For Steven Santini, the time is now. He’s battled through inconsistency, injuries, the depth chart. He’s waited patiently, following orders like a good soldier. 17 times this season the 23-year-old defenseman was a healthy scratch for the New Jersey Devils. That is in addition to the 18 games that he had to sit out with a broken jaw sustained two minutes into his first game of the season.
“I definitely try to be a student of the game and I try to learn as much as I can. It kind of gets to a point where you’ve watched enough hockey – and I don’t mean that in a negative way, it’s just that I’ve watched a lot of hockey the last few years,” said Santini following a 4-0 win over the Ottawa Senators in which he scored his first goal of the season. “It gets to the point where it’s like I feel like I can do this. Hopefully, tonight was a step in the right direction. All I can control is trying to play my best.”
Santini wasn’t supposed to play that night, but an impending trade of fellow defender Ben Lovejoy forced the Devils to sit out the veteran to prevent any freak injury that would kill the deal. Before Lovejoy was traded he was a valuable mentor to Santini, Will Butcher, and all of the young players in New Jersey. But Santini never had an ounce of animosity that the veteran was preventing him from playing regularly in the NHL.
“Honestly, it’s been awesome,” he said of being teammates with Lovejoy. “Ever since day one, we’re obviously both penalty killers, right-shot d-men; he’s been such a great mentor for me. We’ve been best friends ever since I met him. I don’t think he ever saw me as a threat, and I never saw him as a barrier to my development or anything like that. I think that speaks volumes to the character of Ben Lovejoy; he’s just a great man, a family man. A good guy, a good teammate. He’s so professional.”
Less than 48 hours later Lovejoy was traded to the Dallas Stars for a draft pick and a younger defenseman, Connor Carrick. Regardless of that trade and who is on the roster, Santini is eager for an opportunity to prove himself to the coaches, and the organization.
“I hope so,” he replied when asked if this was his opportunity to stick as a regular in the lineup. “Some of that is out of your control. You can feel like you’re doing the right things and a lot of it is out of your control. I try to get better every day and do the right things, be a good teammate and play my best, work hard. At the end of the day the rest is out of my control, right? Process over the outcome is something we talk a lot about, and that’s something that for me personally I take to heart.”
Put Me in Coach (Please)
In the game against Ottawa and two days later against the New York Rangers Santini had two of his highest ice-time totals of the season, topping 18 minutes for the third and fourth time. With 96 games of NHL experience under his belt, the Devils will want to see more of Santini to evaluate what they have in the physical defenseman.
“It’s big time (to get contributions from guys like Santini and Kurtis Gabriel); you see how excited they are when they score those goals,” teammate Blake Coleman said with a laugh after the Ottawa win. “Scoring feels really good. The first one, there’s no better feeling and you could see it on their faces. It seemed like that kind of radiated through the team and gave us a little life. It makes the game fun. It’s good for those guys. There are a lot of guys competing for jobs. Maybe not so much for the end of this year, but going forward there’s going to be a lot of internal competition I imagine.”
The Time is Now
The Devils may be tidying up their roster soon. With a boatload of cap space and a roster that’s getting younger, the competitions to see who stays and who goes are heating up as GM Ray Shero has some big decisions to make this summer. He needs to convince players like Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier to stay in New Jersey while acquiring other assets via trade and free agency.
In Santini’s case, they are hoping he is the defenseman that Lovejoy believes he can eventually be. “Steve’s going to play for the next 16 years in the NHL; he’s going to be an awesome player. I love having him around, both on the ice and off,” he told The Hockey Writers two years ago. “He’s 21-years-old, he’s already the most professional guy in the room and is doing things at 21…he’s just a grown up. He’s mature. He’s mature on the ice, has a mature game, a mature attitude. He’s an absolute pleasure to have in here and he’s going to be a franchise cornerstone for a long time.”
If he can stay in the lineup and play with energy from here to the end of the season, Santini just might develop into that player that his now former teammate believes he can be. “I haven’t played much the past few weeks,” he said with a laugh, “I hope I have a lot of energy. You try your best every day and just try to get better, stick with it. Sometimes the lineup decisions are out of your control so I just try to have a good attitude every day, approach it the right way as a professional.”
So far, so good in the two games since Santini has drawn back into the lineup.