Santini a Silver Lining in Lost Season for Devils

One of the most important pieces of the attempted rebuild of the New Jersey Devils is without question defenseman Steven Santini, who just turned 22-years-old on March 7. The Devils used their second round pick (42 overall) in the 2013 NHL Draft to select the Boston College blueliner and signed him last season to play in the regular season finale less than 24 hours after his team had been eliminated from the NCAA tournament. They thought highly enough of him (and Miles Wood) to burn a year of his entry-level deal to play in one NHL game.

This season Santini started in the AHL before making his season debut in the NHL on January 2 and appeared in 38 games with New Jersey until April 4 when he was sent back to the Albany Devils for their playoff push. AHL fans will only get a glimpse of what will hopefully be a very long and productive NHL career. Through two games in the Calder Cup Playoffs, the Devils defender has one assist.

Future is Bright

“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’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,” Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy told The Hockey Writers, almost like a proud father of Santini. “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.”

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One would think that Santini would have spent a lot of time trying to pick the brains of veterans like Lovejoy and New Jersey captain Andy Greene. According to Lovejoy though, the pleasure is all on his end it seems. “We have spent a lot of time together, I have enjoyed getting to know him and he’s been not a call-up guy,” said the defenseman who won the 2016 Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, “he’s been an asset to this team and a huge part of our defense already.”

Another NHL defenseman was asked about Santini and he also raved about the unlimited potential of the Devils prospect. “He’s a great guy, was my D-partner for a little bit when I was at Boston College,” said Noah Hanifin of the Carolina Hurricanes; a veteran of over 150 NHL games and is two years younger than Santini. “He’s a good teammate, works extremely hard and he’s definitely somebody who wants to learn every day. He’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time. It was awesome to be able to have the privilege to play with him for a year.”

As Lovejoy explained a bit earlier Santini is a very mature person for his age, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but he always seems super serious. Hanifin explained that’s not really the case. “Yeah, I wouldn’t say he’s a serious guy, but he’s a very committed guy who knows what he wants,” the Canes defender told THW. “He pursues his goal every day — I think that’s awesome to have and he’s someone that I looked up to when I was at BC. I was a freshman, he was a junior and he definitely helped me out a lot.”

Growing Pains

As is the case with all young players, there are growing pains. For defensemen, it often takes a tad longer to fully develop and adjust to the NHL game, to play against grown men that are in the best shape of their lives. Often there are mistakes too, whether they are physical, or mental errors. Santini is no different.

Late in the season the Devils and Dallas Stars were tied 1-1 late in the third period and after getting away with five or seven cross-checks to the lower back of Cody Eakin amidst a side boards scrum, the referee was forced to finally call a penalty when the Stars’ forward was knocked to his knees. The call came with 54 seconds left in regulation and Dallas cashed in on a power-play, game-winning goal just twenty seconds into overtime. Santini was released from the penalty box and had to make the walk (skate) of shame to the locker room as his team lost it’s ninth of eleven games in a dismal season.

“Not right after the game, but we will address it. We spend lots of time on that, we spend lots of time on key situations in the game,” replied coach John Hynes when asked if anything was said to Santini following the game. “A situation where we are taking penalties like that, we go through those processes after every game, present them to the team, talk to them about the game. Lots of time learning how to win and winning — you have to do a good job of teaching in those scenarios, bringing those things up. But as we all know when the game’s on the line — it’s split-second decisions, behaviors, and habits that have to be better.”

Santini is a smart player. He knows he made a mistake, no one has to point that out to him. A player like Santini might take too much of the blame sometimes and that’s where it’s on the coaches, as Hynes explained, to make it a teaching moment and not a discipline or punishment scenario.

Practice Makes Perfect

“He’s a very mature person and player, he really works at his game. He’s consistent in his game, there’s lots of reliability there. You can see that he is pretty much the same player every night, which is impressive for a player that doesn’t have a ton of experience, a young guy breaking into the NHL,” said a proud Hynes.

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“We knew coming in with Steven that he was a team captain at Boston College and he plays to his strengths. He’s a very physical player, can handle the physicality of the game — effectively down low, in the corners, and in and around the net. We feel like he’s doing a better job, feeling more comfortable with the puck on breakouts, neutral zone transitions and things like that. Those areas he continues to get better; his consistency and his physical ability have allowed him to be pretty productive and very consistent in our lineup.”

In his 38 NHL games he finished with seven points (2g-5a), Santini then saw action in five games with Albany after being sent down in early April and recorded his first two AHL points/assists while helping the team clinch a playoff berth. Now he gets to play in some professional postseason games which will be fascinating to follow along as we’ll likely see him raise his game to (hopefully) another level.