Raise your hand if you saw the Devils leading the Metropolitan Division in mid-November.
Didn’t think so.
The Jersey boys, who haven’t been to the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2018, have had to listen to catcalls from the stands, including cries for coach Lindy Ruff’s firing.
But, oh, how those fickle fans can change their tune when an 12-game winning streak drops in their laps.
Ruff once coached the Buffalo Sabres to within a win or so of the 1999 Stanley Cup (should Brett Hull have been called for goalie interference – we’ll never find out) so he knows what it takes to elevate a team to that rare air.
And it looks like he’s applying some of that experience to get the Devils in a position of respect around the NHL.
What have been some of the key factors?
>Speed: The Devils lead the NHL in shots off the rush, resulting in a whopping 3.75 goals per game.
>Generating quality scoring chances: They are right among the top teams with 15.72 high quality shots at even strength.
>Signing Andrew Brunette to run the power play: The coach took over the Florida Panthers last season after Joel Quenneville exited and finished with a franchise record 122 points. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough. New Jersey GM Tom Fitzgerald jumped in and signed him as an assistant coach. The Devils’ power play is once again potent.
>Getting a competent backup goalie: Mackenzie Blackwood was pretty much on his own last year. After Washington brought in Stanley Cup-winning netminder Darcy Kuemper, the team traded Vitek Vanacek to the Devils. And a good thing for the Devils that happened – Blackwood is out until after Christmas with a sprained MCL.
>Signing free-agent defenseman Dougie Hamilton: Not sure why Hamilton wasn’t re-signed by Carolina but the Devils were happy to quickly add him to the roster. Currently he’s among the NHL’s top 10 defensemen in scoring.
>The play of captain Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes: Both No. 1 overall draft picks, they’re coming into their own this season.
Bottom line: The Devils have turned things around in a hurry and because of their youth, they’re going to be a factor in the division and the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Now, who else qualifies as “surprise’’ teams this season?
The list includes the Winnipeg Jets, the Dallas Stars, the Vegas Golden Knights and the New York Islanders.
The Jets, like the Flyers (with Carter Hart), have been leaning on their goaltender, Connor Hellebuyck, quite a bit and he hasn’t disappointed. This is a contract year for him so there’s always that incentive.
Dallas played the Flyers last Sunday and showed why it’s a force to be reckoned with. If you’re looking for some strong two-way talent, check out the stats of Jason Robertson. He’s already established himself in the NHL’s top 10 in scoring but the real number that jumps out at you is his plus-10, which indicates he’s a responsible player.
Out in Vegas, it’s all about getting back to the playoffs after missing them for the first time in franchise history last season. A healthy Jack Eichel has been a big part of the turnaround. However, rookie goaltender Logan Thompson has taken the Western Conference by storm. As of Friday, he was 9-3-0 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
Finally, the New York Islanders are out to prove that the 2021-22 playoff-less season was a fluke. That team had to start the season on a 13-game road trip because their new home, UBS Arena, wasn’t ready yet. Then the roster got walloped by COVID. This year, Barry Trotz is gone, replaced by new coach Lane Lambert. Goalie Ilya Sorokin has been one of the best goalies in the league, holding top-5 spots in goals-against average and save percentage.