Steven Santini has been an NHL player for three full seasons with the New Jersey Devils now, but in each of those seasons, he hasn’t been able to play in more than half of his team’s games. The 24-year-old defenseman played in 38 games in 2016-17, 36 in 2017-18, and 39 in 2018-19. Injuries, being the odd-man out, having a veteran in front of him that plays the same style, being waiver-eligible – all of the above contributed to Santini being unable to play in at least 41 games each season.
The previous season he had played in nearly every game for the Devils until mid-January 2018, when he was sent to the AHL. It wasn’t necessarily his play that warranted the demotion, but with the acquisition of Sami Vatanen and Santini being the only defenseman that was waivers-eligible he basically drew the short straw and went to Binghamton to get some regular ice-time. That led him to a dark place this season. In his first game of the season (October 20) Santini played just 2:33 before suffering a fractured jaw that would sideline him for two months.
The mind can be a powerful thing and hockey players are human. They, just like non-hockey playing humans, are not immune to self-imposed psyching yourself out or battling against Jedi Mind Tricks on yourself.
“I just had a great talk with coach Hynes, it went really well. I think we’re on the same page,” Santini said on the day the Devils held their final media availability of the 2018-19 season. “It was really hard for me – I basically went January to January without playing an NHL game. I do think I struggled a bit to find my niche. I finished the year on a high note I thought. I played the right way, finished hits, made plays with the puck, and had a lot of fun. At the end of the day you do your best and hopefully, get the results. I’m just trying to ride the momentum from the end of the year and I think everyone wants a clean slate next year,” he added.
“It was very emotional,
“This year with the injury (jaw) and battling to get back in the lineup, it’s hard. You get in a bad place mentally. For as happy as I am now, it took me a while to find that level-headedness. You start to question a lot of things. Do I belong here? Why do I play? Do I love this? It sounds frivolous now because I’m in a good place mentally. I found a lot of the answers to those questions. I love hockey and I know I belong here. It was really hard, but I’m thankful to be healthy, be happy, have a great family, and I’m going into the summer feeling good.”
He realized that he can only control the controllables, and if things are meant to be here in New Jersey then it will sort itself out as long as he stays true to who he is. “When you do get back in, get your chance and you perform well that helps. You pray on it, meditate on it, think about it. But at the end of the day this is my passion,” Santini added with a smile.
“I’ve been working hard since I was four or five-years-old, shooting pucks ’til I had blisters on my hands. You don’t do that if you don’t love what you do. This is a business and there are business decisions but you can still be passionate about your work and what you do.”
Pay It Forward
It’s been well-documented over the past three years that one of the biggest influences on Santini’s career/life has been Ben Lovejoy. The veteran blueliner took Santini under his wing and showed him how to adapt to being an NHL player, how to do things the right way on and off the ice. And for that, the 24-year-old is forever grateful.
“It’s funny how it works. I think I told you guys, we were battling for lineup spots at points (the last few years) and he ended up becoming one of my best friends. I’m happy for him in Dallas and hope they have a long playoff run. He’ll always be a good friend to me and I just hope I get to a point in my career where there will be a young righty defenseman that I can return the favor to him (as a mentor),” Santini said with a smile. “That’s what this league is all about; guys like Lovejoy, (Andy) Greene, (Travis) Zajac, (Drew) Stafford, (Brian) Boyle; they were so good to me the last couple of years.”
As the off-season begins there are plenty of things for Santini to work on and he knows he has his work cut out for him if he wants to play in 40 games in an NHL season for the first time in his career. It won’t be just one area of focus though, he wants to be a well-rounded player who can be relied upon in multiple situations.
“I’m going to work on everything,” he said. “Obviously you have to round out your game, you have to be able to do everything. Be fast, be able to think the game,
How motivated will he be? “I’m extremely motivated. Just the way I played the end of the season, I’m really happy with how the last 15 games went. I kind of wanted to keep going, didn’t want it to end. Hopefully, I can ride that into next season and I have a good idea of how I need to play, my approach, my consistency. I’m really, really excited to bring that into training camp.”
Mid-September and the opening of training camp for the 2019-20 season can’t come fast enough for the former Boston College Eagle. “It’s just a mindset, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself early in the year – I was out of the lineup, got hurt, struggled to get back in the lineup. Towards the end of the year, March and April, I was playing every day and I was relaxed. It’s amazing how you can play when you have some mental clarity. For me it’s just – I know how to play with and without the puck, just taking a deep breath and going out there and doing it.”
This is a big summer for the Devils. They finished the season as the third worst team and won the lottery for the second time in three off-seasons. There will be changes. There will be talent added and there will hopefully be younger players taking that proverbial ‘next step’ in their development that will make them NHL regulars and impact players. Santini is hoping that he is one of those players that sticks around and gets another shot at winning a regular spot on the New Jersey roster.
“It’s weird. It doesn’t feel like the season’s over,
“Obviously what we did this year wasn’t good enough. From defensemen to goalies to forwards, everybody; it wasn’t good enough. We finished close to last and we’re not satisfied, we’re not happy with how that went. We’re excited to work hard this summer and we know come September 15 that we’ll be ready to rock and roll.”
With top prospect Ty Smith on the way and possibly Jeremy Davies too, the Devils’ blueline could look very different next season. However it plays out Santini will be a stronger player and better person for what he has gone through the past 15 months.
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.