Michael Vukojevic signed his first pro contract (starting in the 2021-22 season) with the New Jersey Devils on Mar. 19, almost two years after drafting him 82nd overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. If not for the pandemic, the 19-year-old defenseman would be most likely be playing in the OHL right now. But as we all know, the world is a lot different than it used to be.
“A great feeling of relief and a weight off my shoulders,” said Vukojevic during a recent media availability when asked about the emotions of signing that first pro contract. “It was exciting, something I’ve been working towards since I got drafted by the Devils a couple of years ago.”
So far he’s seen action in 11 games with the Binghamton Devils (who have relocated to Newark for this truncated AHL season), posting six points (1g-5a) and taking five minor penalties. After starting the season with points in four straight games, he has only picked up one assist over his last seven contests. But he wasn’t necessarily drafted for his point production and has been playing fairly steady in his own end.
“It’s been fun. Playing pro hockey at 19-years-old, there aren’t many complaints – especially with what’s going on (in the world),” he said. “I’m thankful for being here to play some hockey and gain some experience.”
His coach in Binghamton, Mark Dennehy, also spoke on the call and had some high praise for the former Kitchener Ranger defenseman.
“Michael is obviously a big, strong kid who is pretty mobile. For all intents and purposes he would be playing Junior hockey this year – where he’d be the biggest fish in the pond, by a large stretch,” said Dennehy. “Because of the circumstances, he’s able to come and skate with us and play against men. Which I think is invaluable for him to be honest with you.”
What has he liked best about Vukojevic’s time in Newark so far?
“What’s impressed me the most is that he processes things pretty well,” Dennehy explained. “Even though he’s getting used to the speed of play physically, he’s been able to process the game pretty quickly. I think he knows what the right play is pretty quickly.”
“Now, whether he’s able physically to make that play yet, that’s something we’re working on. We’ve been very impressed with the cerebral nature in which he plays the game.”
“In order to get scouted, drafted, or recruited – you need to stand out. Often times the best game a defenseman plays, you don’t even notice him. So you go from playing Juniors and trying to get recognized – and a lot of that comes down to rushing the puck, scoring goals, or getting points to the NHL where you’re just trying to do your job. Because of that, oftentimes younger players have to really simplify their games.”
During the ten or so minutes that Vukojevic was available and answered questions, he must have used the phrase ‘keep it simple’ at least ten times. So that aspect of simplifying his game is definitely getting through.
“They’re going to struggle at times, and that’s okay,” added Dennehy. “As long as they are working hard, as long as they are learning from their mistakes. That’s really been the message here from Fitzy (GM Tom Fitzgerald) from day one: draft and develop. A big part of developing is learning from your mistakes.”
THW had the opportunity to speak with Vukojevic for a few minutes on March, 25 and here’s what we found out about his first pro season to date.
Mike Vukojevic Q & A
The Hockey Writers: You started your professional career with a four-game point streak. Where was your headspace during that time?
Mike Vukojevic: I was trying to stay as even-keeled as possible. I mean, they weren’t highlight-reel points. I wasn’t trying to get too high, just keeping it simple and good things were happening by making the simple play, the quick play. I think it worked out for me early and I’m trying to stay level-headed; keep working and doing what I can do.
THW: What do you think your best asset was stepping into this level?
MV: I think my physicality. When I was in Junior I was a physical player, someone who is tough to play against. Coming into the AHL with Bingo I’m learning to still have those strong points while playing against older guys; stick to my bread and butter.
THW: How much of a help was assistant coach Ryan Parent while the team was sidelined because of covid?
MV: While we were off the ice, we didn’t stop working. I had a zoom call and went over some video with Ryan about my game – my past games and shifts. Talking with Mark about what’s working, what’s not, how can I improve, what do we have to fix, and stuff like that. Even though we weren’t on the ice we’re still improving ourselves and try to get better for when we do get on the ice so we can continue where we left off.
THW: How much does it help you that there are three other young defenders in Binghamton that you can go through these learning experiences and growing pains alongside?
MV: I’m thankful there are a couple of other guys here on defense corps that are going through the same things, I’m not the only one. You can bounce things off other guys, work through things together – we’re a bunch of young guys so we stick together, we hang out. It makes it easier on all of us, makes the transition smoother and I think we’ve found success because of that.
THW: How much-added inspiration is it for a young player like yourself, playing and practicing in a rink where there are banners of retired numbers of three legendary NHL defensemen hanging in front of you?
MV: Absolutely. We practice every day with those jerseys there in the rafters, every time you look up you can see who has been here before on the same ice. It inspires you to work harder, respect the past and what has happened in Jersey over the years. It really adds that extra motivation to be a player and play for the same team that they played for.
THW: Who are some defensemen that you like to watch play or maybe even model your game after?
MV: Growing up as a Leafs fan I always loved watching Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardner. In today’s NHL I really like watching Colton Parayko, I watch him probably the most. He’s a big, physical d-man, but he has a heavy shot and can contribute on the offensive end. I try to almost model my game after his – he’s a big guy and I’m a bigger guy too. I try to play like him, do some of the things that he does, and pick up on some of his tendencies.
THW: Are you a hockey junkie where when you’re home/not at the rink you’re watching hockey on tv?
MV: Yeah. If I’m at home and a game is on, I’m watching after dinner or during dinner. Always trying to get better, to learn from the guys who are in the NHL and what they do, to try to help myself get there as well; and play against them one day.
THW: What is the biggest piece of advice that the Devils organization has given to you that has really helped you at the start of your pro career?
MV: I think it would be: what can I do today to get better for tomorrow? I think that’s a big one for me. Coming to the rink every day, working as hard as I can, putting my best foot forward, and trying to get better in practice so that it comes easier in games.
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.