O’Neil Gives “Green Light” to Fitzgerald on Podcast

Firstly, congrats to the Lightning and Canadiens as they begin the Stanley Cup Final tonight. They are where we want to get back to and, in a few years, it just might be the Devils playing for the Cup again.

Recently, Scott O’Neil, CEO of HBSE (the Devils’ ownership group), appeared on the New Jersey Devils Official Podcast: Speak of the Devils.

Sam Kasan of the Devils’ website recapped some of what O’Neil had to say and it was interesting.

“Let’s go” he said. Kasan clarified that he was speaking about “the Devils’ unique position and flexibility to make moves this summer. Whether it be with the NHL Draft, free agency or trades, general manager Tom Fitzgerald has been given the ‘green light’ to make the Devils a contender.”

O’Neil continued by saying “[l]et’s spill the coffers. We’ve got plenty of cap space, let’s use it. We’ve got plenty of picks, lets go get ‘em. We’ve got the expansion draft, that’s going to create opportunity. ‘Fitzy’ seems likes he’s locked in, zeroed in. He’s got the green light to go. Let’s put some players on the ice. It’s time. It’s time to start building up. We have this young core in place. Now let’s go build a hockey team and win some games.”

Kasan said that “O’Neil pointed to several NHL teams – Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles – that went through down years and rebuilt their franchises into Stanley Cup contenders.”

Setting the bar high, O’Neil said: “[t]his team is going to play some meaningful hockey (next) year. We have some work to do. We have aways [sic] to go. But you’ve seen this in hockey. You’ve seen the movie. You have a young core. You have to build around them. You make a meaningful run with good goaltending. That’s what we expect to do.”

Kasan said that O’Neil, despite the rough year, felt “the youth and enthusiasm pulsating throughout the lineup.

“This is the first Devils team that I totally fell in love with,” O’Neil, who has been with the team for eight years according to Kasan, said. “I think that’s the romance of hockey. I really do. I think you fall in love with teams, you fall in love with players, you fall in love with personalities. You fall in love with the way they skate.”

O’Neil also feels that Lindy Ruff is the man to get the Devils to the promised land. “I think that we have something really special. I’m sure some fans are frustrated with losing. I’m frustrated with the losing. I just didn’t think there was any other way. I think we have the right pieces in place. I think Lindy (Ruff) is the right coach. Fitzy is the right GM. I think they’re going to build something special.

O’Neil was on the podcast to promote his book: Be Where Your Feet Are: Seven Principles to Keep you Present, Grounded, and Thriving. While I am sure every business executive has seven or eight principles that allow them to write a book and pull in royalties succeed, I don’t entirely agree with his GM skills.

I think he’s right about the expansion draft, but if he is inferring making trades at the Draft (for veteran, NHL-ready players), or reeling in a high-priced free agent, no.

The team needs to be built for long term success. Recklessly throwing money at a free agent (and overpaying, likely) is not a good idea. And that is if said free agent even wants to come to New Jersey. It’s a great place to raise a family, close to, but not in, NYC, but the team just is not ready enough to win for a big-time free agent to come here. That’s the catch-22 of free agency.

And the team not being ready enough to win? That brings me to my next point. The Devils’ roster is historically young. Our oldest full-time forward is Miles Wood at a ripe old 25 (he will turn 26 in September). That kind of roster needs seasoning. Yeah, making the playoffs would be a good trial-by-fire for them. But just learning how to win, being in a NHL playoff race late in the season, would be novel for these guys.

Time will tell if he is right. This team will get back to prominence, this I know. You have to admire O’Neil’s enthusiasm and desire to win but I just hope there is no pressure on Tom Fitzgerald to do something rash to appease ownership and the higher-ups.

Return to prominence will need to happen organically.

Devils’ Website Gives Insight into Ruff

In an interesting article posted yesterday on the Devils’ official website, writer Peter Robinson spoke to two of Lindy Ruff’s former NHL players and discussed what he brings to the Devils’ bench. The interviews appeared in an article entitled “Reflections on Ruff.”

The two players Robinson spoke to via text were Jay McKee, who played under Ruff with the Buffalo Sabres, and Dave Lowry, who played under Ruff when the latter was an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers. One of Ruff’s players at that time and Lowry’s teammate? None other than current Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald.

Both men have gone into coaching at the junior level. McKee was “most recently the head coach of the Kitchener Rangers” of the Ontario Hockey League, where, Robinson points out, he coached Devils prospect Michael Vukojevic.

Lowry is the coach of the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and his son, Adam, currently is playing for the Winnipeg Jets.

Both men had fond memories of Ruff as a coach, with McKee telling Robinson that “Lindy is a great communicator and his Xs and Os are great too.”

Lowry said “Lindy came along for us at a time when coaches didn’t really associate (off-ice) with the players. Lindy would play golf with us and take part in the occasional card game… that was unheard of at the time.”

But despite that, McKee told Robinson that he didn’t “want to call him a players’ coach (necessarily), because he was never afraid to crack the whip. What he is, is he’s an excellent person, just a good human and he can connect with guys, especially young players.” This is especially appealing to Devils fans’ ears with their core of good, young players and system of prospects.

Another interesting wrinkle that Robinson explores is that McKee played for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009-10, a year following their Stanley Cup win in 2009. That was the year that Fitzgerald moved “into a player development role” for the Pens “after serving an assistant to Dan Bylsma on the Cup-winning squad in 2009.”

McKee said: “I don’t really know Fitzy other than as a player, I played against him a lot, but I will say this, that it’s usually guys like him who make the best GMs.”

McKee also makes mention of Ruff’s ability to adapt, citing the Sabres major playoff runs while Ruff was there. He told Robinson: “the first time, 1999, we got to the Final and really only had one star player and that was our goalie, (Dominik) Hasek. Then in 2006 we had Max (Afinogenov), Chris Drury, Danny Briere, Derek Roy…had we not had four defensemen injured (in the playoffs) and Tim Connolly the (outcome) could have been different (than losing in the Eastern Conference Final). That was all Lindy being able to adjust like he did as a head coach (and have success) with different teams and (installing) two completely different systems.”

Lowry likened it to technology, saying “you need to know the latest, greatest (piece), but sometimes you pick it up just by watching your own kids.”

This information bodes well for fans who were skeptical of this hiring, myself included. Ruff seems, from what his former players say, to be able to connect with the younger players while still maintaining discipline and adapting his coaching as the league changes. You do not last as long as Ruff has in the NHL as a coach – almost 26 straight seasons – and not be good at your craft. This perspective makes things a little more exciting.

In other Devils news, Amanda Stein is reporting on her “Inside the Devils” blog on NewJerseyDevils.com, that Nico Hischier is skating with the Swiss National Team this week.

Starting today (Wednesday), Nico and “Devils goaltending prospect Gilles Senn will join a group of 22 for the” summer Prospects Camp being run by the Swiss National Team.

There are “strict social distancing and sanitation guidelines” being adhered to and “all players involved will be tested for COVID-19 and asked to respect a 1.5-meter distance whenever possible.”

The camp will be bringing in “the best young players in the Swiss player pool, 25 and under, as well as young players from the junior teams.” Hischier, while an NHL player, has competed at the IIHF World Championships with Switzerland and will “help integrate the younger generation” along with Senn and Pius Suter, who recently signed with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Stein said that “the camp will mostly involve practice sessions, as well as a scrimmage at the end of camp.”