Winds of change blew through the Devils franchise and locker room on the evening of December 16. Shortly before 5 p.m. the news that Taylor Hall had been traded made its way through the news cycle.
Hall was sent, along with Binghamton's Blake Speers, to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for a 2020 conditional first-round draft pick, a conditional 2021 third-rounder, along with forward prospects Nate Schnarr, Nick Merkley, and defenseman Kevin Bahl.
And so came to a close a three and a half years with Hall in the Devils lineup.
He was the first player in Devils franchise history to walk away with a Hart Trophy at seasons end, when his 39 goals and 54 assists in 2017-18 helped lead the Devils to the playoffs.
"After my career's done, when I'm, you know, when I'm 65 years old, I'll still remember the New Jersey Devils fans chanting MVP for me," Hall said on a conference call just after the trade. "That's something that'll stick with me for a while and was definitely my most fun hockey. I have a lot to thank, Devils fans, the Devil's organization for and I'll always be grateful for my, for my time here."
Less than 24 hours after the Hall trade, general manager Ray Shero met the media with plenty to say, including his perspective on where he sees the current Devils franchise.
"In terms of the timeline, I don't have a timeline, but I know one thing: We're in a lot better spot than we were five years ago," Shero said. "I think we're in a lot better spot than we were three years ago when we made the playoffs, in terms of our pool of players, our assets. Again, it can't be, the way that the NHL is, it's different than other sports, it's not about one player. It's got to be about a team.
"Even with Merkley and Schnarr in the deal, they're young guys, a former first-round pick, third-round pick. It's depth and that's what we need. The competition, and I just feel that especially with where we are with some of the kids."
At just 23 years old, Mackenzie Blackwood has taken over the number one goaltending position for the New Jersey Devils. It's not an easy task for any player, still learning the ropes of the NHL life, how to maintain consistency, and just all-around figure things out.
On Friday evening, Blackwood became the youngest goaltender this season to start 21 games for their NHL club. Blackwood had turned 23 just five days prior to backstopping the Devils to a 2-1 victory against the Arizona Coyotes.
Less than three months into the Devils season, Blackwood has already equaled the amount of games played (21) in his stint with New Jersey last season. Mackenzie has put in an incredible workload thus far, appearing in 24 games with a couple of stints entering games in relief of his goaltending partner.
The last time that occurred, Mackenzie had to come into the game cold against the Colorado Avalanche. While New Jersey lost the game 3-1, Blackwood stopped all 19 shots he faced in the Mile-High City. Blackwood replaced Louis Domingue midway through the game against the Avalanche, after Domingue went down with a lower-body injury. Over the course of the four-game road trip, Blackwood appeared in three of the four games where he made 83 saves on 86 shots fired his way and a .953 save percentage.
"Tonight [against Arizona], you look at the saves he makes, they look easy," Nasreddine said of his goaltender. "When there are scoring chances from point-blank and he makes it look easy, it gives the team a lot of confidence."
The look of excitement could be seen all over the Devils bench as the clock struck 00:00 against the Coyotes. The team competed as tough and hard as they could to secure a victory, their first since Thanksgiving in Montreal. A sense of relief washed over the bench but also immense excitement. Alain Nasreddine had just won his first game as a head coach behind an NHL bench.
"It felt really good. I won't lie. It's been an emotional 10 days. I've been looking forward to this win. We had some cracks at it," Nasreddine began. "I'm so impressed with the effort they put forth. Last night we played a really good team, came in last night at two in the morning. It's a great win."
The sentiment was echoed in the locker room as well, with all players saying how happy they were to finally be able to give Nasreddine his first win.
"It was great to get Nas's first win," Palmieri said after the game. "I think a lot of guys stepped up and were pulling in the right direction tonight. It's a good feeling when everyone in this room is battling for each other. The last two nights we've been doing that and it's nice to be rewarded."
Could McLeod playing at center at the NHL level been a slight difference maker? McLeod was called up during last week's road trip, with Nico Hischier unable to play, out sick. He had a strong first appearance and followed that game up with the first multi-point game of his career, where he was playing at center with Jesper Boqvist and Miles Wood on his wings.
Obviously, more experience helps, but coach Nasreddine seems to think that keeping McLeod at the center position at the NHL level is the way to go when he's called upon with the big club. In his prior stints he played on the wing. But this time around, Nasreddine trusted McLeod with the center role, watching how he has handled that role this season at the AHL level.
"He played in Binghamton at center all year, so when you call up a guy, you want to put him in a position where he can succeed," Nasreddine said. "So, if he played at center, you want to bring him up and play at center. You don't want to switch him up and be a winger. And we're going to work with him as far as systems, and his system details were good, but this is a little quicker game, where in the d-zone coverage was a little tentative, but this is nothing that's really hard to fix. A couple of days now we have until next game and he'll only get better."
It was oh-so-close for McLeod's first NHL goal, too. In fact, check out his celebration on the Devils first goal against Arizona and well, you'd think McLeod had just scored.
That's because nearly everyone thought he did. In-house, the goal was announced as McLeod's first NHL goal, but after further review his first goal was stolen away by teammate Jesper Boqvist who ended up having tipped the puck, turning McLeod's goal into an assist.
"Obviously thought I had scored. Really exciting," McLeod said. "But I'm just happy we got that early goal, and obviously kept going as the game went on."
So, that first NHL goal will still have to wait, but it shouldn't necessarily be a long one. Though it remains a very small sample size, McLeod looks far more comfortable this time around at the NHL level than we saw from him last season.
"It's not even about the points but the way he played the two games. He's heavy on pucks, gets in on the forecheck. He played with confidence. It's not just about the assists," stated Nasreddine. "That's what we need on this team. It doesn't always show up on the scoreboard. It did tonight but last night he did well too."
Take note: Blackwood's puck-handling has improved. Mostly because his confidence in it has too.
"I know I can handle it well, I just didn't trust, in the past, that I would make a good play with it in the game," Blackwood said. "In practice, it's practice. But in the game the failures are a little more magnified, so I was more worried about not screwing up with the puck rather than making the plan. Now I think my mindset has changed."
Hopping overseas to Vienna, Devils defensive prospect Ty Smith is currently with Team Canada preparing for the 2020 World Junior Championship.
Smith is one of five returning players to the Canadian roster. In the leadup to the tournament, which begins on December 26th, 2019 and runs through January 5th, 2020, Smith has not only found himself once again in a leadership role, but also set to carry some big minutes for the national team.
The 19-year-old is on Canada's top defensive pairing with Jared McIssac of the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads. Smith is also quarterbacking the second unit of Canada's power play.
Canada's first pre-tournament game is December 19, followed by a game on the 23rd. The final roster must be submitted on Christmas Day. Smith's name will be on that list.
Speaking of Team Canada. Kevin Bahl woke up on Tuesday morning with little idea that he had been traded from the Coyotes to the Devils. Team Canada takes all players' cellphones during evening hours into the morning from players at camp, and with the time difference, Bahl's trade came down in those hours without a phone.
When he finally got it back, the news came to him pretty quickly. He was now a Devil, joining his Team Canada teammate Ty Smith as a New Jersey defensive prospect.
Bahl is currently in Austria with the national team preparing for the World Juniors where the 6-foot-7, 240lbs defenseman has been skating with Ottawa Senators prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker, a pairing that is expected to be Canada's shutdown pair this tournament.