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FEATURE: 2021 State of the Union

GM Tom Fitzgerald and head coach Lindy Ruff assess the year that was and what lies ahead

by Sam Kasan @SamiKasan / NewJerseyDevils.com

Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald and head coach Lindy Ruff met with the media following the annual locker room clean-out day. 

The two men gave their assessment of last season, where the team is and where it needs to go, as well as other pressing matters. Here are the biggest takeaways…

Video: EXIT INTERVIEW | Tom Fitzgerald

THE SEASON THAT WAS

Looking back at 2020-21, it was a very difficult season for the Devils, and not just in terms of their 19-30-7 record. There was a lot of adversity the team faced, whether it was losing one of its goaltenders, Corey Crawford, in training camp, being shut down for two weeks with a COVID-19 outbreak, playing an extra, extra condensed schedule or dealing with injuries, it was a unique season. "It's been a year unlike no other for myself," Ruff said. "The amount of games in a short period of time, a couple week break in there because of COVID where you don't practice, you don't go to the rink. The start of camp we lose one of our goaltenders right off the bat. We lose our captain (Nico Hischier) to a broken leg, we get him back, we lose him to COVID, we get him back, we lose him to a facial injury. There's just a list of things in a crazy year that just kept adding up. It's going to take some time to digest.

"I'm really excited about the young talent. They were able to grow that fast to achieve some of the goals that they achieved. … We have aways to go, but overall in a crazy year I'm excited about a lot of these guys."

There were many bright spots during the season. Jack Hughes has emerged as potential top-offensive dynamo. Rookie Ty Smith staked his place as a cornerstone defenseman for the future. Another rookie, Yegor Sharangovich, exploded on the scene with an offensive outburst that saw him tie for third among rookies in goals (16). Other players, whether it was Pavel Zacha or Jesper Bratt, continued to develop and improve. 

"The things that I saw from players were a lot of positives, a lot of things to be excited about," Fitzgerald said. "I hope everyone is excited about the big steps that Jack Hughes took and what he's going to bring and what the future looks like for his game. The surprises of Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich and what they brought to the table this year was great. 

"That was what the year was all about, to see underneath the hood of the car and see what we have in the system, can they sustain success at this level. But the only way to do that was to give them opportunity, and we did that."

THE MESSAGE

The players met with Fitzgerald and Ruff throughout the day. And if there was one takeaway from those discussions, it was that next year they don't want to be having these meetings at this time of year. 
"We don't want to be in the same place. We don't want these same meetings," Ruff said. "To a man, I gave them a lot of crediting for never quitting inside of a game. It didn't matter what the score was. We tried hard to battle back. 

"We learned from this year, a hard lesson. To a man, none of us want to be in the same place when it comes to this time next year." 

Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment. 

"We all want to play meaningful games at this time of the year. We want to gear up to the big dance, the playoffs," he said. "I said it from the get-go, this group needs to crawl before they get up and walk. We're at the walking stage and we want to get running here soon. But you have to learn going through the trials and tribulations of a year like this and understand what it takes to win, understand what it takes to clock manage. That's the winning process. That's a commitment too. There's got to be a commitment from everybody.

"Learning how to win, you don't just snap your fingers. You have to experience it. We haven't won. But we showed that we can scratch and claw and be in games, never quit attitude, very resilient group. Again, going along with our youth, that's going to apply to success moving forward."

Video: EXIT INTERVIEW | Lindy Ruff

GROWTH

The biggest takeaways from the season was the growth and development of many of the young players. It was a year that saw 10 rookies play, and seven rookies make their NHL debuts. But that growth extended beyond the ice and into the locker room. Hischier took over as the team's captain and Damon Severson, Zacha and Wood all wore an 'A' as alternate captains. 

"Nico's leadership was on and off the ice. You hear Jack's voice now. You hear Ty Smith's voice. You hear a Miles Wood," Ruff said. "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.

"As a group they've grown. Their personalities are starting to show. They're starting to expect more out of each other."The deadline trade of veterans and long-time Devils Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri created a void that needed to be filled. And the younger players filled it. 

"Sometimes when you get thrown into the fire you just react and do what comes natural," Fitzgerald said of their expanded leadership roles. "When you trade away good people and leaders that we've had at deadlines, it should excite younger players and force them into roles they weren't accustomed to, but have learned from and grown from. 

"No ex-player is called a hurdle, but when voices are heavier elsewhere around the room, sometimes your voice isn't heard. When those voices are turned down a bit or removed, people's voices get louder."

THE SUMMER AHEAD

No team ever stays the same. The 2021-22 Devils will look different compared to the 2020-21 installment. But what will that difference look like? 

Devils management will meet with the coaches Thursday and start to assemble a battle plan for the offseason, which will include an expansion draft, the NHL draft and free agency. 

"My job is to better the areas that we need to improve on, whether that be through trades or free agency," Fitzgerald said. "We'll go through that process internally with the group. This year is no different than last years. You make your so called 'wish list' and try to execute it with the goal of improving the team, not just immediately, but for long-term."

Fitzgerald noted that the team will stick to its long-term plan of building the team organically and not chase after "quick fixes."

"We've got some corner pieces that you can build around," he said. "It's my job to support those corner pieces with additions of personnel, whether that's internally, under the hood, or whether that's acquiring that someplace else, that's the goal. 

"The way we set out to build this team was through the draft and through development and growing these players internally. That's the goal. We're not going to cut corners. We're not going to cheat either."If the team is looking "under the hood," some of the players within the system that Fitzgerald noted may have bigger roles next year are forwards Nolan Foote, Marian Studenic, Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer - who will turn pro next season, Tyce Thompson and Graeme Clarke and defensemen Kevin Bahl and Michael Vukojevic. He also pointed to goaltending as an area that the team will address, either bringing in a goaltender that can split time with Mackenzie Blackwood or a solid No. 2. 

LONG-TERM COMMITMENT 

Fitzgerald, who completed his first full season as the Devils GM, was asked about his own contract status. Fitzgerald reiterated his commitment to the team and managing partners Josh Harris, chairman and governor, and David Blitzer, vice chairman and alternate governor. 

"I have a commitment to this organization long-term, to Josh and David, who I feel are equally committed to me," Fitzgerald said. "My goal is to help them build this organization from the hockey ops side and become a winner, and take this organization back to where the people who are long-standing fans, the alumni, want it to get to, to the levels were they were accustomed to back in the '90s and 2000s. 

"That's my job. I'm committed to that long-term and I know David and Josh are committed to me long-term." 

Video: REPORT | A Year of Growth

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