Just days after taking over as the Devils general manager in the summer of 2020, Tom Fitzgerald told people his primary wish was for the once-proud franchise to regain its relevance.
Some 36 months later, the franchise is proud and rocking once more, much to the credit of Fitzgerald’s moves. In the spring, the Devils won their first playoff round since 2012, squeezing by the cross-river-rival Rangers in seven games, and are poised to enter 2023-24 with one of the best young, energized rosters in the league.
“We’re excited,” said Fitzgerald, who grew up in Billerica and went on to play nearly 1,100 NHL games as a versatile forward and respected voice for seven teams, including his final season with the Bruins. “I don’t think there’s a target on our back, per se, but I think teams realized we were a good team last year.”
In the next breath, ever the realist, the 55-year-old Fitzgerald added, “But every team’s a good team, really … there’s no walks in the park anymore, no automatic 2 points … every team has good structure.”
For too long, the Devils were a soft touch in the East, the bottom following out for the franchise after losing to the Kings in the 2012 Cup Final. The Devils were playoff DNQs for the next five years, then lost to the Lightning in Round 1 in 2018, and went on to scuffle through four more DNQ seasons prior to dumping the Blueshirts last spring.
Fitzgerald began the comeback story with some nifty work at the 2020 trade deadline, his interim GM title yet to be lifted, when he wheeled out Blake Coleman, Sami Vatanen, Wayne Simmonds, and Andy Greene. Those moves alone didn’t persuade ownership to hand him the keys to the franchise, but they helped to underscore his vision and conviction on how to shape and build a team.
No team is ever a finished product, but a little more than three years later, Fitzgerald says he has the team he wants.
“I’m just trying to put the right pieces together,” he said, “and get rid of the wrong pieces … and I’ve done it.”
New Jersey’s strong suit is at forward, where Fitzgerald has a stable of slick young twentysomethings, led by Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, both of whom were drafted No. 1 overall prior to Fitzgerald being named GM. Fitzgerald’s biggest, priciest hires have been ex-Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton, acquired as a free agent to lead the offense from the back end, and right wing Timo Meier, acquired in February in a massive body swap with the Sharks in which San Jose also netted a pair of first-round picks from the Devils. Meier brought much needed experience and weight to that superb cast of young forwards.
It was just over a year ago, Fitzgerald was lamenting the state of affairs in the Devils net: “Just give me reliable, solid goaltending … that’s all … we can score enough … six goals here, seven goals there. But what good is that if you end up losing all the time by a goal?”
The answer largely turned out to be Vitek Vanecek, who had been groomed by the Capitals as potentially their next franchise goalie. At 26, he was snapped up via trade by Fitzgerald, who promptly signed him to a three-year, $10.2 million extension. He delivered with a career-best 33-11-4 mark in his first regular season, prior to his disappointing 1-3 performance in the playoffs when Swiss rookie Akira Schmid took over the No. 1 role.
Veteran coach Lindy Ruff, a coaching newbie as an assistant in Florida when Fitzgerald played for the Panthers in the ‘90s, was Fitzgerald’s immediate pick to run the bench. It looked like a classic case of bench-boss recycling, a dependable name put in charge until a bright young leader was hired to take charge of a team ready to compete.
By the end of 2021-22, with a second playoff DNQ under Ruff, Devils fans were screaming for a coaching change, even chanting “Fire Lindy!” at home games. But Fitzgerald stuck by Ruff, and now the 63-year-old old-school coach looks like a perfect fit for a young team ready to make life miserable for most of its opponents.
When Fitzgerald took over, New Jersey was a sad-sack franchise that free agents avoided and top prospects prayed would skip by their name in the draft. Now it has the brightest outlook of the three Metro New York outposts.
“Our pillars are set,” said Fitzgerald, pondering, like all GMs, how his roster pieces fit in the quirky salary cap world. “Luke Hughes is going to cost me what next summer? We’ll probably look to get him on an eight-year deal. What’s [Dawson] Mercer going to cost? Tyler Toffoli [acquired via trade this summer] … they all want to stay. They all want to be in New Jersey. It’s a destination now. People want to come to New Jersey.”
A BIG DECISION
Canadiens keeping close tabs on rookie
The Canadiens will decide over the next 10-14 days if their top pick in June’s draft, defenseman David Reinbacher, is best suited to start the season with the Montreal varsity, or the American Hockey League, or return to Kloten in the top Swiss League.
“He looked really good,” said Nick Bobrov, Montreal’s director of amateur scouting, following Reinbacher’s debut with the Habs last weekend at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo. “He was very purposeful, professional … obviously he played pro at a very high level … and he kept that approach. Some kids are trying to show off, get noticed, and they make bad mistakes playing that way. But he knows enough to do the right things, play in his range.”
Reinbacher’s selection rankled Habs fans, restless now after 30-plus years without a Stanley Cup title. Many figured the club, picking at No. 5, would place its bet on Matvei Michkov, a dazzling Russian winger whose style mirrors that of star Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov. Michkov ultimately fell to the Flyers at No. 7.
The Canadiens have many needs, with a lynchpin on the back line being chief among them. A bit of a late bloomer — Habs fans would think that depiction too kind — Reinbacher was high on their watch list for the better part of a year. If he can evolve as that lynchpin and be to the Habs, say, what it looks as if Owen Power (No. 1 pick in 2021) is becoming for the Sabres, that will be a huge step toward the bedraggled franchise regaining relevance in the Original 32.
“[Reinbacher] was not a big name coming into [last] season,” noted Bobrov, who launched his NHL career with the Bruins as their video coach nearly 25 years ago. “The first viewings were at the [IIHF] World Junior in Edmonton [summer ‘22], and he just kept growing and growing, literally and figuratively, and by the end of the season in the Swiss League he was the No. 1 defenseman on a [Kloten] team that was in the playoffs. Then he played [for Austria] in the World Championships. His confidence was really coming. Usually when a player gets a lot better during the year, that’s a good sign.”
Reinbacher’s biggest challenge in his first varsity camp, which began Thursday?
“Well, even though he’s 6-3/209, he doesn’t shave yet, at all,” noted an amused Bobrov. “He’s a boy, so he needs to mature physically, with a body that has to acquire a man’s strength. Physiologically, he has a lot of potential to grow even more … so it’s having that strength and dealing with bigger and stronger NHLers for work in corners, the net front. Size and weight might not be an indication of whether he is able to handle [teammate] Josh Anderson [6-3/218, age 29]. I think NHL strength is the No. 1 [concern] for all these kids. And timing. Everything will be quicker. He’s smart, so he should be able to handle timing well because his brain functions at a high level. He never panics. But you still need to see it live.”
Bruins fans, eager to see No. 1 pick Joe Thornton turn the franchise around with his arrival in 1997, were miffed when the overmatched 18-year-old, at 6 feet 4 inches, put up a mere 7 points in 55 games as a rookie. Jumbo grew into his frame and ultimately rolled up 1,539 career points.
“That first year obviously was tough for Joe and for the B’s,” noted Bobrov. “He was a rail. He was a kid. If you remember the Combine, he had no strength, then it all came and the rest is history. For most kids, other than a few outliers like [Connor] McDavid, all these kids need time.”
Then there are kids like Patrice Bergeron, the 45th pick in 2003, who arrive with an unremarkable build at age 18 and immediately log valuable minutes and produce points. At first glance, in September ‘03, Bergeron looked like just another kid delivered by the conveyor belt of teenage promises.
“Yep,” said a smiling Bobrov, “but the brain was not from the conveyor. His brain was unique, probably one of the best brains in the last 50 years.”
Pivotal decisions for Bruins
Patrice Bergeron headed into retirement with 15,182 faceoff wins, No. 1 in that department among all NHLers dating to when the league began keeping track in 1997-98.
Patrice the Thief’s win rate (57.9 percent) stands second only to Rod Brind’Amour (58.7) among the 13 NHLers to post more than 10,000 wins.
With Bergeron and David Krejci now settling into their front-porch rockers, the Bruins have to hope the top candidates to fill their 1-2 center spots can improve their clip rate. Pavel Zacha finished under water (45.3 percent) on his 296 faceoffs last season while Charlie Coyle won 52.6 percent of his 1,019.
Tomas Nosek, second to Bergeron for win percentage (59.3), left for a one-year, $1 million deal with the Devils.
Bumping Coyle higher into the order, GM Don Sweeney acknowledged at last week’s development camp in Buffalo, comes with some reluctance because he has developed into one of the league’s premier No. 3 pivots. Will his contribution in the top six outweigh what he’s meant at the top of the bottom six order?
“Last year we were spoiled,” said Sweeney. “[Coach Jim Montgomery] referenced it the other day … we were just incredibly deep last year. So maybe we don’t really have a choice in that matter. Maybe you can turn around and say, ‘Well, if we get a big surprise, or if both [Morgan] Geekie and [Trent] Frederic play the middle’ … there’s hypotheticals we’re going through. [Zacha and Coyle] are better suited to handle those types of minute and those types of situations … it’s just where we’re at.”
Familiar faces in new place
Taylor Hall, the main cap casualty to the Bruins’ lineup over the summer, was sidelined with a lower-body injury for the first day of Blackhawks camp, also known as phenom Connor Bedard’s Day 1 with the varsity.
Hall’s absence meant that another ex-Bruin, Ryan Donato, rode at left wing on a line with Bedard at center and ex-Lightning Tyler Johnson on the right side.
Hall, remember, missed substantial time down the stretch late last season with a knee injury and then potted five goals in the playoffs, tying Tyler Bertuzzi for the club lead. Hall will be 32 in November and Chicago is his sixth NHL stop since being drafted No. 1 in 2010.
Donato, 27, cashed in with a two-year, $4 million deal as a free agent in July after posting 14-13–27 in his second season with the Kraken. Chicago is the ex-Crimson winger’s fifth port of call after being drafted No. 56 by the Bruins in 2014.
Hall, Donato, and Bedard are expected to be at TD Garden Oct. 11 for the Bruins’ season opener. The Blackhawks open up their campaign the night before in Pittsburgh.
Power of the podcast
In a span of 48-72 hours, Mike Babcock lost his job as Blue Jackets coach, resigning Sunday after hockey podcast “Spittin’ Chiclets,” revealed a number of players felt uncomfortable with Babcock’s request to share photographs with him from their mobile devices.
In the wake of it all, team president John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen accepted fault for hiring Babcock and apologized to their players.
Journalistically, the episode underscored the perils and power of social media. Beginning in the early ’90s, intrepid Lawrence Eagle-Tribune writer Russ Conway needed years of sourcing, reporting, and writing to bring down Alan Eagleson for his dirty dealings as head of the NHL Players’ Association.
Conway’s work served as prelude to Paul Kelly, then an assistant US attorney in Boston, leading the embezzlement and fraud case that ultimately led to the disgraced Eagleson pleading guilty and going to jail. Kelly later served a short tenure in Eagleson’s former post with the NHLPA.
In today’s world, it can be a podcast, and the groundswell of interest and ire it generates, that renders shoe-leather reporting, and perhaps one day the court system, relics of the past.
Other than Hall, ex-Oiler Nail Yakupov (2012) is the only other No. 1 pick since 2010 who isn’t with the club that drafted him. The speedy Yakupov had four very mediocre seasons with the Oilers before being dealt to the Blues. About to turn 30, he just began his sixth season in the KHL, where he has continued to post numbers typical of, say, a third- or fourth-round draft pick … Regular-season play has just begun in Slovakia, where one-time Bruins signee/prospect Mitchell Miller is playing for Liptovsky Mikulas. The troubled defenseman, whose sordid past rankled roster members and ultimately led the Bruins to cut him free, picked up a goal in his first two games … With their first of two first-round draft picks acquired in the Timo Meier trade with New Jersey, the Sharks in June used pick No. 26 to select Quentin Musty, a 6-foot-2-inch left wing from suburban Buffalo (Hamburg, N.Y.). Musty dazzled in July development camp and looked like a solid pro in last week’s prospect camp held in Las Vegas, but is slated to return to Sudbury for another year of OHL seasoning. He rolled up 78 points in 53 games last season with the Wolves … Asked on Wednesday about plans to discuss a contract extension with Jake DeBrusk, Sweeney said, “We’d like to know if Jake indeed does want to be here … and hopefully we can find common ground,” then added he’d like to see the 26-year-old winger remain in Black and Gold. That said, if Sweeney can engage in substantive talks for a legit No. 1 center, be it Elias Lindholm (Calgary) or Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg), it’s a given that DeBrusk would be bundled into the package … Former Bruins GM Harry Sinden turned 91 on Sept. 14 and fellow hockey genius Scotty Bowman blew out 90 candles four days later.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.