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Speed, youth fueling Devils' strong start

Bratt, Butcher, Hischier wasting no time in making impact

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Ray Shero's head looked as if it were on a swivel.

Sitting in the visitors management box at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, the New Jersey Devils general manager's eyes constantly were darting back and forth keeping track of the lightning-quick line rushes exchanged by the Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs.

In the modern-day NHL, Shero will be the first to tell you speed thrills. And just three games into the 2017-18 season, he will tell you he has seen exactly that from his young roster.

 

[RELATED: McDavid, Matthews among growing wave of young, impact players] 

 

With their 6-3 victory against the Maple Leafs, the Devils (3-0-0) remained the only undefeated team in the Eastern Conference heading into their game against the Washington Capitals, their Metropolitan Division rivals, at Prudential Center on Friday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, NBCSWA, NHL.TV).

The buzz on Toronto sports talk radio Thursday focused on how the raw talent and quickness of the Devils had surprised many fans at the game. The verdict from many callers: You might not know the names of many of these Devils right now, but you will.

From his standpoint, Shero couldn't agree more.

"I think obviously it's becoming clear the speed that's been injected into the lineup," Shero said. "I mean, there are some great stories here, whether it's the Jesper Bratts or the Will Butchers or the Nico Hischiers or the Miles Woods. These are kids who are making a difference. But it's also the veterans, the Taylor Halls, the Marcus Johanssons, the Adam Henriques. … All these guys have speed and they're competitive."

Video: Devils remain unbeaten, hand Maple Leafs first loss

Entering play Thursday, the Devils had the best goal differential (plus-10) in the Eastern Conference. Rookies have played a significant role in that success.

Bratt, 19, the left wing who was the Devils' sixth-round pick (No. 162) in the 2016 NHL Draft, leads them in scoring with six points (three goals, three assists). Defenseman Butcher, 22, the Hobey Baker Award winner who signed with the Devils on Aug. 27, has five assists and has been a playmaking force on the power play. Hischier, a center who was the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, is seeking his first NHL goal but has impressed the coaching staff with his ability to read the game at both ends of the ice.

With the Devils playing five of their next seven games at home, Shero hopes fans can appreciate the talent and enthusiasm his players have shown to start the season.

When the Devils won the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery in April, Shero knew there was no generational player such as centers Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers or the Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews available. But he also believed the top two players in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, Hischier and Nolan Patrick, had the ability to impact a franchise in the long run.

Moving forward, Shero said he is going to enjoy watching Hischier and his teammates do exactly that.

"You have to have that youth that injects enthusiasm and speed," Shero said. "And you have to have players that buy into this. And for that, I give our veterans credit.

"We've got a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere. And I could see that the guys were all in starting from our first exhibition game.

"Look, with a young group like this, you are going to have tough stretches of the season. But with a group like this, there is the potential to move forward, to develop, to learn. And that's where the excitement comes from."

Video: Jesper Bratt calls in following the Devils' 6-2 win

Devils coach John Hynes said rookies like Hischier, Butcher and Bratt are high-reward/low-risk players because they are responsible at both ends of the ice, a rare quality for first-year players.

"In Nico's case, I think his instincts, his hockey sense, his hands, there is so much to like," Shero said. "And he's just 18.

"Look, you look at drafts that have, say, a McDavid or [Buffalo Sabres center Jack] Eichel in it, those guys are superstars. So, yes, there were lower expectations in the hockey world when talented guys Nico and Nolan Patrick were at the top of this draft. But I look at it like the 2013 draft, when guys like Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Aleksander Barkov were taken. Those guys are really good players.

"Are they McDavid? No. But how often do guys like him or Auston Matthews come along? That shouldn't mask the fact that Nico and Nolan Patrick are really good players.

"In our case with Nico, it's going to be fun to grow with him. So far, so good."

For Hischier. For Shero. And for the future of the New Jersey Devils.

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