Poet W. H. Auden once said, “There’s always another story. There’s more than meets the eye.”
When hockey fans gather at their local arena their eyes are glued to 38 players who are battling on 200 feet of ice for 60 minutes, and that’s the story. At the conclusion of the game, fans disperse discussing which player scored the game-winner and how many saves their goaltender made. They are not talking about the players gathered in the press box watching their team and anxiously waiting for their next opportunity to jump into the lineup.
I came across an article by Fluto Shinzawa of The Athletic which gave an inside look into what life is like for a player who is consistently a healthy scratch (from ‘What life is like as a healthy scratch — for months at a time’, The Athletic, 03/12/2019). Fans understand players can be scratched for a variety of reasons including what the impending matchup looks like, disciplinary action, or the player’s depth at their position.
This season New Jersey Devils fans saw players scratched for all of the above reasons. They have seen head coach Lindy Ruff sporadically insert Mason Geertsen into the lineup when he felt the team needed grit, scratch Michael McLeod when his play dropped and defenseman Colton White jump in and out of the lineup depending on injuries and the play of his fellow blueliners.
White has been playing under the Devils’ umbrella since the 2017-18 season. Last July, Devils’ general manager Tom Fitzgerald announced the organization re-signed the then 24-year-old to a one-year, two-way contract. At the time, he only had skated in 11 career NHL games beginning with a debut against the league’s most lethal offensive threat.
White’s First Call Up and NHL Debut with the Devils
White was drafted 97th overall by the Devils in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. It was not until March 13, 2019, that he received his call up and made his NHL debut against the Edmonton Oilers. The London, Ontario native became the fifth member of the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL to play in the NHL. He appeared in three games with New Jersey that season before being reassigned to the Binghamton Devils of the American Hockey League (AHL) where he talked with the media about his first experience with the big club.
“It was a whirlwind, it was a dream come true,” said White at the time. “To finally play a game in Edmonton was even more of a dream come true. It was honestly just a wild week, it was really special.”
Over the next two seasons, the blueliner appeared in eight NHL games while spending most of his time with the Binghamton Devils. The 2021-22 campaign, however, presented a new opportunity as he spent the majority of the season in New Jersey.
White Gets An Opportunity as a Depth Defenseman
The 6-foot-1 defenseman was with New Jersey for all but 20 games of the 2021-22 campaign playing in 27 and serving as a healthy scratch for 35.
With injuries to Ty Smith and Damon Severson at the beginning of the season, White found himself in the opening night lineup against the Chicago Blackhawks. During the next game, he was able to check one item off the list when he earned his first NHL point assisting on Jimmy Vesey’s goal against the Seattle Kraken.
I sat down with White during the team’s end of the season media availability and asked him about finally getting his first point at the NHL level.
“I was pretty happy about it. I played a couple of games before and never got a point, so it was nice to get on the board.”
With a smirk, he said he was just waiting on that goal.
After those two games, White served as a healthy scratch for the team’s third game and the following day was placed on waivers. It was a move that fans were not happy with at the time, as most felt he earned a spot over other players on the roster. He cleared waivers and played only one game with the Devils’ AHL affiliate before he was back in New Jersey in early November appearing in four games that month.
I asked White at what point in the season did he know he was staying with the Devils, and he said that he took everything day by day but when he was called up in January, he had a good idea that he was going to stay. Between Jan. 8 and March 4, the defenseman suited up for 17 games. During that time, he added three more assists to his season.
Over the final two months of the season, White found himself scratched 23 times, playing only four games. His campaign was bookmarked with two wins, as he was on the ice for New Jersey’s final victory of the season against the Vegas Golden Knights.
How Does White Evaluate a Season Like This?
Throughout the six-month-long season, players can only focus on what is in their control, as there are a lot of variables that are not. After his second call-up, White spoke with Devils media about what it took to stay sharp when there is no guarantee you’re making the lineup.
“I think just acting as if you’re playing,” said White. “Doing your best at practice to stay ready and doing little things within practice and a little bit extra after with the skills coach, and just staying ready is basically all you can do.”
The 2021-22 season is now in the books and for the first time in his career, White finds himself as an unrestricted free agent. I asked if he thought it would be difficult for him to assess his season, considering he only appeared in 27 games with the Devils and six with their AHL affiliate. He explained that due to his sporadic play it would be difficult to assess, but he would look at different segments of the season when evaluating his performance. Overall, he feels like he had a positive season as he continues to focus on what he can control, which are his workouts and skating.
White is Making the Best of His Opportunity
In addition to putting in extra work, White has been praised by the coaching staff for his positive attitude. Fans can only imagine moving through waivers, sitting for 15-20 games, and then getting the sporadic opportunity to play could be mentally taxing on an individual. Considering the circumstances, it says a lot about White that his bright outlook was consistently mentioned throughout the season. When I sat down with him, I asked if it was a challenge to keep that optimistic mentality.
“I don’t think it’s that hard. I think we’re lucky to play a game for a living. Whether it’s the NHL, AHL, or East Coast League, it’s hockey and it’s fun. It is what I love to do so I think just being grateful to play the game and get paid to do it is something pretty special.”
Overall it seems that fans were happy to see White remain with the team for the majority of the season. GM Fitzgerald has kept his offseason plans close to the vest as the only information shared is that P.K. Subban will not be returning (from ‘LeBrun: Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald discusses P.K. Subban, Damon Severson and his team’s future’ The Athletic, 03/07/2022). This move will open up a spot on the blue line, and with young defensemen like Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotyuk, and Reilly Walsh in the pipeline, fans will have to wait and see if White returns to New Jersey for training camp in September.