The New Jersey Devils acquiring Tyler Toffoli was an unexpected move by General Manager Tom Fitzgerald. The Devils already have so much talent. However, it doesn’t hurt to have a veteran who adds plenty of experience to the young Devils’ locker room. More importantly, Toffoli is fluent in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 88 postseason games under his belt. The hope is that he’d come to New Jersey and fit in the Devils’ potent offense. His first crack at finding chemistry came next to Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt. Now over a week into training camp, it’s evident Toffoli is building early chemistry with the Devils’ top players.
Fitzgerald acquiring Toffoli just became that much more interesting. Tomas Tatar admitting that he turned down a one-year deal from the Devils gives the transaction an extra wrinkle we didn’t know about. It’s the kind of cold-blooded move that any fan of a team wishes their GM would make if necessary. Essentially, he sent the message, “If our offer isn’t good enough for you, then you’re not good enough for us.” The kicker? Fitzgerald upgraded from Tatar to Toffoli.
Last season, Toffoli scored a career-high 34 goals and 73 points. It tops each and every one of Tatar’s 12 seasons he’s been in the NHL thus far. As all NHL head coaches are doing right now, Lindy Ruff is trying to find the best chemistry possible between line combinations. Sticking Toffoli on Hughes’ line is a calculated decision.
“He’s a veteran guy that’s a good shooter,” Ruff explained of Toffoli. “You have lots of speed (in Hughes and Bratt). I think we can get the puck on (Toffoli’s) stick. He had a great year of finishing (last season). It’s a combination of those two things that could make the line effective. He can find the holes, he knows where to go, he’s a veteran guy that a lot of times needs fewer chances than other players.”
You could see the chemistry beginning to form when training camp began. Toffoli skated alongside Hughes and Bratt from Day One. In scrimmages, you could see what Ruff meant when he said there’s a lot of speed between Hughes and Bratt that pairs well with Toffoli’s shooting ability. That was on display Thursday night in the trio’s first taste of game action.
The Devils visited the New York Rangers in their third preseason game. On the other side of the ice, the Blueshirts dressed what could potentially be their top-pairing defensemen in K’Andre Miller and Adam Fox. Fox and Miller were pretty consistently deployed against the Devils’ new-look top line. Although it’s still just the preseason, it was a good test for the newly formed trio.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Bratt about playing with Toffoli and Hughes. “It’s great being out there with those two. They give me so many opportunities and hopefully, I’ll also help to give them some opportunities to score. It was a lot of fun with two amazing players. It’s exciting. I think it’s just gonna get better and better the more we play together. I think it was a good start overall.”
Part of the Devils’ hot start was due to Hughes’ line. Immediately, the trio of forwards created a multitude of scoring chances, forcing Igor Shesterkin to bring his ‘A’ game. It was encouraging to see how Toffoli contributed to the chances, too. He could shoot from a distance, bang bodies on top of the crease, or try and redirect pucks on net.
Eventually, Toffoli opened the scoring in Thursday night’s game, late in the first period giving New Jersey a 1-0 lead. Hughes, as he does, stickhandled the puck in the offensive zone and created room for himself. He found Simon Nemec at the point who threaded a needle to Toffoli. The puck jumped Toffoli’s stick, yet, he was able to recover and sneak the rubber past Shesterkin five five-hole.
Throughout his career, Toffoli has played with plenty of top talent. Those names include Anze Kopitar, Elias Pettersson, Marion Gaborik, etc. Albeit, none quite as skilled as Hughes, according to the 11-year veteran.
“Obviously, you saw the stuff he’s doing out there,” Toffoli explained. “He’s been doing it for a few years now. He’s definitely one of the most skilled, if not, the most skilled guy I’ve ever played with. I’d like to say I played with some pretty good players throughout my career. No offense to them. Some of the stuff he does on the ice is impressive. The way he competes and demands the puck, it’s pretty special.”
Bratt reflected on what evidently makes the newly formed trio click.
“It’s our speed. Our awareness to turn quickly and go the other way and create chances when the other team isn’t ready. We’re three very skilled guys who know how to find the open areas. I think that’s why we’re successful.”
Thursday’s preseason game was New Jersey’s first real look at what the Devils’ newly formed trio can do. Despite last season’s success, Ruff often put his lines in a blender each night. However, it appears the Devils head coach is trying to buck that trend. He’s focused on chemistry now more than ever. He certainly likes what he sees from Toffoli and Co. thus far. Moreover, he knows the line can reach further heights.
“The reason we put (certain) lines together is we’re trying to breed some chemistry,” Ruff explained. “There was a lot to like (Toffoli, Hughes, and Bratt) tonight. We left a lot of chances out there, Toffoli was in alone twice, and he made a great play to Jack. You look at some of the plays Bratt made (well). When you face total NHL opposition, all NHL lines, I think it’s a little bit different. But right now I’m pretty happy where we’re all the lines are at.”