Back in his first stint with the New Jersey Devils (1999-2007), Scott Gomez was a magic man. He was an integral part of two Stanley Cups (2000, 2003) and on another team that lost in the Finals (2001), won the Calder Trophy, led the league in assists one season (2003-04); but despite all of that he always had one attribute that the Devils never replaced when he took a fat contract and signed with the rival New York Rangers. Gomez possesses the uncanny ability to almost always be able to carry the puck into the offensive zone with speed (and often ease). Patrik Elias was never very good at it, and often times would go east-west once he gained the blueline (still does). Zach Parise wasn’t either, instead often opting to dump the puck into the corner and out-hustle his opponent to the loose puck (nothing wrong with that method though). Ilya Kovalchuk would carry the puck into the zone and almost immediately pass it, trying to be unselfish and fit into the team’s style; even though he was brought in to be the superstar player they so desperately desire.
In that first act with the Devils in the early 2000’s, friends & I would often call Gomez: El Mago (the magician) because of his uncanny ability to set teammates (generally either Elias, Alexander Mogilny or Brian Gionta) up for wide-open goals with pinpoint passes. Now in Act II with New Jersey he has looked like the old Scott Gomez, putting up seven points (2g-5a) in 11 games since signing a one-year minimum salary (two-way) deal on December 1. To put that into perspective, Gomez’s point total is one less than Travis Zajac who has eight points (4g-4a) in 27 games; Zajac is the no. 1 center and is being paid like one also by the way.
“The guy can make plays,” said Zajac of the addition of Gomez to the team, “we don’t have too much of that (type of player). A guy who can carry the puck, skate through guys and pass through guys.” Without being prompted that was the first thing Zajac mentioned about what Gomez brings to the table; which was the next question we had planned to ask. “He’s always been one of the best players in the league of carrying that puck into the zone with speed; that’s his game,” added Zajac. “It’s great for us; we need that guy who can hold onto pucks and not throw them away. That helps us a lot.”
One of the two goals Scott Gomez scored as a Florida Panther in 2013-14:
Now a 35-year-old veteran, Gomez has been a breath of fresh air in what has turned into a very disappointing season for New Jersey through 35 games (12-17-6=30 points). “Everything is positive, and we go forward,” said Gomez. “We know how we have to play, we know the position we are in. No one is negative here; you start thinking negative and that’s when bad things happen.” He still has his sense of humor, his trademark grin — keeping the room smiling and loose; but he’s also in great shape (thanks to a summer training program with former Devils strength coach/team masseuse Vladimir Bure) and is a guy that some of the younger players can learn from as they will be looked upon to carry the team into the next era. “I put the work in; I spent the summer with Mr. Bure,” Gomez said. “Anyone who does that, you’re going to realize that the confidence and everything is there still. Not once did I ever doubt that I couldn’t do this; it was just a matter of getting an opportunity. When you play with guys that know how to get open you can adjust pretty quickly.”
“Not only his play on the ice, which I think everyone has seen that — his point production, he’s playing on our top line, our top power play, he adds a lot of offense for us,” said 22-year-old defenseman Jon Merrill. “But what I think is most important is what he adds in the locker room; that veteran leadership, that guy who when he talks — everybody listens. He’s been around the league, everybody knows he’s won Cups; he’s a guy we all look up to.”
The past two seasons with the San Jose Sharks and then the Florida Panthers Gomez was very underwhelming, played a total of 85 games and tallied a mere 27 points; often finding himself as a healthy scratch. Barring injury we’d be shocked if he doesn’t surpass that mark this season with the Devils — despite their anemic goal scoring and the fact that he was without a contract (but still practicing with the team) for the first two months of the season. “I know what I can do; I know I can pass the puck, I know the players I’m with,” said Gomez when asked if he has exceeded his own expectations in rejoining the franchise that drafted him in 1998. “I’ve been in certain situations where…one thing about being here is they know the type of player I am.”
Scott Gomez & Jaromir Jagr are showing better chemistry than in their stint with NYR:
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 9, 2014
He may not admit it publicly, but the general consensus from sources The Hockey Writers spoke to off the record all concur that Gomez regrets leaving the Devils, as he and the team are a perfect fit for one another’s style, for whatever reason. As they say sometimes the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, even if the money is. Gomez downplayed his ability to carry the puck into the zone when THW asked him about it, instead deflecting the praise to his teammates + linemates. “It’s more of who you play with, your wingers and D,” said Gomez as he looked around the room at Jaromir Jagr, then glanced at Adam Henrique and finally shifted his eyes towards Andy Greene. “You can’t just take it up by yourself; you have to have people that are in the right spots — kind of like football, when the offensive line opens up running lanes for a running back. It’s not just me; there are certain guys that know where to go. It is something that I love to do though, but sometimes it’s not there — you have to be patient. I don’t think the wingers get enough credit though.”
Hard to believe all of that veteran leadership and team-before-me attitude is coming from a guy that was always smiling and the guy that was reading a magazine before a Stanley Cup Final game when he was Merrill’s age, and the guy that bolted to the Devils’ biggest rival when he was Zajac’s age. But version 2.0 of El Mago has been so much more than anyone (other than Scott Gomez himself) could have imagined.
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.