New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier (13), New Jersey Devils center Pavel Zacha (37), New Jersey Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton (7), New Jersey Devils center Dawson Mercer (18), New Jersey Devils left wing Tomas Tatar (90)
Come Monday, the Devils will have played a single game one week into the NHL season. And while the 4-3 OT win capped off by the kind of nifty Jack Hughes maneuver fans inside a packed house at the Rock have been waiting for, it remains a small star in the universe that will wind up being the 2021-22 Devils. Figuring out the identity of this team from the outside will indeed be a work in progress. More importantly, part of the equation is how much the team will be as well.
Hughes’ two-goal showing was a fun one, highlighted by a spin-around goal in the second period and some more spatial awareness on a two-on-one OT opportunity, beating Hawks’ Kevin Lankinen after Chicago clawed back from a 3-1 deficit and scored twice in the final 3:53 of regulation. What the winning goal offered in relief, the celebration brought in prolonged satisfaction. Throwing the stick into the stands in the aftermath of the jubilation was undoubtedly a fine some 9-10 years ago, but in 2021 it’s embraced by the league’s official Twitter account.
Nature is healing–hockey is back to full arenas and as the League ventures into more publicity on its US TV deal and finally an embrace of the personalities within, there’s something fun about Hughes and the Devils that was on display at their first crack at it.
“It was a pretty cool celly,” Hughes said. “My buddies have been texting me about it. It’s great to play in front of a full barn again–seeing all those jerseys, all those Devils fans. It was crazy loud tonight, too. For us, professional athletes, you want to play in front of a full crowd. It was special to have them back in the building.”
For Lindy Ruff, his second season behind the New Jersey bench started with a win, a battle back and seeing No. 86 follow up on his 20-21 campaign.
“I think it’s real important that we battled through that bit of adversity and ended up winning in overtime,” Ruff said. “You can probably say last year we’d say ‘Jack (Hughes)’ had this great opportunity and didn’t take advantage of it and now I’m talking about the opportunity (he) got in overtime and did take advantage of it.”
For many that were in attendance on Friday, March 10, 2020, a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh, was the last time they watched live hockey. The Devils, then 28-29-12, were eying their seventh postseason absence in eight seasons and were just months removed from a the firings of their coach, their general manager and the trading of 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner, Taylor Hall.
Limited capacity of fans were allowed entry into the Rock for the final 19 games of the 2020-21 season, but the team won just five of those meetings with a mostly inexperienced group, especially following the trade of Kyle Palmieri and career-Devil, Travis Zajac.
The trading of team favorites hasn’t been unfamiliar territory–the exits of Hall, Adam Henrique, Brian Boyle, Andy Greene and Blake Coleman have morphed the identity of the franchise. So while Jack might represent the fun, new wave of personality-driven star talent, it’s understood that results matter, too. And fun on opening night won’t carry an 82-game season.
There are corrections to be made. The Blackhawks, who have opened the season poorly, scored twice on the power play and evened the game with 25 seconds remaining in regulation with the net empty. On two power play tries, the Devils failed to generate scoring chances or meaningful OZ looks. In 20-21, they ranked 31st in PK percent; 28th in PP scoring. New personnel, most notably Dougie Hamilton, who will work the point on the first unit of the power play, should and has to boost that department while Ryan Graves will get a bulk of kill work–led the team with 5:55 of PK time on Friday, including a bulk of the work on a Dawson Mercer double-minor in the third that led to the 3-2 Chicago tally from Kirby Dach.
“We know that we can learn a lot from that last six minutes,” Ruff said. “We know that we don’t want to take that type of penalty. We also know that we can defend that type of situation–the 6-on-5 better than we defended it.
“A lot of new personnel, a lot of new players–we’ve got a great group in that room and there’s some areas we still have to deal with. We’re looking forward to just getting better everyday.”
Unlike seasons past, there does appear to be the roster makeup of this team to suggest ‘getting better’ might just in fact mean there are considerable steps and margins in the standings that this team is capable of taking. Especially given the missing bodies for the season-opener, Mackenzie Blackwood, Damon Severson, Ty Smith and Miles Wood–all should have impactful roles when healthy.
Being fun is no longer criminalized in the NHL and that seems to bode well for the league’s second youngest club. But make no mistake about it, the outlook of this club is a step forward and that will be determined while the clock is still running, by fans, pundits and the anticipated rise in success.