TORONTO – Let this be a reminder that a new season is upon us. What you thought you knew may no longer be relevant.
The New Jersey Devils certainly don’t bear any resemblance to the outfit that finished 27th a year ago and lucked into first overall pick Nico Hischier.
On Wednesday night, they were every bit as speedy as the much more celebrated Toronto Maple Leafs – delivering an opportunistic 6-3 victory at Air Canada Centre that earned them another measure of respect.
“A lot more speed, a lot more skill,” said Leafs forward Nazem Kadri in assessing what has changed for the Devils. “They’ve got top forwards that can skate – that’s their identity, similar to us. As they showed early on in the game, they can fly through the neutral zone and you’ve got to find ways to slow them up.”
What stood out most about the Devils is where the contributions came from. Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick playing his third NHL game, was a dynamic waterbug who killed penalties and snapped the puck around on the power play. Brian Gibbons, a 29-year-old journeyman pro, scored while killing a 3-on-5 penalty during the second period.
That stood up as the game winner.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one,” said veteran Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
There were also goals from Steve Santini, Blake Coleman, Miles Wood and two from Pavel Zacha. A casual fan probably needed a program to follow along.
And yet, John Hynes’ crew played in an up-tempo manner conducive to success in a league where every minor infraction is now being whistled for a penalty. After injecting kids like Hischier, Bratt and Will Butcher this fall, they look legit.
“I think those guys have really driven the confidence level up,” Hynes said of his rookie trio. “I think it’s natural any time you have young guys or first-time NHL players playing in the games, you’re not so sure how they’re going to react or how they’re going to fare. The thing that makes you comfortable with those guys is their hockey sense and their hockey IQ is high high end. So they understand (what they have to do) offensively, defensively.
“They’re not high-risk, high-reward players; they’re high-reward players but there’s not a lot of risk in their game.”
There are some loose parallels to be drawn with the Leafs of a year ago.
At this point last season there weren’t too many people forecasting the playoff berth, and surprisingly competitive first-round series against the Washington Capitals, to come. Toronto simply started well and kept getting better.
The Devils have missed the playoffs for five straight seasons and “need to earn respect back in the league,” according to general manager Ray Shero.
It could end up being a shorter road than he once envisioned.
Shero stood in front of 60 players on the first day of training camp and instructed everyone to erase any notion of what they thought the depth chart was. They were starting fresh.
That explains why Bratt now finds himself in New Jersey, rather than with the London Knights, and why Gibbons is on the NHL roster after two consecutive years as an AHLer. Ditto for Hischier and Coleman and Wood.
“They have a lot of speedy forwards and a lot of skill up there,” said Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner. “Some young guys they added this year seem to be making a difference and they’re a good team.”
It remains to be seen just how good Toronto can be. The Leafs started this season with three straight victories and are piling up goals at an alarming rate, but keeping them out of Frederik Andersen’s net hasn’t been quite so easy.
On Wednesday, they controlled both the shot clock (50-31) and even-strength shot attempts (49-31) but ran into a crisp Cory Schneider. Power-play goals by James van Riemsdyk and Auston Matthews were nullified by the short-handed marker they allowed to Gibbons.
“We didn’t have any snap, we didn’t have any juice, we didn’t win any battles,” said Babcock. “I didn’t think we worked. I thought the other team was good. I thought they skated us into the ground, they won all the stick battles. It was 2-2 at the end of one, but that flattered us big time. We never had any time engaged.”
The outcome made him look wise for labelling this a “trap game” earlier in the week.
“We talked quite a bit about this game coming up and how it was going to be and that’s exactly what I expected,” said Babcock. “But I expected it us to compete and that didn’t happen. Hockey’s fair, you get what you deserve.
“That’s what we deserved.”
It’s important to remember that it’s early, with reputations still being formed and lessons taught.
When the Devils return here on Nov. 16, we’ll know a lot more about them. But the Leafs won’t be surprised if they’re actually good.