Rookie coaches enjoying chess match that comes in playoffs

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Rod Brind’Amour does not think what he is doing is anything special.

Brind’Amour not only has the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs in his first season as coach but has made the necessary adjustments to tie their series against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals at two games apiece. Along with Washington’s Todd Reirden and Jim Montgomery in Dallas, Brind’Amour is one of the rookie NHL coaches in the playoffs whose decisions are playing major roles in the first round.

Just don’t tell him that.

”The coaching thing is fun. I think it’s a little overrated,” Brind’Amour said earlier this week. ”You open the door and you say, ‘Go play.”’

Brind’Amour’s Hurricanes are playing at their peak with the chance to put the champs on the brink of elimination if they win Game 5 Saturday night in Washington (8 p.m. EDT, NBC). Carolina has already dealt with a concussion to 19-year-old Andrei Svechnikov and an upper-body injury to big winger Micheal Ferland, and is expected to be without Jordan Martinook because of a lower-body injury that happened in a 2-1 Game 4 win Thursday.

The Capitals have a major injury concern of their own now after a hit from behind from Warren Foegele knocked winger T.J. Oshie out indefinitely. Devante Smith-Pelly was recalled from the minors and will go directly into the lineup. There could be more changes from Reirden after his team failed to score a 5-on-5 goal the past two games.

”That’s the game within the game,” Reirden said Friday. ”It’s up for me and our staff to decide how to fill those voids in different areas and put players in situations to succeed and if it’s not working you’ve got to also know when to stop and try something new.”

Craig Berube knew that moment had come in the middle of the St. Louis Blues’ Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets. The interim coach who took over in November moved David Perron on to the top line in place of Brayden Schenn, and the savvy change helped the Blues come back from a two-goal deficit to win in regulation and take a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6 at home (7 p.m. EDT, NBCSN).

”Our team responded to it,” Berube said after the comeback win. ”You don’t score, you’ve got to change it up a little. It was a good time to make the change.”

Montgomery, who played with Brind’Amour for a brief time with Philadelphia in the 1990s, hasn’t had to make big-time changes but saw the Stars finally break through on the power play and find some offense in Game 4 against the Nashville Predators to tie that series. Dallas goes into Game 5 at Nashville (3 p.m. EDT, NBC) with the chance to put the Central Division champions on the ropes.

”They feel like we’re challenging them, for sure,” defenseman John Klingberg said. ”We’re giving them a tough fight.”

Montgomery instills that fight in his team after joining the ranks of college coaches to jump directly to the NHL. This isn’t the Frozen Four, where he led Denver twice and won a national title, but Montgomery is adjusting on the fly quickly in his first Stanley Cup playoffs.

”I’m like a baby learning how to walk right now,” Montgomery said. ”The downs have been like, ‘OK, how do we get better.’ The ups have been, ‘Let’s keep getting better.’ I feel we continue to get better in this series, which is a good feeling for all of us.”

Carolina has gotten better and better since allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period of Game 1. Brind’Amour credits his players, including goaltender Petr Mrazek for some timely saves, but he clearly made some tactical switches to turn the series around – even if he won’t say what.

”Can’t tell you that,” Brind’Amour said with a laugh. ”I think it’s just wet got to our game a little better.”

And there’s Brind’Amour, again, sounding like the veteran coach he already looks like.

BATTLE OF ATTRITION

Injuries played a role in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ shocking sweep of Tampa Bay, and they could tip the balance for Nashville-Dallas, too.

The Predators have been without forward Brian Boyle since Game 1 after an appendectomy, and forward Wayne Simmonds has been out since taking a one-timer from Roman Josi off the inside of his left knee. They’re considered week-to-week, but Boyle and Simmonds skated with the team Friday.

”I had my appendix out when I was in high school, you’re literally out for months and months,” Laviolette said. ”That was a long time ago. Now it’s somebody being able to be back and playing in less than a week is unbelievable. So he looked really good out there today. Wayne the same thing. When it first happened, we were thinking it might be that long and it’s never an exact science. But they’re both out there and they look good.”

Dallas could have forward Mattias Janmark back in the lineup after a lower-body injury caused him to miss the past two games.

The Capitals know they won’t have Oshie for a while. And while Brind’Amour quipped after Game 4 that the Hurricanes are dealing with more injuries, Oshie’s absence will take a chunk out of Washington.

”He’s a heart-and-soul guy,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. ”The thing with Osh is no matter what he’s going to find a way to have a positive impact on our team. … He’s a leader and he’s a guy that guys want to fight for.”

Whoever wins the Carolina-Washington series will face a shorthanded New York Islanders opponent in the second round. General manager Lou Lamoriello said defenseman Johnny Boychuk will miss three to four weeks with a lower-body injury.

AP Sports Writers Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, Teresa M. Walker in Nashville and Joedy McCreary in Raleigh contributed.

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

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

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