It’s been over 24 hours since the New Jersey Devils season has ended, and while the bitterness of defeat may still loom large, it should not cloud over the fact this was one of their best seasons in years. The positive takeaways from this season are plentiful and give us plenty to look forward to.
Taylor Hall deserves all the accolades for his performance, but the first I want to highlight (which I am most excited) is Nico Hischier. For a player that pundits question whether he would even make the opening night roster, Hischier had an immediate impact. He started the season as a third line center before eventually nestling in the first line— and thriving in that position. He had more primary points at even strength than Hall (36 to 35) and a higher primary points per 60 minutes, (2.06 to 1.85). Out of Hischier’s 52 points, 42 came at even strength. I understand John Hynes’ giving Hischier restricted power play time, but do hope this changes next season.
This isn’t even taking into account the incredible defense that Hischier displayed as an 18-year old rookie. He will legitimately put himself into Selke conversations sooner rather than later. I truly believe a big reason Hall was able to have the season he did was playing with a dynamic center like Nico that was also committed to defense, and transitioning the game quickly from one end of the ice to the other.
I’d be remiss if I talked about Nico so much without bringing up the team’s other noteworthy rookies— primarily Will Butcher. While he may have been playing in a sheltered role this season, he excelled in it. Like Hischier, Butcher exceeded many expectations going into the season. I personally didn’t think he’d play nearly as much as he did and assumed Hynes would lean on more the veteran blueliners. However, like Nico, Butcher took advantage of his opportunities and proved his worth. Butcher led the Devils’ defense with 44 points and was a key reason their first power play unit was so effective.
Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick in 2016, made the team seemingly out of nowhere. While he went cold towards the end of this season (likely from his first time enduring the length and overall wear of a full NHL season), he did play a big part in the team’s early and mid-season success that ultimately attributed to their playoff berth. When on his game, Bratt is a very elusive and smart forward, which quickly made him one of the team’s best transition players. He also brings a calm demeanor to offensive breakouts and waits for the right play to present itself.
Along with Stefan Noesen, forward Blake Coleman was a catalyst in the bottom six. When the team may have been lacking any drive, he went out and had a relentless shift to bring the team back up to speed.
While this may be a relatively unpopular opinion, I thought Pavel Zacha had a decent sophomore season— at least during the second half. Yes, he didn’t improve too much offensively and took a long time to get going. Yet, watching the games and observing his improvement, I thought the difference was night and day. Zacha started to skate with drive and used his body effectively down low to shield the puck. He also showed off his on-ice vision, and passing abilities from space he created himself.
The biggest area I would like to see Zacha improve moving forward is his shot. He had many great looks on numerous occasions and simply didn’t make any count. Zacha’s shot has shown great velocity, but his accuracy also needs to improve. If he accomplishes both of these tasks, I can eventually see him inserted in a sort of half-wall role on the power play to feed the point or jump on scoring chances of his own.
The Zacha discussion circles back to landing Nico Hischier. Prior to that, there was a lot of pressure on Zacha developing into a top-two center, something I don’t think he’s capable of reaching. He can now sit comfortably as the team’s second or third center. Let’s not forget Zacha is still only 21 and is going into his third NHL season this September.