Ryan Schmelzer has played six seasons in the AHL. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu, Rochester Americans

New contract with Devils gives extra life to Ryan Schmelzer’s NHL dream

At first, Ryan Schmelzer thought he misheard Dan MacKinnon. Two weeks earlier, when he had asked the New Jersey Devils for an NHL contract, the team seemed intent on offering him another two-year AHL deal to captain the Utica Comets.

So in April, when Schmelzer, 30, sat down for his end-of-season chat with MacKinnon, Utica’s general manager, and Kevin Dineen, his coach, he hardly expected to hear the Devils would award him his first two-way NHL contract, a two-year deal.

“I kind of sat there and I was like, ‘Oh, wow … that’s awesome,’” the East Amherst native told the Times Herald.

Following the meeting, Schmelzer texted his wife, Jaclyn, two words: “NHL deal.”

“She was like, ‘What? No way,’” he said.

Schmelzer’s advanced age makes his milestone unique. It’s not uncommon for players to parlay strong minor league seasons into NHL deals. But most of them are in their 20s. Schmelzer turns 31 on July 28.

The special news made an emotional Schmelzer reflect on a career in which he has grinded for his opportunities and defied odds. The center has played 372 total games in the minors.

He began his pro career in the ECHL, briefly starring for the Adirondack Thunder. He spent four seasons at Canisius University after playing for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.

“Being able to be in this position and have an opportunity, it takes you down some memories of how you got here and you think of all the people that got you here,” he said.

So how did Schmelzer get here? How is an undrafted guy who turned pro at 24 close to cracking the NHL? Why did the Devils reverse course and sign him to the contract he coveted?

Given his age, Schmelzer doesn’t carry prospect status. Still, he has kept developing – on the ice and as a leader – into an asset that might help the Devils someday.

“My game is right there,” said Schmelzer, who set a goal prior to the season to do everything with more purpose. “It’s an all-around, 200-foot game. … I feel like I can put myself in the mix to be one of the first or second call-ups.”

He enjoyed a career season in 2023-24, compiling 18 goals, 52 points and a plus-14 rating in 72 games for the Comets, the team he has captained since 2021-22.

“He was really our best forward this year down there, really our most consistent forward, (our) leading scorer, led our team in plus-minus,” MacKinnon said. “But also, I think, (he) took huge steps on the leadership side probably this year more than the other years when he was captain. I leaned on him heavily from the management side for insight into the dressing room.”

Health also buoyed his success. MacKinnon said a shoulder injury hampered the 6-foot-2 Schmelzer’s heavy style for two seasons. After undergoing surgery in 2022, he looked more assertive and showcased his regular game in 2023-24.

“Coming into this year, he was healthy, and you could just tell in his game that he was very physically confident to be playing that (heavy) style,” MacKinnon said. “He’s a traffic guy. He’s a big guy. He can possess pucks.”

In January, MacKinnon said Schmelzer’s agent said his client wanted to re-sign but believed he had earned an NHL contract. MacKinnon told him the Devils would explore the possibility.

“Meanwhile, Ryan’s hockey just kept getting better and better,” MacKinnon said. “Like, he was good all season long, but he really finished the season as just a high-impact player.”

If the Devils did not give Schmelzer a big league contract, MacKinnon believes another team would’ve swooped in. Ultimately, his play made the team reward him.

“The level he played at and how he got our team truly into the fight to finish the season so strongly, I just felt like he earned it,” he said.

For MacKinnon, delivering career-changing news is a special part of his job.

“To be able to reward a guy like that with an NHL contract with the message, ‘Hey, we love you as our leader here, but we also believe you have the ability to potentially help us up top in a depth role when we need that, it’s just so satisfying because it embodies everything that we try to teach and preach to our young guys turning pro,” he said. “… Good pro habits, good daily routine, week-to-week professionalism will win the day in the end and at least allow you to maximize whatever your natural abilities are.

“And in Ryan’s case, he’s done that. And so it’s a great example to all our young pros that they can look up to.”

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