New Jersey Devils: Three Stars of October


November is here. The first month of the hockey season is over. The New Jersey Devils are 6-4-1, to everyone’s surprise. The team’s scoring is in good form and the top defensive pairing of Adam Larsson and Andy Greene has been phenomenal. Did you know that Cory Schneider is also a pretty good goalie?

It’s the first week of the new month, which means it’s time to reflect on a good month of Devils hockey. Who were the Devils’ best three in October? It’s a tough call, but I’ll give you my three.

Nov 3, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac (19) and New York Islanders center Brock Nelson (29) face off during the first period at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Honorable mention: Travis Zajac, C

So, I’ll start with an outsider. Travis Zajac must have found the fountain of youth this offseason. Believed by many to be in decline – or perhaps a fallen victim to a nasty Achilles tendon tear in 2011 – Zajac was named one of the league’s most overpaid players (here, here, and, in a most direct confrontation, here). Zajac’s 2015-16 campaign has not been as disappointing as most expected.

Zajac has four goals, three assists, and seven points in his 10 appearances. Playing at a 58-point pace is impressive in its own right, but doing it with Jiri Tlusty as the line’s big-time scorer is truly amazing.

I have already outlined Zajac’s successes in an earlier article (here), and noted that his scoring pace would slow down at some point. It has not happened yet for Zajac, but we cannot expect so many multi-point performances from the Canadian center. Should he continue to play the way he has, Zajac will surely reclaim the top-line center job for New Jersey.

Oct 31, 2015; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils defenseman Adam Larsson (5) carries the puck during the first period in the NHL game against the New York Islanders at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Third star of October: Adam Larsson, D

The Swedish center has terrorized opponents this season. Need proof? Here’s a brief write-up (from yours truly) about Larsson’s massive success in 2015-16. Again, Larsson’s two points in 11 contests leaves a lot to be desired on offense, but overall the former top-five draft pick is showing the hockey world why superstar aspirations for the blueliner are not so farfetched.

As the season continues, look for Larsson’s starts to stabilize to near-average levels. Favorable zone starts will go hand-in-hand with increased offensive productivity, which is why I have Larsson eclipsing 35 points this season, even after his slow scoring start.

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I also wanted to mention that I expect Larsson to continue lining up next to Andy Greene until further notice. That’s not a compliment to Greene or Larsson (or a knock on the two) but it is the result of Damon Severson’s, Jon Merrill’s, and John Moore’s inability to take the next step this season. If one of those three defenders can turn it around enough to face the opposition’s top-lines, then Larsson can anchor his own pairing, perhaps Hynes will pair Larsson with Eric Gelinas after DeBoer did with resounding success.

Oct 16, 2015; Newark, NJ, USA; San Jose Sharks goalie Martin Jones (31) makes a save on New Jersey Devils right wing Lee Stempniak (20) during the third period at Prudential Center. The Sharks defeated the Devils 2-1 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Second star of October: Lee Stempniak, RW

This was a tough call for me. This selection came down to Zajac, Larsson, Stempniak, and Adam Henrique but I decided to go with the newcomer. Stempniak was a force when the team was desperate for momentum. He singlehandedly took down the New York Rangers a few weeks back to stop the Devils from falling to 0-3-2. Later, he kept the Devils’ win streak alive when he came up with a goal and an assist in the final 10 minutes of regulation against Ottawa, before netting the game-winner in the shootout.

Stempniak’s success has been pretty bunched-up for a player with eight points in 11 games. He had five points in four games before collecting just one more tally in the following three.

In Stempniak’s first 11 games, I have noticed that the New York-born right wing lacks the natural skillset to succeed in the NHL. He can do everything okay, nothing well, but doesn’t have the ability to carve out a true scoring role in the NHL. There is a reason why he has not exceeded 40 points in a season since 2007. That said, I’m happy to see Stempniak going off, for however long this hot play will last.

Oct 31, 2015; Newark, NJ, USA; New Jersey Devils left wing Mike Cammalleri (13) celebrates his game winning goal during the shot out in the NHL game at Prudential Center. The Devils won in a shoot out, 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

First star of October: Mike Cammalleri, LW

This, too, was a tough call to make. In my mind, I tried to argue why each Devil was or was not more successful than Cammalleri in the month of October, but in the end I could not confidently state that any Devils skater was a bigger hit than Squid. His scoring has been more variable than Stempniak’s, but not by much. He has three multi-point performances this season, notching eight in 11 appearances.

Cammalleri looks good not great but keep in mind that this is a team built to succeed through stability in goal and on defense. The offense needs to manage the game, not singlehandedly win it. Unique to only Cammalleri, the innate scoring talent has pulled this team out of numerous funks, much like Jaromir Jagr did in 2013-14. That’s not to say that the offense lives and dies with Cammalleri, but I will say that if Squid is off, then in all likelihood the Devils are losing.

The Devils offense is still ways away from competing with the best – or even average – teams, but I credit the team’s moxie on offense to hold on in games that they would not have won last year. Surely, this team would not be where it is without Andy Greene or Cory Schneider, but here are three players that have exemplified the mantra of putting the team on their backs, which is why I awarded them with the three stars of the month.