What stood out about Devon Toews' first NHL game back in December was maybe just how easily he fit in.
That's a compliment for a rookie defenseman, the ability to just slot right into the lineup and be effective. Toews was unfazed by the star power in Dallas that night, and if anything, the leadup to the game was more nerve-wracking than actually lacing up the skates and taking the ice, even for the ceremonial rookie lap.
Since debuting in Dallas on Dec. 23, Toews has not come out of the lineup and the Islanders are 18-5-3 with the rookie in the lineup. The team's record is the result of their collective buy-in as a group, Toews has shown he can be counted on as a reliable piece in a league-leading defensive puzzle.
That comes as a surprise to some, but not Toews, who has carried himself with a quiet confidence since moving into the NHL ranks.
"I always thought I had that ability and it's about getting the right opportunities and not forcing things and coming up here and playing my game," Toews said. "I felt right away I could contribute and help out."
Head Coach Trotz labels him a puck transporter, someone who can move the puck up the ice either with a good, heady pass, or by wheeling it up the ice himself. Toews' skating is Nick Leddy-esque and has been his foundation. It's what won him the fastest skater competition at the 2017 AHL All-Star Classic. It's what gets him up the ice offensively and gets him out of jams the other way. Sometimes he's a little too smooth for his own good, like the time he negated a Cal Clutterbuck goal in Boston by being an inch offside. It was, of course, Toews who started the rush off a defensive zone draw.
"His skating is allowing him to do things that other people struggle to do," Trotz said. "He makes it look real efficient and he's got a good sense of his ability to process and read what his options are. And he executes really well."
Toews has made a nice transition to the NHL. He's got 11 points (4G, 7A) in his first 26 games. He's formed an effective pairing with Scott Mayfield, a more physical, defensive partner, the type of ying-yang duo Trotz likes to have on the back end.
"The chemistry is there. I think it started in training camp," Mayfield said. "Once we started playing more games here, it really started to evolve. I definitely think we have that, I can get in the corners and be physical, take a hit, give a hit, get the puck loose and if I get it over to him, he gets to skate and move it out. So far it's just worked out really well."
The Dallas game was a surreal moment for Toews, who had his parents, Werner and Tammy, brother Nolan and fiancé Kerry fly in for his NHL debut. That was his welcome to the NHL moment, and it was nice to be able to share it with the people who helped lead him to the doorstep.
"Just having my parents and family there, just a cool experience to share it with them. That's when I was like, 'wow, this is real' and pretty cool," Toews said.
Video: CHI@NYI: Toews wins it in OT with first NHL goal
That was the first of many firsts for Toews. There was his first goal, the dramatic OT winner over the Chicago Blackhawks at the Coliseum and first game on Hockey Night in Canada, a 4-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Don't discount what that means to a Canadian kid.
Saturday's game in Vancouver should be another memorable first for Toews, as he plays in his hometown for the first time in his NHL career.
"Since the beginning of the year, it's one that's stood out there and [I was] hopeful. It's cool that it looks like it'll come to fruition," Toews said.
Toews hails from Abbotsford BC, approximately an hour east of downtown Vancouver in the Fraser Valley, known for its annual tulip festival. Toews grew up here playing hockey at the Yale Hockey Academy, ironically sharing a name with Quinnipiac's - Toews' alma mater - biggest rival. He's only the 10th player from his hometown to make it to the NHL.
Despite his relative proximity to Vancouver, Toews grew up rooting for two of Canucks' bigger rivals, the Joe Sakic-Peter Forsberg era Colorado Avalanche and the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews era Chicago Blackhawks. Part of it was admiring defensemen like Adam Foote, Ray Bourque and Duncan Keith, part of it also may have been to annoy his brother.
Still, playing in front of the home crowd will be meaningful. His collegiate and professional hockey career has taken place on the east coast, so opportunities from friends and family to see him play live have been scarce.
Video: MIN@NYI: Toews nets PPG on sizzling one-timer
That should change Saturday. Along with his parents and brother, his childhood coaches and extended family will be in the crowd. Considering that his dad has seven brothers and sisters, there could be a sizable Toews contingent at Rogers Arena.
"For us it's a great privilege," Toews' father said of watching him play in the NHL. "All the work he's put into it and that he has an education and everything. That was his first aim anyways, to get an education through hockey, he's accomplished that. Now it's the next step and we're very proud of him."
As quickly as it appears Toews has adapted to the NHL, there have been some challenges. There's the increased hockey IQ and lack of familiarity with opponents. In Bridgeport, Toews said he'd play some teams up to 12 times a year, but in the NHL every night is a new puzzle against the best players in the world. Asked whether the every-other-day nature has been an adjustment, he quipped that there may not be anything tougher than the '3-in-3' weekends in the AHL.
"It's new in a way, I feel well-prepared for it. If you take care of your body then you feel good every night," Toews said. "It's pretty difficult down there playing 3-in-3s, that's probably one of the harder things I've done in my hockey career."
The secret might be getting out though. Prior to the Islanders' 3-0 win over Columbus on Valentine's Day, the Blue Jackets broadcast crew highlighted three players to watch before the game. They picked captain Anders Lee, leading scorer and reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal and Toews, whose name recognition - if any - probably had more to do with it being the same surname as Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. (No relation, by the way.)
Toews is looking to further earn the trust of Trotz and co and carve a permanent place of his own. He's been living in a hotel since September, indicative of his and management's belief that he'd graduate to the Islanders sooner rather than later.
"I'm just trying to enjoy the time I've had here and help this team win," Toews said.
Team success is a pretty good way to stay in the lineup, Mayfield noted.
Overall, Toews appears to be succeeding and enjoying his first NHL experience. And why not. It's the culmination of a lot of work and a journey that's taken him from Abbotsford to Quinnipiac to Bridgeport and now Long Island.
On Saturday it all comes together for the first time.