The New Jersey Devils aren’t planning to make a major move despite having the assets to be a player in free agency and the 2020 NHL Draft, general manager Tom Fitzgerald said Friday.
Instead, the Devils want to allow their young core, which includes forwards Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, to lead them back to respectability.
“I’m not looking for a quick fix here,” Fitzgerald said. “When this team takes off is when Jack and Nico take off for good. They’re the type of players that can pull everybody with you.
“I’m going to be true to myself and true to this plan that we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. We’re going to do this the right way and we’re going to chip away and we’re going to find the right support for our young future stars to help them grow, because they’re still so young and they’re ready to go.”
Hischier, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, and Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, head an impressive group of talented young players in the Devils organization that also includes 23-year-old goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, who is entering his third NHL season.
Hischier had 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 58 games this season, his fewest in three NHL seasons, and Hughes had 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) in 61 games, tied for 16th among NHL rookies. Blackwood was 22-14-8 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 47 games (43 starts).
“[Hischier] is in his fourth year and I know he’s ready to take a big step,” Fitzgerald said. “[Hughes] is going to take a step, we’re just not sure how big that step will be. It’s going to be exciting to see how big of a step he takes. We want to allow our kids to grow at their pace without rushing them into the National Hockey League because we need to.”
The Devils, who were 28-29-12 (.493 points percentage) in the regular season, were not among the 24 teams to compete in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. As a result, they pivoted midway through the season, launching a rebuild after having spent the previous offseason adding players for a potential run at the playoffs.
The Devils traded forward Taylor Hall, who won the 2018 Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the League and can become an unrestricted free agent on Oct. 9, to the Arizona Coyotes along with Blake Speers for forwards Nate Schnarr and Nicholas Merkley, defenseman Kevin Bahl, a first-round pick in the 2020 draft and a conditional third-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft on Dec. 16, 2019.
New Jersey then traded forward Blake Coleman and captain Andy Greene to the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, respectively, on Feb. 16. Defenseman Sami Vatanen and forward Wayne Simmonds were traded to the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres, respectively, on Feb. 24.
The Devils will look to put to good use the assets they received in those trades beginning in the 2020 draft. They have nine selections in the draft, including three (Nos. 7, 18 and 20) in the first round, which is Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 will be held on Wednesday (11:30 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN1).
NHL free agency begins two days after the draft.
“When the market opens, we’ll have some holes and if I can fill them that way, I’m going to do that,” Fitzgerald said. “We have cap space. But I want to use it the right way. I want to use it geared to the future and that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in putting a competitive team on the ice. I owe it to the organization, I owe to the fan base, I owe it to the alumni and players in that locker room to continue to build a better team.
“But that doesn’t mean we can go from 0-to-60 because we have a cap space.”
That’s what the Devils did last offseason when Fitzgerald’s predecessor, Ray Shero, acquired defenseman P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators on June 22, 2019, and forward Nikita Gusev in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights on July 29, 2019. He also signed Simmonds to a one-year contract on July 1, 2019.
Fitzgerald, who was promoted after Shero was fired on Jan. 12, 2020, said his goal is to eventually make New Jersey a top destination for players, but for now he wants to see development among its young core lead the way back to the playoffs, where the Devils have been once (2018) since losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.
“It’s exciting times,” Fitzgerald said. “Sometimes it may be hard to not have an itchy trigger finger and pull things off because they look great, but it just has to make sense for where we’re at and where we want to go.
“I don’t know if I wasn’t clear, but it’s clear to me that it’s easy to be seduced by certain types of players, then get caught long-term and then regret some things, potentially. The only thing I’m looking forward to is helping these young kids like [Hughes and Hischier], the rest of the prospects, the core kids, and watch them develop and grow together. Then whenever that time is, we just watch them create that winning culture. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.”