Devils' youth movement lifts them to top of Metropolitan

Nico Hischier is killing itThe New Jersey Devils are the new Toronto Maple Leafs. Much like Toronto did last season, New Jersey is relying on a group of rookies to revive its slumbering offense, and so far it’s working. The Devils lead the Metropolitan Division and appear poised to snap a five-year playoff drought, finally emerging from the shadow of Ilya Kovalchuk’s departure.

New Jersey’s youth movement starts with Nico Hischier, who was selected first overall at the 2017 draft. Hischier was an explosive offensive talent in junior hockey, and he has carried that ability over to the pros with 20 points in his first 27 games. Hischier is sixth in the NHL in rookie scoring, one point ahead of his teammate Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick from 2016 who surprised the Devils by earning a roster spot out of training camp and already has nine goals. Rookie defenseman Will Butcher signed with New Jersey as a free agent after winning the 2017 Hobey Baker Award and graduating from the University of Denver, and he is second in the league among rookie blueliners with 18 points.

The only New Jersey player with more points than Hischier, Bratt, or Butcher is Taylor Hall, who leads the team with 29. The Devils were the second-worst offensive team over the previous five seasons, finishing slightly above the Buffalo Sabres in terms of goals per game, which makes their rookie outburst all the more remarkable. The sudden boost in scoring allowed New Jersey to trade veteran Adam Henrique to the Anaheim Ducks for Sami Vatanen last week, adding a defenseman in exchange for a now-expendable forward. More offense is also allowing goaltender Cory Schneider a little breathing room to recover from a bad 2016-17 season, and he’s back to playing more like he did in his first three years with the Devils, posting a ,923 save percentage.

Whether or not youth can carry New Jersey through the end of the regular season remains to be seen. Scoring has a way of tapering off for rookies unfamiliar with the level of mental and physical endurance required to handle the grind of an 82-game campaign. The Devils defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday to take the Metropolitan lead, but their real challenge will be holding off divisional powerhouses like the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have both started the season relatively slowly but are still only a few points away from catching New Jersey. If Hischier, Bratt, and Butcher keep producing, perhaps the Devils can stay afloat.