2010-11 NHL season preview: New Jersey Devils

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ilyakovalchuk6.jpgLast season: (48-27-7, 103 points, 1st in Atlantic Division, 2nd in Eastern Conference) The New Jersey Devils won another Atlantic Division title while acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk before the trade deadline only to get pounded by the Flyers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs. Despite winning three Stanley Cups in their history, the post-lockout Devils are starting to earn a reputation as a team that is great in the regular season but can’t get it done when the games matter the most.

Head coach: John MacLean paid his dues by going through the Devils system, so now he’ll get his shot with the big team. Things didn’t go so well in Jacques Lemaire’s second stint with New Jersey and the team recently got burned by Brent Sutter, so the Devils must hope for some stability behind the bench.

Key departures: D Paul Martin, G Yann Danis, F Rob Niedermayer, F Dean McAmmond, F Jay Pandolfo and whoever leaves to clear cap space. The biggest loss was Martin, a player who struggled with injuries last year but was often one of the team’s top two defensemen. The other guys are depth players, but whoever leaves to make room for Ilya Kovalchuk – most likely Brian Rolston, Jamie Langenbrunner or a mid-level defenseman – will probably be the second biggest loss.

Key arrivals: F Ilya Kovalchuk, D Anton Volchenkov, F Jason Arnott, D Henrik Tallinder, G Johan Hedberg. OK, I know Kovalchuk came over last deadline, but his signing was such a headache that he makes sense here. Volchenkov is a valuable defenseman, but he’s coming at a hefty price and his shot-blocking style might make him a likely candidate for the IR. The trade to land Arnott smells of nostalgia, but he can bring some offense. Tallinder is a solid but quiet defenseman while Hedberg did well as a starter in Atlanta, yet might not be more than adequate as a backup. Overall, the Devils improved themselves.

Under pressure: When you are the focus of two months of tedious contract banter (and receive a $100 million contract), then you better deliver, so Kovalchuk is under big-time scrutiny. Zach Parise is also under quite a bit of pressure to drive up his own price in the last year of his bargain contract, while Martin Brodeur needs to win in the playoffs before people start giving up on him.

In other words, there’s plenty of pressure to go around.

Thumbnail image for martinbrodeurglance.jpgProtecting the house: Brodeur is the all-time leader in wins, shutouts and HEbaG (Hamburgers Eaten by a Goalie) and is about as automatic as death and taxes. He still puts up great stats year in and year out. Chances are the no-brainer Hall of Famer will play his typical ton of games because Hedberg is nothing more than an average backup.

On paper, their defense is uninspiring but the Devils’ system tends to camouflage many flaws. Volchenkov might be an upgrade on Martin as far as pure defense goes while Tallinder is another steady upgrade. If the Devils can keep Bryce Salvador, they have a decent trio along with the occasionally mistake-prone but rugged Colin White. The Devils struggle in the playoffs because they lack a true shutdown defenseman, so maybe Volchenkov will be worth those big bucks.

Top line we’d like to see: Kovalchuk-Travis Zajac-Parise. Sometimes, you get what you want, which is the case of the “ZIP” line. They’ve been tearing it up in the preseason, so don’t expect to see a lot of this trio in the regular season. Patrik Elias isn’t chopped liver in Zajac’s spot, either.

Oh captain, my captain: Jamie Langenbrunner might end up getting traded from New Jersey, but he’s a solid lead-by-example type who should maintain his captain status if he avoids a swap. Lemaire being out of town is a big plus in keeping him happy.

Street fighting man: Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond – rather than discussing his fighting merits, just watch this two-plus minute bout with Cam Janssen.

Best-case scenario: The “ZIP” line becomes the best scoring line in Devils history while Elias and Arnott are inspired to defend the honor of the Elias-Arnott-Petr Sykora line by putting up great depth offense, too. Volchenkov helps the Devils put together their best defense since they lost Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens in rapid succession. Brodeur shakes off his playoff struggles and the Devils win yet another Cup.

Worst-case scenario: The Devils falter in the playoffs while Kovalchuk justifies all the “once a loser, always a loser” fears by putting up empty numbers in the regular season but struggling when it counts. Worse yet, the Devils allow both the Penguins and Flyers to pass them in the Atlantic Division so they don’t even have a division title to heal their wounds. Brodeur shows his age with a below-average season.

Keeping it real: The Devils are a top-heavy team that should be great in the regular season, but what about the playoffs? Arnott and Kovalchuk are one-dimensional players while Volchenkov puts himself into consistent danger by blocking shots (even though that’s just what he does). Brodeur has a lot of mileage, so that whole 70-starts-per-year thing might not be so wise any longer.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and a five being the best, they get a 5. They have some flaws, but every team has its blemishes. The bottom line is that this is the best Devils team in ages, one built to win now or (almost) never.

Milan Lucic gets in heavyweight fight after thunderous hit

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Much to the Edmonton Oilers’ chagrin, Milan Lucic isn’t the all-encompassing threat he once was. To be more precise, he’s not exactly the type who will score enough to justify his $6 million cap hit very often these days.

Lucic is still an enormous human, however, and sometimes you get a taste of what made him such a menacing presence in the past. Sunday stood as one of those examples, as Lucic delivered a thunderous check on Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic, then went toe-to-toe with Anthony Peluso in what seemed like a pretty even fight.

(You can watch it all in the video above.)

If you’re around an old-school type, you’ll probably overhear something about how this fight somehow propels the Oilers to victory rather than Ken Hitchcock’s patented “Connor McDavid scores the only goal” formula. Lucic kindly obliged following his first scrap of 2018-19:

Either way, the Oilers snagged a 1-0 win against the Flames, and Lucic looked like a beast, at least for that stretch. It hasn’t always been pretty, yet Edmonton will take it, especially when “it” qualifies as a win against their nearby rivals.

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.

Nearly 30K stuffed animals fly during Calgary Hitmen’s Teddy Bear Toss night

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The WHL’s Calgary Hitmen fell short in their quest to reclaim the Teddy Bear Toss world record.

One week after the AHL’s Hershey Bears saw 34,798 teddy bears fly to their ice and break the Hitmen’s 2015 record, the crowd inside the Saddledome made it rain with fur Sunday afternoon after Kaden Elder’s first period goal. The 18,015 fans, many of whom brought large plastic bags filled with stuffed animals, helped break a franchise Teddy Bear Toss record with a total of 29,635, up from the 28,815 collected three years ago.

“It was an awesome experience and something I’ll never forget,” Elder said via the Hitmen website. “The atmosphere in the rink was unbelievable with all the fans and the teddy bears. It was definitely an adrenaline rush and when it went in I was thinking about the celebration and kind of zoned out because I was trying to just take in the moment and enjoy every second of it. It just a surreal moment.”

After a 41-minute cleanup delay, the Hitmen went on to win 6-3 over the Kamloops Blazers.

The Hitmen have now collected a total of 377,583 stuffed animals since their first Teddy Bear Toss promotion in 1995.

The event helps benefit 70 local agencies, including the Salvation Army, Calgary Food Bank, Siksika Nation and Hospice Calgary. The Hitmen will spend Monday delivering some of stuffed animals to Alberta Children’s Hospital.

MORE: Teddy Bear Toss season is the best season

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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.

Can Coyotes keep playoff hopes alive without Raanta?

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One of the saddest phrases in sports is “[Player X] would really have been something, if only they could stay healthy.”

Some argue that avoiding injuries counts as a “skill,” and it’s plausible that certain players may simply be better at staying healthy than others, but there are still instances when the injury gods feel awfully cruel.

We’re rapidly approaching that point with Arizona Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta.

Even with a challenging start to 2018-19 (just a .906 save percentage over 12 games), Raanta’s been fantastic for the Coyotes so far … when he’s been able to actually play.

That caveat was frustrating last season, as Raanta missed crucial chunks of time – most painfully being unhealthy as the Coyotes went without a win in October 2017 – yet was essentially elite when he could play, generating a splendid .930 save percentage in 47 games.

Unfortunately for the Coyotes, it’s looking like 47 Raanta appearances would have been a gift compared to the likely reality. The team announced that the 29-year-old goalie is out “indefinitely,” while The Athletic’s Craig Morgan provided a more detailed (and more troubling) update: Raanta might miss the rest of this season.

Brutal.

It’s fair to wonder if this might become the story of Raanta’s career.

Again, the Finn fought nagging injuries last season, and this year’s been even worse. At 29, he’s not ancient, but Raanta isn’t exactly a spring chicken, either. (If you need a glum example of how quickly a goalie can start looking older-and-more-fragile, look at all of the injury headaches Carey Price has been dealing with at just 31.)

That said, Raanta’s limited starts pre-Arizona came from him being a backup, not necessarily from injuries. There’s the hope that, in hindsight, these past two years will look like speed bumps rather than Raanta’s promising career hitting a brick wall. If nothing else, Raanta is listed at just 6-0, so he’s not one of those prototypical towering goalies whose huge frames only increase odds of additional injuries.

Either way, Raanta’s lengthy absence deals an enormous blow to the Coyotes’ fledgling playoff hopes.

You could argue that they’d be in tough to land a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs even with a keyed-in Raanta. As of this writing, Arizona’s record is 13-13-2 for 28 points in as many games, leaving them in 12th place in the West (five points behind Vegas for the final wild card spot, and seven behind Anaheim for the Pacific’s third seed).

Various projections aren’t totally dismissing the Coyotes’ chances of waging a comeback, but few give them much better than a 20-percent shot to pull that off … and those odds likely only drop once you factor in Raanta’s absence.

The Coyotes haven’t just been without Raanta, who’s been sidelined since Nov. 27. Backup goalie Darcy Kuemper has been hurt, too, making way for Adin Hill and waiver claim Calvin Pickard. To Hill’s credit, he began with a four-game winning streak and currently boasts a .939 save percentage, but his larger history indicates that he probably won’t be able to produce such results over the long haul.

All of this leaves Coyotes GM John Chayka in a tough spot.

If you’re the Coyotes, do you try to trade for a more seasoned goalie, particularly one on an expiring contract?

Or, do you do the uncomfortable and all-too-familiar, and punt on the season?

This Coyotes team is structured largely to compete, with an increasing number of longer-term contracts crowding the team’s salary cap.

Granted, the Coyotes have an interesting player or two. Would someone pay up some futures to land, say, Alex Galchenyuk? The 24-year-old’s endured a quiet first season with Arizona (just 11 points in 21 games), but there’s plenty of talent there. While Galchenyuk isn’t on an easy-to-move expiring contract, his deal doesn’t last much longer, as his affordable $4.9 million cap hit runs out after 2019-20. If you’re a contender, would you hand the Coyotes some futures to add some skill for Galchenyuk, particularly if the Coyotes absorbed a contract you wanted to get rid of (and/or retained some of Galchenyuk’s salary?).

It’s not pleasant to discuss who the Coyotes might sell off in a trade, and it’s even more unpleasant to wonder if Raanta will be injury-prone for the remainder of his career, but Arizona at least needs to ponder these scenarios. They might not have much of a choice, even if Raanta technically finds a way to play a bit toward the end of this season.

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.

Zach Hyman suspended two games for hit on Charlie McAvoy

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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman was suspended for two games thanks to his late hit on Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins.

Hyman received a major penalty and game misconduct for the hit, which was considered interference. He also fought with Matt Grzelcyk following that check on McAvoy. It’s plausible that Hyman lost his cool as the Maple Leafs were on their way to a 6-3 loss to the Bruins on Saturday.

The league notes that the check came well after McAvoy released the puck, describing Hyman’s infraction as a “late, forceful, high hit.” The “predatory nature” of the hit also factored into Hyman being suspended.

Here’s video of the hit, along with the NHL Department of Player Safety’s explanation for the suspension:

This counts as Hyman’s first NHL suspension, something that was mentioned in the league’s video. So far, it seems like McAvoy wasn’t injured by the check, but sometimes players realize they’ve been injured more than a day following a collision. (It would certainly be crucial if McAvoy avoids missing time, as the Bruins are very banged-up right now.)

You can see the fight in this Sportsnet clip:

If McAvoy ends up being OK (or mostly OK), this could go down as a nice weekend for the Bruins, as Boston also beat the Ottawa Senators 2-1 in OT on Sunday.

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.