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Shero warned there are ‘no shortcuts’ in turning around the Devils

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) If anyone needs the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft, it is the New Jersey Devils.

After making the playoffs for 20 of 22 seasons, the Devils have fallen on hard times. They have missed the postseason for the last five years and they are coming off their worst season in nearly three decades.

In some ways, it’s not surprising. After years of success that included three Stanley Cup championships and two other trips to the championship round, New Jersey ran into problems after going to the final in 2012.

The team was aging. It drafts were weak. High-scoring wing Zach Parise used free agency to sign with Minnesota after losing the Cup to the Kings. Forward Ilya Kovalchuk returned to play in Russia after the following season. There was a lack of scoring, a little less defense and little depth throughout the roster.

A team that knew how to make the postseason suddenly didn’t have the assets to get there.

Read more:

Devils GM keeping options open, but expects to keep No. 1 pick

Moving on up: Devils win NHL Draft Lottery, secure No. 1 pick

The Devils finished seven points out of a playoff spot in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, a campaign that saw long-time goaltender Martin Brodeur miss a month with a pinched nerve in his neck and had Kovalchuk battle a shoulder injury down the stretch. While they collected 88 points in 2013-14, Pete DeBoer’s team missed the postseason by six points, in large part to 18 overtime losses, including 0-13 in shootouts.

DeBoer was gone the following December after New Jersey started 12-17-7, and the team eventually finished 20 points out of a playoff position with Scott Stevens and Adam Oates sharing head coaching responsibilities.

Ray Shero was hired as general manager in 2015 and picked John Hynes, the coach of the Penguins’ top farm team, to run the Devils. The team exceeded expectations in 2015-16, posting a 38-36-8 mark and staying in contention until the final two months as goaltender Cory Schneider and forwards Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique had big seasons.

Despite the addition of Taylor Hall in an offseason trade, last season was a disaster. The team opened 9-3-3 then went 19-37-11 in finishing last in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey’s 70 points were its fewest since 66 in 1988-89.

The Devils need help everywhere on the ice, particularly at center.

The problem with this year’s draft, which begins Friday in Chicago, is that there seemingly is no franchise-changer on the board. There are a lot of good players, but no Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews.

Shero is not saying who the Devils will take with the top pick, if they use it.

However, most experts think it will be either center Nolan Patrick of Brandon of the WHL or center Nico Hischier of Halifax of the QMJHL. Both fit into Shero’s desire to have a fast team on the ice.

It’s the model the Pittsburgh Penguins have used to win the last two Stanley Cup championships, and one that Shero is familiar with since he was the Penguins’ general manager until after the 2013-14 season.

“When I came in, I said to ownership, we have to get younger, we have to get more assets and that was not going to happen overnight, but that is OK,” Shero said. “When you see the teams that are having success, that’s the way it has been done. There are no shortcuts or patchwork in signing a bunch of free agents, or you get back in the same spot you were before.”

There are only five players over 30 on the current Devils’ roster: Mike Cammalleri, Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, Travis Zajac and Schneider.

Patrik Elias just retired, and over the last five years Brodeur, Dainius Zubrus, Scott Gomez, Martin Havlat, Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky were either traded or left to sign with other teams.

Still, the Devils have a way to go, even with the No. 1 pick and 10 other choices in the draft this weekend.

Shero isn’t certain how long it will take the Devils to get back to the playoffs.

“I don’t know, it’s a tough league, a tough division,” Shero said. “Nashville made the playoffs in the West as the eighth seed, and they were picked for the Stanley Cup by some before the season. That’s how close this is. It’s not like the NBA, where there is no competition.”

The Devils played like an also-ran NBA teams last season. They were not competitive most nights.

They need more talent, more depth – and maybe a top pick who surprises the league next season.

 

Plenty of opportunity on revamped Blackhawks defense

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For almost a decade, Niklas Hjalmarsson was a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ back end, quietly providing some of the most effective defense in the league.

But with Hjalmarsson in Arizona now, traded to the Coyotes for the younger-though-less-proven Connor Murphy, it remains to be seen how Chicago’s blue line will roll out next season.

In addition to Hjalmarsson, the ‘Hawks also bid adieu to Brian Campbell, Johnny Oduya, and Trevor van Riemsdyk this offseason.

Add up all the good-byes, and that’s a lot of minutes to replace.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we’re going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” head coach Joel Quenneville said, per CSN Chicago. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

The way it looks right now, the top four will be comprised of Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, and Michal Kempny. That’s two left shots — Keith and Kempny — and two righties — Seabrook and Murphy.

Read more: After major changes, Bowman thinks Blackhawks are in ‘good spot’

The bottom pairing, though, is anyone’s guess. Newly signed Czech defenseman Jan Rutta is in the mix. But so too are Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, and possibly even Luc Snuggerud.

Once training camp starts, it’ll be up to those young players to prove themselves.

“Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more,” said Oesterle, whom the ‘Hawks signed July 1. “I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Veteran Michal Rozsival is also under contract for next season. However, he turns 39 in September, and with all that youth champing at the bit, the Blackhawks will be hoping they won’t need him much, if at all.

Chicago’s defense in 2016-17, ranked by total time on ice

Sheary’s agent — who’s also Dumoulin’s agent — hoping to avoid arbitration

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Conor Sheary‘s agent is hopeful that an arbitration hearing won’t be needed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And that same agent has reason to be optimistic, since he’s also the agent for Brian Dumoulin, who settled at the last minute today.

“Each (case) is so different,” Andrew Gross told the Post-Gazette this morning. “Ultimately, though, team and player would like to avoid going in that room. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

Sheary’s hearing isn’t scheduled until Aug. 4. The 25-year-old forward is coming off a 53-point regular season. In his young NHL career, he’s already won two Stanley Cups.

That said, the Penguins can’t afford to break the bank on an extension. After all, a big reason for their success has been having players like Sheary on affordable deals — a necessity with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang taking up so much cap space.

Sheary wasn’t all that productive in the 2017 playoffs either, scoring just two goals with five assists in 22 games, while finishing a team-worst minus-5 for the postseason.

“We’re prepared to go to arbitration,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said last week.

Of course, Rutherford was also speaking about Dumoulin, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement on him.

You can probably expect a similar outcome with Sheary.

Just don’t bet the house on it.

Preds avoid arbitration with Austin Watson

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Another narrowly avoided arbitration to pass along.

The Nashville Predators have signed forward Austin Watson to a three-year, $3.3 million contract that will pay him $1 million next season, $1.1 million in 2018-19 and $1.2 million in 2019-20.

Watson’s hearing was scheduled for today.

From the press release:

Watson, 25 (1/13/92), set career highs in goals (5), assists (7), points (12), penalty minutes (99) and games played (77) during the 2016-17 season as he established himself as an integral member of the Nashville roster. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound winger then added four goals and nine points in 22 postseason contests as the Predators advanced to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. Watson also appeared in 57 games for the Predators during the 2015-16 season, recording three goals and 10 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also avoided an arbitration hearing today by signing defenseman Brian Dumoulin to a six-year contract.

Spooner seeking $3.85 million in arbitration

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Ryan Spooner‘s arbitration hearing with the Boston Bruins is scheduled for Wednesday. And if it goes ahead, it could be a rather contentious one.

According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Spooner is seeking $3.85 million on a one-year deal, while the B’s are thinking almost half that at $2 million.

Spooner, a 25-year-old forward, will certainly be able to sell his offensive statistics. He had 49 points in 2015-16, then 39 points last season.

“Ryan’s a talented player,” said GM Don Sweeney, per CSNNE.com. “He’s had a lot of success. Our power play is better when he plays as well as he’s capable of playing, and he can really be a good complement to our group.”

But the knock on Spooner has always been his defensive play. The past two seasons, he’s a combined minus-17. Back in May, it was reported that the B’s were entertaining trade offers for him.

Spooner’s last contract paid him $1.9 million over two years.