Kyle Palmieri

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Brian Gibbons taking advantage of NHL opportunity with Devils

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NEWARK, N.J. — Two full seasons in the American Hockey League, after a taste of NHL life, would give some players a mentality that a regular spot in The Show may never come again. Not Brian Gibbons.

The New Jersey Devils forward wasn’t wondering when he’d get another NHL shot after 66 games over two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets. He was thankful just for the opportunity.

“[I was] lucky to play the game still. It’s not the NHL, but it’s still a lot of fun,” Gibbons, 29, told PHT on Wednesday. “Great guys down there. It’s tough hockey, good hockey.”

The Devils are one of the early-season surprises atop the Metropolitan Division with a 11-4-2 record. It’s not just that they’re having success, they’re actually fun to watch again. The speedy Gibbons is one reason why.

The leading goal scorer for the Devils isn’t Taylor Hall or Adam Henrique or Kyle Palmieri or even last June’s No. 1 overall draft pick Nico Hischier. Gibbons is the one currently holding that title with eight, which isn’t bad for someone whose last NHL goal before this season came on April 3, 2014.

What’s been the secret to his success? The answer is certainly not linemate Blake Coleman’s pickle juice, which Gibbons noted he stays “far away” from.

“I’ve just been trying to play the right way, really,” he said, “skate hard, work hard defensively. Obviously playing in the offensive zone as much as you can, try to get pucks behind their D and then once you’re in the O-zone try and make plays.”

Inconsistency plagued Gibbons earlier in his career, keeping him from earning a regular NHL job. His first professional coach is now his current coach — John Hynes. The two, along with Devils assistant coach Alain Nasreddine, were in Wilkes-Barre together for parts of three seasons from 2011-2014. Gibbons moved on to the Columbus, splitting the 2014-15 season between the Blue Jackets and their affiliate in Springfield. The next year he was in Hartford, trying to impress the New York Rangers for a callup that never happened. When no contract offers came his way in the summer of 2016, he earned a spot with the Devils’ AHL team in Albany after a tryout and planted the seeds for an NHL return.

A 16-goal, 38-points campaign impressed Hynes and Devils general manager Ray Shero (who was GM in Pittsburgh when Gibbons was there) enough that he earned an invite to main camp this fall. He fit into his role on the team and won himself a job.

“He’s really bought in to what his identity is as a player. He’s fast, he’s tenacious, he’s very smart. He’s a very good penalty killer. He understands how he needs to play,” Hynes said on Wednesday. “The biggest difference was when he was in Wilkes-Barre there was lots of pockets like that and inconsistencies, but the consistency level and professionalism he has now is allowing his talent and skill set to come out. It’s nice to see a guy like that come in and earn a job, and so far he hasn’t given it up. You want those things on your team because it helps drive internal competition.”

Gibbons and Coleman had a head start on chemistry development at the NHL level after a year of playing together in Albany. The transition was seamless and each knows what to expect from the other. The trio’s success is a small snapshot of a bigger picture. The Devils are one of the league’s top teams through nearly 20 games because of balanced scoring (14 different players have recorded a goal) and Cory Schneider’s play (.935 even strength save percentage) in net. It hasn’t always looked pretty, but they’ve been able to get the job done.

“[We’re] finding different ways to win games, whether it’s getting a lead and playing with a lead or coming from behind or goalies stealing us a game or power play getting a couple goals late,” Gibbons said. “It just seems, for the most part, that when we’ve needed a big play we’ve gotten it and we’ve gotten it from different guys, which is key when you don’t have to rely on one player and can just do it as a group.”

We’ll see if Gibbons can keep up the productivity and finally establish himself as a regular NHL player. When he was down in the AHL he never viewed his time there as one big tryout, hoping to impress a GM to get called up. He was only concerned with what he could control and that was helping his team.

That perspective can be credited to age and maturity.

“I’m at a different stage in my life,” Gibbons said. “Me and my fiancee have a little one-year-old. It’s nice to be able to share it with them. She was with me when I was in Columbus but he wasn’t around. It’s nice for them to be able to share this with me and just enjoying each day.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Vincent Trocheck shares classic stories about Jaromir Jagr

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

–Check out the highlights from last night’s game between the Capitals and Predators. T.J. Oshie scored twice, but it simply wasn’t enough to propel Washington to a win. (top)

–The Sabres had high hopes for Jack Eichel, but he’s struggling to meet those expectations right now. “I feel like people are judged based off statistics so frequently, and so is the case with our league for a reason,” Eichel said. “That’s my job, my job is to produce. (Buffalohockeybeat.com)

–NHL hockey will be one of the sports featured on the new ESPN+ app which is set to launch next year. (Forbes)

–Bruce Boudreau’s Minnesota Wild are off to a slow start this year, but there’s reason for optimism. Two years ago, when Broudreau was coaching the Anaheim Ducks, he got off to a horrible start before turning things around. (Twincities.com)

–It’s been a tough month for the Chicago Blackhawks, as their special teams has struggled and they haven’t been able to score much. The problem is, there probably won’t be any outside help coming in the near future. They’ll have to play themselves out of this funk. (Chicago Sun-Times)

–The Surrey Knights of the Pacific Junior Hockey League haven’t won a hockey game in nearly two years. This horrible streak started after a bench-clearing brawl got their coach and co-owner suspended for six years. It was all downhill from there. (Globe and Mail)

–Here’s a bunch of interesting nuggets from Brian Burke. He admitted that the Flames thought about bringing back Jarome Iginla. Burke also touched on the red flag Jaromir Jagr had coming out of the draft, and how Sam Bennett would have been torn to shreds if he played in Toronto. (Sportsnet)

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have put up some strong numbers playing together this season, but the team remains last in goals scored. Is it time to separate them in an attempt to balance their lineup? (Oilersnation.com)

–George Gosbee, who was instrumental in keeping the Coyotes in Arizona, passed away at the age of 48 on Sunday. “It was shocking, it was sad and it was tragic,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. He was smart, he was affable, he was friendly and he just struck me as being an all-around good guy. Obviously, our deepest condolences go out to his family and friends.” (arizonasports.com)

Travis Zajac is close to returning to the Devils lineup, so it’ll be interesting to see how the team’s lines will change when he gets back. There’s a good chance he’ll slot in on the first line with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. (NJ.com)

Mathew Barzal has been an incredible playmaking center throughout his hockey career. That hasn’t changed in his first full NHL season. “One of my best attributes is my passing and head-up vision,” Barzal said. “I think guys like Nicklas Backstrom and Patrick Kane are pass-first guys and they’re both very good.” (NHL.com)

–For the last few seasons, the Washington Capitals have been the dominant team in the NHL during the regular season. This year, they’ve really struggled to find any kind of consistency. As we saw in last night’s loss to Nashville, the Caps are struggling to put three good periods together. (dcpuckdrop.com)

–If the Florida Panthers want to get back in the playoff hunt, they’ll have to find a way to go on a strong run over the next two months. It won’t be easy, but it’s been done before. (therattrick)

–Speaking of the Panthers, Vincent Trocheck wrote a great piece for The Players’ Tribune. In the story, Trocheck shares a number of classic stories about former teammate Jaromir Jagr, including his poor choice of music in the locker room. He also touched on his experience at the World Cup of Hockey and his family’s move from Pittsburgh to Detroit. (Players’ Tribune)

–The Four Nations Cup just concluded in the Florida area, and it went exactly how many expected. Sweden struggled, while Canada and the USA battled hard against each other. (victorypress.org)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Kucherov joins elite company with hot start, but Devils defeat Bolts

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The Nikita Kucherov Show continues.

The Tampa Bay Lightning star forward maintained his torrid pace Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, scoring his eighth goal of the season — in just his seventh game.

The Bolts took the lead in the second period on goals from Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but couldn’t hang on and ultimately lost to the Devils (how about this start for New Jersey?) by a score of 5-4 in the shootout.

There is no denying, however, that this has been a special start for the 24-year-old Kucherov and he has joined elite company as a result.

That’s a perfect shot on Cory Schneider.

Read more: Kucherov’s star continues to rise

Kucherov also added an assist on Vladislav Namestnikov‘s beautiful first-period goal. The Devils, though, completed the comeback to continue their strong start to the season, both in wins and goals for. They entered Tuesday’s contest among the league leaders in scoring and surged out to an early lead following a wild five-goal first period.

Drew Stafford opened the scoring for New Jersey and then tied it late in the third period. Kyle Palmieri scored the winner in the shootout.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Butcher, Bratt (and Bernier) steal spotlight from Hischier in Devils’ opener

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As the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, Nico Hischier had plenty of eyes on him as the New Jersey Devils opened their season against the Colorado Avalanche.

Despite a strong showing in which he fired six shots on goal, Hischier wasn’t able to score his first goal or assist in the NHL.

Instead, the Devils other young players stole the spotlight … which isn’t so bad, when you consider that it resulted in a dominant 4-1 victory.

Avalanche fans hoping not to see much of Will Butcher were wise not to look at the box score, as Butcher became the first Devils player to ever record three points in a rookie debut. He notched those three assists through just 8:13 of ice time through the first two periods. The Devils got cheeky with a great tweet in that regard:

Harsh.

Jonathan Bernier kept a 4-1 game from getting out of hand with some absolutely spell-binding saves. You know a stop is special when there’s basically zero margin for error, as Damon Severson was able to elevate his attempt at a seemingly gaping net:

That was so good, it almost made people forget about Bernier goofing about Nelson Mandela.

Jesper Bratt was the other young Devils player to make an impression, scoring a goal and an assist himself. And yes, there were a slew of bad/great/bad-great brat-related puns.

Hischier might not have scored, but he looked great. He surely earned some brownie points with Devils fans for stepping in when Erik Johnson landed a knee-to-knee hit on Kyle Palmieri:

It remains to be seen if Palmieri misses serious time, while Drew Stafford was also hurt during the game. Beyond the Avalanche being, um, flawed, those issues put a slight damper on what must have been an exhilarating afternoon for Devils fans.

So much happened. And much of it looked very, very good for this fascinating rebuild.

Devils dealing: New Jersey’s cap situation after Severson signing

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The New Jersey Devils have a long way to go, but it looks like they’re in pretty good hands with GM Ray Shero.

For casual fans, handing defenseman Damon Severson a six-year, $25 million contract was an eyebrow-raiser on Monday. The 23-year-old isn’t a household name, so a $4,166,666 stands as a scary (though delightfully Devils-themed) cap hit.

That deal might indeed raise some eyebrows, but maybe down the line, as Severson’s shown some very nice promise, particularly in 2016-17. If anything, there’s serious evidence that the Devils haven’t been relying on him enough.

It remains to be seen if the Devils can combine nice strides and baby steps to a leap in competition with enough speed to take advantage of the stronger parts of their roster. With that in mind, let’s break down New Jersey’s salary structure after Severson’s deal.

Masters of their trades

Opposing GMs don’t need to hit the red “Ignore” button when Shero’s caller ID comes up, but they might want to approach dealings cautiously in the future. Simply put, the Devils have been dealing well over the years, especially since Shero took over.

Taylor Hall – $6M through 2019-20.

If you’re looking for anti-Hall rhetoric, you’ve come to the wrong place.

He’s a superb first-line winger, and despite somehow being a lottery ball magnet, is still just 25. Here’s hoping that Hall gets a chance to show how fantastic he really is in games that matter before too long.

The beauty of his deal is that it’s fairly easy to move if the Devils and/or Hall believe that his best chance to compete would be to go somewhere else … while netting New Jersey some assets.

Kyle Palmieri – The Ducks must kick themselves for choosing other interesting forwards over Palmieri, who’s scored 26 and 30 goals during his two seasons for the Devils. He comes at the low-low price of $4.65M through 2020-21.

Check out how convoluted the asset situation was involving Palmieri, via Hockey Reference:

June 27, 2015: Traded to New Jersey by Anaheim for Florida’s 2nd round pick (previously acquired, later traded to NY Rangers – NY Rangers selected Ryan Gropp) in 2015 NHL Draft and Minnesota’s 3rd round pick (previously acquired, later traded to Buffalo, later traded to Nashville – Nashville selected Rem Pitlick) in 2016 NHL Draft.

*scratches head*

Marcus Johansson – $4.5833M for two seasons.

The Devils took advantage of the Capitals’ cap woes to lift a quality forward who comes at a reasonable price. “MarJo” could really drive up his value if New Jersey gives him a more prominent role.

Some concerns

Cory Schneider ($6M for five more seasons) was another nice trade get, even as the Vancouver Canucks have been very happy with Bo Horvat. Shero wasn’t GM at the time of the deal, so that’s part of the reason Schneider is in a different section.

The other: there’s a bit of concern here. Schneider’s frequently been downright fantastic, but 2016-17 was rough, and one has to worry at least a little bit that he might struggle more as time goes on. At age 31, it’s possible his best days are behind him.

Age could also be a worry for banged-up center Travis Zajac ($5.75M through 2020-21) and Andy Green ($5M for three more years), a blueliner who is used in heavy defensive situations. Ben Lovejoy and Brian Boyle seem like short-term placeholders with two years remaining on their respective deals.

Of course, the biggest concern for the Devils is also an obvious one: their defense.

Even with Severson being sneaky-good, that unit has a lot of room for improvement. Considering how sought-after defense is in the current NHL, it might not be so easy to make drastic changes to this group.

(If anyone can pull off some clever trades, it might be Shero, though.)

Young guns

The plus side of the Devils’ suffering is that they’ve been able to add some intriguing young talent. That’s most obvious in the Devils nabbing Nico Hischier in a rare moment: the Devils getting the top pick of a draft.

The key, then, will be development. Hischier might not be as much of a challenge, but can the Devils get the most out of Pavel Zacha and prized college free agent Will Butcher?

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The Devils’ forwards group has taken some remarkable steps forward, to the point that the franchise may flip its identity in the near future as an offensively potent, defensively shaky group.

Of course, that’s under the assumption that management won’t have much luck bolstering the blueline.

This isn’t a perfect situation in New Jersey, but credit Shero for putting some impressive building blocks down for a team whose past perennial status made a rebuild challenging.