NJ Devils

NEWARK, N.J. -- Tom Fitzgerald believes the New Jersey Devils remain an extraordinarily talented group, but he made loud and clear this week in his end-of-season meetings that nothing is delivered on a silver platter in becoming a consistent Stanley Cup Playoff contender.

"They got the message," the Devils general manager said Thursday. "We got curious mindsets in that room. They want to get better and sometimes you got to punch people right in the nose to realize, 'Oh, this is reality.' What we got this season, is what we deserved."

New Jersey (38-39-5) failed to make the playoffs for the 10th time in 12 seasons after qualifying in 2022-23, when they had the most wins (52) and points (112) in Devils/Colorado Rockies/Kansas City Scouts history.

Sure, injuries played a part, and the goaltending was less than average at best, but the Devils just "weren't connected this year," Fitzgerald said. He's looking forward to what is expected to be a busy offseason.

"I'm actually so excited about this (the offseason) because I know exactly what this team needs," he said. "I know exactly what these individuals need. I know what they want, what they crave. They crave that excellence."

At the top of Fitzgerald's to-do list is hiring a coach before the 2024 NHL Draft on June 28. Travis Green, named interim coach after Lindy Ruff was fired March 4 after four seasons, went 8-12-1 in 21 games.

"Travis will be [interviewed] as well, but I want to take my time with this because I have specific boxes that I want checked," Fitzgerald said. "The next coach has to be an excellent communicator, someone who wants to collaborate with all different areas of the organization and understands where I think the team needs to get to. Someone who will use the things at our fingertips, analytics for decisions or strategy, how we want to play, and sports science. Gauging where our players are at practice and what kind of practices we need. When we can push and when we have to pull back.

"Lastly, a coach who's going to keep every player accountable and not just a handful of guys."

The Devils finished the season with five 20-goal scorers: Timo Meier (28), Jack Hughes (27), Jesper Bratt (27), Nico Hischier (27) and Dawson Mercer (20). They saw improvement in rookie defensemen Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec and gained workmanlike performances from defenseman Brendan Smith and forwards Curtis Lazar and Erik Haula.

Smith, forwards Tomas Nosek and Chris Tierney, and defenseman Kurtis MacDermid are pending unrestricted free agents. Fitzgerald said it is his intention to tender each of New Jersey's four pending restricted free agents: Mercer, forward Nolan Foote and goalies Nico Daws and Akira Schmid.

Jack Hughes was sidelined twice this season totaling 16 games before it was announced April 9 that the center would miss the final four games to get shoulder surgery. 

"Jack stayed in Vail, Colorado, a few extra days after the surgery to do some rehabilitation but is back in Michigan and he'll make a full recovery," Fitzgerald said. "The timeframe is different because each individual heals differently but I do expect a player who comes back with a lot of energy, excited about the season, and stronger."

Though Fitzgerald didn't reveal a pecking order of positional needs, he did stress just one of the five goalies to play for the Devils this season is under contract for 2024-25, Jake Allen. Kaapo Kahkonen is a pending UFA.

"It's an area where I'll definitely continue to explore," he said.

Fitzgerald said he's committed to working the phones to find players known for their work ethic.

"I want hockey players who are passionate, who love the game, come in every single day, punch the clock and go to work and actually enjoy it," Fitzgerald said. "Our fans deserve those type of players ... the players who want to block shots, are comfortable in confrontation, understand that physicality is part of the game and create an identity.

"Maybe getting back to having a momentum line, a line or two that could actually change the momentum of a game. That's what I'm looking for. I think our fans deserve that. I think our core skill guys deserve that. Those are some of the areas I think we need to improve and that's up to me."

"It really doesn't matter what kind of system we play. I want individuals to actually follow directions, be committed to it and actually do it. The breakdowns are when individuals don't want to do it, or make a mistake, but we know this is a game of mistakes. The coach lays out a game plan, the soldiers will follow. If they don't, you get a breakdown."

The most respected soldier on the roster is captain Nico Hischier.

"The belief in this room hasn't changed for anyone," Hischier said. "I think even more we should believe we want it even more. You got to work hard. Now, you got to earn it. I think this year proved it, so the belief is obviously 100 percent still there. We just didn't have a great year. We move on from here and do it next season."