1. Starts at the Top
Through all my interviews this year, one of the things that has really stuck out to me is the younger players on the team talking about how they feel that head coach Lindy Ruff really trusts them, trusts them enough that when a mistake happens, which is inevitable across a hockey season, that they'll be trusted to correct their mistakes, that their head coach has that faith in them. It's an attitude and environment that goes a long way.
And that trust goes both ways, as Ruff wasn't the only one who needed to trust his players, but he too had to earn the trust of his players.
"That speaks volumes of Lindy and his attitude in how he coaches and how he maximizes the best of his athletes," general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. "Trust is important, and I think he didn't just say it, he did it. Actions speak louder than words. Lindy would come down to a player and say 'hey, you can't make that play right there,' and that player didn't lose a shift, that player felt like the coach had his back and they didn't make that mistake again. Now, some players continued to make the same mistakes, and Lindy's job is also to keep players accountable, and he did that."
2. The Rookies
Oh, the rookies! Such a bright spot of this NHL season for New Jersey. Not only have they been consistent contributors on the ice with goals and assists and reliable defensive play, but they've also brought a new personality to the franchise. They're fun, exciting, not afraid to have a good time, but focused on the task at hand. This year, the rookies were given a chance as the franchise dipped into their prospect pool to see what was there at the NHL level, and they certainly did not disappoint. From Yegor Sharangovich to Janne Kuokkanen and Ty Smith, these young players embraced the opportunities given to them and ran with them.
"That was the hope, we look under the hood, see what we have," Fitzgerald said. "But if you can't give them an opportunity, we never know what we have underneath the hood and I wanted to give every one of them and let them tell me I'm not ready or I'm ready, and you know what? They made me look good with how they played."
3. A Long List of Successes
In a year where things didn't go the way anyone would have hoped there were players who reached career milestones and career-high numbers. No athlete will tell you that those mean much to them in a season where the win-loss record favors the losses, but there is always something to be said about a player's personal growth and how that can build into more success as a team.
The list is long when you break down the stats where Pavel Zacha leads the Devils roster this season.
"It's just been fun watching him," friend Nico Hischier said of Zacha, "He's a great player, I knew that since Day 1. He's been always a great player and finally, they go in for him. He gets that confidence he needs. He was always a player like that, that's my opinion and now I'm really happy for him that he had a season like that, and I know he'll work hard and he'll be even better next year, but for me, he was always a great player - no doubt about that."
So how great was his season?
Zacha ended the season as the Devils leader in points (35), the shared lead with Miles Wood in goals (17), the leader in power-play goals and points (5, 11), game-winning goals (4), overtime winners (2) and shooting percentage (16.5).
4. True To His Word
I've brought it up multiple times this season, the way Miles Wood publicly challenged himself to be a better player this year. Saying, on the opening day of the season, he expects more from himself, a big step from himself to be more for this team. And he backed up those words through his on-ice performance and having his voice heard in the locker room as one of the key leaders.
Wood ended his season tied as the team leader in goals with Zacha (17), which isn't a career-high for Wood. That would be 19 during the 2017-18 season. He reached 17 in just 55 games this year, while his career-high came in 76 games.
He has his best statistical numbers since the 2017-18 season, tying his career-high in game-winning goals (2) and the best shooting percentage of his career (13.4).
5. A Leadership Group Emerges
It's one thing to have a letter on your jersey, to see an 'A' or the 'C' stitched to the chest of the jersey, but it is another to take the responsibility of those letters and put them into practice. This season, with the departure of players, a new leadership group was forged and began to find their own voice.
"First you started to hear voices you didn't hear before," reflected Ruff, "and when you have veteran players around there's a respect young players have that a lot of times you don't hear that voice. When (Zajac and Palmieri were traded) a lot of those voices began to speak up. It really put a smile on my face."
It wasn't just players who had letters on their jerseys either. It was the emergence of the next generation of Devils' top-end talent.
"You hear Jack's voice now. You hear Ty Smith's voice. You hear a Miles Wood," Ruff added. "There are different voices now all of a sudden. These guys like playing with each other, for each other. When you start playing for each other is really when the success starts to come."
6. No Other Choice
Sitting down with Tom Fitzgerald on the final day of exit meetings, he admitted to me that at the beginning of the season he didn't expect Ty Smith to play his first pro season with the NHL club this year. Originally the thought was he would be carving out his way around the professional game in the American Hockey League.
"I'm not saying I'm a good or bad scout," Fitzgerald said, "but I did not expect Ty Smith to make the team this year. You look at his first year after being drafted, he had a great camp but are you going to keep an 18-year-old, undersized defenseman on your NHL roster? Probably not the best thing development-wise … there was a reason why we went out and signed certain players, we had an abundance of National Hockey League contracted defensemen, but I've got to give him all the credit in the world, he forced us to keep him on the team. We didn't force anyone to put him on the team, he forced us to keep him on this team and I don't think he had one bad game, to be honest with you. I just thought he got better and better and the confidence just grew."
In his rookie season, Smith played in 48 games, recording 21 assists and 23 points to lead all Devils defensemen.
"I expect a lot of myself," Smith said. "I expected to be an impact guy as soon as I could. So I think I kind of started to do that as the year went on."
7. Managing the Captaincy
I really spent some time reflecting on this quote from Lindy Ruff about Nico Hischier. Nico had an unbelievably difficult year, dealing with two major injures, a bout with Covid, being named captain, and being able to play less than 25 games.
"He really didn't want to let anyone down," Ruff said of Nico being named captain, "and in some ways, I thought he put too much burden on himself, and I could see him at times - the look on his face - he thought he could do more, or he let the team down, that's a hard place for your captain to be, but he's so genuine and when you look at the year he had, I told him I don't know if I've seen the real Nico yet. I feel like I've got a really good taste of him, I know you better off the ice than on the ice, but I really felt his game was starting to come at the end of the year."
8. The Message
Exit interviews are done, the coaches and management have met with all the players, sending them off to their summer months. Next season, Lindy Ruff has every intention of returning with the same coaching staff he had in place this year.
"I enjoy the passion that everyone has," he said. "The will to get better. The acceptance that where we're at isn't good enough. They all want to be difference makers, they're all very competitive and don't like where we're at and now it's an opportunity for us as a group to go out and do something a lot better than we did this year.
"From a staff standpoint, we tried to have unparalleled communication with players, to know that this is a partnership, we're in this together. It isn't 'you guys make a mistake, we yell and scream at you and you're going to get better.' It's, 'we feel your pain, we're going to get through it, but we're asking you guys to be a lot better as players,' and I'm asking myself and my staff to be a lot better when the puck drops next season."
9. Behind the Curtain
Writing 10 Takeaways has always been a ton of fun for me, trying to find the quotes and stories that may have been missed, or highlight the big moments of the year. It's just a little slice of all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure our Devils fanbase is as connected as ever to their team.
This season, as a content team, we opened a brand-new studio in Prudential Center and were able to bring you all over 100 live broadcasts, covering special events, pregame and postgame shows, and warmup shows. There are so many people behind the scenes (and in front of the camera!) that make this whole operation run smoothly and it's just been so much fun for us all, even in this crazy pandemic season. I hope you enjoyed the content as much as we as a creative group have enjoyed putting it all together for you! Our content studio has allowed us to do so many fun things and we expect bigger and better things from ourselves next season, growing alongside the on-ice product!
10. Last Question
This was a season like no other. After all was said and done for us, we had a streak of over 130 days of daily COVID-testing, sometimes two tests a day, the season looked different with new protocols and restrictions. We spent a lot of time together, meals only at the hotel on the road, having to keep our social circles to only those in our NHL team bubble. It was a lot to manage for everyone, but I think we've all made it through with a ton of valuable lessons learned and a better understanding of our own resiliency as human beings.
My last question this season to Devils head coach Lindy Ruff?
"Was this the craziest year of your career?"
"Craziest year of my career, no doubt."
This was Ruff's 20th year as an NHL head coach.