For his first 14 years as a pro hockey player, the New Jersey
Devils were the only NHL team Jay Pandolfo knew. The veteran
forward and Burlington, Mass., native played a key role in the
team’s Stanley Cup victories in 2000 and 2003 and fully
expected to retire as a member of the organization.
But things changed in the final two seasons. Pandolfo witnessed his playing time diminish and no longer foresaw himself playing an important role. In the summer of 2010, he asked longtime general manager Lou Lamoriello (Providence, R.I.) to buy him out of his contract and give him a shot at seeking opportunities elsewhere.
After the start of the season came and went, Pandolfo remained an unrestricted free agent waiting for a phone call. He wound up joining the AHL’s Springfield Falcons in December, but when odds of a call-up to the Blue Jackets seemed slim at best, he pulled the plug on the experiment.
“I just went there to basically get playing time. It was my decision to leave,” Pandolfo said. “I played 10 or 12 games. Columbus wasn’t going to bring me up, and I wasn’t getting a whole lot of interest from teams at the time. I just wanted to get back to the NHL.”
At that point, however, the former Boston University standout wasn’t sure he still had the skill or the motivation to get back to the sport’s highest level.
“When I stopped playing in December, I just took some time off,” Pandolfo said. “I watched a lot of the playoffs and stuff like that. I just kind of felt like I still had a little something left and I still wanted to play. I started working out again and started skating a little bit to see how I felt. My body felt pretty good, so I figured I’d just start training again and see what happened.”
Nine months removed from his last taste of action, Pandolfo agreed to a tryout with the New York Islanders in early September.
“To be honest, all I was really asking for was a chance,” he said. “The Islanders and Garth Snow (Wrentham, Mass.) gave me that opportunity. I was just going to try to make the best of it. Obviously it worked out and I’m real happy about it, but if it didn’t, I would’ve been fine with that, too. I tried to not put too much pressure on myself. I figured I’d go in there, do the best I can and see what happens.”
On the eve of the start of the 2011-12 season, Pandolfo’s last hurrah was worth the effort, as New York signed him to a one-year deal with a base salary of $600,000 that could reach as high as $1.4 million based on performance bonuses.
Though aided by the presence of former New Jersey teammates Mike Mottau (Avon, Mass.) and Brian Rolston, the 36-year-old forward had to go through the unfamiliar process of becoming acclimated with a new team.
“It’s just a different organization. I’ve never played anywhere else,” Pandolfo said. “Obviously, the goal here is to start being a team that can make the playoffs every year and do some damage. We have a really good group of young guys. It’s just trying to get these guys to do everything it takes to win. The organization is doing everything to help these guys get to that position. It’s been really good, and I’ve been really impressed by the organization.”
The feeling certainly seems to be mutual, as the reliable winger dressed in each of the team’s first 18 games of the season. On Nov. 17, Pandolfo found the back of the net and recorded his first point as a member of the Islanders in a 4-3 win over the Canadiens. The 6-foot-1 forward was named the first star of the game, as the tally was No. 100 of his NHL career.
“When it takes you that long to get to 100, it’s not something I was really thinking about,” a chuckling Pandolfo said. “It’s nice, but to be honest with you, scoring goals has not been my thing over my career. It’s not a huge deal.”
Instead, his focus is solely on the team’s overall success, as the veteran of 131 playoff games is doing his best to make sure the young Isles stay in postseason contention.
“We got off to a good start right away and then we kind of stumbled,” said Pandolfo, as New York followed up a 3-1-0 start by winning just two of its next 13 games. “We’ve played pretty good, but we’ve been finding ways to lose games and not win them. We just have to do the little things a little better and we’re going to win a lot more games.
“It’s still early in the year and we can still end up giving ourselves a chance to make the playoffs. As a veteran guy, I just try to go out there and do all the little things right all the time with killing penalties and things like that.”
Pandolfo certainly hasn’t been a stranger to offensive success throughout his career, as his six playoff goals ranked third on the champion Devils in 2003, but the former Terrier has long known his role has been just that: taking care of the little things. Merely having a chance to keep doing it and playing the game he loves for a living is something he doesn’t take for granted, as Pandolfo knows his days in the league won’t last forever.
“I’m taking it a day at a time at this point,” he said when asked about potentially returning for another season next year. “I’m not even looking past tomorrow, to be honest with you.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Jesse Connolly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org