The Binghamton Devils finished the 2017-18 season with a 25-38-13 record and 63 points, 25 points short of a playoff spot. But, with a roster made up of mostly first- or second-year pros and a string of injuries in the first half of the season, the team played it's best hockey of the year in the final two months providing reasons for optimism for next season, both in Binghamton and for the quality of the Devils prospect pipeline.
We finally had everyone healthy maybe the last month and a half and that's when we were really playing well every night and it's just a shame we couldn't get that going around Christmas and given ourselves a better shot at going on a run and trying to work our way back into the playoffs, but that's just the way it works out and we learned a lot from this year," said rookie defenseman Michael Kapla.
"We gained a lot of confidence as a group and we've got to carry that swagger into the summer and know that we can compete at a high level and that we're better than the season showed."
Second-year pro Kevin Rooney agreed and said that acquiring new players via trades in February and March really helped the team not only for what they brought to the ice, but for what they brought to the locker room as well.
"With all the injuries we had, there wasn't much competition for spots," he explained. "Guys knew they were playing even if they had a bad game the night before, so having more bodies and more depth, there's just more competition in the lineup and guys know that if they play poorly, there's someone else ready to step in and take their spot. Healthy competition within in the team really helped us too."
He also credits the fans in Binghamton for sticking with them all season.
"We had a great fan base. We even had six or seven sellouts this season including our last home game and we were out of the playoffs by January," Rooney said. "It means a lot to us players because we put so much work into playing hard and giving the fans something to cheer about. They really stuck with us and it says a lot about the community and being such a great hockey town. We really appreciated it and hope to give them even more to cheer about next year."
Kapla and Rooney are two of the 14 first- or second year pros on the team, not including the players brought in late in the season like Michael McLeod, Brett Seney and Cam Johnson. For each player, the adjustment to pro hockey is different, but they said you could see their growth and maturation throughout the season both as individuals and as a team.
"I had to adjust to the pace of pro hockey and the lifestyle of pro hockey and the daily grind of it all and I think we had a lot of other guys in that situation as well," said Kapla, who spent the past four season playing for UMass-Lowell. "I had to learn how to manage my body better. For the last four years, I've only played 40 games max, so rest was huge for me and I really enjoyed just being able to focus on hockey and not worry about the stress of school anymore. I didn't go to Harvard, but still… school is hard. Some night's you're just worn out from a tough week in the classroom or you had projects or a few tests and it was really amazing how much fresher I felt not having that on my plate any more and just be able to focus on hockey and being a true pro and managing my body and doing all the little things off the ice that help on the ice."
For Rooney, it was adjusting to helping himself first so he could be in a better position to help others too.
"I thought I had a really good training camp and when I first got to Binghamton, I was part of the leadership group and, for the first 15 games or so, I was more focused on trying to be a good role model and helping the younger guys and I wasn't really as focused on my game as much as I should have been," he explained. "When I finally flipped that switch, I feel like that's when my season really started to improve and I just got more and more confident in my game throughout the year. I was definitely pleased with the year and had the chance to come up and play one game with New Jersey and I'm just excited about where I can go from here."
For the players that joined the team in the last couple weeks of the season after their collegiate or junior careers had ended, it was an opportunity to get a taste of pro hockey that will hopefully prepare them for a strong summer of training and a fast start next season.
"I wanted to learn and take in as much as I could for the six games that I was there," McLeod explained. "We played a few of the best teams in the league in those final games and in some tough buildings. It was a really good experience for me to just be thrown into the fire in the AHL. It's a lot different game than the OHL. It's a lot chippier and you have to make simpler players and grind it out more and once I recognized that, it kind of opened things up for me."
As each player prepares for off-season training, they've met with Devils assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald, the coaches in Binghamton as well as development and strength and conditioning coaches to help them pinpoint certain areas of improvement to set them up for success at development camp in July and especially for rookie and training camp in September.
"I'd really like to score more around the net, having better hands, being quicker on my feet to find loose pucks, tipping pucks. That's definitely something I think I can improve on," Rooney said. "I'm always at the net, but if I could tip a few more in, that'd be huge. I want to work on my feet. I have good speed in open ice, but my feet in the corners and battling is something I want to work on too."
McLeod's list is similar as he wants to get faster, be more agile, continue to improve his leg strength, shot and stickhandling as well as his flexibility, but he's also going to be looking at a lot of video.
"I want to watch some video on players in New Jersey and see how they play as a team and certain guys and their tendencies so I can be prepared if I have the chance to play with them. I'll know what they're going to do," he said. "Management has shown that anyone can make the team if you show up and rise to the challenge. You see guys like Bratt come in and play unreal at camp and make the team and that really opened a lot of eyes, including my own, and if I have the chance, I want to make the most of it."
Kapla agreed and said their development philosophy will be a big source of motivation for him during long hours in the gym and on the ice this summer.
"The management and coaching staff in Jersey have made it pretty clear that they're going to take whoever earns the spot and is the best available, no matter how old they are," he said. "It's really motivating to know that if you put in the work and put in the effort and play well and do the right things, you'll have an honest chance of making the team and that's really good to know because you just want to know you have an opportunity. I'm already really excited for next year."