Over the first two seasons of his pro career, Kevin Rooney only played a total of five games for the New Jersey Devils in the NHL and 142 games in the AHL for the Albany/Binghamton Devils. This past season, Rooney finally earned a full-time spot on the Devils NHL roster (which was decimated by injuries) and played 41 games in New Jersey coupled with 38 in Binghamton, where he served as the team’s captain.
Rooney more than showed he belongs at the NHL level, now he just has to do it again when training camp starts for New Jersey around September 15. He is much more capable of becoming the Devils third or fourth line center than Pavel Zacha currently is.
At the AHL level, Rooney saw heavy minutes as one of the team’s top players, but at the onset of his recall to the NHL, he was used primarily as a third or fourth center. That can be a tough adjustment, but through the experiences of his prior call-ups, he was confident in his ability to adjust to whatever role the coaching staff asked him to perform.
Devil in the Details
“That’s one of the tougher things when guys come up. When you play in the minors you’re maybe playing 20 minutes a night and you come up here (to the NHL) and you might be playing eight,” said Rooney during the exit interviews at the end of the season in New Jersey. “It was more just learning from past call-ups that I’ve had and trying to handle my ice time as best I could and be effective with whatever minutes I got.”
“When I first came up I was confident with my game and then there were some injuries (on the team) and I started getting more ice time. I felt with that more ice time it was almost easier to play. You’re getting into a rhythm, feeling good about yourself, and you’re not sitting for as long on the bench. When we got more healthy I got back to what my role would be and I was confident with where my game was at,” explained the 26-year-old center.
Front and Center
As some of you reading this may have heard, the Devils drafted a center last week, a kid named Jack Hughes. Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Hughes joins Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac, Rooney, and Zacha as other centermen on the roster. That’s five centers and teams only dress four so someone will be the odd-man out. Our guess: it’s Zacha who may be asked to play wing rather than at the center position. Or he could be used as trade bait to acquire the top-6 winger the Devils covet.
Rooney headed into this off-season as confident as ever, riding high after playing in 40 straight games for New Jersey to close out the year. “It’s definitely been a pretty special year for me,” Rooney said. “Finally being able to take that next step and show the coaches and management here what I can be down the road. It’s been a really exciting year and hopefully the next couple of weeks I can reflect on it, see where I’m at, try to go from there and see where I can get better.”
So what is that next level for a guy who never topped more than seven goals in a season at Providence College? “(Just) keep building on the offensive side of my game. I feel
“I think this is a huge summer for me. Obviously, I have to keep building on where I am at right now. I think below the dots in the offensive zone I was great,” added Rooney. “I think above the dots and working on my skill set, working on my shot is going to be huge this summer. Those are the things I will focus on – skill, shot, face-offs. Those are the three main areas I need to get better at.”
He finished the season a shade under 50% on face-offs and is constantly learning from Zajac, who is one of the best in the league today at winning draws. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to consider that when Zajac’s Devils career ends that Rooney will be filling that role of playing against the other team’s top lines on a nightly basis.
“Definitely,” Rooney replied when asked if he picks Zajac’s brain when it comes to that aspect of the game. “He’s one of the best in the league; he’s a guy I’m talking with every night. Whether it’s penalty killing or face-offs, I’m really lucky to have a guy like that in the locker room with me.”
“I’m happy, but not content. I think I feel like right at the end of the season I was close to around 50% as far as what the team had me at,” he said. “It didn’t go that great in the last game and there are always areas for improvement, that is something I will focus on this summer.”
Rooney can also rely on former Devil and close family friend Brian Boyle, who is always available to give advice about the rigors of playing center at the NHL level successfully.
“I don’t know if I can pinpoint it, maybe after the first goal I scored,” replied Rooney when asked about when he started to feel that he belonged in the NHL. “I’ve never been a guy that was about points, I didn’t get here based on goals or assists. But I just felt after that first goal that I started feeling confident, that I fit in more. Once you’re confident it can take you a long way.”
His confidence should carry him all the way to a spot on the Devils’ opening night roster come October 4 when New Jersey hosts the Winnipeg Jets at Prudential Center.
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.