Against the Islanders on January 2, the first game of 2020, the Devils won a third consecutive game - something the team had not been able to do since late 2018. The three-game win streak has been a reflection of the budding confidence this group has suddenly discovered. One word you hear often pre- or post-game is 'belief', belief has suddenly made its way into the New Jersey locker room.
So where did it all start coming together for the team? Will Butcher points to the Devils four-game road trip in the middle of December, with stops in Nashville, Dallas, Colorado, and Arizona. More specifically, Butcher points to the game in Colorado as a turning point, despite the 3-1 loss.
"We played really well in that central swing that we did," Butcher said. "Out in Colorado and Arizona. We started to put some good games together, even though we weren't getting the result of winning the game. I thought that we were playing well, we were buying into the system where the guys were playing for each other. That's kind of where I think you felt it all start. And then, that Chicago game kind of gave us the boost of how to win games and how to keep playing that way. I think that's kind of where it took off for us."
There appears to be a new-found calm in P.K. Subban's game and it's been to the benefit of not only the individual player but the team as a whole.
It has taken some time but Subban appears to have found his stride with New Jersey, something that interim coach Alain Nasreddine boils down to feeling comfortable within the system.
Nasreddine has plenty of experience with Subban, before taking over the interim head coaching job, Nasreddine was the Devils defensive coach.
"To be honest, it hasn't been perfect all season, but I wouldn't say he wasn't committed to playing defense early on," he said. "Maybe the system took a bit of time for him to adjust and adapt, I think he's feeling more comfortable within the system. But I thought his commitment was always there. His compete and dedication to just play the right way is there. Just some reads at sometimes he didn't have, being over-aggressive at times and sometimes less is more."
Subban ended a 23-game goal drought when he scored against Chicago on December 23rd and has another two goals and an assist since then, including 13 shots in the last four games.
"I think he understands now that we don't need him to be chasing all around and I think that helps his game," continued Nasreddine. "He's been good on both sides of the puck lately and for us the way he's been shooting the puck is what we need more of and he's been doing it the last two or three games, if you look at his shot attempts and all that stuff. So, he's done a good job."
This will surely be a trivia question down the line… P.K. Subban was the first New Jersey Devil to score a goal in the new decade. Subban's goal at 18:33 in the second period against the Islanders on Long Island goes down as the first Devils goal of 2020.
And if you want to score extra points, Nikita Gusev and Travis Zajac assisted that goal.
One of the most fun guys in the Devils locker room is Sami Vatanen. He's always up for a good joke, he is extremely witty and has no problem mixing it up.
Vatanen has had a pretty remarkable season in 2019-20. After last season was injury-plagued for the Finn, this season he has played a key role in stabilizing the defense. Along with his 22 points this season, Vatanen has been one of the Devils most reliable defensemen. On Saturday, January 4th, Vatanen played 30:40 against the Colorado Avalanche. That happens to be the most ice-time by any Devils' player in a regulation game since 2007 when Brian Rafalski played 30:55 against the Blues. That's a pretty incredible state when you come to think of it… 2007 is a long way back.
Sami might slightly fly under the radar, but certainly not in the Devils locker room where his contributions are praised. Sami and Kyle Palmieri have known each other since they both played with the Anaheim Ducks.
"He's a huge part of our d-core and our power play," Palmieri said. "He quarterbacks the first unit, and I think he's a guy who plays with so much confidence and poise that he's able to create offensively but I think his defensive side of the game and how hard he competes is another thing that maybe for a guy his size he doesn't get too much credit for. I've known Sami for probably 10 years now, so I've seen how hard he competes and it's good to have him on our team."
We've seen in before in the past, when injuries were befallen on the Devils. Nico Hischier would skate onto the ice with an 'A' on his jersey, marking a next generation of leadership for the Devils. This time, however, it was a little bit different. On January 7th, it flew under the radar. Nico stepped onto the ice at the Coliseum on Long Islander with an 'A' on his jersey, yet both Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac were both in the lineup as well. Zajac still had his 'A', Palmieri didn't.
It is absolutely no slight on Palmieri, because a decision had been made, with the consultation of Kyle, that he and Nico would share the 'A' for the remainder of the season. A rotation will take place on the road that will alternate between the two players. It's significant for several reasons, the first being a clear message that Hischier will be the key player in the next generation of New Jersey Devils leadership. The second being, he will have Kyle (and Travis, for that matter) to look to while he undertakes this role.
From my standpoint, something has changed in Nico. There has been plenty of veterans surrounding the now 21-year-old since he's been in the NHL, those who handle the tough moments in front of the media on a day-in-day out basis. That's not to say that Nico wasn't available, he was, but much like you see from Andy Greene after a tough loss, Nico is waiting in his locker stall, ready to answer the questions. Greene does this - after any loss - he waits for the media, even when the room is quite bare. It's only been a few games since Taylor Hall was traded, but I've now seen Nico step up into that role that Greene, Palmieri and Hall took on in difficult moments.
There was just so much excitement in the visiting locker room in Ottawa just before the New Year. The youngest guy on the team had just had a huge moment. Jack Hughes' first overtime goal was a beauty, and everyone knew it.
Even Jack himself. Some may confuse his confidence for cockiness, but I rather enjoy a player who understands their level of talent and abilities.
"Pretty nice. I'm not gonna lie," he said to MSG Networks after the game. "Nice goal. It was a nice pass by Palms. Good to help the team win."
Just another 'first' to cross off the budding stars list!
Interim head coach Alain Nasreddine has been asked the same question on a couple of occasions these last two weeks. As different media come and go from press conference and media availability, Nas has been asked a couple of times now how he is managing with the new head coaching role and how it differs from his 10 years as an assistant. With a smirk and a slight hint of a laugh, he points to time management.
"Time management," Nasreddine has said on multiple occasions. "I think there's a lot on your plate - a lot more on your plate. I saw John [Hynes] work-day in, day out doing this stuff and I've always said he was the hardest working man in the NHL. Now to be in that position you realize how much you have. Coaching is one thing, but there's a lot more than just coaching that comes along with this [head] coaching job. The time management is definitely something that you really have to be aware of to be able to do a good job."
As a Canadian, I couldn't have imagined a better way for the World Junior Championship to end on Sunday afternoon. A 4-3 victory over Russia earned the Team Canada their 18th gold medal in the tournament's history. It also solidified a successful World Juniors for several New Jersey Devils prospects.
When all was said and done, four Devils prospects returned home from the tournament in Czech Republic with a medal. Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl won gold with Canada, Daniil Misyul took home silver with Russia and Nikola Pasic won the bronze with Sweden.
How does that compare to the rest of the NHL? Well, New Jersey, Detroit, and L.A. all had four prospects that medaled. Columbus, Dallas, and Edmonton each had three, as did Arizona.
One of the most consistent players this Devils season has undoubtedly been Mackenzie Blackwood in net. The 23-year-old has all but one of the Devils victories this season (Louis Domingue has the other). When the calendar hit December 20th, 2019, Blackwood had officially been a relative constant in the NHL for a full calendar year. December 20th, 2018 was Blackwood's first NHL start, one day after his first NHL appearance. Fast-forward a year and sum up the 2019 month of December, and Blackwood has some impeccable numbers.
From December 1st to the end of the month, Blackwood had a record of 6-3-3. Over that time he was 3rd in NHL in save percentage with .924 and he was also tied for 3rd in the NHL with his 2.31 goals-against average. (Numbers reflected here compare to goaltenders who have played a minimum of 10 games.)
Not too shabby.
After Blackwood's performance against the Boston Bruins, on the final game of 2019 and a game where in the shootout he stopped David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Jake DeBrusk and Patrice Bergeron in the victory, interim head coach Nasreddine was asked about the potential of seeing Blackwood's name in the Calder trophy debate.
"Mackenzie has been a difference-maker," Nasreddine answered. "He's a big reason for our success lately and we still have half the season left so he'll try to keep it rolling. He'll be a big part of that so if he continues like this there's no reason not to believe he can be a Calder Trophy candidate."
For a second straight year, the New Jersey Devils will be represented by Kyle Palmieri at the NHL All-Star Game. As the Devils point-leader and goal scorer he will represent the franchise on Saturday, Jan. 25 at Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
"It's an honor to represent New Jersey," he said. "Being able to go there for a second year in a row. I'm excited for it. Really looking forward to it."
Don't forget you can also vote in Nico Hischier to the All-Star Game as one of the NHL's 'Last Men In' competition. It's super easy… just head to THIS LINK and vote your maximum 10 times per 24 hours and let's send Nico along with Kyle to the NHL's big event!