It’s only a 90-minute drive from Wayne Simmonds’ former home in Haddonfield to his new digs in Short Hills. Still, the gritty NHL veteran, newly signed by the New Jersey Devils after eight years with the Philadelphia Flyers, is quickly learning the flips between North and South Jersey. The accents, the names for sandwich meat, the favorite Shore destinations—all different.
“I get that,” Simmonds says after a Devils preseason practice at the Prudential Center in Newark. But the cultural adjustments are beside the point. “I’m here,” says Simmonds, “to play hockey for the Devils.”
Simmonds is among a number of key additions who have created high hopes for this year’s Devils—the only team in the four major team sports to wear the name New Jersey. The Devils finished 31-41 last season, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
The versatile and skilled Simmonds, a native of the Toronto suburbs, was a fan favorite in Philadelphia. “I worked my way into that community,” says Simmonds, “and tried to make as big of an impact as I could.”
Known to his Philadelphia teammates and fans as Wayne Train, Simmonds was part of late Flyers-owner Ed Snider’s Youth Hockey Foundation. “I was on the board of the foundation and did all that I could for Ed. I would spend time with kids, visit hospitals and give back as much as I could in Philadelphia and South Jersey.”
Simmonds, 31, expects to do the same in Newark. “Hockey has given me so much,” says Simmonds. “I’ll give back when I get acclimated. But for right now, I just want to play the best that I can for the Devils.” (He and his wife, Crystal, are also busy raising their newborn daughter.)
John Hynes, entering his fifth season as the Devils’ coach, is excited about what Simmonds brings to the team. “He can do so many things,” says Hynes. “I like his work ethic. He’s very competitive. He works hard. Wayne comes in and moves his feet. He’s excellent in front of the net and is very good on the power play. He’s got great hockey sense and he’s a veteran leader who will help with the younger players.”
The Devils have some of the finest young talent in the NHL. The team selected first in two of the last three NHL Entry Drafts. Nico Hischier, the number 1 selection in 2017, impressed by tallying 47 points in 69 games last season. Jack Hughes, the top pick in the 2019 draft, is expected to contribute immediately. He turned heads by scoring two goals, including the game winner, in his first exhibition game.
Simmonds, who won the NHL’s Mark Messier Leadership Award last season, can take some of the kids under his wing.
“I’ll do what I can to help with those kids,” Simmonds says. “The younger guys are going to help, but there’s balance here. The team also added some veterans that will help.”
The other key veteran newcomer, P.K. Subban, was acquired from the Nashville Predators in June, the day after the club selected Hughes. Subban is aware that fans will expect at least a playoff appearance, thanks in part to the team’s new additions. He and Simmonds join a squad led by the electric Taylor Hall, himself a former number 1 overall draft pick (in 2010 by the Edmonton Oilers).
“We have a lot of talent in this locker room, but we have a lot of new faces,” Subban says. “I know people will have high expectations for us, but our only expectation is to gel as a team. We have to get acclimated early in the season and prepare for a long run.”
Subban, who played with Simmonds last season after the Flyers dealt Simmonds to the Predators at the trade deadline, believes the sturdy winger will make a difference. “He’s the kind of guy who will spark a team,” says Subban. “We’re both excited to be in New Jersey.”
Subban, one of the league’s top defensemen, loves the limelight, which he shares with his famous fiancée, skiing legend Lindsey Vonn. “Lindsey and I love New Jersey,” says Subban. The couple is reportedly living in New Jersey, although they have yet to purchase a home here.
The pressure is on Hynes to at least reach the playoffs this season, but he insists he’s not bothered by the heightened expectations.
“I can’t worry about things that I can’t control,” Hynes says. “I’m focusing on preparing this group of players. It’s about the players going out and doing the right thing.”
Hynes is hoping that the Devils aren’t bitten by the injury bug that hampered the franchise last season. The often-injured Hall, the league’s MVP in 2017–18, missed a whopping 49 games last season to undergo knee surgery.
“That really hurt the Devils’ season last year,” says Subban. “Taylor is a gifted player who can put a team on his back. For him to miss that much time is a killer.”
Hynes is crossing his fingers when it comes to Hall’s health. “He’s a huge part of the team,” says Hynes. “We’re going to need him to be out there and play like he’s capable of.”
The playoff atmosphere will already be in the air this season when the Devils face off against the rival Rangers, Islanders and Flyers. “Those kind of games are a lot of fun,” says Simmonds. “Everybody is amped up for those games.” The 2019–20 season started October 2.
Simmonds has already circled November 1 on the calendar, which is when the Devils host the Flyers. Simmonds, the first significant Flyer-turned-Devil since Jaromir Jagr, insists he will not be distracted by facing his former teammates.
“Once I crack a couple of heads and just knock those guys around, it’ll be back to normal for me,” says Simmonds.
Simmonds will have some off days to acquaint himself with the revitalized Newark. “I really don’t know much about Newark and what’s going on, since I just got here,” he admits. “I’m here to play hockey, but I’m sure I’ll get to know this area. I’m excited to be here.”
UPDATE: The Devils season has not gone according to script. After a disappointing 9-13-4 start, the Devils fired head coach John Hynes and named assistant coach Alain Nasreddine as his interim replacement.Click here to leave a comment