The New Jersey Devils held the first of their two final media availabilities for the 2020-21 season on May 11 and the majority of the 13 players that spoke saw their first significant NHL action this season with five of them having made their NHL debuts. The tone of the day was optimism towards the future and what it was like to have the audition of a lifetime in New Jersey.
Below we’ll highlight each of the players exit interviews, looking at the most interesting aspects of their comments and what the future may hold for them in New Jersey.
The 20-year-old made his pro debut this season, seeing action in six NHL games (1g-1a) with New Jersey and 22 AHL games (10g-16a) with Binghamton. He should compete for a roster spot next season, but may ultimately start the season in the AHL depending on what roster moves are made this summer.
“It’s been a crazy year, a fun year,” said Foote, who revealed he came into camp with a lingering upper body injury. “I think you want to come into next year’s camp and it is going to be a tryout. Guys are going to be wanting to take other guy’s spots. And I’m one of those guys I think.”
He added that he wants to work on his quickness this off-season, as well as using his body and size to his advantage concerning wall play. Foote also said he will rejoin Binghamton for the end of their season and that the injury won’t be a concern heading into next season.
“It’s going to be a big offseason in the gym, I need to fill out because you need to use your size in this league and I know I can do that – wall play, below the goal line and all that stuff. If I can put that into my game it will help me improve and my team as well,” said Foote when asked if his size could help give him a chance to join the top-6 forward group in New Jersey.
“You have to come prepared and come ready. I didn’t get as much ice-time as I did in Binghamton, you have to be ready every shift,” he replied when asked what he learned from his six-game NHL stint.
The 21-year-old also made his pro debut this season after finishing his collegiate career with Providence. With the Friars he had 25 points (11g-14a) in 25 games, with New Jersey he had one assist in seven games, and in eight games with Binghamton has three points (1g-2a). Like Foote, he could compete for a spot next season in the NHL, but some fine-tuning and polishing of his game in the AHL wouldn’t be the worst thing for his development either.
“It’s been a whirlwind, and I’m super excited to be here and to have this opportunity. It’s good for my development and for heading into next year. It will allow me to be a little bit more confident heading into next year,” sad Thompson when asked what his 2020-21 season spanning three teams has been like.
“Strength is the biggest thing,” he said when asked what his focus will be this summer now that he has a taste of what being in the NHL is like. Also face-offs if he wants to play center. He’ll be living in Arizona with his family this summer. Thompson will finish the season with Binghamton before heading home.
The 22-year-old put up seven points (4g-3a) in 28 games with New Jersey after 35 games and four goals last season. He was very efficient in eight games with Binghamton (seven points/two goals) and his confidence was showing in his game after being recalled. He should compete for a roster spot next season if he isn’t used in a trade package.
“Personally I felt way better than last year. I was more involved, more comfortable playing here, and I felt like I kept getting better, made strides,” said Boqvist evaluating his season. “This is a big summer for me and hopefully I can take even bigger strides next year.
“Everything,” he replied when asked what he needs to work on this off-season. Get stronger, having the confidence to win battles, face-offs, the details in his game, and his shot were some things he elaborated on. He added that he wants to score more goals and thinks that he can, starting with shooting a lot of pucks off the ice before getting back on the ice for training.
“I learned a lot about myself, not to doubt myself,” he replied when asked what he learned about himself this season. His confidence is growing but, “I’m not where I want to be at yet.”
He praised the coaching staff for helping him this season too, saying, “they have been great handling my mistakes – we watch it on video the next day or at practice and just talk through it. That helped me a lot for sure.”
The 24-year-old saw action in 27 games (2g-8a) with New Jersey this season after four games last season and one game with Arizona back in 2017. He’s shown flashes that he can play at this level but seems destined for exposure in the upcoming expansion draft and perhaps the AHL next season.
“It was a good year overall for me, my first year in the NHL,” said Merkley reflecting upon his past year. “It’s exciting to be a part of this team. “When I was in the lineup I thought I made an impact on the game and I need to try and do more of that next year.”
“Being consistent every night,” is what he needs to work on going forward, and skating. “Getting stronger legs and core muscles, my first three steps.” He noted coming into training camp there will be a lot of competition for jobs this fall and that he’d probably be disappointed if I didn’t make the team next year.
“The biggest thing I learned is that I can play at this level and make an impact on the game,” Merkley replied when asked what he learned about himself and his game. “I think I belong in this league and can be a good player in this league.”
The 22-year-old Belarusian had a fantastic rookie campaign from start to finish and really captured the attention of players, coaches, and fans. In 54 games, Sharangovich put up 30 points (16g-14a), which was tied for third on the team. He ended last season on a tear in Binghamton and that production continued in the KHL which was sort of a springboard for his NHL success.
His English may be broken at times, which isn’t a dig at all because he tries very hard, but his game certainly isn’t broken at all. The Devils may have really found a gem in the 5th round of the 2018 NHL Draft in him. It is a no-brainer for New Jersey when it comes to protecting him in the expansion draft, which likely means someone like Merkley or Nate Bastian could be exposed.
“I think the key (to my success) was good work in the summer and I felt I was ready when I came to the NHL from the KHL this season,” said Sharangovich when asked why his numbers were so good this season. He added that the past summer he worked on what Binghamton coach Mark Dennehy asked him to work on – quicker legs, quicker shot, physical stuff – and also that former NHLer Mikhail Grabovski helped him a lot in the off-season.The results were certainly there!
He said he liked playing alongside Jack Hughes and Janne Kuokkanen a lot this season. The trio became a staple in the Devils’ lineup following the trade of Travis Zajac. Sharangovich said he will play at the World Championships in Latvia.
The 22-year-old turns 23 in two weeks and saw action in 50 of New Jersey’s 56 games this season, putting up 25 points (8g-17a). The previous three seasons (two with Carolina) he only played in 12 games and had zero points. He certainly proved he can play at this level, and is in that mix of players that the Devils will have to make a decision on regarding the expansion draft. Kuokkanen should compete for a roster spot next season in New Jersey.
“I think there was a lot of improvement in my game,” said the Finnish forward of his season. He added the games he saw in Carolina helped prepare him for what to expect this season. “I was able to play smart, compete harder compared to last year.”
“I feel like there is still a lot of potential for this line,” he said referring to the trio of himself, Sharangovich, and Jack Hughes. “I think one day we could be a really good line.” He added he’d like a chance to continue that next season.
The 23-year-old found himself a role on the NHL roster this season and after playing only 33 games the past two seasons (five points/assists) McLeod put up 15 points (9g-6a) over 52 games this season while anchoring a line with Nathan Bastian and Miles Wood. He was the Devils best face-off man this season (51.5%) and one of their best penalty killers as well.
“I think I took big steps from where I was as a player last year,” said McLeod. “I’m happy with where I’m at but there is still room to grow more. I’m looking forward to next year and what this group can do. I really want to work on my shot this off-season.” He added he may tinker with the flex/curve on his blade this summer.
Sometimes our opinions of players can be skewed because of where they are selected in the NHL Draft, but McLeod has shown that he can be an effective third/fourth liner who can also be a valuable penalty killer. Just because he was a first round pick (2016) doesn’t at all mean that he is a bust because he’s not a top-line player.
“I like the role I was in this year and I just want to keep building off of that,” he added. “Teams need a guy that wants to win face-offs, hunt pucks on the forecheck and stuff like that. The coaches put a lot of trust in us on the penalty kill, which is nice, that was big to carve out that role. My goal was to stay in the NHL all year.”
“Lindy’s thing was: it’s not about the mistake, it’s how you respond to it,” McLeod said when asked about playing for a new coach. He also added that he learned how to take care of his body better, as well as from watching NHL players up close every other night.
The 23-year-old forward put up ten points (3g-7a) in 41 games this season after three goals in seven games last season. He missed 15 games with an injury but showed he could played a good grinder, physical role at this level. “I found a coach that believes in me,” he said. As mentioned earlier, he will be on that bubble of players who could be protected or exposed during the expansion draft.
“It was a crazy year, not really how I drew up playing my first year in the NHL,” said Bastian evaluating the season. “If you had told me coming into the year that I was going to play in every game and be a regular, I’d say that was a success for me. Throughout the year I played more, got more comfortable and gained a bit of confidence.”
He mentioned that his line was penciled in as a fourth line but also saw time on the penalty kill and played a lot against top lines game-in and game-out. As the year went on he learned to play more minutes, and became more responsible as the season went on. Bastian said he’ll work on scoring more and tipping pucks in front of the net this summer.
“You kinda wake up one day and you just feel like an NHLer,” he replied when asked if there was a moment this season where he felt like he wasn’t going back to the AHL. He added that “it sucked” to miss 15 games with a lower body injury – in a shortened season when the games are every other night. He said the injury was still lingering but he’ll be ready for the next season.
The 20-year-old defenseman was a big part of the Taylor Hall trade and made his NHL debut this season, seeing action in seven games (two assists). With injuries and covid around at the end of the season wreaking havoc on the blueline Bahl got his feet wet and a taste of what he needs to do to play at this level consistently. It’s likely he starts the season in the AHL where he can get good minutes and learn from his mistakes there.
“To gain some experience is huge,” said the big 6-foot-6 defender. “I know what I have to work on this summer. You make some mistakes, and then know what you have to work on. It was a really good learning experience.”
Bahl mentioned that he noticed the huge jump in hockey skill and IQ from the OHL to the pro game, and it was crucial to have the games in both the AHL and NHL to help prepare him for the next season. He learned to use his feet more often rather than always relying on his long reach/stick work.
“I think I’m a pretty good skater right now, but also that I could take it to another level and I don’t think I’m at 100% as far as what my leg strength and mobility could eventually be,” added Bahl who is excited about the future potential of the Devils blueline.
The 31-year-old defensive defenseman appeared in 21 games this season for New Jersey after playing in 20 last season. He has been a reliable guy who can be plugged into the bottom pair for a few games if injuries arise. He’s be an unrestricted free agent this summer and if he returns will likely fill that same type of role between the AHL and NHL. He’ll be representing Team USA at the World Championships in Latvia.
We found his evaluations of Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl pretty interesting when he was asked for them. “You guys can see for yourself what Smitty brings to the table, he’s obviously got a bright future; and the same with Bahler.”
“He’s a big, big boy who can play really physical and be a good defenseman. Obviously Ty is more offensive – his production, the goals, assists, the power play – those things speak for themselves. Both young guys, but the future is really bright for those two.”
“The biggest things for those guys is experience, the little details of the game – whether its helping them with face-off plays or little things that happen throughout the game that on the bench you can suggest an alternate way to handle a play or read. Reminders of where to be on the ice situationally, those with come with experience and time. I try to help with those little details in their game and do the best I can.”
“Obviously they are super skilled players and they don’t necessarily need my experience,” he said grinning. “Smitty, for the offensive part – he’s got that dialed in pretty good. But I try to help out whenever I can when they have questions.”
The 21-year-old defenseman made his NHL debut on opening night and never looked back. Injuries caused him to miss eight of the 56 games, but he was the Devils best d-man most nights, finishing with 23 points (2g-21a) as a rookie. He has played his way to becoming one of the building blocks of the franchise along with Nico Hischier, Mackenzie Blackwood, and Jack Hughes. Unless something bizarre happens he will be on the roster to open next season.
“It sucks not being able to play, you wanna be out there with the boys regardless of the situation our team was in,” said Smith of missing the final few games with nagging shoulder injury. “Obviously a covid year is pretty crazy and different (from a normal NHL season) from what I hear, but at the same time it was exciting for me to play here full-time and continue to grow and develop throughout the year.”
“Overall it was a pretty positive year personally, but we need to start to win some games next year,” added Smith, who also said that he wants to be a guy who has an impact on games nightly. He wants to work on his shot, and try to make his skating more explosive.
“It’s pretty exciting to be a part of this young core as the roster is being built. I learned how to play against bigger guys, men, and how to handle them. I can defend in this league, I need to work at it, but it’s something that I can do,” said Smith. “I want to win every time I step on the ice.”
He added that he won’t be representing Team Canada at the World Championships because of his shoulder injury, but would have loved to represent his country.
The 24-year-old defenseman played six games with New Jersey after a trade from Washington before contracting covid, but was able to return to play in the team’s final two games. He added some size to the Devils’ blueline and could be on the protected list for expansion draft/on the opening night roster depending on how the roster shakes out with additions/departures. He will be joining Hischier in Latvia to represent Switzerland at the World Championships, as both players try to get some more games in after an unusual season.
“It was a big deal, I wanted to play those last two games,” said Siegenthaler of returning from covid to play. “It’s exciting looking forward to next season of what this group is capable of doing. We’re all excited about that.”
He’s excited about being on a team that is giving him an opportunity to just be a guy who makes the plays he needs to make and be a hard guy to play against. Siegenthaler feels like it’s a good fit and stated a few times how excited he is to be with this group at this stage of their development as a team. He also said this season wasn’t easy mentally with only playing seven games for the Caps.
“I grew this year a lot mentally. It took a lot of patience, and was a good learning experience for me,” he added. “Already looking forward to next season’s training camp and a normal season.”
Siegenthaler mentioned he was happy to come to New Jersey, a team he watched a lot this year. Fast, young team who battles hard with a big future. He knew Hischier from the Swiss National Team, and moved into his place after the trade – which was a big help. Added that he never played on a team with another Swiss player before other than National Team games obviously.
Scheduled to speak on May 12 are: Aaron Dell, Scott Wedgewood, Mackenzie Blackwood, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Miles Wood, Andreas Johnsson, Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, Ryan Murray, Damon Severson, PK Subban, Lindy Ruff, and Tom Fitzgerald.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.