Hughes, Hall, Hischier look to lead Devils back to playoffs

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NEWARK, N.J. — If you saw what Daniel Jones did for the New York Giants, you have an idea what Jack Hughes might be able to do for the New Jersey Devils.

The No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, Hughes has been nothing short of sensational in training camp and the preseason. The 18-year-old center has scored, set up goals and played two-way hockey. He has shown signs of being a dynamic young star forward, which the organization has lacked since moving to New Jersey in the early 1980s.

The addition of Hughes and general manager Ray Shero’s offseason moves to acquire defenseman P.K. Subban from Nashville and forward Nikita Gusev from Vegas and to sign veteran forward Wayne Simmonds to a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent gives the Devils depth throughout the roster.

Don’t forget, center Nico Hischier is entering his third season after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Taylor Hall is returning after being limited by a knee injury that required surgery. Kyle Palmieri has been a solid goal scorer and there are a lot of young enthusiastic players who want to go out and play coach John Hynes’ in-your-face style of hockey.

The Devils used to be an organization that rode its defense and goaltending. Last season, they scored 222 goals and gave up 275, a differential of minus-53. They finished with 72 points. Only Los Angeles (71) and Ottawa (64) had fewer.

That has to change if they are going to move forward this season.

And just in case you missed it, Jones, the sixth pick overall in the NFL draft, replaced Eli Manning as the Giants’ starting quarterback and revived hope for the season by throwing two touchdowns and running for two others in a 33-32 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday. It was the type of spark the Devils hopes Hughes will deliver.

Five things to watch this season as the Devils try to get back to the playoffs:

TAYLOR HALL

Hall won the NHL MVP in 2017 with 39 goals and 54 assists and single-handedly got New Jersey into the playoffs for the first time since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Hall is coming off an injury-plagued season. He appeared in 33 games and had 11 goals and 26 assists, playing his final contest days before Christmas. The left wing had surgery on his left knee in February and is looking forward to better things.

WHO’S HERE

Hughes isn’t the only new face in town. Subban was acquired on the draft weekend in a major deal with Nashville. Simmonds is a tough guy who plays in close on the power play. Gusev spent the last seven seasons in the KHL, collecting 119 goals and 213 assists.

WHO’S NOT

The Devils emptied the roster at the trade deadline a year ago, dealing C Brian Boyle, D Ben Lovejoy, F Marcus Johansson and G Keith Kinkaid to playoff contenders. After the season, forwards Kenny Agostino and Stefan Noesen were not re-signed and D Steven Santini was part of the deal for Subban, who had a career-low 31 points in 63 games. F John Quenneville was traded to Chicago for F John Hayden.

KEY PLAYERS: Hall tops the list, especially with his contract expiring. Shero would like to get the 27-year-old former No. 1 overall pick signed, but his health is a concern. Hughes has tons of talent but is going to be a marked man in the NHL. He is just 18 and will be hit. Hischier might be the surprise. He seems to be improving. If he hit the nets more, the Devils will be tough. The goaltending looks very good. Corey Schneider is back to his former level of two years ago after hip surgery and Mackenzie Blackwood impressed after coming up from the minors and posting a 6-4-0 record with a 2.37 goals-against average.

OUTLOOK: Since Hynes took over as coach, there has been a pattern of good year, bad year, good year, bad year. This is year five and with the draft and all the moves, the trend clearly indicates good year. The Devils struggled in recent seasons on the power play, scoring on less than 18%. With Hughes, Hall, Hischier, Subban, Palmieri and defensemen Will Butcher and Damon Severson, that should improve. The penalty kill should remain among the best in the league with Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman and Kevin Rooney on the roster.

PREDICTION: After finishing last in the Metropolitan Division (31-41-10) for the second time in three seasons, the Devils have the talent to get back to the postseason. There are question marks, however. The 30-year-old Subban needs to revert to being one of the league’s top defensemen. Hall has to stay healthy. Hughes and Hischier have to deliver and the Devils can’t lose their focus, which they did too many times last season. They should make the playoffs.

Slumping Stars make not so rad move by scratching Radulov

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When a team is on a losing streak, desperation can start to climb. Sometimes, that brings the best out of teams and management. Sometimes people get fired, or traded, or someone becomes a scapegoat.

The Dallas Stars made the eyebrow-raising decision to scratch winger Alexander Radulov heading into Thursday’s game against divisional rival Winnipeg. The Athletic’s Sean Shapiro reports that head coach Jim Montgomery explained that the move is “best for” the team, while Radulov declined the chance to comment.

If you make only a surface-level look at recent results, it’s easy to see what Montgomery is thinking.

Most obviously, the Stars are on a four-game losing streak, and one would argue that they might need a jolt. Putting a top player in street clothes could serve as a shock to the system to other players who might be perceived as underachieving — at least that’s the way such logic would go.

Before the Stars’ losing streak, Radulov scored two goals and one assist. During this four-game skid, Radulov has failed to score a point.

Maybe just as important, if not more, to Montgomery is that Radulov’s also taken three penalties (six PIM) during that skid. People have also noted that Radulov responded to his last healthy scratch with a hat trick.

… But I can’t say I really sign off on the move.

For one thing, Radulov’s been a scapegoat far too often during his underappreciated career, with the most memorable flare-up stemming from Barry Trotz’s harsh reaction to him missing curfew during a Predators playoff run many moons ago. Things … didn’t really work out in the long run there for the Predators, or Radulov.

Now, sure, it’s true that Radulov isn’t getting the same box score results as he had during his previous two seasons with the Stars. After scoring 27 and 29 goals along with 72 points in each of 2017-18 and 2018-19, Radulov has 15 points through 29 games, good for just a 43-point pace.

There are a lot of context clues hinting at why his production is down.

While Tyler Seguin remains his most common forward line mate at even-strength, Radulov’s spent about as much time without Seguin than without him, versus the past two seasons, where he spent about two-thirds of his ice time with Seguin.

Radulov’s underlying stats indicate that he’s still a tremendous offensive talent, while providing an underrated defensive impact:

It’s understandable if the Stars are a little disappointed with his production, but with reduced ice time compared to previous seasons (he’s averaging 17:16 minutes per night after logging about 20 minutes per game during his first two Stars campaigns) and less time with Seguin, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a drop-off.

That’s especially true since, frankly, Montgomery isn’t exactly unleashing the hounds. This Stars team can be sometimes agonizingly passive, and so it’s tough to be surprised when production is spotty.

(Hence why many of us hockey observers have been so frustrated when Jamie Benn and especially Seguin get thrown under the bus.)

Perhaps there’s a way to get more out of Radulov. Frankly, why I don’t really buy the armchair psychology of “motivating” Radulov through a healthy scratch, there’s a solid chance he’ll return and get back on track. Considering the fact that Radulov is 33, you could dress it up as (likely accidental) “load management.”

Not to blow any minds, but you have a better chance to win when you put better players on the ice, though, so I can’t say that I love this move. It doesn’t seem like Radulov thinks it’s all that rad, either.

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.

Bargain star MacKinnon says he’d take less money again to help Avalanche win

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If you could choose one active NHL player to build a team around, who would it be?

In a vacuum, the answer should be obvious: Connor McDavid. Yet, when you consider salary cap realities, the choice gets fuzzier thanks to the absolutely ludicrous bargain the Colorado Avalanche are enjoying with Nathan MacKinnon.

With all due respect to the steals teams like the Bruins enjoy with David Pastrnak, you can’t really beat the bang for the buck the Avalanche get for MacKinnon (unless you try to cheat with rookie contracts, which: tsk, tsk).

MacKinnon, 24, is currently in the fourth season of a contract that carries an outrageously team-friendly AAV of just $6.3M, and delightfully for Colorado, that deal won’t expire until after the 2022-23 season. That cap hit is barely more than half of the $12.5M AAV McDavid carries, and frankly, McDavid is worth every penny of the league maximum. (And MacKinnon likely deserves something in that range, too.)

You have to wonder if MacKinnon must want to fire his agent after seeing players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner cashing in on their second deals, but the speedy Avalanche center mostly shrugged it off — though with some humor — telling Forbes’ Jordan Horrobin that, in the grand scheme of things, MacKinnon has “no regrets” about signing his contract.

After all, MacKinnon is doing just fine, with Cap Friendly estimating his career earnings at $27.025M so far. Yes, MacKinnon deserves more, but unless Elon Musk or Bill Gates is reading this post, you’d agree that it’s a good problem to have.

Even so, fans of teams with stars on less team-friendly contracts likely feel jealous when they see MacKinnon ripping through defenses at a cut rate. Those fans may grit their teeth, then, while Avs fans may want to throw up confetti when they realize that MacKinnon indicated to Horrobin that he’d sacrifice some dollars on his next contract if it helped the Avalanche win big.

“We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in,” MacKinnon said. “On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.”

Now, sure, “less” is likely to be a relative term. Maybe it would mean that MacKinnon would “settle” for a bit less than whatever the maximum salary would be. The league’s salary structure and revenues could really blossom by 2022 (the first summer where MacKinnon could sign an extension) or after 2022-23, when his deal expires. Or maybe MacKinnon would follow his buddy Sidney Crosby and give the Avalanche another extreme sweetheart deal.

And, obviously, things can change fast. The Avalanche could fall off the rails compared to their current seemingly skyrocketing upward trajectory, or MacKinnon could clash with management, making the prospect of leaving even more money on the table far less palatable down the line.

But the concept of getting another value contract with MacKinnon is ultimately extremely promising for the Avs.

After all, this bursting group of young talent figures to become pretty costly down the line. Cale Makar is already flirting with superstar status, and he’ll need a second contract after 2020-21. Philipp Grubauer only has two more years on his active contract, too, and could prove he’s worth far more than his current $3.33M AAV. Gabriel Landeskog‘s contract expires during that same offseason.

You can see how the belt could really tighten for the Avalanche down the line, and while MacKinnon should command a huge raise whenever he inks his next contract, it sounds like he might be willing to compromise to try to win a Stanley Cup (or, perhaps if he parallels Crosby in more than just taking less money for the team, winning multiple Stanley Cups).

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.

Coyotes’ Soderberg thriving despite blindness in left eye

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The darkest time came right after the injury. Months in the hospital. Multiple surgeries. Pain, fear, little hope.

Playing hockey again was not even a remote consideration. Carl Soderberg had bigger concerns.

”I was more worried about my eye and would I get my vision back,” Soderberg said.

The Arizona Coyotes made the biggest splash of the offseason, trading for highly productive right wing Phil Kessel.

But the addition of Soderberg might have been Arizona’s biggest move.

A 6-foot-3, 210-pound center, Soderberg has given the Coyotes a big body to go with all those fast, skilled young players.

He’s a willing jostler outside the crease, creating traffic in front of opposing goalies and shooting lanes for his teammates. He’s the guy who goes into the corners to dig pucks out. Need a big hit, he’s Arizona’s guy.

Soderberg also is skilled, tied with Christian Dvorak for second on the team with eight goals. He’s also tied for fifth with 15 points through 29 games.

”He’s a guy that goes to the net. He’s always around the net,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”He’s just fit in and he’s a big body. It’s nice to have those big bodies. He’s done a nice job for us.”

The most amazing part of Soderberg”s NHL success: he’s legally blind in his left eye.

He was injured while playing in the Swedish Elite League in 2006 when an opponent tried to lift his stick and hit his eye instead. Soderberg suffered a detached retina, spent three months in the hospital because of pressure in his eye and lost track of how many surgeries he had, estimating between eight and 10.

A young player reaching his prime, Soderberg was in too much pain to think about his hockey career.

”The pressure in my eye was so high for months,” the 34-year-old said. ”It wouldn’t go down, so I was in constant pain, getting constant headaches and worried if I would ever be able to see out of my eye again. I just wanted to feel good again.”

Once the pressure started to go down, Soderberg began working out and, within about a year, was playing hockey again. His return was difficult, from figuring out how to play with limited vision to quashing the fear that comes with having been struck in the eye with a stick.

”It was a little different on the eyes, I was scared, afraid to get hit again,” he said. ”It took me a couple years to fully get back.”

Soderberg worked through the tentativeness and adjusted his game, learning to turn his head more to see the puck and having a better understanding of where everyone is on the ice.

”You have to be more aware, you have to listen to your teammates, look around you a little bit more,” Soderberg said.

Willie O’Ree knows what Soderberg is going through.

Playing at a time when players didn’t have helmets much less visors, O’Ree took a slapshot to his right eye during a game in 1956. O’Ree lost nearly all the vision in his eye and was told he would never play hockey again.

Undeterred, he started skating two weeks after leaving the hospital and adjusted his game. Being a left-handed left wing helped some, but seeing the puck to his right required turning his head all the way to the right so he could see it with his left eye.

O’Ree went on to become the first black player in the NHL in 1958 and played 21 seasons in a variety of leagues. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018, has an NHL community award named in his honor and currently serves as the league’s diversity ambassador.

”You never took an eye exam, so I said, if I’m good enough to make the team with one eye, just don’t tell them,” O’Ree said. ”I was getting hit a lot more than I did before, but I was able to play 21 years with one eye.”

Soderberg is playing his eighth NHL season while seeing little more than light in his left eye. He spent three seasons with Boston and four with Colorado before being traded to Arizona for Kevin Connauton and a draft pick last summer.

Soderberg, who has 94 goals and 166 assists in 511 career games, has been a big reason the Coyotes are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, entering Wednesday’s games a point behind Edmonton in the Pacific Division.

”I have a good feeling about us as a group,” Soderberg said. ”We should be at the top of our division at the end and that’s our goal.”

It’s hard not to trust Soderberg’s vision at this point.

Pittsburgh’s Primanti Brothers restaurant honors ‘Doc’ Emrick

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One of the ultimate signs of respect from the city of Pittsburgh is when Primanti Brothers, the local sandwich shop known for piling mountains of french fries and cole slaw on its sandwiches, names something after you.

NBC Sports announcer ‘Doc’ Emrick recently had that honor when the four downtown Pittsburgh locations offered “The Doc Special” this week that included their traditional pastrami sandwich and a pop (no “soda” in Pittsburgh) of your choice for $9.50.

Before ‘Doc’ called Wednesday’s game between the Penguins and defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, he stopped at the Market Square location to enjoy his very own special.

The restaurant decided to honor him because it has been nearly 50 years since he had his first experience covering the NHL when he covered the Penguins for the Beaver County Times.

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.