The New Jersey Devils are obviously a young team, and that will usually result in young leadership. Ever since the trade of former head captain Andy Greene over a year ago, there was a lot of questions and speculation as to which Devils player would ultimately end up as the new leader of the organization. Before the start of the season, veteran players, including Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri, were rumored to possibly leave New Jersey, whether via trade or by the free agency market.
So, general manager Tom Fitzgerald and head coach Lindy Ruff named Nico Hischier as the 12th captain in Devils history. This gave them some longevity since Hischier is signed through the 2026-27 season, not to mention that he is a young player with a lot of promise and upside.
Obviously, this year has been sort of hectic for the Devils in terms of injuries and COVID-19 protocols, not to mention that trading away their two alternate captains in Palmieri and Zajac certainly didn’t make things any easier. So, fans could observe a lot of rotation at times in terms of which players would wear the “A” (alternate captain symbol) on their respective sweater. It does spark some debate about which two players will be selected to round out the alternate captain roles for the Devils organization next season.
After the Islanders trade, the two alternate captains were Miles Wood and Damon Severson. Both of those players, alongside PK Subban, were asked to fill the alternate captain roles in case Hischier, Palmieri, or Zajac were hypothetically scratched from a game. This actually did occur at one point on Jan. 31 against the Buffalo Sabres in which all three regular captains were scratched from the lineup.
This resulted in Subban, Wood, and Severson all being given alternate captain roles for that specific game. With the current structure of their roster, the Devils actually have a lot of flexibility in terms of potential candidates for the two other alternate captain positions. Some players have demonstrated some signs of growth and leadership, whether it was acknowledged or not.
Honorable Mention: PK Subban
From a hypothetical standpoint, if Subban isn’t picked up by the Seattle Kraken in their expansion draft or isn’t dealt away before the start of the season, he might regain his previous position. Meaning that he’ll have some sort of leadership role while not officially having the “A” on his sweater. This is mainly due to his tenure in the league and the fact that he’s a former Norris Trophy winner. Similar to Palmieri and Zajac, Subban only has one year remaining on his hefty contract, and it doesn’t seem as though he’s a part of the Devils’ long-term plans.
Thus, assigning him an alternate captain role would be pointless since it would technically only be a temporary arrangement. So, while he is a great presence within the organization, I don’t see him officially being named one of the team’s alternate captains next year. Unfortunately, the NHL only allows teams to have three official captains on the rink. But, he will have some leadership role if he does stick around.
After having a subpar rookie season, Hughes took a huge step forward in his young career. In five fewer games this season, Hughes was able to tally up 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists), and he was the main offensive weapon for the Devils’ first line along with Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen. It’s worth mentioning that players including Sharangovich, Kuokkanen, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian were all mentored by Hughes at some point during the course of the season, which resulted in all four of those players putting up respectable numbers and production.
Ruff also seemed to have noticed Hughes’ impact because he has confirmed that Hughes is a part of the team’s leadership group discussions on several occasions. With the combination his of improvements, team impact, and his good relationship with the coaching staff, I highly anticipate that Hughes will become an alternate captain next season.
While he might not be one of the frontrunners for the alternate captain role, I believe that Zacha deserves some recognition for his impact and improvement, similar to Hughes. Zacha has been with the organization since being drafted in 2015, and he has gotten much better in recent years. In the last couple of years, he’s been able to close out the season on a strong note despite getting off slow starts. For example, during the final nine games of this year, he went on a hot streak in which he was able to tally up 10 points (seven goals, three assists).
Part of that has to be credited towards his respective linemates of Hischier and Jesper Bratt. However, more specifically, the chemistry between Zacha and Hischier (despite his injuries) was remarkable. This is why I believe Zacha should at least be in consideration due to his tenure and improvements. But also the chemistry that he and Hischier seemed to demonstrate this season.
Similar to Hughes and Zacha, Wood showed tremendous improvement in terms of scoring. He netted 17 goals this season in 55 games played, and hypothetically, had there have been more games on the schedule this season, he most likely would’ve topped his career-high in goals (19) and points (32) from the 2017-18 campaign with ease. Before the major trade between the Devils and Islanders, Wood had some sort of leadership position and seemed to be the most productive one out of Severson and Subban, who was also in the same position.
This resulted in Wood finishing out the season with an “A” on his sweater. Since he is aware that he might become one of the team’s leaders next season, he revealed in his exit meeting interview that he has learned the characteristics and traits of what makes an effective leader from former Devil captains Greene, Palmieri, and Zajac. It seems as though Wood is one of the frontrunners for the role.
Like Wood and Subban, fans were able to see Severson wear an “A” on his sweater at some points during the year. However, it became more prominent after the trade deadline. Severson has proven that he is capable of the responsibilities and adversities of being a leader through difficult times because he, and also Ty Smith, were really the only consistent bright spots on a poor defensive team.
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Speaking of which, similar to Hughes, Severson’s production was able to generate some impressive play from rookie sensation Smith, who put up one of the best rookie performances in the MassMutal East Division. Severson has also played his entire career with the Devils so far, similar to Wood and Zacha, which certainly helps his case in terms of the seniority category. I feel as though once the NHL gets back to their normal 82 game season format, then fans can expect even better production from Severson’s defensive impact.
Overall, the Devils have a lot of flexibility in figuring out their future leaders of the organization. With Hischier pretty much set as their head captain for the foreseeable future, it will certainly be compelling to see which players will officially be assigned the alternate captain roles. Based on everything, I believe that the two alternate captain roles will go to Hughes and Wood next year.
With either Subban, if not dealt away by the start of next season, or Severson serving as leaders in a different way respectfully. Even though he most likely won’t get an alternate captain role, it will definitely be exciting to see what Zacha can do next season and if maybe the trio of himself, Hischier, and Bratt will remain intact. Whoever is chosen to help Hischier lead the team, the Devils will certainly be in good hands.
Trey Matthews is currently the play-by-play announcer for the hockey programs at Adrian College. Interestingly, he is also one of the only full-time black hockey play-by-play announcers in the entire country. He has been featured in USA Today, USCHO, & others for his line of work. In addition to that, he’s also the host of a podcast show called Locked On Devils. He first began writing for his high school’s paper at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School & Academy. Aside from hockey, he also covers the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) for Belly Up Sports.