When New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero addressed players and prospects before the first day of training camp, he told them all about the absurdly low expectations for the team. Some even picked them to finish last in the NHL.
"We're all in this together and the stories have already been written about what we are, so you've got eight months to try to write a different story and see what that's going to take," Shero told them.
The Devils are off to a hot start and writing a very different story. They're 10-6-1 going into a Western Canadian swing that starts Tuesday at the Calgary Flames.
New Jersey, in the post-Lou Lamoriello era with Shero and new coach John Hynes, is one of the biggest surprises in the league almost a quarter of the way through the season. Shero didn't know what to expect, but he remembers what he feared.
"Your fear is that you're going to be terrible," Shero said last week at the NHL GMs meeting in Toronto. "Who wants to be terrible? Nobody."
The Devils had been terrible. A trip to the 2012 Stanley Cup final was an aberration, surrounded by four seasons out of the playoffs.
Last year was rock bottom, as their 78 points were the fewest in franchise history for an 82-game season. Coach Peter DeBoer was fired and replaced by Lamoriello and assistants Adam Oates and Scott Stevens behind the bench before an off-season of upheaval.
Shero was brought in and Lamoriello bumped up to president before the 73-year-old took over as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Shero's goal was to hire a strong coach in Hynes and change the Devils' perception among fans and around the NHL.
"The main thing for me and for John was just to kind of get back in the league a bit and get some credibility with our fans in terms of what we're trying to do," he said. "We would get asked all the time, 'What's a successful year: Playoffs?' We always said the same thing: It wasn't about anything except the end of the year our fans could be proud of the team that was on the ice, that played a certain way, that they could say they're getting behind us because they can see what we're trying to do."
The Devils have taken the first steps toward doing that behind cornerstone goaltender Cory Schneider and a rejuvenated offence. After last year's leading scorer, Adam Henrique, averaged 0.57 points a game, Mike Cammalleri is a point-a-game player so far this season and Henrique, Lee Stempniak – signed after a camp tryout – and Kyle Palmieri aren't far behind.
Centre Travis Zajac, whose contract with six years left at $5.75-million (U.S.) each has come under fire, has also impressed as a two-way forward.
"Travis Zajac, he's been fantastic," Shero said. "He got challenged to be a better player than he was and what he's capable of and what he's been in the past, and he's really, really responded. He could be maybe our best player so far."
First-year captain Andy Greene was also singled out by Shero as someone who's under-appreciated for his work in all situations. Then there's Schneider, the goalie with the 1.98 goals-against average and .928 save percentage who volunteered to house young players in his home even though he and his wife were expecting a baby early in the season.
Shero told him that wasn't necessarily, but said he's been impressed with Schneider beyond his elite play.
"What I've found out about Cory Schneider as a goaltender, he's one of the top goaltenders in the league now, but he is a leader," Shero said. "He cares, and he gets it. He's a very, very impressive guy off the ice and he's really bought in."
Shero discovered quickly that despite recent losing seasons, the Devils were full of proud players. He has seen players keep fighting late in games and hopes that continues.
"That's been the buy-in from some of our veteran players in particular that wanted to do well," he said. "The whole point was to try to get back in the league, get some credibility and prove that they were better than they were last year, and I think they're doing that so far. But we've got a ways to go."