Andy Greene

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Devils avoid salary arbitration with Will Butcher

New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero has been busy this summer and he took care of some more business on Wednesday morning. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Devils have re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Will Butcher to a three-year deal. The contract carries an annual average value of $3.73 million.

Butcher and the Devils were scheduled to go to salary arbitration on Aug. 2, but that will no longer be necessary.

The 24-year-old just completed his second season with New Jersey. He had five goals and 44 points in 81 games with the Devils in his rookie year but his number came down slightly last year, as he posted four goals and 30 points in 78 contests.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The youngster is an important part of the Devils’ power play, as he picked up 14 points on the man-advantage in 2018-19. Only Kyle Palmieri (18) had more points on the power play than Butcher last season.

Butcher becomes the fifth-highest paid defenseman on his team behind P.K. Subban ($9 million), Andy Greene ($5 million), Sami Vatanen ($4.875 million), and Damon Severson ($4.166 million).

Shero only has one more restricted free agent to get signed before the start of the year and that’s forward Pavel Zacha. After the Butcher signing, the Devils still have $8.715 million in cap space, so they could probably make another move or two if they wanted to.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Improved non-playoff teams; Flames have work to do

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Columbus Blue Jackets will face a steep climb to make the playoffs, but how will they stack up against expectations? (Jackets Cannon)

• Comparing Jacob Trouba and Charlie McAvoy‘s contract situation is silly. (NBC Sports Boston)

• What changes will the Canadiens make if they fail to make the playoffs again? (Montreal Gazette)

• Capitals defenseman John Carlson might take a step back next season. (NBC Sports Washington)

• The New Jersey Devils may have to look at giving Andy Greene some rest during the regular season. (All About the Jersey)

• It’s not time for Lightning fans to freak out over Brayden Point‘s contract situation. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Buying out Kevin Shattenkirk will be expensive for the Rangers, but it might be the best solution for their cap troubles. (New York Post)

• The Arizona Coyotes shouldn’t be underestimated heading into the 2019-20 season. (Five for Howling)

• There’s still a lot of work for Flames GM Brad Treliving to do this summer. (Flames Nation)

• How important were faceoffs to the Golden Knights last season? (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Now that we’re all in summer mode, let’s look back at who won the P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade. (Predlines)

• Which of the non-playoff teams in the Western Conference improved most over the summer? (NHL.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

With Hughes in Devils camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — With Jack Hughes in the New Jersey Devils’ development camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith.

Hughes was the No. 1 overall selection in the draft last month and much is expected of the playmaking center. It’s almost certain he will be on the Devils’ roster when the regular season opens in October and the packed-crowd at the team’s training rink in the Prudential Center roared on Wednesday when he was introduced before a four-team, 3-on-3 competition.

Much like the other three dozen young players at the weeklong gathering, the 19-year-old Smith received polite applause.

What people tend to forget is Smith was the Devils’ first-round pick a year ago – 17th overall – and he nearly made the roster after a tremendous training camp.

A year later, Smith may be ready to take that next step. The puck-moving defenseman has added about 8 pounds since last year and he is coming off a great season in the Western Hockey League. He had seven goals and a career-high 62 assists, the second-highest single-season total in league history.

Devils coach John Hynes said Smith appears to have matured in the past year, noting his body is thicker and he looks fit.

”He is not a wide-eyed kid here that is taking everything in for the first time,” Hynes said of the WHL defenseman of the year. ”It’s the second time he is coming into the culture of what we are doing. He sees the needs and knows what you are talking about. He seems a lot more confident. I don’t want to say on a mission, but he seems a little more focused as opposed to taking everything in for the first time.”

Hynes expects Smith to be a motivated player when training camp starts in September.

Smith will be trying to break into a veteran defensive unit. It’s led by captain Andy Greene and recently acquired Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick are returning from last season’s team.

Despite being a little bigger and stronger, Smith doesn’t believe he has lost any quickness or agility.

”I like to get the puck and give the puck to the forwards,” Smith said. ”My dad always tells me ‘Get the puck to the skill and then support it.’ They’ll make the play and then join the rush in the second wave and create offense.”

Smith refuses to speculate when he will play in the NHL. He saw action in the preseason last season and was sent back for another year of junior hockey, helping the Chiefs get to the semifinal round of the WHL playoffs.

”I feel confident in myself, that I can play,” he said. ”Whenever the Devils want me to. It’s up to them. I have to be the best I can possibly be and come out and compete, compete for a job. It’s not easy to make the NHL. It’s up to them.”

NOTES: Hughes’ team won the 3-on-3 competition, posting a 1-0 win over a squad that included Joey Anderson, his roommate for the camp and a player who saw some time with the Devils last season. … Xavier Bernard, a fourth-round pick in 2018, had the only goal in the deciding game. Akira Schmid, a Swiss native who was a fifth-round pick last year, had the shutout.

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

Misguided or not, Devils fans let Kovalchuk have it

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Let’s be honest: being a fan is almost inherently silly.

As Jerry Seinfeld famously joked, you’re often cheering for clothes. People lose sleep to watch games that go late, get in fights with fans of other teams, and spend tons of money to watch people play “a child’s game.” All silly.

On Tuesday, New Jersey Devils fans are choosing to be silly about Ilya Kovalchuk, a player who once helped them make an unexpected run to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, only to leave for the KHL and eventually return to Newark as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. Despite leaving the Devils during the 2012-13 season, fans made their feelings about him being a “traitor” quite clear.

Fox Sports West collected some of the highlights/lowlights:

To reiterate: yes, this is kind of silly.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski is an authority on the subject of Devils fandom, and he hit the nail on the silly head leading into the game, noting that then-Devils-boss Lou Lamoriello mysteriously didn’t seem to have much of an issue with Kovalchuk leaving when he did:

In the case of Kovalchuk, his departure to Russia saved the Devils enormously. Depending on when he left, the Devils could have been on the hook for multiple years at $5 million of dead cap space. To put things in perspective: That’s an Andy Greene of dead cap space.

By leaving in Year 4 of his 15-year deal, Kovalchuk bailed the Devils out of a toxic contract. They have a cap recapture penalty of just $250,000 annually through 2025. That’s couch-cushion small change in the NHL. He did them an enormous favor, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Lamorielllo let him walk without a fight.

But, whatever. It’s uncomfortable that some of the signs seem … maybe a little … xenophobic, but at least Kovalchuk saw it coming. And it doesn’t seem like he had an issue with playing the role of the villain, at least leading into the game.

“I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing,” Kovalchuk said, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, after LA’s overtime win against the New York Rangers Monday night, “but I love that, so it’s all good.”

Judging by the look on Alec Martinez‘s face, Kovalchuk’s Kings teammates enjoyed some comic relief on Tuesday, too:

via Getty

This rude return seems especially noteworthy considering how long ago the Kovalchuk departure happened.

In that time, the now-35-year-old winger’s game has declined dramatically, to the point that the Devils might be lucky to not have him at all — certainly not at his old, satanic cap hit of $6.66M per year.

Just compare Kovalchuk’s rough 2018-19 to that of Marcus Johansson, a player the Devils almost certainly want to part ways with:

via Bill Comeau / Corsica Hockey

Even if some of Kovalchuk’s troubles might be a matter of not jiving well in Los Angeles – particularly with Willie Desjardins – he’s had a tough time by any measure.

So, really, Devils fans should probably just fondly recall the good times with Kovalchuk, and be glad that their rebuilding team doesn’t have a problem contract on the books.

But fans aren’t always coldly rational, and that’s mostly a good thing — because being a fan isn’t particularly rational, to begin with. And, like we’ve seen with Penguins booing Jaromir Jagr long after Kris Beech hung up his skates, Sharks fans comically booing John Tavares, and countless other examples, it’s not as though Devils fans are outliers here.

(It’s still really silly, though.)

***

The Kings ended up beating the Devils 5-1, with Kovalchuk scoring against New Jersey:

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.

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.