After a decorated NHL career spent with the St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils, former defenseman Bryce Salvador traded his hockey stick for a microphone. Salvador, who was acquired by the Devils in 2008, spent parts of eight seasons in New Jersey, and is best remembered by fans for his role in the team’s 2012 playoff run, along with serving as captain for three seasons. Currently in his first year as a studio analyst for MSG Networks, Salvador ironically never actively pursued a broadcasting career. After retiring, Bryce was still close to the game, but wanted to spend more time with his family, who have settled comfortably in New Jersey.
“When Johnny Mac got his coaching job, people started reaching out asking if I’d be interested. It kind of came up overnight, and has been a good transition for me to get back involved with the game,” Salvador said when I spoke to him on Thursday.
“Everyone has their own style on how they see the game and what they want to talk about,” Salvador added when asked how his analytical perspective has changed since getting into broadcasting. “What’s nice is MSG allows me to shape my own content and talk about what I think is important. The MSG crew has a unique blend of style and personality from person-to-person. Many of us see the game the same way, but talk about different things.”
Bryce talked about how the Devils shape up in their series against Tampa Bay, where (especially after last night’s loss) New Jersey has been largely rendered as the underdog. From the team’s perspective, Salvador says the number one rule is to never accept that role. The players don’t mind being labeled as one, and still establish a mindset where they expect to come out on top.
“That’s usually the approach. In terms of how they (Devils players) are talking, they haven’t given any indication of feeling that Tampa Bay will be a big hurdle,” Salvador noted. “On paper yes, most would say the Devils shouldn’t win. That was also the case in the regular season. The team expects a strong performance from themselves, won’t embrace the underdog role, or accept not putting up a fight.”
Salvador credits the coaching staff and management for creating a strong culture, heightening the team’s self-expectations, and holding players accountable. He thought this especially showed in New Jersey’s last 20-25 games, where the players seemingly possessed the cohesiveness and understanding of calmness, along with what it will take to execute and make the postseason.
Salvador recalled how unlikely it appeared New Jersey would still occupy a playoff spot after their six-game road trip in March, but noted their determination and never-give-up culture led them to persevere. Salvador thinks the last six weeks provided a playoff-like atmosphere for the Devils, which (despite last night’s loss) could help against a seasoned offensive juggernaut like the Lightning.
“These games will certainly have a different atmosphere to start off with, especially for the young guys; but the best thing that happened to the Devils was playing these difficult playoff-like games going down the stretch.” Salvador added.
I mentioned in my series preview how Keith Kinkaid was one of ten roster players who made their postseason debut last night. Salvador, who thinks the last five games helped alleviate some of that inexperience going into last night, said all players feel the same way going into the playoffs.
“There’s nothing you can do or say if somebody’s never played in the postseason to reduce that stress. Fact of the matter is you have to play and get into these games. Once you get through that first period, things will settle down,” says Salvador. “Playoff hockey is a completely different environment and experience. It’s crucial New Jersey made the postseason for that particular reason. Young guys like Hischier, Wood, Bratt, and Zacha had that stretch of playoff-like games, and get to experience the real thing as a result. While everyone wants to be perfect, they’ll inevitably make mistakes (as we saw last night) but from them, learn how to handle playoff-caliber pressure.”
New Jersey expectedly struggled containing Tampa Bay’s dynamic offense, which led the league in scoring (296). Salvador noted the Lightning will inevitably get chances and score goals, which is something the Devils must accept. While New Jersey doesn’t have the stats on paper saying they can match up against the Lightning, Salvador noted this is essentially why you play the games. When you take that into consideration, along with how the Devils fared against Tampa this season, he feels it’s a testament to the team’s character, implementation of their philosophy, and how well they’re coached.
Salvador cites New Jersey’s speed as a primary reason behind their success against the league’s top teams, because they took time and space away from their opponent’s top players.
“In that split second it takes someone like Kucherov against the 29 other teams to make that perfect pass, it won’t be as crisp as he’s used to versus the Devils,” Salvador said. “That’s what New Jersey has to do— use their speed to push pace, and maximize their time in Tampa’s offensive zone. The more you have their skilled players frustrated defending in their zone instead of playing a 200-foot game, you reduce those high-danger scoring chances, and have to keep their players on the outside when they wind up coming down the other way.”
This makes any scoring chances New Jersey gets all the more important. While they won’t have the same dynamic chances as Tampa Bay, Salvador emphasized the importance of New Jersey capitalizing on their scoring chances.
“You saw that consistently with players like Noesen, Coleman, and Boyle getting double digits this year,” Salvador noted, pointing out how New Jersey’s secondary scoring is evidence of them capitalizing on their scoring chances. “It’s very encouraging to see, especially when they did so against the league’s best teams down the stretch.”
I want to end this piece thanking Bryce for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with me, along with MSG Networks for making this possible. MSG was also kind enough to provide us with a schedule of their first round playoff coverage that you can view below, where you can watch New Jersey’s upcoming matchups, along with Bryce and the rest of the MSG crew.