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SUNRISE, Fla. — The question of what must the Devils do to get some attention might finally have an answer.
Four months into this NHL season, the Devils, a franchise that has played all of five playoff games since the 2011-12 season, are charting a course to make it back to the promised land. A yearly staple of springtime hockey in the 1990s and 2000s, the Devils might finally have the successors to Patrik Elias, Zach Parise and Andy Greene. Those heirs — Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Dougie Hamilton — have helped make up the backbone of a team currently 32-13-4 and in second place in the Metropolitan Division.
“We’ve been playing meaningless hockey after the All-Star break the last couple years,” Hughes, the Devils’ lone representative at the All-Star Game, said Thursday. “The fact that we’re in the race now, we’re in a dogfight. We’re really pumped to be in that situation and we’re excited for it.”
Hughes — who has the privilege of being a No. 1 overall pick in a family that also includes a No. 7 overall pick (Quinn, who plays for the Canucks) and a No. 4 overall pick (Luke, currently at the University of Michigan, but expected to join the Devils after the college season ends) — has taken a leap from phenom to stardom this season. In 49 games so far — the same total he played last year, when injuries hampered him — Hughes has already surpassed 30 goals and 30 assists, with a league-leading 27 tallies at even strength.
If not for Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Hughes might just be getting some buzz for the Hart Trophy. At 21 years old, he is one of the NHL’s most electric stars, centering an imminently watchable top line for the Devils that puts you in a blender with its speed and skill.
For a fan base whose team has been lost at sea since longtime team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello’s 2015 departure to Toronto, this season has been a salve.
“We’ve been getting really good goaltending, first of all,” Hughes said. “Our guys have been staying healthy. We’ve had our big dogs stay healthy for the majority of the year. When you piece those together, that’s massive. We hope to keep it going, but it’s been a great start for us.”
Indeed, the biggest culprit for the Devils’ struggles last season was their issues in net. Seven different goaltenders started games and six had save percentages below .900. Vitek Vanecek’s .917 save percentage this season makes him heroic by comparison.
That alone, though, doesn’t account for the out-of-nowhere rise of a team whose fans were so disgruntled that during the first week of the season, they chanted for coach Lindy Ruff to be fired.
During a 13-game winning streak that put the league on notice and spanned late October through Thanksgiving week, the same fans likely had another message for Ruff: