New Jersey Devils ride speed, skill, youth to surprise start


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SportsPulse: NHL insider Kevin Allen looks at who is improving over last season and who is disappointing so far.
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Journeyman forward Brian Gibbons had five goals in 66 NHL games before joining the New Jersey Devils. This season, he has eight goals in 17 games.

Miles Woods had eight goals in 2016-17, and he’s on pace for 30 this season.

Three of the Devils’ top four point producers are rookies Nico Hischier (14 points in 17 games), Jesper Bratt (13 in 17) and Will Butcher (13 in 17).

“These three guys love hockey,” Devils coach John Hynes told USA TODAY Sports. “They like practice. They don’t mind meetings. They love to compete. If you say someone is a hockey player in every sense, they embody that. They all have high hockey IQs. They understand the game. They can make plays under pressure.”

The simplest explanation for the Devils’ status as the NHL’s most surprising team is that they might lead the league in players taking their games to a higher level. The Devils were 28th in NHL scoring at 2.20 goals per game last season and this season they are tied for fifth at 3.47.

“It’s not the system,” Hynes said. “The way they are playing and competing as players is allowing them to get into scoring positions and they have the skill to finish.”

Veteran forward Taylor Hall said every NHL team wants to play an up-tempo style.

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“That’s the way the new NHL is,” Hall said. “You have to have a lot of speed. And if you look at our lineup, that’s what we have throughout. The best part: We have young guys who are only going to get better as the years go along.”

Hynes said the Devils’ offseason objective wasn’t necessarily to add goal scoring as much as it was to add players who could skate and compete at a high level.

Hischier, 18, the No. 1 overall pick in the June draft, is expected to mature into an offensive force, but his all-around game is impressive for a teenager. Bratt, 19, has been the team’s biggest surprise because he was a sixth-round draft pick.

“They have a ton of skill and they have brought so much to our game,” Hall said. “Having them around has injected a little more passion and excitement.”

The Devils won a major recruiting battle to sign Butcher, a college free agent defenseman. They wanted him for his offensive knack, but they have admired how diligent he has been trying to learn the defensive game.

“This kid has really been a strong effort to get better in those areas, “ Hynes said. “His 5-on-5 play has improved tremendously.”

Gibbons, 29, spent all of the last two seasons in the American Hockey League.

“He really fit the profile for what we are looking for,” Hynes said. “He’s a highly intelligent player. He’s very quick, tenacious and has good puck skills. In training camp, he played to the identity we wanted and earned himself the opportunity.”

The team’s 11-4-2 start isn’t solely about their newcomers.

Forward Kyle Palmieri has missed time with injury, but has nine points in 10 games. Hall has 19 points in 17 games, putting him well ahead of last season’s 52-point pace.

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“Since the start of training camp, there’s been a different vibe on this team,” Hall said.              

This is his second season in New Jersey after spending six years in Edmonton.

“He’s leading in the way we want to play, which is something we asked him to do,” Hynes said. “He’s driving the play. He’s in great shape. But what we are most proud of is the maturity he’s growing into. He’s someone we can continue to build around and drive our culture.”

Hall turned 26 on Tuesday and he was ready for an expanded leadership role.

“I want to have as much responsibility as possible,” Hall said. “And I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to be the guy they looked to to provide offense and some leadership. That’s how my game has grown.”

As encouraging as the team’s offensive improvement has been, there’s still work to do defensively. The team ranks 21st in goals-against average.

The Devils have missed the playoffs the past five seasons. Do they fully believe in themselves?

“I don’t know if we are there yet,” Hynes said. “There is a belief in how we want to play, and there is a strong belief if we play to our identity, and grow our identity, we can be a very competitive team. But by no means are we ahead of ourselves and thinking that we have arrived.”

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