Every win is important in an NHL season, but their most recent triumph could be viewed as a preview of the what the future looks like for the New Jersey Devils. In their 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, 20-year-old Nico Hischier had a goal and an assist, 22-year-old Mackenzie Blackwood made 32 saves, 23-year-old Miles Wood had the game-winning goal, and 24-year-old Damon Severson opened the scoring, moving within three points of last season’s total (24).
The Devils need their young prospects to continue to develop if they hope to once again become perennial contenders in the NHL and the Jan. 12 win was a prime example of a good day in a season that has featured some not so good days. But that’s nothing more than growing pains as coach John Hynes illustrated in his post-game presser.
“It’s really important for us to have contributions from the young guys, that’s what we talked about when we took over the organization,” said Hynes. “To be good in this league you have to have contributions from young players. One of the things we have been able to do is we’ve had great veteran leadership among our players. We have excellent veteran players; we have good pros that are excellent players and play key minutes.”
“They help the young guys come along and we feel like we have good in the organization. When you’re going through that, sometimes you have ups and downs and it can be hard. You look at a game like tonight and we were able to get contributions from younger players – if you go through our year lots of times if we’ve won we have had strong contributions from our young guys.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 12, 2019
Hischier and Blackwood are probably two of the best young players at their positions in New Jersey’s organization. Severson is in his fifth full NHL season and certainly had his ups and downs throughout his Devils tenure. Wood is in just his third season and although the potential is there, he often times is too fast for his own good or spends too much time in the penalty box. In the win over the Flyers though, all four were key components in a solid team win.
Black is Back
Blackwood was making his first start since Jan. 4 when he had to leave a game in Arizona with a lower-body injury. He looked pretty much just like he did in his other six starts in the NHL, giving his team a chance to win the game. For the past few seasons, Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider have been battling to take over as the undisputed no.1 goalie for the Devils and perhaps this whole time they have been just keeping the seat warm for Blackwood.
“I was happy with my overall performance tonight. There were some areas that I wanna clean up a little bit, some technical things but I was happy with my game and the team played great in front of me as well again,” said the rookie netminder after his fourth career win.
Hynes was especially pleased with how Blackwood performed during the final stages of the game where he turned aside 12 shots over the final 20 minutes, only surrendering a goal with two seconds left. “When you watch him, he’s calm in the net, has tremendous size and he plays a little bit deeper (in the net) so he has the opportunity to see plays and look over people. When you look at him in situations where there are tips and rebounds or scrums, secondary chances, because of his positioning – which he’s taken a lot of pride in understanding how to play that way – it allows his athleticism and his size to be in situations to make not only the first save but the second save,” said the Devils coach.
“He came up (from the AHL) and he’s played really strong each game he’s played,” said Hischier of Blackwood. “He’s made huge saves and that’s huge for us. It gives us confidence, it gives us momentum, he’s really (been) huge for us. I can’t imagine how much pressure you have as a goalie,” he added with a smirk. “If you do a mistake it’s back in the net. As a forward, if you do a mistake you have the D and the goalie still there. What he’s doing is pretty impressive to me.”
Nico’s Nice Day
Hischier has started the new year with a bang and now has five points (3g-2a) in the first six games of 2019, and he’s done it all without his usual linemate Taylor Hall who has been out of the lineup with an injury since Dec. 27. “Everybody in this room tries his best every night, but this league is so tough if you don’t play detailed enough,” said the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. “Tonight we came out strong, and we played detailed enough to win the game. It feels good.”
“It’s the little details that sometimes cost us games,” Hischier said lamenting at past games that New Jersey has failed to capture important points and wins. “We can take a lot of good things out of this game and now we just have to keep it rolling.”
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) January 12, 2019
Hynes and the coaching staff rely a lot on Hischier, even though he’s only played in 122 NHL games. He’s the top line center, often playing against the opponent’s top line, and while he’s not perfect he’s shown progression in many areas of his game since he made his debut in October 2017.
“The thing with Nico playing big minutes and hard minutes against good players and not taking a lot of penalties (6 PiM) is he’s a smart player and one of the things that are underrated with guys like him is he has great anticipation. He doesn’t get caught on the wrong side of people, or get caught late where he has to take hooking or tripping penalties,” said Hynes. “His body position is really good when he’s in situations to defend; he’s a smart player.”
The offensive side of Severson’s game has always been evident since he first made the club out of training camp in 2014 but it’s the defensive side of his game that has left a lot to be desired during his tenure in New Jersey. But it’s getting better. It always seems that when he does find himself on the scoresheet the team is usually victorious, which is always nice. But he’s still a work in progress.
“We talked to him a couple of days ago about needing him to be better defensively, and more consistent defensively,” said Hynes. “I think when you look at him in the harder areas of the game there was a blip on one situation against Toronto, but I think for the most part with him he has responded and it’s an area for Damon that we have to continue to work with him on. He’s gotta take pride in it as a player, of understanding when you’re called upon to play defense in the hard areas of the game, it’s a requirement – particularly if you want to be a top D.”
Miles of Heart
Wood had a breakout season last year with New Jersey, finishing with 19 goals but this season has been more of a challenge and the goals have been few and far between. He earned himself a new contract and hasn’t yet been able to live up to it with only three multipoint games thus far in 2018-19. But he does have five points (2-3a) over the past seven games and perhaps he is starting to turn the corner. How big of a boost would it be if the Devils could add another point producer on the wing without subtracting anyone from the roster?
“You don’t really score from the outside in this league,” said Wood who scored his fifth goal of the season at the onset of the third period. “You have to get to the blue paint and that’s what happened today. (Blake) Coleman did a great job of just getting the puck to the net and the goalie saved it, but he didn’t know where it went. I just kind of tapped it in from there.”
Youth is Served
There are other young players that will be relied upon the rest of this season and beyond if the Devils are truly going to grow and mature as a team. Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, Joey Anderson, Mirco Mueller, Pavel Zacha, and Brett Seney are all on the NHL roster already. Players like Michael McLeod, Jesper Boqvist and Ty Smith are on their way to joining them. Chances are they all won’t be here together at the same time, but the fight is on to see who sticks and who doesn’t as an NHL player.
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.