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Game #18 – Devils vs. Hawks: Q&A With John Fischer And Some Lunatic

John Fischer is the editor-in-chief of InLouWeTrust.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JKFischer. We also dug up this rock person on Twitter @HellBlazerVice. We don’t know either. 

Let’s start with something easy: Just what the hell are the Devils doing at the top of the standings in the Metro when most of their analytic numbers aren’t good?
HellBlazer: The first few weeks looked good when they were skating fast and generating dangerous chances, which lead to goals. However, their defense was their achilles heel and Hynes has stopped trying to turn every game into a track meet and has started to dial down the aggressiveness in order to stop bleeding goals against- which thanks to their lack of capable defensive players has failed miserably. They’ve managed to stay afloat thanks to Taylor Hall putting the team on his back and Brian Gibbons somehow putting up 7 goals. Occam’s razor suggests their success is a dead cat bounce and with the way they’ve played lately, it very likely is.

The Devils have been hot in the net and with their sticks throughout October. The Devils finished October with a hot 8-2-0 with a 10.38% shooting percentage in 5-on-5; a 92.74% save percentage in 5-on-5 play; four shorthanded goals; and a shooting percentage of 18.03% on the power play.  You’re right in that most of their team metrics aren’t good.  But when you’re shooting this well and the goalies have been great for the most part, then that makes up the gap.  The Devils have cooled off in November with a 1-2-2 start to the month.  They’re not just lighting teams up and while Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid have been very good, the team has bled a ton of shots and that catches up.   
So why are the Devils still in first despite this?  Easy: the other teams have not met expectations yet.  The Washington Capitals have not played to their level of talent. The New York Rangers started off the season by gloriously falling on their face, mostly in their overrated building.  The Carolina Hurricanes have continued to show great shot metrics and not much more – which is why their results have been limited.  That said, the party may be over for the Devils soon unless they start winning some games and playing better games at even strength.  The Columbus Blue Jackets have begun to assert themselves.  Scarily, the Pittsburgh Penguins are around first place despite one of the league’s lowest PDO.  Once that gets corrected, the Pens could rule this division with an iron fist. It has not happened – yet.   If or when most of the other seven teams get their acts together, then the Devils will likely fall. For now, I’m just enjoying the view.

Is this the year Taylor Hall is going to make everyone pay?
Night in and night out he’s been their best player. He’s single-handedly willed them to victory on some nights. The problem is that it’s not going to be enough. He’s unfortunately become the forward equivalent of Roberto Luongo- a brilliant player who’s constantly been held back by a poor team in front of him. He had to deal with the gross incompetence of the Oilers, only to get traded to a team that’s still paying for the sins of the previous regime. Hopefully he’ll get his moment sooner rather than later. Barring some sort of injury he should hit 70 points this season on a poor team, which sadly won’t be enough to convince some people (read: Peter Chiarelli stans) that he’s not good.
I think it is.  Consider the situation.  Hall is not shooting particularly hot at 10%. That is around career percentage of 10.3%.  Hall has mostly played with Nico Hischier, who has plenty of talent, but the team has a 44% CF% when the Hall is on the ice with the 18-year old rookie center per Natural Stat Trick.  Hall’s usual right winger from last season, Kyle Palmieri, has missed a couple of weeks and so Hall had to carry Drew Stafford for a bunch of games before the coaches decided to give Jesper Bratt a chance.  Palmieri is back now, but there were quite a few games without him.   Combine that with a power play that has cooled off in recent days and a team shooting percentage that has (and may continue to) dropped.  It is not ideal for a forward’s numbers.  Despite all of this, Hall is a top-50 scorer in the NHL, he leads the Devils in shots on net by far with 50, and he has been their most consistently dangerous  attacker from zone entries to making great feeds on offense.  Hall has kept up his production despite a non-ideal situation.  Imagine if the situation gets better; he just got Palmieri back on Thursday, for example. Simply put, Hall is taking respect in 2017-18. 
Who or what is the fantastically named Jesper Bratt?
Jesper Bratt was a 6th round pick in 2016 who for the most part wasn’t a guy anyone had on their radar, mainly because he played 12 minutes a night in the Swedish 2nd tier league. Heck he wasn’t even the most talked about European prospect drafted in the late rounds that they had out of the 2016 draft. He left Sweden to play with London in the OHL, but he never got a chance to play with them. He was a standout at the rookie tournament they had with the Sabres, lit it up in the preseason and hasn’t looked back. He’s got one hell of a skillset too- he can play a high skill game like Mitch Marner but is as good without the puck as Brad Marchand. It’s possible he struggles at some point because he is 19, but with his skill set he should have a pretty decent NHL career .
Jesper Bratt is similar to Tyler Johnson in that he figured to be a long shot of a prospect on paper but has proven to be a NHL player.  Bratt went from the Allsvenskan last year where he did OK with plans on joining London in the OHL to performing so well in the Prospect Challenge and preseason to command a NHL role.  What’s more is that Bratt has proven that he has belong well before nine games were even up.  No, he is not a Johnson-like player.  His pathway was just unlikely.  What does Bratt do?  He does plenty.  Bratt uses his speed and quickness to be an effective penalty killer and forechecker.  Bratt’s hands are solid enough and his composure is sure enough to have him make moves around defenders and keep attacks going from the wing position.  Bratt’s shot is not too shabby; he has been known to fire the puck hard in a power play or even strength situation.  I do think he stands to improve his positioning on defense and he could stand to shoot the puck more (25 shots in 15 games).  But Bratt has been a fantastic surprise for the Devils this season.  At age 19, he will get better; all the more reason to become familiar with #63 before he steps on the ice in Chicago. 
First impressions of top pick Nico Hischler so far?
He’s been thrown into the deep end thanks to Travis Zajac’s injury and he’s been doing pretty well. He doesn’t look one bit like an 18 year old and he’s doing a great job generating offense. His defense has been a bit of an issue, although that has more to do with other teams matching their top centers against him and the Devils having no real way of sheltering him. He’s had his rookie mistakes here and there, but considering the circumstances I’m pretty happy with his performance so far.
Nico Hischier has been given a lot right away.  I mean, he has centered Taylor Hall for most of his young career already.  He has been given a regular power play role and his usage on penalty kills has grown.  What’s impressive is how well he’s handling it.  Hischier has been bodied by opposition players; but the man has not deterred from going to the corners or right to the net to make a play or be an option on one.  Hischier has demonstrated excellent skills on the puck, which means he could weave around a defending player and keep plays alive like Hall does.  Hischier has been willing and able to backcheck since Preseason Game #1 as a Devil, which is so crucial as a center and given the tough competition he has played against.  He’s got a lot of talent and even despite some issues here and there, he has ten points and has averaged two shots per game.  That’s not at all bad for a 18-year old center in this league. I do think the Devils could help Hischier out. I do not think he really plays so well with Hall and he has been drowning in the run of play against the top competition.  This is where Travis Zajac’s injury hurts.  With a healthy Zajac, the Devils could use him to take the tougher minutes and allow Hischier to thrive against mid-tier competition that he probably should be playing against.  Still, I believe Hischier will be a very successful NHL player just 15 games into his NHL career.
This is still a rebuilding year though, right? Have the Devils adjusted their aims because of the hot start?
It’s a tough question because it’s so early in the season. The same thing happened the past few seasons and they didn’t make any crazy kneejerk reactions to their hot starts. Shero’s generally been pretty patient- he hasn’t made any big in-season moves and he’s saved most of his big moves for the offseason. He also operates rather discretely so I have no idea if he’s got something in the works. They were a few points out of a playoff spot in 2015-16 and they decided to sell rather than go for it, so is Shero’s willing to be patient- which is good. They should be better with Zajac in the lineup (they really miss his ability to slow down top forwards) but it’s probably not enough for them to be a playoff team. It would probably be for the best if they don’t make it, as they do have some faulty pieces on their roster and personnel issues aside, John Hynes has shown more bad tendencies than good tendencies so he’s probably not the solution. I’d imagine next season they’d be going all in because they have to try and convince Taylor Hall to stick around (his contract expires in 2020), but as of right now I sure as hell hope they don’t make any kneejerk reactions to them falling back to earth.
I think it is a rebuilding year.  It may to be too early to say that they adjusted their aims.  But if the Devils enter 2018 with a good record in the division, then they may have to do so. The organization has been missing the postseason since 2012. While most Devils fans accepted (begrudgingly or otherwise) that the team needed to be rebuilt, the 8-2-0 October has kindled a lot of hopes that this team is better than last year’s abomination of a squad.  If they are in the mix, then they could very well be looking to buy at the trade deadline and go for it. I would not blame them; in a division as tough as this one, if the opportunity is there, then it must be taken.  It may not be there again next season.  Even a first round appearance would do wonders to justify that Ray Shero and his people are on the right track.  For now, though, it is too early.  Now that the Devils have more than cooled off in November, it remains to be seen whether they can be this in position in a really competitive Eastern Conference. Their various team metrics suggest that they will not. We’ll see. 

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