As the Devils truck along with the final 29 games of their season, the emphasis looks to be on its collection of youngsters navigating their way through the league. Which is to say, it might not look all that different from the first 27 games.
Six players under 24 have carved out regular roles for themselves. Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich have shined at times offensively and Ty Smith has provided some flare with the puck on the backend. Nate Bastian and Mike McLeod are finally becoming regulars and Mikhail Maltsev is coming off a six-shot, 16:37 showing versus the Penguins on Thursday. You could say the kids have arrived, but 5 of 6 have played in 22 or more games.
No this hasn’t been the post-deadline clubs of the past–handing roles to players to see what you have. It’s been a genuine and opportunistic bunch that figures to expand their roles as the second half of the season rolls on.
And part of the success belongs to Lindy Ruff, who has dispelled any such narrative of this 20-year NHL bench boss having some sort of old-school mentality with young players.
“We have had a lot of young guys that have played really important (roles),” Ruff said. “You look at Shary (Sharangovich) and Janne (Kuokkanen), that line is something that if you get a line that plays that well together, they stay together for a long time.”
They did yet again on Thursday and in the case of Sharangovich, it was his fourth 19:00+ showing in the last five games. His skill is apparent, but so too is the head coach putting some trust in a player that entered the season as a bit of an unknown.
“I’ve had a history of trusting young players in big roles,” Ruff said. “When I’ve brought them up in the past, whether it’s Dallas or Buffalo, it’s not trying to guard them or play them 5-6 minutes, it’s put them in a situation that I want to see what they can do. I don’t want to take them out of the lineup in the last 10 minutes and just play veteran players if they played well.”
Sharangovich, Maltsev, Kuokkanen and the teenaged second-year Devil, Jack Hughes all saw action in the closing moments of regulation and finished the game among the forward leaders in ice-time–Hughes recording 19:51 to go along with his third multi-point game of the season.
“We’re trying to focus on our game and be a harder team to play against,” Hughes said. “Play the right game that we should be playing every night. We had a stretch there where we weren’t playing great hockey and the results were showing.
“The last few games we’ve been playing better. Like I said, the results are showing that we’re playing better. We have to keep playing hard and skating. We’re a young team, we’re learning how to win and every win we get is pretty huge.”
Ruff says the young players though have been earning the minutes and are passing some of the situational tests that have come with it.
“It’s the only way you can judge whether this player can withstand the pressure. It’s easy when a game is going good to say ‘well, he played well.’ I want to see when you’re under the gun, it’s 3-2, the other team is really coming–are you going to win a wall battle, are you going to win a 50-50 battle–are you going to be in the right place? That’s the best time to judge a young player. We’ve had a lot of young players that have passed the test.”
Equally opportunistic, though 28, Scott Wedgewood stopped 40 shots to secure the team’s first win-streak in a month. He was expected to be the backup on the night before Mackenzie Blackwood left mid-warmup with what has only been described thus far as an upper-body injury. Hughes scored 10:02 into regulation as the Devils tallied the first three goals of the game before the Pens answered twice including one tally at 19:55 of the third.
“I was just kind of prepared–I had like maybe 8 or 10 shots at the end of warmups,” Wedgewood said when asked about how he approached things after Blackwood left mid-warmup. “As I was coming back in the room, I got the nod.”
The goaltender has found his way back to the NHL for the first time since 2017-18, putting up a .920 save percentage a 2.53 GAA through 9 starts–3-3-3.
“He’s obviously really given us a real solid backup goalie,” Hughes said. “(Blackwood) is our guy and he’s had a really good year so far, hopefully he’s back soon and the injury isn’t serious. But, (Wedgewood) came in, he wasn’t phased–came in and played great and he had another great game for us. We’re happy for him.”
The Devils and their opportunistic youth and journeymen will see the Penguins again on Saturday.