After a busy offseason, it's finally time to drop the puck on the 2017-18 NHL season.
This summer, rather than lose key players, the Devils added them. Back in April, lady luck was on New Jersey's side when the club won the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery, landing them Swiss forward Nico Hischier. The Devils also acquired veterans like Marcus Johansson (via trade with Washington) and Drew Stafford (free agency), two forwards who are expected to make immediate impacts in the top six.
Perhaps New Jersey's most meaningful acquisition was Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher. Putting Butcher's skill as an offensive defenseman aside (there are many), the signing of the University of Denver product proves New Jersey has become an attractive landing spot for young, eager talent that want to grow under head coach John Hynes.
The puck drops on Saturday at 2 p.m., and the Devils' faithful have all the reasons in the world to feel confident and excited about what's on the horizon. Here's what to keep an eye on as the season gets underway.
Vetting the Veterans
It's no secret that the Devils started the offseason desperately looking for offensive production. As previously mentioned, New Jersey traded a second-round pick for Capitals forward Johansson. Johansson has racked up more than 44 points in his previous four seasons, including 58 (24g-34a) in 2016-17. The versatile Johansson has immediately fit into the Devils' system, skating at center and at wing. During the preseason, Johansson tallied six points (1g-5a) while primarily skating with rookie Hischier and fellow offseason addition Stafford.
Video: Shero speaks to media prior to the start of season
Acquiring a player of Stafford's caliber and history is very reminiscent of previous signings by general manager Ray Shero. Shero was patient in his approach to signing Stafford, not inking the 31-year-old right wing until late August, which is similar to 2015-16 when Lee Stempniak joined Jersey. Prior to being traded at the deadline, Stempniak led the team with 41 points (16g-25a). After a strong performance in the preseason, Stafford (4g-3a) aims to mimic this type of productivity.
Seven-year veteran Jimmy Hayes earned himself a spot on the opening day roster following a training camp PTO. Hayes scored twice in five preseason games and was formidable as a fourth-liner. A big power forward who can throw his body when necessary, Hayes adds to the Devils' much needed depth.
In the Devils' effort to become a younger and faster team, the club has decided to keep three rookies on the opening day roster. Coach Hynes explained that Hischier played his way into a top-six role after posting seven points (4g-3a) in the preseason. Butcher spent the majority of his preseason quarterbacking the Devils' power play unit. Potentially the most surprising rookie to crack the Devils' lineup is Jesper Bratt. A sixth-round draft pick, Bratt impressed New Jersey's coaching staff in development and training camp. On making the roster, Bratt knows he'll have to continue to be productive to keep his spot in the NHL.
"I'm standing here, I've made the team, and it's been the best month of hockey of my entire life," he said recently.
Next Man Up
The goal of the preseason is to establish a team identity and to enter the season as healthy as possible. The Devils will be looking to fill big shoes as Travis Zajac (torn pectoral) is expected to be out of the lineup until at least December and Brian Boyle (CML) won't be active on opening day. In addition to those two veteran losses, promising prospect Michael McLeod suffered a lower body injury against the Islanders on Sept. 25 and will begin the season on the injury report. Blake Coleman, Miles Wood, Hayes, Stefan Noesen and Brian Gibbons will look to take advantage of the opportunity that they are given for addition ice time and establish solidified spots in the lineup.
Here We Go
The time is now for the Devils to dictate their new brand of hockey. A high-speed, attacking offense that has a stingy defense is always a difficult to play against, and that is the plan Shero has set forth for his squad. If the preseason is any indication for what to expect this season, 2017-18 is set up to be one of the most entertaining in recent memory.