’t reach the Cup Finals.
Bleacher Report had the Devils out in Round 2 to Our Hated Rivals, and unfortunately for them, they got both the round and result of that match-up wrong. The NHL.com predictions were almost worse, even without the writers making predictions for the Semis and Conference Finals; while I appreciated Mike Morreale having faith, he was the only one out of 16 writers to believe in Jersey’s Team. Heck, Adam Kimelman didn’t even have the team getting out of the first round! Against all odds, with almost no one believing the team would even sniff the finals, the Devils did just that, and while they were not ultimately successful, let us not forget that they handed the Champion Los Angeles Kings just as many losses as their three Western Conference opponents combined!
So what’s the point? Why bring this up now?
Well, it’s just that the similarities are beginning to pile up; while the parallels aren’t exact, the stage could be set for a revival this season.
The Devils are entering a make or break season: they have a star winger wearing #9 who is one season away from unrestricted free agency; while Taylor Hall may not want to go home, he has a strong desire to win and Jersey’s Team needs to rally around him to be successful. While they may not have another winger at that superstar level, they do still have Kyle Palmieri, who is capable of bringing roughly 25 goals per season. That total might even increase this season, as the Devils once again have a pair of talented young centers at their disposal.
I would argue the centers this time around are even better than the pair from the last run; while Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique are both bonafide NHL centers, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes have the potential to be game changers down the middle for the Devils for the next decade or more. In 2012, Zajac was the #1 center almost by default, yet he wasn’t out of place, at least not during that run. While Zajac finished behind the aforementioned star wingers in goals, some seem to forget that 3 of the goals scored by Minnesota LW #11 were into an empty net. If the Devils get back to the dance this season, it will be very interesting to see what their current duo can do.
Speaking of Zajac, he and Cory Schneider can be cast in the roles of the aging veterans, although neither can compare to Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur, and those words are coming from a Zajac fan! I don’t think Travis is done by any means; while not the fastest player on the ice, he’s not skating in concrete either, and he continues to be a cerebral defender that can be called upon to play against any top line in the league. Another season with his running buddy Blake Coleman should allow Zajac to continue being an effective defender, even if his point totals slip this season due to the amount of depth coming in.
As per Schneider, he’s looked better in more recent action; if he’s back to pre-injury form, and people continue to sleep on him, Schneider could backstop the Devils well past April. Lest we forget Brodeur was certainly not the superhuman of his early career during that 2012 run either; and, if Schneider falters, there’s another guy with the initials “MB” waiting in the wings.
Oh, and how can we forget about the defense? Well, that’s simple; just like in 2012, no one is talking about the Devils’ defense, at least not in a positive light. The 2012 unit featured Marek Zidlicky as the most prominent name, with an underappreciated Andy Greene anchoring the group. Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov, an aging Bryce Salvador and Peter freaking Harrold rounded out the regulars, with rookie Adam “Trade is One for One” Larsson making occasional appearances.
Again, I’d argue the 2019-20 Devils defense looks better, even with Andy Greene now in the Salvador role. P.K. Subban had a bad season this past campaign by his standards, but he seems ready to bounce back, which would have him as a better #1 than anyone the Devils has in 2012. Damon Severson is better than anyone you would like to compare him to from that list, aside from Prime Greene; at his absolute worst, he is Zidlicky: a talented offensive force who makes occasional blunders in his own end. Sami Vatanen is better than Fayne and Volchenkov, possibly put together; ditto Will Butcher, who again is basically Zidlicky at his worst. Ty Smith should be the talented rookie for this year’s team, although I think this coaching staff might not jerk him around as much as the prior regime did to Larsson. No matter how you feel/felt about Larsson, Peter Harrold should not have been playing over him, as he was not winning the Devils games either on offense or defense.
Lastly, the Devils seemingly have more depth coming into this season; the 2012 squad didn’t gain it’s final member, Stephen Gionta, until the final game of the regular season. This year’s model is looking at the possibility of too many forwards, as the left side could feature any of Hall, Coleman, Jesper Boqvist, Nikita Gusev, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, and Miles Wood. While some of those players will be moved to right wing (looking at you Bratt) or possibly center (Coleman or Zacha), the amount of competition for main roster spots should help to bring out the best and have each player’s talent on display.
Maybe I’m reading too much into things; maybe I’m just excited that some of the seeds that the Devils planted in the past seem to be starting to bloom. Maybe I’m just craving a return to glory for the Devils, with only one playoff series since that magical 2012 run.
Or maybe...just maybe...the stars are set to align again.