Travis Zajac

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Ray Shero’s redemption in New Jersey

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When Ray Shero was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2006 he was taking over a team that, even though it had fallen on hard times and had been one of the worst in the league, was on the verge of a breakthrough thanks to a series of top draft picks that brought them a couple of franchise changing players (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Even though the team at the time was lousy, he was still inheriting a pretty decent situation just based on the young talent that was already in place.

In only a couple of years Shero had helped complement those young superstars with a team that would go play in two Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, winning the latter in a thrilling seven-game series. He made some shrewd trades, found some value in free agency, and built a powerhouse team.

In the years after that Stanley Cup win, however, he seemed to lose a lot of that touch. There was too much loyalty to players that the Penguins had won with, too many draft picks were traded for short-term rentals that didn’t pan out and the Penguins quickly became a team that had a handful of superstars and no depth to speak of. The magic that he seemed to have early in his tenure seemed to be gone as nearly every move ended up backfiring in a huge way.

After one too many early postseason exits it eventually ended up costing Shero his job following the 2013-14 season.

It did not take him long to land on his feet with the New Jersey Devils replacing long-time general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Now in his third year running the Devils the team finds itself near the top of the Metropolitan Division looking to end what has become a five-year postseason drought.

It’s not only a potentially big development for the Devils, it’s also been a bit of a redemption story for Shero in the way he has rebuild the team from the ground up in a significant way thanks to some major moves.

The situation that Shero inherited in New Jersey couldn’t have been more different than the one he inherited in Pittsburgh.

With the Penguins, the most important pieces were already in place. It was a young team with huge potential where success seemed like it was destined. It wasn’t a matter of if the team would become a championship contender, it was simply a matter of when. Expectations were immediately through the roof (that sort of situation creates an entirely different kind of pressure).

With the Devils, expectations were pretty much at zero.

The Devils had become a bad team. The All-Stars that helped lead the team to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final were gone. It was an older roster that had no impact players, no young building blocks, and nothing to really build around. It was going to take a significant overhaul to get things back on track.

An overhaul is exactly what has happened.

After trading Adam Henrique to the Anaheim Ducks this past week for defenseman Sami Vatanen, the only players that remain on the Devils roster today from the 2014-15 season (the year before Shero arrived) are Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Damon Severson, and goaltenders Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid.

That’s it.

The remainder of the roster has been completely rebuilt through some pretty significant trades that have had a significant impact on changing the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Since being hired in New Jersey Shero has added Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson and now Vatanen to the roster while only giving up Henrique, Adam Larsson, Joseph Blandisi, two second-round picks and two third-round picks.

That is a huge gain for the Devils from a production standpoint.

Palmieri has become a 25-goal, 50-point winger with the Devils the past two years and is scoring at that same pace this season when he has been healthy. Johansson, based on his track record in Washington, can offer similar production. Injuries have forced each of them to miss 12 games this season, making the Devils’ start even more impressive.

Hall is one of the NHL’s best left wingers and is currently on track for his best season in the NHL. Vatanen has had a brutal start to the season, but has a history of being a strong top-four defenseman that can provide some much-needed offense from the back end.

Those are significant additions, and while there is always a risk in giving up that many draft picks, second and third rounders tend to be lottery tickets, while all four players the Devils received in return are going to be around for quite some time.

Beyond those additions the most encouraging development for the Devils might be the fact they actually have some young players that are making a significant impact.

Three of their top-four scorers are currently age 23 or younger, including a pair of 19-year-olds.

They had a stroke of luck in the draft lottery this past season when they won the draft lottery and the No. 1 overall pick, landing them Nico Hischier (currently the team’s second-leading scorer).

Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016, has also made an immediate impact while NCAA free agent defenseman Will Butcher has stepped right into the lineup and is the team’s top scoring blueliner.

Of the NHL’s top-10 rookie point producers, three of them are Devils all added to the organization by Shero in the past year.

Before Shero’s arrival in New Jersey the Devils had grown stale, even by Devils standards. They weren’t just the same old boring Devils that didn’t score goals, didn’t play an exciting brand of hockey, and didn’t have any star power, they also weren’t doing any of the winning that made all of that tolerable for their fans.

They desperately needed rebuilt and in a pretty drastic way.

A few big trades, a couple ping pong balls to bounce their way, and an almost completely new roster has put them back on the right track and in a pretty strong position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

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.

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.

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.

Johansson knew Capitals had to ‘change something’ after another playoff disappointment

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Change was coming to the Washington Capitals this off-season. Marcus Johansson completely understands why.

Despite another Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular season team and status as a Stanley Cup contender, the Capitals fell well short of their ultimate goal. A number of roster moves followed with key players departing by way of trades (Johansson to New Jersey), free agency (Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk) or the expansion draft (Nate Schmidt).

A number of core players remain, but there should also be opportunities for prospects — like Nathan Walker of Australia — to fill out the remaining spots on the roster, particularly up front.

“That’s part of the game,” Johansson told the Washington Post of the Capitals’ off-season moves.

“Sometimes you have to change things and we had some good opportunities to win these past two years and we didn’t take them and I think this is what comes afterward. They have to change something and guys needed new contracts and stuff like that, so that’s the way it goes. There’s nothing more to say about it.”

Johansson joins a Devils team that had the third worst offense in the league last season, averaging only 2.20 goals-for per game.

The addition of Johansson to the lineup should help turn that in a positive direction. Selecting Nico Hischier first overall should have quite an impact, as well, particularly in the years to come. The Devils were also able to sign puck-moving college free agent defenseman Will Butcher, and he’ll have the chance to earn an NHL roster spot when training camp opens.

That said, for the moves New Jersey general manager Ray Shero has made to improve his team’s offense heading into the upcoming season, the Devils suffered a substantial loss a few weeks ago, as it was announced center Travis Zajac would be out four to six months following pectoral surgery.

Zajac’s most productive season was in 2009-10, but he’s still been a steady contributor to the Devils’ offense since then, with 45 points last season, including six goals and 12 points on the power play.

Related: Johansson ready for ‘underdog’ role after trade to Devils

Devils grab another ex-Bruins forward in Drew Stafford

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Most NHL teams are in “lounging at a tropical resort” and/or heavy-golfing mode, but at least someone in the New Jersey Devils’ front office has been fairly busy lately.

A couple days after they announced a PTO invite for Jimmy Hayes, the Devils revealed that they signed Drew Stafford to a one-year, $800K contract.

While Hayes fell out of favor with the Boston Bruins, it seems like Stafford’s days with the Bruins ended in part because of uncertainty elsewhere, possibly regarding their negotiations with RFA David Pastrnak.

The Devils, meanwhile, aim to fill out their forward ranks, especially with Travis Zajac expected to miss a considerable chunk of the 2017-18 season.

Stafford, 31, was struggling in his final days with the Winnipeg Jets; he was limited to 13 points in 40 games. Being traded to the Bruins seemed to wake him up, as he generated 8 points in 18 regular-season games while firing 2.28 shots on goal per contest after only averaging a meek 1.7 per night with the Jets.

Perhaps some of that urgency will carry over to New Jersey.