The New Jersey Devils are optimistic about their plan to build around their young core after trading Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders on Wednesday.
“The excitement that I’ve seen with my own eyes is only going to improve and there should be a lot of excitement for our fans,” Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “I’m sure they’re antsy about when we can start adding, but we’re all in and we all want to win, we all want to do better.
“Just look at what we have this year and how some of these kids have grown. That’s the message I’m sending to the kids … when you get an opportunity, you need to take advantage of it. If you don’t take advantage of it, someone else will.”
Trading Palmieri, a 30-year-old forward who played six seasons with New Jersey, and Zajac, a 35-year-old center in his 15th NHL season (1,024 games), all with the Devils, may signal a passing of the torch to two young offensive pillars in center Nico Hischier, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, and center Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Fitzgerald has been steadfast in his belief about building around his younger core ever since he was named GM after Ray Shero was fired Jan. 12, 2020.
New Jersey traded forwards Taylor Hall, Blake Coleman and Wayne Simmonds and defenseman Andy Greene during the 2019-20 season, after which they had three players over the age of 30. The Devils now average 24.8 years of age.
The longest-tenured player on the roster now is defenseman Damon Severson; the 26-year-old is in his seventh NHL season.
Hischier, 22, and Hughes, 19, head a group of young players already in key roles, including forwards Tyce Thompson, 21, Janne Kuokkanen, 22, Yegor Sharangovich, 22, Michael McLeod, 23, Nathan Bastian, 23, and Mikhail Maltsev, 23; defenseman Ty Smith, 21; and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, 24.
“We don’t (have a lot of experience), but I think this is where this young group grows,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve always stood by this. I want to see this group grow together. Once this group really hits its stride, then you can add your young guys within your organization, because those older guys — Jack is older, Nico is older, Ty Smith is older on the back end; they start to become leaders themselves and that’s the exciting part.
“I’m excited to grow with this group and help them continue to grow, but also help the organization get back into the status that we want to be where we’re winning hockey games to allow us to win championships.”
Hischier was named Devils captain Feb. 20, the same day he made his season debut. He missed the first 11 games because of an offseason foot injury and NHL COVID-19 protocol. He sustained a sinus fracture after being struck in the visor with a deflected puck late in a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 27, was placed on injured reserve March 4, had surgery March 15 and has missed the past 21 games. He resumed practicing with the team on Wednesday and could return to the lineup within a week.
New Jersey could make more moves prior to the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, with four pending unrestricted free agents remaining on the roster: defensemen Ryan Murray, Sami Vatanen and Dmitry Kulikov and goalie Scott Wedgewood.
The Devils (13-18-6), who failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons and in seven of the past eight, are seventh in the eight-team MassMutual East Division, 14 points behind the fourth-place Boston Bruins. The top four teams in each division qualify for the playoffs.
New Jersey plays at the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG-B, MSG+ 2, NHL.TV).
For Palmieri and Zajac, the Devils acquired minor league forwards A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst, a first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft and a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. That gives them nine picks in the 2021 NHL Draft, including two in the first round.
“My job moving forward is to continue to understand where we’re at, and continue to get better,” Fitzgerald said. “All we want to do is continue to do better and strive to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then continually be a playoff team that thirsts for winning a Stanley Cup championship and get back to an elite level where this organization deserves to be.”