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With MacLean out in New Jersey, why Jacques Lemaire all over again?

The Devils firing of John MacLean didn’t come as too big a surprise to those following their situation. The team was bad, they were getting blown out, and they weren’t a threat to turn it around. The choice of having once-retired former coach Jacques Lemaire take over on an interim basis is a curious one though.

(Update: it certainly didn’t produce immediate results, as the Devils were humbled by the almost-as-bad Islanders by a score of 5-1 on Thursday.)

When MacLean was brought in, it was believed he’d get the Devils to slowly transition into a more attack-oriented team. A team that started off the year with major offensive weapons like Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise and being supported by guys like Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, and Jason Arnott can make it so scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem. Instead, the team lost Parise to injury and it turned them into a one star team. Factor in numerous injuries to the defense and losing Martin Brodeur for up to ten games and you’ve got yourself a nightmare scenario, one that MacLean couldn’t figure out how to juggle correctly.

With Lemaire in charge once again, the Devils will go back to Lemaire’s trusty defensively-oriented system that relies heavily upon counter-attacking and creating turnovers in the neutral zone while preventing scoring opportunities from even developing by opponents. There’s also another motivation at work here.

What GM Lou Lamoriello is doing by having Lemaire take over is making accountability in all areas of the game a must and for the Devils, taking care of their own end has become as much of a problem as scoring goals has. Sure the Devils are 30th out of 30 teams in scoring, but they’re also 21st in goals allowed. Being poor defensively is unfamiliar territory for any Devils team and something that had to be driving Lamoriello nuts. Lemaire will fix that the way he knows he can the fastest by falling back on his trusty system.

But what of team captain Jamie Langenbrunner? Last season, Langenbrunner and Lemaire had their fair share of issues with each other and ultimately concluded with Langenbrunner brushing off the press when asked about their relationship. Having a team captain and a coach not getting along makes for a really awkward locker room.

With Lemaire coming back into the fold once again, is this Lamoriello’s way of pushing his captain’s buttons to get him to inspire the guys in the room or is it just a fact of the matter that’s brushed aside because Lemaire is Lou’s guy and that’s that? We’re betting on the latter with maybe a touch of the former. Either way, Langenbrunner has to feel like Lamoriello put a half-ton of coal in his stocking this year.

As always with the Devils, a coaching change comes with a certain amount of drama and this is no different. How this plays out the rest of the way for the team should prove to be fascinating to watch because if even Lemaire can’t get this crew turned around to at least being a more competitive team, someone’s going to have to answer to owner Jeff Vanderbeek and Lou Lamoriello is the guy that put together this salary cap-era disaster of a roster.

Brian Elliott’s been steady for up-and-down Blues

St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) lunges to make a save against the Nashville Predators during the first period Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Sanford Myers)
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ST. LOUIS (AP) Brian Elliott is on a roll. Too bad the St. Louis Blues have little to show for it.

During a prolonged scoring slump, the veteran goalie’s play has bordered on spectacular. He has seized the opportunity since Jake Allen was sidelined by a knee injury in early January.

The 30-year-old Elliott has allowed one or fewer goals in regulation and overtime in five of his last seven starts, a run that has put him among the NHL’s best with a 2.07 goals-against average and .932 save percentage on the season.

“Fantastic,” captain David Backes said after Elliott’s latest standout effort in a 2-1 shootout loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday. “You can’t complain about our goaltending, that’s for dang sure.”

“Our goalie was our best player again. Played great,” coach Ken Hitchcock said.

The rest of the team is in the doldrums, and the bottom line is the Blues have lost four of six. The Blues have scored no more than one goal in five of their last six.

Hitchcock said the offense didn’t work nearly hard enough to sustain chances against the Jets, then put his players through a rigorous workout the next day to drive home the point. The defense is adjusting to expanded roles without Alex Pietrangelo, who is among the league leaders in minutes played but will be sidelined at least three weeks with a right knee injury.

Elliott describes Pietrangelo as the type of player who “stick handles in a phone booth” to get the puck out of the zone.

“Umm, we have some work to do,” Hitchcock said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Elliott has thrived with a heavy work load and is set to make his 13th consecutive start on Friday at Florida. Last year, Elliott was an All-Star.

“It’s fun, it’s awesome,” Elliott said. “It’s why you play, to play the game and not to watch.”

Before relieving Allen on Jan. 8 in the second period at Anaheim, Elliott had played just three games in the previous 14. There was no question who was No. 1.

Whenever Allen returns, it’s liable to be more of a job share.

“You try not to think about the past and the future, you just focus on the present,” Elliott said. “I don’t really look at the stats, I just keep trying to be the rock back there for the guys.”

The last week or so, the 25-year-old Allen has been jumping into the latter stages of practices. Hitchcock said there’ll be something to talk about when he’s a full participant.

The team is hoping injecting Jaden Schwartz will help revive the offense. The speedy forward was third on the team with 63 points last season but has played just seven games this season and is coming off a 49-game layoff from a broken left ankle heading into Friday’s game.

“It doesn’t matter how many goals we score, you want to keep as many as you can out of your own net,” Allen said. “Obviously, we haven’t had a good amount of goals the last few games but we’re still coming out with some points.”

Despite the scoring drought, the Blues have kept themselves in the vanguard, picking up at least a point in 12 of the last 15 games. Nine of them have been decided by a single goal.

“Good teams get through tough situations,” Elliott said. “When things start clicking we’re going to be a dangerous team.”

Jackets sign d-man Murray to two-year, $5.65 million extension

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Columbus has agreed to terms with young blueliner Ryan Murray on a two-year, $5.65 million extension, the club announced on Thursday.

“Ryan Murray is a talented, smart player who has been a very steady performer on our blue line and we are extremely happy to have this deal completed,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement. “Ryan has earned more ice time, showed steady improvement and contributed in all situations for us throughout the season.

“We look forward to his continued growth and development with our club.”

Murray, 22, was the second overall pick at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, taken one spot behind Nail Yakupov. While the first few years of his career were a disappointment — Murray missed a boatload of time to various injuries — his ’15-16 campaign has been a step in the right direction.

Murray has four goals and and 17 points in 55 games this season, sitting third on the team in TOI per game (22:27).

Of those numbers, the 55 games played is perhaps the most important, as it makes Murray one of three Blue Jackets – Boone Jenner and Gregory Campbell are the others – to have played in every game this season.

Considering Murray’s previous career-high for games played in a season is 66, he’s well on his way to breaking that mark.

Originally slated to become a restricted free agent on July 1, Murray is now locked in with Columbus (at $2.825M annually) through 2018. Of all the club’s blueliners, only he, Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson are signed for that long.

NHL confirms ’17 Draft for Chicago, an ‘ideal setting’

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 18:  Owner and Chairman Rocky Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks prepares to speak to the crowd during the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Championship Rally at Soldier Field on June 18, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Well, it’s official — the NHL Entry Draft is coming to the Windy City for the first time.

On Thursday, the league announced that Chicago and the United Center would play hosts to the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, marking the first time in league history the ‘Hawks organization has hosted the event.

“The energy and passion Chicago has for the Blackhawks makes United Center the ideal setting for the 2017 NHL Draft,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “The Draft will be one of the central moments of our Centennial, and the NHL family is looking forward to bringing this signature event to Chicago for the first time.”

Though it’s still far off — heck, the 2016 draft, which will be held in Buffalo this June, hasn’t even happened yet — the ’17 draft already has a few key names attached to it.

Chief among them is WHL Brandon forward Nolan Patrick, the son of ex-NHLer Steve Patrick.

Nolan, 17, scored 56 points in 55 games for the Wheat Kings in his first full campaign, capturing the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s rookie of the year.

He’s expected to be one of the top players selected in ’17, as is Timothy Liljegren, a defenseman currently plying his trade with Rogle in the Swedish Hockey League.

Leafs and Coyotes headline Craig Button’s list of top NHL-affiliated prospects

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 2:  William Nylander #21 of Team Sweden is stopped by Ville Husso #30 of Team Finland during a quarter-final game in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship at the Air Canada Centre on January 2, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Maple Leafs and Coyotes featured prominently on Craig Button’s list of the top 50 NHL-affiliated prospects.

Button, the former Calgary GM whose current title is TSN’s Director of Scouting, has two Leafs forwards — William Nylander (1st) and Mitch Marner (6th) — and two Coyotes forwards — Dylan Strome (2nd) and Christian Dvorak (3rd) — in his top six.

Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov is fourth, with Jets forward Kyle Connor fifth.

Click here to read the other 44 youngsters that made the cut.

One of them is Jimmy Vesey (8th), the Harvard scoring sensation the Predators need to sign by August, otherwise he can become a free agent.