Check out a movie reel of the New-New Jersey Devils and you have to ask yourself, “Are these guys for real?”
That’s what the Vancouver Canucks were thinking last Wednesday night after coach John Hynes‘ Garden Staters invaded Rogers Arena.
Implausibly, the Devils were outshot, outplayed and even out-Corsied, yet exited laughing with a 2-0 victory.
Canucks coach Travis Green, whose club also has become an early season eye-opener, couldn’t contain his admiration for the visiting team that just had victimized his skaters.
“They’re not the Devils of old,” said Green. “They now play a fast game and are competitive and structured. If your team is not ready for them, be prepared for a long night.”
By the time Green finished his toast to the Devils, John Hynes’ outfit had won nine of its first 11 games and their first five road starts.
When I asked general manager Ray Shero to explain his club’s unexpected success, he pointed to several factors.
“For one thing,” said the team’s architect, “we’re younger and for another, we’re faster. And there’s good chemistry in the room.
The Devils also have received help from other unlikely sources such as impressive rookie-free agent defenseman Will Butcher as well as veteran retread Jimmy Hayes who was lost as a Bruin.
Another key has been the revival of Cory Schneider, now working with his former Vancouver goalie-mentor Rollie Melanson. Schneider’s 2-0 win over the Canucks was highlighted by 36 saves. He was 6-1-0 after his first seven games.
“We’re a different team from last year,” Schneider told Vancouver Province columnist Ben Kuzma. “We’re fast and dynamic.”
Neither Green, Kuzma nor Schneider are alone when it comes to Devils-lauding. The ice game’s bible, The Hockey News, led off a recent issue with the question: CAN THE DEVILS REALLY LAST ATOP THE METROPOLITAN DIVISION?
Playing with an array of analytics, author Jared Clinton concluded that such a feat would be possible only if Schneider continues to steal games as he did in blanking Vancouver.
“If Schneider can stay healthy,” asserted Clinton, “and continues his brilliance, there’s no reason New Jersey can’t stay in the wild-card race. But as Schneider goes, so will go the Devils.”
What makes the Devils lofty position — running neck and neck with the champ Penguins and such highly-rated sextets as the Blue Jackets and Capitals — is that the Devils were consigned to the cellar by many experts.
Veteran New York Hockey Journal Devils beat man Leo Scaglione, Jr. believes that such early negative critical reviews were turned into positives by the players.
“Because of those comments,” observed Scaglione, Jr., “the club is loaded with angry leaders and they are determined to change things around for the franchise.”
Then there’s been addition by subtraction.
None of the exited quartet — Mike Cammalleri, Jon Merrill, Beau Bennett, Devante Smith-Pelly — offered any meaningful positives last season.
Scaglione, Jr.: “Out with the old and slow. In with the fresh, hungry and fast. Plus, with the wins coming, the guys are having fun coming to the arena. There’s new life in the locker room.”
A lot of life has come from the club’s number one Draft pick, Swiss-born Nico Hischier, a natural leader with a sky-high hockey I.Q. armed with world-class stickhandling ability.
“Nico has become a big part of the team,” said captain Andy Greene. “So have the other kids.”
On the veteran side, center Adam Henrique seemed to sense from the get-go that with Boyle and Zajac out for the season’s first month, he had to lift his game, and Henrique has done just that.
Ditto for Taylor Hall — alias Kid Lightning — whose speed often overshadows his deluxe playmaking ability. He’s averaging 1.36 points per game, fourth-best in the NHL.
“Taylor passing prowess is underrated,” noted MSG Networks Deb Placey. “Eleven of his first dozen assists were of the primary variety.”
Hall: “Over the years I’ve worked on my passing game. It’s fun to create offense.”
Hall has worked alongside Hischier and free agent pickup Drew Stafford, another Shero gem who has glistened since being yanked off the NHL scrap heap.
Unobtrusively and without any fuss or fanfare, coach John Hynes has pressed the right buttons and has been particularly effective working with the Kiddie Corps, especially the tough, gritty Miles Wood, who has ripened under Hynes’ tutelage.
“I’m excited for our young talent,” said Hynes.
“I want to be one of the guys who leads this team,” said Miles, the son of ex-NHLer Randy Wood, a fast-flying Islander of bygone years.
“If there’s anything about Wood that surprised me,” said MSG Network’s Ken Daneyko, “it’s his speed.”
If there’s an area of concern for the Jersey-ites, it’s behind the blue line where there’s an absence of stardom but promising youngsters such as Steven Santini and Damon Severson, abetted by veteran captain Greene.
Whatever the debits of their loss at Edmonton, the club’s 9-3-0 start is more than anyone anticipated. They conclude their three-game road trip against the Flames in Calgary on Sunday night.
“The Devils don’t bore,” concluded reporter Ben Kuzma after watching them in Vancouver. “They can score and they’re not long in the tooth but long on promise.”
They’re also for real!