It is exactly one week before the season-opener and John Hynes apologizes for keeping me waiting.
I’ve just conducted interviews with Cory Schneider, Kyle Palmieri, recently signed defenseman Kyle Quincey, and assistant coach Alain Nasreddine. The last order of business on this day is an on-camera talk with the Devils’ head coach. He enters our studio located in the caverns of Prudential Center, sees my half-eaten turkey sandwich and realizes the interview will interrupt lunch, and apologizes again.
I tell him that it’s no big deal. It’s clear that this day is a microcosm of how this coach operates. His first inclination is to treat everyone in the game respectfully. This is also the head coach who earlier that afternoon, ordered his entire team to conduct punitive skates as a result of penalties committed by only a handful in practice.
This is Hynes, a man less than 20 years removed from his own college graduation, bracing for his second season as a National Hockey League head coach.
The coach had given — by his standards — a terse post game press conference the previous night. His team had committed nine minor penalties in a preseason loss to the Islanders, and six of the nine were stick infractions at a time when coaches want their players to exhibit crispness and discipline.
When I asked if this was a night when no player helped his case, he responded with one word: “Correct.” The Devils’ first three regular-season games are against 2015-16 playoff participants, and his team doesn’t appear ready. There would be a short fuse at practice the next morning.
I ask about his goal for the team in the coming season and his answer is nearly identical to the conversation we had 12 months earlier. “We want to see player improvement. Let’s maximize the potential of this group. When that happens, everything you strive for falls into place.”
In a way, Hynes’ answer reminded me of what Bill Parcells once said when named Jets’ head coach in 1997, “Fellas, the operative word for this franchise starting today is ‘team’. Anyone who’s got his own agenda …” He never finished the sentence. He never promised playoffs.
The paradox here is clear: Hynes will not deviate from the principles in which he firmly believes, and the long-term plan that general manager Ray Shero has for New Jersey. That plan is implemented, however, as a tremendous fan base in the Garden State hopes to witness postseason hockey for the first time since 2012.
The notion of a 10-year exclusion from the Stanley Cup Playoffs (Edmonton), or even a seven-year wait (Carolina) is cringe-worthy. Although the Shero-Hynes tandem has been in place for a relatively short period, we enter what is a critical and challenging period in the franchise’s history: Win games, qualify for the playoffs and build for the future, while incorporating fresh young faces into the lineup. They are asked to do this with only one player, Pavel Zacha, selected in the Top-10 overall of any of the past six drafts.
This Devils’ team will feature the strongest collection of Top-6 forwards the team has possessed since the Parise-Kovalchuk led team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.
Any combination of Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Michael Cammalleri, Travis Zajac, and Palmieri make that a reality. Devante Smith-Pelly, Beau Bennett, and Reid Boucher will each get their chance to skate in the Top-6 at some point this season. Zacha appears NHL ready, and might not be the only teenager to feature on the Devils’ roster opening night because 19-year-old Blake Speers has been eye-popping. According to Hynes, Speers is NHL ready in terms of strength. He can’t play in the AHL (a rule that’s archaic and should be revisited), so Speers will play this season either in the NHL or OHL at Sault Ste. Marie.
There is simply no replacing Adam Larsson. It will be done by committee. The situation is fluid, but veteran Ben Lovejoy will likely draw the primary assignment alongside Andy Greene on the penalty kill, and whether Damon Severson can take his game to a higher level is quite possibly the biggest X-factor on the Devils’ blue line. Severson doesn’t have to be Shayne Gostisbehere, just the player who exhibited such a tremendous amount of confidence as a rookie. The player who never gave the Devils reason to play him in a game at Albany over the last two seasons until last year’s Calder Cup Playoffs.
Schneider will be asked to take his game from an All-Star level to a world class level. That won’t be easy with a defense corps in transition, but he is talented enough to make that jump. This is his time. In his fourth year in New Jersey, the 30-year-old All-Star is entering his prime.
We begin this ride Thursday night in Florida and our MSG Network Devils’ crew can’t wait. Ken Daneyko, Deb Placey, John MacLean and I are the faces you see. Producer Roland Dratch, Director Tom Meberg, Associate Director Larry Gaines, Features’ Producer Katie Epifane are the people behind the scenes who work hard to make for one of the best telecasts in the NHL. Our graphics coordinator, Dennis Frazier, joins our crew this season. If you’re a Devils’ fan, take comfort in knowing he’s one of your own — a former president of a Devils’ Fan Club, but now a full-time statistical nut. We call him Diablo. J.T. Townsend and Mike Reyes are the stage managers always pointing us in the right direction. Nick Cahill is my stat man in the booth and quickly becoming one of the best in the business.
A portion of my chat with Hynes will find itself on our airwaves opening night at Florida. The Devils are in excellent hands. USA Hockey trusted him with a head coaching assignment in the World Championships, and he was a John Tortorella assistant at the World Cup. I can see him coaching an Olympic Team in 2022, but that’s for another day.
Let’s drop the puck.