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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.

To 32 and beyond: Seattle may not be end of NHL expansion

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By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

The NHL will soon have 32 teams if Seattle is approved as expected next week. An even balance between conferences. A cross-border rival for the Vancouver Canucks in the Pacific Northwest.

Surely the league is done growing for a while?

Maybe not. Two and a half years after voting to add a team in Las Vegas in what has been a rousing success, the NHL has plenty of options when it comes to what’s next. No North American professional sports league has stretched past the number of 32, but no one is ruling it out for the NHL to get there on this continent or beyond.

”The leagues adapt, they look around and they make judgments: Are there markets we would like to go into? Can they support the teams at the revenue levels that we need? If we expand too much too fast, do we dilute the talent such that the product suffers? And those are all judgment calls in the end,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said. ”Some leagues and owners are more cautious than others. But sooner or later I would like to believe that in the kind of economy we have, all potential avenues will be explored.”

Considering the success of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, Seattle has seemed a no-brainer from the beginning and no one expects anything but approval from the Board of Governors on Tuesday. Seattle would begin play in either 2020 or 2021.

”Hockey needs to be and wants to be in those really fast-paced cities that are growing and setting the mark,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. ”Because if we do well here, it’ll raise all the boats for all the teams.”

Vegas already raised the bar for Seattle, which will pay an expansion fee of $650 million – a 30 percent increase over the $500 million that cleared the way for Vegas to begin play last season and far beyond the $45 million the San Jose Sharks paid to enter the league in 1991 to begin a new era of expansion.

As soon as the NHL went to 31, getting to 32 was inevitable. As balanced as it might seem, it’s not the end.

”Not sure there is any magic about 32,” deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said. ”Expansion is appropriate when a convincing case can be made that it will be beneficial and add value to the league as a whole.”

While Daly was reluctant to address what might be next with the Seattle vote pending, Houston, Quebec City and Toronto have all been touted as possible new homes for an NHL team. Communications company Quebecor applied for an expansion team for Quebec City at the same time as Las Vegas. Billionaire businessman and new Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has already met with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

”Houston’s a big city,” Fehr said. ”It’s got a long history with professional sports in North America. You would like to think that sooner or later the NHL will have a team there. When and under what circumstances I’m not going to try and predict.”

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economic professor who has written extensively on sports and business, said professional leagues operate much differently from other entities when demand increases. Instead of making more of a product, like a sneaker or beer company might, leagues and teams raise ticket prices or seek new arenas.

Expansion, of course, is another way to feed the beast and Zimbalist said a league could get to 40 teams if it is popular enough and the revenue is spread around correctly.

Any dream of a 40-team NHL would almost certainly involve European expansion, which Bettman said no one has come up with a viable plan for yet. Amid speculation about basing a single NFL team in London, the NHL would likely need to put a full division in Europe to make any sense. And even that has its obstacles, with New Jersey Devils captain Andy Greene pointing to the drastic time changes and coach John Hynes unsure about the long-distance travel as part of an 82-game season.

”When you look at the NHL schedule without going to Europe, it’s a monster,” said Hynes, whose team ended training camp in Switzerland, played an exhibition game there and opened the season in Sweden. ”Then you add in European travel and time changes and NHLPA days off for recovery time and it takes its toll.”

For now, the NHL will continue to play games in Europe, explore China and increase its regular season to 1,312 games – once Seattle joins the fray.

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

Taylor Hall’s OT winner lead Devils over Swiss club SC Bern

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BERN, Switzerland (AP) — Taylor Hall‘s goal with 1:03 left in overtime lifted the New Jersey Devils to a 3-2 win over SC Bern of the Swiss National League on Monday.

The game was part of the NHL’s Global Series Challenge. Edmonton will conclude the exhibition season Wednesday when it meets Kolner Haie in Cologne, Germany.

New Jersey and Edmonton will meet Saturday in Gothenburg, Sweden, in the season opener for both teams.

Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy also scored for the Devils, and Keith Kinkaid played the entire game in goal for New Jersey, which finished the exhibition season with a 2-2-2 record.

Simon Moser and Mark Arcobello scored for SC Bern, while Leonardo Genoni played the entire game in goal.

The game was an exhibition, even though SC Bern has begun league play.

Late in overtime, Sami Vatanen picked off a pass in the defensive zone and sprung Hall with a headman pass. The reigning Hart Trophy winner carried the puck into the offensive zone, and then split two defenders before beating Genoni stick side for the game-winning goal.

Hall’s goal was the third and final time New Jersey led in the game.

Greene, the Devils captain, opened the scoring with a snap shot from the slot 5:55 into the game, a few moments after Kinkaid kept the puck out of the New Jersey net during a pileup in the crease.

Moser drew SC Bern even 25 seconds into the second period. Lovejoy’s slapshot with 7:02 left in the period put New Jersey ahead again.

Arcobello tied it with 2:08 left in regulation. Arcobello, who played for Edmonton, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Arizona and Toronto in the NHL before signing with SC Bern, snapped a shot from the slot that beat Kinkaid to the far side.

The game, played at PostFinance Arena, SC Bern’s home rink, marked a homecoming for New Jersey’s Nico Hischier and Mirco Mueller. Hischier, the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, is from Brig, Switzerland, while Mueller is from Winterthur, Switzerland.

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Lightning vs. Devils: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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The Tampa Bay Lightning locked up a playoff spot before April even began, and the only real drama they faced boiled down to whether or not they’d win their division. The New Jersey Devils, meanwhile, scratched and clawed their way to their last game of the season.

Maybe that lack of urgency and Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s fatigue conspired to make the Bolts’ finish to 2017-18 a little less than inspiring? Tampa Bay went 5-4-1 in its last 10 games, as just one example, with Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov losing significant ground in their respective trophy races.

The Lightning still finished atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, going 54-23-5 for 113 standings points. The Devils finished one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the East’s final wild card, generating 97 standings points on a 44-29-9 record.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with a less-than-spectacular finish to the season, the Lightning are heavy favorites. Tampa Bay ranks among the biggest favorites of any team in the first round on account of its strengths and the Devils’ perceived weaknesses.

Beyond the momentum angle, the Devils might pin their hopes on sweeping the season series against the Lightning. They won once in a shootout and twice in regulation. Maybe New Jersey matches up well with Tampa Bay?

Let’s break this series down.

SCHEDULE

FORWARDS

Lightning: It’s easy to look at the Lightning as just the one-two punch of a successfully returning Steven Stamkos (27 goals, 86 points) and Kucherov, who hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his wildly underrated career. The frightening part is that it’s not even just about them, nor J.T. Miller in Vladislav Namestnikov‘s old spot.

This series might clue in casual hockey fans that Brayden Point is a rising star. He scored 32 goals and 66 points this season, doing so in sometimes spectacular ways:

Yanni Gourde would also receive way more Calder Trophy buzz in a normal season, as he scored 25 goals and 64 points. The Lightning also have some other nice forwards, including Tyler Johnson (21 goals, 50 points), Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat. It should be noted that, while Palat only scored 35 points, he was limited to 56 games.

The biggest injury question revolves around Stamkos, who missed some late-season games. Will he be 100 percent either by Game 1 or merely sometime in this series?

Devils: It’s well-publicized but true: the drop off from Taylor Hall (93 points) to the second-best Devils scorer (Nico Hischier, 52 points) is drastic.

Hall deservedly gets Hart Trophy buzz, and he’s the single player who could will the Devils to upset victories against the Bolts in his first-ever visit to the postseason.

It’s unfair to say that he’s the only weapon for New Jersey. Despite being limited to 62 games, Kyle Palmieri continues to be an under-the-radar gem, scoring 24 goals and 44 points. Patrick Maroon has been a boon via the trade deadline, collecting 13 points in 17 games with the Devils. Michael Grabner‘s been quiet, but his speed and skill could be useful in a short series, especially with the motivation of a contract year hanging over his head.

AdvantageLightning. Few teams possess the arsenal that Tampa Bay boasts.

DEFENSEMEN

Lightning: Victor Hedman may very well win the Norris Trophy this season. You can argue until your face turns blue over who deserves that nod, but he certainly earned the right to be in the discussion, generating 63 points in 77 games while playing great defense.

Mikhail Sergachev might be a work in progress, yet his offense is already formidable, as the rookie collected 40 points this season despite modest ice time (15:21 minutes per game). They can enjoy the best of both worlds as they protect him and then deploy him for scoring situations.

Ryan McDonagh is still adjusting to Tampa Bay. This is the time they got him for, as he could be a key piece in matchups. He’s joined by other former Rangers Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi, though the Lightning probably want to limit Girardi’s exposure (even after a relatively decent season).

Devils: New Jersey still looks weak on defense on paper, but credit the Devils with adding some talent in that area.

Sami Vatanen is developing into a workhorse for the Devils, averaging 22:44 per game while scoring 28 points in 57 games. Will Butcher has a ways to go in his own end, but he already generated 44 points in his first NHL season.

Damon Severson, Andy Greene, and John Moore are among those blueliners who can prove that they’re worth more of a look with a strong playoffs.

Advantage: Lightning, by a significant margin.

GOALIES

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy may still be a Vezina finalist, and it’s easy to see why with a 44-17-3 record, .920 save percentage, and eight shutouts. He’s also proven himself in postseason play before, generating that same .920 save percentage in 12 career playoff appearances.

His recent play is the elephant in the room, as he admitted himself to fatigue late in 2017-18. Consider that he generated a brilliant .931 save percentage in 41 games before the All-Star break, only to slide to a bad-backup-level .902 save percentage in 24 games after the break.

Louis Domingue hasn’t really inspired any confidence as his backup.

Devils: With Cory Schneider seemingly at a career crisis, the Devils turned to Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid proved unexpectedly sturdy for New Jersey, producing a four-game winning streak to help them lock down that playoff spot, and also generating a .913 save percentage over 41 appearances.

AdvantageLightning, even though Vasilevskiy’s energy comes into question.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lightning: The Bolts’ power play ranks among the NHL’s deadliest, boasting a 23.9-percent success rate on 66 power-play goals and just three shorthanded goals allowed. Their penalty kill struggled, however, with a PK% of just 76.1 percent, fourth-worst in the NHL (64 PPGA, nine shorthanded goals for).

Devils: New Jersey connected on 21.4 percent of its power plays, good for 54 PPG and six SHGA. They excelled on the PK, tying for seventh in the NHL by killing 81.8 percent of their penalties (47 power-play goals allowed, 12 shorthanded goals scored).

Advantage: Devils, as they mix a very nice power play with one of the better PK units, especially when you consider how dangerous they are with 12 shorthanded goals. That said, the Lightning’s power play is so dominant, it might make that balance irrelevant.

X-FACTORS

Lightning: Is Vasilevskiy going to be anywhere close to his best self or his tank truly empty? This Lightning team is balanced and dangerous at the top, but bad goaltending can submarine even the strongest teams.

Devils: Taylor Hall in his first playoff series. It’s a great story, and there’s a solid chance that he’ll be the best player on the ice. Could he be such a force that he tilts this series in New Jersey’s favor?

PREDICTION

Lightning in five games. The Bolts possess the top-heavy talent to nullify Taylor Hall, and even if they lose that battle, they’re likely to dominate from a depth perspective. Vasilevskiy also gives them an advantage in net … at least on paper.

If you’re a Devils fan grumbling right now, consider this: New Jersey seems to thrive on defying the odds. Why not do it in the first round, too?

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.