We’ve already seen a number of twists and turns during the first three months of this hockey season.
Less than a year after narrowly missing a trip to the Stanley Cup, Anaheim can’t score. And less than a year after making the Stanley Cup, Tampa Bay can barely score. Two teams have already fired their coaches, four or five rookies not named Connor McDavid can make a legitimate claim at being a Calder candidate and the Florida Panthers are leading the Atlantic Division.
With all dues respect to the Panthers though, they’re probably not the biggest surprise from the Eastern Conference right now. No, that honor belongs to New Jersey who — despite a relatively quiet offseason following a dismal 2014-15 campaign — was sitting tied for a wild card spot heading into play on Friday night.
Thing is, Florida was expected to at least be decent. Was Gerard Gallant supposed to lead his team on a 12-game winning streak that vaulted them ahead of Montreal to the top of their division while simultaneously vaulting Gallant himself into the upper echelon of Jack Adams candidates? Well no, obviously not. But it certainly wasn’t a stretch to think a roster full of rising young stars backstopped by a borderline elite netminder would compete for a playoff spot — especially considering they turned in a 91-point effort a season ago.
To be fair, no one’s suggesting what the Panthers have done isn’t surprising at all — it’s just not stunning. What the Devils are doing is a little closer to that end of the spectrum though. Assuming they keep it up.
While most other teams that have found some success this season at least ended last year on a high note, New Jersey came into this campaign on the heels of a 78-point effort. That landed the Devils the sixth pick in the draft last June, where they selected Paval Zacha.
The gifted young Czech is an excellent talent, but he was never supposed to play in the NHL this season (and he isn’t). He immediately became the headliner of New Jersey’s farm system though… problem is, that’s the same farm system that The Hockey News ranked 30th last spring.
Point is, the Devils entered the 2015-16 campaign in rebuild mode. But not the sort of rebuild mode that the Florida Panthers were in a year or two ago, when they had already amassed an intriguing collection of young but unproven talent. Or like the Calgary Flames last year, when their crop of young prospects took off a little quicker than expected and pushed them into the second round of the postseason. Or even like the Arizona Coyotes this season — a team that many expected very little from in the present, even though it was clear that a wealth of talent was on the way for the future.
Those three clubs already had some quality young pieces to work with, so it was just a matter of how quickly they could get everyone on the roster to come together and collectively rise up. This year’s New Jersey lineup? Well, it looks alarmingly similar to the one that slogged through last season.
In fact, the biggest offseason acquisitions were a coach, a GM, Kyle Palmieri and, um, Lee Stempniak. Who wasn’t ready to talk playoffs after a summer like that?
As it turns out, all four have come through. John Hynes may not win the Jack Adams (there’s a number of strong candidates this year), but he’s at least going to get some strong consideration if his club keeps this up. Meanwhile, Ray Shero — who won the league’s GM of the Year award in 2013 — has to be happy with what he’s seen so far. Palmieri has already set a career-high in goals, and tied his career-high in points — with 37 games left. Stempniak — a career journeyman, for the most part — is third on the team with 30 points. He hasn’t put up more than 38 in a season since 2007.
In other words, this has been a pretty improbable run for a club that is already just 11 wins behind its total from last season. The question now is: can they keep it up?
If this just turns out to be a first half storyline that fades away down the stretch, they won’t exactly be panicking in New Jersey. After all, most assumed they’d be contending for Auston Matthews, not a playoff spot. But now that they’ve gotten here, why not see how far they can take this?
The key, of course, is the guy in goal. Cory Schneider never seems to get a ton of attention — at least not since he left Vancouver. But that’s not a reflection of his play. In fact, he’s been one of the steadier goalies in the NHL since he joined the Devils in 2013. This year has been no different, as he’s managed an impressive 2.09 goals against average and .926 save percentage through 37 starts. On a higher profile team, he’s generating talk of a Vezina push with those numbers (albeit a distant Vezina push behind Braden Holtby’s phenomenal performance up to this point).
The Devils are averaging just 2.16 goals per game (29th in the NHL) and only have four players with more than 18 points at the moment. That puts a lot of pressure on those top four scorers, not to mention the responsibility that falls on Schneider’s shoulders. To that end, New Jersey’s power play ranks 19th in the league, clicking at 17.9 percent. On the flip side, the penalty kill ranks ninth overall (82.3 percent), and the Devils as a team are surrendering just 2.36 goals per game (eighth). That’s not all Schneider’s doing, but he’s clearly the main ingredient to their success. And while that in itself shouldn’t come as a surprise, the team’s current place in the standings certainly does.