As the second offseason under the new regime of the New Jersey Devils begins, there is a lot of excitement and energy around the franchise from top to bottom. Under GM Ray Shero, head coach John Hynes and assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald the team has revamped its look, feel, style and roster, again, from top to bottom. With two NHL Drafts under their belt, and a second development camp just completed there are now glimpses of some of the future talent that could be skating on the Newark ice over the upcoming seasons.
This is part one of our extensive recap, with part two due out on The Hockey Writers on the following day.
“The entry-level deal guys are always on the table to come. Then you can pick-and-choose and that’s what we did,” Fitzgerald told the media about the roster following the final day of development camp. “Numbers-wise really. We probably would have left (Blake) Coleman home, but because of his shoulder (injury during the season) he hadn’t played for a long time and I felt it was important for him to come in and start grinding again in the corners. Blake Pietila, Ben Thomson…you have to have some sort of framework with this.”
Two of the Devils better current prospects — Joe Blandisi and Pavel Zacha — attended the camp but didn’t participate in any on-ice drills during the week-long camp as they were each nursing minor ailments. A third highly touted prospect, John Quenneville, was held off the ice for the final two days with what was described as nothing major (minor tweak, precautionary). For all three, being there is still important whether they are on the ice or not, because a large part of this camp is getting comfortable with the organization, community, and their future teammates – in a low-stress environment.
Welcome to Your Future Home?
Besides the top-end prospects, there are also college players invited that are unsigned/undrafted and will be looking for work once their collegiate careers end. But as Fitzgerald interestingly noted, they aren’t auditioning for the Devils during this week in New Jersey, instead, the Devils are auditioning for them.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) July 19, 2016
“I get calls from their agent ‘how’s this guy doing, how’s that guy doing?’ I’ll be honest with them: I wasn’t evaluating them. I have my own meetings going on, and I come in and watch the first practice. 3-on-3, you’re watching this game, then you’re sliding down and watching that game. Sure you saw some kids who: wow that’s a nice play! Chris Shero. How can you not notice Chris Shero?” Fitzgerald explained. “It’s still a development day. This wasn’t set up to evaluate what we have. Like I told the college free agents, this is an opportunity for us (the New Jersey Devils). We’re trying out for them, you’re not trying out for us. They’re here for a reason. They’re here because our scouts say: I want this guy here because he’s a potential free agent that we might go after and it’s an opportunity for us to show them what we’re all about. These are our facilities. These are the expectations. This is how we treat our players. So when they go back to school, because they’ll probably have multiple teams, when they graduate, that will want to sign them. This is our sales pitch to them.”
The big buzz around this year’s camp for fans, media, and the franchise too was getting to see their top-two draft picks from last month on the ice in red and black for the first time. “It’s great. To watch guys be rewarded for hard work, and the ability to show off our top picks to our fans (in this setting) is a great thing,” Fitzgerald said of Michael McLeod (1st Round, 12th overall) and Nathan Bastian (2nd Round, 41st overall). “The way they played…it was fun; it was hard not to smile. All the kids really. I thought everybody worked hard, I thought everybody showed skill and hockey sense that we were told they had and we’re real excited about the future for sure.”
“From all accounts, their chemistry starts with their friendship off the ice." https://t.co/WWJdBNJ1Vh
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) July 18, 2016
During the scrimmage on the final day of camp, with a packed house in the stands at the Devils’ practice facility, McLeod opened the scoring before exiting with a non-serious injury and Bastian replied with two goals of his own. The coaching staff split up the two buddies, linemates in Mississauga of the OHL this past season (and likely next), putting them on opposite teams.
“McLeod looked sharp. Bastian had some nice goals. But overall the is just a short little viewing of what they can do 5-on-5; with the amount of bodies we had, we didn’t want to go too long there,” Albany Devils coach Rick Kowalsky said. “We didn’t want to be taxing (on the players) all week and that theme kind of carried into today. Certainly, it’s exciting to see them into game situations and what some of them can do. Overall, I think it was a good week. I think they fit into the overall organizational philosophy — and that is, first of all, speed, and we talked a lot in the last year about getting younger and this is the future, they’re a big part of that. The skill level; you certainly saw that on display all week, and today in the game, it’s something moving forward that we’re all excited about.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) July 16, 2016
From what Fitzgerald had to say at the end of the camp, don’t expect to see either McLeod or Bastian at the Prudential Center this season, though, unless there is some drastic shift in organizational philosophy over the next two months which seems highly unlikely. “You can go back and do the math. How many 18-year-olds are playing in the National Hockey League? Like we talked about in our exit meetings today, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. To go back (to Juniors) as an 18-year-old…every kid we’re going to tell them, first of all, you have to be signed; second, yeah they either make our team or they go back to Junior. There’s no other option,” said Fitzgerald.
Michael McLeod will likely be doing more of this in the OHL this season:
“So the majority of these guys will go back to Juniors. You’ve seen players stick around and get their nine games or whatever (before an entry-level deal would officially begin), we’re not even thinking that far. Our next step is to continue to, they need to get stronger, they have a pretty good bulk here of the summer to do that before our rookie tournament. They’ll come in and we’ll retest them, see where they’re at; this is kind of a midterm. We’ll see where they’re at in the final exam in September and then it’s just day-to-day. We have relationships with the coaching staffs there (in Juniors) and our development staff heads that up. Wherever they are they’ll be well-looked after and put on a development plan, to eventually become a New Jersey Devil.”
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.