Cory Schneider

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Brian Gibbons taking advantage of NHL opportunity with Devils

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NEWARK, N.J. — Two full seasons in the American Hockey League, after a taste of NHL life, would give some players a mentality that a regular spot in The Show may never come again. Not Brian Gibbons.

The New Jersey Devils forward wasn’t wondering when he’d get another NHL shot after 66 games over two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. He was thankful just for the opportunity.

“[I was] lucky to play the game still. It’s not the NHL, but it’s still a lot of fun,” Gibbons, 29, told PHT on Wednesday. “Great guys down there. It’s tough hockey, good hockey.”

The Devils are one of the early-season surprises atop the Metropolitan Division with a 11-4-2 record. It’s not just that they’re having success, they’re actually fun to watch again. The speedy Gibbons is one reason why.

The leading goal scorer for the Devils isn’t Taylor Hall or Adam Henrique or Kyle Palmieri or even last June’s No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier. Gibbons is the one currently holding that title with eight, which isn’t bad for someone whose last NHL goal before this season came on April 3, 2014.

What’s been the secret to his success? The answer is certainly not linemate Blake Coleman’s pickle juice, which Gibbons noted he stays “far away” from.

“I’ve just been trying to play the right way, really,” he said, “skate hard, work hard defensively. Obviously playing in the offensive zone as much as you can, try to get pucks behind their D and then once you’re in the O-zone try and make plays.”

Inconsistency plagued Gibbons earlier in his career, keeping him from earning a regular NHL job. His first professional coach is now his current coach — John Hynes. The two, along with Devils assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, were in Wilkes-Barre together for parts of three seasons from 2011-2014. Gibbons moved on to the Columbus, splitting the 2014-15 season between the Blue Jackets and their affiliate in Springfield. The next year he was in Hartford, trying to impress the New York Rangers for a callup that never happened. When no contract offers came his way in the summer of 2016, he earned a spot with the Devils’ AHL team in Albany after a tryout and planted the seeds for an NHL return.

A 16-goal, 38-points campaign impressed Hynes and Devils general manager Ray Shero (who was GM in Pittsburgh when Gibbons was there) enough that he earned an invite to main camp this fall. He fit into his role on the team and won himself a job.

“He’s really bought in to what his identity is as a player. He’s fast, he’s tenacious, he’s very smart. He’s a very good penalty killer. He understands how he needs to play,” Hynes said on Wednesday. “The biggest difference was when he was in Wilkes-Barre there was lots of pockets like that and inconsistencies, but the consistency level and professionalism he has now is allowing his talent and skill set to come out. It’s nice to see a guy like that come in and earn a job, and so far he hasn’t given it up. You want those things on your team because it helps drive internal competition.”

Gibbons and Coleman had a head start on chemistry development at the NHL level after a year of playing together in Albany. The transition was seamless and each knows what to expect from the other. The trio’s success is a small snapshot of a bigger picture. The Devils are one of the league’s top teams through nearly 20 games because of balanced scoring (14 different players have recorded a goal) and Cory Schneider’s play (.935 even strength save percentage) in net. It hasn’t always looked pretty, but they’ve been able to get the job done.

“[We’re] finding different ways to win games, whether it’s getting a lead and playing with a lead or coming from behind or goalies stealing us a game or power play getting a couple goals late,” Gibbons said. “It just seems, for the most part, that when we’ve needed a big play we’ve gotten it and we’ve gotten it from different guys, which is key when you don’t have to rely on one player and can just do it as a group.”

We’ll see if Gibbons can keep up the productivity and finally establish himself as a regular NHL player. When he was down in the AHL he never viewed his time there as one big tryout, hoping to impress a GM to get called up. He was only concerned with what he could control and that was helping his team.

That perspective can be credited to age and maturity.

“I’m at a different stage in my life,” Gibbons said. “Me and my fiancee have a little one-year-old. It’s nice to be able to share it with them. She was with me when I was in Columbus but he wasn’t around. It’s nice for them to be able to share this with me and just enjoying each day.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Devils aim to ‘get some respect back’ around NHL

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VANCOUVER — Travis Green made an astute observation about the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday.

“They’re not the Devils of old,” said the Canucks coach, hours before his team faced the Devils at Rogers Arena.

For the past few years, the Devils have been mired at or near the bottom of the NHL in scoring, and the results have been a team out of the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference.

This season, however, the Devils are off to a good start in the East, leading the Metropolitan Division heading into Wednesday’s game in Vancouver. Not only have they been winning games, but New Jersey has been doing so with an offense that ranked third in the league with 3.80 goals-for per game, which is surely one of the bigger surprises to this point.

A transformation of the roster has helped.

It started with the acquisition of Taylor Hall in the summer of 2016 and continued with the good fortune of winning the draft lottery this spring, resulting in the first overall selection of Nico Hischier a few weeks later. They added Marcus Johansson, and Jesper Bratt — yes, 19 year old Jesper Bratt, a sixth round pick from 2016 — has enjoyed quite the beginning to his NHL career with 10 points in his first 10 games.

College free agent signing and defenseman Will Butcher was averaging just over a point per game through 10 appearances this season, with seven of his 11 assists coming from the power play.

The addition of youth to the lineup has paid off nicely. Early on against the Canucks, the Devils were aggressive, quick and confident with the puck before eventually holding on for a 2-0 victory. Cory Schneider was sensational in net making 37 saves for the shutout. The bad news, though, was that Johansson took a nasty fall into the end boards early in the first period, left the game and didn’t return due to an upper-body injury.

What Green’s comments may reflect is a change in the perception around the league for how the Devils play now and the challenge they are starting to pose.

“I don’t know if we’re trying to change the perception around the league,” said Devils coach John Hynes.

“I know we’re trying to play a certain way and we want to be an aggressive team. We want to be a team that can play with lots of pace. And I feel with the group of players we have, we’ve been able to do that. We feel within our team we have guys that are quick, they’re fast, they’re tenacious on the puck, they’re very competitive and those are things we want to have.

“And we’re scoring as a result of playing with those attributes.”

Hischier, 18, has made a seamless transition from the top pick into the NHL as a rookie. Bratt, on the other hand, was taken 162nd overall in 2016. He won’t turn 20 years old until July 30, 2018.

Fascinating tidbit about his ascension: There are still 16 players taken during the first round of that 2016 draft that still haven’t played their first NHL game, and yet Bratt is not only on the Devils roster but he’s among the team leaders in points.

Here’s a sample of his work:

“He’s got a high, high hockey intelligence,” said Hynes of Bratt. “He can think his way through the game.”

Then Hynes went through a more detailed checklist.

— Tenacious? Check.

— Fast? Check.

— Consistent? Check.

“The focus coming in for us was trying to get a team that was going to be hard to play against and get some respect back for ourselves, our team and organization,” said Hynes.

“We’re just proud of the fact that some of the younger guys on our team have come in and been very consistent. They’ve been able to play to the identity we want to play with, and good results have followed that process.”

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Video: Clayton Keller continues to shine during Coyotes gloomy start

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The Arizona Coyotes are nearing the end of a five-game road trip through the Eastern Conference, still searching for their first win of the season.

It’s been a disaster for the Coyotes this month. Last night’s defeat in New Jersey dropped their record to 0-10-1, which puts them in forgettable company. This isn’t a piece of history any team ever wants to be associated with.

There has been one bright spot though, and it’s the play of 2016 first-round pick Clayton Keller.

Taken seventh overall that year, Keller had a nice start to this season and has continued that, particularly during this most recent five-game stretch with five goals and eight points in that time, putting the 19-year-old center atop the rookie scoring race.

Keller scored another terrific goal on Saturday — albeit in another disappointing loss for the Coyotes — as he stripped the puck from Nico Hischier inside the New Jersey zone, then walked in and beat Cory Schneider through the five-hole.

“He’s a guy who has some swagger,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka told USA Today. “He has real confidence in him, bordering on cockiness. That’s a good thing because he is a respectful kid and a good teammate. He works well with coaches and he takes criticism well. He’s a big part of what we are trying to do here.”

The Coyotes visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday and the Detroit Red Wings the following night, so if they are to get their first win of the season this week, it will have to come in a back-to-back situation at the end of an already disheartening road trip.

Making matters worse is the fact that coach Rick Tocchet told reporters after the game that defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson went through concussion protocol late in the third period of last night’s game.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

More good news for Devils: Schneider is back

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The New Jersey Devils have a long way to go before they prove that they’re as good as their 7-2-0 record indicates, but they’re getting a key piece to the puzzle back tonight.

After being sidelined since being hurt during an Oct. 19 win, starting goalie Cory Schneider has been activated from IR. It’s unclear if Schneider will play against the Arizona Coyotes or if he’ll merely back up Keith Kinkaid, but he looks to dress for the Devils after Scott Wedgewood was traded to … the Coyotes.

It might seem weird to say that the timing of Schneider’s injury was “lucky,” but relatively speaking, that may be true. The Devils have only played two games since Schneider went on IR, winning one and losing the other.

On paper, the Devils could have a good thing going, even if they’re scorching-hot offense dips to merely “above-average.” The plan so far seems to be to ape the Pittsburgh Penguins: outscoring problems and hoping that your goalie can make up for at least some of your defensive lapses.

Challenges and questions ahead

Schneider, 31, has a bit to prove in that regard.

Many believe that Schneider should bounce back to something resembling his elite earlier form (.921 career save percentage) rather than suffering like he did last season (20-27-11, .908 save percentage). Through six games, Schneider’s save percentage is at .907, but he’s also 4-1-0.

Chances are, it will take time for both the Devils and Schneider, as the next month could be rocky. After tonight’s home game, a November run includes a three-game road trip to start and seven of 10 contests away from Newark through Nov. 20.

Such stretches can often put surprise stories to the test.

On the other hand, Schneider could very well be a steadying force if the Devils struggle in various areas. It’s been a delight to behold this rare sight – a Devils team that’s an absolute blast to watch – but one way or another, their $6M goalie is likely to become a huge part of this equation (whether it’s a winning formula or not).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

‘A wave of nerves’ — Brian Boyle returns to practice following leukemia diagnosis

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Brian Boyle was back on the ice with his New Jersey Devils teammates on Sunday after getting all cleared to participate in practice following his Chronic Myeloid Leukemia diagnosis last month.

“I got the news yesterday … and a wave of nerves came over me,” Boyle told reporters following the skate. “But it’s exciting to get back on a routine and work towards a goal. I’ve got a lot of work to do, as evidence by that practice.

“Parts of it were not too bad. I was a lot better than I thought in some areas. Some of the battles. Just like hands and feet working together that are a little fatigued. The speed of it. Even just the practice — I’ve been kind of by myself for a month. It was an adjustment. Even throughout the practice I felt better, but still a bit of a ways to go.”

The Devils signed Boyle to a two-year, $5.5 million contract this summer. Despite the diagnosis, Boyle was determined to try not to miss any games in the upcoming season.  New Jersey is eight games into its season and has been one of the big surprises early on with a 6-2 record and 31 goals already scored.

Boyle, 32, has yet to play a game for his new team, and it remains to be seen exactly when he’ll get into the lineup, with the club announcing there is no timetable yet for his return. The Devils last played on Friday against the San Jose Sharks and are in the midst of a week-long break in their schedule.

Their next game is this Friday against Ottawa, which should give Boyle a few days of practice — opportunities to continue to improve on his conditioning — before the Devils play two games in two nights next weekend.

Meanwhile, the Devils placed goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve two days ago, after he was hurt the previous night.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.