Devils must take the next step in rebuild this season, Elias says


“You don’t want to be part of a team that is just there … again,” said Elias, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Devils who holds many of New Jersey’s offensive records. “A team that doesn’t have a chance to even compete to be in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so they’ve got to get themselves in that fight.

“I think that message has been said from the beginning of training camp; it’s time to take the next step.”

The Devils (19-30-7) finished seventh in the eight-team MassMutual East Division last season, missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third season in a row and eighth time in the past nine.

“Yes, we want to develop these young guys because it’s a young group,” Elias said, “but at the same time for them to get more experienced, there’s no better way than just playing in those tight games that mean something down the stretch.”

Elias, the Devils’ all-time leader in goals (408), assists (617), points (1,025), power-play goals (113), power-play points (333) and game-winning goals (80) in 1,240 regular-season games, announced his retirement after 20 seasons with New Jersey on March 31, 2017. He’s since been enjoying occasional opportunities to work in a development/consulting role with his former team.

The 45-year-old spent the first week of training camp with the Devils before returning to his native Czech Republic on Oct. 1. The former center will return to New Jersey again to assist the coaching staff at the end of this month.

Video: New Jersey Devils 2021-22 Season Preview

Elias discussed New Jersey’s many acquisitions, defenseman Dougie Hamilton, center Jack Hughes and more in a Q&A with

Do you like what the Devils did this offseason and what you’ve seen throughout training camp?

“Dougie (Hamilton) is a top defenseman in the League … has been the last couple of years. He’s a great addition to this young team, no question about it. He’s been with great organizations (Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes) and I think he’s going to help. Jonathan Bernier‘s a veteran goaltender who has been around; he’s going to be a great complementary person for Mackenzie Blackwood in just helping out and to kind of just show the ropes. Defensemen Ryan Graves and Jonas Siegenthaler … these three D-men (including Hamilton at 6-foot-6. 230 pounds)) are pretty big, lengthy guys (Graves is 6-5, 220; Siegenthaler 6-2, 218). I think that’s what’s going to be the biggest difference for this team. The size on the back line is going to help with the way they want to play some of the systems.”

Do you like what the Devils have up front?

“We’re kind of the same when you look at the build from last year. You have the addition of Tomas Tatar, a 30-year-old who’s considered a veteran and should be, so hopefully he can bring in another element to this young group. I chatted with [Tatar] numerous times in camp and he has the right frame of mind, he knows what it’s going to take for the team to be successful. Hopefully he can carry that message to these guys right from the get-go.”

Do you feel Jack Hughes is on the verge of a breakout season?

“He’s a little bit more mature and I think that’s going to make a lot of difference for him. The maturity, the strength, and obviously experiencing the last couple of years. He has an idea what it’s going to take to win on a daily basis. It’s not just a matter of playing your own game within the game but being able to sacrifice a little bit of your game for the good of the team. He’s an amazing player, he’s got unbelievable talent, unbelievable upside, but he’s also got to start realizing it takes a little more than just offense. He’s going to be playing a lot of minutes, and he’ll be up against great players, so he’s got to be able to play the defensive side too. Just because he’s a small body (5-11, 175) doesn’t mean he can’t do that. I was a small body, too (6-1, 190), and I played a defensive style … I had to. We know that, offensively, he certainly has it.”

Center Pavel Zacha established NHL career-high totals in goals (17), assists (18) and points (35) in 50 games last season. How does he build upon that success?

“I know there’s pressure as a first-round draft pick … being picked that high (No. 6, 2015 NHL Draft). Even if you don’t talk about every day, the pressure comes from media, from management. Also, the way he was brought up in his family … very strict, very hard on him. So it just kind of took him a little bit longer, maybe, to develop and to realize how good of a player he can be and what he needs to do, what are his pros and cons. Even with a couple of bumps and bruises, he finished the season and was consistent and that’s the most important thing. [Devils coach Lindy Ruff] did a good job of kind of giving him a clean sheet, new opportunity. Whatever it was, playing on wing or playing in the middle. He likes the middle but it doesn’t matter what position you play because everybody has to be able to play down low. Hopefully he can just build on it and become a leader of this team. His all-around game is there and is getting better in all aspects.”

Have you been surprised by any of the young players in training camp?

“Forwards Dawson Mercer, Graeme Clarke, defenseman Christian Jaros … he’s a big boy (6-3, 222) with some pretty good hands. Mercer’s a smart player. If you look at his body, build-wise (6-0, 180), he reminds me of me a little bit. Kind of a skinny guy, but when he plays the game, he steps up and his game rises. He’s always involved, making good plays, showing good patience. He’s got good hockey IQ.”

What do you think of Ruff’s coaching style and philosophy?

“I’ve had so many coaches and played so many systems in my day … I’ve played this style, played a trap in the neutral zone. One thing I didn’t do was the way they come back into our zone. They have a forward coming back, and when they come back in D-zone coverage, that’s a little bit of a new one that these guys are trying to figure out. At times, it can be a little confusing because they want to be interchangeable. If you have veteran guys, they already know how to move, how to be patient and aggressive. Lindy is honest with them. He doesn’t scream for 60 minutes of the practice, but just says the right things at the right time. Even in the meetings, he just kind of talks. You hear his voice and then he gets assertive at the right time.”

You played with Travis Zajac for 10 seasons in New Jersey. The center announced his retirement on Sept. 20 after 15 NHL seasons, and will remain with the organization in an on/off-ice player development and consulting role. What comes to mind when you reflect on Zajac’s career?

“Steady. A guy who everybody wanted to play with. Just a great teammate. On ice, he just did everything right. He was an all-around player and because he was that good, he always played on the top two lines. Everybody expected that if you played there, you had to put up numbers, right? But Travis wasn’t that type of player … never was. But he complemented everybody else, and he’s one of those guys who is underappreciated, but as a coach and teammate, you always knew what you were getting from him day in and day out.”

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