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Devils face slew of tough choices in rebuild

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The New Jersey Devils signed head coach John Hynes to an extension on Thursday, answering a significant question about their future. Honestly, GM Ray Shero faces far more complicated and difficult ones as this rebuild goes forward, though.

Granted, the bright side is that Shero’s at least acknowledging that this will take time, rather than battling a rebuild every step of the way, as NHL.com’s Mike Morreale reported:

“Doing something for the sake of getting a little bit better, or to just say you’re doing something, is patchwork and not a plan,” Shero said. “There’s only one way to do this. The idea is to build something that once you do build it, you’re in a good position each year to have a chance to make the playoffs and at a certain point you’re considered a Cup contender.”

On one hand, that’s easier said than done, and some of that comes down to landing blue-chip prospects at the best time.

Still, it’s better to at least have the right perspective, rather than risking being in that puck purgatory: too good to land the Jack Hughes of the world, but too bad to become a credible contender.

Let’s go over the many “easier said than done” parts in greater detail, then.

[More on the Hynes extension.]

Stocking the cupboard

In overachieving their way to a berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the strength of Taylor Hall‘s MVP season, the Devils broke a slump of five seasons without a playoff berth.

Unfortunately, drafting Nico Hischier with the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft broke a different slump: the Devils had an agonizing run of botching some of their premium picks. Take a look at their first-rounders before Hischier:

2016: Michael McLeod (12th overall)
2015: Pavel Zacha (sixth)
2014: John Quenneville (30th)
2013: None
2012: Stefan Matteau (29)
2011: Adam Larsson (fourth)

McLeod and Zacha sting the most considering where they were drafted, and who went afterward. (Seriously, scrolling the 2015 list in particular will do Devils fans no good.)

To some extent, these tough times are to be expected for a franchise that enjoyed a resounding run of success during the Martin Brodeur days, but it’s not the greatest sign when you suffer for years but still see your farm system listed as low-end. Getting a high pick in 2019 to combine with Hischier and intriguing prospect Ty Smith would make things look brighter, for sure, but Shero would be wise to try to buy more “dart throws” in the draft by trading veterans for picks.

Hall of a challenge

Shero would be wise to tread lightly for a firesale for one key reason, though: Taylor Hall’s contract is coming up.

Hall’s been a brilliant steal at just a $6M cap hit, but that ends after 2019-20. While there are some reasons to worry about the aging curve – Hall would be 29 once his next deal kicks in – the Devils would likely gladly gamble on an extension if Hall would allow it. The question is: will he want to stick around? The freight train of a winger has endured two protracted rebuilds with Edmonton and now New Jersey, so could anyone blame him if he wanted to sign with a proven contender?

It’s up to the Devils to convince Hall that they’re building such a structure in New Jersey.

Other pivotal contract situations

Hall can sign an extension as early as July, or opt for a contract year in 2019-20, and he’s far from alone.

Consider these prominent cases of players whose current deals run out after this season or next:

  • Nico Hischier: His rookie deal ends after the 2019-20 season, so the Devils might want to learn a bit more about the promising Swiss-born center. To be specific, how effective can he be without Hall?

While it’s promising that Hischier has been able to stick with Hall, he’s really been attached at the hip with the star winger basically since day one. New Jersey may find it very valuable to see how well he can play on his own.

  • Sami Vatanen ($4.875M) sees his contract end after 2019-20, and he’s 27, much like Taylor Hall. Vatanen’s been an important, if imperfect, addition to a Devils defense that remains quite flawed, but New Jersey will need to decide if he’s a part of the long-term solution. Especially if he calls for a substantial raise.
  • Will Butcher will see his entry-level deal expire after two seasons with the Devils, making him a pending RFA after 2018-19. The 23-year-old’s offense cooled off this season (14 points in 38 games) after generating 44 points as a rookie, yet Butcher’s possession stats are promising, and he stands as an important building block for this defense. Locking him up to the right deal is crucial, and could be quite challenging.
  • Marcus Johansson‘s another interesting expiring contract. Injuries have hampered him since joining the Devils, which leads to an interesting question: should NJ part ways with him, or do they see a potential bargain here? It’s plausible that they can re-sign Johansson for quite a bit less than his current $4.58M cap hit.

Letting rentals Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon walk after last season was one thing, but can Shero make the right calls often enough in those situations?

Glaring areas of concern

Hashing out the right deals for those players – and begging Hall to stay? – won’t be easy. It’s sobering to realize that Shero needs to pull off some magic even if those situations go really well.

Looking at things from a more immediate perspective, there are three key weaknesses to work on: goaltending, scoring beyond Hischier/Hall/Kyle Palmieri, and improving on defense.

With each discouraging start, it seems less and less likely that Cory Schneider will find a way to get his career back on track. His $6M cap hit appears to be a sunk cost through 2021-22. Apologies to Keith Kinkaid and Mackenzie Blackwood, but it sure seems like the Devils need to look outside their organization for a lasting answer in net.

There are some pieces on the Devils’ defense, particularly compared to the days before they landed Butcher and Vatanen, but they lack a premium, Norris-type. As you’ve likely noticed, franchise No. 1 defensemen aren’t easy to find, either.

***

It’s not all bad for the Devils. Even with Schneider and Travis Zajac ranking among their problem contracts, they’re not saddled with as many problems as many others. Hall won’t be cheap if he decides to stick around, yet New Jersey can make up some of the difference with Andy Greene‘s $5M dissolving after 2019-20, as one example.

“Our car is in good shape,” Shero said while making an odd metaphor back in December, according to The Athletic’s Corey Masisak (sub required). “Some other ones on the same highway aren’t.”

Can Shero keep the Devils on the right course despite all the speed bumps and potholes waiting up ahead? It should be fascinating to see how that wild ride turns out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Dougie Hamilton tricks Koskinen, scores from center red line (Video)

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Even though the Edmonton Oilers entered Tuesday’s game in a tie for first place in the Pacific Division there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about what they are actually capable of this season.

They are still the most top-heavy team in the league, relying almost entirely on one line for offense.

They have also been playing below .500 hockey for the better part of the past two months, and after Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes have won just 11 of their past 25 games. Not great!

This most recent loss also included a rather embarrassing play as goalie Mikko Koskinen was faked out by Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton and allowed a goal from the center red line.

As Hamilton controlled the puck at the red line off of a face-off win, he made it look like he was going to simply dump the puck into the corner. That resulted in Koskinen starting to leave the net so he could cut off the dump-in and hopefully make a play to gain possession for his team.

The problem for Koskinen? Hamilton ended up putting the puck on net — while still looking at the corner! — and scored his 11th goal of the season, continuing what might turn out to be a Norris-worthy campaign.

You can see the play in the video above.

Giving up a red line goal is always tough for a goalie, but this one had to especially sting because the Oilers had just rallied from a two-goal deficit earlier in the period only to give up three consecutive goals — including Hamilton’s goal — to lose their second game in a row and their fifth in their past seven games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wild’s Eric Staal injured in collision with linesman (Video)

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Minnesota Wild forward Eric Staal had to leave Tuesday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks after he was involved in a scary collision with a linesman along the boards in the first period.

As Staal and Anaheim forward Derek Grant raced for a puck, Staal went head first into linesman David Brisebois and immediately fell to the ice. He remained down for several minutes before finally being able to get to his feet and skate to the bench with assistance. He did not return to the game, while the Wild have yet to offer an update on his status.

You can see the play in the video above.

It could be a significant injury for the Wild as they are already playing without veterans Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon due to injuries at the moment. Staal entered Tuesday’s game tied with Jason Zucker for the team lead in scoring with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in his first 30 games this season for a Wild team that has rapidly been turning its season around after a brutal start.

The Ducks ended up winning Tuesday’s game, 3-2, in a shootout. The Wild are still 8-1-4 in their past 13 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Eichel’s point streak reaches 14 as Sabres send Blues to third straight loss

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There is simply no stopping Jack Eichel right now.

The Buffalo Sabres’ captain extended his point streak to 14 consecutive games on Tuesday night by scoring the game-winning goal five minutes into the third period (then adding an empty-net goal), helping to send the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues to their third straight loss in a 5-2 decision.

The win helped the Sabres keep pace in the tight Atlantic Division playoff race and was their second in a row.

Let’s take a quick look at three big takeaways from this one.

1. The Eichel line keeps dominating. Eichel’s two goals on Tuesday give him 20 on the season — a mark that is good enough for third in the league behind only David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin — and currently has him on a 51-goal pace for the season. It is worth pointing out that the Sabres have not had a 50-goal scorer since Alexander Mogilny (76) and Pat Lafontaine (53) both hit that mark during the 1992-93 season.

This hot streak all started with a four-goal game back on Nov. 16 and he has not slowed down since then. After Tuesday’s game he is now up to 12 goals and 25 total points during the streak, leading the league in both categories during that stretch.

But it’s not just the play of Eichel that is making things click.

Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson, the other two members of the team’s top line, are also playing some outstanding hockey right now and helping to carry the team’s offense. Olofsson, who has in the middle of an outstanding rookie season, picked up two helpers on Tuesday to give him five goals and 10 assists over the past 14 games, while Reinhart’s two points (one goal, one assist) give him 10 points during that stretch.

2. The Blues fell asleep on Eichel’s game-winner. Seriously, what happened here?

The Blues have been one of the NHL’s best defensive teams going back to last season, but this was a terrible breakdown at the worst possible time. There is no reason for Eichel to be able to walk in front of the net completely uncontested like this in a five-on-five situation. Everyone just fell asleep here and made it way too easy for the league’s hottest player to get a wide open look. You are not really helping your goalie here at all.

3. This is the Blues’ first real slump of the season. Yes, they did lose four games in a row earlier this season but they lost two of those games in overtime and were at least able to collect a couple of points. This is the first time all year they have lost three consecutive regulation games, while they have been outscored by a 13-5 margin during that streak. It is also the first time since last November that they have dropped three consecutive regulation games. Over an 82-game season even the best teams are going to run into slumps like this, so it’s probably not a cause for huge concern at the moment. But the Blues still have to be a little worried about the state of their offense without Vladimir Tarasenko. Since he went out of the lineup in late October this has been one of the league’s worst offensive teams, currently sitting in the bottom-10 in shots and goals per game at both even-strength and in all situations. Yes, they are defensive team. But they still need to find more offense than this.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

There will be no World Cup of Hockey during 2021 season

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The NHL had been hopeful that the World Cup of Hockey could make its return in February of 2021, but commissioner Gary Bettman said on Monday that will not be happening as there is simply not enough time to schedule it that quickly.

The league will hold an All-Star game instead, while the next hope for the World Cup of Hockey seems to be during the 2024 and/or 2028 seasons.

Back in August deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league was cautiously optimistic that World Cup tournament could be held in February in 2021 if the NHL and NHLPA could agree to keep the collective bargaining agreement in place until September 2022.

That happened after a potential 2020 tournament was also pushed back.

That agreement between the NHL and NHLPA to keep the current CBA happened, but the timeframe to organize a tournament is simply not there at this point.

The NHL brought back the World Cup tournament back in 2016 with Canada winning it. It was the first time the tournament had been held since 2004. It held previously been held in 1996 (with the United States winning) and was a successor to the Canada Cup which had been held between 1976 and 1991.

With the league not participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics, the 2016 tournament was the last time NHL players were involved in a best-on-best international tournament. It is still not known if the league will participate in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. NHL players had participated in every Winter Olympics tournament between 1998 and 2014 with the league taking a two week break.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.