NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — As the New Jersey Devils arrived for the start of training camp Thursday, there was a sense of optimism for the first time in a while.
The Devils were 44-29-9 last season and finished with 97 points and the second wild card in the Eastern Conference.
Although the team was ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, it was the team’s first postseason appearance in six seasons.
Making the postseason last season is the main reason for the upbeat attitude among the team as new season begins.
“I think we were all looking forward to getting back here,” said forward Taylor Hall, the reigning NHL Most Valuable Player who had 39 goals and 54 assists last season.
“We created a buzz and excitement here. We had a little success under our belts. Getting everyone back again is exciting. There’s a lot more interest in us. I think it’s my job to get the younger guys ready to take the next step.”
One of the young guys that Hall is referring to is center Nico Hischier, the former No. 1 draft pick overall by the Devils in 2017.
Hischier had 20 goals and added 32 assists last season as a rookie, mostly playing on the same line with Hall. The 19-year-old Hischier was a contender for the Calder Award as rookie of the year, an award captured by Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders.
“I’m definitely excited,” Hischier said. “I think we all want to keep how we finished last year. I just have to play my game. I just want to be stronger this year and improve my shot. I definitely know all the guys here. I didn’t know them last year. That definitely helps. It’s going to be a tough training camp, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Hischier is also looking ahead to a preseason trip to his native Switzerland Oct. 1.
“That should be fun,” Hischier said.
Although the Devils reached the playoffs last season, it isn’t the ultimate goal of this young team.
“We want to be better,” said veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy, who begins his 10th NHL season and third with New Jersey. “We want to be better than eighth place in the conference. It starts with having a good training camp. We need to have a successful training camp. We were embarrassed the year before and came out last year, working hard in training camp. We’re going to continue to get better.”
At this point last season, veteran center Brian Boyle was feeling a little fatigued and went off to have blood tests that revealed he had chronic myeloid leukemia, a rare form of bone marrow cancer.
The 33-year-old Boyle received medication to treat the cancer, but did not return to the ice until November. He managed to finish the season with 13 goals and 10 assists and was the recipient of the Masterton Trophy for his perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the sport of hockey.
Boyle begins training camp this year with the illness in the rearview mirror.
“It’s a nice feeling to know that I don’t have to think about it and it’s in the past,” Boyle said. “I’m feeling good and I’m excited to be back. We’re not satisfied with just making the playoffs. Yes, that was an accomplishment, but we want more.
“We want to finish higher in the standings and win in the playoffs. I look forward to every training camp. I hope I get about seven or eight more. I love doing this and I want to do it for a long time to come.”
Boyle’s contract is up at the end of this season.
Another prominent member of the Devils is goaltender Keith Kinkaid, who was the team’s starting goalie when Cory Schneider went down with an injury. Kinkaid responded by posting a 26-10-3 record and a 2.77 goals-against average.
While Schneider’s availability in training camp remains a question, the 29-year-old Kinkaid is now a proven commodity for the Devils.
“I want to pick up where I finished the season,” Kinkaid said. “I’m very confident right now. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. Everyone has to buy into getting better. I’m pretty confident that nothing is going to get past me.”
Devils coach John Hynes said that he has one goal in mind with the start of training camp.
“We want to build a solid foundation,” said Hynes, who begins his fourth season as head coach. “We want to work on fundamentals. Every training camp is the same. We have to work every day to establish that foundation. The guys we have in camp are expected to come here and work. It has to get to a point where they believe. I think we all have a long way to go.”
The Devils begin the season Oct. 6 against Edmonton in Sweden and their home opener is Oct. 11 against defending Stanley Cup champion Washington.