The other day I walked into Prudential Center and saw Nico Hischier skating off the ice.
This week, Nico has been back on the ice awaiting clearance from team doctors to return to practice. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be in his shoes, recovering from a broken leg, playing five games, and then again suffering another devastating injury.
It was so great to see him, with a smile on his face and naturally itching to play. For everything that he has been through this past year you'd be able to forgive him if he was down on his own luck and frustrated. But that's not the Nico I bumped into. His smile was as big as ever, just excited to be on the ice again, a sign he's nearing his (second) return. The good news, as you'll find out in this week's 10 Takeaways, is that Nico's recovering has him headed as close as ever to a return to play.
1. Welcome to the Show
Tyce Thompson has become one of many this season for the Devils, making his NHL debut during this shortened season. The 21-year-old, who just wrapped up his college career as captain of the Providence College Friars, will play in his first NHL game tonight.
Tyce is the second player of the Devils 2019 Draft Class to make his NHL debut, behind Jack Hughes. Thompson was drafted in the fourth round, 96th overall.
Tyce said he was "speechless" realizing that he is making his NHL debut against his older brother. You really can't write the story up any better than that. His older brother, Tage, is a forward for the Buffalo Sabres.
What I love about our sport is the special moments it creates, and how small the hockey family really is. Behind the Sabres bench is Buffalo head coach Don Granato, who knew the Thompson brothers as young children, and now gets to watch them up close in Tyce's debut.
"That is really exciting. I got to see both Tage and Tyce at a very young age and when I first saw both of them play, it was really easy for me to see the potential was there," Granato said prior to the game. "Knowing the family and having coached Tage at the amateur level, this is pretty neat to be a part of it."
4. Another Chapter
The story of Travis Zajac with the New Jersey Devils keeps building chapters. The latest for the life-long Devil is another jump in the Devils franchise history books. On Sunday, Zajac's two-goal effort was his 201st and 202nd NHL goals. The 35-year-old is now tied with Bobby Holik for third on the Devils' all-time goal-scoring list, one more and he'll take sole possession. It may also realistically be as high on the list as he'll get with John MacLean's 347 in second and Patrik Elias' 408 at the top of the list. Zajac is already third in franchise points behind those two same players with 549.
5. By the Numbers
Breaking down Ty Smith's numbers this season, the one that really stands out is his 19:41 average ice time in his 36 games. Smith made NHL.com's list of Top Five Rookie Skaters who are averaging the most ice-time this season.
I asked Lindy Ruff last week about Smith's growth and the confidence he has in him. Here's what he had to say of the 21-year-old who is not only in his rookie season but also going about quarterbacking the first wave of the Devils power play.
"Early on I didn't have a lot of expectations for how much he would play, or even if he would play," Ruff said. "But I think his confidence to play against top players is something that has surprised me. We know at times he can't physically outplay them, but positionally and his angles and awareness of where players have been at have been excellent. If you can't defend as a young defenseman, you can't play."
6. Nico On the Horizon
Here's your weekly Nico Hischier update… and it's a good one! The words Lindy Ruff used on Tuesday were: "he's a lot closer to playing." Today marks the three-week mark since his surgery. Don't expect Nico to just jump right into a game, Lindy made it pretty clear he'd like Nico to get in at least one practice before suiting up for his second return this season.
"He skated; conditioning has come along. He feels great. I talked to him this morning. He feels excited about getting close to coming back. The fact that he's been on the ice now for at least a week, the next step is getting back into game practice." I won't lie, I've seen Nico in the mornings myself on the ice, he's looking good, and not only that, he's been in great spirits.
I for one look forward to having Nico back (for more than five games), to see what a true Devils lineup is going to look like, and how a true Devils lineup under Lindy Ruff will play. Sometimes I have to remind myself we haven't really had a full glimpse of what's to come yet, without Nico around. Five games, that's it.
8. Not Worried About Jack
"If he's frustrated, he didn't show it," is how Lindy Ruff described his star forward Jack Hughes who has gone nine games without a goal. Before he was credited with an added assist against Washington over the weekend, it had also been eight games since he registered a point. And it's not for the lack of trying. He has been everywhere on the ice; he's taken 23 shots on net in the last nine games and yet that goal continues to elude him. Asked about Jack's tough luck, Lindy Ruff said he doesn't think he's ever seen anything like it for a player of Jack's caliber.
"I feel so bad for him because he's had so many great chances," Ruff said. "You'll run into streaks like this. He's run into a tough one but I really liked his game. … If he's frustrated it didn't show coming into tonight's game. He gave it everything he had to make a difference, and he had the opportunities, too."
9. Sneaky Good
It's been a great run over the past 11 games for Jesper Bratt. I feel like he's done it rather quietly too. He has nine points in his last 11 games, with three goals and six assists. He's played fewer games than most of his teammates with 30 under his belt this season and is the Devils second-leading scorer with 19 points (4G-15A), tied with Ty Smith. He's played the least number of games of any player in the Top-10 in points.
10. It's a Business
There's no beating around the bush on this one. It's that time of year where pending Free Agents are sometimes held out of NHL lineups with trade options on the table. And that's where the Devils currently sit with forward Kyle Palmieri. He was held out on Sunday against Washington for "precautionary reasons" as he waits for the next move to be sorted out. "It's a day-to-day process. He's just in waiting right now," Lindy Ruff said.
Palmieri has spent the past six seasons in New Jersey, one more than he did with the Anaheim Ducks before he was traded to the Devils. In that time, he played 397 games and scored 266 points, including 140 goals.