Losers No More, Devils Overshadow Rival Rangers, and Everyone Else

Brendan Smith was so happy the night the Devils came back from two goals down to beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden last month, that he felt as if he were floating across the ice in the final seconds.

A former Ranger defenseman, Smith has emerged as a central figure in the Devils’ stunning journey from oblivion to one of the N.H.L.’s best and most exciting teams, and the win represented more 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, might have the shinier future.

That will be tested again on Monday in a rematch at Madison Square Garden, as New Jersey’s schedule intensifies.

Going into the game, the Devils are second in 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 stick to the delight of astonished onlookers.

The Devils are already within six victories of the 27 they had all last season, which was another in an extended series of drab, losing campaigns. The recent Devils weren’t just bad, they seemed hopeless. Since reaching the Stanley Cup finals in 2012, New Jersey has made the playoffs only 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 an easy victory, a quick 2 points to pocket before moving on to the next game.

“You would check them off as must-wins when you played the Devils,” Smith recalled after a recent practice. “We would be upset if we didn’t leave with 2 points. That was an area we had to change. Change the culture and change the mentality.”

Change does not seem an adequate-enough word to explain the Devils’ sudden metamorphosis from slug to soaring butterfly. They can play as fast, or faster, than anyone in 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 New Jersey in 2012, said the Devils had “weeded out” players (whom he chose not to name) that were content to go out after a 5-1 loss and devour cheeseburgers and fries, as though nothing had happened.

“It’s a shot to your ego,” Severson said of the bad years. “You’re a loser, you’re not good. But the worst part about it was that we had some guys that didn’t really care in previous years. It would be like, ‘I know I’m not going to be here much longer, so I’m just going to get my paycheck and hope we play well and then go home at night and everything is hunky dory.’

“It was a really bad culture and mind-set that way. It’s nice to see we’ve turned that page and brought in some better guys and got rid of the problems.”

Center Jack Hughes, left, has helped turn the Devils into an exciting team for fans to watch.Credit…Ed Mulholland/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

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 help create a more committed and connected team atmosphere, including some who are very familiar with winning.

Smith is one of them, along with Ondrej Palat, who is 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 in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Vegas Golden Knights.

“I value championship pedigree,” Fitzgerald said. “We want good people, people who care, people who take pride in their work and are willing to self-assess and want to get better.”

And for a team that cycled through seven goalies last year, trading draft picks to Washington for Vitek Vanecek, who is fourth in 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 year, with the conveyor belt of injured goalies, the Devils gave up 302 goals, fourth most in the league. This year, they have given up among the fewest high-danger scoring chances and have one of the highest rates of puck possession in the offensive zone.

This may simply have been the season that many of their high draft picks began to bear fruit. Since 2017, New Jersey has selected the top pick twice and also drafted seventh, fourth and second.

“When you’re at the bottom of the barrel for years, you get a lot of picks,” Hughes said. “We hoped to get there, but we didn’t know when. I can’t even say we are there yet. But we are playing really well as a team.”

Nico Hischier, the No. 1 pick in 2017, was named captain in 2021 when he was only 22. But this year, Fitzgerald said, Hischier has grown even more in the role.

“We are still young,” said Hischier, a terrific two-way center. “But we aren’t youngsters anymore. We have experience.”

The frustrated fan base also expected progress this year and showed scathing impatience when the season started poorly. The Devils lost their season opener in Philadelphia, and after the game Miles Wood, a left wing who has been with New Jersey since 2016, groaned that he was sick of being on a bad team.

Two nights later, when the Devils lost their home opener, Lindy Ruff, the head coach, caught the pitiless end of the spectators’ wrath as they chanted, “Fire Lindy.” It was the low point.

But a little less 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 ended in the next 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 put the tough skin on and keep moving ahead. We didn’t change anything. We said, keep doing the right things and we’ll win hockey games.”

They have done so at a remarkable pace, becoming only the sixth team in league history to win 21 of its first 26 games, and the first to win 13 games in November. Hughes has been electrifying, never more so than when he carried the puck into a box of four Chicago defenders Tuesday, squirted out of it and made a perfect pass to Dougie Hamilton, who scored on a one-timer.

There are many more such highlights and Hughes, who is only 21, leads the Devils with 14 goals and 33 points. He is on pace to break Patrik Elias’s club record of 96 points and bears all the markings of a future superstar.

“He’s close to that already,” Ruff said. “Every year, I’ve seen growth. He surprised me when he scored 26 last year, and he’s continued to surprise me. He’s got a skating ability and lateral movement on the ice that very few have.”

The only thing better than one Hughes on the roster is two. The Devils drafted Hughes’s younger brother, Luke Hughes, with the No. 4 overall pick last year. An eye-popping sophomore defenseman at the University of Michigan, Luke Hughes could join the club in April and maybe move in to his brother’s apartment.

Palat, who underwent groin surgery, may be back in the new year, too, in time for what should be the Devils’ first playoff appearance since 2018. That would be especially satisfying for the longest serving Devils players, like Wood. The last four seasons were agonizing, particularly with the Islanders and Rangers going to the conference finals in successive years.

Now, perhaps it is the Devils’ turn.

“If you had told me we would win 13 straight, that would have been a stretch,” Wood said. “But I know this team has the talent to be where we are now.”

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