NHL.com- On the night the New Jersey Devils won the NHL Draft Lottery and the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, general manager Ray Shero was out with Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic at a Toronto restaurant where some members of the media had also gathered.
Some began hounding him, asking, "Who are you going to take?"
Shero eventually gave in to one reporter and said, "OK, I'll write it down on a piece of paper."
He took out a pen and wrote, "Vontae Mack no matter what," folded the paper, and handed it over.
Instead of a scoop, the reporter received a reference to the 2014 movie "Draft Day," in which fictional Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver (played by Kevin Costner) wrote that message on a Post-it as a reminder to himself to select the player he wanted most in the NFL Draft.
Perhaps it's the fundamental familiarity with the popular culture with which his predecessor had eternally cut the cord that was responsible for plastering a shit eating grin across my face as I read this story. Maybe it's that the New Jersey Devils' current place in the standings has my ears prone to a perking for even the most inconsequential anecdote that features their General Manager. Whatever the case may be, the confidence that you would be crazy not to have in the man that flipped the franchise's entire script in two years time makes it so easy to appreciate - albeit in retrospect - Ray Shero's satirical nod to Kevin Costner's laughably unbelievable portrayal of personnel management.
I can't, in good conscience, act like the knot in my stomach wasn't large enough to hold a goddamn cruise ship at port as Ray Shero sauntered his way up to the podium on June 23rd. However, since going against all-too-conventional wisdom by skipping over the good ol' Canadian boy to select a smaller, more skilled center from a region that's not known for churning out top-end talent, he has given Devils' fans every reason to preemptively assume that each and every one of his decisions will prove fruitful.
The second the lottery balls fell their way, I personally wanted to see New Jersey pass on what's-his-insanely-fragile-and-punchable-face for Nico Hischier. That said, not even the most optimistic of fan could have imagined that he'd be centering the dominant top line of a contending team just nine months after Ray Shero was sarcastically passing his pledge of undying allegiance to a fictional pass rusher. That's a credit to the talent and maturity of the silky smooth Swiss, but it's also a credit to the man whose personality makes it even easier to sleep tighter given his increasingly accurate stamp of approval. He can replace the name Vontae Mack with any prospect of his choosing, because I'm on board with Ray Shero...no matter what.
Look, Taylor Hall has made it very clear that he's let bygones be bygones and moved on to the next - and hopefully soon-to-be-extended - phase of what looks to be an increasingly illustrious career...
Still, I wouldn't be surprised if he's actively avoided pinching himself since October.
At this time last year, he couldn't have dreamt up a better scenario than - fingers crossed - being on pace to make his first ever appearance in the postseason as the driving force behind the long-waited resurgence of the franchise that welcomed him with open arms. Hell, if he could've then it probably would have included the imminent demise of the team looked poised for a decade of dominance after shipping him out of town for laughably less than he was worth.
Taylor Hall will never say it because it would make him look extremely petty, but this sarcastic response to all the undue criticism he received for being a young player in a dysfunctional organization has undoubtedly been burning a hole on the tip of his twitter fingers for months now. The local media that conveniently and shortsightedly turned him into a patsy for a 10 year problem are once again desperately scrounging for a scapegoat, while he sits near the top of the one of the most stacked divisions in hockey looking down at a former employer that's regressing into irrelevance.
Abe Lincoln once said said that the truth is the best vindication against slander. I suppose it's of note that Abe Lincoln didn't have social media, but there's nothing false about the immeasurable impact that Taylor Hall has had on a young Devils' team that's headed in the complete opposite direction of the offensively starved one that deemed him expendable.
Everything is currently coming up Taylor, so if you're enough of a degenerate to bet on a gimmicky All-Star game then you'd be wise to place your money on the division in which he's suddenly ascending. Eat your heart out, Edmonton. If only because a hard head makes a soft ass, so you've probably grown sore after repeatedly having to kick your own.
I Would Really Appreciate It If The NHL Stopped Cheating The Devils So I Could Truly Accept Their Shortcomings
I don't want to make it sound like I'm not appreciative of being granted a scapegoat. because if there is one thing that suspect officiating doesn't "challenge" it is the fan to think objectively about the performance of his own team. The Devils weren't playing a great brand of hockey going into their bye week, but - considering their shitty 5 game skid was marked by three OT losses in which a regulation goal was suspiciously taken off the board - it was easy to point to the transgressions of others in explaining their suddenly tumultuous relationship with winning.
The NHL and their inconsistent enforcement of rules have only been consistent in staying unfaithful to the Devils as of late, which is ironic because - much like a cheating significant other - it has encouraged fans to defer blame. As a general rule of thumb, no one finds out they are on the ass end of infidelity and immediately looks in the mirror to self-examine what may have led to their losing situation. That moment of shock and distress is not often immediately followed by an admission that you've become selfish, emotionally detached, and put on a couple dozen pounds. In that same vein, it was easy to push the lack of focus, discipline, and effort that was responsible for a blown lead third period lead to the back of the mind after a dominant first period was made fruitless by a ruling so drawn out and inconceivable that you'd swear it was made by a jury of O.J. Simpson's peers...
I suppose - by definition - that the above picture is goaltender interference. I'm not sure why a goaltender interfering with the clear path of an attacking forward would be enough to have a clear goal officially erased after approximately 20 minutes of deliberation, but what fun is hockey without extensive examinations into the millisecond-by-millisecond actions of those playing it at 10,000x the speed that it's rewound ad nauseam?
Whatever, that's not the point. The point is that enough time has passed for us to now move on from the adultery portion of Sunday's affair against the Islanders and step up to the 'acceptance' stage of the grieving process. In doing so, all outside excuses should be shunned, because anything that makes the Devils seem less guilty of pissing away a sure win is disingenuous. They simply have to be better in the second half of the season if they want to continue what they started in the first. That means more 60 minute efforts, less turnovers, and an equal amount of attention paid in the offensive and defensive zones. It would be a welcomed change if they stopped getting dicked by the officiating, but - over the last few weeks - they have made it pretty easy to get in on the action by submissively bending over and letting some bottom-feeding teams assume the role of the top for long stretches late in the game.
Oddly enough, as Sami Vatanen all-but-wiped his ass with the final page of his Defense 4 Dummiez book by blasting a slap shot directly into an oncoming opponent as the last man back, I couldn't help but feel a new found sense of closeness to him. Sure, it resulted in a half-assed hustle that was only helpful in giving him the closest of looks at the third - and eventual game winning - goal he was responsible for, but it instilled in me the comfortability to casually curse his name like I had been doing it for years.
Maybe my prolonged bachelorhood has me prone to believing in the saying "if you can't handle someone at their worst, you don't deserve them at their best", or maybe the last few years of defenseless Devils' hockey have turned a well deserved run through the ringer into an initiation process of sorts. Whatever the case may be, reading through overreactive tweets that were one step away from suggesting that Peter Harrold got reconstructive surgery and changed his name to Sami Vatanen was what it took to finally smooth the edges on his fit in New Jersey. This might be a bit belated, but welcome home Sami! Belittling you so much as a player that you begin to wonder if we truly think of you as a person is how we show love 'round these parts, and I'll be damned if the last two games haven't given us a reason to pour our hearts out.
On the bright side, if accountability truly is the guiding principle of the Devils' turnaround then I guess we can all stop bitching about getting Damon Severson back in the lineup! With Andy Greene somehow mistaking a Russian ogre in an emerald green jersey as a member of his own team and Sami Vatanen using his time (after time) in the penalty box to plot new and creative ways to sabotage his way into the suite life, there's now almost too many openings on the blue line! I personally would have preferred the defense march into John Hynes' office one-by-one and lay their jerseys on his desk - a la Rudy - if they cared that much about Damon Severson playing, but them looking as though they chose to throw the goddamn game on his behalf is exactly why they tell you to be careful what you wish for.
In all seriousness, the game last night was a reminder that the Devils' margin for error falls somewhere short of the mistakes that you'd expect from a nervous 9 year old with a full bladder. You can probably say the same for every team in the league, but when they start turning the puck over in high danger areas on plays that are obnoxiously avoidable they are going to lose almost every time. Luckily that's an issue that's only popped up sporadically (most notably, the weekend from hell against the Blue Jackets and Rangers), but - with the officiating sneaking in the backdoor and stealing points as of late - the last thing they can afford to do is go doorstep-to-doorstep giving them away. As we come up on the midway point go the season, I'm still not sure we know exactly how good this Devils' team is/can be, but they have definitely proven they are better than an effort that saw that them actively piss away a great first period.
At some point over the last two months, my blanket response to every one of John Hynes' personnel decisions became "fuck it, he's obviously smarter than me". Underlying numbers can't explain how many things have gone right this season, so as long as he keeps up the shooting percentage I am willing to keep giving the Devils' head coach the pass.
Now, if I were calling the shots then I wouldn't continue to scratch Damon Severson on the heels of three straight losses. All in all, he probably is the best Devils' best defender, and Ray Shero would have to somehow highjack the entirety of the Nashville Predators blue line for him to be considered any worse than 6th. Unfortunately, the ass I talk out doesn't seem to have a horseshoe stuck up it, so - until further notice - I agree with the guy who could seemingly swing blind and still hit .950. John Hynes has poked and prodded all the right members (including the one in question) of this young, overachieving team at all the right times thus far, so who am I to question the method to what appears to be madness?
More importantly - much like they have all season - this scratching looks like it's having the desired effect. If there's one reoccurring issue with Damon Severson then it's his wavering confidence, and there's nothing meek or timid about publicly and self-assuredly endorsing complimentary pieces about yourself on Twitter. If the title he seemed to approve of is any indication then he doesn't currently lack belief in himself. I don't know what more John Hynes wants out of the 23 year old, two-way defenseman that's in the infancy of his long-term deal, but - with how well he bounced back following his first benching - it stands to reason that he'll probably get it from him once he's back in the lineup.
Anecdotally speaking, Damon Severson has been a very good player when given something to prove, so I'd be willing to bet he'll return ready to back up the statistical evidence that he's been indignantly browsing through online. At least let's hope that's the case, for the sake of the coach whose earned enough benefit of the doubt to temporarily favor Steve Santini and Ben Lovejoy.
Perhaps I just can't relate to an 18 year old having 25 points while helping to lead a potential playoff team not even halfway through his first year in the NHL since I had only eclipsed that total in pounds of cheap booze and finger foods halfway through my first year in college at that age. Maybe I'm just not used to seeing a young phenom in a Devils' jersey since Lou Lamoriello spent the later years of his tenure in New Jersey drafting players who played like they were born in the 80's and signing free agents who were successful for the franchise in the 90's.
Whatever the case may be, in doing nothing more than pulling within 24 full months of being able to drink legally, Nico Hischier has me struggling to wrap my head around how hockey-wise he is beyond his years. It's not that I had forgot how young he was, but something about how appropriate he looks with a soccer-themed cake in his hands really drives home the idea that the Devils lucked into finding Taylor Hall a complimentary center in the form of someone that wouldn't look too out of place in a ball pit. In fact, if i weren't a Devils' fan I would actually find it scary to think about how much growing he still has to do into a body that's fit for a middle school distance runner. The way he sees and plays every aspect of the sport at a professional level while being better built to do so on an XBox is nothing short of astoundingly perplexing, and - for that reason - his maturation process looks to have a direct correlation with the trajectory of the New Jersey Devils future. His game already has less holes than the 3-ring binder you'd expect him to be carrying, so - other than a couple pounds of muscle and a bushel of pubic hair - I can't even really think of what else he'd want for his birthday. He's still at the age for presents, but what do you get someone who already has all the gifts?!?
I know Christmas has come and gone. However, due to Santa delivering nothing more than the institution of a ridiculously petty clause to any Devils' player that even thinks about entering the zone a percentage of a pubic hair prior to the puck, I'm keeping a list and checking it twice. Considering there is nothing naughty about possession plays that are broken down to the millisecond in an all-out effort to find fault well after the changing of both possession and lines, it would be pretty fucking nice if any of the gorgeous go-ahead goals the Devils have scored recently were allowed to, ya know, actually count. A strong argument can be made that both Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson were offsides, but a strong argument can also be made that hockey wasn't meant to be officiated with a fine tooth comb for 45 fucking minutes in the middle of a tightly contested third period.
Look, it is what it is. The New Jersey Devils didn't play their best hockey in either of the games that they lost - in part - due to the NHL's decision to treat an uncrossed blue line like those laser alarm grids that you see in spy movies. But you know what? The fact that they are still two points of the division lead with two games in hand after having two points snatched away from them by a rule that's only consistent in it's ability to continuously work against them is a testament to what they've been able to accomplish while having some of their most jean-tightening momentum swings taken off the board. Call me biased, but even a wise-worded player like Taylor Hall has no problem readily admitting that the breaks have been steadily trying to crack this Devils' team...
Credit to them are absorbing them. Even after Jesper Bratt's one-timer was added to the list of forgotten highlights, the Devils still had pointblank chances to beat a strong, systematic, defensive-minded team that - in theory - has the types of players capable of suffocating their speed. Somehow this team already has enough actual victories to avoid trying to tally up those of the moral variety, but - regardless of Marcus Johansson getting ever so slightly ahead of himself - the final 40+ minutes of last night's game were yet another step in the right direction.
Hopefully they were also another kick in the dick to a universally despised rule whose reason for creation couldn't be further from it's current use, but I have my doubts.
In Overturning Taylor Hall's Jaw-Dropping Go-Ahead Goal, The NHL Made It Clear That They Tooootally Have Their Priorities Straight
You really have to hand it to the NHL. 'Tis the season for resolutions, and in erasing a goal that stood well more than an outside chance of being on every season long 'Top Ten' list, they got a head start on reinforcing their priorities prior to the turn of the calendar.
You might say there was nothing definitive about the footage that turned some heart-stopping hand-eye coordination into an unfortunate afterthought. However, what says "we must do everything possible to create more scoring" quite like giving the benefit to doubt when one of your most electrifying stars gives even the most casual of fans a reason to talk about your product? Seriously, that millimeter of space that may or may not have existed between the ice and Taylor Hall's skate as the puck passed over the blue line may seem like an obnoxiously insignificant reason to take a goal off the board, but when the all-important integrity of the rules is potentially at stake? I would much rather have goaltenders defend soccer-sized nets while wearing youth shin guards than ignore it in the name of transcendent skill...
Look, I know I am biased, but the truth of the matter is that I am not pissed that the overturning of a goal that was originally called as such cost the Devils a game. It sucks to blow a two goal lead to a bottom feeder, but - after ripping off five straight home wins - they probably could have used a let down game (no matter how complicit the refs were in making it head in that direction) prior to facing a divisional opponent they have yet to prove themselves against. The last thing a young team heading to play a perennial (regular season) powerhouse on the wrong side of a back-to-back needs is the false confidence provided by an extra point they didn't totally deserve. We'll know in a few short hours whether or not last night was a minor setback for a major comeback, but it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility that it could have served as the reality check they've avoided throughout a surreal winning streak.
That said, I am pissed that due to a nonsensical decision that flies in the face of literally every other rule the NHL has enforced in an effort for more offense, I won't soon be seeing what was one of the year's most brilliant displays of offense. Taylor Hall made Robin Lehner look more stupid than his own suggestion that the entirety of the sports world is colluding against the city of Buffalo, and he did so after swatting an airborne puck backwards to himself. If you're not a Devils fan then this blog is perhaps the first you've seen of it, and that just feels wrong. The one superstar who somehow manages to end up on the ass end of every 50/50 call had a highlight stolen from a reel that's already exponentially longer than that of New Jersey's last 3-4 seasons.
The thief, you ask? The league that swears up and down that it will do anything to create more goals....as long as it doesn't involve getting rid of momentum-shattering, excitement-draining challenges in which centimeter-sized judgements are made by someone squinting at a television screen.
Despite Adam Henrique's Best Efforts, The Devils Proved Victorious During Retribution Night At 'The Rock'
Truth be told, it was tough to feel anything but good for Adam Henrique last night. As odd as it was to take any sort of satisfaction in the play of someone that took the ice in a jersey that was decidedly not red and black, the man that became lovingly known as 'Rico' handled his return in such a flawless manner that the only type of hostility in the crowd was temporary self loathing. After all, he did exactly what any self respecting ex is supposed to do. He got a little sentimental, showed a lot of appreciation, and - though it will go largely unspoken - came out as ready as ever to flaunt his entire array of goods to the franchise that decided they'd already seen the best of them.
Never mind that it was his picture perfect break out pass that kickstarted the Ducks' second goal of the night...
...because as he followed it up by alleying the puck over the head of the player he was traded for, you couldn't help but feel like Adam Henrique had something gut-punching in store for the oop...
Now, it's fair to ask where that move was throughout the extensive scoring drought he trudged through shortly before being moved, but - if I had to guess - I'd say it was probably tucked neatly into the back of the closet next to the little red dress that's saved for only the most jilted of lovers. In the same way that makes you hesitant to check a former flame's Instagram, that "how you like me now?" moment that completely posterized Sami Vatanen and undoubtedly overshadowed his first point as a New Jersey Devil was annoyingly well deserved.
Unfortunately, for him anyway, it wasn't enough to swing the outcome of a game that proved why Adam Henrique was expendable in the first place. Aided by Ryan Miller's inability to age gracefully, the Devils comeback victory over the Ducks highlighted their depth at forward. Miles Wood Tasmanian'd the Devils back into the game, Jesper Bratt whipped them back to even by putting a little cherry on the top shelf, and Stefan Noesen - with the help of the birthday boy, Brian Boyle - provided a painful reminder to his former team that there were more than two players in the building who were looking to prove a personnel decision regrettable. New Jersey put up five goals and they didn't even need a single point from the three players manning their top line to do so.
Facts aren't as glaring as flash, so it's easy to consider Adam Henrique the winner of the breakup since his complete and utter emasculation of the player that was deemed more valuable by the market will rightfully be rewound on every end-of-year hockey highlight reel. That said, as heartbreakingly true as it is, last night was the perfect example of why both parties are potentially better off without one another.
Adam Henrique won the battle, the Devils won the war, and - in a game that was far too emotional for a mid-December tiff between two out-of-conference opponents - both had their chance to feel better about a split that was somewhat silently imminent. For a fanbase that will forever have a special place in their heart for Rico (and vice versa), that really was the best possible outcome.
P.S. My heart just grew three sizes...
I have a question for the entirety of the Metropolitan Division...
Look, it was no more than about 13 months ago that the New Jersey Devils overcame the absence of Taylor Hall to pick up an extremely unexpected win against one particularly star-studded team from Texas. That win gave a false sense of confidence to both a team and fanbase that - despite expectations that were as meager as the amount of talent - they could compete in one of the most tightly contested divisions in hockey. What followed, of course, was potentially one of the most depressing months in franchise history that ultimately gave way to a season so dejecting that the finale of it felt like a mercy killing.
I say that to say this. It's a good thing that I typically need to be fooled more than once before I learn my goddamn lesson, because managing a victory over that exact same Dallas Stars team with a similarly depleted lineup has me ready to declare the Devils legitimate postseason contenders. If I'm wrong again then shame on me, but what New Jersey did in bouncing back from the weekend from hell to kick the crown off the Kings prior to picking up three points without three members of their top six is the type of thing that playoff teams are capable of. Getting contributions up and down the lineup when said lineup looks like something that was produced by a random name generator is a sign of the cohesiveness necessary to consistently play above your pay grade. It wasn't always pretty and it required the help of some exemplary goaltending. However, the Devils never looked overmatched over the weekend, and with a trio that was at one point considered their top line sitting in a luxury suite, they damn well should have.
As has been the case since the dropping of the first puck, John Hynes is continuing to make decisions that turn out so well that they seem like absolute no brainers in retrospect. There's not a more perfect example of that than the decision to put Travis Zajac between two fast, feisty puck battlers in Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons. I almost can't imagine a scenario where all three don't get the best out of each other, and that's been a theme throughout a roster that - pending the imminent return of Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri - looks exponentially deeper now than it did in September. The play of Brian Boyle has been so intriguing that it's turned his dominance of cancer into a secondary storyline. Stefan Noesen just finished riding a scoring streak gave some giddy up to a team that desperately needed it. Miles Wood looks more like an NHL player than unleashed bull with each passing day. The defense hasn't given themselves any reason to get talked about since last weekend, and - considering they are the most noticeable when they are at their worst - that's actually the highest of compliment. Need anymore evidence that all is currently going right? Even Pavel Zacha hasn't wronged his way off the ice as of late!
Things could easily turn with a goddamn gauntlet of divisional games on the horizon, but it's not the early wins that has me sure that this rendition of the Devils isn't going to negligently wander off a cliff during their hike up the standings. Rather, it's the fashion in which they've recovered from both injuries and devastating losses in keeping their bottoming out process to but a blip on the radar.
That, right there, is the reason why Devils' fans were on the fence about a move that basically had to be made for the future of the franchise. I know that this SnapChat was probably the result of Adam Henrique keeping a closer eye on the class of his new division, and I'm inclined to think he was at least mildly pandering to the fans who miss him. Still, the fact that he felt it appropriate to let the general public know he still retains even a slight interest in the Devils success is why the prospect of him playing for a team that's not the Devils was fairly difficult to accept at first.
Let's be real, outside of having a undeniable connection with both fans and franchise alike, there's no reason that Adam Henrique should be anything less than ecstatic about his present and future, as opposed to sentimental about his past. Not only is he now living in sunny Southern California, but he's doing so as a guy whose been on a point per game tear since his arrival on a roster that's a couple weeks of recovery away from turning things around. I still think it was a smart, necessary trade from the Devils' perspective, but if it had to be judged solely from the results thus far than Ray Shero would be on the ass end of it. I obviously expect that to change as Sami Vantanen becomes more accustomed to his new role, but Adam Henrique is doing everything possible to make the move look like a mistake.
For that reason, it would be totally understandable if he harbored resentment for the organization that shipped him out of town after he helping lead them through one of the more trying times in their history. Instead, he's got his feet up as he's rooting on the boys that he used to share a locker room with. That says everything you need to know about how much he enjoyed being a New Jersey Devil, so excuse me while I incessantly blink while trying to convince myself that I'm not crying...YOU'RE CRYING!!!
I know that the LA Kings basically made popular the idea of being "edgy" on social media, but - as kids these days tend to say - this one did not age well. And really, how could they have expected it to? Of all the things they have over the Devils, they went with the star power angle? And they chose the guy who's having a bounce back season after his organization has done everything short of leaving him on the curb of Sunset Boulevard during trash pickup in trying to rid themselves of his contract the last two years? Credit to the Kings' former captain for all that he's accomplished throughout his career, but - when it comes to selling tickets - I'd rather pay the price of admission to get a glimpse of Charlie Brown's field goal prowess than Dustin Brown's veteran leadership.
The Kings have obviously had an unbelievable season prior to last night, but if they think "heavy" teams built on physicality and veteran savvy are what puts asses in the seats then they should turn the Staples Center into a retirement home. We are no more than 5 years removed from the Los Angeles winning the most absolute of bragging rights over New Jersey, and instead their social media team tried to convince us (and themselves) that - outside of the occasional Jonathan Quick tantrum - their team is actually an entertaining watch?
I'd say that attempted burn backfired, but they put their face to the flame and all Taylor Hall had to do was provide the gasoline...
Usually I'd take this moment to critique the effort of a top defensive pairing that got split down the middle quicker than the check after a horribly dutch date, but making other high-priced players look look like cheap knockoffs is just what superstars do. Anyone who has watched even a period of Devils' hockey this year knows that Taylor Hall has been exactly that from the first drop of the pick this season, and his penchant for looking peerless was on full display last night. As has become a bit of a foregone conclusion, he - yet again - stood out as far and away the most dominant player on the ice and that's no small feat against the top team in the Western Conference.
Now, that feat is exponentially smaller then the Devils' staying afloat without him in the lineup, so all breaths will be held until the entirety of the prognosis on his knee becomes available. However, need not look further than some unknown scrub needing to stick his leg out to slow down a lineup that was showcasing the best side of it's bipolarity for proof that the Prudential Center is no longer in need opponents to provide the entertainment...
I don't know why it took a weekend in which the Devils literally turned over four points to divisional opponents for them to come out with one of their most complete performances of the season. Regardless, down to Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt biting at the ankles of the guy that compromised the unstoppability of their line combination, last night's skin-on-skin spanking of a team that mustered only 17 shots while playing catch up in a futile attempt to extend their 8 game winning streak was about as thorough a reminders of how good this team can be when they don't play defenseless...
Let's hope that Taylor Hall's knee cooperates fairly quickly, because - with Kyle Palmieri's return looking imminent - they'd be even more dangerous with him than they are completely and totally fucked without him.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before the clock struck midnight on an undermanned Devils' defense, but for it to happen a little more than a week after making a long anticipated move to reinforce their blue line and just days after potentially their most promising performance of the season? They must have thought Sami Vatanen was going to serve as their Prince Charming, because - outside of three-of-six periods against the Blue Jackets - they've been leaving the puck behind like it's a glass slipper ever since his arrival. I suppose the half-full glass was bound to start evaporating at some point, but I guess I just assumed this team would remain steady handed enough to not let the inevitable leaking of optimism come by way of an incessant spilling of ridiculously unnecessary turnovers.
Perhaps that is what has me the most disappointed about the Devils' disastrous weekend. It's not that they took a sizable tumble out of first place in a loaded division they stood no business being a top of, nor is it the fact that they lost to two teams who are - by all accounts - closer to competing than they are. Rather, it's the way they lost to those teams. It's not that they gave up far too many goals, but instead that they simply gave away far too many goals.
Out of the ten pucks that ended up in the back of their net between Friday and Saturday, seven can be traced back to the stick of either a negligent, reckless, or lazy New Jersey Devils' player. As a team that need not look further than their season-long shot totals against to understand that they have irreconcilable issues in their own zone, the lack of attention paid in protecting it was simply inexcusable. From Steve Santini being soft on his stick, to Andy Greene making blind passes through the neutral zone, to Travis Zajac failing to make an easy clear during the penalty kill, to Brian Boyle getting pick-pocketed below the circles, to Damon Severson making a half-assed move as the last man back on the power play, to Sami Vatanen looking like a deer in highlights in the face of a forecheck. If the Devils wanted to stop the bleeding then all they really had to do was stop using the weapon that is Artemi Panarin to self-inflict some of these wounds...
And I get it, inconsistency is a hallmark of young teams. Unfortunately, said inconsistency has predominantly come from the older players that have consistency built into their job description as a top priority. Too many of the names above are that of veterans who are being entrusted to lead by example, but they had recently put on a clinic of what not to when playing a distinguished role for a team whose defensive strategy is based on succumbing quantity over quality. Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid will take a disproportional amount of blame because their names aren't Martin Brodeur, but they were hung out to dry by a lineup that knows damn well their slim margin for error can't withstand those that are unforced. I don't think anyone expects this team to play perfect hockey, but up until this past weekend they were doing a decent job of finding a happy medium between that and precarious hockey. With a hell of a lot more divisional games on the horizon, they better start searching for it again.
Full disclosure, it's entirely in retrospect that I am able to find any sort of positive in the Devils ending up with a sore ass at the hand of a 5-0, buzzer-to-buzzer spanking from a team in the Arizona Coyotes that was thankful for no more than two regulation wins as they used a stuffed bird to eat away their sorrows. I may have said something to the effect of "well, every team is going to have a stinker during an 82 game season" to myself, but it was up to a young team that had previously yet to be embarrassed to get their house in order and Febreze away the smell before they became accustomed to it. Due to a perhaps the Devils most significant win of the season, the night they spent playing so far down to the weakest of competition that they made them look like 80's Oilers by comparison can be looked at as a part of developmental process. I don't know how many people genuinely believe that "every setback is a set-up for a major comeback", but the New Jersey Devils - under the veteran-like leadership of their rookies - proved it's not always just an empty saying used to uplift otherwise doomed spirits.
Now, despite helping them leapfrog back to first place in the Metro, the Devils' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets was far from division defining. If it weren't for Cory Schneider spending the entire first period defibrillating the body then who knows if they are able to spring back to life in the second. Between a handful of sphincter-clenching stops and the most slump-busteriest of goals from Travis Zajac, they had no shortage of pucks bounce their way during the initial 20. However, the way in which it served as wakeup call in a fairly dominant final 40 was nothing short of a breathe of fresh air.
I don't want to say the Devils ran a well-structured, defensive sound team with top notch goaltending out of their own building during the last two periods, but look no further than a 17-5 differential in scoring chances for proof that they ran them up, down, and around it. Stefan Noesen came out of absolutely nowhere to make his presence felt in his promotion to the Top-6. Gibbons, Coleman, and Wood continued to be a day-after-leg-day-esque pain in the ass to everyone they play against. And most importantly, the top line - in minutes limited by the smart killing of stupid penalties, mind you - reminded everyone how expectations have became so inflated by a roster that's being kept afloat by the play of teenagers.
Nico Hischier brake-checking Seth Jones five feet backwards before looking off another defender as he wired a tape-to-tape pass to a streaking Taylor Hall wasn't just a show of patience that had me feeling more anxious than some drunken foreplay. It was a sign of the steadily-increasing confidence that has allowed the Devils' best play driver to relinquish control of the wheel to two kids that are basically a year removed from having a learner's permit...
Jesper Bratt putting the finishing touches on Columbus after springing Taylor Hall with a silky saucer wasn't nearly as surprising as it was pretty, and that speaks volumes about he's been able accomplish as a 6th round pick that has already shed doubt onto every scouting department in the NHL...
There are inevitably going to be nights that remind you that this team is currently ahead of schedule, but if they respond to them in a way that reminds you exactly why they are then it will be tough to suppress the potential of the postseason for too much longer. The word resilience is probably overused seeing as they are maturing as a hockey team and not leading the rebuild after a natural disaster, but - considering the exasperating way last season ended - the mentality of the Devils' recently laid foundation is starting to look sturdy enough to withstand even the most tragic of defeats.
In theory, it would be silly for the Devils to "entertain" the idea of sending their former first round pick down to the AHL. I don't think the trade that brought in Sami Vatanen was anything other than an acknowledgement of their clear and present defensive deficiencies. However, the fact of the matter is that it in shipping out both a player that was above him and a player that was below him in his positional pecking order, the Devils couldn't have cleared a wider path for Pavel Zacha to take a reins on a permanent spot in the lineup. Not only that, but it's a path that is currently being overseen by both a General Manager and a Head Coach that have shown no hesitancy in giving young players - whether it be a first overall pick, 6th round pick, or college free agent - a chance to succeed in an environment that is pretty clearly conducive to their success. With that in mind, one of the Devils' most physically skilled prospects should hypothetically be humored as he looks to carve out a steady and consistent niche on a team that needs his services more than ever.
Unfortunately, in execution, he has made it seem silly to expect things to suddenly change. You can instinctively blame John Hynes if you want, but all you have to do is take one look up and down the roster to realize that Pavel Zacha isn't playing because he hasn't deserved to play. He isn't getting yanked in, out, up, down, and around the lineup because he's the unofficial team scapegoat, but rather because he's failed to take advantage of the multitude of opportunities he has been given to contribute.
Now, I don't think a 20 year old - who was originally considered a bit of project - should be labeled a 'bust' just because a couple of his peers are incredibly wise beyond their teenage years. That said, having pushed all the right buttons in getting this team back to respectability, John Hynes and Ray Shero can't let the under-seasoning of their sole outlier cause even the slightest of distractions. I'd love to see him flourish wherever he's given the chance, but if the ever-changing role of Pavel Zacha is going to continue being a storyline then it should one that pops up on the sports page in the Binghamton Gazette. This inexperienced team has far too much going right to worry about what's wrong with one particular player that hasn't quite figured himself out. Your guess is as good as mine when it come to predicting whether or not Pavel Zacha needs to be sent across the New York border in order to turn a corner, but if a player's game-by-game usage (or lack thereof) is so sporadic that it requires the reading of tea leaves then all options should - at the very least - be kept in strong consideration.
First and foremost, let me just say that the following has nothing to do with the trade that sent Adam Henrique westward. I've made it clear that I love the deal and am excited to see what Sami Vatanen brings to a defense that probably needs him to clone himself as a lefty before it can be trusted to do anything more than give Cory Schneider an extra 45 minutes of sleep per night.
That being said, it's going to be weird to see the New Jersey take the ice without the player who was undoubtedly most expendable from a hockey standpoint, but one of the few that developed enough of a connection to the franchise that even the immediate improvement of the roster couldn't completely quell the instinctual disappointment of its fanbase.
I know professional sports are a business, and thus the door to a locker room will always be of the rotational variety, but it's been long time since Devils' fans have had to deal with the loss of player whose contributions couldn't be measured entirely by stats. Maybe that's because Adam Henrique was the one of the few promising prospects to flourish during an era in which the farm system made the Devils look like draft dodgers. Maybe it's because most of the players that have delivered moments that were as unforgettable as an Eastern Conference-clinching overtime goal against the Rangers are (or will be) immortalized in the rafters of the Prudential Center. Maybe it's because not too many athletes can avoid being engulfed in flames while stuck in a down trending dumpster fire for half a decade. Maybe it's because the person in question was one of the first to be able to use his personality to relate to the fanbase as he broke free of the hyper-strict parental controls of a General Manager whose disdain for all things technological is so persistent that it probably still takes him 5-7 business days to wish his kids a happy birthday. Maybe it's because high profile departures like Parise and Kovalchuk left on their own volition. Hell, maybe it's just recency bias.
Whatever the case may be, listening to the man informally dubbed 'Rico' discuss his Devils' tenure in the past tense pulled on a couple heart strings. Of course, the shit-storm that Adam Henrique made it through unscathed theoretically makes it easier for Sami Vatanen to be a part of memories that will help the emotional toll of this trade come out in the wash. Still, I'm glad a guy who embraced being a New Jersey Devil is being thrust into a prominent role for a contender, because - after all he went through in helping them become one again - the last thing he deserved was to suffer through what Taylor Hall did last year.
Henrique, It's Over: The Devils Gave Up Sentimental Value In Acquiring The Defenseman They Desperately Needed
As is the case with all trades, there are two ways to look at this - emotionally and logistically.
Emotionally, this particular one hurts in a way that makes losing the lovability of Adam Larsson seem like a sentimental hang nail. The second Adam Henrique put to rest the demons of '94 and finished off the cross river rivals with his second series-clinching overtime tally in as many attempts he became so much more than a promising rookie coming up through an organization who was in need of young talent. It wasn't one of the timeless moments that ultimately resulted in the raising of three Stanley Cup banners, but the goal that brought to eternal life Doc Emrick's "Henrique...IT'S OVER!" call is embedded nearly as deeply in the hearts of Devils' fans.
Since he helped New Jersey advance to Finals, a variety of circumstances that were out of his control made it so that the heroics became few and far between. That, however, didn't stop Adam Henrique from becoming the face of a rebuild that finally appears to be coming to fruition. By all accounts (See: Rico's Soiree), he was just as appreciated in a locker room that was growing and maturing together as he was/is throughout the entirety of its fanbase, so his work both on and off the ice makes this trade a pill that's hard to swallow.
Logistically, on the other hand, it's a pill that's been sitting in Ray Shero's desk as a potential cure to what ails his team most since he lucked into drafting a dynamic forward first overall this past summer. Never mind the offseason hearsay of an eerily similar swap, because Adam Henrique's demotion to the bottom half of the lineup when this team was at it's healthiest was an unmistakable sign that the Devils' had a surplus of forwards. In both theory and execution, that made a versatile-but-consistently inconsistent 20-25 goal scorer expendable.
Sami Vatanen is primarily an offensive force from the blue line, so I'm not sure he's the end all-be all to the Devils' defensive woes. I am sure, however, sure that he just became a bargain as the most talented player at a position of need. If you include the sentimental value as part of the package then this trade undoubtedly feels like less than a steal, but when you consider that a couple of months ago the going rate for a quality defenseman was basically an organizational castration then it's tough to consider this anything but a huge win. The Devils are currently benefiting from the premium that young, up-and-coming defenseman are currently at as Taylor Hall makes Oilers' fans more and more manic depressive every time he takes the ice, and they just got a dynamic one at a rate that has to be considered a discount.
If I created a lineup of beloved Devils then Adam Henrique has got a case for the Top-6, but as it stands now he's optimally a third liner player that can contribute on special teams. Detach the name and memories that come with it, and his importance to this team plus that of a prospect that couldn't beat out journeyman-turned-juggernaut Brian Gibbons for the final roster spot pales in comparison to what Sami Vatanen brings to the table as an unquestioned Top-4 defenseman. What he lacks in his own zone, he should make up for by keeping the Devils out of it, and that's invaluable to a group that's treating 22 year old Steve Santini like a sacrificial lamb.
My only concern is that this causes some sort of rift in the locker room due to Henrique's presence as a leader in it, but even his now former teammates should be able to see that this was a move that had to be made in the interest of their future. I think the fact that it felt like it was only a matter of time has taken some of the sting away for me, so hopefully it did the same for a team that's managed to play above the handicap they just addressed.
It pains me to say it, but Sami Vatanen fits the mantra this team has finally started to turn fruitful better than Adam Henrique and he does so from a far more depleted position. Ray Shero - once again - took advantage of a vulnerable Ducks' team, and in doing so he made the Devils a more balanced one whose roster is just as flexible going forward.
There will never be a time in my life when watching the following video won't send goosebumps throughout my entire body, so it's impossible not to find myself emotionally conflicted by viewing this knowing the inevitability of seeing Rico in an ugly sweater (sorry, not sorry Anaheim) a week before Christmas...
However - after you get a good cry in, of course - this video should help you cheer up as you wipe away the tears...
A Devils' Goaltending Prospect Got Tossed From A Game For Punching An Opponent In The Head With His Blocker
Sigh, growing pains. Just part of the maturation process if you ask me. Every prospect has some learning to do, and how can you possible know that it's not actually okay to use the sharp edge of a piece of protective equipment that was crafted to block vulcanized rubber as a weapon if you don't first suffer the ramifications of using it to punch a prone opponent in the head as he lays fallen on the ice?
Some goaltending coach probably told a young Gilles Senn that he's got to "protect his crease" in passing without offering any specifics as to how best to do so. Simple misunderstanding. One man's simple assault is another man's preservation of his blue paint. As far as I am concerned, the Devils' 5th rounder is a more intelligent player now than he was before he shed his mask drawing all attention to him as he jabbed a player in the face with the blunt end of his puck shield. If he uses that ejection as the impetus to evolve his game to a point where he's not getting thrown out of them for bludgeoning the face of every attacking player then this unfortunate scenario could be seen as a blessing in disguise. It's probably a lesson he should have encountered prior to getting drafted as a 21 year old, but some of the best to ever mind a net have been slow learners that get a bad rap as overreactive assholes...
Hand up. My level of intrigue regarding this news has everything to do with the recency bias incurred from learning that a head doctor needed no more than a few months to help Jesper Bratt go from scoring six goals in the Swedish League to being the Devils' most confident puck handler not named Taylor Hall. If not for that psychological miracle then I'd probably find myself ready to lock Pavel Zacha in a padded room and forget that his developmental curve has plateaued until the start of next season. Luckily, the timely transformation of a 6th round pick into a top-6 mainstay has provided some precedent for the minor miracle of immediate mental health, and the most comforting part is the player in need of it has already shown flashes of what to expect when he has it.
In Pavel Zacha we aren't talking about a guy that has looked completely dumbfounded since his arrival in the NHL. We are talking about guy whose skills have been on display in spurts when backed by the confidence necessary to showcase them at the highest level. If this athletic therapist can unleash the beast from his cage of self-consciousness then the Devils just might just get a better look at the player that had them oozing optimism in the preseason.
It's actually unbelievable that they have been so successful while adding Pavel's PTO to the injuries they've experienced early in the season. If they can reach a point where Zacha is no longer performing like a candidate to come out of the lineup as players get healthy then they'll be exponentially better off in the long run. Let's hope whatever couch he's getting laid up on after games has him feeling more comfortable in his own skin, because the Devils are better when he's playing like himself as opposed to wondering who himself really is.
Most hockey fans would say that there's nothing more unlikely than a 29 year old journeyman/ fringe professional leading an NHL team in goals while more than doubling his previous career high just a quarter of the way through a season that most thought he stood little chance of being a part of. My ex-girlfriends - on the other hand - would argue there is nothing more unlikely than me happily admitting when I am dead wrong. Usually I would completely dismiss their opinion without a second thought, but in the interest of proving their allegations false (and the impressiveness of his play right) I offer Brian Gibbons this...ahem...::takes bite of humble pie, pounds chest to force the swallowing of pride::...apology.
I really thought he was training camp roster fodder. Just a warm body saving Joseph Blandisi's place in the lineup as some sort of temporary logistical move that I'm not smart enough to fully understand. Turns out Brian Gibbons' was a disruptive top for the penalty killing diamond diamond that was waiting to be dug out of the rough by a system and situation that caters perfectly to his skill set.
Him turning the puck over in overtime on a play that could, should, and would turn into an odd-man situation going the other way 99.99% of the time only for it to immediately end up on his stick and in the back of the net is undoubtedly the peak of him magically fertilizing a shitty situation. That said, this isn't like Bobby Farnham blindly squirreling his way to a goal streak that was nothing short of nuts. Brian Gibbons' is scoring in every which way and even when his shooting percentage inevitably plummets from 30% and the spectacular wears off, what will remain is a solid, relentless player that can contribute up, down, and all-around the lineup. If there's a player that Ray Shero can point to as the personification of a batting average that's humbly hovering right around .950 it's Brian Gibbons, so I hopes it's not too late to say "sorry" to a guy who has instrumental to the Devils' early season success and the General Manager that believed in him. I'll get used to breathing through my nose if he wants to keep feeding me my foot.