James O'Brien

I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Defense is now the Devils’ most glaring issue

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From here, trading away Adam Larsson to acquire legit star Taylor Hall is a slam-dunk, and a backboard-shattering one in that.

Even so, there’s little sense denying the notion that the New Jersey Devils face more uncertainty on defense after trading away one of their most important defensemen.

Take a look at a guess at what the team’s seven defensemen might be, in no particular order:

Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, Damon SeversonJohn Moore, Jon Merrill, Steven Santini and Brandon Gormley.

That’s … not an imposing group on paper.

All About the Jersey points out that the Devils were the second-worst team in the NHL at 5-on-5 in Corsi last season, a sometimes unthinkable plight for a team with such a tight-trapping reputation. And those issues came with Larsson.

This post really paints a dismal picture:

As defensive corps go, that one is… pretty underwhelming. Beyond Andy Greene, there are an awful lot of question marks in that bunch and a few players who we know are probably third-pairing level at best. There are probably four players total in that group (Greene, Severson, Lovejoy, Moore) I’m comfortable saying are NHLers right now for sure, which is certainly not ideal.

Greene probably does deserve more recognition as a quality defenseman and it’s also true that the Devils have a knack for manufacturing NHL defensemen, however.

It also must be noted that some of the Devils’ possession troubles can be blamed on a weak offense that added Taylor Hall this summer.

Damon Severson may be called upon to limit the damage.

Hockey Buzz’s Todd Cordell notes that while Larsson + Andy Greene served as a pairing that was better at limiting opponents’ shots, Severson and Greene created better offense and that such a combination might yield better results for the Devils overall.

Severson is targeted as a make-or-break guy in at least two other Devils-centric outlets, too.

John Hynes faces the challenge of putting things together to try to at least compete for a playoff spot. If this defense is any indication, they might need to ask a lot from Cory Schneider and an improved group of forwards.

It’s New Jersey Devils day at PHT

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Back in 2011-2012, the New Jersey Devils made an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final. Since then, they haven’t even made the playoffs.

If that last deep run wasn’t the end of an era, then the 2015 off-season certainly stood as one, with long-time head honcho Lou Lamoriello making way for current GM Ray Shero.

In typical Devils fashion, New Jersey was scrappy last season, yet 2015-16 was rough. While they managed an “above .500 record” (38-36-8), they finished with the fifth-worst record in the East and unusually putrid possession numbers.

Trading in optimism

It isn’t all bad for the Devils and their fans, though.

 

They’ve added some very nice pieces via trades during the last few years. Cory Schneider, Kyle Palmieri and now Taylor Hall didn’t come cheaply … yet all three sure seem worth it at the moment.

In the case of Hall and Schneider in particular, they’re a great one-two punch of talent and value at $6 million apiece for the near future.

 

With Palmieri and Hall in addition to the likes of Adam Henrique, the Devils’ offense is starting to come together after years of struggling following the exits of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.

That’s especially true if Pavel Zacha can make the NHL jump and Beau Bennett ends up being a successful reclamation project.

Trading Adam Larsson from their defense corps hurts, yet the Devils tend to manufacture defense better than most. Even so, that group stands as the biggest mystery.

Expectations might be muted in Newark, but don’t sleep on Hall and the increasingly promising Devils.

Canucks want to trade for scorer, but signing one is wiser

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Hope was a big theme of Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning’s Friday interview with TSN 1040.

Benning hopes against hope that he can make a trade for an “experienced 15-20 goal-scorer,” as Today’s Slapshot’s Chris Nichols transcribed. Meanwhile, free agent forwards hope that they don’t need to go the PTO route just to land a contract.

“We’re looking at all of our options there,” Benning said, according to Nichols. “I’ve talked to a bunch of teams around the league. We really haven’t gotten anywhere with those talks. We’re circling back maybe on some guys that are free agents still, talking to their agents and seeing where they’re at …”

As much as Benning seems to seek an improvement by trade, why not press that free agent button a bit more?

There are easily some 15-20 goal guys on the market. Honestly, in the right situation and with a few lucky bounces, some of them could feasibly push 25.

Just look at Jiri Hudler. Even in a bumpy 2015-16 season in which he was limited to 72 games, he managed 16 goals. He managed 31 goals and 76 points riding high with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan back in 2014-15, not exactly ages ago.

TSN’s Travis Yost makes Hudler’s case, mentioning that a team shouldn’t wait much longer to grab him at a bargain rate:

So, to recap: we know Hudler is still a very good 5-on-5 scorer. We know he’s still a very good individual shooter. And we can reasonably conclude that he’s a player that has a positive impact in the offensive zone for his teammates, who also become better shooters when working with him. 

Things haven’t been great for the Canucks lately, and Benning frequently ends up with egg on his face.

Getting Hudler at a decent rate would be a very nice “win” for a Vancouver team that could use every W it can get.

Either way, there are enough options out there that Benning should spend more time on the phone with agents rather than fellow GMs.

The occasionally progressive Mike Babcock on Mitch Marner

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For all the flack Mike Babcock takes for his scowling and hard-nosed ways, he really comes across as progressive to the press.

You could argue that there was nothing extraordinary about his conversation with TSN about promising prospect Mitch Marner.

Saying that a high-end prospect was “magical” during a practice and that he has a good chance to make the Toronto Maple Leafs next season isn’t groundbreaking. Praising other coaches isn’t unusual, either.

Still, it’s refreshing to hear Babcock’s positive approach to subjects like Marner putting on weight. Rather than making it a high-pressure sell, he insists “all you have to do is get stronger” and that he wants him to be … the best Mitch he can be.

(It’s kind of adorable.)

The Maple Leafs should really follow Bab’s advice and let the players solve that problem for them, as there are advantages to keeping Marner with the team (getting his NHL reps) versus being sent down (saving ELC years, giving him time to mature).

Either way, it makes you wonder if Babcock’s approach really sets him apart. Yes, there’s that taskmaster side, but there’s also open-minded you don’t always see in the “stricter” types.

People love to beat up on the Leafs, including with Babcock and his hefty salary.

They’ll make mistakes along the way, yet interviews like these give you the impression that the team is in much abler hands.

NHL.com has more on Babcock eyeing Marner here.

Peters and the Hurricanes are closer to contending than you might think

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This is part of Hurricanes day at PHT …

The headlines haven’t been so great for the Carolina Hurricanes as of late.

From owner Peter Karamanos being sued by his sons to the team addressing relocation concerns and a lengthy playoff drought, big-picture issues abound.

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll realize that head coach Bill Peters is brewing something special in Carolina.

Peters prompts promising possession

When you look at various possession metrics, you tend to see the “usual suspects” among the NHL’s best. For one example: Los Angeles ranks as the perennial leader in Corsi Close while 2016 Stanley Cup Finalists Pittsburgh and San Jose finished in the top five this season.

You might be surprised to see the Carolina Hurricanes ranking in or around the top 10 in those stats, but it’s no accident.

TSN’s Travis Yost notes that Carolina has been winning the shot differential battle more and more under Peters:

So, yes, the signs are very encouraging for this Carolina group – a true ‘outsider’ from our usual playoff discussions, but one that could certainly become a problem for contenders within the next season or two. The underlying numbers have grown increasingly encouraging to the point where one would be foolish to consider them as an ‘also ran’.

There are reasons to believe that this group can climb the ladder in 2016-17 and beyond. Peters ranks as one of the big reasons why, as the ‘Canes noted after wisely re-signing him.

“We think we’re right there,” GM Ron Francis said in late July. “We want to get in the playoffs, and we want to have success around here.”

Green on the blueline

The Hurricanes’ young, talented defense corps ranks as their most obvious strength.

Noah Hanifin already has a season under his belt at just 19, and he could be Carolina’s answer to Aaron Ekblad. Justin Faulk, 24, flies under the radar as one of the league’s better scoring defensemen.

Ryan Murphy (23), Jacob Slavin (22) and Brett Pesce (21) have been getting some NHL seasoning lately, yet they’ll need to watch their backs for highly promising prospects Haydn Fleury (19) and Roland McKeown (20).

At 35, Ron Hainsey is the guy who can take these kids under his wing … and maybe tell them about the days of rotary phones and 56K modems.

Scoring by committee

Jeff Skinner led the Hurricanes in 2015-16 with an unremarkable 51 points. On paper, this bunch still seems unlikely to blow out many opponents.

That said, it’s plausible that the ‘Canes may succeed in leveraging the depth they’re building.

GM Ron Francis bolstered their veteran ranks by signing journeyman Lee Stempniak and solid depth guy Viktor Stalberg. Teuvo Teravainen will have every chance to blossom, while Bryan Bickell could rebuild his career.

Much like on D, youth is the biggest reason to be excited about their forwards.

Teravainen is just 21. Victor Rask seems like a core piece at 23 after signing an extension. Elias Lindholm (21) is in that mode where he could make a quantum leap, too. Somehow, eternally boyish winger Jeff Skinner is just 24.

(Jordan Staal isn’t exactly ancient at 27, either.)

Work in progress

Look, this is not to say that the Hurricanes will be sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup in June 2017.

They made the baffling decision to re-sign Cam Ward, walking back some of the feelings of a fresh start. And, yes, it’s true that they lack an elite scorer.

Still, it’s been ages since the Hurricanes even made the playoffs, and they’re closer to that goal than you might think.