MSGNetworks.com: There’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Devils heading into the new campaign thanks to the new additions general manager Ray Shero made during the offseason – Marcus Johansson, Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller, Brian Boyle amongst others. How much will they add to the team?
Ken Daneyko: I think Ray did a nice job of revamping the team by bringing more offense and more skill. Obviously, they also added Nico Hischier with the No. 1 pick in the draft and he’s looked really good in preseason.
As a matter of fact, the entire team looked really good in preseason. It was important for them to have positive momentum going into the regular season. They were 5-1-1 in preseason play. Those wins were important and the way the offense performed was important.
[Coverage of the Devils Season-Opener Starts Saturday at 1:30 PM on MSG-Plus and MSG GO]
All around, there’s a better feel with the aura around the team. They’re committed and most importantly, the players feel better about the team. They feel like they’re capable of competing on a regular basis. You heard it from head coach John Hynes and from Ray Shero during the offseason about being harder to play against this year. Along with that, you needed more talent and more skill, and they have that. You can see that recommitment from every guy in that room.
They’re in a tough division, perhaps the toughest division in the entire NHL. There are no easy games, but the Devils believe they can be one of those teams that can surprise … and why not? You have to believe that way as a player and as a team.
With the addition of the young players and some of the guys like Hischier, Butcher and Mueller, you can really see how this team has progressed. Mueller has looked really good in training camp and Johansson is just a complete player. Getting Johansson was one heck of an acquisition by Ray because he is a good, good hockey player! He’s still a young guy, but he’s fit in seamlessly thus far.
There are a lot of positives going in, but now it’s all about putting it together. This team is on the right track and its exciting times for Devils fans.
MSGNetworks.com: Part of the reason why fans believe the Devils are headed in the right direction is the aforementioned Nico Hischier. We’ve seen it in the past few years with guys like Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel who were high first-round picks that had an immediate impact on their teams. From what have you seen this preseason, what do you think the ceiling is for Hischier?
Ken Daneyko: I think his ceiling is really high and the outlook for Hischier’s future is very bright. It’s little too early and unfair to compare him with some of the names that were mentioned. Those guys were generational players that you don’t find too often. Having said that, he looks like a special player. His attitude and his commitment allow him to have the right frame of mind. He just seems like a good kid who wants to learn and wants to be part of building something. He’s charismatic and all those things are great for the Devils.
But the most important thing is: Does he have great skill? No question. He’s got great hockey IQ and great sense as well. I’ve been just as impressed with his defensive presence as the offense, which they need. We know that the Devils will have to improve defensively and certainly did that in preseason as a team. He can handle the pressure and he will with a mature attitude. From the second he was drafted to all the hoopla and press he did in the offseason, his perspective was in the right place.
It’s always about the team and you can see that. That’s so important with a top player, too. This kid knows the game and he’s really fun to watch.
MSGNetworks.com: Is there any player past or present you can compare Hischier to?
Ken Daneyko: Well, I try to stay away from making comparisons in general and I don’t want to put any more pressure on him that there already is. Having said that, I know that his idol was Pavel Datsyuk growing up and you can see some of that in him. That’s not to say I’m putting Nico in a comparison to a Pavel Datsyuk who was a great, great player in the National Hockey League. But you can see why he admired Datsyuk because Nico wants to be a 200-foot player. He wants to be responsible in his own end and he’s a smart player like Datsyuk.
MSGNetworks.com: Let’s take a closer look at the forward group the Devils have this season. Unfortunately, the team has already been hit by some unforeseen circumstances with Travis Zajac out due to injury and Brian Boyle being diagnosed with leukemia. But there appears to be a lot of added depth this season. It looks as if Pavel Zacha will be centering Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri on the No. 1 line, who else do you think will be called upon to step up?
Ken Daneyko: You mentioned one guy already in Zacha, who’s looked great in camp. The key is preparation and he really prepared himself this summer by hanging around in New Jersey and training hard.
You can see a quiet confidence about him, he’s more confident than he’s ever been. He’s a kid still and at times he was overwhelmed last year, both on and off the ice. That takes time for a player to understand the rigors of the NHL and to understand the preparation and work that goes in on a daily basis. He admitted to some of that and it’s great to see that he’s really been receptive this summer to do all the things to prepare himself for the season. It showed in preseason and he’s got to carry it over to the regular season.
What at one time would have been a weakness, all of a sudden, it’s a strength with the depth the Devils have [at center]. You have Johansson who can play center, but has also been an effective winger as well. There are a lot of options the coaching staff and coach Hynes have this season, much more than he’s had in previous seasons. That just means the team is getting better and there’s internal competition.
The Devils will be without guys out like Zajac who has an unfortunate injury and God bless Brian Boyle, who is such a character guy. With what he’s going through, it doesn’t look like he’ll be available Opening Night, but he will be back soon and his veteran leadership is going to be so great for these kids. From my interactions over the years with him, I know he’s such a great person.
Now, these young guys get their opportunity. You have to see who can play and we all get caught up on the Opening Night roster. You need 28-30 players who can be National Hockey League players and contribute. With injuries, roster depth is going to be tested, it’s inevitable. So now you get to see guys in more prominent roles before Brian is back or when Travis gets back in December or January. You can’t replace Travis, he’s a valuable guy and a key performer, but in a weird way, it’s OK, because you can see if these kids can play and compete. You’ll see if when these injuries happen, they can fill in and you don’t miss a beat.
Good teams are developed when key guys go down because you have more depth and have more guys that can fill in that can help you win hockey games. The Devils are better situated this season because of the added depth they have. It still may take some time and we all have to have patience, but you go with what you see right now. And from what I’ve seen from camp, I’m as excited as anybody!
MSGNetworks.com: Is there a player fans might not be familiar with that they should keep their eyes on early during the season?
Ken Daneyko: A guy like Jesper Bratt, who looks like he might be on the Opening Night roster. He’s a 19-year-old sixth-round pick from the 2016 draft class. We have to see if he can keep it up in the regular season, but man did he make plays in the preseason! He wasn’t intimidated and he feels like he belongs. Now he’s got to carry into the season.
It just goes to show you how the organization has gotten better and Ray Shero deserves credit for that for finding these kids and making it a deeper team.
MSGNetworks.com: Let’s move on to the one certainty for the Devils this season: Cory Schneider. Cory admitted that he didn’t have his best season in 2016-17. From what you’ve seen in camp and preseason, how do you think Cory will rebound in goal?
Ken Daneyko: So far, it’s everything as you would expect. Cory Schneider has such an honest assessment of himself and knew he needed to be better. Guys in front of me had to be better, too, because it all goes hand-in-hand, from the defensemen to the forwards. But Cory takes on that responsibility and that’s what leaders do. That’s what top goaltenders and players do.
He’s looked really sound in camp, along with Keith Kinkaid. Both goaltenders had solid camps, like a lot of the guys up front. It’s another big reason for optimism. I expect nothing less from Cory to bounce back and be the guy that has played well and stolen games for the Devils. Hopefully, he doesn’t have to steal as many because the Devils are better!
MSGNetworks.com: Finally, we’ll end with a subject you’re very familiar with: Defensemen. Ray Shero was able to strengthen the unit by adding Butcher and Mueller, as well as lock up Damon Severson long-term. Despite not having the biggest names, do you think the defense can still be a solid group?
Ken Daneyko: We look at names a lot in the NHL. Does this group have an Erik Karlsson? No, and those guys are hard to find. Do they have a better group than some people think outside the organization? In my estimation, no doubt. Guys like Butcher and Mueller are young and they’re going to go through growing pains along the way. But they’re both puck-movers and can join the attack and can help the forwards in keeping up the offensive pressure. Butcher is a smart hockey player but hasn’t played an NHL game yet. You have to give him time. He seems very mature and ready for the next step. He’s not flashy, but he’s just smart and he moves the puck.
Mueller has a bomb of a shot and it’s a weapon you need from the back end. He can really shoot, he can skate, he’s big and has a long reach. Just by talking to him, you can sense he’s so excited for this opportunity that maybe he didn’t get when he was with San Jose.
As for Severson, he’s probably the most talented defensemen the Devils have. Can he take the next step? I think he can. I think he can play as a Top-4 guy and solidify a top-pairing spot. They all know they have to more consistent individually and as a group. They’ve got some help now with the young guys.
[Coverage of the Devils Season-Opener Starts Saturday at 1:30 PM on MSG-Plus and MSG GO]