A rare opportunity presented itself to me about a week ago; our lead editor John Fischer sent out a staff e-mail stating that a member of the Devils' PR team had reached out to him about coming down to the New Jersey Devils' Development Camp to interview a few prospects and John could not make it. He asked if any of us would be willing/able to go in his place; despite the fact that I live in Connecticut and that I've never remotely done something like this before, I replied that I would be available on Monday July 13 if that date worked. A few more e-mails between John, myself and Brian from the Devils' PR Team and everything was all set: I was on my way to Development Camp!
The Road to Camp
The drive down to New Jersey was a nightmare; thanks Connecticut for choosing to do a bunch of road work in the middle of a day on a Monday. I think this was the first time I got over the George Washington Bridge quicker than I got out of my home state.
After about two hours or so of driving, I finally made it to the Prudential Center and headed for the staff entrance of the AmeriHealth Pavilion. It was my first time at the pavilion, and it took me a while to figure out exactly where I needed to go. I called up Brian as he had said he would meet me and get me acclimated. After stumbling around and having a number of funny, helpful security team members try to help me out, one of them called out, "There's Brian!" and I finally felt a bit less lost.
As I followed Brian into the AmeriHealth Pavilion, I saw the first group on the ice and Brian explained that they were finishing up and would be heading to the locker room soon. At this point I waited in the bleachers for a few minutes until we were escorted into the locker room.
Once inside the locker room, I looked around to see which players were available for me to talk to; I saw a group of reporters starting to gather to my side and realized immediately that they were swarming Pavel Zacha. I decided to go a bit more low-key to try and get my questions in, and I noticed Damon Severson had just finished chatting with the initial reporter who had approached him; I decided to start with the Devils defender entering his sophomore season. For the interviews, the questions will be italicized and the answers will be in block quotes beneath.
The 2014-15 season was your first season in the league; what was it like to be placed on the top defense pair and playing top minutes alongside Andy Greene?
It wasn't really something that I was expecting coming in, but I set goals for myself, came in, played with Andy and got a good opportunity with him. We played solid through the preseason together and they kept us together at the start; he's an easy guy to play with overall and he helped me out as a player. I played those minutes all throughout junior and then some so that was something I was definitely comfortable with, but moving up in the league is a good step and that was exciting for me and I'm hoping to do that again this year.
As Devils organization members and fans know, President Lou Lamoriello stepped down as general manager a little over two months ago and he hired Ray Shero to take over that position. Have you had any interactions with Mr. Shero just yet?
Yeah, just a phone call, kind of the first introduction with him. I met him when I got here , just briefly said hi, talked a little bit of hockey here and there, but hasn't been that serious; I think he's just trying to get to know faces and names and get comfortable with everybody. I think sometime this week I'm going to get to have a sit-down meeting with him and the coach; part of the reason I'm here is just to get to know everything and be prepared for training camp.
What does it mean to you to don a Devils jersey?
It's exciting, obviously it's every kid's dream no matter what. Every kid says they want to play in the NHL when they grow up no matter where it is. I didn't really have a favorite team growing up, I figured whichever team gave me the opportunity, that's what I would be excited for. I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity here and hopefully keep that going for a long time.
Any personal goal you have for the 2015-16 season?
First and foremost just to stay healthy throughout the whole year, play in every game, and be a contributor every night. I don't have any goals points-wise, but I know I'm at my best when I'm putting up good numbers and contributing offensively from the back end. If I can do that as best as possible this year, really be consistent game in and game out, that's going to be key for me and will help this team win.
Anything else you'd like to say to the Devils' faithful reading this online at In Lou We Trust?
We appreciate your support all year, I know last year was a tough year, but hopefully we're going to turn things around this year and we look forward to seeing you guys.
After thanking Damon Severson, I went over to a player who didn't have too many reporters around him and at first quite frankly seemed a bit surprised that I was looking to interview him.
Were you surprised that the New Jersey Devils selected you this year in the draft?
A little bit surprised; they were one of the teams that I talked to, but they weren't the one that had the most interest; they were middle of the pack, so I was pretty surprised, but very happy.
The Devils had been spoiled having the legendary Martin Brodeur in net for roughly two decades; because of this, do you feel any additional pressure to succeed in New Jersey?
Well, of course; if you look around on the walls here, everything is Martin Brodeur so those are huge shoes to try and fill. Coming into a place with a legendary goaltender, to try and fill those shoes is an extraordinary task, but with hard work and dedication you never know what you can achieve.
What does it mean to you to be a member of the Devils organization?
It's incredible; I have no other words to describe it. It's truly an honor to be a member and I'm going to continue to work hard and try to improve so hopefully one day I can play for them.
Where do you see yourself two to three years from now?
Depends on opportunities I guess; maybe playing in the AHL I wouldn't say this year, but potentially the year after that. You never know, if I get an opportunity a couple years down the road, hopefully I'll be in the NHL.
I thanked Mackenzie Blackwood for his time and seeing as the crowd had thinned, made my way over to a young who I assumed might have been growing weary of questions.
Fresh out of the NHL Draft a couple of weeks ago, you're here at your first Devils Development Camp. What have the last two weeks looked like for Pavel Zacha?
Right at the draft, I flew here to meet the fans; they are just amazing. There's a lot of new stuff here, new GM, new coaches and I was talking to them. Then I came back to Florida to spend a few more days with my family, then I flew out to California and I was working out at a place to get ready for development camp. Two days ago, I came down to get some rest after the flight; we had some testing today and the first practice on the ice that I enjoyed. It was amazing and I'm trying to enjoy this week because this is the first time in my life in New Jersey and getting on the ice in New Jersey; it's a great feeling and I'm enjoying it.
What was it like to play your first season in North America last season for the Sarnia Sting?
I was really happy that I made the decision to go to Canada because I got to be there, learn English, and the differences like the bigger ice. We have a team that will be really good next season in Sarnia; we made the playoffs last season and we had a pretty good series. Me personally, I got a lot better during the season; there were some suspensions and injuries (which made me) stronger because I was never injured and never suspended in all my life, so it makes me a little bit stronger than I was before and now I'm here to battle for a place to play in the NHL.
Do you see yourself in the NHL this coming season?
There were a lot of questions like that; I know there were some discussions that I could play because they don't have too many young forwards. If I show my best here and they say, "okay, he can play here" I'll probably sign a contract, then go to main camp, and then if I show I can play again, then maybe they can tell me that I'm staying here. That's my goal for this season; that's why I'm here and that's why I want to show them that I can be part of this organization.
What does it mean to you being a member of the Devils organization now?
It was a great feeling because all my life I was always thinking about New Jersey because there were Czech players like Patty (Elias), Bobby Holik, Jaromir Jagr last season, a lot of Czech player so all my life I was hearing about this team. It's a big franchise here, I love the city around me; I've been here a short time but I love the fans, they're amazing. There were so many people and they listened to me so for the fans it was great too. I was talking with the staff here that there were many great players here at camp so it's exciting for me to be here.
While his English certainly wasn't perfect, Pavel's outlook on the club was to me. I thanked him for his time, snapped a couple of quick pictures of the players, and headed back out of the locker room.
After speaking with the three players, I was able to return to the bleachers of the AmeriHealth Pavilion to watch the second group practice. While I was not able to stay long enough to be able to interview any players from this group, I did get to observe them on the ice. In no particular order, here are some brief reactions to the performance of some of those players:
John Quenneville: Quenneville notably left the ice for a period of time for what appeared to be a busted skate, but returned before the end of the session. He showed a good amount of skill on the ice, but his passing could still use some work, as many of his dishes skipped over the stick of his teammates.
Joseph Blandisi: Blandisi is someone that I hope is invited to training camp this year as he looked very good out on the ice. I kept noticing what I initially thought were a couple of different players attacking fast and putting good shots on net; each time I got a look at the back of the jersey though, it said "Blandisi" each time. Here's a youngster that I have some hope for.
Raman Hrabarenka: While he played one game for New Jersey last season, I don't think you can accurately judge a player based on less than 12 minutes on the ice. Raman looked very good ice the ice, skating with smooth strides and making good crisp passes. He may not wind up being a superstar of a defender, and could stand to work on his shot (at least from what I saw) but he could be a solid option for New Jersey to look at.
Reece Scarlett: While Scarlett may have been passed on the depth chart by a number of defensemen on the Devils roster, I have to say he has a pretty solid wrist shot that impressed me.
Matt Gaudreau: The nicest thing that I can say is Johnny Gaudreau he ain't; Matt looks to be a good skater, but sadly that looks like that's about it. His shot looked weak, he missed his target with a few passes, and just generally didn't impress me; perhaps there were some first day jitters which resulted in his sub-par appearance,
Matt Lorito: Another guy that I think has some potential; Lorito will probably spend the season down in Albany, but if injuries arise and we need to call someone up, I'd rather have some new blood like Lorito (provided he signs an NHL deal as he is currently on an AHL only deal) instead of the same old plugs.
Ken Appleby and Colton Phinney: I have to say that neither of the goalies in the practice group I viewed impressed me. Some fundamentals were present, but there were a lot of mistakes and quite a few "soft" goals allowed by each guy. I know that this isn't a game situation, but when you're vying for a roster spot, effort and skill combined are what set a player apart from their peers; neither of these guys showed a good combination on day 1.
Graham Black: Another note of interest is that Black was not present in either group and was not listed on the posted rosters for the 3 on 3 Tournament. Don't know if there's a story here or not but I'll keep an eye on it.
Thoughts on an Awesome Day
While the commute to and from the arena was a nightmare, every piece of this journey was worth it for me. If you asked me a couple of years ago if I thought I would ever be interviewing members of the New Jersey Devils organization, I probably would have laughed my head off like you were crazy! I don't know if I will ever get an opportunity like this again, so I would like to thank John and Brian for their parts in helping me get to Development Camp. I'd also like to again thank Damon Severson, Mackenzie Blackwood and Pavel Zacha for allowing me to interview them, especially Zacha after the question bombardment he received.
Now I'd like to hear from you my fellow Devils fans; did this report help you with information on the players present? Did any of the interviews or player reports have any information that surprised you? Are there any prospects you are excited for and/or have your eyes on? Leave any and all comments below and as always thanks for reading!