Brendan Smith was so completely satisfied the night the Devils got here back from two goals right down to beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden last month, that he felt as if he were floating across the ice in the ultimate seconds.
A former Ranger defenseman, Smith has emerged as a central figure within the Devils’ stunning journey from oblivion to certainly one of the N.H.L.’s best and most enjoyable teams, and the win represented greater than a comeback against a rival. It was an early-season statement that the nitro-charged Devils, who finished a whopping 47 points behind the Rangers last season, may need the shinier future.
That can be tested again on Monday in a rematch at Madison Square Garden, as Latest Jersey’s schedule intensifies.
Going into the sport, the Devils are second within the N.H.L. with a 21-5-1 record behind waves of young, electrifying skaters, particularly Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall draft pick from 2019, an emerging superstar center who dances and dazzles with the puck on his persist with the delight of astonished onlookers.
The Devils are already inside six victories of the 27 they’d all last season, which was one other in an prolonged series of drab, losing campaigns. The recent Devils weren’t just bad, they seemed hopeless. Since reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2012, Latest Jersey has made the playoffs just once and finished either last or second-to-last in its division in eight of the past nine years.
To opponents, those Devil teams were a straightforward victory, a fast 2 points to pocket before moving on to the following game.
“You’ll check them off as must-wins whenever you played the Devils,” Smith recalled after a recent practice. “We can be upset if we didn’t leave with 2 points. That was an area we had to alter. Change the culture and alter the mentality.”
Change doesn’t seem an adequate-enough word to elucidate the Devils’ sudden metamorphosis from slug to soaring butterfly. They’ll play as fast, or faster, than anyone within the league — vastly different from the highly successful, but often plodding, defensive Devils of yore.
Now, they expect to win and that, for some longtime Devils players, has been a culture shock. Damon Severson, a defenseman drafted by Latest Jersey in 2012, said the Devils had “weeded out” players (whom he selected not to call) that were content to exit after a 5-1 loss and devour cheeseburgers and fries, as if nothing had happened.
“It’s a shot to your ego,” Severson said of the bad years. “You’re a loser, you’re not good. However the worst part about it was that we had some guys that didn’t really care in previous years. It could be like, ‘I do know I’m not going to be here for much longer, so I’m just going to get my paycheck and hope we play well after which go home at night and every little thing is hunky dory.’
“It was a very bad culture and mind-set that way. It’s nice to see we’ve turned that page and brought in some higher guys and removed the issues.”
Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils general manager, said he was not aware of any specific cases of players’ not caring. Nonetheless, he added several well-regarded veterans to assist create a more committed and connected team atmosphere, including some who’re very acquainted with winning.
Smith is certainly one of them, together with Ondrej Palat, who’s injured now but won two Stanley Cups with the Lightning. Also, John Marino, a defenseman acquired in an off-season trade, has been to the playoffs in each of his three previous seasons in Pittsburgh, and Erik Haula has played within the Stanley Cup Finals with the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I value championship pedigree,” Fitzgerald said. “We would like good people, individuals who care, individuals who take pride of their work and are willing to self-assess and wish to get well.”
And for a team that cycled through seven goalies last 12 months, trading draft picks to Washington for Vitek Vanecek, who’s fourth within the league in goals against average at 2.30, has helped change the Devils’ fortunes, for now.
Fitzgerald knew his team would improve this season. Last 12 months, with the conveyor belt of injured goalies, the Devils gave up 302 goals, fourth most within the league. This 12 months, they’ve given up among the many fewest high-danger scoring probabilities and have certainly one of the best rates of puck possession within the offensive zone.
This may occasionally simply have been the season that a lot of their high draft picks began to bear fruit. Since 2017, Latest Jersey has chosen the highest pick twice and likewise drafted seventh, fourth and second.
“If you’re at the underside of the barrel for years, you get plenty of picks,” Hughes said. “We hoped to get there, but we didn’t know when. I can’t even say we’re there yet. But we’re playing rather well as a team.”
Nico Hischier, the No. 1 pick in 2017, was named captain in 2021 when he was only 22. But this 12 months, Fitzgerald said, Hischier has grown much more within the role.
“We’re still young,” said Hischier, a terrific two-way center. “But we aren’t children anymore. We’ve got experience.”
The frustrated fan base also expected progress this 12 months and showed scathing impatience when the season began poorly. The Devils lost their season opener in Philadelphia, and after the sport Miles Wood, a left wing who has been with Latest Jersey since 2016, groaned that he was sick of being on a nasty team.
Two nights later, when the Devils lost their home opener, Lindy Ruff, the pinnacle coach, caught the pitiless end of the spectators’ wrath as they chanted, “Fire Lindy.” It was the low point.
But just a little lower than a month later, during a franchise-record-tying 13-game win streak, the fans chanted, “Sorry Lindy,” a remarkable mass mea culpa from a passionate fan base acknowledging its desperation. When that streak led to the following game, against the Maple Leafs, fans who were now so used to winning, pelted the ice with full cans of beer after three disallowed Devils goals.
“They’ve had enough of losing,” Ruff said last week after a practice. “My job is to place the tough skin on and keep moving ahead. We didn’t change anything. We said, keep doing the precise things and we’ll win hockey games.”
They’ve done so at a remarkable pace, becoming only the sixth team in league history to win 21 of its first 26 games, and the primary to win 13 games in November. Hughes has been electrifying, never more so than when he carried the puck right into a box of 4 Chicago defenders Tuesday, squirted out of it and made an ideal pass to Dougie Hamilton, who scored on a one-timer.
There are lots of more such highlights and Hughes, who is just 21, leads the Devils with 14 goals and 33 points. He’s on pace to interrupt Patrik Elias’s club record of 96 points and bears all of the markings of a future superstar.
“He’s near that already,” Ruff said. “Every 12 months, I’ve seen growth. He surprised me when he scored 26 last 12 months, and he’s continued to surprise me. He’s got a skating ability and lateral movement on the ice that only a few have.”
The one thing higher than one Hughes on the roster is 2. The Devils drafted Hughes’s younger brother, Luke Hughes, with the No. 4 overall pick last 12 months. An eye fixed-popping sophomore defenseman on the University of Michigan, Luke Hughes could join the club in April and possibly move in to his brother’s apartment.
Palat, who underwent groin surgery, could also be back in the brand new 12 months, too, in time for what ought to be the Devils’ first playoff appearance since 2018. That might be especially satisfying for the longest serving Devils players, like Wood. The last 4 seasons were agonizing, particularly with the Islanders and Rangers going to the conference finals in successive years.
Now, perhaps it’s the Devils’ turn.
“When you had told me we’d win 13 straight, that may have been a stretch,” Wood said. “But I do know this team has the talent to be where we are actually.”