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Is this it for Zetterberg with Red Wings? Maybe it should be

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With his back issues in mind, the Detroit Red Wings aren’t sure if Henrik Zetterberg will be able to play next season.

It’s something GM Ken Holland acknowledged as free agency began on July 1, according to reporters including Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News.

“The last I talked to him, he’s planning on playing,” Holland said. “Obviously his back is going to determine whether he can or can’t. Do I have a clear green light (as to whether Zetterberg is returning)? I’m expecting him to play. Do I have a clear green light? No.”

With that uncertainty in mind, it’s not too surprising that something as minor as Zetterberg playing golf was enough to seem like an “encouraging sign” to the Red Wings, as the Detroit Free-Press’ Helene St. James noted today. Apparently Zetterberg joined Erik Karlsson and other pals on the greens, as Karlsson shared:

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Another beautiful day. #trumpinternational

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Sure, playing golf is lot easier when you aren’t in excruciating back pain, but it merely provides a minor bit of optimism about Zetterberg’s health. Without diving too deep into #PleaseLikeMySport territory, it’s fair to say that a jovial day of golf with your pals (pro athletes or not) isn’t exactly the same as dealing with checks, slashes, and hooks in the NHL.

Clearly, there’s little certainty about Zetterberg’s viability.

Personally, though, this is another case of the wrong questions being asked. The Red Wings aren’t best served asking if Zetterberg could play in 2018-19; instead, they should be wondering if he should.

What’s best for Zetterberg?

With 56 points last season, Zetterberg finished second in scoring for the Red Wings, trailing only Dylan Larkin‘s 63. The sturdy Swede was outright brilliant the year before, easily leading Detroit with 68 points in 2016-17. By just about any reasonable measure, Zetterberg is still good enough to play.

Still, his efforts failed to land the Red Wings in the playoffs in either of the past two seasons, and the Red Wings fell in the first round in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

On paper, Zetterberg could face a Sisyphean task in 2018-19: trying to push a mediocre (if not outright bad) team to the playoffs while suffering through back pain. At 37, the upside seems pretty dismal.

Much of the Red Wings messaging is about “culture,” and such thoughts sometimes trickle down to fans and media. Cameron Kuom of Wings Nation worries about the potential off-ice impacts of the Red Wings possibly losing their captain, for instance.

Yet, what about the possibly grim alternative of fans and young teammates watching Zetterberg getting run into the ground for … what, the lure of finishing in the East’s playoff bubble? Miraculously being bounced from the first round?

What’s best for Zetterberg might also be best for Red Wings

Nostalgia represents a tantalizing siren call, one Ken Holland clearly struggles to resist.

Still, at some point, younger Red Wings such as Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and eventually Filip Zadina will need to serve as the leadership group of this franchise, thus being responsible for “the culture.” Why not ease them into such roles during a season of low expectations, rather than pasting the “C” on someone’s chest later on, when fans are growing more and more restless with a one foot in, one foot out rebuild?

It’s fairly obvious that, from looking at Zetterberg’s contract, the expectation was that he’d probably play his last games in 2018-19. Consider how his actual salary compares to his cap hit going forward, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $6.083M cap hit; $3.35M salary
2019-20: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary
2020-21: $6.083M cap hit; $1M salary

Look, it’s no fun to pay someone not to play, which is what the Red Wings would essentially be doing if they place Zetterberg on LTIR.

It makes sense on a number of levels, however, especially since they don’t need to worry about the cap floor even before handing RFA deals to Larkin and Mantha.

Beyond saving Zetterberg some anguish, the Red Wings would increase their odds of landing another high-end draft pick if their captain goes on LTIR and they wade through a rougher regular season. It’s not as if Zetterberg would lack credibility in going on injured reserve, as there have been plenty of questions about his health for some time now.

***

If the Red Wings are realistic about their near future, they should err on the side of encouraging Zetterberg to way his health more than trying to gut out the 2018-19 season.

Again, what’s the best-case scenario if Zetterberg plays? He’d take a roster spot from a player who might be part of a longer-term solution in Detroit, on a team few expect to contend. There’s also the unsettling possibility that his own play would plummet. Zetterberg would have robust company if he joined the ranks of sports stars who’ve suffered depressing final seasons, but wouldn’t be more pleasant to see him instead end his Red Wings days with his head held high?

Conversely, the Red Wings could instead improve their odds of landing a lottery pick like Jack Hughes in 2019, something that – deep down – they should realize they really need. Along with the torch being passed to the next generation of Red Wings, there might be a better chance of fringe prospects receiving crucial make-or-break opportunities.

Also, a beloved star wouldn’t needlessly suffer.

Of course, this conversation is moot if Zetterberg really wants to play, or needs to find out for sure if he’s done. Perhaps he’d prefer a relaxed schedule, much like Teemu Selanne experienced (sometimes by choice, other times with hard feelings) during his final season?

There are still some questions in need of answers, and plenty can change between today and the moment Zetterberg decides to call it a career (or, like Pavel Datsyuk, an NHL career).

As sad as it will be to see Z go, there’s a strong chance that it will end up being what’s best for everyone involved.

MORE ON RED WINGS’ RELUCTANT REBUILD

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.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hischier set to face pressures of contract year

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

The guys at the Spitting Chiclets podcast did an excellent interview last week with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Why are we talking about MacKinnon on Devils Day at PHT? Just keep reading.

MacKinnon spoke about his sophomore season being a tough one with just 14 goals after winning the Calder Trophy a year before.

It took him two more seasons before he’d flip a switch in his head, one that would take him from a mid-50-point guy to the near-100-point player he’s been for the past two seasons.

MacKinnon said he was starting to feel like he was a bust after being taken first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Now, I’m not saying that Hischier feels the same way. Both are different players. But both are first-overall picks with a tremendous amount of expectations levied upon them, ones that will last throughout their respective careers.

So if MacKinnon was battling mental demons, one could come to the conclusion that Hischier may do so at some point as well.

Hischier dealt with injury in his second year, much like MacKinnon, and was limited to 17 goals and 47 points — down from the 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. That said, his points per game rose in his second campaign even if the overall number didn’t.

And none of this is to say that Hischier has been a bust at all. He’s far from that and an excellent two-way center who, now given some tools around him, a great candidate to have a breakout season.

But the pressure is, nevertheless, going to be there for the Swiss kid. There’s a lot of money waiting on the table for him next offseason when his entry-level deal comes to a close.

Hischier remains a massive piece for the Devils moving forward.

The team now has him and Jack Hughes as their 1-2 punch down the spine of the team, a better defense with the addition of P.K. Subban and a greater supporting cast with Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.

And while the point totals may not jump off the page, the fact is the Devils outscore opponents and create more high-danger scoring chances when Hischier is on the ice.

Hischier is far from being labeled a bust, much like MacKinnon was.

The pressure is on, however, as he enters a season where a big impact could lead to a bigger contract next summer.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

2018-19
31-41-10, 74 pts. (8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Jack Hughes
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Nikita Gusev
Connor Carrick
John Hayden

OUT
Kurtis Gabriel
Brian Boyle
Keith Kinkaid
Ben Lovejoy
Kenny Agostino
Stefan Noesen
Drew Stafford
Eric Gryba
Eddie Lack

RE-SIGNED
Will Butcher
Mirco Mueller

2018-19 season review

Season grade: F
Offseason grade: A+

Yes, it appears it can all change that quickly for some teams.

Much like the Florida Panthers, who I wrote about last week, the New Jersey Devils can rest easy knowing that last season is going to feel like a distant memory after the summer Ray Shero and Co. put together.

The Devils were very bad last season, so bad that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they were rewarded (thanks to a bit of luck) with the first-overall pick back in June.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

They came into the draft lottery with the third-best odds but moved up to spots for the honor of selecting Jack Hughes.

They then shook up the hockey world, dropping a massive trade bomb on the second day of the draft as they acquired P.K. Subban to fortify their blue line.

Getting Hughes and Subban in the same weekend helped take the sting off a poor season where they couldn’t score much and couldn’t stop the puck a whole lot at the other end of the ice.

Just two players cracked the 20-goal plateau, only one player hit 50 points and their goaltending was abysmal. It didn’t help that Taylor Hall was limited to just 33 games because of injury and then there were the rumors of his long-term future not being in Newark.

Some of those questions still remain, especially between the pipes, but there’s a reason for optimism after such a big summer.

Aside from Hughes and Subban, the Devils also added some grit in Wayne Simmonds. It’s a one-year ‘prove it’ sort of deal that will keep Simmonds hungry as he goes searching for a longer-term deal next offseason.

And they added a player some consider the best who wasn’t playing in the NHL in Nikita Gusev, a former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick who was then signed by the Golden Knights last year and then traded to New Jersey in July.

A lot of good has happened since the Devils played their final regular-season game of 2018-19. They’ve had to keep up in an arms race across the Hudson River as the New York Rangers took Kaapo Kakko right after New Jersey took Hughes and added Artemi Panarin in free agency and signed Jacob Trouba to a long-term deal.

Either way, gone should be the days where the Devils aren’t considered a perennial playoff contender.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck