DETROIT -- Once an NHL powerhouse, the New Jersey Devils had recently fallen on hard times.
Detroit's next opponent Thursday night at Little Caesars Arena (7:30 p.m. face-off) entered last season riding a five-year drought of not making the playoffs, but that all changed during the 2017-18 campaign as the Devils made the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12.
New Jersey's sudden turnaround can be attributed to the emergence of Taylor Hall. The former Windsor Spitfires forward has always been a very good NHL player, but last season he blossomed into the superstar many labeled him as when the Edmonton Oilers selected Hall first overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Hall's 93 points were the most of his career, which enabled him to become the first Devils player to win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's MVP.
This season will be a benchmark for Hall and his teammates. New Jersey was a pleasant surprise last season, however they're not a surprise any longer.
They will not sneak up on teams, which will test each man on the Devils roster.
New Jersey (44-29-9, 97 points) finished fifth in the Metropolitan Division and qualified for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the first round of the playoffs. The Devils were in the middle of the pack offensively and defensively. Their 2.96 goals-per-game average was 15th in the league and they gave up 2.93 goals per game, which ranked 17th overall. On the power play, their 21.4 percent conversion rate was ninth best in the league and their 81.8 percent penalty kill rate was tied for seventh overall. In one-goal games, the Devils were 25-8-9 for a winning percentage of .702. New Jersey is 5-3-1 this season, good for 11 points and sixth overall in the Metropolitan Division.
The Last Time:
On January 22, 2018, the Red Wings blanked the Devils, 3-0, in New Jersey. Tyler Bertuzzi, David Booth and Dylan Larkin scored for the Wings. Larkin also had an assist and along with Andreas Athanasiou's two assists. Their two points each paced the Detroit offensive attack. Petr Mrazek was in net and was the first star of the game for registering a shutout.
The Forward Corps:
Hall (39-54-93) is the Devils' catalyst up front. After Hall's 93 points, New Jersey's second leading scorer last season was Nico Hischier (20-32-52), the first overall pick in the 2017 Draft. The 41-point difference between Hall and Hischier was the largest between the two top scorers on any NHL team. Kyle Palmieri (24-20-44), veteran Travis Zajac (12-14-26) and Jesper Bratt (13-22-35) will be counted on to increase their point production this season along with Marcus Johansson (5-9-14). Palmieri and Johansson missed prolonged stretches last season due to injury. Through nine games this season, Palmieri (9-5-14), Hall (2-10-12) and Hischier (3-5-8) lead the forwards in scoring. They also happen to be the Devils' top line.
The Blue Line:
Andy Greene (3-10-13), New Jersey's captain and Trenton, Mich. native, and defensive partner Sami Vatanen (4-28-32 with Anaheim and New Jersey last season) are a solid top defensive pairing. Greene is a steady stay-at-home blueliner, while Vatanen has an offensive side to his game. Emerging talents Damon Severson (9-15-24) and Will Butcher (5-39-44), who signed as a free agent out of college in the summer of 2017, provide the Devils with a strong mix of veterans and youngsters among their top four defensemen. Severson (2-5-7), Vatanen (0-5-5), Butcher (0-5-5) and Mirco Mueller (0-5-5), have been providing the offense from the back end during this early part of the season.
Corey Schneider was expected to stabilize the New Jersey net when the Devils acquired him from Vancouver for a first-round pick in June of 2013, but so far he's had mixed results with the Devils. Schneider was 17-16-6 last season with a 2.93 goals-against average, a .907 save percentage and one shutout. Schneider's poor play sent him to the bench last season in favor of Keith Kinkaid, who won a career-high 26 games. Kinkaid (26-10-3), who had a 2.77 goals-against average, a .913 save percentage and one shutout, was an integral element in New Jersey making the playoffs. This summer, Schneider had hip surgery and on October 19, the Devils activated Schneider from IR. He has missed the entire season but served as Kinkaid's backup in the Devils' 8-3 loss at Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, which was the first game of a six-game road trip for the Devils. Schneider will eventually get a start in goal during the trip, but it's unknown if he'll get the nod against the Wings on Thursday. Kinkaid has played in all nine games for the Devils, posting a 5-3-1 record with a 2.74 goals-against average, a .910 save percentage and two shutouts.
The burning question: Hall, the NHL's reigning MVP, will have enormous pressure to duplicate or better his career numbers from last season. Will his teammates provide enough offense to remove some of the scoring burden from his shoulders?
Thursday's game will be the 103rd between the Red Wings and the Devils. The Red Wings are 49-39-11-3 against the franchise originally known as the Kansas City Scouts, which relocated to Colorado as the Rockies, before eventually landing in New Jersey as the Devils. Detroit holds a 32-16-2-1 record against the Scouts/Rockies/Devils at home. On the road, the Wings are 17-23-9-2 in games played in Kansas City, Colorado and New Jersey.