NEWARK - "That's the great part of these development camps, seeing boys turn into men."
During the week, New Jersey Devils Assistant General Manager Tom Fitzgerald could be seen most days sitting atop the RWJBarnabas Health HockeyHouse stands to overlook the prospect pool.
Video: RAW | Tom Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald, along with his duties as assistant GM in New Jersey, is also the General Manager of the Binghamton Devils. Many of the players at New Jersey's development camp will find themselves working their way through the Devils AHL system, one that Fitzgerald has tried to replenish since his arrival along with GM Ray Shero in 2015.
"Our goal a few years back was to accumulate draft picks and really restock the prospect pool and depth of the organization and we really feel we've done that," Fitzgerald said. "It shows in the numbers that you see [this year]. We max out at 36 players and out of those 36 players, three are invites. That tells you something."
The Devils had nine of their 11 draft picks from the 2019 Entry Draft in attendance last week, their first real glimpse at life as a Devil and in the pros, as well as several players attending their fourth or fifth development camps. Every year offers a new opportunity for players to grow as a person and as a professional.
"Part of my theory with development camp is entry-level kids all come," Fitzgerald said. "So, that's why you see certain kids come when they're 18, 19 and turn pro at 20. Maybe they come four or five years, but we don't think it gets old for these kids because every year we're teaching them something new and they're still in the developmental stage of their careers."
This year, those first-timers included first-overall selection Jack Hughes, Nikita Okhotyuk (second round), Graeme Clarke and Michael Vukkojevic (third round), Tyce Thompson and Case McCarthy (fourth round), Cole Brady (fifth round), Patrick Moynihan (sixth round) and Nikola Pasic (seventh round).
"When you can learn something new, then you're improving," he said. "Our goal is to help these guys improve and learn something new and I think our staff has done an extremely, a great job of doing that."
Those who have been through development camp before are those Fitzgerald wants to see embrace a different learning opportunity. Familiar Binghamton faces in Nate Bastian, Brett Seney, Joey Anderson and Blake Speers among others are in their fourth and fifth go-arounds at Development Camp. Seney, Bastian and Anderson spent significant time with both Binghamton and New Jersey last season.
"The main reason why they're back - that role is called leadership," Fitzgerald emphasized. "They're taking leadership [roles]. Like I said in the opening meeting [to players], "Guys, you remember what it was like to be 18 when you were drafted and it was your first development camp, help lead and challenge - be that guy, be that captain person whether it's in drills, being first in line, an activity and taking charge - be that leader. That's the final component of the camp as the guys develop and get older and come back for their third or fourth time. Be a leader."
For Bastian, in his fourth camp, he could tell after just the first day he would be heavily relied on. Bastian spent time in the NHL last season and was relied on by several of the newcomers.
"Probably just 'where?'," Bastian responded when asked what question he was most asked through camp. "Where's the bus, where's the ping-pong tournament, the where's. The kids have been awesome and the Devils are creating a culture here with a great group of guys."
Bastian roomed with first-year attendee Case McCarthy, who was drafted last month in Vancouver. Both at different stages in their development camp careers, gain a little something from the other. Bastian, the leadership role, McCarthy the opportunity to grow.
"Everyone says 'hi', everyone respects each other," McCarthy said. "I think that's probably the biggest thing I've taken, even the guys, the older guys who have been part of the organization have been very open. It's just been really cool for me to be a part of that experience."
"Its cool, you can pick their brains about basically anything," he continued. "They've been through it all, at least for the first few years of their career. It's the next step that I want to take in my career and [Nate Bastian] is going through it, so I'm just picking his brain about this-or-that. It's a very cool experience especially seeing him walk around and have that leadership role in the locker room. It's someone I can follow and learn from."
Fitzgerald calls it a "sense of pride" when he hears the Devils prospects are picking up what it means to be a member of the New Jersey Devils. All week long, players praised the culture that is being built from the top, down and for Fitzgerald a lot of that success is in part due to those the management team have brought in to guide the players.
"The reason I hired Mark [Dennehy] was because of his ability to communicate with players," Fitzgerald said. "I've known Mark a long time going back to our childhood. HE's a teacher and I felt that this group needed someone who could teach and someone who could educate, someone who could be a good listener and understand these kids. He's been coaching this type of age group now for 11, 12, 13 years. I thought he'd be a good mix."
And having the right people in place to deliver the message is part of creating that success both on and off the ice.
"That was our goal from the get-go," Fitzgerald said. "Create a culture that these players can grasp, these players can adhere to."