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FEATURE: Leadership Group Looks Ahead to 'Next Step'

Members of the Devils leadership group know the next step on the path to success following the 2020-21 campaign

by Sam Kasan samikasan / NewJerseyDevils.com

The Devils players understood the situation. A day after the NHL's 2021 trade deadline, they looked around the room and saw the youngest team in the league become even younger. The team was building for the future. 

Management amassed a group of young, hungry and talented players. They have the foundational core pieces in captain Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Pavel Zacha, Ty Smith and Mackenzie Blackwood. They also have a starring cast of up-and-coming talents in Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Kevin Bahl. And then there's the mix of veterans like Miles Wood, Damon Severson and P.K. Subban. 

But the Devils also understood the process. This team wasn't ready to compete for a playoff spot this season. They were too young, too neophyte. Which meant this would be a season about growth, and the usual growing pains that come with it. 

"This year has been a struggle. This year wasn't the greatest, but when I take a step back and look at the future I do say 'wow,'" Blackwood said at Wednesday's locker clean-out day. "This team has a lot of exciting young players who are developing and growing. We've only just begun. It's really exciting to be a part of. I'm fortunate to be a part of this team, and it's a team you want to be a part of. There's a future ahead, and it looks good. I was saying that not too long ago, this team has a lot of promise moving forward, a great group, a lot of great players, great people, it's exciting."

The 2020-21 campaign wasn't what any of the players had hoped for. The final results - a 19-30-7 record - wasn't what any of the players or coaches, all full of pride, wanted. But this season was never about records. It was about growth and development. 

"We saw some games how talented and fast we can be, and how hard to play against we can be too," Zacha said. "We just have to build on that. Being part of this team, it's a young team, we have a lot of really good players that we can build on."

"Once everyone gets their game to the next step, I think this can be a dangerous team," Blackwood said. "Even when we were losing, we're in close games with the best teams. Give the young players that extra year or two of developing and growing and it's going to be a scary team."

With that being said, the team is ready to take "the next step." When they look ahead to 2021-22, they want more results. While they know that growth and development are still the most important elements (without it this team can't reach its full potential), the club is ready to put a premium on the Wins and Losses. 

"We have a lot of promise here," Hughes said, "but at some point, we're going to have to start winning games and take a step, and not just be that young, developing team, but be a team that can contend. When teams come to the Rock, it's a hard game to win.

"We're playing in front of a packed house here at the Rock."

And Hughes, 19, wants to see that next step taken in the upcoming season. 

"Next year, I'm not saying we're going to make the playoffs or anything, but I'm going to say that we need to start to win games and play meaningful hockey down the stretch, whatever that may be," Hughes continued. "Next year we're going to really focus on staying focused throughout the year so in Game 80, 81 and 82 we'll be playing meaningful hockey and trying to get into the playoffs."

Next season is a long way away, and certainly the roster will look different when that time comes, but Severson thinks the team has the mindset of moving the needle forward.  

"We're all in that mode now. We know what we have here," Severson said. "We have a lot of players that have grown this year. Now we're going to have to take the next step and not have our year-end exit meetings around this time when the regular season ends. We want to get into that playoff mix and get better from there."

The entire organization laid the foundation of the future in this season from the top in general manager Tom Fitzgerald to head coach Lindy Ruff to the players. 

"I'm super excited to be here playing with these guys," Wood said. "I have a lot of faith in Tommy Fitz and coach Ruff and the staff. They've been great with us this whole year. We have a great crew here."

Hischier was a member of the Devils' 2017-18 squad that made the playoffs, and he knows what it takes for teams to be playing in the postseason. The captain sees this season as a step in the direction. 

"Some teams make the playoffs that have played together for a long time. There are teams that have a lot of experience," he said. "Something like that is what we're building here right now. We're all young guys, we're growing together year-after-year. We want to be that team that before the season we know we're going to the playoffs. That's what we're doing here."

So, while 2020-21 may have been a frustrating year in terms of production and results, this team may look back on this year as the beginning of something truly great. 

"Our fans should be excited. We have a good, young team here," he said. "We have a good, young core, a bunch of guys that are going to be good players for this team for a long time."

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