NEWARK, N.J. – With another top scorer leaving the New Jersey Devils, the door to the NHL is once again wide open for Stefan Matteau.
Matteau briefly made the jump from junior hockey to the big league last season, earning a spot on the roster coming out of training camp. The run lasted 17 games and resulted in one goal before the-then 18-year-old was sent back to his junior team in March.
Having Matteau pick up the goal-scoring slack after the loss of Zach Parise to free agency never panned out.
Heading into this season, Matteau has a second chance. After all, New Jersey’s need for scorers is greater with star forward Ilya Kovalchuk’s decision to return to Russia.
This time, Matteau believes he is ready.
“It’s been crazy, a big roller-coaster of emotions for my family and I,” Matteau said Tuesday at the Devils’ prospects camp. “It’s been great. I found a good organization. I was here for two months or so. Everything happened so fast and now it’s my second prospects camp. It’s a different feeling. I’m not as nervous, more comfortable.”
In some ways, Matteau is the big man on campus in this camp. The Devils’ No. 1 draft pick in 2012, 29th overall, he played in the NHL and realized the dream. No one else at this session has done that.
The truth, however, was Matteau struggled. He had three points and his playing time declined the longer he stayed with the Devils in the lockout-shortened season.
“I was just learning my position, learning my position defensively,” Matteau said of playing with the big boys. “If you play defensively, you have even a better shot of playing every game. Hockey stays hockey. When you’re in the offensive zone, you do whatever you want, almost whatever you want. Defensively, here you are responsible for getting the puck out, do your job. If you do, you’ll be fine. That’s what I really learned. Once you make one mistake, especially at my age, you make one mistake or two and you won’t play as much as the others. I just have to work on that, staying confident and making those little plays.”
Matteau, who did not play in Tuesday’s scrimmage because of soreness, said the retirement of Kovalchuk hasn’t changed his feelings about coming to training camp in September.
“I was always approaching it as an opportunity,” Matteau said. “It’s obviously one more spot. It’s very unfortunate that he is gone. He was one of the best players in the world. He has moved on and the Devils will move on.”
Matteau would also like to leave the end of his junior hockey league season in the dust, too. He was benched during the playoffs by Blainville-Boisbriand of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for an undisciplined penalty. The team then released him shortly after he exchanged words with coach Jean-Francoise Houle following the game. His father, Stephane Matteau, a former New York Ranger who helped to defeat the Devils in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, was an assistant coach for Blainville-Boisbriand.
“There is not much to say,” Matteau said. “It just wasn’t the right fit. I just don’t want to get into detail and move on. I think they have moved on and I have moved on, for sure. I wish them the best in the future and I just want to move on toward making the team in September.”
Looking back on last season, Matteau doesn’t feel the Devils rushed him into the lineup before he was ready. He had his chances, although his only goal came against Pittsburgh on a one-timer against goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
“I don’t think I was out of place when I was here,” said Matteau, who has worked to improve his conditioning, quickness and agility in recent months. “I thought I did a decent job for an 18-year-old. I just want to keep working hard and be better than I was last year.”
That’s all Devils coach Pete DeBoer wants from Matteau and fellow youngsters Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson, Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby.
“They are not going to improve in leaps and bounds, but if they are a little better this year than last, they are heading in the right direction,” DeBoer said, “and it will be just a matter of time before they are full-time NHL players.”