Devils go from last to playoffs, with more needed next year
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — It would be easy to say the New Jersey Devils are back after ending a six-year playoff drought.
John Hynes' team went from last in the Eastern Conference in 2016-17 to the postseason in less in the year, riding a career year by left wing Taylor Hall and outstanding first seasons by No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier and Will Butcher. This was a team that made it tough on opponents almost every time it stepped on the ice.
The standings said it all. New Jersey went from 28 wins and 70 points to 44 wins and 97 points.
Still, it was only good enough to outlast the hard-charging Florida Panthers in the closing weeks of the regular season and get the No. 8 seed.
The Devils discovered that playoffs were another level. They were eliminated by Tampa Bay, the top seed in the Eastern Conference, in five games.
"Of course, we're disappointed," veteran center Travis Zajac said Tuesday as the Devils cleaned out their lockers. "But we accomplished a lot as a team. This is just the beginning. I like how we come together as a team. We faced a lot of adversity, but we survived. Because the league is so close and it's going to be that way again next year, we have to continue to get better."
The Devils have ridden a roller-coaster in Hynes' first three seasons as coach. They exceeded expectations in his first year, plummeted two years ago and then stunned the league in getting back to the playoffs.
"You have no idea of how good I feel about what we did this year," said captain Andy Greene, who like Zajac was with the Devils when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. "We were a lot better. The way we competed every game down the stretch. We were fighting for each other. We were picked last in the division and last in the conference. We took that to heart. It's all part of the process. You don't go from the bottom to the top unless you work hard."
Hall carried the Devils this season, scoring points in 26 straight games in which he played. He finished with 39 goals and 54 assists. His 93 points were 41 more than the next closest player on the team, Hischier (20 goals, 32 assists).
"I knew he was a really good hockey player, but it was nothing like what I saw this year," said forward Marcus Johansson, who was limited to 29 games by concussions. "He was unbelievable day in and day out."
If Hall can match next season and young players like Hischier, Butcher, Myles Wood, Blake Coleman and Jesper Bratt improve and the work ethic remains the same, the Devils can easily make it back to the playoffs next season.
Here's some things to watch next season:
GOOD GOALTENDING: The Devils have two starters. Backup Keith Kinkaid had 16 wins in the final two months to secure the playoff berth. Cory Schneider, who lost the starting job after groin and hip injuries in January, was outstanding in the playoffs after taking over for Kinkaid in the second game.
FREE AGENCY: General manager Ray Shero has three big decisions with unrestricted free agents: forwards Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner and defenseman John Moore. Maroon, who like Grabner was acquired in a deal near the trading deadline, played better and provided a net-front presence. Moore might be let go to create space for youngsters Mirco Mueller and Steven Santini.
Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen, who were the wings on the checking line with Zajac, are restricted free agents along with Wood, who had 19 goals. Expect them back along with Santini, another restricted free agent.
HISCHIER: The 19-year-old can play. He's not in the same class as Connor McDavid or Austin Matthews. Still, he does all the little things and he will score more if he starts hitting the net.
DEFENSE: For the second straight year the Devils gave up 244 goals. That's too many. Sami Vatanen, who was acquired from Anaheim, helped the defense and was Greene's partner on the top pair. The defense needs a star and Shero may go after the Capitals' John Carlson.
Associated Press freelancer Jim Hague contributed to this report.
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