Rookie Trio Powering Devils to Impressive Start

When the Devils greeted the new hockey season without two of their best centers — Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle — many felt the curtain had already dropped on New Jersey’s playoff hopes.

It did not; in fact, that curtain still is going up as Newark’s favorite hockey team prepares to host the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night at Prudential Center.

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After beating Minnesota, 4-3, in overtime on Monday night, John Hynes‘ skaters lead the Metropolitan Division — alongside Columbus (27 points each) — but New Jersey has a game in hand.

How has this hockey miracle taken place?

For starters, three raw rookies stepped into the opening-night breach and, from the get-go, Nico Hischier, Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt have defied credulity by performing like 10-year veterans.

Was there any reason to expect such an inexperienced trio to save the Devils from the subterranean depths?

Not unless you believe in 100-1 shots winning The Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Yet, these exuberant kids have helped propel the Garden Staters (12-5-3) past the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins and the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals, not to mention the Islanders and Rangers.

New Jersey’s sizzling start can be attributed to many factors, but the play of the rookies has been paramount to the team’s success.

On Tuesday, backliner Butcher, a 2017 college free agent prize, made yet another Calder Trophy statement — scoring a significant goal. That gave him three points (two goals, one assist) in his last two games, lifting him to an impressive plus-7 rating.

“Will is very cool and calm with the puck,” said captain Andy Greene. “There’s no panic in his game. That’s what we got him for and we needed that.”

What’s more, Butcher’s momentum hasn’t abated a bit. In his first six games he racked up nine assists including a three-helper debut and he’s still chugging along at a very peripatetic pace.

Will’s vision and decision-making are above-average and that goes for puck distribution and shooting. Several goals that teammates have scored have been a result of rebounds from Butcher’s shots.

In this case, where there’s a Will there’s a way and that Thruway has put him second in scoring on the club. His 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) slate him behind crack left wing Taylor Hall (six goals, 15 assists).

Butcher, a 2017 Hobey Baker Award-winner, was intensively pursued during the summer and kudos to GM Ray Shero for snagging him.

His 14 assists rank him among the league leaders at his position. In today’s NHL, you need a mobile puck-moving defenseman or two if your team is to go far. Butcher’s offense — a booming shot — make him dangerous anywhere on the ice.

He may be 23 — or four years older than his fellow rookies — but he’s got the goods to be a steady presence on the Devils’ blue line for years to come.

While Butcher has exceeded expectations he has not overshadowed his other two freshman buddies; each impressive in his own right, especially 2017 first overall Draft pick Hischier.

“Nico is not one of these younger players who comes in and gets preferential treatment because of where he was picked in the Draft,” said coach John Hynes. “He has an amazing level of consistency for an 18-year-old.”

One might accuse Hynes of being partial to his prodigy but word is all over the league that the Swiss ace is a prize.

“New Jersey got really lucky with this kid,” noted ex-NHL coach Doug MacLean, now a television analyst for Sportsnet. “They have themselves a franchise star.”

The 19-year old center is proving that he deserved to go Number 1 in the draft this past June neck and neck with the Philadelphia Flyers second selection, Nolan Patrick, also a center.

Hischier has 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in his first 20 games, good enough for third place in the team scoring race.

What impresses The Maven most about Nico is that as a teenager he has a maturity beyond his years. Most young players come up and immediately try to set the world on fire by scoring goals.

Many fail to realize that goals have to be set-up by somebody, and that’s where Hischier distinguishes himself.

His hockey IQ and ice-vision are off the charts and that allows him to see not just the current play, but the next few plays as well. In short, he’s like a Chessmaster, always thinking several steps ahead.

Hischier’s two-way game is solid and he’s been impressive in the faceoff circle. He’s shown the ability to be strong in his own end, something the Devils avidly sought in the kid.

That said, Shero told me that his most pleasant surprise has been Swedish forward Bratt. Drafted in the sixth round, 162nd overall in 2016, he’s impressed the coach.

“He’s very smart,” said Hynes, “an attacking type player who understands the way the game’s going. It’s not like he’s cheating for offense or makes gambles. He plays the right way and because of that he finds holes and finds plays.”

Hischier isn’t the only 19-year old currently skating for the Devils. Bratt plays left-wing rather than center, so his job is more to score goals rather than to set them up. Regardless, he has 13 points — tied for fourth on the team (five goals, eight assists) with Brian Gibbons.

Bratt’s two-point debut, followed up by a three-point game, put him squarely on the map, and he hasn’t slipped into Slumpville since then.

His speed and skill have been a big part of the Devils’ new up-tempo style, dictating the pace of play in-game and transitioning across lines and on the power play wherever Hynes plugs him.

As for Devils fans, they are beyond enthused about the stratospheric rise of their team as well as the rookies-turned-aces.

Season ticket-holder Ingrid Young of Manhattan put it this way: “The club is showing me a nice blend of drive and hunger. The kids have turned the Devils into a more effective and even, at times, dominating team.”

Likewise, Manhattanite Noam Kogen has rooted for the Devils since their inception in 1982 and credits management for the turnabout.

“Ray Shero came up with a real find in Jesper Bratt,” asserted Kogen. “He’s well on his way to becoming one of the team’s best scorers.

“Hischier is playing with a maturity beyond his years and Butcher has given the defense an offensive boost which was badly needed.”

Nobody’s talking Stanley Cup but, based on the first-quarter season findings, optimism is the order of the day on the corners of Lafayette and Mulberry Streets.

Or, as superfan Ingrid Young puts it, “I’ll be happy with a playoff berth.”

Butcher, Bratt and Hischier gladly second the motion.

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