TORONTO – You have to scan back 10 years, all the way to Wayne Simmonds’ rookie campaign in Los Angeles, to find a stat line as humbling as the one he threw up in 2018-19: 17 goals, 30 points, minus-16.
Toss in a trade from the city that turned him into a man and just two games played in the post-season before slipping out of Nashville as a rental gamble that never paid off, and the prototypical power forward’s run-up to his long-awaited first crack at unrestricted free agency fell somewhere between underwhelming and disastrous.
The New Jersey Devils — that fast, fun-loving, drought-ending upset darling of 2017-18 — had a season just as miserable, tumbling to the Metropolitan Division basement with a minus-53 goal differential, getting passed over by free agents, and watching the NHL MVP, Taylor Hall, get derailed by injury.
That’s why the player and the team, who agreed to a one-year, $5-million deal on July 1, couldn’t be more suited for each other.
"Our minds are set the same way. I didn’t have a good year; they didn’t have a good year," Simmonds said Thursday upon the conclusion of BioSteel Camp in Toronto. "It’s redemption for both myself and New Jersey, wanting to come back and prove to the league that I’m a good player and they’re a good organization. It just fit well."
In what he describes as a "different" process, Simmonds was in discussion with a number of teams during the UFA interview period — the Philadelphia Flyers, he says, never approached him for a return — but in meeting with Jersey coach John Hynes and GM Ray Shero, he felt their ideologies aligned.
Naturally, he would’ve preferred to knock out one of those set-for-life, long-term deals, but the timing wasn’t right. His recent performance couldn’t command it.
"I’m coming off a down year. I realize that. I know my worth, and I’m not going to sign for anything under my worth. So, it’s kind of a prove-it deal, right?" Simmonds said. "Be healthy, play your game and get back to where you want to be."
A year ago at this time, a nagging laundry list of injuries restricted Simmonds to the bench at BioSteel, "coaching" his friends at the annual summer four-on-four tournament. Hardly the way one wants to gear up for a platform campaign.
This week, the 31-year-old looked like his usual bullish self, battling relentlessly in net-front drills with the likes of six-foot-four, 221-pound Darnell Nurse, holding onto pucks longer than expected and sprinting up and down a downtown varsity football field.
Since fizzling out in Nashville, he’s been training diligently for four months straight.
"I actually got to work out this summer — that’s a huge difference. Last year I had bilateral hernia surgery, torn abductor and hip surgery, so when you’re rehabbing all summer and you don’t get a chance to work out, your mind thinks you can do one thing but your body tells you something different," Simmonds says. "I’m in a lot better place physically and mentally and ready to get the season going."
"What I bring to the table, everyone knows. I’m a big, physical winger, go up and down the wing, get to the front of the net and put pucks in the net and protect my teammates at the same time."
Those teammates now include Hall, whom Simmonds recalls battling with back in the OHL; fellow ex-Predator and friend P.K. Subban ("He does promote himself, but he’s still a great teammate and brings awareness to the hockey scene. That’s a good thing"); and 2019 first-overall pick Jack Hughes ("Unbelievable player… I can’t wait to get to meet the guy and play with him").
Still, Simmonds explains, none of those stars were the reason he landed in Jersey. No, it was more about a team and a player betting on each other that they are not what they showed the hockey world in 2018-19, that they are something greater, fiercer.
Simmonds holds no ill will to Philadelphia. In fact, he can’t wait for Oct. 9, when the Devils make the short trek to his old barn and a city he’ll always hold dear.
"Everything about it — blue-collar town. They appreciated everything I did; I appreciated everything the fans did for me," Simmonds said. "I grew up in Philadelphia. I owe that town a lot, that organization a lot, and I’m really appreciative of what they did for me."
And those blue-collar fans? How does Simmonds think the city to which he gave his hips and knuckles and abdomen for eight, mostly underpaid, winters will receive him switching from orange to red?
"To be honest," Simmonds smiles, "I think I would be mad if they didn’t boo me."