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And then there was one: Devils’ sweet run goes bitter

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Do you know a New Jersey Devils fan? If so, you should probably give him or her a hug right now. (Yes, even if you root for the New York Rangers.)

The bitter taste of the Devils’ 6-1 Game 6 loss to the Los Angeles Kings probably won’t subside for some time – few endings like these dissolve quickly – yet the big picture ended up looking a lot sweeter than most people expected.

Sure, New Jersey was about as good as a sixth seed could be, all things considered. They finished with 102 points this season, which would have placed them right behind the Pittsburgh Penguins (103) and Boston Bruins (102, with more regulation/OT wins) as the fifth seed if it wasn’t based on division titles. Still, they sported plenty of question marks going into the postseason and just about everything worked out.

Until they met the Kings, of course.

What happened?

Whether you attribute it to injuries (Ilya Kovalchuk seemed banged up, for one), the Devils’ shortcomings or the Kings’ dominance, New Jersey just couldn’t score consistently against Los Angeles. A power play that scored 12 goals through the first three rounds was downright befuddled by an outstanding Kings’ PK. Zach Parise struggled just as much as Kovalchuk to put points on the board while Martin Brodeur was surprisingly strong – but not strong enough – to top the Kings.

The Devils scored just eight goals in six games in the series.

Who takes the blame?

As unfair as it might be, many will fit Steve Bernier with the goat horns. His controversial hit earned an ejection and resulted in three Kings power play goals, essentially ending Game 6 – and the series – before the first period was even over.

Of course, that’s an overly simplistic approach. As many pointed out, a five-minute major doesn’t necessarily justify such a porous PK showing. (Overall, the Devils’ penalty kill was strong, but that might make it hurt a little bit more.)

If anything, Bernier takes the heat off of larger concerns. The Devils lost their cool and also lost their offensive touch. Bernier’s the easy scapegoat and most will see it that way, yet an ineffective offense and a dominant Kings team did the Devils in.

What will they do about it?

In case you haven’t noticed the deluge of “Where will Parise go?” articles, the Devils’ biggest off-season question isn’t entirely in “their hands.” That being said, making a deep postseason run had to at least improve New Jersey’s chances of retaining its captain and most important player. GM Lou Lamoriello’s off-season report card likely hinges on Parise’s decision.

That’s far from Lamoriello’s only summer chore, however. He has other noteworthy free agent calls to make, with the most prominent one being Brodeur. This post goes into painstaking detail to cover the many decisions the Devils face in this off-season, as the vast majority of New Jersey’s most valuable players (not named Kovalchuk) either need a new deal this summer or in 2013.

Lamoriello faces a tough bigger picture question among many individual conundrums, then: does this group have more deep runs in them or was this just a (mostly) happy accident?

More

And then there were 15: Is Detroit’s dynasty on its last legs?

And then there were 14: Sharks come out flat in playoffs

And then there were 13: Powerhouse Pens fall flat

And then there were 12: Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks bounced in Round 1

And then there were 11: Another first-round exit for Blackhawks

And then there were 10: Bruins run out of Game 7 magic

And then there were nine: Senators out, but future’s bright

And then there were eight: Panthers go out swinging

And then there were seven: Blues swept out of Western Conference semifinal

And then there were six: So much for Nashville’s mid-season reload

And then there were five: New-look Flyers produce familiar results

And then there were four: Capitals fall just short in Game 7

And then there were three: Coyotes’ run falls short

And then there were two: Rangers’ gas tank hits empty

Columbus giving prized rookie Werenski ‘every opportunity to run the power play’

2015 NHL Draft - Portraits
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The Blue Jackets aren’t easing Zach Werenski into his freshman campaign.

Werenski, the highly touted blueline prospect, has been tasked with running the Columbus power play during the exhibition campaign — often as the lone defenseman with four forwards — and it looks like a role he might reprise throughout the regular season.

Even though he’s yet to play an NHL game.

“I want to give him every opportunity to run the power play,” head coach John Tortorella said after an OT win over Nashville, per the Blue Jackets website. “He certainly did a good job of that tonight. We’ll keep on giving him opportunities and we’ll see where we go.”

More: Looking to make the leap: Zach Werenski

The Werenski hype train has been full steam for just over a year now. The eighth overall pick in 2015, Werenski spent two highly decorated years at the University of Michigan before turning pro at the end of last season.

Dispatched to Columbus’ AHL affiliate in Lake Erie, the 19-year-old had a fantastic professional debut. He was a major catalyst on the Monsters’ defense, scoring 14 points in 17 playoff games en route to the Calder Cup championship.

“The skill set he has — his size, strength and poise with the puck, he’s a complete player,” said Monsters coach Jared Bednar (now the head coach in Colorado). “To be able to step into our lineup in intense games and get the job done, it’s impressive especially for his age and that’s why everyone’s so excited about him.”

All signs point to a very talented — and young — Columbus defense this year. It was already assumed 21-year-old Seth Jones and 23-year-old Ryan Murray were going to play major roles, and now it sounds like Werenski will be leaned on just as heavily.

Which means it’ll be interesting to see what happens to the vets.

Jack Johnson averaged over 24 minutes per game last year, a figure that will undoubtedly decrease. It’ll also be curious to see what happens to David Savard, who was playing more than 23 minutes a night — do remember that, at the start of last season, the Jackets gave Savard a hefty five-year, $21.25 million extension.

The playoff race in the West could be ‘tighter than ever’

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9:  Goalie Kari Lehtonen #32 of the Dallas Stars makes a save against Kyle Brodziak #28 of the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The NHL’s Western Conference should be wild all season, perhaps as much as ever as parity reigns and points are tough to come by on any given night.

A slew of teams have a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

The defending Conference champion San Jose Sharks, who had five players in the World Cup of Hockey finals , certainly appear to have a chance to be among the final two still skating in mid-June. That alone would be a feat because no team from the conference has pulled it off since the Detroit Red Wings, now an Eastern Conference team, won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and came within a win of repeating.

Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis will likely be among the contenders. Dallas, too.

The Blackhawks and Kings, who alternated as champions from 2012 to 2015 and won five Cups in a six-season span, failed to even make it out of the first round last in 2016.

Both teams certainly have a chance to bounce back this season.

“This is my sixth season in the Central Division and this looks like the most challenging year yet,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “The crunching between the top and bottom started last year, and it’s going to be closer this year.”

Hitchcock and Stars general manager Jim Nill both believe the teams that were at the bottom of the conference last season on moving up.

“The Winnipegs and the Colorados are going to be better teams,” Nill told the AP. “I think it’s going to be tighter than ever.”

How tight?

“Everyone has a shot,” San Jose’s Logan Couture said.

 

Related: There’s only one ‘vision’ in Vancouver this season, and that’s winning

 

Tough blow for Blues: Schwartz out ‘at least four weeks’ with elbow injury

ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 23: Jaden Schwartz #9 of the St. Louis Blues shoots the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Scottrade Center on February 23, 2013 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues will have to start the season without one of their most dangerous forwards, Jaden Schwartz.

Schwartz “will miss at least four weeks after injuring his left elbow during a training camp practice on Sept. 29,” the club announced today.

It’s another frustration for the 25-year-old winger. Schwartz was limited to just 33 games last season, after fracturing his ankle in October.

As for this latest injury, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock originally predicted that Schwartz would only need a “couple of days off.”

St. Louis opens its regular season Oct. 12 in Chicago. If Schwartz is out until the end of October, he’ll miss nine games.

Related: Schwartz signs five-year extension

More bad news in Dallas: Janmark (knee surgery) out 5-6 months

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 22: Mattias Janmark #13 of the Dallas Stars looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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Earlier this week, we passed along word that Stars forward Mattias Janmark was spotted on crutches at the team’s practice facility.

Now we know why.

Janmark suffered a knee injury that requires surgery, GM Jim Nill said on Thursday. The procedure is expected to sideline the Swedish forward for 5-6 months, putting his return in the neighborhood of February-March of next year.

It’s a big blow for the Stars.

After surprising onlookers by making the team out of camp last year — a “great story,” according to GM Jim Nill — Janmark, 23, went on to have a pretty successful rookie campaign, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 73 games.

He also fared well in the playoffs, with five points in 12 contests.

Today’s news compounds what’s been a lousy September in Dallas. The club previously lost Tyler Seguin (heel), Cody Eakin (knee) and Ales Hemsky (groin) to injuries, and saw Russian forward Valeri Nichushkin sign in the KHL.

Looking at the schedule, Janmark projects to miss anywhere between 60-70 games this season, assuming the 5-6 month timeline is accurate. That’s a big chunk of man power to replace.