Mark my words: starting today you can call the New Jersey Devils a legitimate contender for a 2016-17 National Hockey League playoff berth.
And if you don’t believe The Maven, ask one of the men who will make it happen — the Devs’ leading scorer, Kyle Palmieri.
When I put the playoff question to Montvale, New Jersey’s pride and joy, he wasted no time with his response.
“Without a doubt we’re a playoff team,” Kyle asserted, “especially when you consider all the good players we’ve added. Now there’s no reason for us not to make the post-season.”
Kyle’s enthusiasm is compounded by his agreeing on Thursday to a five-year deal with the Devils that’s worth $23.25 million.
No less important is the fact that the New Jersey resident will call The Rock his home rink through his peak big-league seasons.
When I asked Palmieri, 25, what it means to him as a local boy to make good so close to home and family, he bubbled like a new bottle of ginger ale.
“This whole thing brings me pure excitement,” he explained, “because not only am I happy but my family is ecstatic. For me, it’s pure enjoyment to be able to play in front of friends and family.”
Kyle added that further pleasure has been derived from watching the Devils grow since he was acquired from Anaheim.
A team that a year ago was regarded as an NHL bottom-feeder was slowly but relentlessly re-crafted by general manager Ray Shero.
But few seasoned observers in or out of the Metropolitan Area expected them to be so consistently competitive through three-quarters of the 2015-16 season.
Had it not been for a long-term injury to sharpshooter Michael Cammalleri, the Devs might have squeezed into a wild card berth. A spate of new faces now gives the club and its fans new confidence.
The additions of superstar-in-the-making Taylor Hall as well as Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Ben Lovejoy, potential ace forward Beau Bennett and battle-hardened forward Vernon Fiddler has lifted the club’s brand to a new level.
“Our team needed more scoring,” added Palmieri in a Thursday afternoon conference call, “And we got it.” A player like Hall creates offense with his speed.
“And when I think about acquisitions such as Lovejoy and Fiddler, I can’t wait for the new season to get started.”
Kyle toasted his coach John Hynes for helping boost his career to new heights. Remember, Palmieri and Hynes have a hockey relationship dating back to 2007-08.
That’s when the skipper was head coach of the USA Hockey National Development Program and young Kyle was thinking hockey as a career goal.
“I’ve always loved playing for John,” Kyle revealed, “and you can see by the way we grew last year as a team what a great job he can do. He’s a huge reason for my success.”
Palmieri returned to the Hynes’ fold in June 2015 when Shero acquired the then Anaheim Duck for a second-round choice in that year’s draft and a third-round selection in 2016.
How has Kyle evolved since he moved to Newark from the Left Coast?
“We watched him when he played for Anaheim and liked a lot about him including his being the right age and having physical edge,” said Shero. “We were hoping that it would translate to better production with us.
“Not that we could predict 30 goals but he did a lot for our program and became one of the team’s building blocks. It’s tough to get a good player like him and you can’t just wait for the draft.”
The Boss also expressed his pleasure over having someone from local hockey reach an NHL pinnacle. He also praised the Palmieri family’s work with New Jersey youth teams. But most of all Shero is calmly tickled with his club’s growth.
“We’ve made progress,” he added. “We’re a better, deeper team. A guy like Kyle makes those about him better.”
Speaking of players, Shero said that no decision has been made about Patrik Elias’ future other than that the general staff will “monitor” his physical progress. The lifetime Devil currently is in the Czech Republic.
Even with his well-rounded lineup, Shero still has more than $12 million salary cap space. Under contract now are two goalies, five defensemen and 15 forwards.
It’s fair to wonder what the busy GM has in mind next.
With salary cap space to spare, it’s possible that Ray still could make another surprise move. Possible but not necessarily probable.
Shero: “Having the space is a luxury and great to have but we have to see what’s out there. It’s one thing to have cap space but it’s another to use it the right way.”
When I told Ray that Palmieri believes that New Jersey now is a playoff team, he exercised managerial decorum with his answer:
“I like his excitement and enthusiasm,” Shero concluded. “Now the group will be challenged to go higher and I know they expect something out of themselves.”
Something like a playoff berth!