On May 12 the New Jersey Devils held the second of their two final media availabilities for the 2020-21 season and 12 players spoke, as well as the team’s head coach and general manager – who each wrapped up their first full seasons with the Devils in those roles.
Below we’ll highlight each of the player’s exit interviews, looking at the most interesting aspects of their comments and what the future may hold for them in New Jersey, as well as some of the bullet points from the HC and GM.
The 26-year-old winger had just 11 points (5g-6a) in 50 games during his first season with New Jersey following an off-season trade from Toronto. It seems unlikely that the Devils would protect him ahead of the expansion draft. If he goes unclaimed, they have to hope he has a major rebound year in 2021-22.
“Once covid hit (me) I felt bad for a long time after that,” Johnsson said while reviewing his season. “Conditioning-wise, I wasn’t good. I would say maybe a month went by before I felt like myself again.” He added the fact that he is asthmatic didn’t help the situation he found himself in.
The Devils were ravaged by covid this season and had the most players affected by it in the league. We’ll never know how they & Johnsson would have performed if not for the team-wide outbreak in early February.
The 28-year-old started 15 games (played in 16) for New Jersey after signing back with the team who drafted him. He went 3-8-3 with two shutouts and played more than anyone anticipated after Corey Crawford abruptly retired before the season starting.
“It was a fun year for me. Obviously organizationally and as a team-wise, you want to win more games,” said Wedgewood, who was the third goalie with the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning a season ago. “From where I started – signing as a no. three (goalie) where my role was going to be on the taxi squad. Best wishes to Corey, but I’ve been waiting for another door to open up.”
He added he’d have liked to pick up more wins, but felt like he gave the team a chance to win 98% of the time – excluding the bad period in Pittsburgh on April 20 (four goals allowed on 13 shots). Wedgewood will be looking to be a no. 2 goalie somewhere next season, whether in New Jersey (preferably) or elsewhere.
“No point in me leaving to come back in the future, I’ve already done that once,” he said with a laugh when asked if he’d like to re-sign with the Devils. “The NHL is where I feel I belong.”
The 24-year-old netminder played in and started 35 of 56 games while battling minor injuries and covid this season. He finished 14-17-4 and ended the season winning five of his final six starts. He will be counted upon again next season to be either the starter or the 1A in a tandem with a 1B.
“This year was pretty crazy,” said Blackwood, who revealed he was playing ‘catch-up’ during the middle of the season after being the first Devils’ player to contract covid. “I’m really looking forward to getting back to a sense of normalcy with the schedule.”
“Any schedule after this season’s schedule would feel like a cakewalk,” added the netminder who said he never played as many games in such a short period of time.
“It’s exciting looking to the future next year. There are a lot of guys in here that took a lot of steps and I think when we get back to a regular year this team has a lot of hope. We’ve only just begun. It’s a team you want to be a part of.”
The 27-year-old defenseman played in 48 of 56 games in his first season as a Devil following an injury-riddled end to his career in Columbus. He finished with 14 points (all assists) and proved he could be a valuable player when healthy. GM Tom Fitzgerald resisted trading the pending UFA at the trade deadline, and that could mean he’d like to keep the blueliner around.
“We had a good start and never really found our game after the covid interruption,” said Murray. “It’s a good, young group here, a lot of good guys. But such a strange year and we’re disappointed with the result. I think I played pretty well to finish the season strong. I really enjoyed this season with the boys.”
He said he felt good all year and was pleased with how he was able to play pain-free every single game. Murray had high praise for the Devils’ medical staff (numerous times) and added he hasn’t thought much about his impending free agency just yet. He did say he was one of the few players that didn’t get covid this season.
The 22-year-old hit the 30-point mark for the fourth time (35, 33, 32, 30) in four NHL seasons, finishing with 30 points (7g-23a) in 46 games played. His 23 assists were two off his career-high (2018-19). Bratt has certainly shown he can play at this level but is sometimes a perplexing player because his first choice is to pass and not shoot. He could be part of a trade package to acquire a top-6 forward or he could be back in New Jersey for his fifth season.
Bratt said he was pleased with his skating this season, and noted it was something he really worked on during the long off-season. He added he wants to work on his shot this off-season – “I still think I can be a better threat on the power play.”
He may play for Team Sweden at the upcoming World Championships depending on paperwork related to his late re-signing in the off-season.
“I think everyone is excited to get better and come back in September ready to be a playoff-contending team,” said Bratt. “My season was a step in the right direction, but I have some parts of my game I want to improve. I think I created more scoring chances than I did in previous years. I played more of a role as a veteran guy, even if I’m 22-years-old.”
The 24-year-old set a new career-high with 35 points and 17 goals, which led and tied for the team lead respectively. Given more ice-time and responsibility helped his game grow, despite as he revealed he played through a nagging injury. Like Bratt, he could be a candidate to be traded in a package this off-season to bring in top-line talent (his stock has never been higher).
He will rest this off-season and not play at the World Championships for the Czech Republic. “I just want to get better every year. This was another step forward for me this season,” said Zacha. “I want to come back better than I was this year.”
“We have a lot of really good players to build around here and I’m excited to be a part of that and help as much as I can,” he added. Zacha mentioned he thinks more practice time next season will really help the young group.
He said the message heading into the last off-season was to work on his shot and it worked – with 17 goals in 50 games, and he will continue to work on that this summer. Zacha will spend time in New Jersey before shipping up to Boston for his summer workouts.
The 25-year-old was one of the most consistent Devils this season and tied with Zacha for the team goal-scoring lead (17). He missed one game and his line with Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian was the one line that stayed intact the longest this season. “I thought Mikey and Bastian took a big step this year, and we had a lot of fun,” he said.
They played with energy and against the opposition’s top line just about every night. It would be a shock if that trio didn’t stay together (depending on roster moves) next season because their head coach really liked what they gave the team on a nightly basis.
“I thought it was a strong year for me,” said Wood, “more importantly I thought I took a step off the ice in terms of (being more vocal) in the locker room and stuff like that. I certainly learned from Palmieri, Greene, and Zajac and was fortunate enough to play with those guys for five years. Great guys on and off the ice, and I tried to be like them.”
He added that he is very excited to be on this team with the young talent they have accumulated, and has a lot of faith in Tom Fitzgerald, Lindy Ruff, and his staff. “I love the way he coached, I’m happy he’s our coach,” said Wood.
“That’s on the players, that has nothing to do with the coaching staff or GM,” he said when asked about the team’s (far too) often slow starts in games this season. “We have a bright future (here) for sure.”
Hughes turns 20-years-old May 14 and is the cornerstone of the Devils franchise. Wherever the Devils go in the next 5-10 years will be with no. 86 driving the bus. He was one of two Devils (Damon Severson) to play in all 56 games and set career-highs in points (31), assists (20), goals (11), and unofficially goal posts (at least eight).
“My whole game evolved and took a step. I liked where my game was at, so it was a good year for me in that sense,” said Hughes when asked to evaluate his season. “A bunch of us took steps and we’re moving in the right direction.”
He added that he knows what he wants to work on this off-season and believes he can take his game to another level. “I’m here to help lead this team. We have a young core and guys that respect each other,” Hughes said. “Nico (Hischier) is going to be a great captain for us for a long time. I’ll help him and try to be a leader for this team.” Hughes said he was grateful for the ice-time opportunities provided to him by coach Lindy Ruff.
“Our fans should be excited,” he proclaimed. “We have a good, young team here, a good young core, a bunch of guys that are going to be good players for this team for a long time. Next year, I’m not saying we’re going to make the playoffs or anything – but we need to start winning games and play meaningful hockey down the stretch in games 80, 81, and 82.”
Hughes noted the power play has to be better because it cost his team some wins this season. He also admitted that as frustrating as his rookie year was, he wouldn’t have been at the level he was at this season without those struggles. Hughes emphasized that they need to make the Rock a hard place for visiting teams to play in after a dismal season at home this season.
When asked if he wants New Jersey to draft his younger brother Luke (defenseman) in the 2021 NHL Draft, he said he would obviously love that opportunity, but whichever team gets him will get a great player.
The 26-year-old saw his numbers drop in every category for the fourth straight season, dressing for only 23 games and recording only 11 points (1g-10a). After playing eight games from Feb. 16- Mar. 6, Butcher was a healthy scratch until April 11 before playing the remainder of the schedule.
With one year left on his contract, he may be nabbed by the Seattle Kraken at the expansion draft. If not claimed, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he returns to New Jersey. He’s not the same player that put up 44 points in 81 games as a rookie anymore.
He mentioned that it was a tough year mentally, and realized he had to find other outlets to talk to aside from his wife about everything going on in his professional life.
The 22-year-old battled through a broken leg, covid, and a facial fracture this season, his first as captain of the Devils franchise. In 21 games he finished with 11 points (6g-5a) – eight of which came when he returned for the final month (16 games) of the season. Like Hughes, this team needs Hischier to be a cornerstone for the next 5-10 years to be consistently successful. They are in great hands with him as their captain leading this chargeback to respectability. “It’s fun to watch him play, he’s going to come back even better next year,” he said of Hughes.
“It’s an adjustment for sure,” said Hischier of being the team’s 12th captain in franchise history and the youngest current captain in the NHL. “But everybody told me not to change anything and just try to play your game. That’s what I focused on every game. On the ice, you don’t really notice you’re wearing a ‘C’, I just try to do what I have been doing. That’s my game plan.”
He did say he thought it was important to be vocal when necessary within the group and comfortable doing things like that. Like his teammates over the two days of the exit interviews, he noted that it is a young group who is learning and growing up together; and be ready to take that next step next season. Hischier is planning to lead by example and come back after the summer as a better player.
“The most fun hockey to play is in the playoffs,” he said looking ahead. After only playing in 21 of 56 games this season Hischier will be playing with Jonas Siegenthaler representing Team Switzerland in the upcoming World Championships.
The 26-year-old defenseman was one of two Devils (Hughes) to play in every game this season and hasn’t missed a game the past three seasons now. Remarkably, he told the media he finished this season with a broken bone in his foot and most nights was the team’s ice-time leader. “I still have room to grow,” he said, “a lot of room to grow.” Severson finished with 21 points (3g-18a) and following the trade of Zajac he is the longest-tenured player on the roster.
“We’re all in that mode now where we know what we have here, some of the young guys have talent, some guys were really good for us this year,” said Severson. “Now we’re going to have to take that next step and not have our year-end exit meetings when the regular season ends. We want to get in that playoff mix and get better from there.”
He confirmed he contracted covid, but didn’t think it had any effect on his game more than the broken toe (from a blocked shot) did – which limited his mobility, turning, and stopping. Severson said he wasn’t using it as an excuse, but did admit he wasn’t 100% for more than half the season. No surgery is required, just resting will heal it.
“When they put the ‘A’ on my jersey this year I took a lot of pride in that,” said Severson. “I’ve always been that person growing up through different levels of hockey. Myself, Woody, and Nico – being that leadership group with the letters on our jerseys – take a lot of pride in that. We want to be the go-to guys and we’re not afraid to step up and have those conversations that maybe other guys aren’t so comfortable having. I want to be a go-to guy.”
At the ripe old age of 32-years-old Subban is the eldest Devil and in 44 games before contracting covid, he put up one more point (5g-14a) than he did in 68 games (7g-11a) last season. Subban was definitely better than he was last season, and a big asset to have around the young players. He will be entering the last year of his contract and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he is either selected by Seattle or traded (with the Devils paying some of the $9 million dollars he is owed).
“I feel 100% recovered (from covid) now. It’s too bad we didn’t have a little bit more time so I could get back on the ice with the guys a few games before the season was over,” said Subban, who is asthmatic. “Throughout my career, I’ve probably played several games where I was sick or under the weather. Never missed any games due to illness, but obviously, with covid, it’s a different situation. As an athlete, you always want to play through everything.”
More than anything he missed hanging out with his teammates, which has been a challenge during a pandemic unless they were at the rink together. Subban said he felt more comfortable this season with New Jersey than all of last year, and that this team dynamic was a better fit for him and his style. He also talked about elevating his game to another level for next season and after a few weeks to rest the mind and body, he will resume his workouts.
“It’s kind of crazy to think that seven years have gone by this fast,” said Subban when asked about entering the last year of his contract. “It feels like yesterday I just signed my deal. I’m just taking things one day at a time. I still don’t think that New Jersey has seen the best version of myself and hopefully, that comes next year.”
In his first season as the Devils’ bench boss, Ruff finished with a record of 19-30-7 (45 points). The team scored 145 goals, surrendered 194, and was 0-5 in shootouts. Away from Prudential Center, they were 12-12-4, but at home, they were 7-18-3. In a tough division, with an extremely young team, he did a pretty decent job. He said he intended to bring back all of his assistants. Here are a few of the highlights from his 25-minute end-of-season media availability.
*on the next step for the team: “I think a lot of young players got a real good taste of what it takes, they got to play against some of the best players in the world. The next step is being that team that can battle for a playoff spot and gets into a playoff spot. The message was we don’t want to be in this same place with these meetings (right after the regular season), we learn a hard lesson from this year and none of us want to be in the same place next year.”
*on how to assess players in a shortened season with limited practice time: “I really don’t know how to assess it when you have a couple of weeks off in the middle of your year for covid. We had really only one two-day break from February until sometime in March. When you did have breaks it’s mainly just letting the team rest because that schedule was demanding. The injuries, not having Nico, a lot of moving pieces, losing a goalie who we thought was going to be a part of our team in camp. How do you put a value on that, how much did it change our season? It’s just a totally different year.”
*on leadership: “You hear Jack’s voice now (in the locker room), you hear Ty Smith’s voice, you hear Miles Wood; there are different voices now. These guys like playing with each other, for each other, and when you start playing for each other is really when the success starts to come. You’ll pay a bigger price, understand the commitment when one of your key players is blocking a shot, the back-checking. Their personalities are starting to show, they’re starting to expect more out of each other.”
*on special teams: “If you look at our power play, it has had a changing piece throughout the year. The best power plays are a five-man unit that’s been able to stay together and grow together. When we kept the unit together when Nico was back in the lineup and when Bratt was in – down the stretch here the last eight or nine games our power play percentage was about 25%, and that’s a good place for it to be. All the moving pieces and adjustments we tried to make didn’t breed a lot of familiarity for the players. The goal would be to put that unit together right away in camp, have all those pieces in place to start the season.”
*On year two of Jack Hughes’ career: “I thought his game was light years ahead of where he was at. I think physically, a different player. I thought speed-wise, a different player. Energy-wise inside of a game, there were games I thought he dominated having the puck and it was on his stick. For me, there is no comparison to what I had seen before and he gained confidence as the season went on. The fact he got off to a good start really helped him and gave him some of that confidence once he scored a few goals. He was almost a point-per-game guy for a while. The only disappointment was that he didn’t finish a lot of his key opportunities that would have put his numbers in a great place.”
In his first full season as the GM of the Devils Fitzgerald swung some more trades to make his team one of the youngest, if not the youngest roster in the NHL. He has dove head-first into the ‘draft and develop’ strategy to remake the franchise and learned a lot about what he has and doesn’t have organizationally.
With a large amount of cap space, an expansion draft in July, a plethora of prospects, and a pocketful of draft picks, the time is now for Fitzgerald to bring in a scoring winger (or two) that can complement and assist the young nucleus he has identified. Here are a few of the highlights from his 33-minute end-of-season media availability.
*On assessing the growth of players this season: “I watched every game. We’ve all been through the trials and tribulations of 2021 this year. The things that I saw from players were a lot of positives and a lot of things to be excited about. Lack of practice hurt in certain areas – systems and structures, you want to create habits when you step on the ice that you couldn’t because of the limited amount of practice time. I hope everyone is excited about the big steps Jack Hughes took, what he’s going to bring and what the future looks like for his game. The surprises of Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich, and what they brought to the table this year was great.”
“That’s what this year was all about – to see what was underneath the hood of the car. What do we have here in the system? Can they sustain success at this level? The only way to do that was to give them an opportunity and we did that. It’s easy to say as a manager that I wanna give players A, B, C, D, and E an opportunity, but you have to have a coach that believes in that. Lindy sure did and you saw the way he handled our kids and saw us reap the benefits from that handling.”
*On Sharangovich’s stellar season altering his expansion draft/off-season plans: “Well it sure puts a spin on that, doesn’t it? We will get together as a group here over the next few weeks to formulate what we think our (protected) list will look like. We’re not there yet. But I do think the success of some of these young kids we weren’t anticipating this quick, has probably changed some things and the look of that list.”
*On moving the AHL team from Binghamton to Utica next season: “We’re extremely excited about partnering with Robert Esche and his group in Utica, and there’s obviously a history there with the Devils organization and that community. We’re very fortunate this opportunity came up, we had some options and we really enjoyed this past year with our farm team being in New Jersey in our home rink.”
“It was advantageous in a lot of areas like being able to watch them play and practice so often, and understand what we have coming through the system. Keeping the team here would have been an option, but we felt the opportunity of going to Utica really best fit what we want to do. When you get that first call-up, it’s nice to make that drive from the farm team with that excitement, instead of walking down the hall and changing locker rooms.”
*On fans’ frustrations with lack of recent success: “I absolutely feel what the fans feel about the lack of playoffs around here, and I understand it. Selling hope and excitement for what these kids are going to look like is something we have to do. I know there’s no consolation in that this past year, but there was a big step in a lot of areas that will lead to the result of us being a competitive playoff team each year moving forward. I completely sympathize with the fans, but they have to know that this group that they are watching grow right in front of their eyes is going to be a really good, a really good and exciting team in the future.”
“I’m excited to be the manager of this team moving forward. I have a commitment to this organization long-term and I feel the owners are equally committed to me. My goal is to help them build this organization from the Hockey Ops side and become a winner – take it back to where the people who are longstanding fans, the alumni, want it to get to. To the levels that they were accustomed to back in the ‘90s and 2000s. That’s my job, and I’m committed to that long-term.”
*Players he’s excited to see next season at training camp: Tyce Thompson, Alexander Holtz, Graeme Clarke, Michael Vukojevic, Fabian Zetterlund, Marian Studenic, Dawson Mercer.
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.