Little was expected of the New Jersey Devils, this season: after 28 years as the Devils General Manager (GM), Lou Lamoriello stepped down from the GM position. Lamoriello stayed on as the team president; however, in a stunning development, although to no one’s surprise, Lou decided to leave the organization in total and become the GM for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In doing so, Lamoriello left the new Devils GM, former Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, in an unenviable position to revamp the aging squad and was saddled with arguably the worst prospect and developmental organization in the National Hockey League (NHL), the result of many trades which failed to pan out as well as when Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuck departed, the former as a Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) for the Minnesota Wild and the latter for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). In short, Shero was left with ‘scorched earth’.
Although saddled with an aging and offensively-inept Devils squad, Shero was able to make two solid acquisitions during his first off-season, acquiring forward Kyle Palmieri and smooth-skating defenseman John Moore. He also drafted Pavel Zacha, a skillful power forward who could make the jump to the NHL in the very near future although Shero opted to allow him to further develop in the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Sarnia Sting.
So Shero has had to move forward with a particularly aging group of forward lines as well as a knee injury sustained by Patrik Elias during training camp. Losing Elias’ versatility and scoring ability appeared to be a potentially-fatal blow to start the season; however, the Devils have been one of the NHL’s most pleasant early-season surprises.
So, how are the Devils surprising the pundits forecast of gloom and doom in the wake of Lamoriello’s insistence on ‘keeping the band together’ as well as his patented trapping and defense-first approach?
- John Hynes’ coaching – Hynes, the former Scranton-Wilkes-Barre Penguins, the NHL Penguins’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate and the NHL’s youngest head coach, is considered one of the rising stars in the coaching profession after having successfully coached USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP), posting an impressive 216-113-19-9 record over six seasons. In 2008-09, he coached the US Under-17 Development Team to a 42-17-6 record. In 2010, Hynes was named the head coach of the Scranton-WB Penguins and during his 5-year reign as head coach, qualified for the playoffs, each season, reaching the AHL conference finals, twice. As Shero was well aware of his coaching potential and prowess, when he was named the Devils GM, rather than tap his former Pens head coach Dan Bylsma who eventually became the Buffalo Sabres head coach, Shero felt Hynes would be the perfect choice to guide the Devils during this transitory period. And with a 10-7-1 record in the first quarter of the regular season, so far, Shero’s hunch and confidence has paid off.
- Cory Schneider in goal – Schneider, who toiled behind Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, then came to the Devils as the heir apparent to future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, has forged a reputation as one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL. Since he’s arrived in New Jersey, Schneider has not disappointed, he’s only been the victim of a dearth of goal-scoring support. However, so far this season, the Devils have shown some signs of better support for the elite netminder, currently ranked 18th in the NHL in goals scored per game, up from their woeful ranking of 28th out of 30 NHL teams in that category. This season, Schneider ranks 7th in Goals Against Average (GAA) and 9th in Save Percentage (Save%) with a stellar .926 Save% of the NHL’s 43 goaltenders as well as posting a solid 9-5-1 record. However, for Schneider to continue to post victories, continued improvement in goal-scoring will be needed.
- Solid, young defensive corps – although Shero has expressed a desire to change the Devils into a fast, attacking squad, they are both steeped and built in Lamoriello’s trapping, defense-first style. However, one area where Lamoriello didn’t leave the Devils ‘high and dry’ was on their blueline. Although their forward lines are experienced and generally old, their defensive corps is a continually-maturing, very young, talented group. Andy Greene is one veteran in the group but the remainder of their blueline corps are in their early 20s, with Moore, Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill. Larson and Severson are considered ‘Shutdown Defensemen’ and the remainder young corps are considered puck-moving defensemen. Although Shero patiently hopes that Merrill and Gelinas continue their development, the group’s overall growth hinges on their taking the next steps.
Although there are plenty of games left in the regular season and the Devils are a team in transition and in a rebuilding mode, they have been a pleasant surprise, so far and could continue to stay in the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division’s playoff race.