After strong free-agent moves, do Devils look like a playoff team?

After strong free-agent moves, do Devils look like a playoff team?
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Are the New Jersey Devils the biggest winners of 2021 NHL Free Agency?

If you demand sheer volume, the answer is no. Simply put, the Devils haven’t made a lot of moves. That said, few teams could compete with the quality they added. The Devils identified weaknesses, then addressed them with bold, seemingly savvy free-agent signings.

By adding Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Bernier, and now Tomas Tatar, the Devils look like they’ll be a bigger threat in 2021-22. That said, we have recent examples of the Devils going from offseason studs to duds once they get on the ice.

Could this time be different? Might the 2021-22 version of the Devils make the playoffs? Let’s ponder why these Devils could be different, but also why they may remain a work in progress.

Devils mix free-agent risk-reward of Hamilton with savvy pickups

Simply put, genuine No. 1 defensemen like Dougie Hamilton don’t hit the free-agent market very often.

Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that Hamilton will be a seamless addition. You might say that there’s an ominous warning in Hamilton and P.K. Subban sharing the same $9M cap hit.

The situation is pretty different, though. When the Devils acquired Subban, they crossed their fingers for a rebound that ultimately didn’t happen. With Hamilton, they’re merely hoping he can remain himself. Year after year, Hamilton’s shed most of the criticisms around his game, and nearly ended up a Norris Trophy finalist last season.

Signing a defenseman of Hamilton’s stature is a risk. It’s a relatively smart risk, yet ponder some of the NHL’s worst contracts, and expensive, long-term defensemen clog up those lists.

[2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Luckily, the Devils otherwise kept their free-agent risks to reasonable gambles, and their few long-term bets are on younger players. There’s a strong chance that both Jonathan Bernier and especially Tomas Tatar will help the Devils. If not, though, they’re only on two-year contracts.

Ideally, Tatar becomes the next Tyler Toffoli: someone who shined in “fancy stats,” then became undeniable after signing a budget deal.

If the truth is somewhere between “analytics gem” and “player coaches strangely sour on?” That’s a pretty good find for $4.5M per year.

When you consider the Ryan Graves trade, the Devils added something for everyone during this offseason.

Is Ruff a rough fit? Examining why previous offseasons didn’t pan out

Understandably, some will react with “We’ve seen this movie before.”

Granted, you can chalk up some Devils disappointments to bad luck. Yes, there were some health concerns with Corey Crawford, but his retirement was surprising after a sneaky-brilliant final season in Chicago.

Over the years, seemingly smart signings and trades have sputtered, though.

Both Marcus Johansson and Andreas Johnsson seemed like examples of “weaponizing cap space.” Both disappointed.

Even with lowered expectations, P.K. Subban’s been an absolute bummer with the Devils.

Many of these problems extend far beyond Lindy Ruff’s (surprising) stay as Devils head coach. Management should keep an eye on the situation, nonetheless. Ruff as a transitional, experienced coach for a rebuilder? Not perfect, yet understandable. Ruff as someone getting the most out of a haul that included a $63 million defenseman? That’s a debatable fit.

Interesting potential for internal improvements

Consider one factor that might sneak under the radar. At 22, it feels extremely safe to expect Nico Hischier to rebound in a big way.

Frankly, just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, in 2020-21. As long as seemingly freak accidents don’t linger, the Devils could have one of the NHL’s most promising center duos in Hischier and Jack Hughes.

Throw out 2020-21, and Hischier looks like a difference maker. Consider this player card from Evolving Hockey, which runs from 2017-18 through 2019-20:

After strong free-agent moves, do Devils look like a playoff team? Hischier player card
via Evolving Hockey

Not every hypothetical scenario will necessarily work out for New Jersey. It’s reasonable to expect a few improvements from within, and from free-agent additions, however.

  • Honestly, the Devils might want to extend Jack Hughes before he takes another leap. If not, a talented player with improved teammates could translate to a true breakthrough.
  • Maybe Andreas Johnsson can improve? If nothing else, his puck luck wasn’t great during his Devils debut (7.7 shooting percentage, far below his 12-percent career average).
  • Tomas Tatar could help certain pieces fall into more comfortable places, whether he lines up with Hughes, Hischier, or as a bottom-six luxury.
  • Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves could make life easier for other Devils defensemen. Sliding Subban and/or Damon Severson out of the 22-minute range could be quite a boon for New Jersey.
  • Yes, goalies are tough to predict. Yet, while Jonathan Bernier lacks the theoretical ceiling of Corey Crawford, he’s healthier, and younger at 32. He also toughed things out on a terrible Red Wings team. You never really know, but Bernier carries promising odds of forming a solid-to-great duo with Mackenzie Blackwood.

A near-certain power-play boost

One likely area of improvement warrants its own section: the power play.

In 2020-21, the Devils converted on just 14.2-percent of their power-play opportunities, fourth-worst in the NHL. They’ve been a bottom-10 unit for the past four seasons. Dougie Hamilton alone figures to give them a sorely-needed weapon.

Last season, Hamilton tied for sixth-place among defensemen with 18 power-play points. His shot is an undeniable weapon. Even as teams sometimes hesitated to fully unleash Hamilton, he’s scored at least 10 goals in seven straight seasons. Hamilton’s tied with Roman Josi for the third-most goals (94) among defensemen since 2014-15.

Hamilton notched those goal numbers despite getting reluctant deployment compared to peers. In the likely event that the Devils give him more opportunities, Hamilton might establish himself even more with mainstream, goals-and-points oriented Norris voters.

Caveat: as a best practice, it’s better to lean toward high-danger chances from forwards on the power play. That can be easier said than done, though, and the Devils leaned hard on the diminishing danger of Subban’s shots. With Hamilton, they at least enjoy a deadlier threat. From there, maybe they can take even bigger steps?

Reviewing Metropolitan Division shifts, and where Devils may rank

With all of that in mind, how do the Devils’ playoff chances look? No doubt, the larger outlook of the Metropolitan Division is important to conisder.

  • Losing Dougie Hamilton is just part of an offseason of significant changes for the Hurricanes. Could there be some slippage?
  • Speaking of slippage, the Penguins and Capitals aren’t getting younger. They keep finding ways to win, though — at least in the regular season. (Penguins: one series win since their last Stanley Cup win; Capitals: none.) Sometimes teams age gracefully; in other cases, they plummet like the Kings, Sharks, and Ducks. It’s possible one of the Penguins and Capitals hit a wall as early as next season.
  • The Islanders feel like the opposite of the Devils. While the Devils are “believe it when you see it,” the Islanders have defied projections often enough that they deserve benefit of the doubt.
  • Sure, the Rangers and the Flyers have been bold, but they haven’t always seemed shrewd. They’re both unpredictable for a host of reasons.
  • At least on paper, the Blue Jackets are rebuilding.

Hmm, there are paths where the Devils could conceivably finish in the Metro’s top three, but a wild-card berth seems more realistic. Of course, even rising to the playoff bubble would require improvements we haven’t seen from the Devils yet.

Do you think the Devils can ride this strong offseason to the playoffs, or are they not quite ready?

 —

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.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

    avalanche injuries
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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.