It’s understandable if the name Sergei Brylin wasn’t the first name you thought of when you read this article’s headline, especially if you don’t follow the team and/or aren’t a fan of the New Jersey Devils franchise. But Brylin is one of only five players to be a part of all three Stanley Cups that the Devils won, that didn’t happen by accident, and despite all of the recent changes the organization has gone through recently — both on and off the ice — he is one of the last links to those glory days still employed with the team.
As an assistant coach with the Albany Devils in the AHL, Brylin is passing on his wisdom and experiences to the young prospects and below the surface, it’s having an impact. This past season New Jersey was beset by injuries and made frequent call-ups from their minor league affiliate to fill roster spots — 11 to be exact — and the majority of them raved to The Hockey Writers about how fortunate they felt to have such a wealth of knowledge and experience to tap into.
“It’s great experience for those kids that are coming up here and understand the importance of games. Really it’s the little things; it’s net box-outs, understanding how hard you have to play on the wall to get pucks in, to get pucks out. It’s understanding how hard they have to check and play both sides of the puck,” New Jersey head coach John Hynes explained.
“Everyone’s playing for something at this time of year. Everyone is buckled in, dialed in, and knows how their team wants to play. Doing the things that are necessary to win games, it’s nice we’ve been able to have some guys up here that can experience that at this level and that’s the importance for us coming down the stretch here. Finding ways to win games.”
THE DEVILS B & B BOYS
“When I was in Albany I learned a lot about the defensive side of the game,” Joe Blandisi said. “I’ve always been an offensive player and been able to put up numbers, but becoming a pro this year I needed to take a big step in my defensive game, to be trusted, to be on the ice in key situations and stuff like that. I think Sergei helped me a lot with that, and (head coach) Rick (Kowalsky) as well; they set me up to be up here and be able to contribute in all aspects on the ice.”
Blandisi played in exactly half of the Devils NHL games this season, 41, and was tenth on the team in scoring with 17 points (5g-12a); he gave the team a much-needed jolt of energy upon his second recall in early January. “The coaching staffs have great communication from down there to up here and they’re teaching us the same system; I think that’s beneficial for all the call-ups that are up here,” he told THW. “When they come up they don’t have to learn a whole new structure; for me especially being able to learn the system at the American League level and being able to come up here and play the same one — it definitely made me a lot more comfortable.”
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) April 14, 2016
Another player who had a small streak of success was Reid Boucher, and his performance leaves fans hoping that he will become a homegrown scoring forward that the team has been desperate for since no. 9 departed for Minnesota. Boucher finished sixth on the team in points with 19 (8g-11) — and half of his goals were of the game-winning variety. He was still a bit streaky over the 39 games he played, but, he’s just 22-years-old and will be 23 once training camp starts in September.
He looked more and more like an NHLer and didn’t get disparaged when he was sent down to Albany — unlike last season, when he admitted it was messing with his head. This season, he credited Brylin and Zajac for helping him turn the corner. Being part of the organization a few years also helps a youngster’s comfort level, as the veterans and legends aren’t so surreal anymore.
— American Hockey League (@TheAHL) May 14, 2016
“Yeah, the familiar faces. I’ve played alongside a lot of them for a few years now. It’s nice to see a lot of young blood come up and play well; plugging guys right into the games up here and having impacts,” Boucher said. “Coach Brylin worked with us a lot last year, this year he was more of a D-coach, so I didn’t spend much time with him. But I mean, he’s won three Stanley Cups so anything that guy tells you — you make sure you listen. Travis is a great player. He’s got a very good two-way game, he hunts down pucks in the offensive zone and he makes playing a little easier for me.”
Upon returning to Albany for the AHL playoffs Boucher played like a man possessed when we took a few trips to see the A-Devs in action. Blocking shots, killing penalties, throwing numerous body checks….basically playing like a guy that doesn’t want to be there (in the AHL) anymore and feels he belongs in the NHL; from our point of view anyways.
Reid Boucher took his game — particularly defensively — to a higher plane. And it helped him light the lamp too. Kudos to him.
— Leo Scaglione Jr. (@LeoScaglioneJr) May 17, 2016
VETERAN PRAISE, SORT OF…
“He’s played well; he uses his speed, uses his shot. He’s getting to those areas where he can score goals and that’s his game,” Zajac said to THW of Boucher’s game at the end of the season. “I think his compete has been there on a nightly basis and that’s helped him become a better player. I have to try to get him the puck in those areas; we haven’t had much luck lately, not a lot of good, quality chances. But for parts of the season, he’s played well; he just has to keep it going.”
“Reid’s getting the opportunity (now). You see it right away, what he’s good at — he’s a shooter. You put him in that situation where he can succeed, and he’s going to do that; he’s got one of the hardest shots on the team,” Patrik Elias told us. “He’s fit in really well with Travis (Zajac) and Palms (Kyle Palmieri), he’s been solid; but not just him. All of the younger guys. These games are a learning process for them, it doesn’t matter what the situation is.”
— Albany Devils (@AlbanyDevils) October 26, 2015
Mike Sislo is a bit older than Boucher and Blandisi, but is sort of in the same predicament where he hasn’t cracked an NHL roster full-time yet. Over parts of the last three seasons he played in 42 NHL games, and this season he potted his first three goals after a 20 goal/40 point season with Albany. Any advantage he can get from Brylin is one that he is more than happy to as he said soak up like a sponge.
“He brings a lot of experience obviously, he’s a great coach. Smart; knows a lot (about the game) and he’s great for the young guys. For everyone there. He’s teaching us a lot about the game,” Sislo explained to THW. “Not just him, but we’re that way with all the coaches; the experience Sergei has, you definitely listen when he’s talking.”
ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL
No matter who gets recalled when, or who makes the team, who gets sent down, etc. — one thing is for sure: they are growing as a group and pushing each other to be better. Hopefully that leads to some core players that the Devils can build another successful team around. There are more coming too: Steven Santini, Miles Wood, Colton White, Joshua Jacobs, Blake Speers, Ryan Rehill. All are New Jersey draft picks that will likely be spending part or all of next season in Albany under Brylin’s watchful eye.
— Dan Rice (@DRdiabloTHW) May 12, 2016
“We’re all cheering for each other. That was one of my favorite parts of being down there, everybody wanted to see everybody else do well,” Blandisi said. “For example when I got called up, I got texts from all the guys that weren’t up here and when they get called up I’m happy to see them doing well; it’s an everybody’s rooting for each other kind of thing. It’s a great team atmosphere in Albany, and now that a portion of the team is up here (in New Jersey) it definitely makes things a lot more comfortable.”
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.