Just like his head coach with the New Jersey Devils predicted following the rookie’s NHL debut on Jan. 19, Nathan Bastian was back in New Jersey for a second go-round this season. After the lone game in the NHL he was sent back to the AHL and over 13 games the Devils’ prospect had eight points, including seven goals for the Binghamton Devils.
“I wasn’t sitting around waiting for a call-up. I was trying to force it,” Bastian told The Hockey Writers, “trying to earn it and you never know. They tell you all the time in every camp: don’t look into things, just keep your head down and keep working. That’s so true because bodies go up and down, guys get hurt, and just like that before you know it you’re in the NHL.”
On Feb. 24 he got that call-up, along with his best friend Michael McLeod, and was back in New Jersey for a stretch of three home games in five days. The next day he scored his first NHL goal, deflecting a point shot from Connor Carrick past Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, a moment he’ll never forget.
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) February 26, 2019
“If you look at guys like Nate Bastian and Michael McLeod who have spent one game with us before tonight but had been down there (in the AHL), they looked tonight like they were better players and better in the areas that we needed them to be from being down in Binghamton,” said coach John Hynes.
“I think that supports what we are trying to do – to have Binghamton and New Jersey play the same way, very similar styles of play so that when you have a call-up situation they come in ready to play. I think the coaching staff down there has done a very good job, but it’s not only the coaches. You have to credit the players for putting in the work that they need to do to get back here,” he added.
It didn’t necessarily happen as he dreamed about, but it was the perfect ‘Nathan Bastian goal’. The type of goal he is going to have to score to be a productive player at this level. “I’m in bed the night before, I can’t sleep, thinking about scoring the overtime winner or something outrageous,” he said laughing when asked if the feeling of scoring an NHL lived up to his dreams. “I was able to score the kind of goal that I kind of score so I was pretty fortunate there.”
“Honestly I’m just a player around here and they’ve been really good to me. The stuff I think I’m good at, is what the Devils look for in a guy – I think it’s because I battle hard, I compete pretty hard. Hynes is such an honest coach and I think if you play hard for him you are going to earn some respect,” said the 21-year-old winger.
Bastian and McLeod, teammates in junior hockey and now at the next level, each made their debuts separately but game number two (three and four) came alongside one another on a line. Which might’ve helped make both players feel at ease as they get their feet wet in the NHL.
“I don’t want to say that it made it so much easier for me because I played with him,” Bastian said of having his fellow super buddy on his line, “but Drew Stafford was so good with me too. He was going through everything with me and always talking to me (on the bench). Yeah, being able to look up the middle and seeing a centerman that I’ve played with for the past four years that’s one thing. But having a guy on the left wing, a veteran like Stafford who is such a well-respected player – that combination really helped me settle in pretty well (tonight),” he said.
McLeod played just over 14 minutes and Bastian played just under 16. Both players had three hits each and saw time on the power play. Bastian had three shots on goal and McLeod won nine of the 13 faceoffs he took (69%). Two nights later against Calgary the two combined for nine hits, but neither recorded a point. At the end of the week against the Philadelphia Flyers Bastian added another four hits and McLeod won eight of ten face-offs.
Bastian was upset with himself after his debut, feeling a missed defensive assignment that led to a goal was a stain on what should be a happy moment. But he was confident in himself enough that he knew he would likely get another shot in the NHL before the end of the season. Now that he’s had a small amount of success he’s not getting comfortable or anything like that, he’s not satisfied with being a small part of an NHL team.
“When you’re in the AHL sometimes you start to feel a little comfortable and for me, I knew how comfortable I was (at that level). For me, it was about cleaning up the details and knowing that the call could come at any time, and to be ready for it,” Bastian told THW after his second NHL game. “Seeing how quick, and how good everyone was up here during my first NHL game was pretty much an eye-opener and now I’ve got another chance (to prove myself). Even today a few times I felt a little scrambled in my own end and there is definitely stuff I can clean up. But there are so many good players in Binghamton, so many guys that could come here and play. If I’m not good in my own end then somebody else might do it for me.”
Bastian was injured in a collision with a teammate towards the end of the game against Philadelphia, but barring anything serious, he should be in New Jersey for the duration of this season and well into the next one as well. His play has warranted that, and he is showing signs of becoming a solid power forward at the NHL level.
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.