Surprise Packages Carrying Locals

When the first puck was dropped to launch the 2017-18 training season, a small forward from Braintree, Massachusetts named Brian Gibbons was not even on the Devils‘ depth chart.

And why should he have been?

Undrafted, the New Englander previously had been discarded both by the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. At age 29, he looked like a career minor leaguer.

Gibbons might as well have been auditioning for a remake of “The Invisible Man” when he showed up in Newark in September because all eyes were on top draft choice Nico Hischier as well as Hobey Baker-winner, defenseman Will Butcher.

Likewise, not much could be deduced about Mathew Barzal‘s future when the Islanders opened camp since he had been a two-game stint a year ago after his first audition for the big club.

Then again in early autumn, nobody populating the Rangers‘ Westchester training base was quite sure whether Pavel Buchnevich would be much better than finishing 14th on the Blueshirts’ scoring list as he had in 2016-17.

Gibbons, Barzal and Buchnevich; Put ’em all together and they spell Surprise with a capital ‘S’.

Exhibit BG is Gibbons who not only leads the Newark sextet with 11 goals and four assists after 24 games, but boasted a team-leading plus-12 in the Plus-Minus minutiae.

Which raises the question, how in Gary Bettman’s name did he become the Devils’ top goal-scorer?

“With me,” Gibbons insisted, “it starts with hard work; not only in the games but the practices as well. I don’t take any time off and try to be as consistent as possible.”

MSG Networks’ Devils play-by-play man Steve Cangialosi admitted his surprise that Gibbons quickly moved ahead of such veteran aces as Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri in the club’s goal-scoring race.

[Don’t Miss the Rangers, Devils & Islanders in Action Friday on MSG Networks & Download Free on MSG GO]

“Brian’s shot is special,” Cangialosi explained. “When he bears down, he really puts something on the puck. He became the team leader in plus-minus and got to 10 goals faster than any other player on the team.

“Can he keep up this pace for 82 games? Probably not, but the fact is that Gibbons has been a perfect fit on the Devils’ roster. And playing regularly with Blake Coleman — his linemate in the minors — has given John Hynes a comfort level.”

Gibbons’ ever-hustling, overtime game-winner in Detroit on Saturday night raised Hynes’ comfort level yet another notch while his zest-filled team continued to confound the critics.

The same could be said for what Barzal has done for the Islanders, game in and game out, both with goal-scoring and creative playmaking.

While Gibbons was scoring his game-winner against the Red Wings, Barzal did a Kid Lightning imitation skating around five Senators to set up Jordan Eberle‘s game-winner for a six-game point streak. He added another assist in Tuesday’s win against Vancouver to extend it to seven.

“For starters,” said MSG Networks’ Islanders analyst Butch Goring, “Mathew’s head works as fast as his skates. Time and again we’ve seen him buzz past defensemen and get in position to either shoot or deliver a pass.

“It’s hard to imagine that his jump from Juniors this time around has been seamless. All things considered, he should improve even more as the season progresses.”

Having spent last season refining his game with the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds, Barzal has converted uncertain skeptics into true believers after a quarter season-plus as one of the most exciting Islanders rookies since Mike Bossy.

“As for winning the Calder Trophy,” Barzal told me in answer to my question about his chances to win the rookie prize, “I don’t even think about it; just want to get better at my game.”

Ditto for Bucky Buchnevich, who scored a grand total of eight goals all last season. This second time around, he reached that mark before the month of November had concluded — and Bucky was just warming up. He’s at nine goals this season after tallying Tuesday night against the Panthers.

The aforementioned trio merely represents only a portion of Rangers-Islanders-Devils surprises sprinkled across their respective Metropolitan Division rosters.

Gibbons is flourishing alongside Hischier, Butcher and a Swede named Jesper Bratt who could have been mistaken for a Rockefeller Skating Rink ice guard before donning his gear this year. Now, he’s a Devils star forward.

“Each of them has been a pleasant surprise,” admitted Devils GM Ray Shero, “Gibbons especially because of all his goals and Butcher because defense is a tough position for a rookie even though Will’s a Hobey Baker-winner.

“Granted we had high hopes for Hischier since he was picked first overall in the draft. But he stepped right in at center after we had lost Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle before the season even started.”

After 24 games, Butcher had totaled 16 assists, a pair of goals and a plus-seven rating while also quarterbacking New Jersey’s power play.

None of this was obvious at training camp where newshounds wondered whether the former University of Denver star would justify his signing. To put it bluntly, he was no more impressive than snow in a Zamboni.

“With a flick of the switch on opening day against Colorado it suddenly happened for Will,” Cangialosi said. “It showed me that he’s going to be a full-time top-four defenseman for his entire career.

“Butcher is especially effective on the power play and that’s because the Devils’ PP is a mirror image of what he was doing with coach Jim Montgomery at Denver; only now he’s passing to the likes of Taylor Hall and, when healthy, Kyle Palmieri.”

A rookie free-agent signing in the offseason, Will Butcher has made an early impression with the Devils. The defenseman explains why he signed in New Jersey and talks about how he's adapting to life the in the NHL.

With Hischier it’s been a different story since he’s only 18-years-old and feels the pressure of a first overall draft pick who immediately was inserted on New Jersey’s top line.

“Coach Hynes trusts Nico,” said Cangialosi, “and trusts his hockey IQ. And we have to remember his age and the fact that he’s only now in his developmental years.

“Not only has he stood up to the pressure, but this kid from Switzerland has been an impact player. I can only imagine how good he might be at age 22.”

Without the terrific trio — Gibbons, Butcher, Hischier — the Devils might well be buried somewhere south of the Metro Division instead of being a point out of first place.

A similar scenario, but with a different cast, has unfolded in Brooklyn where — for the first time — the Islanders have gleefully watched once-reviled Josh Bailey turn into an awe-inspiring ace, as in his nickname.

[Fischler: Bailey’s Patience Pays Dividends]

“I’m just playing my game,” Josh told me after scoring an overtime-winning goal against Philadelphia last week. “It doesn’t hurt that I have a guy like John [Tavares] feeding me the passes.”

Less headlined but no less valuable, Andrew Ladd surreptitiously has become the forward GM Garth Snow hoped he’d be when signing the left wing to a free agent contract last year.

In December 2016, Handy Andy was just trying to acclimatize himself to a new team and had a struggle doing so while he was at it.

The 2017-18 edition — with a plus-9 rating — has become infinitely more confident and productive. A perfect example was the game-tying goal he scored late in the third period last Friday night in Philadelphia.

Precariously camped in front of the Flyers’ net between two enemy defender, Ladd managed to get his stick on a typical radar pass from — who else? — Barzal before depositing it in the receptacle.

Just because a player is making the big dough a la Ladd, it does not mean his good work should be deleted from the “Surprise” category.

The same holds for Mika Zibanejad on the grounds that The Z-man was a question mark in terms of being able to carry the center-ice load after Derek Stepan‘s move to the Coyotes.

In fact, Mika’s performance through the season’s 24 games — 11 goals, 11 assists — has exceeded expectations in the sense that he’s been the Blueshirts leading scorer in both goals and points.

Consider the close Metropolitan Division race: the Devils (14-6-4) and Islanders (15-7-2) both trail the Columbus Blue Jackets by a point at the top of the division.

Closing in on a Wild-Card spot is the sizzling Rangers (24 games, 13-10-2, 28 points), who threaten every team above them.

Blend all these facts together and you have a sensible idea why all three Met Area teams have a nifty shot at making the playoffs.

Better still — and making hay in the postseason as well.

How’s that for a surprise?

Major league, all the way!

[Don’t Miss the Rangers, Devils & Islanders in Action Friday on MSG Networks & Download Free on MSG GO]