Kyle Palmieri said he is optimistic about the future of the New Jersey Devils after witnessing the young team's resiliency and improved play in the weeks prior to the NHL pausing the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
"I think as a team we were going out, we were competing and giving ourselves a chance to win," the 29-year-old forward said Monday. "We were playing a lot of teams that are making heavy pushes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where every point mattered, and we were sitting in there, giving ourselves a chance to win."
The Devils defeated the Washington Capitals, who were tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division, 3-2 on Feb. 22 for the second of three straight wins, and then defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on March 6 (4-2) and the surging New York Rangers on March 7 (6-4).
"Those are the games that are incredibly fun," Palmieri said. "Obviously, we'd love to be in a better spot chasing a [Stanley Cup] Playoff race, but I think we have a lot to feel good about heading into the future and heading into, hopefully, finishing the rest of this regular season."
The Devils were 9-13-4 when Alain Nasreddine replaced John Hynes as coach Dec. 3. They are 19-16-8 and have been No. 1 in the NHL on the penalty kill (86.0 percent) since the change.
New Jersey (28-29-12), last in the Metropolitan, trails the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets by 13 points for the two wild cards into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
"I felt a lot of times we shot ourselves in the foot with mental mistakes, but you've got to remember one thing, especially with the trades we've made, we're the youngest team in the League (average age 25.8 years)," Nasreddine said April 22. "When you're the youngest team in the League, maybe you don't have that experience, you don't have 10 years under your belt, so it's going to be a work in progress."
Video: Season Snapshot: New Jersey Devils
The Devils signaled a rebuild when they traded pending unrestricted free agent forward Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 16, and then made five trades in nine days prior to the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24.
Gone are Hall, defensemen Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen, forwards Blake Coleman and Wayne Simmonds, and goalie Louis Domingue. In return, New Jersey got defenseman Frederik Claesson (155 NHL games), goalie Zane McIntyre (eight NHL games), four forward prospects, a defenseman prospect, two conditional first-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, a second-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, a conditional fourth-round pick in 2020, and conditional third- and fifth-round picks in 2021.
"At the end of the day, we're in the NHL, and yes, you have to develop," Nasreddine said, "but you got to win games too, and we have to find a way to be better defensively and offensively. We have some ideas and tweaks we want to make (if the season resumes)."
Palmieri, who has one season remaining on his five-year contract, did his part to help the Devils win. He scored his 24th and 25th goals in the March 7 victory against the Rangers and has at least 24 goals in all five seasons with New Jersey.
Among the younger Devils forwards, 23-year-old Pavel Zacha has an NHL career-high 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists); 21-year-old Jesper Bratt has an NHL career-high 16 goals; and 21-year-old Nico Hischier, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, has 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 58 games, has taken on more of a leadership role, and has won more than half of his face-offs for the first time in three NHL seasons (51.7 percent).
The acquisition of Nikita Gusev in a trade from the Vegas Golden Knights on July 29, 2019, has benefitted Zacha and Bratt. Since Feb. 20, when they were put on a line with the 27-year-old right wing, Zacha has seven points (two goals, five assists) and Bratt has eight (five goals, three assists) in 10 games.
Mackenzie Blackwood has emerged as the Devils' goalie of the future. The 23-year-old rookie is 22-14-8 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 47 games (43 starts).
"There's a reason why we're in the position we're at, and there's a lot more than just the offense," Nasreddine said. "We've done a lot of good things. Defensively, I think we can all agree there's a lot of room for improvement. I don't see it being an issue with the system. There are numerous teams who play the same system we do, and they're very successful, they're in the top five of defensive teams in the League.
"We've got to find ways to teaching a different way to make sure it registers with the players and they understand."