BUFFALO, N.Y. - The big news Wednesday for the New Jersey Devils was the trade of veteran forwards Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri. Less than 24 hours later, the team will have to suit up in the second half of a home-and-home series against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center.
And while the loss of Zajac and Palmieri will leave a void in the lineup, it also creates an opening for others to fill.
"It's a great opportunity for a lot of young players to show exactly what they can bring. Their ice time is going to go up, their important ice time is going to go up," Devils head coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's a great opportunity for a group of seven or eight players that are really trying to show that they can be a big part of this team and make a difference. It's one thing having an opportunity down the stretch here, and everybody is going to have a chance to show what they can bring."
One of those players is Jesper Boqvist. The 22-year-old will slot into Zajac's center position for the game.
"We'll give him a look. He'll drop right into Trav's spot," Ruff said. "It's an area we'd like to look at."
The Devils will still be without center Nico Hischier, who has been out of the lineup since Feb. 27 with a frontal sinus fracture. The team's captain did join the team for the trip to Buffalo and participated in his second straight team practice (morning skate), but isn't ready to play just yet.
It appears that Aaron Dell will get the start in net. It would be his first appearance since March 4, and only his fourth game played this season.
Losing Zajac and Palmieri was certainly a loss on the ice, but perhaps even more so off the ice due to the leadership of the two men. Those duties will now fall even more on the shoulders of the 22-year-old captain Hischier.
"When I got the 'C' I said I have guys in the room like Trav, Palms, they helped me out," Hischier said. "There are still guys in the room that can help me out that have a lot of experience. At the end of the day I'll be who I am and not change anything. That's what the guys told me to do, and the organization, so that's what I'll try to do."
One player that will likely share in helping out is defenseman Damon Severson, who is the longest-tenured Devil in his seventh season with the club.
"When there are shoes to fill, someone has to fill them," said Severson, who wears an 'A' as alternate captain. "We all did a good job of leaning on each other. The leadership group would get together. Now going forward it's going to be a bit of a change. Nico and I will have to do a good job, and whoever they decide to have as alternates the rest of the season.
"It's something we can't take lightly. With such a young team we have to make sure we're doing a good job."
And part of doing a good job is setting an example.
"When you come into the league you learn from veteran guys, guys who wear the letters," Severson said. "I hope to be one of those guys that our younger players learn from on and off the ice. I have a lot of respect for the previous holders of those positions. I learned a lot from those guys. I have to be that guy they can come to, lean on or look at as a veteran leader."
Forward Andrea Johnsson is now the oldest forward on the Devils at 26 years old. Even Ruff is surprised at the youth on his current lineup, which is the youngest in the NHL.
"I've never coached a group that's this young," he said. "I've liked where these young guys have gotten themselves to."
And Ruff knows what he wants to see from his young players as they handle more responsibility, more minutes and more leadership.
"I want to see that energy. I want to see a raised level of enthusiasm," he said. "With that energy can sometimes come mistakes. But mistakes will happen. I'd rather see them happen when you're on your toes and you're bringing it. Youthful energy is what I want to see all these guys bring.
"I want to hear their voices. I want to hear communication. I want to hear players coming back to the bench and they're talking about a play. I want to see them talking on the ice."
And communication is something that he has seen grow over the season. He expects that trend to continue, or possibly increase, in the absence of Zajac and Palmieri.
"I see players starting to challenge each other on plays. 'Can we be better?' 'Why didn't you do this?' 'I was open, why didn't you give it me?'" Ruff said. "Sometimes a young player doesn't want to say anything if it's a veteran player that had the puck and didn't pass it to him. Now we're seeing some of that communication. Where seeing them say, 'I'm available.' 'Give it to me.' 'I can make a difference.' And we see that communication coming back to the bench. That's an important part of starting to grow and lead, and demand more out of each other."
DEVILS (13-18-6) vs SABRES (9-23-6)
TV: MSG+2 AT 7 PM ET
The Devils and Sabres will meet for the eighth and final time this season. New Jersey is 3-3-1 against the Sabres, but 2-0-1 in Buffalo.
The two clubs will also be finishing a home-and-home series. The Sabres took the opening bout Tuesday night, 5-3, at New Jersey's Prudential Center.
Buffalo's Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt posted one goal and two points each in the contest. Mittelstadt recorded the game-winning goal on a third-period power-play tally. Rasmus Ristolainen, Rasmus Asplund and Brandon Montour also scored for Buffalo.
The Devils received goals from Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt and Damon Severson. Zacha and Bratt also notched assists for two-point nights each.
Devils Team Scope:
Captain Nico Hischier practiced with the Devils Wednesday afternoon for the first time since suffering a frontal sinus fracture on Feb. 27. He traveled with the team to Buffalo, but his status is still unknown for the game.
Forward Jesper Bratt has 11 points (4G-7A) in his last 12 games and 15 (4-11) in his past 18. Rookie forward Tyce Thompson made his NHL debut against Buffalo Tuesday night. He picked up his first-career NHL point (assist) on his second-career shift.
Devils forward Kyle Palmieri will continue to be a healthy scratch for "precautionary reasons" heading into next Monday's annual NHL trade deadline.
Sabres Team Scope:
It's been a record-breaking year for the Sabres, but not in a good way. They set an NHL record with an 18-game winless streak (0-15-3), which was snapped March 31 in a 6-1 victory against Philadelphia.
The win was the first for interim head coach Don Granato, who replaced Ralph Krueger on March 17. With their 5-3 victory against the Devils Tuesday, Buffalo is now 3-0-2 in its past five games.
Much like the Devils and Palmieri, the Sabres are scratching Taylor Hall in anticipation of a trade.
By the Numbers:
Devils Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood has a 4-2-1 record with a 2.24 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in his last seven outings. He's made an average of 34 saves in that stretch.
Goalie Linus Ullmark is 4-0-0 with a 2.04 GAA and .939 save percentage against New Jersey this season.