The Devils did plenty of soul-searching this offseason of what they can do to be a better team.
They heard snickers from their peers on other teams about them being soft, which is a dirty word to describe a hockey team, especially a team that once pride on being intimidating. They scored conference-low 183 goals, and they finished the season on a 3-17-4 skid that included one regulation win.
Third-year Devils general manager Ray Shero did his part of improving the team this offseason by acquiring Capitals winger Marcus Johansson and Sharks defensemen Mirco Mueller. They also signed Brian Boyle, Drew Stafford, Jimmy Hayes and college free agent defenseman Will Butcher. Their offseason highlight was them winning the 2017 NHL draft lottery, and they drafted Nico Hischier as their No. 1 pick.
After working hard in the offseason and in training camp, the Devils start their 2017 campaign with a sense of urgency. They want to show they are heading in the right direction after three years of awful hockey. In their home opener Saturday afternoon, the Devils showed a glimmer of hope of what can happen in their 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center.
The hope was the kids can play as they contributed in the Devils’ season opener win. Hischier, Butcher, Hayes and Jesper Bratt played a pivotal role in the Devils’ win. This is what Shero and third-year Devils head coach John Hynes envisioned when they built this team this offseason. They are relying on youngsters to lead the way in getting the team back to the right direction.
Hischier did not score in his first NHL game, but that’s okay. Not many players are going to start off the way Auston Matthews started in his first NHL game last year by scoring four goals. What should be encouraging about the Devils No. 1 draft pick was he did a great job setting up his teammates to score rather than to do too much. He does have an ability to be a good playmaker, and he could have had couple of assists Saturday if Hayes and Kyle Palmieri converted on their scoring chances.
The rookie’s best moment was confronting Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson, who connected a knee-on-knee hit late to Palmieri in the second period that had the Devils winger leave the game with a leg injury. For an 18-year-old kid to step up for his teammate by confronting him is good stuff. It shows leadership, and it creates an impression within his teammates that he will always be for them when they need him.
The No. 1 star of the game was Butcher. This year’s Hobey Baker Award winner set up three assists in the Devils’ three power-play goals. Like Hischier, he knows how to be a playmaker by setting up guys to score. The highlight play was him handing a pass to Palmieri, who threw back to him. Then he rifled it to Avalanche goaltender Jonathan Bernier, and Adam Henrique tipped it in to give the Devils’ first goal of the game.
Butcher’s playmaking skills made it evident that the Devils will improve on the power play, which has been their bugaboo in recent years. It’s why Shero made it a priority to sign him in the offseason as a free agent.
Hayes imposed his will by using his size and strength to crash the net and find a way to score, giving the Devils a 2-0 lead in the second period. It’s why the Devils took a chance of him. They are hoping he can continue to develop and get better, so that he can be a productive player for them.
Bratt is another guy the Devils want to build around. A guy who can skate and shoot. Last year’s sixth-round pick has come on nicely in training camp to the point he made the roster. He made the Devils’ decision easy to put him on the roster by scoring his first NHL goal of his career, giving the Devils a 3-1 lead in the second period.
Youth is going to be served for the Devils. That’s the only way they will get better. That means patience has to happen because there won’t be games like Saturday every game. Growing pains is part of Devils’ development. It’s on Hynes and his coaching staff to get the most out of his young guys and help them get through the tough times.
Hynes’ job security will be predicated on whether or not the players take the next step. If Hischier, Butcher, Hayes and Bratt develop into stars, the Devils can make a case they are finally going in the right direction. It’s been awhile since they have developed young stars.
The Devils need more games like their home opener for their season to be a success. Wins and losses shouldn’t be the be-all- end-all, but they desperately need their young players to be trending up instead of being stuck in quicksand.
Saturday was encouraging, but the Devils have to show there’s more where it came from.