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Gibbons making most of opportunity with Devils

Hard work, birth of son helped more mature forward find way back to NHL, earn regular role with New Jersey

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

Brian Gibbons was at a crossroads in his career when a life-changing event helped steer him back to the NHL.

In the summer of 2016, Gibbons was coming off a tough season in the American Hockey League with the Hartford Wolf Pack and didn't have any contract offers. He was 27 years old, had played 66 NHL games - none since March 6, 2015 -- and was at a point when many players consider playing in Europe.

But Gibbons' fianceé, Jenny, was due to give birth in October 2016. Leaving her behind wasn't an option, and bringing her with him wasn't practical.

"I wouldn't want to leave her alone or make her come [to Europe] at eight months pregnant," Gibbons said. "I don't even think you can [fly at that point]."

Gibbons eventually accepted an invitation to the New Jersey Devils' training camp on a professional tryout agreement. A year and a half later, he's not only back in the NHL, but he's a key player for the Devils in their turnaround season.

After finishing last in the Eastern Conference last season, the Devils are two points behind the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division heading into their game at the Dallas Stars on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET; FS-SW, MSG, NHL.TV). Gibbons is second on the Devils with 12 goals, one behind Taylor Hall.

"It took some hard work and a couple years, but it's definitely been worth it," Gibbons said. "It's great to be back here with the season we're having here and such a good group of guys and winning games. It's been fun to come to the rink every day."

It was a long journey back for the Braintree, Massachusetts, native. He didn't play in an NHL game for two seasons before the Devils' opener against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 7.

Video: LAK@NJD: Gibbons beats Quick on breakaway for SHG

The opportunity with the Devils came from the same people who gave him his first chance in the NHL. Devils general manager Ray Shero was the Pittsburgh Penguins' GM and New Jersey assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald was Pittsburgh's assistant GM when they signed the speedy 5-foot-8, 175-pound forward as an undrafted free agent out of Boston College in 2011.

After two seasons in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where he played for now-Devils coach John Hynes, Gibbons worked his way up to Pittsburgh in 2013-14 and appeared on the verge of a breakthrough when he had 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 41 games. He spent some time on the top line with Sidney Crosby.

An unrestricted free agent after that season, Gibbons signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. He played 25 NHL games with Columbus in 2014-15 and had no goals and five assists. He signed a one-year, two-way contract with the New York Rangers for 2015-16 but spent the entire season in Hartford, where he had 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in 63 games.

"I had a tough year the year in Hartford," he said. "Things didn't go the way I thought they would or the way I wanted them to."

Gibbons didn't have many options after that, so he accepted the Devils' invite to training camp and earned an AHL contract with their team in Albany. After starting out on the third line, he emerged as a "Mr. Everything" for Albany (now Binghamton) Devils coach Rick Kowalsky, playing on the top line and power play when needed in addition to killing penalties.

"We gave him an opportunity, and he really took advantage of it," Kowalsky said. "He made big plays for us, whether it was a blocked shot or a big goal or he strips a guy on the penalty kill and goes in and scores a shorthanded goal. Those are winning habits, winning plays that make your teammates really rally around you and understand how important a player you are to the team."

Gibbons finished third on the Albany Devils with 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) in 72 games. The arrival of his son, Ty, at the start of the season provided Gibbons with perspective and another reason to refocus on his career.

"It's just you had someone else depending on you and you know you've got to provide," Gibbons said. "After a couple down years, last year was an important year for me to kind of figure out which way my career was going to go. So you've got that extra motivation and also when you go home every day and you see him, it just kind of takes your mind away from the rink and it's special."

After seeing what Gibbons did in Albany last season, the Devils signed him to a one-year, two-way contract. Kowalsky thought Gibbons, "could give you NHL games" if needed as a callup, but Gibbons was determined to be more than that.

Video: NJD@DET: Gibbons intercepts puck, scores OT winner

He worked hard during the offseason to get ready for training camp and earned a spot on the opening night roster. Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, who played with Gibbons in Pittsburgh, noticed the difference in him during their summer workouts in in Dedham, Massachusetts, with a group that included Devils forwards Brian Boyle, Kyle Palmieri and Jimmy Hayes.

"[Gibbons] had a kid and I think it probably grounded him," Orpik said. "He got a lot more focused on being a professional. He's always been a real talented player, but I think this summer was probably the most committed he's been. I could tell just by skating with him this summer that he was setting himself up to have success as long as he got a good opportunity."

Playing mostly in a third-line role and as a penalty killer, Gibbons started the season strong with 11 goals and four assists in the first 23 games. Although his production has dropped off - he has one goal and five assists in the past 16 games -- Hynes said the consistency of his effort has not.

"When he was in Pittsburgh, he wasn't as consistent as he is now," Hynes said. "He's just matured mentally. He understands what he needs to do. He's had a tough go at it. He's been up and down to the minors 12 times. Now he's a 29-year-old guy who is making the most of his opportunity and clearly understands what he needs to do to be a factor and is willing to do it night in and night out."

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