NHL Blog: Something special in New Jersey

09/13/2023. Something extraordinary happened on the second day of the National Hockey League Draft, which was held in Nashville on June 29th. Something special is undoubtedly happening in New Jersey. Devils fans haven`t had a reason to be this excited about their team and General Manager in a long time. Maybe since the days of Lou Lamoriello, the early days. And that is saying something.

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Something special at Bridgestone Arena

The second day of an NHL Draft is usually nothing to write home about. The arena is almost empty, and teams go through their picks at a fast pace. But this year in Nashville, something special happened, during the seventh round.

New Jersey Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald made a trade with the Nashville Predators, so the retiring Preds` GM David Poile could make the last pick of his long career.

The incoming Nashville GM Barry Trotz was actually behind the idea. A deal was made rather quickly. New Jersey traded the 218th pick to Nashville. So it was announced that David Poile`s first-ever Predator captain Tom Fitzgerald would be making a trade so David Poile could make his last-ever pick.

This was a special moment. Mr. Poile was a very important person in hockey for a very very long time. Emotions were high. A great moment for everybody, an emotional moment. Not a dry eye in the place, in the seventh round!

David Poile was emotional. Tom Fitzgerald and Barry Trotz – Nashville`s first coach and captain – welled up and almost cried.

With the 218th overall pick, the Nashville Predators took a player from the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Brooks is an oil and gas prairie town about a two-hour drive north of Calgary. Aiden Fink is only 5”9 and 153 pounds. He scored 97 points in 54 games of Tier 2 Junior hockey last year.

Small in stature, Fink has large hands and massive feet (like size 12). He is still growing as he heads to his new hockey and scholastic home of Penn State this season.

David Poile said he would certainly be cheering for Aiden Fink.

“Silent Tom”

Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald has done some good work to build a winning team in New Jersey. The Prudential Centre fans chanted “FIRE LINDY!” last October after a 0-2 start, but “Fitzy” has a plan and he is sticking to it. He brought in an experienced coach because Lindy Ruff understands how to treat young players.

When a young player makes a mistake, he is not nailed to the end of the bench. He gets sent right back out on the ice.

Tom Fitzgerald had a long and good NHL career as a player. He grew up in Boston right after the Bobby Orr era. He is first cousins with Keith Tkachuk, the father of Matthew and Brady.

He was taken 17th overall by the New York Islanders in the 1986 NHL Draft and played two seasons with Providence College where one of his teammates was Jim Hughes, the father of all three Hughes brothers now in the NHL. Fitzgerald suited up for 1,097 regular season games with seven different NHL teams, and another 78 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

He played his 1,000th game on the same night as teammate Gary Roberts played his. That has only happened once.

Tom Fitzgerald played most of his career on weak teams, and always as a defensive-minded bottom-six forward. His best season as far as goal production, was in 1993-94 when he tallied 18 goals. His biggest point season was in 1995-96, with 34 points. He played for the New York Islanders during the decade most Islander fans prefer not to talk about – the 1990s – because the team was so poor.

He went to the Florida Panthers in the Expansion Draft of 1993, and three years later he played with the Panthers during their Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup finals before being swept by the Colorado Avalanche. He wound up as a free agent with another new expansion team, the Nashville Predators, in 1998, where in his eleventh NHL season, he became the franchise`s first captain.

Fitzgerald still holds an interesting NHL Stanley Cup goal-scoring record. On May 8th, 1993, he scored two shorthanded goals, during the same minor penalty, as the Islanders defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-5 in Game 4 of the Patrick Division Final.

The Florida Panthers advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. Tom Fitzgerald scored his most famous goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. His slapshot from 58 feet away beat Tom Barrasso and was the decisive goal of the series. He also scored the very first goal in the final series against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 1 in Denver. He made a passing play with linemate Bill Lindsay and then chipped the puck over goaltender Patrick Roy.

“Silent Tom” finished his career in a little bit more of a spotlight with stints in Chicago, Toronto, and in the end with his hometown Boston Bruins in 2005-06.

After retiring, Tom Fitzgerald joined the Pittsburgh Penguins and worked in the development of players for eight years, and won the Stanley Cup as an executive with the Pens in 2009. He has now been the General Manager of the Devils for three years.

When you look at Tom Fitzgerald`s management career, he has had people like Ray Shero, Pat Quinn, Roger Neilson, Al Arbour, David Poile, Chuck Fletcher, Bill Torrey, Barry Trotz, and others as his mentors. Not bad. And as a career fourth-liner, he understands what the depth players have to go through.

Quality product

Tom Fitzgerald is building a quality product right now as the General Manager of the New Jersey Devils. The future seems very bright, especially after the Devils beat the New York Rangers in the first round of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Devils have been drafting very well, building a team through the Draft, but also adding very good players through trades. Defenceman Dougie Hamilton, and forwards Timo Meier and Tyler Toffoli are good examples of the latter.

Drafting and developing young players is the cornerstone of any championship team. New Jersey Devils is right now a team on the rise, and it is only a matter of time before this team is ready to hit the next level. Locking up young players like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt to long-term multi-year contracts has been important.

It is important to note that none of the Devils’ big names have signed contracts that have crippled some other teams. Tom Fitzgerald is trying to create an organization that is modeled after his hometown Boston Bruins. Players have to want to buy in and accept less money to be able to create a winning organization.

Star players have to leave something on the table for depth, penalty killers, good defense, and good goalies.

The future is even brighter with defense prospects Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec ready to join the team. Hughes joined the team late last season and made an impact immediately. Nemec was kept in the AHL last season as an 18-year-old on purpose to keep improving towards a bona fide right-handed NHL defenceman.

While the future is bright, the Devils have to first take care of the present.

Getting a veteran dman like Collin Miller from the Dallas Stars was important. Miller creates depth on the right side and is an important veteran for the young players.

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Two top-tier goal scorers in a four-month span

Devils fans have been begging for goal scorers for what seems like multiple off-seasons. This year GM Tom Fitzgerald delivered. First Timo Meier and then, on June 27th, Tyler Toffoli from the Calgary Flames.

2014 Stanley Cup Champion Tyler Toffoli, that is. Number 73 on your Calgary Flames program last year, who scored 34 goals, and 39 assists for 73 points.

The Devils had to give up a lot of assets to acquire Time Meier from the San Jose Sharks. Tom Fitzgerald built up a lot of asset equity to be able to use it in a trade. To get a good player you have to give up good players.

Devils management was in no hurry to sign Meier long-term. They were not going to even talk to the player`s agent before the offseason. They wanted the Swiss winger to first get acclimated with the environment, the organization, and how the Devils play, and take his time.

The Devils play a little differently than most teams. And now Meier is a New Jersey Devil until 2031. Timo Meier was targeted by the Devils for a few years. A young and versatile player.

Smart signings

Jesper Bratt got an extension. GM Tom Fitzgerald said, that he believes Bratt is a special player and a key member of the Devils` core group of talent who will contribute towards the team`s long-term success, and organizational goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to New Jersey.

Much traveled, especially lately, Erik Haula still has his wheels and a contract for the next three years. A perfect speedy veteran for the Devils.

Smart signings and Tom Fitzgerald may not yet be done. Could he be making a play for Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck? That move could propel the Devils from playoff contender to one of the Stanley Cup favorites in the East.

One area, where the Devils may still need more strength is their center depth. Jack Hughes – Nico Hischier – Dawson Mercer – Michael McLeod?

The New Jersey Devils contract situation is good. Their window has just opened up. They are trying to make New Jersey a desired destination for players. A special place to play. It is a good place to live, the big city is just across the river, travel is easy by NHL standards, and the team has its practice facility attached to the Arena.

Buckle up, Devils fans

You could say that “Silent Tom” has delivered. The future looks very good in New Jersey. And that future starts right now. Let`s take Timo Meier, who is now signed for eight years, as an example. With a full training camp in the Devils system and a full season, he can very possibly get 50 goals.

Or more.

Exciting times in “almost New York” these days. The New Jersey Devils are starting to shape into the organization and the team that the management has been working towards and wanting for some time. The ceiling on a player like Luke Hughes is very high.

The team plays a very fast style of hockey. They got a little taste of what the playoffs are like last year by beating the Rangers in the first round and then losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in the second. The second round is a lot tougher than the first, on another level, and there are still two even harder rounds to go.

There is nothing tougher in sports than the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now the standards and the expectations are even higher. This team is hungry for more.

Buckle up, Devils fans!

Jouni Nieminen, Edmonton

Jouni Nieminen is an Edmonton-based NHL writer from Finland. He’s been following the NHL since the start of the 1977-1978 season.

X: @OnsideWithJouni
[email protected]

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