NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The New Jersey Devils’ youth movement has a lot more going for it than No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier.
The Devils are three deep in the rookie department. Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher and Swedish import Jesper Bratt stole a lot of the spotlight from Hischier in a 4-1 season-opening victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.
Butcher set up three power-play goals and Bratt had a goal and an assist as the Devils created some excitement after posting the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season.
“The vibe the arena gave off is what I’ll remember most,” Butcher said after becoming the first Devil to collect three assists in his initial game with the franchise. “It was an unbelievable crowd. And to play my first game with Nico and Jesper, it’s like we were all in this together. It was a great feeling”
Adam Henrique, Jimmy Hayes and John Moore also scored as the Devils fielded a lineup with eight new players. Kyle Palmieri added two assists before leaving in the second period with a leg injury. Cory Schneider made 40 saves.
Hischier was the player the crowd at the Prudential Center wanted to see. He was hailed as a conquering hero in pre-game introductions, and the first time he stepped on the ice there were chants of “Nico” for the 18-year-old Swiss center.
The kid didn’t disappoint despite not picking up a point. He skated well, had six shots on goal and forced Bernier to make a good save on a snap shot and another in close coming out of the circle. Hischier made some nifty passes that were not converted both on even strength and the power play.
“I think I had some chances to score my first goal, but what’s even more important is we got the win,” Hischier said. “That’s what I want. That’s what makes me happy, so I’m still pretty pumped.”
“He gave us a chance to win,” Avs center Nathan MacKinnon said of Bernier, who signed as a free agent with Colorado in July. “Him and Varley (Semyon Varlamov) have been great in the first two games of the season. It’s up to us to play better in front of them.”
Butcher, who signed with the Devils after failing to reach an agreement with the Avalanche, helped get the Devils on the board at 4:04 with a shot from the left point that Henrique tipped past Bernier.
“He’s got that poise with the puck up top,” Henrique said of Butcher, a defenseman who helped Denver win the NCAA title. “Just moving the puck in and out and getting the PK moving around was big. You see why he was such a successful player at school.”
Hayes made it 2-0 early in the second period, stuffing Palmieri’s shot off the end boards past Bernier. Bratt connected from the right circle after taking a cross-ice pass from Taylor Hall. Butcher had the secondary assist on both goals.
“It’s great to see them contribute and, as we’ve said in preseason, we didn’t feel it was a fluke the way they played even though it was preseason,” Devils coach John Hynes said of his rookies. “You could see how they played every day in practice and in the game, and nice to see them come and play important roles on our team.”
Soderburg had cut the Devils lead to 2-1, scoring on a rebound in close.
Moore’s short-handed goal to end the scoring was set up by Bratt.
NOTES: The Devils scratched D Ben Lovejoy, who played in all 82 games last season. ... LW Matt Nieto picked up six minutes in penalties in Colorado’s opener. He was scratched on Saturday. ... Palmieri sustained a lower body injury after being kneed by Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson along the boards. “It’s just unfortunate,” Johnson said. “I know Palms from playing at the World Cup. I hope he is OK. I just went to hit him and never changed my course. I haven’t seen the replay.” ... Devils captain Andy Greene missed the final half of the second period but returned for the third.
COLORADO: Finishes season-opening, three-game road trip at Boston on Monday.
NEW JERSEY: at Buffalo on Monday.