In the wake of the third-period choke-job in Toronto last Monday, the MSG broadcasters seemingly scrambled for a narrative to deal with what they just saw without being overly critical or distraught about how the Devils blew that game. The narrative, per Ken Daneyko, is that the Devils are still learning how to win.
I was annoyed hearing that while writing up the recap of a game where the Devils botched a two-goal lead, and conceded the game winner on a shorthanded goal against that made Damon Severson look especially stupid. And it seems like this is the third straight season of the Devils needing to learn how to win. Amid a re-build that traces back to 2015, seven years ago. However, a couple days after that game and mentally blocking out Tuesday’s game, I decided to give empathy a try. To be a little more inclusive of other people’s ideas. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Daneyko had a point. Maybe the Devils do need to learn how to win. After all, Kevin Lowe knew a thing or two about winning. Look at him now.
To test this, let us look at what each New Jersey Devil has done in their careers prior to this season. Did they Win before? Did they come close to Winning in their past? Does the player need to learn How to Win, get a refresher in Winning, or have enough in their past to say that they have Learned to Win and/or are bonafide Winners? Let’s get a little silly and take a look at every single Devil this season (and the coaches) to find how who has won before and who has a lot to learn.
Jack Hughes: As a youth, The Big Deal racked up tons of accolades. Two Under-18 World Championship All-Star teams, Best Forward and MVP of the U-18s in 2018, leading scorer in the 2019 U-18s, and USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year in 2017-18. However, he has just one gold medal in the U-17 World Hockey Challenge. USA took silver in the 2018 World U-18s, bronze in the 2019 World U-18s, and silver in the 2019 World Junior Championships. Is second and third place finishes at international championships enough of a success for winning? It’s something, but it’s not gold. It’s not the top prize. It’s not the main goal. And the U-17 WHC is not that impressive; nor is a OJHL championship in 2017. CONCLUSION: Needs to learn at least a bit more on How to Win. Sure, he scored three goals yesterday, but did he win All Star Game MVP? No. Clearly needs to learn.
Nico Hischier: Like Hughes, he has plenty of accolades. In 2017, he was the CHL Rookie of the Year, the QMJHL Best Professional Prospect, leading scorer among rookies as well as the QMJHL rookie of the year, and a Top 3 player on his U-18 and U-20 WJC team for Switzerland. Prior to that, he did win with the Bern U-17s in the Swiss Elite Novizen and Bern U-20s in the Swiss Elite Jr. A league. But since then? An All-Star Game appearance and a Top 3 player on his team at the 2021 World Championships. Again: youth championships is indeed Winning. But with Switzerland in international play? No medals. No nothing. Halifax? Nope. The Devils? Come on. CONCLUSION: Gotta learn more about Winning, he should join up with Hughes about that.
Jesper Bratt: He is considered by some to be the jewel of the Devils’ 2016 NHL Draft Class, even though he is not as Big as Nathan Bastian or Michael McLeod. Does the team’s leading scorer need to learn more how to win? Let’s look at the record: a U-17 World Hockey Championship bronze medal, a World U-18 silver medal in 2016, a bronze medal in the Swedish U-20 league in 2017. Silver just means you’re the last loser. Bronze is the runner up to the runner up. CONCLUSION: Yeah, he has points. But winning? Not enough winning. Can stand to learn more about it.
Andreas Johnsson: The Devils acquired Andreas Johnsson prior to last season. Does the ex-Toronto player have some winning in him? Believe it or not, he does. In 2011, he won with golds with Frolunda’s U-18 and U-20 teams in their respective leagues as well as something called a Junior European Trophy Champion. While he only earned silver in the WJCs in 2014, Johnsson got back to the top with the Champions Hockey League and SHL with championships in both with Frolunda in 2015-16. And despite the Maple Leafs’ curse of not winning anything beyond the regular season, the Marlies have been really good. Johnsson was the MVP and leading point-scorer of the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs as the Marlies won it all. Johnsson’s production is inconsistent and his performances leave one unsure where he belongs. But he has something worth more than getting on the scoresheet with any regularity: past success. CONCLUSION: Johnsson knows How to Win. It is in his memory. He has Won Before and so he can Win Again. That’s how this works, right?
Dawson Mercer: The rookie earned his way onto the team and started off hot. While he has since cooled off, his future is bright. And Mercer also has some championship glory in his past. In addition to two championships in AAA hockey, he was a part of Canada’s gold medal winning WJC team in 2020. In 2020-21, Mercer was named the QMJHL’s Best Defensive Forward, Most Sportsmanlike Player, First All-Star Team while earning silver with Canada in the 2021 WJCs. OK, the silver is a little disappointing. But he has a gold medal. Clearly, he can tell Hughes and Hischier all about what it takes to get that one. CONCLUSION: Mercer knows How to Win. This, more than anything else, will make him the most important under-25 player on the team. I expect you all to vote that way in the 2022 Top 25 Under 25 later this year for that.
Pavel Zacha: The Corner Turner has been with the Devils since he was drafted. Clearly, he has not won much since then among his 358 (and counting) NHL games. What did the 24-year old forward do before being drafted? He was a part of the Czech’s silver medal at the 2014 World U-18 Championships. And he was a top three player on the Czech team at the 2015 World U-18s while also being named to the OHL First All-Rookie Team. That is it. Add another reason to lament the Devils drafting him at sixth overall. He did not win a lot or enough. CONCLUSION: Zacha has to head around another corner to get to Winning Class.
Tomas Tatar: Tatar is 31 and has been in the NHL for a while. So you have to go back to see what he has done. In 2009, he was a top three player for Slovakia at the WJCs. He earned silver with Slovakia at the 2012 World Championships. In 2013, he was the AHL Calder Cup playoffs MVP and leading scorer as Grand Rapids won the championship that year. There’s a ring. Nothing since making it to the NHL until Montreal made it all the way to the Finals. Alas, the Canadiens did not win and Tatar did not play much. Clearly, they did not have enough players who knew how to win. But the AHL championship is something. CONCLUSION: A little remedial winning training may do some good, even just to jog the memories of nine years ago.
Yegor Sharangovich: Sharangovich is not having the breakout season some expected after his rookie campaign in 2021. And Belarus is not exactly a hockey nation with a lot of success. Or is it? Sharangovich was part of the 2015 team that took silver at the Division 1A World U-18s, the 2016 team that won gold at the Division 1A World U-18s and earned promotion, the 2017 WJC team that won gold at the Division 1A level, the 2019 World Championship team that won silver at the Division 1A level, and something called the Belarus Cup in 2020-21. Sure, those are achievements at a lower level of competition. But Sharangovich should not be punished for representing a small nation in the world of hockey. He should be celebrated for the wins he did earn since he certainly did not have anything with Binghamton or New Jersey or his partial loan to Dinamo Minsk. CONCLUSION: Sharangovich did some winning before and wins are wins are wins, nevermind the level of competition. He gets a pass from finishing Winning Class.
Jimmy Vesey: Jimmy V has plenty of experience at this winning thing. He was part of the USA team that won gold at the WJCs in 2013. He won his conference with Harvard in 2014-15 along with a boatload of NCAA achievements. He even made the United States World Championship team in 2015, although they only earned a bronze - which again, is not a worth a lot of winning. Harvard could not repeat in 2015-16 and Vesey has went on to play for some non-successful teams in New York, Buffalo, Toronto, and Vancouver. And now with New Jersey. But the WJC gold and ECAC championship are two total victories. CONCLUSION: Vesey knows something about Winning. Clearly, that helped him get him the job when he was on PTO in preseason.
Janne Kuokkanen: What has Janne Kuokkanen done, I think I heard you say? Plenty. A silver medal in the U-16 Finnish league for 2013-14, a U-18 championship in Finland in 2014-15, a World U-18 gold medal and another U-18 championship in Finland in 2015-16, and a Calder Cup with Charlotte in 2018-19. That is four championships in Kuokkanen’s pocket. And he is not even 24. CONCLUSION: Maybe Kuokkanen should also show some of the others how it is done out there because clearly, Kuokkanen is a Winner. Pay no attention to his fade-in, fade-out performances. Kuokkanen. Just. Wins.
Michael McLeod: You may think McLeod was a worse first round pick than Zacha. But I’ll have you know that McLeod is much of a winner. U-14 and U-15 championships in the GTHL. An OHF Bantam AAA Champion. An OHL Cup Champion in 2014. A gold medal at the Hlinka Memorial tournament in 2015. A silver medal with Canada at the 2017 WJCs. A gold medal with Canada at the 2018 WJCs. Just like his faceoff percentage convinces some that he should play as much as he does, his pedigree speaks for itself. CONCLUSION: Look at the winning! Don’t think about what McLeod did or does now. He got the wins! He knows how to do it! He’s fine. Did you know he can win faceoffs?
Nathan Bastian: Sure, you may like Bastian for his size, his size, his standing in front of a goaltender on the first power play unit, and his size. He actually is a decent bottom-six winger. However, is he a Winner? I regret to tell you that he has not won a thing in his past. Bet you think he is not so hot now, huh? CONCLUSION: Bastian may be the Devils most in need of learning how to win. Just not a Winner. Why did Fitzgerald claim him on waivers when the team clearly needs some Winners?
Jesper Boqvist: Jesper Boqvist has yet to really stake his claim in the NHL. He seems like a guy who is too good for the AHL but not good enough to stick on a bad NHL team. It is a tough spot to be in. And surprising given his past. Boqvist has a gold medal with the Brynas IF U-18 team in 2015, a silver medal with Sweden at the 2015 Hlinka Memorial tournament and the 2016 World U-18s, and a silver medal with Sweden at the 2018 WJCs. Sure, it would have been better if those silvers were golds. But it is a far sight better than Bastian. Maybe Boqvist should play ahead of him with all of that winning experience? CONCLUSION: Maybe could use some work on winning but it should not take long since he has come close to the big prize three times before.
Alexander Holtz: Oh, are you going to point out what this guy who could not salvage the power play in his very first NHL call up has done? Yes, I am. In 2017-18, he earned the best U-18 forward award in Sweden while Djurgardens U-18 team won gold. In the 2018-19 season, he was part of Sweden’s silver medal team at the Hlinka, Djurgardens’ U-20 bronze medal, Sweden’s bronze medal team at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge, and a gold medal winner at the 2019 Would U-18s. Yes, a gold to wash out that silver and bronze aftertaste. Holtz only won bronze with Sweden at the 2020 WJCs, so there is room for growth. Being named the AHL Rookie of the Month in January is nice. But unless Utica wins it all, what is that even worth? Still, a promising backstory with at least two championships in it already. CONCLUSION: Holtz is closer to being a winner than you may think. Almost like his NHL readiness.
Marian Studenic: Like Boqvist, Studenic is one of those fringe players who has received chances to play but has not done enough to stick around, yet is possibly too good for Utica. Has the former fifth-round pick won much? Not much, but he does have an OHL Championship. He won it with Hamilton back in 2018. That is better than nothing - looking at you, Bastian. CONCLUSION: Studenic could use some lessons but could be on an accelerated track what with that OHL Championship experience. After all, championships in Canadian major juniors just mean more. Imagine if Hamilton won the Memorial Cup that year.
Frederik Gauthier: You, a common fan, may think Gauthier is not skilled or quick enough to hang at this level. Plus, there is not much to gain from the 26-year old PTO signed player. Let me sway you with the facts that he has championships in his past. He was a QMAAA champion in 2012 as well as taking silver at the Telus Cup. When he made the QMJHL All-Rookie team in 2012-13, Gauthier beat that by winning gold with Canada at the World U-18s in 2013. In 2015, he was a double champion: QMJHL champs with Rimouski and WJC gold with Canada. And he was with Johnsson - who is a Winner - on that Calder Cup winning Marlies team in 2018. Maybe Gauthier needs another look because he has experience, he is large, and he is clearly a winner. CONCLUSION: Gauthier knows how to win; maybe he can teach some others on how to do it. Maybe Utica is winning all of these games because of that, hmm?
Chase De Leo: The AHL journeyman has made two appearances with New Jersey this season. Maybe he could have had more if was more of a winner. Like Zacha, he does have a Canadian major junior championship in his past. De Leo and Portland did win the WHL Championship in 2013. Almost did it again in 2014 and 2015, but almost does not count when it comes to winning. CONCLUSION: Like Zacha, maybe he could stand to learn at least a little more about winning as his career progresses.
A.J. Greer: Greer has only played in two games and left the second one after a headshot by Ross Johnston. He is now back in Utica, scoring goals. Presumably because he has a winning pedigree. Before the junior level? Won a QMAAA championship in 2011-12. As a junior player? He has a rare double: a Hockey East championship after 2014-15 with Boston University and a QMJHL championship with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies after leaving the Terriers during the 2015-16 season. Sure, leaving your college team to juniors may not be great character. But he earned the AHL Best in Community award in 2016-17. That is character. CONCLUSION: Greer has some more winning than some of these other depth players mentioned so far.
Fabian Zetterlund: You may want to go with him if you want to lift weights. Lifting trophies? Not so much. The third-rounder’s past has a TV-Pucken gold medal back in 2014-15 when was an U-16 player, a U-17 World Hockey Challenge bronze medal with Sweden in 2015-16, and a silver medal with Sweden at the 2018 WJCs. Again, it’s not nothing but it is not a lot. Kind of on par with Jack Hughes, come to think of it. CONCLUSION: They can be study buddies in Winning Class. And maybe hit the gym for gains.
Nolan Foote: Nolan Foote has not done a lot in the NHL. Some may be concerned his lack of pace may hold him back from a NHL career. However, he has a silver medal with Canada at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge in 2016-17, a gold medal with Canada at the Hlinka Memorial tournament in 2017-18, and a gold with Canada at the 2020 WJCs. Two gold medals before he turned pro? Foote may not be fast on the ice, but he has been quick to find success. CONCLUSION: Just work on the skating. You don’t need a whole lot of lessons in Winning, young Nolan.
Tyce Thompson: Tyce Thompson got a decent look in seven games last season after captaining Providence College as a junior in 2020-21. He was set to get more, but Thompson’s season was derailed by injury this season. Unfortunately, I have to inform you, the reader, that Thompson has not been a winner. Sure, he made some second All-Star teams in Hockey East. But that is it. No championships. No medals. No nothing. Sure, you may think he has a NHL future as a depth player. But what good are skills and work ethic if you have not won a lot before you played in the NHL? Just like Bastian. CONCLUSION: Absolutely needs to learn how to win when he is able to.
Mason Geertsen: Is he a forward? Is a defenseman? Is he a NHL caliber player? Is he a provider of the Element of Intimidation? No, no, no, and no. But is he a winner? Geertsen was technically a part of the 2011-12 WHL championship winning Edmonton Oil Kings. He was also a member of the ECHL Kelly Cup winning Colorado Eagles in 2016-17. That’s two championships. Two more than some of these other guys who may have things like potential, hockey skill, and an ability to keep up with the speed of the league. CONCLUSION: Geertsen may not be able to do a lot. But he has some semblance of what winning is like. Maybe a refresher is all that is needed. Maybe this was the reason he was picked up on waivers and kept on the roster because Tom Fitzgerald knows he cannot let an asset like Geertsen go back to waivers. 31 other teams would surely clamor for the qualities Mason Geertsen has.
Damon Severson: Severson may not be the oldest player on the team, but he has been a member of the organization longer than anyone else on the active roster. He was drafted in 2012 by New Jersey, made it to the NHL in 2014, and has been with the team ever since. Which does not bode well for the subject of this post, which is to ask: Is he a winner? With just a World U-18 bronze medal in 2012 and a World Championship silver medal in 2019, that is not very much. Like a 2-on-1 rush against him, Severson disappoints in this regard too. CONCLUSION: What if Severson learned How to Win when he was younger? Now, how can he learn? But they must try. If it is at all possible. And if he actually glides over to the sessions when he’s supposed to.
Dougie Hamilton: Dougie Hamilton is the big dollar player on the blueline. The money demands that he be a great player. But as we know, being a winner is just more important. Is he a winner? Prior to the NHL, he won a championship in AAA hockey (2009); a silver medal at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge and OHL second All-Rookie Team in 2009-10; a gold medal at the Hlinka Memorial tourney in 2010 and an OHL Second All-Star Team spot; a bronze medal at the 2012 WJCs with Canada, the OHL’s Most Outstanding Defenseman award, a spot on the OHL First All-Star Team, and the CHL’s Defenseman of the Year in 2011-12. It is not great - no OHL championships with Niagara - but it is not nothing. In the NHL, he did get named to the 2020 NHL All-Star Game and made the NHL’s Second All-Star Team in 2021. Again, not a lot of winning but not an empty cupboard either. CONCLUSION: Not so much of a refresher, but maybe an advanced course on winning can help Dougie out.
Ryan Graves: This big, hulking mass of a man is apparently what the Devils needed. This is why their defense is so impenetrable these days. But, again, that is beside the point. Is Graves a winner? Well, he did win a QMJHL championship with Val-d’Or in 2013-14 and he was part of the Memorial Cup and did well enough to be a part of that tourney’s all star team in 2014-15 when he was with Quebec. Graves also made it to the AHL All Star Game in 2015-16 when he was playing with Hartford. But since then: nothing. CONCLUSION: Sad to say, but the big man needs to Learn How to Win.
P.K. Subban: I know what you may be thinking. Him? Mr. Broken Sticks? The man called Slewbban? The glitz, the glamour, and the getting-worse-as-he-ages Subban? A winner? Absolutely. 2007-08: WJC gold. 2008-09: OHL First All Star Team, 2009 WJC gold, and 2009 WJC All-Star Team and top 3 player on Canada. 2009-10: AHL All-Rookie Team, All-Star Game appearance, and AHL First All-Star Team. 2010-11: NHL All-Rookie Team. 2013: NHL First All-Star Team and a Norris Trophy - the only Devil on this team with an actual individual trophy. 2013-14: Olympic gold. 2014-15: NHL First All-Star Team. 2017-18: NHL Second All-Star Team. Subban was not just one of the best players in the 2010s, but he was a winner. CONCLUSION: The Devils may need to re-sign Subban just so he can keep telling the boys How to Win because he clearly knows How it is Done and What It Takes. Some of you need to put more respect on Subban’s name. Re-sign him to whatever he wants!
Ty Smith: Ty Smith’s second season in the NHL has been miserable. Confusing too considering all of the things he has done so far. In addition to a heap of pre-junior awards, he has a U-17 World Hockey Challenge silver medal in 2016-17; a gold medal at the Hlinka Memorial tourney as well as the WHL Western Conference First All-Star team in 2017-18; another WHL W.C. First All-Star team as well as WHL Top Defensemen and CHL Defenseman of the Year awards in 2018-19; and a 2020 WJC gold medal in addition to making the WHL’s top All-Star team and winning WHL Top Defensemen again. Oh, and he was on the NHL All-Rookie team last season. This is a lot of success for a young man! Individual and team accolades already. CONCLUSION: Smith has had a lot of issues on the ice this season, but the Concept of Winning ain’t one of them. Except maybe in the corners. Or around the net. Still.
Jonas Siegenthaler: Jonas Siegenthaler has grown to be a reliable defender for the Devils this season. But is he a winner, or someone else who needs to learn the lessons of victory? In 2012-13, he did win a U-17 and a U-20 championship in Switzerland. In 2015-16, he was part of the ZSC Lions senior team that won the Swiss Cup. Other than that, he was named to the World U-18 All-Star team in 2015 and named as a top 3 player on Switzerland at the 2017 WJCs. It is not particularly impressive. And nothing on the highlight list since then. CONCLUSION: Siegenthaler indeed needs to learn how to win with not so much success in his past.
Colton White: Colton White has been back and forth with Utica this season, but it is clear that the Devils coaches see him on the same level of Christian Jaros. It’s not Kevin Bahl or Reilly Smith or Michael Vukojevic getting these call ups. He is a defenseman to be called up only if they need a body. He does serve a kind of veteran role in Utica as one of the experienced players on the blueline. Alas, the former fourth-round pick from 2015 is not a winner. Did not do much of anything with Sault Ste. Marie or Binghamton or Adirondack. CONCLUSION: White’s role may be minimal in New Jersey and more substantial in Utica. But would his lack of winning be a hinderance at either? Or does the New Jersey role of “fill-in” not need it so much? Or that Utica’s clearly-effective systems that their talented players are flourishing in keep on leading the North regardless of how much of a Winner White isn’t? Who can say.
Christian Jaros: You may see Jaros as someone who is not really good enough at this level. Or not appreciably better than Colton White. However, Jaros does have some win in him. He was a top 3 player on his team at the World U-18s in 2014 with Slovakia and again at the 2015 and 2016 WJCs. That 2015 WJC was notable as Slovakia took the bronze and while that is not really winning, it is Slovakia so I am going to give Jaros the benefit of the doubt. This time. Plus, his club team, Lulea, won the Champions Hockey League in 2014-15 too. That has to mean something to someone. So there. CONCLUSION: Not a big winner by any means, but much more than White. Clearly that and not Tom Fitzgerald wanting to risk losing a player he traded for to waivers is why he is with New Jersey still.
Kevin Bahl: Kevin Bahl gets a lot of attention for his massive frame. He should get some more attention for his team’s accomplishments. Prior to hitting major junior, he was with the Toronto Marlboros’ U-16 AAA team that won the OHL Cup in 2014-15 and finished in second in 2015-16. In 2017-18, he was on Canada’s team that took gold at the Hlinka Memorial tourney. In 2019-20, he made it onto the OHL Second All-Star Team with the ‘67s and earned a gold medal at the 2020 WJCs with Canada. The big man knows a thing or two about winning. CONCLUSION: He could stand to learn a bit more about winning as the ‘67s did not win anything when he was there, but he is not far behind. Surely, that explains his past call ups to New Jersey and not his 6’6” frame.
Mackenzie Blackwood: Many of the People Who Matter have a take on Blackwood, a goaltender who has struggled with injury, a coach who plays him through that injury, and behind a bad hockey team. I am surprised that no one has yet to point out that this man has not been too much of a winner. Sure, he was on the OHL First All-Rookie team after 2013-14. And he was the OHL Goaltender of the Year and made it to the OHL First All-Start team in 2015-16. And, yes, he managed to make it to the AHL All-Star Game and be a part of Canada at the 2019 World Championships. But they only took silver. Any championships with Barrie? No. Any success for Canada at the 2016 WJCs? No. Any success within the Devils? You know that answer. CONCLUSION: When Lindy Ruff decides Blackwood is healthy enough, he can also have him learn a lot more about winning.
Jonathan Bernier: Bernier was signed to be the veteran #1B goalie to help Blackwood’s workload and give the team a fighting chance if/when Blackwood could not play or struggled. Bernier is out for the season with a hip injury. This is unfortunate and not just because of how the Devils’ goaltending has been since December. No, Bernier is a winner. This veteran has the Veteran Presence. You want accolades? Here’s a run-down: World U-18 All-Star team in 2006. CHL Second All-Star Team, QMJHL Second All-Star Team, QMJHL Playoffs MVP, and QMJHL Champion after 2006-07. A gold medal at the 2008 WJCs with Canada. AHL Goaltender of the Month of March 2009. AHL Best Goaltender, First All-Star Team, an All-Star Game appearance, Goaltender of the Month in October 2009, and AHL Player of the Week of January 31, 2010 in the 2009-10 season. A Spengler Cup win in 2012. Most of all: He was a Los Angeles King for the 2011-12 season. Yes, the same Los Angeles Kings that won a Stanley Cup. Bernier has a ring! A RING! The ultimate sign of being a winner. Alas, he is out for the season. Imagine if he was around to share the processes and secrets, no doubt, of winning hockey games. CONCLUSION: Doesn’t need to learn how to win. He could teach the classes along with Subban. Surely, he can create a syllabus while he is out, right?
Jon Gillies: This journeyman goaltender is with his fifth team this season, the New Jersey Devils. He played for St. Louis (1 game), Maine in the ECHL (1 game), Providence in the AHL (3 games), and Lehigh Valley in the AHL (1 game). Due to Blackwood’s injury and Bernier’s injury, he is effectively the team’s best chance in the crease. Auspicious? Yes. But does he have a winning background, something the Devils truly need according to some? He kind of does, actually. In 2012-13, Gillies was the NCAA Top Collegiate Rookie while also making the NCAA East Second All-American team, Hockey East Rookie of the Year, and Hockey East’s All-Rookie Team and First All-Star Team. More importantly, he won gold with America in the 2013 WJCs. In 2014-15, Gillies won the NCAA Championship with Providence and was named to the All-Tournament Team and named as Tournament MVP. He was again a NCAA Second All-American and Hockey East First All-Star Team member. He was also a Hockey East Goaltender of the Year. It was a bit of time ago, but it is success with the team and individual level. More people should respect Gillies’ resume. CONCLUSION: An advanced class may help, but Gillies can think back his days as a Friar whenever he needs a reminder about winning.
Nico Daws: Nico Daws is 21. Already, he has the signs of a future in the NHL. It is not a long list, but Daws has some championship experience. He was with Guelph when they won the OHL Championship in 2018-19. He was the OHL Goaltender of the Year in 2019-20, named to the OHL First All-Star Team, and, most of all, won gold with Canada at the 2020 WJCs. He may be with Utica and just received a call up. A previous cameo was not particularly great. But that was then. He has success in his mind to fall back on. CONCLUSION: Daws may need some sharpening up when it comes to winning, but the foundation is there to create a big winning player.
Akira Schmid: Akira Schmid may be seen as higher up the chain in the goaltending depth chart as he has been with New Jersey recently until after the season broke last week. It has not gone well for Schmid, though. Worse, he does not have a winning background like Daws. His accomplishments were being named to the USHL Third All-Star Team in 2018-19 and being named to the First All-Star Team and Goaltender of the Year in 2020-21. That’s nice, but no championships with Omaha or Sioux City. No medals with Switzerland at the international level. No results in youth hockey in Switzerland. Schmid may not have the winning chops yet. Perhaps that, and not his form, is why he is back with Utica. CONCLUSION: Schmid needs to learn what winning is to have a successful career beyond stopping pucks.
Of course, I just went through the players. What about the people behind the bench in charge of practices, line ups, intermission talks, and games? Do they know How to Win?
Lindy Ruff: Head coach Lindy Ruff has a seriously long history in pro hockey. He played throughout the 1970s and 1980s for Buffalo and Our Hated Rivals. After two seasons in the early 1990s in minor-pro hockey, Ruff went into coaching with Florida in 1993-94 as an assistant, starting a multi-decade career as a head coach. What has he won as a coach? At the international level, he was the head coach of Canada at the 2008 World Cup where they took silver. At the Olympics, he was an assistant for Canada when they took gold in 2010 and 2014. At the NHL level, he led Buffalo to a Stanley Cup Final in 1999 but did not win it. He did win the Jack Adams by just one voting point over Peter Laviolette in 2006. That’s it. Sure, he may have coached in nearly 1,600 games (1,594 before tonight) and has over 700 wins (770). But no rings. Only one chance at getting one. Only one individual award. Both were over a decade and at least one CBA ago. CONCLUSION: For a coach as experienced as Ruff, what does he know about winning it all? Not much, actually. If anything, he’s a compiler.
Alain Nasreddine: Assistant coach Alain Nasreddine has been with the Devils longer than anyone else behind the bench. He primarily runs the penalty kill and the defense. Nasreddine was also a defenseman in pro hockey throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. Does he know how to win? He was often in a leadership role when he was in the AHL. But he never won a championship in his brief stays with Pittsburgh, Long Island, or Chicago. He never won a championship with Hamilton, Bridgeport, or Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (they came close a few times). And he never won a Calder Cup with the Baby Pens as an assistant coach either prior to joining New Jersey. His one and only championship was way back with Chicoutimi in 1993-94. Oh, he was a QMJHL Second All-Star Team member after 1994-95. That is it. CONCLUSION: Nasreddine has a lot of experiences but the issue is not with leadership. This post is not about whether the Devils need to Learn How to Lead, but Learn How to Win. With a lack of results at the individual and team levels, he cannot be entrusted to teach anyone about that.
Mark Recchi: The Hockey Hall of Famer is primarily in charge of the Devils’ power play. Which has been contentious, to put it lightly. But Recchi is not just a man who played a ton and scored a ton. He won a lot too. Before going pro, he won gold with Canada at the 1988 WJCs and made the WHL Western Conference First All-Star Team. In 1988-89, Recchi played in the old IHL. He made the Second All-Star Team and won the Turner Cup with Muskegon. Recchi started his long NHL career with Pittsburgh, where he won a Stanley Cup in 1991. He also made the NHL Second All-Star team in 1991-92. After leaving Pittsburgh, Recchi went to teams that just did not win it all like Philly or Montreal (post-1993). But Recchi did win a gold medal for Canada at the 1997 World Championships. In the 2000s, Recchi joined some teams that did go all the way. He won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and again with Boston in 2011. Recchi went into coaching after retiring and he was a Development Coach with Pittsburgh from 2014-15 to 2016-17. Pittsburgh won the Cup in 2016 and 2017. I do not know if Development Coaches get physical rings, but that’s two more championship teams he’s been a part of. Oh, and he was named to the HHoF in 2017. CONCLUSION: Like Kevin Lowe, Recchi can say he knows a thing or two about winning and mean it. He’s done plenty of it. This makes him untouchable in this regard.
Chris Taylor: Chris Taylor does, I’m not sure what he does with New Jersey. But he’s behind the bench all the same. As a player, Taylor was mostly in the minor leagues. He did win the Turner Cup in 1995 with the Denver Grizzlies and again in 1996 with the Utah Grizzlies. After then, the pickings are slim. He won the AHL Sportsmanship award in 2004-05 for whatever that’s worth. As a coach, he was mostly an assistant except for when he was a head coach for Rochester for three seasons. Then he joined New Jersey with Ruff in 2021. This is flimsy. CONCLUSION: Taylor has not really won it all in any capacity in a long while. Clearly, he cannot show what it takes to win in the current situation.
Dave Rogalski: Rogalski is the Devils’ goaltending coach. As a goaltender himself, he never played beyond NCAAA Division III hockey. And a lot of his work as a goaltending coach in college was on a volunteer basis with St. Cloud State and St. John’s University in D-III hockey. But he joined St. Louis as a Development Coach from 2017-18 to 2019-20. Rogalski was singing Gloria like a lot of Blues were in 2019. That’s a Stanley Cup team he worked on. You know what that means. Rogalski is a Winner. CONCLUSION: It is the one notable achievement Rogalski has, but that worth a lot more than Taylor winning the IHL championship twice in the mid-1990s and Nasreddine winning in the ‘Q’ once in that decade.
Sure, there a handful of guys with some rings. And some pre-NHL success for some of these guys. But there is a dearth of Winners in this roster and behind the bench. A whole lot of people need some kind of Victory Training. Forget about the stats or the analytics or what you see or the goaltending or the goal scoring. This is truly the biggest problem with the team. Tom Fitzgerald, who himself has a Stanley Cup ring with Pittsburgh in 2009, need to dump some of these Winning-averse people and get some experience in the organization. Some actual Winners to make everything right. If you want a suggestion, Fitzgerald, then consider ringing up Josh and David to back up the armored truck to past Mark Messier Award Winner Dustin Brown’s house this Summer (since getting Malkin or Bergeron in free agency is likely a pipe dream). That’s a man who at least knows What It Takes.
If my snarky approach to the topic did not make it clear, then allow me to be serious for a moment. This concept of “Learning how to win” is a flawed one at best. Sure, people learn from failing. People also learn in other ways. From established best practices to recognizing other’s successes, and following examples by people who have succeeded so newer people don’t have to suffer the same way. When learning anything new, it is likely you will not be good at it at first. However, there’s no requirement that you have to be the dirt-worst before becoming competent.
The National Hockey League is the best hockey league in the world and there is absolutely an adjustment period for players new and growing into the league from its pace of play to the skill level of everyone involved. It is still a hockey league and everyone involved has played the sport at some level prior. The lessons learned from those experiences can carry over both good and bad habits, and so adjusting to the NHL is often that: an adjustment. You do not need to suffer massive third-period choke-jobs or six-goal losses before understanding how to do well in the NHL.
Further, this is hockey: a team sport where you can do a lot of things right and still not end up winning or taking first place in a tournament. It does not mean that the player is deficient and cannot actually perform and cannot succeed at the next level. For example, the 2019 USA team that Jack Hughes was on that did not win gold at the WJC. This did not deter NHL teams from taking eight players from the USNTDP in the 2019 NHL Draft. (Aside: Your leading scorer in that draft class is still Jack Hughes.) They did not dismiss their current and potential talents because they did not win it all. Likewise, Nico Hischier may have not seen a medal or lifted the President’s Cup with Halifax. That does not mean he was a poor first overall selection (he was the 2017 draft class’ leading scorer until recently, he’s behind Elias Pettersson by a whopping seven points) or cannot be the do-everything center that he has become in New Jersey. And while Nathan Bastian has not won anything in his past, he has been a good waiver-wire pick up this season and has more contributions than his good buddy, Michael McLeod. A winning past may be nice to have, but it is not a requirement to contribute today.
Conversely, the opposite does not work either. A team can win it all while the player or staff member did not contribute all that much to the victory. Bernier played 16 games for the Kings in 2011-12 - and no playoff games. It is hard to credit the Champions Hockey League wins to young players on European teams that did not play all that much because most young players do not play all that much on European pro teams. Sure, they were there and indeed a part of the glory. But there’s a huge difference between someone leading the way for that victory and someone who was in a depth or supporting role. Further, knowing that Subban, Kuokkanen, and Bernier would be classified as “winners” (along with Mark Recchi behind the bench) did not prevent the Devils from being dead last in their division. Their successful pasts at any level have not yielded a successful present. Not only is this season not successful, it is on pace to fall way short of the season that saw Lou get pushed out in 2014-15. It cannot even clear that bar despite the few one could call a Winner.
The “learn how to win” narrative is a tempting one for the Devils as it matches up with how the 1995 Stanley Cup win came from the ashes of the 1994 run and the 2000 Cup came after years of early exits in years prior to it. It does not match up at all with the 2003 Cup - it was Pat Burns’ first season among other newer faces; or the 2012 Finals run, which was also Peter DeBoer’s first season with the team among other newer personnel. Yes, you can learn from suffering. But it is not a pre-requisite for being a competitive hockey team. It certainly was not for Las Vegas when they went all the way to the Finals in their first season in existence, to pick a recent example.
If anything, it is a coping mechanism put out by people who want a pithy reaction to a bad loss, especially by a young team and/or a team that has not done much, without being honest or critical about why it was a bad loss. Instead of identifying where things actually went wrong and what could be done to fix it, you can just write off a bad game by saying they’re still learning. Just like you can write off a young player’s poor night. That may be well and good among the fans. But within the organization, it does nothing to make the team or the player better for it. The Devils did not “learn” from that bad experience on Monday night as they got crushed 1-7 on their own rink the next night by the same team. (Aside: They also showed the mental toughness of a fragile piece of balsa wood in the loss.) The Devils have suffered a lot of losses over the last three seasons and six out of the last seven during their re-build when Fitzgerald was an assistant GM and now that he is the full-time GM. If this phrase of “learning how to win” was actually true, then the Devils are either unable to learn, unwilling to learn, or they somehow need to suffer worse. The first two are provably false as some players have improved over time. The latter is laughable because to not laugh would invite a deep sadness.
The Devils do not need some outmoded cliche or a bunch of players with Veteran Presence who has a Winning Reputation. If they have it, fine. But what the Devils do need is a cold, objective-as-possible analysis as to why they keep taking losses and ending up with a lot of lottery combinations. This means looking at the personnel from the net out. This means determining whether the coaching staff’s systems and tactics are effective and whether the staff are willing to change it if they are not. This means identifying people on and off the ice to help address the many needs of the team. And it would be great for the People Who Matter if the broadcasters (and their producers) can help the fans understand that and give it to them directly. There is not enough makeup in the world to make a pig of a six-goal loss or a third-period meltdown look any good.
But expecting Ken Daneyko (and others in hockey media) to be more like, say, Bryce Salvador would be like expecting pigs to fly. So enjoy three more months of stupid lines like “learning how to win” as the season swirls down the drain. At least you know I will not be writing such drivel. Thank you for reading. And I promise next week’s post will not be a 7,500+ word epic making fun of a lousy line used in this sport.