After winning their past two games and picking up points in their last three, the New Jersey Devils are feeling pretty good about themselves six games into their season, and a large part of that success is two of their better players — Adam Larsson and Travis Zajac — playing like, well, two of their better players. Make no mistake about it, there have been a myriad of changes in the Devils organization since May, so it should be no surprise that they struggled a bit during the first week and a half; and they will almost certainly struggle again as the NHL season moves into the winter months.
The players are getting used to new coaches, a new system, a new era of Devils hockey, but also new head coach John Hynes is getting used to the players – many of whom he met for the first time less than a year ago. There are currently seven players of the 23 on New Jersey’s roster that were in other organizations last season, so this is still a work in progress, but they are slowly but surely beginning to gel as a team. “The more comfortable we get (as a team) the more plays we’ll start making,” Zajac told The Hockey Writers after his team’s 3-2 overtime win against the Arizona Coyotes.
When asked about his own evolution as a player, Larsson quickly shifted the focus to his team’s progress under their new bench boss. “I think everybody (is getting comfortable) on this team. Everything he came in and told us from day one, I think we’re taking steps in the right direction every day,” the 22-year-old Swedish defenseman told reporters after the game. “I really believe we can be a team up there (in the standings); the last week we have played really well and it pays off — the hard work we have done in practice.”
Coach Hynes didn’t know Larsson before taking the job with the Devils on June 2, but everything he has seen so far is impressive as he explained to the media following the overtime win against the Coyotes in which Larsson scored the game-winner. “What’s been surprising with him is just his professionalism; he’s an everyday guy, he’s really focused, and he has the details around the game in order,” the coach said. “He’s very fit, he takes care of himself, he has a lot of attention to detail off the ice; he watches his shifts and it’s all on his own initiative as a young player. Then you see his talent level — I think that consistency and professionalism has really helped him get off to a good start here this year. It’s been impressive to watch as a new coaching staff.”
Adam Larsson started the play and Adam Larsson finished the play in overtime:
Both Larsson (five games) and Zajac (four) were pointless coming into the match vs. Arizona and both finished the contest with multiple points; something the team will need more of going forward if they are to be a competitive team in 2015-16. “Travis played really well; he came back off the injury and got to his game, I’d say the second half of the Rangers game, he really got into playing after not having a practice,” Hynes explained. “Tonight, it’s nice to see him get rewarded because he does so many things for the team on a nightly basis that don’t wind up on the scoresheet and then tonight he was able to be a real impact player on both sides. That’s something that, we’d like to see him continue to grow into — be the reliable guy that he is but also he was a factor offensively (tonight) too.”
One of Zajac’s main assets is his ability to win face-offs on a consistent, all situations, night-in, night-out basis — something he has done at an over 50% clip throughout his entire career with the Devils. Against Arizona (a team that boasts two of the best in the league) he won 68% of the 25 (17-8) face-offs he took. So like Hynes said, even if Zajac isn’t producing with goals and assists, his contributions in other areas are invaluable to the Devils. He was low-key about his success in the dots following the game, but his value is high to the team for sure. “Some nights you see the puck (well) and it just depends; reading guys. You win a couple and you feel little more confident, it’s something we can get a lot better at as a team,” he told THW. “(Martin) Hanzal, (Antoine) Vermette…those guys are really, really strong (in the face-off circle); it’s big part of the game. You want to start with the puck.”
He was more impressed with his team’s play than his, especially the fact that they followed their first win of the season with an even stronger 60-minute performance in front of their home crowd. “We gutted out a win against the Rangers, (and) that was a big win; tonight we probably played our most complete game and definitely deserved to win. Hopefully we can keep building on that and we can’t be satisfied – we have to keep this thing going in the right direction and stay hungry,” said the 30-year-old center following the game.
“I think you are starting to see us use our speed a lot more, our D are moving the puck quick and our forwards are using their speed, jumping through holes and you saw that a lot more tonight,” he continued. “You can tell when we are on the same page; we’re going, we’re fast and we’re dangerous. I think for us it’s just sticking with it, believing in it and, not everything is going to go right all the time; but we’ve definitely seen the results when we compete and play the right way. “I thought we played pretty well in this game. We came out attacking the first two periods for sure, and our PK got us in a little trouble in the third; but we still responded the right way, battled through it and got a win.”
The games will get tougher as the weeks move on, and thanks in part to not having a lead at all in any of the first four games, Hynes feels it will only make his team stronger and tighter as a unit. “Sometimes when you go through adversity, like we have early (this season), it builds some toughness, builds some resiliency,” he explained. “We haven’t had it easy since the start of preseason. They (the Coyotes) got a good break on a six-on-five goal, that wound up going in but it doesn’t deter us, we wound up getting a point; going into overtime our objective every time is to get two points.”
He didn’t call players out by name, but anyone who watched the first four games could likely figure out who he was referencing in this next part of his postgame presser. “We feel like we’ve played pretty solid over the last couple of games and it’s something we’ve tried to continue to build to — to have consistent, strong performances and we feel like we did that the last two games. One of the things we didn’t have in the first few games was elevated performances by real important guys to our team that are supposed to be leaders, and the last three games we’ve had that.”
One of the players that stepped up besides Zajac (SH goal, 2 assists) and Larsson (GWG, one assist) was Mike Cammalleri (the team’s leading goal scorer last season) who potted his second goal of the season on eight shots on goal in the win. “Michael has really come on,” said Hynes like a proud papa. “Once we hit that adversity, right around game three, he’s been a leader in the locker room, he’s really led the way through practice and he was excellent, really in the last two games; he’s really stepped up his game and it’s nice to see. It’s great to see him get rewarded (with a goal); if he continues to play like that there’s going to be more pucks that are going to go in the net for him.”
These are the new Devils, a new era of Devils hockey; but at the same time – the more things change, the more they stay the same. “It’s nice to contribute,” said Zajac with a sly smile, “obviously we’re a team that is going to need different guys to contribute on different nights. We’re going to have to win collectively as a group and everyone is going to have to chip in.” If you had your eyes closed and didn’t recognize his voice, you might think that quote came from a player on one of the late 1990’s Devils teams. But these are different times in which the team is trying to find and build it’s own identity, and so far it appears they are trending in the right direction.
Just be patient Devils fans. Remember, this team isn’t going to win the President’s Trophy this season; but they are going to work hard and try to give you an honest effort each and every night, which is a good foundation as any. Players like Zajac, Cammalleri, Larsson Adam Henrique and Cory Schneider will be the bedrocks that the coaching staff will lean on to lead the way for everyone else to follow.
Dan Rice can be reached via Twitter: @DRdiabloTHW or via Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.