Takeaways From Devils’ GM Fitzgerald’s End of Season Media Availability

The New Jersey Devils’ offseason is underway as the players are now heading home or preparing to compete at the IIHF World Championship. Head Coach Lindy Ruff addressed the media on Monday and Thursday it was general manager (GM) Tom Fitzgerald’s turn to step up to the podium. Fans learned a lot, including how the organization will address the coaching staff, updates on a few players, and a commitment to finding an NHL-caliber goaltender.

Changes to the Coaching Staff

During Ruff’s availability on Monday, he was transparent in saying the coaches, including himself, would be assessed.

“We’re all under a total evaluation. The players are under an evaluation, coaches, myself we’re under an evaluation. It is really all a part of the process. It really is to leave no stone unturned. The evaluations will last two days for all the players, the evaluations with all the coaches, that is really what takes place right now.”

Related: Devils News & Rumors: Mukhamadullin, Recchi, Ruff & More

On Wednesday, the organization announced that assistant coach Alain Nasreddine’s contract would not be renewed and assistant coach Mark Recchi had been relieved of his duties. Fitzgerald took time to thank both of them for their work with the organization and expressed that they both were “good coaches, better people”.

“That tough decision was me, put on me because I needed something different […]For me, it was time for different voices for certain areas of our games, and tactically, was needed,” Fitzgerald said during his press conference.

It looks like assistant coach Chris Taylor will remain with the organization. He joined Ruff’s staff on Oct. 23, 2020, and Fitzgerald described him as someone who was extremely detailed oriented. He continued to say that Taylor would pull Dawson Mercer aside and work with him daily and stressed how important it was to do that with the young players.

Tom Fitzgerald, general manager of the New Jersey Devils
Tom Fitzgerald, general manager of the New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Did Fitzgerald say at any point in his 45-minute presser that “Yes, Lindy Ruff will be behind the bench next season”? No, but it was the overall impression that was left at the conclusion of the conference. The GM again stressed that his young core which includes Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, and Nico Hischier were all in support of their current head coach and what he has done for their development. It is hard to argue, especially when fans look at individual player performances, as there has been a handful who have performed well under Ruff’s reign including the aforementioned three.

Thoughts on the Devils’ Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agents

During the press conference, Fitzgerald was asked about Jimmy Vesey and PK Subban who are unrestricted free agents (UFA), and Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt who are restricted free agents (RFA) this offseason. The GM explained that part of the decision-making process is to see if the organization has internal options and young players who are ready to take a bigger role. Let’s look at some of his quotes from yesterday afternoon regarding the above-mentioned players.

Fitzgerald on Jimmy Vesey

“I think Jimmy Vesey came in here and earned a spot on this team. I can put my head on the pillow every night knowing that I helped grow his game to a point where if it’s not here, somebody will find value in him at the NHL level to help their team in whatever role that is. He proved that he can reinvent himself to a fourth-line guy who really took a lot of pride in blocking shots, killing penalties, and then still had the offensive ability to score you know 10 or so goals.”

Fitzgerald on Jesper Bratt

“Jesper Bratt is a big part of our future, we saw that. He’s a tremendous young player. Where he’s grown over the past two years, I can’t keep emphasizing the positives of the last two years with the individual play. We want Jesper Bratt here long term and that’s my job, to work out a deal with his agent. The goal is to get Jesper Bratt under contract and be part of the puzzle that we’re building here and realistically, prices are also part of the puzzle. And that’s where we have to figure out where we are with him. But we absolutely need Jesper Bratt in our lineup.”

Fitzgerald on Pavel Zacha

“Well, he is an RFA this summer and has arbitration rights. I will talk to this agent. I have to really look at the big picture of how we’re constructing this team to move forward to be a playoff team. That’s our goal, that’s everybody’s goal…Where Pav fits, you know we’ll go through that process internally of what we need and does he fit. He’s a good player, he’s a really good young player. He’s got talent, size, and versatility in his game. Everybody is looking for players like that and we are no different. I just want to see where some of the ducks fall and how we want to build out this team.”

Fitzgerald on PK Subban

“[I’ve been very] transparent with PK. You know right shot defensemen do not grow on trees and with PK I just said it’s not a matter for today. Do we have internal options? Possibly we will see where Reilly Walsh will fit in, you know he came up and played one game and he deserved that. It’s an open-ended conversation.”

Devils on the Hunt for an NHL Caliber Goaltender

Once again, it was confirmed that Jonathan Bernier may not be ready by the start of training camp next season. Fitzgerald was asked point-blank if his team needs a goaltender and the answer was yes.

“I’ve never hid from it, and have never dodged any bullets that we need to improve [goaltending[ and I am still on that path,” Fitzgerald said. “Both these goalies know where I stand. Competition will be part of that department moving forward whether Bernier is 100 percent come that time, which I’m not sure if that is real, there will be competition in goal. I owe that to not only the players and coaching staff but our fan base, ownership, and everyone who’s invested in our team.”

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers scores a goal on Mackenzie Blackwood of the New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fitzgerald explained that Mackenzie Blackwood is “a confident kid and wants to be our goalie.” The goaltending has been a difficult storyline for the past two seasons between Corey Crawford and Bernier and the organization will not be taking any chances of having that storyline continue into the 2022-23 season.

“Yes. Again, I’m not going to hide behind or tiptoe around it. We need another NHL goalie to challenge and be able to play lots of games. I don’t know who that is.”

Fitzgerald’s Final Thoughts

  • Shakir Mukhamadullin has received his visa and will be on his way to North America soon. He potentially may play a game with the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League.
  • Fitzgerald is not against trading the team’s first-round pick in the upcoming draft if it means he can add an impactful veteran player to his roster.
  • There is no concern around the play of Ty Smith and his play this season. Fitzgerald felt that there were circumstances that hindered his growth. As an example, he said Smith had less power play time and less five-on-five time. Going into the offseason, the Devils’ GM said his young blueliner needs to work on improving his strength and conditioning.
  • Fitzgerald is happy with the growth he has seen from Hischier as the team’s captain. He explained that Hischier is not a call you out type of leader, but will talk to his teammates about expectations in addition to his lead-by-example style.
Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils celebrates a goal (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fans have heard it before, but this summer will be a big one for the Devils. It won’t necessarily be about going out and signing the biggest name available but finding the right pieces to complete the puzzle. It sounds like there is a plan in place and time will tell if Fitzgerald can check the boxes off his wish-list over the next four months. The Draft Lottery will take place on May 10, the 2022 NHL Entry Draft will start on July 7 and free agency is scheduled for July 13.

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