NEWARK, N.J. -- Life in the NHL was a breeze for forward Joseph Blandisi of the New Jersey Devils, or so it seemed.
Playing in his fourth career NHL game last season after his second call-up from Albany of the American Hockey League, Blandisi was a plus-1 in the Devils' 2-1 win against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 10, impressing coach John Hynes with his confidence, puck poise and compete level in 14:50 of ice time. He had a stretch of 10 points in 10 games and scored five goals with 14 points (four on the power play) in 18 games, stepping in for injured forward Michael Cammalleri.
Suddenly, Blandisi flamed out. He went the final 23 games without a goal, had no points in his last nine and finished with five goals, 17 points and a minus-14 rating in 41 games. He learned that playing in the NHL wasn't Albany, and it was imperative to change his sleeping habits and eating patterns, so he made a commitment to take better care of himself.
"I realize when you come up here, how every day you have to be ready and prepared, and you have to treat your body the right way over the course of the season," Blandisi said July 14 following an off-ice workout at Devils development camp. "I kind of fell off the map a little bit at the end of the year, so I think this year I know what it's going to take to keep my body healthy and be prepared for the end of the season."
Blandisi, 22, is determined to help improve the Devils offense, which finished 30th in goals per game (2.22) last season, but it will be a challenge to break training camp on the opening night roster. New Jersey upgraded at forward with the acquisition of Taylor Hall in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers for defenseman Adam Larsson on June 29. Hall, a healthy Cammalleri, and 30-goal scorers Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique are part of a deeper group that also could include center Pavel Zacha, the Devils' first-round pick (No. 6) in the 2015 NHL Draft.
"I realize that there's going to be nothing given to me," Blandisi said. "Maybe this year is probably harder to make than last year, but I think I'm ready for the jump. I can't let them make the decision to send me down. I have to give them no other option but to keep me up."
Blandisi is working to stay ahead of the curve with a revamped nutrition program. Instead of three big meals, he has six or seven smaller portions a day. He has been avoiding carbohydrates, though he allows himself a cheat day every Sunday, and doesn't eat too close to bedtime.
"I can notice the difference already, just the way I feel every day and the energy levels I have," he said. "I'm waking up at 5:30 [a.m.] and work out at 6:30 every day. I even get a nap in almost every day. It helps my body feel a lot better."
Blandisi is approaching peak performance two seasons after he contracted a coxsackie viral infection while playing for Barrie in the Ontario Hockey League. The illness left him unable to skate, walk a straight line, resulted in a loss of peripheral vision and likely cost him a chance to sign with the Colorado Avalanche, who selected him in the sixth round (No. 162) of the 2012 draft.
"It was definitely a pretty scary time for me and my family," Blandisi said. "My parents put on a strong face and really kept me going through that time. There was one time I didn't know if I was going to be able recover from it.
"I was pretty intimidated that I wasn't going to be able to get back to where I was. I felt I was pretty good before I got the virus, so it was definitely a scary three months not knowing if you're going to be able to do what you love for the rest of your life."
Blandisi recovered that summer and returned to the gym to practice balancing and juggling to get his coordination back, but became an unrestricted free agent after he went through the 2014 draft without being chosen. He signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Devils on Jan. 14, 2015, and ended up leading the OHL in 2014-15 with 52 goals while finishing fourth with 112 points behind forwards Dylan Strome (129), Mitch Marner (126) and Connor McDavid (120).
The talent is there, so is the perseverance, and along the way Blandisi discovered the importance of work ethic. The question is whether he'll apply the lessons he has learned in New Jersey or Albany.
"There's limited spots, especially in the top six," he said, "so I just have to prepare all summer for the opportunity at camp, and hopefully I'm able to crack the roster."