On Tuesday, the New Jersey Devils announced that the team had signed General Manager Tom Fitzgerald to a multi-year contract extension. The team also promoted him to President of Hockey Operations while retaining the title of General Manager.
John wrote about the news yesterday and my main takeaway from his article was that there are a lot of questions that the fanbase would like answers to. The team has been plagued by goaltending issues and defensive miscues all season, and the rash of injuries to key players hasn’t helped matters either as the Devils are fighting for their playoff lives. We haven’t heard much from Fitzgerald since his summer media tour victory lap when he was on every radio show and hockey podcast you could think of, so I was excited to see that he, along with David Blitzer, would be addressing the media last night prior to the Devils Sweep the Deck gala.
Unfortunately, after watching the press conference, I came away from it with more questions than answers and wishing better follow up questions were asked.
If you missed the press conference, you can watch it below, starting at just after the 10 minute mark. I’ve watched the press conference a few times now, so I’m going to pick out some questions and answers of what Fitzgerald said, what he didn’t say, and what probably should’ve been asked.
If You’re Hoping For an In-Season Coaching Change, Fitzgerald Didn’t Sound Like a GM Who Is Ready to Make One
One of the recurring themes among the Devils fanbase is that with the team struggling, Lindy Ruff is to blame. Blame the system. Blame the defensive breakdowns. Blame him for putting the goaltenders out on an island. Blame him for how he’s handling Alexander Holtz. Blame blame blame blame blame.
Some of those critiques may very well be warranted. Some of you might believe that getting rid of the coach would probably lead to better fortunes with a system that is more traditional and defensively conservative than what Ruff runs. It’s something that I believe. But if you were going into this press conference hoping for heads to roll with an in-season dismissal, you likely left disappointed, because Fitzgerald did not sound like a GM who was ready to consider a coaching change. At least not yet.
Question: “For both of you, just curious your thoughts, your assessment of Lindy this season given the contract extension and what he’s been able to do with all the injuries.” (note: this is not a question, but whatever, it wasn’t me who asked it)
Fitzgerald: “Like I’ve always said, these are the players he’s coaching. This is the callups and players that are coming up and giving him everything they need.” (pause) “The thing I love about Lindy is his attitude never changes. It’s calm. It’s a matter of fact. It’s coaching. It’s taking players in in between periods, showing them video of ‘Hey, this is where we have to get better’. He’s the same person he was a year ago. He’s the same coach he was ten years ago. He’s passionate about coaching, he’s passionate about teaching, and he’s passionate about helping players get better.”
It should be noted that this answer came a few minutes after Blitzer praised Fitzgerald for the team’s process not to make rash decisions and that if they make thoughtful decisions, they’ll be right more often than not. But it also came after Blitzer said he’s not happy with where the Devils are in the standings and that he has confidence that the team will have a strong end to the season. I say all that to say that Fitzgerald’s response is basically the equivalent of “I like Lindy and this is what he does well”, but they didn’t quite say “Lindy will be the coach of this team for years to come” either.
The obvious follow up question would’ve been “We’ve seen some tough losses from the team this season, the Dallas game being the most recent example.....what would you need to see from the team to consider making a coaching change whether its anytime soon or after the season?” and see what Fitzgerald’s response would’ve been. You probably still get a non-answer, but asking a more direct question may fill in some of the blanks of what the team is actually thinking, or an actual endorsement of the coach for the foreseeable future.
“I can’t force teams to trade people to me....”
One of the common defenses of Fitzgerald whenever anyone questions why he isn’t or hasn’t done more is some variant of the quote above. Fitzgerald saying he can’t force teams to make trades isn’t too far off from another common defense when someone says “Well, who do you want them to go get/trade for/sign” (never mind that he’s the GM and the one being paid to have legitimate answers to those questions, but I digress)
Question: “When you look at this season and the way it’s gone....what would you think this team needs to add?”
Fitzgerald: “It’s hard to really evaluate with the number of bodies, quality bodies we’ve missed that we count on every single day....but that’s not an excuse.”
“We do still have talent but to me, it’s still all about how we play. How we can create success by playing differently without the talent. We can’t be the same team with Jack Hughes in the lineup as we are without him. We’ve got to manufacture goals a certain way. Look at last night’s game for example....there was no quit in our guys, but we got goals around the dirty area and that’s how we’re gonna have to play.”
“To answer the top part of your question, my answer is never gonna change, Ryan. I’m always looking to improve the team. There are areas that I’d like to improve whether that’s depth defenseman, whether its looking in the goaltending market because we have young goalies that are put in this situation, fair or unfair. I can’t force teams to trade people to me, but my phone is constantly working and calling teams and this is what we do this time of year to kind of gauge each other’s thoughts and interests in what they’re thinking, what we’re thinking....if there’s a match somewhere.”
Fitzgerald is correct in that he can’t force teams to trade people to him, and the fact that we haven’t seen any goaltender trades to this point aligns with the thought process that prices for goaltenders are still ridiculously high right now. With the trade deadline still six weeks away, we’ll likely see prices become more reasonable as the clear cut buyers and sellers identify themselves and the market establishes itself. Still, the fact that the they’re likely looking for a depth defenseman and a goaltender vibes with the obvious needs on the ice.
Of course, there are a few obvious follow up questions pertaining to the goaltending, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
Question: “What is your level of concern about the goaltending situation right now?”
Fitzgerald: “I’m not gonna say I’m cool with it. I want our goalies to play better, no doubt. But I want our players to play better in front of them. We still have some areas of the game that need to get cleaned up. That’s a daily process with players and teams. Hockey is a game of mistakes. Minimize the mistakes that turn into big chances. Then were getting better. We got some work to do there. I’m in that coaches room every single morning going through video and talking about systems and where were the breakdowns, how do we improve those breakdowns, individually and collectively. Goaltending is the last line of defense. That’s the last thing people see, puck going into the net is the goalie’s fault. Reality is that mistakes are made up ice. Missed checks, odd man rushes, someone is not covering...team is not being connected. There is a lot more connectivity to get where we want to go and it’s really a daily process.”
Question: “Will there be consideration on making a move there?”
Fitzgerald: “Like I told Ryan, I’m looking to improve the team. As we continue to evaluate past, present and where we want to go, if an opportunity arose that helps us improve our team, absolutely I’m all in to try to do that.”
Fitzgerald is also correct when he says the skaters need to be better in front of the goaltenders, a sentiment he echoed back in November. He’s also being careful not to bury any specific players by name, which you probably don’t want to do considering you don’t want to be the reason why your guy’s trade value is tanked. It does sound to me like he’s putting more of the onus for the goaltending being bad on the skaters than the goaltenders themselves, which, I’m not sure I entirely agree with when goaltending has been a persistent issue under this regime for several years now.
I do wish that somebody would’ve asked if there was any sense of urgency to do something before the Devils fell too far behind in the standings though. Tom Fitzgerald said he was “very patient” earlier in the press conference. I wish someone would asked if he’s too patient with the obvious flaws the roster has and trying to balance that patience versus potentially saving the season.
I wish that somebody would’ve asked if the Devils would go into the season with more NHL experience than Vitek Vanecek as their #1, Akira Schmid as the #2 and a then-injured Nico Daws as the #3 if they could do it over again. Since he mentioned the skaters making mistakes, I wish there was something asked about the level of accountability that the same mistakes keep happening with the skaters, but yet only Alexander Holtz seems to be the one punished. Or perhaps his thoughts on Holtz’s season in general. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any of that.
The Devils Are Not Being Secretive About Injury Timelines for the Fun of It, Says The Devils.
Blitzer had an interesting comment in regards to injury timelines and the team balancing making a move to get someone now versus waiting for an injured player to return that I wanted to highlight.
Blitzer: “I would just add a couple things. Number one, I’ve found over the years one of the most difficult things....is predicting timelines on injuries. For whatever its worth, its not like we know stuff and we’re not telling you (laughs).”
I don’t blame the teams for being vague with terms like “upper body injury” and being secretive with timelines if the league isn’t going to force them to be a little more forthcoming. And I can understand wanting to take Blitzer at his word that the teams aren’t trying to hide something. But also, I can’t help but roll my eyes into the back of my skull when he says that when every other professional sports league seems to have injury timelines and diagnoses down pat. Are some injuries complicated to diagnose? Sure. Do they have information we’re not privy to? Of course. But something like a broken foot has a pretty definitive timeline and doesn’t need to be treated like the nation’s nuclear codes.
Personally, I find it strange that people rush to defend when the team operates in this manner. This is a business that relies on gate revenues, so I don’t blame hockey fans for wanting an idea of when their favorite players may be available to play before they pay hundreds of dollars for tickets and a night out at the arena. I’m not saying I need access to Jack Hughes’s medical records, but I’d like something a little more concrete than “week to week” before you ask me to pay my hard-earned money to go to the games. After all, I’d like to watch Jack Hughes play hockey if I’m going to pay that much.
As for injury timelines, we didn’t get much out of this press conference but there were a couple updates on Jack Hughes, who is still week-to-week, and Dougie Hamilton, who has follow up doctor’s appointments scheduled through the middle of February.
Tom Fitzgerald confirms that Jack Hughes will be attending the All-Star Game.— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) January 23, 2024
Whether he's on the ice for the game is uncertain right now.#NJDevils
Fitzgerald says Hamilton is out long-term, but unsure of how long. Team will have a better idea in the next 2-3 weeks of a timeline.— Sam Kasan (@samikasan) January 23, 2024
Could The Devils Sign Mercer Long-Term and/or Extend Toffoli?
Fitzgerald was asked about a few pending free agents with Dawson Mercer (RFA) and Tyler Toffoli (UFA).
Fitzgerald on Mercer/Toffoli contracts: "With Dawson we have time. We'd love to continue to work with for next bunch of years. Tyler, had multiple convos with his agent. Sit down (soon) to see where he's at. I like Tyler. he's been a good add to our team. but it is a business."— Sam Kasan (@samikasan) January 23, 2024
Mercer is an RFA after this season without arbitration rights, so like Fitzgerald said, the Devils aren’t necessarily in a rush there. With four years of control remaining, there’s plenty of time to potentially get a deal done. Whether its a bridge or something long-term remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t expect Mercer to go anywhere anytime soon.
As for Toffoli, I did find it interesting that they’re still considering potentially doing a contract extension with him. I do worry about his skating as he continues to age and his ability to play a high-tempo game but as we saw on Monday, he is still capable of scoring goals in bunches and there will always be value in that particular skillset, especially if he can maneuver himself to get where he needs to be to get his shot off. Fitzgerald’s “It’s a business” line would indicate to me that the Devils are interested on their terms and if Toffoli takes a little less like everyone else before him, but they do appear to be happy with the player and the fit, despite the recent second-guessing of the trade that brought him here in the first place.
I believe there is a portion of the fanbase that isn’t happy with the direction of the team at the moment. Those people are certainly entitled to their opinions, but I share a lot of those frustrations watching the games when I see the same mistakes being made and the goaltenders never bailing out the skaters in front of them. I think those people are within their rights to call for heads and demand accountability.
If that’s what you were looking for from this press conference, you didn’t get what you wanted. But you also probably shouldn’t have expected that in the first place.
Everything about Tom Fitzgerald during his time as Devils GM has been measured and calculated, with input from various people in his inner circle. We can critique that there are too many cooks in the kitchen and I think that’s fair. We can critique that Fitzgerald is patient to a fault, a mistake his predecessor made when he waited far too long to fire John Hynes, and I think that is fair. But this is the approach that the Devils want, that they are comfortable with, and unless they’re misleading us, they’re placing the blame for the team’s issues more so on the players than the coaching staff. I would argue both parties are culpable but I understand why its easier to collectively blame the players than put undue pressure on the coach. Part of the job is putting out fires and keeping the “Fire Lindy” chants from starting in the first place.
Overall though, I do believe Fitzgerald has done a good job since taking over as general manager. The team clearly has more talent than they did when he took over and a lot of those younger players are just scratching the surface on who they will be as players. The team has a recent history of drafting well. The structure is in place. The only “bad” contracts on the books have been his two biggest UFA signings in Dougie Hamilton and Ondrej Palat, but one could argue both of them have been very important to helping build the culture that they want to build in New Jersey. As they said during the presser, this thing built for the long-haul, which may be frustrating to people like me who always want to go, go, go for it, but I get it. The contract extension is warranted and I’ll be curious to see what he does moving forward as he continues to build this team.
If I were to nitpick, I simply wish that with Fitzgerald talking on the record that we got a few more pointed, direct questions asked. I say this as someone approaching 15 years of working in sports media in some capacity, but it felt like there was some meat left on the bone in that respect and there are ways to ask those questions while being respectful and without being confrontational. I don’t expect the team-employed media to try to dig deep for an interesting quote like that, but this was one of those times where I wish there was a bit more of a national media presence at Prudential Center to ask Fitzgerald some of these questions that I suggested throughout this article. In that respect, this press conference was a bit of a letdown for me.