Devils GM Lou Lamoriello searches for answers amid the team’s second worst 20-game start ever

It’s not just a cute quip. Instead, it’s the sad reality: things haven’t been this bad for the New Jersey Devils since Wayne Gretzky called the team a “Mickey Mouse franchise.”

In fact, in some ways, the team’s second worst 20-game start (only the 1983-84 season began in a more bleak way) is their most painful because expectations were so high. Even people who have been critical of the Ilya Kovalchuk signing (myself included) didn’t expect things to be this dismal.

Such miseries aren’t lost on Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who faces a tougher-than-ever thought process during his annual 20-game assessment of this team’s condition. When asked what is ailing the Devils, Lamoriello wasn’t totally certain, but he seemed adamant that the main issue was with the players, not coach John MacLean.

Here are a few select comments via Tom Gulitti.

“Right now, my feeling is our best players have to be our best players every night and we have not seen that,” he said. “We’ve seen some nights where we’ve got a couple and other nights (when they don’t) and I’ve got to find out why.”

When I asked if coaching could influence that inconsistency, Lamoriello repeated, “It’s within the players.”

“I’ve got to find out why one night it’s one and one night the other,” he said. “I don’t understand that.”

That said, it seems all possible solutions – including changing the coach – remain on the table. Making a trade to shake up the team is another option, but might not be an easy thing to do considering the team’s salary cap problems and the high number of players on the roster with no-trade clauses.

Here is my assessment, as a total outsider.

The Devils’ defensive group kept declining year after year with the losses of Scott Stevens via retirement and Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Paul Martin thanks to free agency. The team was able to camouflage those blemishes for years because of excellent coaching, by my guess. (I’m more confident that defensive mastermind Jacques Lemaire covered up mistakes than Brent Sutter, but they’re both solid taskmasters.)

The problem isn’t necessarily that John MacLean is a bad coach, but rather that he’s not a brilliant coach. Perhaps a superlative, detail-oriented guy like Lemaire could make lemonade out of their blueline lemons, but MacLean cannot?

In other words, if I were to point to one person for the Devils’ problems – and really, it’s a “team effort” to be this bad – it would be Lamoriello. He boxed himself into a corner by sacrificing salary cap space for a one-dimensional scorer, leans too heavily on an aging star in net and trusted a veteran-heavy (and maybe fickle) lineup to a first year head coach when Ken Hitchcock and other coaches were available.

With little monetary wiggle room and a dim light at the end of the tunnel, Lamoriello will likely have to lay in the uncomfortable bed he made. Only a fool would deny the fact that he’s one of the game’s greatest general managers, but it’s getting difficult to wonder if he’s lost a front office step or two.

WATCH LIVE: 2018 NHL Draft

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NBCSN will televise the 2018 NHL Draft on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET from American Airlines Arena in Dallas.

The 2018 NHL Draft is headlined by Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin, a 6-foot-3 defenseman who tallied seven goals and 13 assists with Frölunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League in 2017-18. Dahlin, who is widely considered as the top prospect in the draft, can become just the sixth defenseman taken first overall since 1994.

[CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE LIVE STREAM — 7:30 P.M. ET]

A trio of forwards – Andrei Svechnikov (Russia) of the Barrie Colts (Ontario Hockey League), Brady Tkachuk (United States) of Boston University (Hockey East), and Filip Zadina (Czech Republic) of the Halifax Mooseheads (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) – are also expected to be early first-round selections. Svechnikov scored 40 goals in 44 games for the Colts in 2017-18, Tkachuk led Boston University with 23 assists and finished fourth on the team in scoring, and Zadina totaled 44 goals and 38 assists for the Mooseheads. Three Americans, including Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes (University of Michigan) and Oliver Wahlstrom(U.S. National Under-18 Team), are projected to be picked early in the first round.

The New York Rangers lead all teams with three selections in the first round (9th, 26th, and 28th), and Original Six teams have a combined nine first-round picks this year.

Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will host coverage alongside Emmy Award-winning analyst Pierre McGuire and NHL Insiders Bob McKenzie, Craig Button and Darren Dreger. Coverage will include a pre-game feature on the friendship formed between Tkachuk and Hughes, and a segment on Wahlstrom, who became famous at the age of nine for a trick shot he performed before a Bruins game at TD Garden.

Round 1 order of selections
1. Buffalo Sabres
2. Carolina Hurricanes
3. Montreal Canadiens
4. Ottawa Senators
5. Arizona Coyotes
6. Detroit Red Wings
7. Vancouver Canucks
8. Chicago Blackhawks
9. New York Rangers
10. Edmonton Oilers
11. New York Islanders
12. New York Islanders (from Flames)
13. Dallas Stars
14. Philadelphia Flyers (from Blues)
15. Florida Panthers
16. Colorado Avalanche
17. New Jersey Devils
18. Columbus Blue Jackets
19. Philadelphia Flyers
20. Los Angeles Kings
21. San Jose Sharks
22. Ottawa Senators (from Penguins)
23. Anaheim Ducks
24. Minnesota Wild
25. Toronto Maple Leafs
26. New York Rangers (from Bruins)
27. Chicago Blackhawks (from Predators)
28. New York Rangers (from Lightning)
29. St. Louis Blues (from Jets)
30. Detroit Red Wings (from Golden Knights)
31. Washington Capitals

MORE:
Rasmus Dahlin addition can be a franchise changer for Sabres
NHL draft action likely to begin with Montreal at No. 3
Noah Dobson and his unique road to the 2018 NHL Draft

You can probably add Craig Anderson’s name to the available goalie market

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After jettisoning Mike Hoffman earlier this week the Ottawa Senators may have a few more significant trades coming their way this offseason.

The big names at the top of that list include defenseman Erik Karlsson and forward Zack Smith.

Another name that could be on the way out of town: Starting goalie Craig Anderson, a potential move that only adds to a suddenly increasing goalie market.

Earlier on Friday there were multiple reports that the Senators were working with Anderson to facilitate a trade. TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported the team was working with Anderson’s agent to find the veteran goalie a new home, while The Athletic’s Chris Stevenson reported that Anderson had expressed a desire to move on. Meanwhile, Anderson’s agent told Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun that “Ottawa has never asked for me help. They’re going to do whatever they can to improve their team. If that means they’ll trade Craig Anderson, they’ll trade Craig Anderson.”

So there is all of that.

While the unrestricted free agent market for potential starting goalies looked thin at the start of the season the goalie market has improved quite a bit over the past few days.

First, it seems quite likely that the Washington Capitals are going to trade Philipp Grubauer as he attempts to get out of Braden Holtby‘s shadow and become a starter. The Capitals are expecting to get a late first or early second round draft pick. He might be the most intriguing option available given his age and the fact he has played exceptionally well when given an opportunity with the Capitals.

Robin Lehner is also going to be available after the Buffalo Sabres confirmed that they will not be giving him a restricted free agent qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. Lehner is coming off of a down year for the Sabres in 2017-18 but was one of the few bright spots for the team in 2015-16 and 2016-17 with a .922 save percentage in 80 appearances. He turns 27 later this summer and would not cost any assets to acquire in a trade.

[Related: Time for the Sabres to upgrade in goal]

And then there is Anderson. For most of his career Anderson has been one of the more productive starting goalies in the league and has pretty consistently posted strong numbers. But like most of the Senators he is coming off of a brutal 2017-18 performance and will be 37 years old at the start of the season, making him the third oldest goalie in the league behind only Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Miller. He also is signed for two more years at more than $4 million per season. Along with the assets a team would have to give up in a trade (probably not a lot) that is a big price to commit to a goalie that has probably already played his best hockey.

Still, there are some options. And there are a lot of teams that will be in the market for a goalie — probably more than we are used to seeing at this time of year.

The New York Islanders should be desperate to fix their goalie situation and have a connection to Grubauer with Trotz taking over as their new head coach.

The Sabres, by letting Lehner hit the open market, will also be in need of a new starter unless they really trust Linus Ullmark, which doesn’t seem likely.

The Senators, assuming they trade Anderson, would also need a new goaltender and you can’t count out the Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes, or Detroit Red Wings. The Chicago Blackhawks could also be in play for one of these guys if Corey Crawford — a player we still have no official update on —  isn’t ready to return for the start of the season.

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.

Rasmus Dahlin addition can be a franchise changer for Sabres

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DALLAS — The moment NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly flipped over the card to reveal the Buffalo Sabres logo, it was a done deal where Rasmus Dahlin would begin his professional hockey career.

But maybe out of superstition or not wanting to get ahead of things, the 18-year-old Dahlin isn’t assuming that the Sabres will call his name Friday night at American Airlines Center in Dallas during the NHL Draft (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN). He’s still in a wait-and-see mode until it’s time to announce the first overall selection.

“It feels crazy to me, actually,” Dahlin said on Thursday. “I can’t believe it. Sometime in the future I’ll be able to stop and think, ‘What am I going through?’ and all that kind of stuff. I’m just trying to enjoy this time as much as I can.”

For the past year, the YouTube videos and GIFs of Dahlin’s smooth skating and elite hockey skills have been on display for the world. His talents quickly had fans of downtrodden teams adopting the “Falling for Dahlin” mindset, hoping they could somehow manage to add this generational player to their roster.

The Sabres were the lucky ones to win the lottery and are hoping Dahlin’s presence is another building block — to go along with Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt — that will lead to a turnaround of the franchise’s fortunes. It may take some time before that happens, but watching the Trollhättan, Sweden native sure sounds like it’s going to be fun.

“Between his puck skills and his skating speed and agility, he cuts through opposing defenses when he carries the puck up the ice like they were not even there,” writes McKeen’s Hockey in their NHL draft issue. “Once he has gained the zone, he can and will generate magic with almost every touch. He needs only the tiniest of gaps in coverage and he can skate deep into the zone or hit a teammate with a killer pass.”

“Impressive agility makes him a good one-on-one defender. He has fine passing ability, and although not a big-time bomber, he has an accurate shot from the point,” according to Erik Piri of Elite Prospects. “Not one to shy away from the physical game, Dahlin is an accomplished open-ice hitter.”

Just watch.

“You watch him on the ice and you’re very impressed with his hockey sense, his speed, his puck skills,” said Sabres general manager Jason Botterill. “But a very humble man off the ice. I was very impressed with his self-assessment and what he has to improve on and just the focus he has.”

After two years with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League, Dahlin’s jump to the NHL next fall will require some improvements, even as his flashy YouTube highlight reels garner thousands of views. He said that this past year he felt more comfortable playing at a higher level and that his defensive zone coverage was better..

“I have to get better in my overall game. To play in a higher level you have to be stronger also. Pretty much everything. I’m excited,” he said.

Dahlin has already gotten to know Buffalo as a city a little bit having spent time up there earlier this month for the NHL Draft Combine. He sees many similarities with his hometown of Trollhättan, which should make the move even more comfortable.

Once he arrives in Buffalo, the expectations that he can help a franchise turnaround will increase. The city is a hockey-mad market eagerly awaiting the day they get to watch a winning team on a regular basis again. But despite that incoming pressure, Dahlin won’t allow it to affect him.

“You can’t think that way,” he said. “You just have to try and play your game and to be the best that you can.”

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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.

NHL draft action likely to begin with Montreal at No. 3

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DALLAS (AP) — The Montreal Canadiens could make the first real move in the NHL draft with the third overall pick.

If everything goes as expected in Big D on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, play-making Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin will be the first overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres. Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov will then go to Carolina.

”Obviously Rasmus and Andrei deserve it, they’re unbelievable players,” American prospect Brady Tkachuk said Thursday. ”From the third (pick) on, it’s just whatever the team wants, so we’ll see what happens. But it’s going to be pretty exciting to be a part of.”

So the real draft action should begin when Montreal goes on the clock.

The Canadiens will have their choice of the other top prospects like right wing Filip Zadina, who’s playing in the Quebec league, and Tkachuk, the left wing from Boston University who is looking to follow father Keith and brother Mathew into the NHL. Maybe Finnish center Jesper Kotkaniemi.

Plenty of other top defensemen will also be on the board, including Adam Boqvist, Quintin Hughes, Noah Dobson and Evan Bouchard.

”The most important is going to be tomorrow when Montreal goes on the stage, and they will say my name or not,” Zadina said. ”I’m just glad I can be there in the top five, top six players. It’s unbelievable.”

Or maybe the Canadiens, who have 10 picks in the seven-round draft over two days, make a deal and let another team move into that slot.

Trevor Timmins, Montreal’s assistant general manager, expects GM Marc Bergevin’s to be ringing.

”We’re ready to go,” Timmins said Thursday. ”The list is never set in stone until we go head to the draft from the hotel here, but we’re confident of the prospects that we like … right from that third overall pick to the last pick we make on Saturday.”

Timmins said centers, offensive defensemen and scoring wingers have the highest asset value on the Canadiens draft board, and that all are needs in their organization.

Ottawa has the fourth pick, and No. 22, and team officials were going through scenarios again Thursday.

”It was one of the best meetings I’ve had with scouts in 20 years talking about what we plan on doing at (No.) 4, what possibilities are at 22, how these players will impact our organization moving forward,” Senators GM Pierre Dorion said. ”We’re just excited. We suffered this year. There’s no doubt we suffered as a team with the number of losses. But the one good thing is we know we’re getting a really good player here.”

Arizona, Detroit, Vancouver, Chicago, the New York Rangers and Edmonton hold the final picks in the top 10. The New York Islanders, who on Thursday hired Stanley Cup champion coach Barry Trotz, then have consecutive picks before the draft-hosting Dallas Stars select 13th.

The draft at the American Airlines Center comes 25 years after the former Minnesota North Stars moved to bring NHL hockey to Dallas.

Coyotes GM John Chayka said he has five players who would fit his team in the fifth spot.

”We understand that there’s a variety of outcomes that could exist and then we’re going to have a plan in place that accounts for any of the iterations of what could occur,” Chayka said. ”It’ll be an interesting draft. I’m sure there’ll be opportunities to move up and opportunities to move down and opportunities to stay and take the pick.”

While general managers and team officials did their final prep for the draft, several of the top prospects took part in other activities in the Dallas area.

The prospects first were at a youth hockey clinic with several players from the Dallas Stars. There was then a media availability at Reunion Tower, more than 500 feet above the ground. That vantage point overlooks the city and next to the open lot where once stood Reunion Arena, the home of the Stars when the won the Stanley Cup in 1999.

Dahlin said he wasn’t feeling nervous about the likelihood of having his name called first Friday night.

”I haven’t actually thought about it so much yet,” Dahlin said. ”It’s crazy to be here actually, I can’t believe it. … Sometime in the near future I will stop and think what I am going through. I’m just trying to enjoy this time as much as I can.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey