On Wednesday night, the New Jersey Devils played their last preseason game, beating the Washington Capitals again, 4-1. Last week, they beat them by the same score during their first preseason game. The Devils haven’t been doing too bad during the preseason, winning five out of seven and losing one in overtime. With a total of 25 goals scored, Devils fans are feeling hopeful for an awesome season ahead.
So what’s changed for one of the worst teams in the league last season? Pavel Zacha is changing has changed and that’s a fact. He’s finally been placed on the first line centering Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri and the team is starting to look like an offensive force.
In their split-squad game against the Ottawa Senators on Sept. 25, the Devils won 8-1 and Zacha got a whopping 23 shots on goal, along with two goals and an assist. Furthermore, during his first preseason game against the New York Rangers, he also scored off six shots on goal. That’s not much compared to the Senators game but he still managed to get the puck to the net more than any other player in that game (on both teams).
For NHL fantasy players, Zacha’s draft position just shot up. Based on his performance last year, many considered him to be a late bloomer since expectations for the sixth overall pick from the 2015 Draft weren’t being met. However, last year’s team had so many veterans, they were literally keeping his goal-scoring opportunities at bay.
The Coach Hynes Effect
Devils head coach John Hynes is finally starting to put his coaching talents to good use, finding effective lines that are scoring. On the second line, Nico Hischier, the 2017 NHL Entry Draft’s first overall pick, is centering Marcus Johannson – the Washington Capitals’ most recent high-end departure – and Drew Stafford, who’s tied with Hischier for most points during the preseason (4 goals, 3 assists). This is a surprise since the 31-year-old only played in a combined 58 games last year between the Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins and only registered 21 points.
Hynes started coaching the Devils in June 2015, which means this is his third NHL preseason as a head coach. Before now, he has never won more than three preseason games (out of seven or eight).
The history between Devils general manager Ray Shero and Hynes goes back quite a bit, as it was Shero who promoted him to assist in coaching the Penguins’ AHL-affiliate team, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins back in 2009 when he was still managing the Pittsburgh Penguins. A year later he was promoted to head coach of the AHL team and a year after that he won the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award. In Hynes’ five seasons as the WBS Penguins head coach, the team qualified for the playoffs and reached the conference finals twice. Now, he’s the NHL’s youngest coach and has built a reputation as a ‘player’s coach’.
Hynes is exactly the kind of coach that works for Mirco Mueller, the defenseman who was a first-round pick in the 2013 Draft that the San Jose Sharks decided they didn’t want anymore and traded him during the offseason. Sure, he didn’t play in a whole lot of NHL games for the Sharks but perhaps they felt he wouldn’t be much of a contributor.
During Mueller’s first preseason game against the Capitals, he scored a slap shot goal 60 feet from the net while centreman Lars Eller was on the ice, as well as Taylor Chorney – a guy with little NHL experience but who played for Hynes with the WBS Penguins back in the 2014-15 season. Then, during his second preseason game against the Montreal Canadiens on Sept. 21, he was paired with Dalton Prout and scored another slap shot goal 57 feet from the net while Paul Byron was on the ice. Not bad at all.
Things are really starting to heat up for the Devils and this year’s preseason is reflecting that. If the offseason wasn’t enough for fans to regain their hope for the franchise’s future success, then the last couple of weeks should do the trick. With Hall, Zacha, Palmieri, Hischier, Johannson, Severson… and Stafford on the roster, making it out of the league’s bottom 10 by April is becoming ever-so believable. Although it’s just the preseason, the Devils have moved miles ahead of where they were when Hynes arrived two seasons ago.