Canucks host Devils in battle of surprising clubs
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Before the season started, neither club was expected to shine.
However, the Vancouver Canucks (6-3-2) and New Jersey Devils (8-2-0) are surprising their critics.
The Canucks are keeping pace with playoff contenders in the tough Pacific Division, while the Devils are doing even better, hovering at the top of the Metropolitan Division.
Heading into Wednesday's contest against each other, both the Canucks and Devils have won four of their past five games, and it is no longer a foregone conclusion that both will be among the NHL's bottom-feeders by season's end.
The Devils are enjoying their best start since 1993-94, due in large part to the resurgence of winger Taylor Hall. The first overall choice in the 2010 draft has three goals and 10 assists in 10 games and is firing shots like a kid letting off firecrackers all at once.
He is showing signs of strong improvement from 2016-17, when he struggled to establish himself in New Jersey following a trade from the Edmonton Oilers.
"I feel good," he said recently. "I wish I was scoring a bit more, but I think there are some other things in my game that I can work on."
Hall appears likely to exceed the 53 points that he produced last season with the Devils. While his success might have been anticipated, other players have surprised. Unheralded rookie Jesper Bratt, chosen in the sixth round in the 2016 draft, has 10 points in as many games.
Meanwhile, Nico Hischier, this year's first overall choice, has a respectable two goals and five assists in 10 games. The 18-year-old Switzerland native is living up to his billing as a bona fide future star.
Then there is Brian Gibbons, a 29-year-old journeyman who has spent most of his career in the minors. Gibbons leads the team with five goals, the latest coming on a penalty shot in a 4-3 win over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.
"He certainly deserves (his success) -- he was always working hard, even in the minors," Devils forward Blake Coleman told NJ Advance Media. "It's really nice to see good guys get rewarded for their hard work, and he's a huge part of the team's success right now."
Meanwhile, the Canucks are also getting strong efforts from unsung heroes -- a good sign as stars Daniel and Henrik Sedin are struggling to display their former offensive prowess. The latest to shine was multidimensional forward Sam Gagner, who scored his first goal of the season in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars on Monday.
"(Scoring) just helps you gain a little confidence around the net," Gagner told Sportsnet. "I like the way I've been playing recently. I feel like I've gotten a lot of chances, created a lot of chances. Sometimes it just allows you to relax a little in scoring areas. Hopefully, I can help us win some games."
Like his former Edmonton teammate Hall, Gagner is a former high draft pick looking to bounce back this season. Chosen sixth overall by the Oilers in 2007, he is playing for this fourth different team since Edmonton discarded him.
Gagner enjoyed a resurgence with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season, producing 50 points, but his offensive output this season -- six points in 11 games -- has been modest after he was looked upon to be an important power-play piece. His frequent deployment in defensive situations can be attributed, at least in part, to his slow start with the Canucks.
He likely will return to a defensive role Wednesday -- after playing an offensive one against Dallas -- as rookie Brock Boeser returns to the lineup. Boeser, the club's top scorer with nine points in 10 games, is due back after sitting out the Monday contest with a sore foot that resulted from a blocked shot against the Washington Capitals.
It's clear that Vancouver's internal competition is heating up, particularly in goal. Coach Travis Green has a tough decision to make after Jacob Markstrom stood out Monday, despite the loss, and might have earned another start. That could result in Swedish compatriot Anders Nilsson, who has two shutouts this season, spending more time on the bench.
"It's a super-healthy competition, both in practice and off the ice in the gym, even though he's got about 30 pounds on me," Markstrom said.
Updated November 1, 2017