Stevens eager for NHL Network return, sees Devils as Cup contender

Stevens eager for NHL Network return, sees Devils as Cup contender

Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens said the New Jersey Devils have been able to take a gigantic leap in the Eastern Conference this season in large part because of contributions by their young players.

Stevens, who will make his return to NHL Network on "NHL Tonight" on Thursday with Dave Reid and Tony Luftman (6 p.m. ET), said the Devils have become a legitimate contender after failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past five seasons.

"They're scoring goals and [goalie] Cory Schneider is back to his old form," Stevens said. "Schneider's been very important, but I think what's taken them to the next level is the first overall pick, Nico Hischier. He's been outstanding. Jesper Bratt was a late draft pick but has really come on the scene, and Will Butcher has looked great.

"I don't know if Devils management would have expected this, but that's catapulted them and made them into a contender right now."

Video: [email protected]: Hischier buries quick shot from the slot

The Devils, whose next game is at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday (7 p.m. ET; FS-O, MSG+, NHL.TV), are first in the Metropolitan Division with 36 points (16-7-4).

The Devils have been bolstered by four rookies: forwards Hischier, Bratt and Blake Coleman, and defenseman Butcher. Hischier, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, is tied for fourth among NHL rookies with 20 points (five goals, 15 assists), and Bratt (2016 NHL Draft, No. 162) is tied for sixth with 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists).

Coleman ranks fifth among rookies with 61 hits, is tied for 10th with 23 blocked shots, and is second on the Devils with a plus-8 rating. Butcher leads Devils defensemen with 18 points (two goals, 16 assists).

"Coach John Hynes has done a great job, making them very accountable," Stevens said. "They came out of the blocks hard and haven't faltered. Hynes proved to be a good coach in the American Hockey League, and now he's very good with the Devils. But when you get these players to contribute like they've been contributing, especially those young players, that's important."

Video: [email protected]: Bratt opens scoring with opportunistic goal

The Devils finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2016-17 with 70 points (28-40-14), and they haven't made the playoffs since advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. Their ascent up the standings likely enabled general manager Ray Shero to trade center Adam Henrique to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Sami Vatanen on Nov. 30.

"They traded Henrique because of the quick progress of some of these young players and to get a right-hand defenseman who can help solidify their [defense] because that's where they needed help," Stevens said.

Stevens helped the Minnesota Wild to a their records of 106 points and 49 wins as a first-year assistant to coach Bruce Boudreau last season. But Stevens resigned on May 30, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Stevens, who played 22 seasons as a defenseman in the NHL, including 13 with New Jersey, helped the Devils win the Stanley Cup three times and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.

He said he's looking forward to returning to NHL Network.

"Just being able to talk hockey, watching hockey and breaking it down with the other analysts and hosts is going to be great," Stevens said. "Every once in a while, we'll do demonstrations, bringing that to the audience is fun too. The whole variety that NHL Network offers is fun. It's a great place to work and looking forward to talking hockey again."

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