LaFontaine returns to work with NHL

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Pat LaFontaine is once again employed by the NHL.

The Hockey Hall of Famer, who left his post with the department of player safety to become Buffalo Sabres president last November, has reportedly re-joined the Deputy Commissioner’s Office as the vice president of hockey development and community affairs, per TSN.

LaFontaine, 49, had a ballyhooed return to Buffalo last year, re-joining the organization alongside Ted Nolan in what many saw as a “welcome home” reception. The honeymoon period with Sabres didn’t last long, however, as LaFontaine abruptly resigned one day after the Ryan Miller-Steve Ott trade with St. Louis, setting off a firestorm of rumors in the process.

Tim Murray, the GM hired to replace Darcy Regier, said he and LaFontaine had a good working relationship in Buffalo and shot down the theory him coming aboard had anything to do with LaFontaine leaving.

“We were on the same page,” Murray said. “I was brought in here for the rebuild and we were on the same page with that. I’ve been here for six weeks and probably on the road for four of those scouting.

“Every phone call I got concerning trades was relayed to Pat. There was never any indication that we weren’t on the same page.”

Later, a report surfaced that LaFontaine signed a non-disclosure agreement with the Sabres after he resigned.

Under Pressure: Cory Schneider

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

During his first three years with the New Jersey Devils starting goalie Cory Schneider was one of the few bright spots on the team.

At times, he was the only bright spot.

He was one of the best goalies in the league and probably the only thing that kept them even reasonably competitive at times. He never had a save percentage lower than .920 in any of the three seasons and finished in the top-six two different times.

Had he played on a better team that could have given him more offensive support he probably would have been given more consideration for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie (and even without that offensive support he probably should have been given more consideration for it).

But this past season everything sort of fell apart for him, and by extension, the Devils.

He ended up finishing with a .908 save percentage, a mark that was not only the worst of his career, but also one of the worst in the NHL. For a Devils team that was dependent on its goaltending due to a lack of offense and a shaky defense his down year was pretty much the worst possible scenario and it helped result in one of the NHL’s worst records and a fifth consecutive non-playoff season.

Given Schneider’s track record in the NHL it is pretty clear that the 2016-17 season was a massive outlier when it comes to his performance. He has consistently been one of the best goalies in the league. But if the Devils are going to show any sign of meaningful improvement in 2017 they can not have a repeat performance from Schneider. Even with the additions of Marcus Johansson and the drafting of Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick the Devils are still going to be a team that struggles to score goals (even if they improve), especially with Travis Zajac being sidelined for the next four-to-six months. He is also playing behind a defense that surrendered close to 32 shots on goal per game this past season and did not undergo any significant changes.

Given that expected workload and will almost certainly be another year without much goal support the Devils won’t have a chance if Schneider doesn’t return to his previous form.

It would also be beneficial for the Devils given that they still have $30 million committed to him over the next five seasons. He is their best player, their highest paid player, and their most important player. His overall body of work would seem to indicate he is capable of bouncing back, and he very likely will. If he doesn’t, it is going to be another long season for the Devils.

Looking to make the leap: Blake Speers

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This post is a part of Devils at PHT…

It already seems like a given that top pick Nico Hischier is going to have a spot on the New Jersey Devils’ roster this season, so let’s focus a little bit on another Devils prospect that will be looking to make a full-time leap to the NHL after spending almost all of the 2016-17 season still playing for his junior team.

That would be 2015 third-round pick Blake Speers, who was able to get a brief three-game look with the team early in the season and received some high praise from the coaching staff before being sent back to the Ontario Hockey League.

Speers impressed at the Devils’ development camp this summer and said he is on a mission to make the roster this season. There are certainly plenty of openings for a team that is looking to rebuild its offense. General manager Ray Shero has done a pretty decent job adding talent to the forward group over the past couple of seasons adding Taylor Hall, Zach Palmieri and  Marcus Johansson, then getting the good fortune of winning the draft lottery this offseason to add Hischier into the mix.

During the team’s development camp coach John Hynes talked about Speers and his relentless style of play and the way he “attacks everything he does.” Over the past three years he has been one of the most productive players for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, averaging more than a point per game in each season. If he can successfully make the jump to the NHL this season and translate his game to the next level it would be another great add for a Devils team that has been one of the worst offensive — and least exciting — teams in the league for several years now.

Shero has already added some potential impact players, and getting a No. 1 overall pick is the type of good fortune that can help turn a franchise around, but teams also need to hit on the occasional mid-round pick like Speers to build a complete, balanched team from top-to-bottom.

It’s New Jersey Devils day at PHT

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The 2011-12 New Jersey Devils surprised many by falling just two wins short of a Stanley Cup, ultimately falling to the Los Angeles Kings.

The franchise’s long run of success ended with that unexpectedly deep push. In finishing with 70 standings points last season, the Devils missed the playoffs for the fifth straight time and the sixth in seven tries. (The one time being, oddly, that 2012 Stanley Cup Final run.)

New Jersey didn’t finish with the worst record in 2016-17, yet they enjoyed something rare for the franchise: the first pick of a draft, selecting Switzerland’s Nico Hischier (pictured).

Landing the top pick wasn’t the only significant gain of the summer for New Jersey, either, as they also took advantage of Washington’s cap woes to land underrated forward Marcus Johansson. The Devils continue to be the team that trades might rebuild, as Johansson joins Taylor Hall, Cory Schneider, and Kyle Palmieri as significant pieces added thanks to often-deft swaps.

Despite those nice moves, the Devils still seem like they’re a long way from being truly dangerous again in the East.

A franchise that grew accustomed to All-Star (if not Hall-of-Fame) talent patrolling the blueline now looks pitiful in that area. You could make a solid argument that the Devils sport the worst defense corps in the NHL.

Schneider struggled last season, and with Travis Zajac slated to miss months, the overall picture doesn’t seem pretty.

That said, GM Ray Shero is putting together some intriguing building blocks to get this team back on track, particularly if the likes of Pavel Zacha take steps forward in their development. Here’s hoping that Schneider and especially draft lottery magnet Taylor Hall can be a part of a brighter era for the Devils, whenever that comes.

Get to know Hurricanes’ slew of young defensemen

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This post is a part of Hurricanes day at PHT…

There’s a strong chance that Carolina Hurricanes fans are strongly informed about this team’s wealth of promising – in some cases, already productive – young defensemen.

Carolina still has some questions in net, as Scott Darling must prove that his strong work as a backup in Chicago will translate into a productive career as the top guy with the Hurricanes. There’s also some questions at forward; while the group looks feisty, it’s unclear if they’ll be dominant or merely solid.

The defense, however, seems to be the group that could really become the envy of just about every NHL team outside of maybe Nashville.

Again, Hurricanes fans probably know this well. On the other hand, plenty of other hockey fans – maybe even hardcore ones – only know so much about these guys. In the event that the Hurricanes finally make good on their building hype, here’s a guide so that you can look like you knew about them first.

(Hey, you missed out on that sensation with your hipster music friends in high school, so here’s your chance.)

Note: This will focus mainly on their most prominent defensemen.

Justin Faulk – OK, if Hurricanes defensemen are indie bands, then Faulk is The Arcade Fire: most people know about him by now.

Still, at just 25, he’s in the thick of his prime, and at the very team-friendly clip of $4.833 million for three more seasons.

Since he really broke through in 2014-15, Faulk has generated 48 goals. That’s the sixth-highest total among NHL defensemen during that period of time, according to Hockey Reference. (Brent Burns is in a league of his own with 73, but he’s only eight behind Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who came in second with 56 goals.)

Faulk’s 23 power-play goals rank third among blueliners during that same stretch.

The American defenseman is a bit of a double-edged sword in that chances seem to go both ways when he’s on the ice, but his offensive production is probably worth it.

Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin – At the moment, it seems clear that the Hurricanes would be wise to make their current defensemen specialists.

While Faulk can be the offensive motor, it sure seems like Pesce and Slavin could be the guys doing the dirty work in their own end. Head coach Bill Peters can decide if he wants to have one be Faulk’s “defensive conscience” or if he wants to put them together, but either way, each blueliner puts up modest offensive numbers but limits chances against to a promising degree. And, hey, there’s a chance they might bump those scoring numbers up at least a bit as they mature.

The Hurricanes made big investments in contract extensions for Pesce, 22, and Slavin, 23, this summer.

Noah Hanifin – There are certain numbers that make you grimace with Hanifin, 20, especially if you grade him based on the fact that he was drafted fifth overall in 2015.

He certainly doesn’t work out too well from a fancy stats perspective:

Yikes, well at least he seemed to be a strong playmaker …

On the bright side, Canes Country’s Peter Dewar notes that Hanifin’s numbers dramatically improved once he was elevated to a spot with Pesce in Carolina’s top-four once Ron Hainsey was traded.

Hanifin scored almost as many points (14) in 26 games after Hainsey was traded than he did (15) in the 55 contests before that happened. His stats improved basically across the board, often in dramatic ways.

Perhaps Hanifin made the jump to the NHL a bit too quickly, but there’s still plenty of time for him to figure things out. Much like Klas Dahlbeck and Trevor van Riemsdyk, Hanifin enters a contract year as he’ll be an RFA after 2017-18. Dalbeck and TVR are both 26, so the similarities likely end there.

Haydn Fleury: Click here for plenty on Fleury, the subject of “Looking to make the leap.”

Jake Bean: Along with Fleury, Bean is one of the blueliners who could battle for minutes in the near future. Bean, 19, was the 13th pick of the 2016 NHL Draft. He’s been putting up impressive offensive numbers in the WHL, and even last year spoke with NHL.com about the logjam in the Carolina pipeline.

“In some ways it’s a logjam, but for me, I’m excited that I’m going to be surrounded by really talented prospects and players,” Bean said. “It’s an opportunity not everyone is going to get with every team.”

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For all we know, amassing such an impressive war chest of defensive talent might one day allow GM Ron Francis to improve other areas of the team. It’s the sort of luxury few teams can relate to.

As is, though, this is one impressive group with its best days almost certainly coming down the road.