Before the first day of training camp, New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero told his players and prospects they virtually had no shot at competing for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It was easy for the outside world to believe such low expectations. Following a trip to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, the Devils have missed the playoffs three straight seasons and bottomed out last season with a punchless offense finishing 27th in the NHL at 2.15 goals per game. The 27-year reign of president and GM Lou Lamoriello ended with 78 points and a 25th-place finish.
Shero took over with a clean slate and hired coach John Hynes, who he was familiar with from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, to introduce a fresh ideology. Shero issued a challenge to the players to defy the experts, especially those who predicted the Devils to finish 30th in 2015-16.
"We're all in this together and the stories have already been written about what we are," Shero said that day, according to the Canadian Press, "so you've got eight months to try to write a different story and see what that's going to take."
To date, the Devils are penning a story nobody saw coming. They're 11-5-0 since a 0-3-1 start when they were outscored 13-6. Scoring is up, goalie Cory Schneider is playing like an MVP, and morale in the locker room is high. The desire to dig in and work hard started in the summer and held ground even after the slow start, and that has Hynes leading the race for the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year.
"They were sick of losing," Hynes told the Bergen Record. "You could tell in just the way they spoke, the feedback they gave us. And they backed that up with who they were when they came to training camp. That's been the most encouraging thing."
The players have since bonded with Hynes, the 17th coach in Devils history, who led the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to five straight seasons of 40-plus wins and five consecutive playoff berths. Hynes' current group is buying in and is changing the perception in New Jersey quicker than expected.
"It's coming along," Hynes said. "You can see it in different ways, whether it's the way we're playing or the competitiveness in which we've been able to play with. Every game right now we feel like we've had an opportunity to win, even the games we didn't win, we were right there and that's something we wanted to do. When we've been in difficult situations, we're coming from behind or playing tight games and finding a way to win in OT or the shootout, and those are all components of being difficult to play against. So it's a good start but we have to really continue to do that and build it."
Lindy Ruff, Dallas Stars -- Ruff has the Stars leading the Western Conference and off to their best 21-game start to a season (17-4-0, 34 points) in their 48-year history. As expected, Dallas' top-ranked offense is lighting it up. Tyler Seguin (11-19-30) and Jamie Benn (14-15-29) are second and third in the NHL in scoring, respectively, and John Klingberg (4-19-23) is the first defenseman in Stars history to earn 22 points in the first 20 games of a season.
The power play has also improved incrementally under Ruff. Dallas finished 23rd in the League (16.2 percent) in 2013-14, was eighth (19.3 percent) last season and is second (27.7 percent) this season. The Stars defense has also reduced its goals-per-game average from 3.13 last season to 2.38. They're also learning how to close games, outscoring opponents 31-17 in the third period after being outscored 104-74 last season.
"I like how the plan is going," Ruff told the Dallas Morning News. "We've had some setbacks with our ideas, but we got back on track and we continue to work on them. There's nights when I think we're real close."
Dave Tippett, Arizona Coyotes -- Arizona is showing signs of life after its worst season since relocating from Winnipeg in 1996. After losing 50 games, finishing 29th and missing the playoffs for the third straight season, the Coyotes are 6-3-0 against the Western Conference and have earned 10 points against Pacific Division opponents.
A rebuilding plan centered on promising young players Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Mikkel Boedker, as well as franchise defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, is accelerating under Tippett, the Jack Adams Award winner in 2010.
"There's still lots of growing to do in this group," Tippett told the Coyotes website, "but the thing I like about them right now on the bench is the guys are pushing each other to do the right things."
ALSO IN THE MIX: Dan Bylsma, Buffalo Sabres; Alain Vigneault, New York Rangers; Michel Therrien, Montreal Canadiens.