Pavel Zacha

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Devils expecting more from Taylor Hall this season

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Taylor Hall‘s first season with the New Jersey Devils could probably be described as a solid season. In 72 games he scored 20 goals, added 33 assists and posted some pretty good possession numbers. On a per-game average, it was very similar to what he did in his previous two years with the Edmonton Oilers.

Heading into his second season with the team, the Devils are looking for more this time around.

“I expect more and he knows that,” said general manager Ray Shero when the team opened training camp this week, via NHL.com. “We met at the end of the year for a long time and wanted him to understand what it is to become the best player he can be. I think he’s been fantastic this summer and he’s capable of more, but it starts with a lot of different things than what’s happening on the ice in terms of training.”

The Devils acquired Hall last summer in a one-for-one swap involving defenseman Adam Larsson, giving the Devils what should be the type of top-line winger they have been missing since Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk left the organization several years ago. Hall is still only 26 years old and under contract for three more seasons at a reasonable $6 million per year salary cap hit. Given his age and contract status, he can still be a part of the next competitive team in New Jersey as it continues on its rebuild under Shero and coach John Hynes.

They have not qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since reaching the Stanley Cup Final during the 2011-12 season and are coming off of a 2016-17 season that saw them finish with the fourth-worst record in the league and what was, by a pretty big margin, the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

The team made a lot of moves this summer to get Hall some additional help front. After getting some luck in the draft lottery the Devils selected Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick, then also added Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle and Drew Stafford. They are also looking for young players like Pavel Zacha and Blake Speers to take big steps forward.

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?

***

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.

Zacha should be ready for big step forward for Devils

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This post is a part of Devils day at PHT…

Ever since Ray Shero took over as the team’s general manager the New Jersey Devils have tried to add a lot of offensive punch to their lineup. They have traded for Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson. They signed Brian Boyle this summer. They drafted Nico Hischier with the No. 1 overall pick this summer and are hoping that 2015 third-round pick Blake Speers can make the leap to the NHL on a full-time basis this season.

But their top pick in that 2015 class might be one of the most important players on the roster this season when it comes to whether or not the Devils can show significant signs of improvement in their rebuild. That pick, of course, was No. 6 overall selection Pavel Zacha.

After spending all but one game of his draft year back in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the Sarnia Sting, Zacha got his first full-time look in the NHL during the 2016-17 season and it was a bit of a mixed bag, something that is to be expected for a 19-year-old, especially one that bounced around between two different position — seeing time at both center and wing — and started the season recovering from a hip injury.

With just seven points in his first 37 games it was looking like his rookie season was going to be a bit of a disappointment.

He was able to salvage it in the second half, however, with a strong finish that saw him record a very respectable 17 points over the final 33 games. He also seemed to fit in more comfortably on the wing and took more of a shoot-first mentality with the puck, getting more shots on net as the season progressed. All of that is a good indication that he was starting to figure it out at the NHL level and could be poised for a big step forward in year two. He spent the offseason training in New Jersey working firsthand with the team’s trainers and coaches to help get there.

The Devils are going to need him to for a couple of reasons.

Not only because he is a top draft pick from just two years ago, making him a central part of the team’s ongoing rebuild, but also because of the injury suffered by Travis Zajac that is going to sideline him for at least four-to-six months. That is a pretty massive blow to an already thin Devils lineup. It’s not yet known where the Devils see Zacha on a full-time basis, but the center position was kind of turned upside down over the past couple of months with the additions of Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle along with the injury to Zajac. He played his best hockey last season on the wing, but they might have a need down the middle. No matter where he fits in the lineup if the Devils are going to become a better offensive team both now and in the future players like Zacha are going to have to play a key role in it.

Devils add center depth, sign Boyle — two years, $5.1 million

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New Jersey filled a void down the middle at the start of free agency, signing Brian Boyle to a two-year, $5.1 million deal with a $2.55M cap hit.

Boyle, 32, had a productive year split between Tampa Bay and Toronto, finishing with 12 goals and 25 points in 75 games. Having carved himself a niche as a big-bodied (6-foot-6, 244 pounds) center that can win draws and play a strong defensive game, Boyle has often been in demand for teams looking at a bottom-six forward.

In New Jersey, he’ll probably be exactly that.

Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique did most of the heavy lifting down the middle last season, while young prospect Pavel Zacha continued to learn his craft. Based on projections, Boyle might have a more expanded role than he did in either Tampa or Toronto.

 

The biggest loser in the NHL Draft Lottery? Probably the Vegas Golden Knights

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It’s somewhat fitting that the Colorado Avalanche, coming off of a season where they were one of the worst NHL teams in recent memory, found another way to lose on Saturday night when they dropped all the way down to the No. 4 overall pick in the NHL Draft Lottery. For a team that needs a ton of help across the board, that is a huge loss.

But they still probably weren’t the biggest losers in the lottery.

That honor has to go to the team that hasn’t even played a game in the NHL yet, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

Entering the lottery with the same odds for the first pick as the third-worst team in the league (10.3 percent) Vegas ended up dropping down to the No. 6 overall pick thanks to the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers (probably the biggest winners in the lottery, even without getting the No. 1 overall pick), and Dallas Stars all making huge moves into the top-three.

This could not have possibly played out worse for George McPhee and his new front office in Vegas.

These people are trying to start a team from scratch. From literally nothing. The only player they have right now is Reid Duke and while the expansion draft rules are supposedly going to give them more talent to pick from than previous expansion teams, they are still facing a long building process. Even if they do have a decent amount of talent to pick from, they are not going to find a franchise building block among those selections.

Their best chance of landing that player is always going to be in the draft. Their starting point is going to be the No. 6 overall pick.

That is a painfully tough draw for a number of reasons.

First, if you look at the NHL’s recent expansion teams going back to 1990 this is the lowest first pick any of the past 10 expansion teams have had when they entered the league.

  • San Jose Sharks — No. 2 overall in 1991
  • Tampa Bay Lightning — No. 1 overall in 1992
  • Ottawa Senators — No. 2 overall in 1992
  • Anaheim Ducks — No. 4 overall in 1993
  • Florida Panthers — No. 5 overall in 1993
  • Nashville Predators — No. 2 overall in 1998
  • Atlanta Thrashers — No. 1 overall in 1999
  • Minnesota Wild — No. 3 overall in 2000
  • Columbus Blue Jackets — No. 4 overall in 2000
  • Vegas Golden Knights — No. 6 overall in 2017

Only one of those teams picked outside of the top-four (Florida in 1993, and that was in a year with two expansion teams when the other one picked fourth).

When you look at the recent history of No. 6 overall picks it’s not hard to see why this would be a tough starting point for a franchise. Historically, there is a big difference between even the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in terms of value, and that gap only gets larger with each pick that follows.

Just for a point of reference, here is every No. 6 overall pick since 2000: Scott Hartnell, Mikko Koivu, Scottie Upshall, Milan Michalek, Al Montoya, Gilbert Brule, Derick Brassard, Sam Gagner, Nikita Filatov, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Brett Connolly, Mika Zibanejad, Hampus Lindholm, Sean Monahan, Jake Virtanen, Pavel Zacha, Matthew Tkachuk.

Overall, it’s a good list. The point isn’t that you can’t get a great player at No. 6 overall because there are a lot of really good players on there. But there are also some misses, and other than maybe Ekman-Larsson there really isn’t anyone that you look at say, “this is a player you can build a franchise around.”

Just because Vegas is an expansion doesn’t mean they should have been guaranteed the top pick (or even the No. 2 pick). It is a lottery system and it all just depends on how lucky your team is when it comes time to draw the ping pong balls.

But for a team that is starting from scratch, ending up with the No. 6 overall pick in a draft class that is not regarded as particularly a deep one (at least compared to some recent years) is a really tough draw when it comes to starting your team.

If they end up finishing the worst record in the league, as most expansion teams tend to do, they could easily end up picking fourth in 2018.

Just ask the Avalanche what that is like.