Tootoo Having Comeback Year For Devils

It was announced on March 20th that Jordin Tootoo would be the Devils’ nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for the year-end awards. The Masterton Trophy is awarded to the “player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” It is named for the late Minnesota North Stars player who died after sustaining an injury during a NHL game. Masterton exhibited the qualities that the award is given for, and the trophy was first awarded following the 1967-68 season. The players are nominated by their team’s chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association and the winner is chosen by a poll of the chapters of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association across all NHL cities. A grant from the PHWA is also awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, which is given in the name of the trophy winner.

The trophy was first won by a member of the Devils’ organization in 1981-82 when goaltender Glenn “Chico” Resch won it in the team’s final season in Denver. It was awarded to Resch for perseverance, “as he gave his young team more confidence while he served as goaltender” according to the “Legends of Hockey” portion of the Hockey Hall of Fame website. Ken Daneyko was the next member of the Devils to win the award (and the first to win when the team was based in New Jersey) in 1999-2000 when he returned to the team following his battle with alcoholism.

Tootoo’s story is similar to Daneyko in that he has had issues with alcoholism and has come back to revive his NHL career.

Born February 2, 1983 in Churchill, Manitoba, he grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut and is the first player of Inuk descent to play in the National Hockey League. Tootoo played for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League before being drafted 98th overall in the 2001 NHL Draft by the Nashville Predators. He would go on to play eight seasons for Nashville before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2012 and signing with the Detroit Red Wings. His two years in the Motor City were largely unproductive and his contract was bought out following the 2013-2014 season. He was invited to the Devils training camp at the beginning of this season on a tryout basis and was signed to a one year deal just prior to the season beginning.

Since signing with the Devils, Tootoo has really come back, found his game and has produced for the team. With 57 games played, Tootoo has 9 goals, 5 assists and 14 points, with one of those goals coming on the power play and one game winner. He is also a plus-4 with 70 PIMs. But it is the intangibles that Tootoo brings to the team that have really shown what he means to the Devils. He knows when to pick his spots and some of his fights have helped ignite a Devils comeback, or get the team back from a lackluster performance. He skates very well and his speed was no more apparent than on March 20 versus Buffalo when he scored a beauty of a goal. He blocked a shot in his own end, only to carry the puck down the ice, slip it under the defenseman’s stick to himself and score on goaltender Anders Lindback’s short side, a true one-man effort that iced the game and gave the Devils the win.

For Tootoo, overcoming adversity is nothing new. In 2002, his older brother, Terence, who was a great hockey player in his own right and was playing for the Roanoke Express of the ECHL at the time, committed suicide after a drunk driving incident in Canada. Terence, who was about three years older and served as a role model for Jordin, was part of the reason Jordin wrote his recently released autobiography All The Way: My Life on Ice with writer Stephen Brunt. Terence’s suicide left Jordin with more questions and in part spurred him to get his story down on paper.

Jordin’s battles with substance abuse have also been well chronicled. In 2010, he voluntarily entered the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program run jointly by the NHL and the NHLPA to treat alcoholism. He completed the program in time to participate in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with Nashville and has been clean since.

Tootoo has been an inspiration to those watching, but he is more than that to his teammates. He is a leader in the locker room and knows exactly when to mix it up on the ice, be it physical or vocal: chirping with the other team or keeping the Devils loose on the bench. His Gordie Howe Hat Trick against the Arizona Coyotes a little while back is testament to his toughness, his willingness to get into the dirty areas on the ice and to his skill. The fact the Devils have given him power play time shows that they know that he can play the game well.

Jordin Tootoo has been an inspiration almost since the time first stepped on an NHL rink. Either as the first Inuk player to play in the league or overcoming his personal demons, he has shown the ability to be more than just a great hockey player, but also a very real human being who has persevered through some very tough times and has made good on his potential. We will find out in Las Vegas this summer when the NHL presents their annual awards show if he is voted the winner of the 2014-15 Bill Masterton Trophy.

‘Wearing of the Green’ Lucky For Devils Versus Pens

The Devils first brought back their retro-inspired 1980’s red, green and white jerseys for St. Patrick’s Day during the 2009-10 season and have not had much success in them since. They defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins that year, but have since lost the last four games they brought the jerseys out of mothballs. There was a defeat at the hands of Washington in 2011, a loss to Pittsburgh in 2012 and then two losses wearing them in 2014 (including a blowout by their arch rivals, the Rangers, outdoors at Yankee Stadium in the NHL Stadium Series and the St. Patrick’s Day game against Boston). They did not wear them in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

This year, they would continue the tradition and face the Penguins for the third time in their old unis and would break through with a win for just the second time in six tries. New Jersey got a goal from Jacob Josefson in the second period that would prove to be the difference in a 2-0 shutout win at Prudential Center. Adam Henrique would add an empty netter to seal the deal for New Jersey.

The Devils have always looked sharp in their red and green third jerseys. The red, green and white colors being a rarely-used combination in the NHL (only the Minnesota Wild currently use the colors on a full-time basis) really makes for an eye-catching on-ice look from the red helmets to the green pant shells. And the Devils have been smart enough not to overdo it. With the exception of the Yankee Stadium game, the Devils have only worn them once a year – and wearing them at the Stadium Series game was a “lesser of two evils” situation for the team, since the other option would have been wearing a specially designed look (like the Rangers and Islanders did for the games) that could very easily have fallen flat. The league wanted them to wear something other than their normal home red-and-blacks and the Devils decided to go with their vintage look. While some fans scoffed back in the ‘80s when the Devils were actually wearing the uniforms on a full-time basis, calling them the “Christmas tree” colors, there is no doubt that the throwbacks are a hit with today’s fans.

As for the game itself, the story, as it has been a lot down the stretch for the Devils, was Cory Schneider. Although a lot of credit needs to go to defensemen like Andy Greene and, especially, Adam Larsson (who kept Sidney Crosby in check the whole game, frustrating the superstar for most of the game – Crosby finished with a -1 rating, four shots on net and 19:03 total time on ice), Schneider was brilliant at times in making 35 saves in his fifth shutout of the season. He was named the game’s first star by the media, something that he did on Saturday against Arizona, as well, and has done more than any other Devil this season. Schneider has kept the Devils in games that they had no business being in and could, due to his .929 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average, be a candidate for the Vezina Trophy come the end of the year, despite the fact that the Devils will most likely miss the postseason. You have to be thinking of him in the same category as league leaders like Montreal’s Carey Price and Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk at this point.

Michael Ryder was also back in the lineup due to Patrik Elias being a scratch (back spasms) and had the primary assist on Josefson’s goal. Ryder has been a healthy scratch along with Martin Havlat for most of the last month and a half or so, but he did suit up against the Coyotes on Saturday and played well, so with Elias missing another game due to injury, he got the nod.

The Devils also did not let Pittsburgh’s vaunted power play; with all of its firepower (although to be fair to the Pens, Evgeni Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, two important offensive weapons for the team were not dressed due to injury) get a chance in action. The Devils took one penalty (Mark Fraser for tripping Daniel Winnik at 1:26 of the second) which was nullified by Winnik going to the box for embellishment on the same play. Neither team scored on the ensuing four-on-four. The Devils did not take another penalty and, thus, kept one part of Pittsburgh’s success nailed to the bench. The Pens killed off both of the New Jersey power plays.

The Devils played a good game overall, helped by Pittsburgh missing key players in their lineup. However, they did neutralize Sidney Crosby (largely due in part to Larsson, who got under Crosby’s skin early and often) and if you can do that, then you will most likely have a successful night. The Devils earned this victory and, no matter how ugly, will take it.

Things don’t get easier for the Devils, as next up is three games in four days: New Jersey travels to Buffalo on Friday and then returns home to play the Islanders on Saturday, followed by the Los Angeles Kings coming east for a matchup next Monday. Since the team is not technically mathematically eliminated from a playoff berth, fans can take them one game at a time and hope for the best.