Travis Zajac (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils have come out of the gate much stronger than anyone expected and one of the reasons has been the strong play of Travis Zajac. GM Ray Shero says Zajac has been their best player.
Holding down the last playoff spot in a weak Eastern Conference might not be considered much of a triumph for some teams in the NHL, but when you’re the New Jersey Devils, it’s all about exceeding expectations. And the Devils are doing just that in their first season under new GM Ray Shero.
In many ways, Shero is playing with house money here. Projections for the Devils were so low and he’s had so little time to make an impact on the roster that the stink of a bad finish this season would not be sticking to him. But sometimes and organization needs to hit the Refresh button and there was not a team in the NHL that needed to do that more than the Devils. For them to be competing for a playoff spot rather than the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes – and it’s still early here – is nothing short of remarkable.
“Your fear is that you’re going to be terrible,” Shero said after the recent GM meetings in Toronto. “And who wants to be terrible? Nobody.”
And, you see, the thing is that on paper, the Devils don’t look very, well, good. They’re not a great possession team and the law of averages may end up catching up to them on that one and their roster doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of their opponents. Most pundits had the Devils finishing poorly this season and instead of lamenting that, Shero used that to challenge his players from the outset of the season. During his first meeting with the players in training camp, he pointed out that most publications had the Devils finishing near the bottom of the standings. (He also said The Hockey News picked them to finish 30th, which isn’t true. We picked them to finish seventh in the Metropolitan Division, but we’re going to be used to fuel an ‘us against the world’ mentality, we’re OK with that.)
“I told them, ‘Here’s what they’re saying about us. You guys can read,’ ” Shero said. “And it starts with me. ‘He won a Cup with (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin,’ so I’ve got something to prove, too.”
Most veteran GMs will tell you that there’s no decision more important to their success than selecting the right coach. Shero clearly had his man in mind when he went with John Hynes, who had been coaching the Penguins American League farm team for the past five seasons. Hynes was the only person who was offered the job and so far it has been an excellent fit. The Devils are a fast, attacking team that seems to revel in its status as an underdog. And there seems to be a conformity to the way they play and attack, regardless of what the score is in a game. For that reason, they’re rarely out of games.
There have also been a couple of revelations for Shero. After starting the season slowly, Travis Zajac found himself in the midst of trade rumors, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and his former GM, Lou Lamoriello apparently interested. It was then that Zajac was told that if the Devils were going to be respectable, it had to start with him.
“Outside the first three or four games, he got challenged to be a better player than he was and be the player he’s capable of and what he’s been in the past,” Shero said. “And he has really responded. I think he could be maybe our best player so far. You have guys like Andy Greene, under the radar, under the radar. Well, I’m not sure he’s undervalued, but he’s certainly underappreciated for what he does and what he brings every night.”
Shero didn’t know many of the personalities with whom he was dealing when he got to New Jersey, but found out fairly quickly that they’re pretty proud guys. The roster was not altered by Shero near as much as the front office was. One of the first things Shero did was sign Sergey Kalinin as a free agent, then went out and got Kyle Palmieri for a couple of draft picks and signed Lee Stempniak to a one-year deal at the league minimum. Palmieri and Stempniak have been close to point-per-game players with Stempniak displaying a penchant for making offensive contributions at the right time.
The Devils are exceeding expectations simply by not being terrible. Whether they can continue the pace is open to conjecture. A good test will come tonight when they play the defending Stanley Cup champions on the road. And while making the post-season would be great, it’s not the only part of the process for Shero.
“I get asked all the time, ‘What’s a successful year?’ ” Shero said. “We always say the same thing. It wasn’t about anything but at the end of the year, our fans could be proud of the team that was on the ice, that played a certain way. Whether that goes to the playoffs, whatever it is, we want to have that credibility.”