Long year’s journey into light
By Gilles Moncour
April twenty nine, two thousand seventeen. Ray Shero took his place behind the podiums along with fourteen other General Managers, most licking their wounds after missing the playoffs, a few smiling with the hockey gods after an astute trade yielded an unexpected bonanza: a chance at the first pick. As the Devils’ logo was revealed that day, the fortunes of New Jersey's team, which had been trending downward for years, suddenly underwent a sea change. Since that fateful day when the #1 pick — manifested in the dynamic Nico Hischier — was awarded, the turnup bulbs have all come up roses for these Devils.
Think back to last summer when there was still a debate as to which player was the better fit with his team: the solid defenseman whose stability helped transform McDavid's Oilers into Cup contenders, or the skilled forward who could get you 60-70 points and add a spark of life to the Devils’ moribund attack. We know it's hard to believe, but some esteemed writers (we will protect the guilty) were still calling the Adam Larsson - Taylor Hall trade a clear win for Edmonton last October.
The surprise signing of college free agent and Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher, who chose the Devils over a bevy of higher-profile teams, then burst out of the gates looking like a seasoned pro.
The incredible rise of Jesper Bratt, whose deft puck skills, play in traffic, and superior hockey sense reminds some of a young Daniel Alfredsson, until the wear of the season took its toll on his boyish body.
The kismet of Brian Gibbons, the journeyman forward who scored, it seemed, a big goal every game as the Devils were turning heads with a fantastic start.
The improbable return of Travis Zajac to the peak of his powers. Suffering the second serious summer workout injury of his career, his tepid comeback in November led to questions as to whether he could ever recapture his form from prior years. Instead, as the season wore on, he has slotted perfectly into his role, not as the Devils #1 center, but as their most valuable defensive player and trusted penalty killer.
The fortuitous situation with the Ducks, deeper in defense than any team in the league but hurting up front, which allowed the Devils to pluck a top-two defenseman from their grasp for Adam Henrique. While there is nothing bad to say about Adam and the superlative job he is doing leading the Ducks’ third line, without Vatanen the Devils would be down with the Rangers hoping for another lottery selection.
The seamless way that speedy Miles Wood and gritty Blake Coleman have integrated into the fabric of the team, each agitating opponents with their own unique versions of in-your-face hockey.
The physical work of inspirational Brian Boyle and Stefan Noesen, tough players at opposite ends of their careers who inspire others and should thrive in the playoff maelstrom.
Finally, a show of hands to all those who felt that, if Schneider broke down, the Devils had the organizational assets to not only withstand the loss — but carry the team through a tense playoff struggle? Keith Kinkaid has done all of that, and his outstanding play has been one more sprinkle of gold dust on a magic season.
As the Devils begin their quest for the Stanley Cup, much like at the beginning of the season, the odds are heavily stacked against them. According to the books, only the Colorado Avalanche are bigger underdogs than New Jersey as they battle the most talented team in the Eastern Conference.
That said, the Devils do have some advantages: the playoff style hockey they have excelled at when the pressure was turned up last month; the lack of consistency in the Lightning’s defensive efforts over the course of the year; and the pressure Tampa’s #1 seeding on an inexperienced goalie.
But the largest intangible may just be the way in which everything has fallen right for these Devils the last 12 months, how the “best case scenario” for virtually all the Devil’s moves has been not only equalled, but somehow exceeded. Taylor Hall for MVP? Vatanen excelling while playing 24 minutes a night? Kinkaid a dominant presence in net?
Do the Devils have yet another rabbit to pull out of their hats in this year of bewitching serendipity? Bet against them at your peril....