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Stars CEO’s ire should be directed at GM, not Benn, Seguin

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Things sound awfully rotten deep in the heart of Texas.

With the Dallas Stars stumbling along to yet another mediocre and completely pointless season, tensions are running high and fingers are being pointed.

Those fingers are going squarely in the direction of the team’s best and highest paid players, Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn.

This is nothing new in the world of professional sports, and especially the NHL, where the people at the top of the payroll will always take the fall when things go poorly, whether they are the ones most responsible for it or not.

But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill criticism from fans or the local press. This is over-the-top, extremely vicious, and irrational ranting from, of all people, the team’s very own CEO, Jim Lites.

Not only was it all of that, but Lites specifically went to local members of the Dallas media with the intention of going on the record to rip his team’s star players.

In an interview with Sean Shapiro of The Athletic, Lites used several expletives to describe the play of Seguin and Benn this season, saying they have been “f—— horse s—” and that team’s owner Tom Gaglardi is “pissed.”

He did not stop there.

From The Athletic:

“We are a stars-driven league, and our stars aren’t getting it done,” Lites said. “It’s embarrassing, and no one writes it. Write it!”

“These guys are not good enough. They’re not good enough for me, they’re not good enough for the owner, and they’re certainly not good enough for the general manager, who I can’t speak for, but it’s not good enough for the job he’s done,” Lites added. “But we’ve had meeting after meeting after meeting. The accountability on the ice is not there. These guys were signed to big contracts because they were the third- and sixth-leading scorers in the National Hockey League over the past five years. They get their money, we expect them to not be outplayed every game we play in. And if they were as good as they’ve been in the past we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

There was more, via Matthew DeFranks of the Dallas Morning News:

“But for me, it’s pissed me off, what nobody says is what is completely obvious to me: We are getting terrible play from our top two players,”

And later…

“If 14 and 91 don’t lead, we will not be successful,” Lites said. “I think this is the most talented and deep team we’ve had in years here. Certainly, this is the best team that we’ve put together from a talent perspective since Tom Gaglardi’s owned the franchise. Tom has allowed us to do everything we needed to do to be successful. Whatever it’s taken, he’s done. And I am tired of getting emails from him saying ‘What the hell is going on with our best players?'”

This type of candid, on-the-record criticism is almost completely unheard of in the NHL, and makes the rant from Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford from earlier in the season look relatively tame, if for no other reason than he had the good sense to not make his star players the focal points of his anger.

It certainly makes for great print and is highly entertaining to everyone outside of Dallas (especially everyone outside of the Stars’ dressing room), but it’s also completely idiotic and a far better representation of why they’re are almost totally irrelevant as an organization than anything Seguin and Benn are not doing this season.

Yes, it’s true that Seguin and Benn have seen their production slip this season. Yes, it’s also true that they are making a ton of money after signing new long-term contracts in recent years to remain with the franchise and are taking up a significant portion of their salary cap space. And yes, it’s also true that their current level of play is probably worth some criticism (especially most recently), if only because it is not up to the standard that they have set for themselves during their time in Dallas.

But to point the finger entirely at them, and to do so in such an outrageous way is completely baffling.

The thing about tossing out blame in the NHL is that whenever you think it’s your best players that are the problem, they are probably not the problem.

Star players take more blame because they have a more difficult job than, say, your bottom-six forwards. It’s easy to look at a third-or fourth-liner skating around with energy and praise him for always doing his job because his job, within the context of the NHL, isn’t that hard. It’s a lower expectation and is easier to reach and is something they can do on most nights. So it looks like they’re doing their jobs and carrying their weight, even if what they do isn’t always going to make a difference. Your top-line players, the ones that have to score the goals and carry the offense, have a far higher ceiling to reach and no matter how good they are and no matter how well they play they are not always going to reach it. And when they don’t, it looks like they’re playing worse than the fourth-line energy guy even though they are still probably doing more.

Seguin and Benn are having down years for them, but they are still producing more than a significant portion of the NHL, and more than anybody else on the Dallas roster.

That brings us back to Lites’ comment about this being “the best team we’ve put together from a talent perspective since Tom Gaglardi’s owned the franchise.”

How can anyone possibly say that with a straight face when there is not a single player on the roster outside of the top-line that has topped 20 points this season? A season where goal-scoring is once again up across the league.

(Alexander Radulov is third on the team in scoring with 29 points in 28 games, but he mostly plays on the Benn-Seguin line when he is healthy.)

When Seguin and Benn are on the ice this season during 5-on-5 play the Stars are outscoring their opponents by a 24-11 margin. They are controlling 52 percent of the shot attempts. More than 53 percent of the scoring chances. More than 58 percent of the high-danger chances. When you add Radulov to that line it becomes even more dominant.

When neither Seguin or Benn is on the ice, the Stars have been outscored 34-48. Their shot attempt share drops down to 45 percent and their scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance shares drop down to below 47 percent.

This is your deepest and most talented team? No, sir. That is a freaking lottery team.

How can you absolve your GM (Jim Nill) of any responsibility in that mess?

Lites talked about how Seguin and Benn were given the big contracts because they were the third-and sixth-leading scorers in the league over the previous five seasons. It was at that point that a rational sports team executive would have looked at that and come to the reasonable conclusion that maybe, just maybe, his general manager wasn’t doing a good job.

While Seguin and Benn were among the top-six scorers in the league between 2013-14 and 2017-18, they were making a combined total of $11.3 million per season.

Combined.

The Stars had two of the league’s best and most elite scorers on their roster for roughly the cost of one Jonathan Toews. That was a steal. It was such a steal that it should have made them the focal point of a championship contending team with even remotely competent work from the front office. Do you know what the Stars surrounded them with during those years? They surrounded them with a team that made the playoffs twice in five years, only once made it past the first round, and was never a serious threat to win a Stanley Cup because they either never had the goaltending, or the defense, or the depth (and sometimes none of the three) to complement their two superstars.

Superstars that were being paid like second-liners.

The Stars surrounded them with a team where the third and fourth best players after them were a young John Klingberg and a mid-30s, past-his-prime, Jason Spezza. You want to talk about accountability? How do the people responsible for that sort of roster construction get a pass?

Can you imagine what Lites or Gaglardi would have said if Seguin or Benn had spoken out during those years and ripped the team’s management because they weren’t getting enough help and their peak years in the NHL were being wasted? Because that’s what happened, the Stars wasted the prime years of two of the league’s best offensive players and other than former coach Lindy Ruff nobody in a position of power paid the price for it.

Successful organizations start at the top, and it seems awfully difficult to be a successful organization when the people at the top sound like angry fans on the post-game call-in show.

Especially when those same people at the top refuse to look in the right places for who to blame.

They should start by looking in a mirror.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.

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