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Devils’ Hischier latest in line of skilled Swiss forwards

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When Nico Hischier was born in 1999 in the mountainside town of Naters, exactly one Swiss born-and-trained player had been in the NHL – for exactly one forgettable game.

After Pauli Jaks tended goal for two periods in 1995, it took until 2001 for Reto Von Arx to become the first Swiss skater to make his NHL debut and many more years before the country had its first international hockey hero in Mark Streit.

Switzerland sent goaltenders David Aebischer and Martin Gerber, Streit and fellow defensemen Yannick Weber and Roman Josi to the NHL as its population surpassed 8 million and more money went into developing the sport. Last year, Switzerland finally topped the charts when the New Jersey Devils made Hischier the first Swiss to go No. 1 in the NHL draft.

He is the latest in a suddenly strong line of skilled Swiss forwards emerging as NHL stars.

”It starts at a young age,” Hischier said. ”There are some good coaches and some really good teams that you can develop (with). … They do a great job to be able to go practice and be able to do school. There’s special schools where you can do both. It’s all part of it.”

Hischier is in the spotlight this weekend as he and the Devils return to his junior town of Bern, Switzerland, to practice and play an exhibition game before facing the Edmonton Oilers in Sweden to open the season. He is the poster boy for this generation of Swiss talent that includes Minnesota’s Nino Niederreiter, San Jose’s Timo Meier, Nashville’s Kevin Fiala and Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi.

Those five players have already combined to play almost five times the number of games of all the Swiss forwards who came before them.

”Swiss hockey’s been growing a lot over the years and we’ve been making steps,” Meier said. ”Mark Streit and then Nino Niederreiter got drafted pretty high. That was the age where I was kind of realizing that’s where I want to be and that’s what I’m working for. Just kind of watching these guys work their way into the NHL was pretty exciting and made me want to be there some day.”

Streit, who retired last year, understands his place in Switzerland’s hockey pantheon, right there with Aebischer and Gerber as pioneers. He’s proud of how Swiss hockey has finally earned some respect internationally.

”Ten, 12, 15 years ago, nobody really talked about Swiss hockey,” Streit said. ”Only a few, a handful, had been drafted. I think now, a few guys left a mark, so the teams know Swiss guys can play hockey.”

Streit is still Switzerland’s standard-bearer in hockey after playing parts of 10 seasons for the Canadiens, Islanders, Flyers and Penguins, and winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2017. He was an inspiration to Josi, Weber, Devils defenseman Mirco Mueller and Capitals defensive prospect Jonas Siegenthaler.

”Mark Streit was the first player, not goaltender, who made it in the NHL, and he showed a lot of people in Switzerland, including me and a lot of other guys, that it’s possible to make it with a lot of hard work,” said Josi, who is now captain of the Predators. ”He kind of opened the doors for us, and since then it’s more and more.”

Hischier is opening the door for the next generation of players. Last summer, he skated with younger players and recalled that it felt weird to be admired. He realized he had a duty to help grow the sport back home and serve as a Streit-like inspiration.

”There’s more hockey players who’s going to play hockey in Switzerland,” Hischier said this week. ”They have a lot of young players. It’s just a good thing for our country.”

It might take some time for another transcendent talent like Hischier to come along, but forward Valentin Nussbaumer is a top prospect for the 2019 draft and center Theo Rochette a top prospect in 2020. Not surprisingly, those players followed the path through the Canadian Hockey League junior ranks that worked so well for Niederreiter, Meier and Hischier.

Streit notices the trend of more Swiss players playing in the CHL and how programs with combined schooling and hockey training have helped create better habits. But he attributes the breakthrough of so many talented Swiss forwards mostly to a more mature approach in the process of trying to make it in the NHL.

”We were lacking a little bit of the perseverance – the hard work and perseverance,” Streit said. ”I think now guys have that. They had a lot of skill back in the day, but guys came over and they just couldn’t really make their way through and establish themselves. I think now the guys are willing to work hard and suck it up even in the minors and go play in the CHL.”

Niederreiter went to the Western Hockey League, while Meier and Hischier played for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to get used to North America and the smaller ice surface. Hischier didn’t look out of place at all as a rookie last season, putting up 20 goals and 32 assists and playing all 82 games as an 18-year-old.

”I don’t think he gets the credit that he deserves for how good of a season he had and so far this season he looks even better,” Devils linemate Taylor Hall said. ”Nico, he’s only played two seasons really in North America, so he’s still getting used to the amount of games we play and how much hockey we really have to go through. That’s why I really think the sky’s the limit for him and the more and more he plays over here on the small ice and just with the pace of play, he’s only going to get better and better.”

With Nussbaumer, Rochette and others Swiss players taking their talents to North America at young ages and a pipeline developing, Hischier won’t be the last Swiss likely to make a major impact in the NHL.

”We’re such a small country, it’s actually crazy,” Siegenthaler said. ”There’s more players going over to North America every year. It’s a good development for us. I think the next few years there should be even more players. I think it’s going pretty good for Switzerland so far.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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