Devils forwards Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri were integral parts of the organization for several years. And as much as general manager Tom Fitzgerald would have loved to keep both men in the fold, ultimately, he had to make a hard decision.
And that's what he made clear to Palmieri during an intimate conversation last Saturday.
"I just told him I have to do what's best for the organization here and make the best deal possible," Fitzgerald recounted. "My job here today was to help the organization improve moving forward."
Video: RAW | Fitzgerald on Trade w/ NYI
Fitzgerald believes that's exactly what he did, trading two veteran players to the New York Islanders for future assets in a 2021 first-round pick, a conditional 2022 fourth-round pick (which becomes a third-rounder if the Islanders make the Stanley Cup Final) and forwards A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst.
"That (first-round) pick gives us flexibility. You can move back or use it," Fitzgerald said. "It gives you flexibility to potentially add to a position of need or a player that comes across the board. Maybe helps us with teams with expansion issues."
The Devils now have nine picks in the 2021 NHL Draft with selections in each of the seven rounds and two choices in the first and third rounds. It's quite a collection and builds off of the team's three first-round picks from 2020 - forward Alexander Holtz (7th), center Dawson Mercer (18th) and defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin (20th) - and blue-chip prospects like Nolan Foote and Reilly Walsh to name a few.
"It sets us up well for the future," Fitzgerald said. "We drafted three really good prospects (in 2020) that can develop under our development program and grow these players to be the players we project them to be.
"We want to be good, but we want to continue to do it the right way. We're going to draft, we're going to develop, we'll supplement through free agency, if there's the right trade, we'll add."
Fitzgerald has been most impressed with the progress made by many of his NHL neophytes, including forward Jack Hughes, 19, and defenseman Ty Smith, 21. He sees those two, as well as captain Nico Hischier, as the foundation for the future.
"I want to see this group grow together. I want to grow with them and be part of this," Fitzgerald said. "Once this group really hits their stride, then you can add those young guys to the organization because then Jack's older, Nico's older, Ty Smith's older. They become leaders themselves. That's the exciting part."
The absence of Zajac and Palmieri will create a void in the Devils' lineup, and Fitzgerald hopes to see a young player, whether on the NHL roster now or from the American Hockey League, fill that void.
"Kids will get opportunities," he said. "I hope the kids that get the opportunity will take advantage of it like the kids who already have taken that opportunity."
And as this team grows together and builds together, Fitzgerald believes there is no end to its potential.
"The future is really bright here in Jersey. I truly believe that. I say that will all sincerity," he said. "It's understanding where we're at and where we want to go with future assets.
"That's what I did today. My job moving forward is to understand where we're at and continue to get better. … Get back to an elite level where this organization deserves to be."