In Part II of our end-of-the-season Q&A with Ken Daneyko, the former Devil great looks back at the rookie seasons for Nico Hischier and Will Butcher while looking ahead to an important offseason.
MSGNetworks.com: At the end of the season, Nico Hischier was elevated to being a top-line center for the Devils alongside Taylor Hall. How do you think he fared this season and where do you think his ceiling is?
Ken Daneyko: Nico was everything and then some from what you would expect from the No. 1 overall pick. His preparation, the way he carries himself on and off the ice and his performance were fantastic – not just for a teenager, but for anybody.
To step right into the National Hockey League out of Juniors is not easy. To do the things that he did at such a young age as far as understanding the game so well and being such a smart hockey player, a 200-foot hockey player was outstanding. Even when he wasn’t getting points, he always managed to help the team in some way, shape or form. He’s going to be a cornerstone of the franchise for many years to come.
Now that he’s got his rookie year out of the way, he’s going to be that much more confident and more National Hockey League-ready as far as what it takes every single night to be that go-to guy. As a youngster, he’s going to grow naturally and put on a little more beef. He showed his durability and toughness by being the only Devil to play all 82 regular season games. That’s remarkable and he managed to do that by playing through some bumps and bruises along the way. All of this shows his character and that his compete level is off the charts. It’s exactly what you want from a franchise-type player and that’s what I think Nico can become and will become for sure. He’s a guy you can rely on every night and in every situation. He’s a special player and can become a 70, 80-point guy in this league.
MSGNetworks.com: Hischier wasn’t the only rookie who had a solid campaign. Will Butcher also had a very strong first season and was terrific in the series against Tampa. Can you talk about his development and do you think he can become one of the pillars of the franchise along with Hischier?
Ken Daneyko: With a lot of these young guys and rookies, you didn’t know what to expect coming into the season. But they were all instrumental and one of the biggest reasons why the Devils made the playoffs. They came in and brought enthusiasm, speed and skill the Devils needed. Will Butcher was one of those guys on the back end that brought an element the team hasn’t had in a while – a quarterback on the power play.
He’s such an intelligent hockey player, he moves the puck and he’s a great skater. He just understands the game so well, he’s a guy that wants to get better and wants to learn. I would see him constantly look at the tablets the staff provides the team and study what he has to do or whoever he was playing against or work on things he could do better from games before. He’s a real student of the game.
Will Butcher tells his tale of reaching the NHL, from his small-town roots to the moment he knew he was finally in the pros.
It was so important for these young guys to get a taste of playoff hockey and, you’re right, Will Butcher did very well against Tampa and excelled. I just think it just shows the job that Ray Shero and his staff has done as far as acquiring players – along with coach [John] Hynes – and what they expect from them. You have to build on this, move forward and add a couple pieces, but the fact that they were able to nab a prized college free agent like Will and sell him on the direction of the franchise obviously impressed him and he seems to be really happy here. He’s going to be a big piece going forward.
MSGNetworks.com: Finally, the foundation was set for the Devils by making the playoffs this season, but obviously, the fans will want more going forward. Where do you think Ray Shero will try to improve the team in the offseason?
Ken Daneyko: Ray understands that you have to be able to build through the Draft and you have to have patience. The Devils were able to fast-track their progress this season because of the young guys we talked about – Hischier, Butcher and Jesper Bratt – and they had such an impact right away. Hopefully, that can happen again next year.
Bratt was terrific as well, even though he went through a little bit of stretch of learning the National Hockey League game. I expect big things from him, too.
There are some other youngsters in the pipeline, whether it be Michael McLeod or Joey Anderson, the guys that have been drafted that I would expect will be up here contributing sooner rather than later. These guys could add another element in order for the Devils to elevate their game.
It’s going to be tougher because they’re not going to sneak up on anybody anymore. Everybody around the league understands that the Devils are going to be a faster team with more skill, so they’re going to have to take that compete level to a higher standard just to be a playoff team. I would expect Ray to look at all angles, all possibilities, from free agency to trades to using the guys within the system. He’ll possibly look to add a defenseman which isn’t easy to find. Can he find a Top-4 defenseman that can add to their depth?
Devils general manager Ray Shero talks about the internal improvement the Devils made during the 2017-18 season and sets his sights on what the team will work on during the offseason.
I also could see him trying to add a Top-6 forward, which could be with the guys I mentioned before internally because we’ve seen young guys have such an impact. It’s no longer wait and see and have them biding their time. I think he’ll be looking to target some depth pieces and continue the process from this year by building on that skill level. One good thing is that Marcus Johansson will be like trading for another player next year. We really didn’t see the best of him or a lot of him due to all the injuries he suffered during the season. I thought he came in and did really well against the Lightning during their series. We’re going to see a better Marcus Johansson next year, the key is if he can stay healthy.
Nevertheless, this past season was a lot of fun covering the Devils, both as a color analyst and a guy emotionally invested in the team! I’m no different from the fans, you just wanted to see progress, enthusiasm, compete and the skill level get better. It certainly did from top to bottom. Coach Hynes, Ray Shero and the staff deserve a lot of credit.