Kyle Palmieri, the other forward Ray Shero stole for the Devils

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When the New Jersey Devils hired Ray Shero to be their new general manager back in 2015 he was facing a rather daunting task of rebuilding what was, at the time, one of the league’s dullest teams. It was not a totally lousy team, but it was not a particularly good one, either.

It was coming off of its third consecutive non-playoff season, it seemed to have zero impact players anywhere in the organization (nobody had scored more than 45 points at the NHL level the year before), and it just seemed to be a team going nowhere.

In the years that followed Shero has rebuilt the Devils into a playoff team thanks in large part to a couple of significant trades (and a little luck in the draft lottery), with the most significant of those deals being the one that brought them Taylor Hall, the 2017-18 NHL MVP, from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for defenseman Adam Larsson.

In terms of one-for-one trades it has turned out to be one of the most lopsided deals in recent NHL memory and has completely altered the direction of the Devils’ franchise.

It was not the only Shero trade that has gone in the Devils’ favor by an overwhelming margin.

One of his first moves with the Devils was to acquire Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2015 and a third-round draft pick in 2016. It, too, has turned out to be a steal.

At the time, Palmieri was coming off of his age 23 season and even though his overall numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page at you, he had flashed some legitimate top-line potential during his limited with the Ducks. He was consistently scoring at a15-goal pace over 82 games even though he was only playing between 11 and 14 minutes per night.

On a per minute basis he was one of the team’s most productive goal-scorers and seemed to be the type of player that was worth giving an increased role. As soon as he arrived in New Jersey he received that increased role and immediately broke out with a 30-goal season, earning himself a five-year, $23.25 million contract extension.

He has not stopped producing since.

So far this season he has been one of the driving forces behind the Devils’ 4-0-0 start, having already scored seven goals. That includes three consecutive two-goal games to open the season, and at least one goal in every game the team has played.

While there is an element of luck and circumstance to that start — including a 38.9 percent shooting percentage and the fact four of those goals have come on the power play — he has certainly established himself as a legitimate top-line player with the Devils.

The production speaks for itself. In his first three full seasons with the Devils he has scored at least 24 goals every year, while his .357 goals per game average comes out to a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

Keep in mind he scored 24 goals in only 62 games a season ago which was, once again, a 30-goal pace.

He may not be on quite the same level as Hall or get as much attention, but he has still be a significant addition to the organization, especially when you consider how little the Devils had to give up to get him.

Even if you ignore his ridiculously fast start this season he has been one of the most productive wingers in the NHL since joining the Devils.

Between 2015-16 and 2017-18 his .357 goals per game average was 32nd among all forwards in the league, and placed him directly between Max Pacioretty and Artemi Panarin, and ahead of notable players like Jack Eichel, Joe Pavelski, James Neal, and Phil Kessel.

He is one of just 20 players in the league to score at least 24 goals in each of those seasons, and one of only 30 to average a 30-goal and 55-point pace over 82 games.

By pretty much every objective measure he has been one of the top-30 most productive forwards in the NHL since arriving in New Jersey. And all they had to give up was two draft picks that will probably never be as good as he is.

Going back to last season the Devils have found a pretty spectacular top line with him, Hall, and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier, a trio that has spent more than 350 minutes of ice-time together at 5-on-5 play and been nothing short of dominant.

During that time the Devils have controlled more than 53 percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams by a 23-11 margin.

All of them have been difference-makers for the Devils.

All they needed to acquire them was an okay second-pairing defenseman (for Hall), what amounted to two long-shot lottery tickets (for Palmieri), and a little luck from some lottery balls (Hischier).

Given where the Devils were at when Shero took over he need to pull off a little bit of magic to find some impact players and turn the team around. He somehow managed to do it twice without giving up anything of significance.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

 

WATCH LIVE: Blackhawks visit Rangers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Last season was the first since 2003-04 in which both the Blackhawks and Rangers failed to make the postseason. The Blackhawks had made nine straight postseason appearances prior to last season, while the Rangers had made the postseason in 11 of the previous 12 seasons prior to last year. However, both teams continue to struggle this season.

The Blackhawks have lost six of their seven games in the new year (1-3-3), including four straight losses (0-2-2). Since Jeremy Colliton took charge on November 6, Chicago has lost 23 of their 33 games under their new head coach (10-17-6) after going 6-6-3 in 15 games under former head coach Joel Quenneville. The Hawks are coming off a disappointing 8-5 loss at New Jersey on Monday, which included an eight-goal second period in which Chicago was outscored 5-3.

Chicago has won four of their last six on the road (4-1-1) after winning just four of their first 18 away games this season (4-12-2). Recent notable road wins have come at Colorado (Dec 29) and at Pittsburgh (Jan 6). The Blackhawks will look to continue this good away run, with four of their next six games coming on the road.

After losing six of seven games, the Rangers were called out by head coach David Quinn, who called the team’s performance in a 7-5 loss against Columbus “a freaking joke,” saying the team “failed miserably.” They responded with a 6-2 win vs Carolina on Tuesday, led by a four-point night from Mika Zibanejad (2G-2A). It was the Rangers’ most goals scored this season and their biggest win since November 21.

Mats Zuccarello has seven points in his last five games (3G-4A), after having just six points in his previous 19 games. The forward is currently on a three-game point streak (3G-3A), and is coming off a three-assist performance against Carolina, which included this no-look through-the-legs pass for Zibanejad’s second goal. Zuccarello has been the Rangers’ top scorer each of the past three seasons, but has been rumored with a trade away from New York as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at New York Rangers
Where: Madison Square Garden
When: Thursday, Jan. 17, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Rangers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsAlex DeBrincat
Drake CaggiulaDylan StromePatrick Kane
Chris KunitzArtem AnisimovBrendan Perlini
David KampfMarcus KrugerDominik Kahun

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Henri Jokiharju – Brent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Collin Delia

RANGERS
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello
Filip ChytilRyan StromeJesper Fast
Jimmy VeseyBoo NievesVladislav Namestnikov
Cody McLeodBrett HowdenPavel Buchnevich

Marc StaalTony DeAngelo
Brady SkjeiAdam McQuaid
Ryan Lindgren – Kevin Shattenkirk

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

John Walton (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher will have the call from Madison Square Garden.

Wild trade Nino Niederreiter to Hurricanes for Victor Rask

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The NHL’s trading season has officially arrived.

We knew the Carolina Hurricanes were going to be one of the teams to watch over the next few weeks as the trade deadline approaches, and they made a fairly significant deal on Thursday afternoon when they sent forward Victor Rask to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for forward Nino Niederreiter.

There is no salary retained in the deal and is strictly a straight up one-for-one trade.

Both players still have three years remaining on their current deals, with Rask counting $4 million against the cap and Niederreiter carrying a $5.2 million hit against the cap.

At first glance this is an extremely curious move by the Wild because it is really difficult to see where they get better here other than saving a minimal amount of salary cap space and picking up a player that is one year younger.

When it comes to production and what actually happens on the ice, this would seem to be a step backwards.

Rask has been limited to just 26 games this season where he’s scored just a single goal and recorded five assists. That all comes after a disappointing 2017-18 season where his production dropped across the board and saw him record the worst numbers of his career. He is 25 years old, never tallied more than 48 points in a season and has seen his play regress over the past two years.

While Niederreiter has also been stuck in a down year, he has still been the more productive player over the past two seasons and is probably a better fit for what the Hurricanes need — A player that, in theory, can finish and score goals.

[Related: Ranking the Hurricanes’ victory celebrations]

“We’re excited to welcome a proven goal-scorer and veteran presence in Nino Niederreiter,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said in a team statement. “We wish Victor the best moving forward and thank him for his efforts on the ice and in the community during his time in Raleigh.”

Niederreiter has pretty consistently scored at a 25-goal pace over 82 games in each of the past four years while also playing a really good two-way game where he can drive possession and control the puck.

Rask has topped the 20-goal mark once in his career, and that was four years ago.

The Hurricanes have been on a bit of a roll over the past two weeks but still sit seven points back of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That is a pretty big mountain standing in front of them, but with Niederreiter signed beyond this season and being an upgrade it is a perfectly reasonable trade for a team in this situation to make.

The Wild, on the other hand, are one of the teams in the jumbled Western Conference wild card mix and just seemingly made themselves worse. Not significantly worse, but definitely worse. That is not something you ever want to do, especially when you are not even guaranteed a playoff spot.

Perhaps there is another shoe to drop and another trade to be made, especially with a little bit more salary cap space at their disposal. But in a vacuum this is a fairly bizarre trade for a team desperately fighting for a playoff spot to make.

Unless they are wildly optimistic about a chance of scenery and a fresh start sparking some sort of bounce back for Rask. There is not much evidence to suggest that is a strong possibility.

More: Who has the inside track in Western Conference Wild Card race?

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.

Pressure is on for Lightning’s best team yet

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the difficult and often times unenviable position the Washington Capitals used to find themselves in.

An objectively outstanding team that is loaded with stars and wins a ton of regular season (and playoff) games but never really gets taken seriously as a great team because they are still lacking the one piece of hardware that great teams are ultimately measured by — the Stanley Cup.

If you are thinking about things rationally this should be a great position to be in because it means you are one of the elite teams in the league. It means you have a chance to compete for a championship every year and you know you are going to be right there in the spring as one of the last teams standing.

There should probably be 28 or 29 fanbases around the NHL that would have happily switched places with this team over the past four years.

But in sports we do not often to look at things rationally.

In sports we have a championship or bust mentality — especially with teams like this — and we tend to be harder on the great teams that get close and ultimately fall short than we are the teams that never get close to this level. It’s why Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals always took more heat and criticism for not winning a championship than some middle of the pack team that was never able to even consistently make the playoffs. It’s why Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau spent most of their time together in San Jose fighting off the choker and playoff underachiever label than being recognized as some of the best players of their generation.

It is the curse of expectation.

Because of that, until this group gets their names on the Stanley Cup there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” that follows them around.

Teams like this never really get the credit or recognition they deserve because one or two shots or games have gone against them at the worst possible time when all of the eye balls in the league are on them. It is almost as if everyone is waiting for them to fail instead of viewing them as one of the best teams of their era, which they absolutely are.

What has to make it all so frustrating for Lightning fans is just how close they have been with this current core. They have consistently been right on the threshold of a championship but always fallen just short while allowing a late postseason series lead to slip away. In 2015 they were up 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final before losing three games in a row. The next year they had a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 at home, before losing two in a row to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season they again had a 3-2 series lead in the conference final against the Capitals only to get shutout in Games 6 and 7.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning are in the top-three with the Penguins and Capitals when it comes to most regular season and postseason wins. The Penguins and Capitals have combined to win three of those four Stanley Cups. They have been the two obstacles standing in their way and keeping them from a championship.

All of that brings us to this year’s Lightning team, which just might be their best one yet.

Their 36 wins through their first 47 games are tied for the most of any team in the salary cap era, a mark that only the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks and 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks have matched. They are seven points better than they were at this same point last season when they ended the season with 113 points. They are currently on a 129-point pace this season, a mark that only three teams in NHL history have ever reached (the 1977-78 and 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens and the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings).

Their 191 goals are the second-most during that same era, trailing only the 199 the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators scored in their first 47 games. No other team ha scored more than 178 at this point in the season.

They have major award contenders at every position.

Nikita Kucherov is racing toward the Art Ross trophy and for the second year in a row will be in the MVP discussion. Victor Hedman is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago and currently possesses a better save percentage than he did a year ago.

This team is so great as currently constructed that the latter player missed a month of this season and they still went 12-3-0 during that stretch without him.

What makes the Lightning even better this season is the supporting cast around the four stars (Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Steven Stamkos — don’t forget about him) is even better.

Brayden Point has taken a massive leap in his development this season and gone from being a good top-line player to one of the top scorers in the league. With him they now have three of the league’s top-17 scorers, including two of the top-seven.

The depth around them up front is so good that when none of the three are on the ice the Lightning still control more than 53 percent of the shot attempts, more than 54 percent of the scoring chances, and outscore teams by a 39-31 margin during 5-on-5 play (numbers via Natural Stat Trick).

In other words, they still play like a top-five team in the NHL when none of their three best forwards are on the ice. Comically good stuff. They were still very good without any of those three on the ice a year ago, but not quite this good.

They have a full season of Ryan McDonagh on the blue line who has been even better than he was a year ago in his limited time with the team. Along with him, Mikhail Sergachev is starting to emerge and they finally have a healthy Anton Stralman back after he missed a significant portion of the first half of the season.

[Related: Surging Sergachev helps already loaded Lightning]

While they are dominant at 5-on-5 as a team, they also boast the league’s best special teams with the No. 1 power play unit and the sixth-best penalty killing unit. In every phase, at every level, they are better than everybody else in the league.

That is where the pressure for this team is going to come from.

They have been a “so close, but just short” team for four years now and the team they are putting on the ice this season is even better than any of those previous versions, and probably by a pretty significant amount.

Given that, and given how close they have been in recent years, there truly is going to be a “championship or bust” for this group.

If they finally break through and do it, no one will ever doubt them again and the reputation of the Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman core will forever be changed for the better.

If they fall short again, whether it is in the first round or the Cup Final, the doubt will only increase for a core that is mostly locked in place contractually for the foreseeable future. Whether it is fair or not, there is no margin for error this group. The expectation is definitely the Stanley Cup.

They once again have the team that just might be able to do it. They just need to … do it.

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.

Former hockey Olympian Lyndsey Fry giving back in Arizona

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By John Marshall (AP Sports Writer)

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Lyndsey Fry could have continued playing hockey. She had a stellar collegiate career, a degree, an Olympic silver medal placed around her neck, so playing professionally was a logical next step.

The grueling rehab from hip surgery it would take to get back to an elite level was not all that appealing. Nor was playing in a women’s professional hockey league on a less-than-livable salary – or being away from her family.

Fry could have gone into the financial world, maybe work on Wall Street. She had a Harvard education, so there was an expectation to get a ”Harvard” job. It certainly would pay well. That wasn’t the right fit, either. She didn’t have a passion for it.

Fry coveted more than money and fame. She wanted to pay back a community that helped a little girl in Arizona with plastic skates strapped onto her shoes transform into one of the world’s best hockey players.

Now working with the Arizona Coyotes, she’s doing just that.

”I never would have dreamed I would be in this role,” she said. ”I just kind of hoped to be able to help where I could, coming back to the Valley. To be in this role and really having some leverage to do what I set out to do has been really, really incredible.”

Growing up in Arizona, Fry had limited opportunities to play hockey, particularly against other girls.

In her new role with the Coyotes, she will make sure other hockey-mad girls like her will get the chances they deserve.

Fry returned to the Valley of the Sun to earn an MBA at Arizona State and worked with the Coyotes as an instructor at various clinics. She also teamed with Coyotes director of amateur hockey development Matt Schott to run the Small Frys, a continue-to-play program for girls 6-12 who have gone through the organization’s Little Howlers program.

Fry took on a bigger role with the Coyotes in November, when she was hired as a brand ambassador and special adviser to president and CEO Ahron Cohen. Fry’s primary focus is to grow hockey around the state, particularly women’s hockey, and to assist Cohen in engaging the hockey community in Arizona.

”The thing that was instantaneously obvious to me was her unbelievable passion for growing hockey and being a part of this community,” Cohen said. ”From that moment, I said we have to find a way to get Lyndsey involved with us here. She just naturally radiates positivity and people just want to talk to her.”

Hockey has already seen a rise in the desert.

In 1996, the year the Coyotes arrived from Winnipeg, there were about 2,100 registered youth and adult hockey players. The state had three rinks, two in Phoenix, one in Flagstaff.

Hockey has boomed in Arizona over the past five years, increasing 109 percent to more than 8,600 players, making it the No. 1 state for growth in the NHL. Arizona is third for youth hockey growth over the past five years, up 88 percent to 4,500 players, and is No. 1 in girls’ hockey growth, up 152 percent to nearly 800 players.

Fry should only boost those numbers.

She and Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews are Arizona’s greatest hockey success stories, players who overcame long odds to reach the pinnacle of their sport. By returning to the Valley of the Sun, Fry gives girls hockey players an up-close look at what’s possible with a little work and dedication.

”She’s very inspiring for a lot of kids out there,” Cohen said. ”The two greatest success stories in terms of hockey in Arizona are her and Auston Matthews. It’s pretty cool to see kids look up to her and I’m hopefully five and 10 years from now we have a whole lot more kids like Auston Matthews and Lyndsey Fry playing at the highest level because of the work that Lyndsey and this Coyotes organization has done.”

Fry had a long road to the top.

Inspired by the 1990s ”The Mighty Ducks” movies, she first started skating with plastic skates strapped to her shoes. She played a year of roller hockey and switched to the ice when a rink was built in her hometown of Chandler.

Fry was forced to play against the boys at a young age because the number of girls players could nearly be counted on one hand. She held her own against the boys and when it came time to play at the elite girls level, there wasn’t much competition, so she ended up playing for a team in Colorado.

Fry made the trip to Colorado every two weeks for games and practices, staying with families in the area, including former NHL player Pierre Turgeon. She became good friends with Turgeon’s daughter, Liz, and made a vow at their final game together that they’d play again with each other on the U.S. Olympic Team.

The reunion never took place.

While Fry was a freshman at Harvard in 2010, Liz Turgeon was killed in a car crash, devastating her family and her close friend. Fry nearly quit hockey, but the help of friends and family – and vow with Liz – pulled through and dedicated herself to the sport they both loved.

”I just kind of called on her memory to help push me through,” she said.

Fry pushed herself into the sport’s brightest spotlight, becoming a key member of the U.S. Olympic Team that took silver at the 2014 Sochi Games. On the podium in Russia, her thoughts veered toward the road behind her and what lie ahead.

”It was like a movie,” she said. ”I kept having these flashbacks of all the people who helped me get to that moment,” she said. ”Most of those people were from the Arizona hockey community and I knew that I wanted to give back to that.”

Now back home, Fry is making the most of it, using her skills on and off the ice to push hockey in Arizona forward.

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