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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.

***

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.

The Buzzer: Vatrano helps Panthers win sixth in a row; Dodgeball ‘Storm Surge’

Vatrano hat trick Panthers six in a row Buzzer
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Three Stars

 1. Frank Vatrano, Florida Panthers

The Lightning understandably drew a ton of attention for their rise up the rankings. Should we give their in-state neighbors some love, too? Consider the Panthers’ winning run, which cued up nicely with Joel Quenneville’s return to Chicago:

  • The Panthers keep overcoming mostly hit-or-miss (and sometimes hit by injuries) goaltending by scoring, a lot. Tuesday’s 4-3 win against the Blackhawks marks Florida’s sixth win in a row. They’ve scored at least four goals in every game during that streak.
  • The Panthers’ strong play extends beyond this streak. Florida carried a strong 13-4-0 run in its last 17 games.
  • They closed off a three-game road trip, all with wins. They return with another three-game road trip (so technically, it’s six in a row on the road). If they stand strong after this stretch, it would be quite a testament to what Coach Q & Co. are building.

Vatrano caught fire during this six-game winning streak. Tuesday represents the peak of that run, as the winger generated his second NHL hat trick. Vatrano also extended his point streak to five games (five goals, four assists for nine points).

He showed flashes of brilliance in Boston, and has largely converted that into a solid niche with Florida. Vatrano quietly scored 24 goals and 39 points last season. Tuesday’s outburst places Vatrano at 14 goals and 27 points for 2019-20.

Florida needed all three of Vatrano’s goals, as his third ended up being the game-winner. The Panthers were up as much as 3-0 and 4-1, so Chicago fought back, but not enough.

Count Mike Hoffman as one of the other Panthers who are scoring up a storm.

2. Josh Bailey/Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

The Rangers generated a massive 42-18 shots on goal advantage on Tuesday, but the Islanders held on for a 4-2 win. Getting outchanced like that remains a cause for concern, but Griess bailed the Isles out with 40 saves.

(Quick thought: is it possible Barry Trotz needs to loosen up when the Islanders hold leads? They lost after coughing up a big one against Washington, and almost invited the Rangers to creep back in on Tuesday.)

Bailey generated three points (1G, 2A), so maybe you’d call him the bigger star over Greiss?

3. Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina Hurricanes

Justin WIlliams continues to make an early impact for Carolina. After producing the shootout-deciding goal in his return, Williams fired in two goals on Tuesday. Not bad, considering his modest 11:45 time on ice.

Teravainen gets the overall edge, though. Like Bailey, Teravainen scored a goal and two assists for three points. The shifty Finn is backing up last season’s almost point-per-game play (76 points in 82 GP), with similar results (48 points in 50 GP).

Andrei Svechnikov demands a mention of his own. The splendid sophomore collected two assists, placing Svechnikov close behind Teravainen with 45 points in 50 GP.

Kreider replaces Panarin at All-Star Game

The Rangers played without Artemi Panarin thanks to an injury. It appears that they’ll have a different All-Star Game representative, as Chris Kreider will replace him.

Another fun Storm Surge

If you can block a shot, you can dodge a ball?

Feisty Scheifele

The Jets are struggling, and thus Mark Scheifele is taking no guff.

Factoids

Scores

BOS 3 – VGK 2
NYI 4 – NYR 2
CAR 4 – WPG 1
PHI 3 – PIT 0
FLA 4 – CHI 3

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.

Flyers blank Penguins, keep pace in playoff race

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The Flyers need to make the most of each game to stay in the playoff race. Philadelphia’s 3-0 win against the Penguins wasn’t pretty — except where it needed to be.

Flyers hang in the playoff race

Actually, from a defensive standpoint, it was pristine. Brian Elliott only needed to make 19 saves for his first shutout of 2019-20. The Flyers asserted overall, generating a 30-19 shots on goal advantage.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin managed just three SOG in this one. Both teams eye the All-Star break, so maybe there was the hockey equivalent of “Senioritis.” Philly hit the books enough to get the shutout, though.

An empty-net goal exaggerated the score, but 3-0 felt fitting for how well Philadelphia played. Jakub Voracek and James van Riemsdyk scored all of the goals the Flyers needed, while Justin Braun iced it with the ENG.

The Flyers improved their record to 27-17-6 (60 standings points in 50 games played). The bad news is that, if the playoffs began today, the Flyers would be out. The better news is that Philly didn’t lose ground in what could be tight races for the final East wild-card spots. The Hurricanes won their Tuesday game, so Philly risked losing ground:

Flyers playoff race
via NHL.com

Flyers, Penguins have been playing well lately

Again, the Penguins failed to impress in this one. They were the schoolkids staring at the clock at the end of class.

The Flyers earned this win, even if it was the equivalent to providing a boring lecture (or clogging passing lanes). Alain Vigneault’s group won four of its last five games.

Overall, the Penguins have been loading up points. This loss ended a two-game winning streak, and Pittsburgh is now 6-2-0 in its last eight.

The Penguins and Flyers meet again in Pittsburgh when their schedules resume. Maybe they’ll have to share reports about how they spent their All-Star breaks/summer vacations?

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.

Blackhawks welcome back Quenneville; celebrate Kane’s 1,000th point

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The Panthers are playing in Chicago on Tuesday, which means the Blackhawks got a chance to welcome back Joel Quenneville. Coach Q enjoyed an added reason to smile, as the team also honored Patrick Kane hitting the 1,000-point plateau.

The Blackhawks shared some Quenneville stats in welcoming him back and remembering the good times:

  • Chicago made nine playoff appearances under Coach Q, winning 76 postseason contests. Oh yeah, they also won three Stanley Cups with Quenneville. Sort of relevant too.
  • Quenneville clearly enjoyed himself in celebrating the victories, in the locker room and during parades.
  • He yelled more than a bit, as the video captured.

Tough to blame Quenneville for being all smiles, right?

Again, the Blackhawks celebrated Kane’s milestone as well:

Not enough #CoachQcontent for you? NBC Sports Chicago’s Charlie Roumeliotis caught up with Quenneville for this Q&A.

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.

WATCH LIVE: Flyers host Penguins on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Penguins travel to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers in the second of four meetings between the two clubs this season. The Pens dominated the first meeting on home ice back on Oct. 29, defeating their cross-state rival, 7-1. Sidney Crosby tallied a goal and two assists, while Matt Murray stopped 29 of 30 shots to secure the victory.

These teams will meet Tuesday night in Philly and then again 10 days later in Pittsburgh on Jan. 31 as part of a home and home series that bookends both the All-Star weekend as well as both teams bye weeks.

Pittsburgh is coming off a 4-3 win at home over the defending Eastern Conference champion Bruins on Sunday afternoon. Matt Murray surrendered two goals on the first three shots that he faced and was jeered by the home crowd. David Pastrnak then increased the lead to three with just under five minutes to play in the opening period by netting his league-leading 37th tally of the season, although Jack Johnson inadvertently redirected the puck into his own net. Dominik Simon cut the lead to two 1:27 later on a nice pass from Sidney Crosby from behind the and then Crosby added another helper just 33 seconds into the second period on a pretty between-the- legs pass to Teddy Blueger. Jack Johnson (shorthanded) and Bryan Rust each scored in the third period to help claim the comeback win.

The Flyers continued their winning ways at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night, defeating the Kings 4-1. All-Star Travis Konecny recorded two goals to help pace Philly, while Brian Elliott stopped 34 of 35 shots to capture his 11th win of the season.

After losing to the Canadiens last Thursday, Alain Vigneault switched up the lines Saturday against Los Angeles. Claude Giroux was flanked by James van Riemsdyk and Konecny and the line shakeup appeared to be a success. The Alphabet Soup line, commonly known as JVR, G and TK, respectively, combined to total seven points, while van Riemsdyk tallied his second three-point game of the season and snapped a 12-game goal drought in the 4-1 win.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan. 21, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Flyers-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
Joel FarabeeSean CouturierJakub Voracek
James van Riemsdyk – Claude Giroux – Travis Konecny
Scott LaughtonKevin HayesNicolas Aube-Kubel
German Rubtsov – Connor BunnamanTyler Pitlick

Ivan ProvorovMatt Niskanen
Travis SanheimPhilippe Myers
Robert HaggJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Brian Elliott

PENGUINS
Dominik Simon – Sidney Crosby – Patric Hornqvist
Jared McCannEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Zach Aston-Reese – Teddy Blueger – Brandon Tanev
Alex GalchenyukAndrew Agozzino – Joseph Blandisi

Jack Johnson – Kris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Juuso RiikolaChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

Gord Miller, Mike Milbury and AJ Mleczko will have the call from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen and analysts Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy.