Newark, N.J. — The New Jersey Devils have struggled to assert themselves as a competitive club 32 games into the 2019-20 season. General manager Ray Shero, in an attempt to turn it around before a late-season comeback turns from improbable to impossible, most recently traded 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall — who held the team lead in scoring with 25 points — for a package of prospects and draft picks from the Arizona Coyotes.
Despite these major changes to the team's makeup, life — and hockey — goes on. As several Devils noted Wednesday after the morning skate, one player's exit means another player's opportunity to earn valuable playing time.
“It gives some guys a little bit more opportunity here. Obviously we’re not going to replace Taylor with one guy," team captain Andy Greene said. "It gives some guys more opportunity whether it’s five-on-five or power play in different situations. It gives them a chance to prove that — everyone always wants more ice time, and it gives them a chance to prove it."
New Jersey played its last two games without Hall in the lineup as he awaited the trade, so Wednesday night's game against the Anaheim Ducks won't be the first time his teammates take the ice without him. Third-year forward Jesper Bratt (nine points in 27 games) filled in alongside Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, and interim head coach Alain Nasreddine liked what he saw enough to keep a similar lineup at home after the team's weekend of rest.
"I thought he created a lot last game, used his speed and his quickness, so that’s what you’re looking for," Nasreddine said of Bratt, who will look to match his 35-point career-high from two seasons ago given the potential of a larger role on the team.
The Devils coach also spoke of the team's "work in progress" power play, which stands among the league's worst at 12.8 percent before Wednesday's game. Hall is no longer an option on the man-advantage, but Nasreddine still said he wants to see "more of a shooting mentality" when his team draws penalties.
“I don’t think there’s a power play in the league that’s gonna tell you they want to pass the puck for 40 seconds and then shoot it on net," he said. "I think what you want is to establish possession first and then when you have a chance to trigger, put in on net. We have one of the best net-front players in the league in [Wayne Simmonds]. With his unit, that puck’s gotta go there.”
Whether it's sparking new life on the power play or finding the next fit on Hall's old line, though, the message in the Devils locker room was clear — it's time for other members of the team to "find their voice," as veteran right winger Kyle Palmieri put it.
"It’s a learning process but at the same time they’re going to get to play big minutes in close games and find ways to win," he said of the team's younger players. "That’s how you become a better player, is finding different ways to make an impact on a game and hopefully everybody in this room finds a way to do that.”
Although not the first game without Hall in the lineup this season, Wednesday night is the first true test with the forward officially no longer a member of the organization.
"When those changes happen, you know, we have to move on," Greene said. "It’s an unfortunate part of the business, but we have to make sure we’re ready to come out and play a hungry team tonight.”
The business continues to operate and the schedule rolls on with the Ducks (14-16-4, 32 points), who pose a real threat to a transitioning New Jersey team.
"It’s always tough to play against them," center Nico Hischier told Sporting News. "Physically, they’re present, they’re a hard team to play against. They’re good down on the wall around the goal line. I think for us it’s important our puck decisions, that we don’t give them easy offense and try to get them with our speed.”
Hischier added that after New Jersey's three-day break in between games, the Devils have no excuse not to be ready to compete at home from the first puck-drop onward. Greene echoed that notion even in light of Hall's exit from the roster, saying the team can't "blame anyone else but us in this locker room" for how their season has shaped out so far.