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Devils face slew of tough choices in rebuild

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The New Jersey Devils signed head coach John Hynes to an extension on Thursday, answering a significant question about their future. Honestly, GM Ray Shero faces far more complicated and difficult ones as this rebuild goes forward, though.

Granted, the bright side is that Shero’s at least acknowledging that this will take time, rather than battling a rebuild every step of the way, as NHL.com’s Mike Morreale reported:

“Doing something for the sake of getting a little bit better, or to just say you’re doing something, is patchwork and not a plan,” Shero said. “There’s only one way to do this. The idea is to build something that once you do build it, you’re in a good position each year to have a chance to make the playoffs and at a certain point you’re considered a Cup contender.”

On one hand, that’s easier said than done, and some of that comes down to landing blue-chip prospects at the best time.

Still, it’s better to at least have the right perspective, rather than risking being in that puck purgatory: too good to land the Jack Hughes of the world, but too bad to become a credible contender.

Let’s go over the many “easier said than done” parts in greater detail, then.

[More on the Hynes extension.]

Stocking the cupboard

In overachieving their way to a berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the strength of Taylor Hall‘s MVP season, the Devils broke a slump of five seasons without a playoff berth.

Unfortunately, drafting Nico Hischier with the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft broke a different slump: the Devils had an agonizing run of botching some of their premium picks. Take a look at their first-rounders before Hischier:

2016: Michael McLeod (12th overall)
2015: Pavel Zacha (sixth)
2014: John Quenneville (30th)
2013: None
2012: Stefan Matteau (29)
2011: Adam Larsson (fourth)

McLeod and Zacha sting the most considering where they were drafted, and who went afterward. (Seriously, scrolling the 2015 list in particular will do Devils fans no good.)

To some extent, these tough times are to be expected for a franchise that enjoyed a resounding run of success during the Martin Brodeur days, but it’s not the greatest sign when you suffer for years but still see your farm system listed as low-end. Getting a high pick in 2019 to combine with Hischier and intriguing prospect Ty Smith would make things look brighter, for sure, but Shero would be wise to try to buy more “dart throws” in the draft by trading veterans for picks.

Hall of a challenge

Shero would be wise to tread lightly for a firesale for one key reason, though: Taylor Hall’s contract is coming up.

Hall’s been a brilliant steal at just a $6M cap hit, but that ends after 2019-20. While there are some reasons to worry about the aging curve – Hall would be 29 once his next deal kicks in – the Devils would likely gladly gamble on an extension if Hall would allow it. The question is: will he want to stick around? The freight train of a winger has endured two protracted rebuilds with Edmonton and now New Jersey, so could anyone blame him if he wanted to sign with a proven contender?

It’s up to the Devils to convince Hall that they’re building such a structure in New Jersey.

Other pivotal contract situations

Hall can sign an extension as early as July, or opt for a contract year in 2019-20, and he’s far from alone.

Consider these prominent cases of players whose current deals run out after this season or next:

  • Nico Hischier: His rookie deal ends after the 2019-20 season, so the Devils might want to learn a bit more about the promising Swiss-born center. To be specific, how effective can he be without Hall?

While it’s promising that Hischier has been able to stick with Hall, he’s really been attached at the hip with the star winger basically since day one. New Jersey may find it very valuable to see how well he can play on his own.

  • Sami Vatanen ($4.875M) sees his contract end after 2019-20, and he’s 27, much like Taylor Hall. Vatanen’s been an important, if imperfect, addition to a Devils defense that remains quite flawed, but New Jersey will need to decide if he’s a part of the long-term solution. Especially if he calls for a substantial raise.
  • Will Butcher will see his entry-level deal expire after two seasons with the Devils, making him a pending RFA after 2018-19. The 23-year-old’s offense cooled off this season (14 points in 38 games) after generating 44 points as a rookie, yet Butcher’s possession stats are promising, and he stands as an important building block for this defense. Locking him up to the right deal is crucial, and could be quite challenging.
  • Marcus Johansson‘s another interesting expiring contract. Injuries have hampered him since joining the Devils, which leads to an interesting question: should NJ part ways with him, or do they see a potential bargain here? It’s plausible that they can re-sign Johansson for quite a bit less than his current $4.58M cap hit.

Letting rentals Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon walk after last season was one thing, but can Shero make the right calls often enough in those situations?

Glaring areas of concern

Hashing out the right deals for those players – and begging Hall to stay? – won’t be easy. It’s sobering to realize that Shero needs to pull off some magic even if those situations go really well.

Looking at things from a more immediate perspective, there are three key weaknesses to work on: goaltending, scoring beyond Hischier/Hall/Kyle Palmieri, and improving on defense.

With each discouraging start, it seems less and less likely that Cory Schneider will find a way to get his career back on track. His $6M cap hit appears to be a sunk cost through 2021-22. Apologies to Keith Kinkaid and Mackenzie Blackwood, but it sure seems like the Devils need to look outside their organization for a lasting answer in net.

There are some pieces on the Devils’ defense, particularly compared to the days before they landed Butcher and Vatanen, but they lack a premium, Norris-type. As you’ve likely noticed, franchise No. 1 defensemen aren’t easy to find, either.

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It’s not all bad for the Devils. Even with Schneider and Travis Zajac ranking among their problem contracts, they’re not saddled with as many problems as many others. Hall won’t be cheap if he decides to stick around, yet New Jersey can make up some of the difference with Andy Greene‘s $5M dissolving after 2019-20, as one example.

“Our car is in good shape,” Shero said while making an odd metaphor back in December, according to The Athletic’s Corey Masisak (sub required). “Some other ones on the same highway aren’t.”

Can Shero keep the Devils on the right course despite all the speed bumps and potholes waiting up ahead? It should be fascinating to see how that wild ride turns out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Conn Smythe Watch: Korpisalo, Aho leading entering First Round

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With the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round and Round-Robin phase of the NHL’s 2019-20 season restart in the books, we have our 16-team playoff field officially set.

Because of the unusual circumstances around the postseason this year, we also have a head start on the race for the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Let’s take a quick look at how that race is already starting to unfold.

We will update this on a weekly basis throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A couple of surprising goalies find themselves near the top of the list after they helped their teams pull off a couple of upsets, while some of the games brightest young stars are beginning to make names for themselves.

There are also a couple of seasoned veterans showing they can still help carry their teams.

The Early Favorites

1. Joonas Korpisalo, Columbus Blue Jackets. He got benched in one game, did not start another, and is STILL at the top of the list. That is how good he was in his other starts to help shut down the Maple Leafs. He posted a .956 save percentage in the series and recorded two shutouts, including the series-clinching Game 5 win. Goaltending was always going to make or break the Blue Jackets’ season, and their duo has been better than anyone could have possibly anticipated. It has continued in the playoffs.

2. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. Just a completely dominant showing by Aho in the qualifying round against the Rangers. He finished with eight points in the three games and is the cornerstone piece of the Hurricanes organization. Another deep run by the Hurricanes could take him from “underrated star” to “superstar” status.

3. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes. Kuemper has proven to be a steal for the Coyotes since they acquired him two years ago, and he was the biggest reason they were able to get through the Predators in the qualifying round. They are going to need an even bigger effort from him to get through Colorado.

4. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. What a qualifying round series he had for the Canucks. He is a key part of their young core — perhaps the most important part given his position and minutes — and was the best player on the team against Minnesota. He played massive minutes, helped the Canucks dominate possession when he was on the ice, and was the team’s leading point-producer against the Wild.

5. Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens. The recipe for Montreal having success in the playoffs always revolved around Price channeling the 2014-15 version of himself. He was great against Pittsburgh and a huge part of the Canadiens’ upset win. The only reason he is not higher is because the Montreal team in front of him did such a great job shutting down the Penguins and rendering their offense useless throughout Games 3 and 4 of the series.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

6. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks. In some ways the series against Edmonton was a vintage Toews performance. He schooled some players defensively, scored big goals, and played a huge role in the Blackhawks winning. His offensive game has really rebounded the past two years and it was great against the Oilers.

7. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. The second rookie to make our list, Kubalik started the Edmonton series with a five-point game, then finished it by scoring the game-winning goal in the series-clinching win. He has been an outstanding addition to the top of the Blackhawks lineup and a much-needed impact player.

8. Cam Talbot, Calgary Flames. It was always assumed that a goalie was going to significantly impact the Jets-Flames series. That is exactly what happened. It just was not the goalie everyone expected. It was Talbot, and not Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, that ended up dominating the series as the Flames’ starter posted a .945 save percentage in the four games.

9. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers had no answer for Svechnikov and Aho in their qualifying round series, and they are going to be a thorn in the side of the league for the foreseeable future.

10. Scott Laughton, Philadelphia Flyers. Probably the biggest surprise name on the list so far, and the only player that played in the Round-Robin phase. Laughton was the surprise star for the Flyers as they rolled through the round-robin to claim the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference. If they get this type of depth scoring they are going to be a force to deal with in the playoffs.

Honorable mentions: Pierre-Luc Dubois (Blue Jackets), Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Sean Monathan (Flames), Mark Stone (Golden Knights), Anthony Beauvillier (Islanders)

More:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round 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.

Flyers vs. Canadiens: 5 things to know about their First Round series

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The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Flyers and Canadiens.

1. Carey Price found a time machine

Montreal pulled off the biggest upset of the Qualifying Round, dispatching the Penguins in four games. Their goaltender, who many had doubted before the series (*raises hand*), was a primary factor in their series win. Price posted a .947 even strength save percentage and a shutout. He was busy as Montreal allowed the sixth-most shots at 5-on-5 (96, via Natural Stat Trick). He’ll match up against Carter Hart, who’s been outstanding as well with a .971 ESSV% in two appearances.

2. Depth leads the way

Over the course of Philadelphia’s three round-robin games, Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux, James van Riemsdyk, and Travis Konecny all combined for a grand total of zero goals. The Flyers won all three games with Scott Laughton (three goals) and Nicolas Aube-Kubel (two goals) leading the way. Teams become champions because of their depth, and once their stars get going, there’s no question Philadelphia is capable of running through the Eastern Conference.

Montreal also got help from players down their lineup. Paul Byron finished with four points, Jesper Kotkaniemi scored twice, and Artturi “Playoff” Lehkonen had a goal and two assists in the series. Rookie Nick Suzuki held his own with two points. Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi, Tomas Tatar, and Philip Danault were all held in check. The Canadiens can’t bank on Price putting up another stellar ESSV%. They’ll need more from their offensive leaders in order to knock off the Flyers.

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3. Oskar Lindblom‘s possible presence

He’s beaten Ewing’s sarcoma, is skating back home in Sweden, and there’s a chance he could play in the playoffs. Lindblom’s is a remarkable story. The 23-year-old forward was diagnosed with the form of bone cancer in December, completed chemotherapy last month, and according to Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher, could play should they still be around in September.

If he does join the Flyers in Toronto this week, he’ll have to quarantine for four days and have four COVID-19 tests come back negative before he’s able to skate with this teammates.

“We will see how it goes,” Lindblom told Gefle Dagblad last week. “I feel that my conditioning is getting better and better each day. … It’s fantastic being back on the ice after all that’s happened.”

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

4. The head coaches are old, old friends.

The 1981-82 and 1982-83 Central Hockey League Salt Lake City Golden Eagles featured a pair of future NHL head coaches. Claude Julien and Alain Vigneault were once teammates, and once again are foes in the NHL playoffs. The two have coached against one another in the Stanley Cup Playoffs twice. Their last meeting came in 2017 when Vigneault’s Rangers bested Julien’s Canadiens. Their biggest stakes matchup was, of course, the 2011 Stanley Cup Final when Julien and the Bruins topped the Canucks and Vigneault in seven games.

5. Flyers in 5

For as much as Price carried the Canadiens against Pittsburgh, Hart’s play has matched what the Canadiens netminder has done so far. There’s also the aspect of Philadelphia’s bottom line players becoming key contributors that, when the stars and a power play that went 0-for-8 get going, could be too much for Montreal to handle.

No. 1 Philadelphia Flyers vs. No. 8 Montreal Canadiens

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Montreal at Philadelphia, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 14: Montreal at Philadelphia, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Sunday, Aug. 16: Philadelphia at Montreal, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Philadelphia at Montreal, 3 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Wednesday, Aug. 19: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD
*Friday, Aug. 21: Philadelphia at Montreal – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: Montreal at Philadelphia – TBD

*if necessary

MORE:
Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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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.