Next man up.
It’s a cliché you often see in sports. A player on a team gets injured. The sport doesn’t shut down for that player or his team. They don’t stop playing games just because a player got hurt. The show must go on, and it’s on the next man up to step up. Hence....next man up.
For the New Jersey Devils, they’re experiencing a double gut punch right now as they’re without Jack Hughes, who is week-to-week, and Nico Hischier, who was deemed “day-by-day” prior to the now-completed four-game road trip.
You don’t need me to tell you how important either loss is for the Devils. Hischier is a Selke-caliber, top-line center who the Devils rely on to play in all situations. Hughes was probably the early-season frontrunner for the Hart Trophy until he crashed into the boards Friday in St. Louis. They’re both significant losses in the short-to-medium term.
Chris wrote about contingency plans on Monday in the wake of the Hughes injury and while he’s correct that GM Tom Fitzgerald should be operating with an eye towards the deadline, we do need to be frank and evaluate this situation for what it is. It’s the second week of November. Most teams aren’t looking to make significant trades at this point of the season, and even if they were, this is not fantasy hockey where you can just wishcast someone onto the roster. Those are significant voids in the lineup that are being felt right now, and there’s only so much offseason contingencies can cover as the Devils depth has certainly been tested in the early portion of the season.
There is no replacing a Nico Hischier in season.
There is no replacing a Jack Hughes in season.
The Devils have to deal with the realities of the here and now of trying to navigate the schedule, tread water, pick up points where they can, and simply survive until one or both of Hischier and Hughes return.
The good news for the Devils is that this is doable. But in order for that to be the case, they obviously need other players to step up, they need to have better attention to detail, play with structure, and execute a simpler, smarter, more disciplined game.
Dawson Mercer needed to step up before Hughes went down, so it was nice to see him finally get the proverbial monkey off of his back and find the back of the net in the Devils win in Chicago on Sunday. It’s nice to see unexpected contributions offensively from Max Willman, Curtis Lazar, and Michael McLeod. It’s nice to see Vitek Vanecek have one of his better games of the season against the lowly Blackhawks. It would be easy to dismiss it as “It’s just Chicago”, but at this point, that doesn’t matter. Style points do not matter. Actual points matter, and the Devils found a way to get two of them in Chicago.
Unfortunately, we saw the other side of that coin in Colorado last night, where an opportunity to get a point or two on the road against a tough opponent went by the wayside. The Devils should’ve been ready for Colorado’s best effort after they were embarrassed by the Golden Knights over the weekend. Instead, the Avalanche had their way with the Devils. When you are repeatedly playing on your heels and giving up Grade A scoring chances the other way on odd man rushes (which was very much a thing when Hischier and Hughes were healthy), that’s not a “We’re missing Hischier and Hughes” problem. That is a “We need to execute better” problem. Add in an undisciplined performance where you take six penalties where almost all of them are bad and/or unnecessary, and its a recipe for disaster. An opportunity to get valuable points came and went and the Devils have nobody to blame but themselves as a result.
The Devils need more performances like they got in Chicago and less like what they got in Denver as they wait for reinforcements. Players like Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and Dougie Hamilton are being paid a lot of money to put pucks in the back of the net, regardless of whether or not the Devils top 2 centers are in the lineup or not. Most of the Devils who skated last night have been on the team long enough where they should know what is expected from them on a Lindy Ruff-coached team. Hughes and Hischier being out doesn’t absolve the defensemen from stepping up their game, the depth forwards from working hard and finding a way to chip in a greasy goal here or there, nor the goaltenders from making enough saves so the Devils don’t have to score 4 goals a night to have a chance to win.
Injuries happen, but they can’t be used as a crutch or an excuse. The Devils are far from the first team in NHL history to lose star players to injuries. The Rangers are without former Norris Trophy winning defenseman in Adam Fox and former Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin, but that hasn’t stopped them from accumulating points. Cale Makar missing 22 games last year didn’t stop the Avs from winning the Central. The Lightning and Golden Knights have gotten by for years with big name players on LTIR during the regular season, and I’m not talking about guys like Brent Seabrook who are effectively retired. I’m talking about MVP caliber players like Nikita Kucherov or Selke candidates like Mark Stone, among others. The Penguins, who have had their core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang all miss games over the years, didn’t have their annual playoff streak come to an end until this past season. Why? Because the Mark Donk and Buzz Flibbet meme was very much a actual thing and they could literally plug and play anyone in their lineup and it all worked. Heck, the last time the Devils reached the Stanley Cup Final, they did it with Top Six center Travis Zajac only playing in 15 regular season games. You have to be able to overcome injuries in this league, and a big part of that is the attention to detail at which you play.
If there is a potential silver lining, it does help that the Devils have a relatively light schedule over the next few weeks. After last night’s game in Colorado, they have a total of five games before Thanksgiving. The schedule does pick up a bit after the holiday, but by then, it’ll have been three weeks since the Hughes injury. Depending upon his recovery, he may or may not be back by then or his return might be imminent, and we should get some clarity on Hischier’s status between now and then as well. Maybe if they are lucky, they won’t lose a ton of man games due to the randomness of the schedule itself.
We also shouldn’t look at the schedule though and say “Well, the Devils should win this game against (blank)”. After all, Washington is up next and the Devils just lost to the Capitals WITH Hischier and Hughes in the lineup a few weeks ago. But I’d be remiss to point out its not exactly the most daunting schedule forthcoming. Sure, Winnipeg on the road is a tricky matchup, but the Devils can’t find a way to beat a last-place Penguins team? Or a Rangers team that is currently missing Adam Fox, Igor Shesterkin, and Filip Chytyl to injuries? Or a Detroit team that has cooled off considerably since their hot start to the season?
They play the games for a reason though. The Devils should have a deep enough roster and a strong enough culture in their room where they can manage to get by and still be in the thick of the race for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. The foundation of this unit that Tom Fitzgerald has built should be stable enough where it doesn’t topple over at the first sign of trouble. That’s not to say that Hischier and Hughes aren’t important, or that if the Devils somehow win games without them that it diminishes their importance to the team. Life goes on, and its now on the healthy players to step up, play better than we’ve seen through the first dozen games of the season, and keep the Devils afloat until Hughes and Hischier return.
Next man up.