NBC

Lightning vs. Devils: PHT 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

1 Comment

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.

Ray Shero’s redemption in New Jersey

Getty
6 Comments

When Ray Shero was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2006 he was taking over a team that, even though it had fallen on hard times and had been one of the worst in the league, was on the verge of a breakthrough thanks to a series of top draft picks that brought them a couple of franchise changing players (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin). Even though the team at the time was lousy, he was still inheriting a pretty decent situation just based on the young talent that was already in place.

In only a couple of years Shero had helped complement those young superstars with a team that would go play in two Stanley Cup Finals in 2008 and 2009, winning the latter in a thrilling seven-game series. He made some shrewd trades, found some value in free agency, and built a powerhouse team.

In the years after that Stanley Cup win, however, he seemed to lose a lot of that touch. There was too much loyalty to players that the Penguins had won with, too many draft picks were traded for short-term rentals that didn’t pan out and the Penguins quickly became a team that had a handful of superstars and no depth to speak of. The magic that he seemed to have early in his tenure seemed to be gone as nearly every move ended up backfiring in a huge way.

After one too many early postseason exits it eventually ended up costing Shero his job following the 2013-14 season.

It did not take him long to land on his feet with the New Jersey Devils replacing long-time general manager Lou Lamoriello.

Now in his third year running the Devils the team finds itself near the top of the Metropolitan Division looking to end what has become a five-year postseason drought.

It’s not only a potentially big development for the Devils, it’s also been a bit of a redemption story for Shero in the way he has rebuild the team from the ground up in a significant way thanks to some major moves.

The situation that Shero inherited in New Jersey couldn’t have been more different than the one he inherited in Pittsburgh.

With the Penguins, the most important pieces were already in place. It was a young team with huge potential where success seemed like it was destined. It wasn’t a matter of if the team would become a championship contender, it was simply a matter of when. Expectations were immediately through the roof (that sort of situation creates an entirely different kind of pressure).

With the Devils, expectations were pretty much at zero.

The Devils had become a bad team. The All-Stars that helped lead the team to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final were gone. It was an older roster that had no impact players, no young building blocks, and nothing to really build around. It was going to take a significant overhaul to get things back on track.

An overhaul is exactly what has happened.

After trading Adam Henrique to the Anaheim Ducks this past week for defenseman Sami Vatanen, the only players that remain on the Devils roster today from the 2014-15 season (the year before Shero arrived) are Travis Zajac, Andy Greene, Damon Severson, and goaltenders Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid.

That’s it.

The remainder of the roster has been completely rebuilt through some pretty significant trades that have had a significant impact on changing the short-and long-term outlook of the team.

Since being hired in New Jersey Shero has added Kyle Palmieri, Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson and now Vatanen to the roster while only giving up Henrique, Adam Larsson, Joseph Blandisi, two second-round picks and two third-round picks.

That is a huge gain for the Devils from a production standpoint.

Palmieri has become a 25-goal, 50-point winger with the Devils the past two years and is scoring at that same pace this season when he has been healthy. Johansson, based on his track record in Washington, can offer similar production. Injuries have forced each of them to miss 12 games this season, making the Devils’ start even more impressive.

Hall is one of the NHL’s best left wingers and is currently on track for his best season in the NHL. Vatanen has had a brutal start to the season, but has a history of being a strong top-four defenseman that can provide some much-needed offense from the back end.

Those are significant additions, and while there is always a risk in giving up that many draft picks, second and third rounders tend to be lottery tickets, while all four players the Devils received in return are going to be around for quite some time.

Beyond those additions the most encouraging development for the Devils might be the fact they actually have some young players that are making a significant impact.

Three of their top-four scorers are currently age 23 or younger, including a pair of 19-year-olds.

They had a stroke of luck in the draft lottery this past season when they won the draft lottery and the No. 1 overall pick, landing them Nico Hischier (currently the team’s second-leading scorer).

Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016, has also made an immediate impact while NCAA free agent defenseman Will Butcher has stepped right into the lineup and is the team’s top scoring blueliner.

Of the NHL’s top-10 rookie point producers, three of them are Devils all added to the organization by Shero in the past year.

Before Shero’s arrival in New Jersey the Devils had grown stale, even by Devils standards. They weren’t just the same old boring Devils that didn’t score goals, didn’t play an exciting brand of hockey, and didn’t have any star power, they also weren’t doing any of the winning that made all of that tolerable for their fans.

They desperately needed rebuilt and in a pretty drastic way.

A few big trades, a couple ping pong balls to bounce their way, and an almost completely new roster has put them back on the right track and in a pretty strong position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

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.

The Buzzer: DeBrincat leads Blackhawks comeback; Zucker’s crazy goal streak

Getty
2 Comments

Player of the night: Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks. What made the Chicago Blackhawks a mini-dynasty a few years ago wasn’t just the fact they had a bunch of top-line players and superstar talents. That helped a lot, sure, but it was also the fact they always seemed to have a great complementary cast of players around those superstars. Often times young players on cheap, entry level deals. They might have another one in Alex DeBrincat.

After dominating the Ontario Hockey League the past couple of seasons DeBrincat has made the jump to the NHL this season and is starting to make an impact in the big leagues.

He played perhaps his best game of the season on Saturday night in helping the Blackhawks erase a 3-1 deficit in their 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Debrincat scored two goals to help get the game to overtime then picked up one of the helpers on Brandon Saad‘s game-winning goal.

He now has 10 points in 17 games this season but has been really starting to pick up the pace in recent games with six points in his past six games.

He looks like he might be a steal of a second-round pick. The only reason he was not picked higher is probably the simple fact he is “undersized.”

Highlight of the night.

The Columbus Blue Jackets were 2-1 shootout winners over the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night. They were able to win in the shootout because starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky did this in overtime.

Bonus highlight of the night.

Hey how about one more awesome save. New Jersey Devils defenseman Andy Greene made the second best save of the night, sliding across the goal crease to give his goaltender a helping hand. This turned out to be a huge play because the Devils held on to win by a 2-1 margin.

Factoid of the night.

The Minnesota Wild were 1-0 winners on Saturday night over the Philadelphia Flyers thanks to a goal from forward Jason Zucker, his team-leading ninth of the season.

He has scored six of those goals over the past three games.

Why is that so noteworthy? Because he is the only Minnesota Wild player to score a goal in those three games, scoring each of the team’s past six goals.

Amazingly, the Wild have won two of those games thanks to his goal-scoring and a pair of shutouts from Devan Dubnyk.

Misc.

— No Auston Matthews? No problem for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins on Saturday night was their third in a row without their leading scorer and best player.

— Playing in his first game with the Nashville Predators Kyle Turris scored his first goal with his new team.

Mike Hoffman‘s two goals were the difference in the Ottawa Senators’ 4-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche in Sweden.

Scores

New York Rangers 4, Edmonton Oilers 2

Ottawa Senators 4, Colorado Avalanche 3

New Jersey Devils 2, Florida Panthers 1

Minnesota Wild 1, Philadelphia Flyers 0

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 2, Detroit Red Wings 1

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 1

Montreal Canadiens 2, Buffalo Sabres 1

New Islanders 5, St. Louis Blues 2

Nashville Predators 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 3

San Jose Sharks 5, Vancouver Canucks 0

Winnipeg Jets 4, Arizona Coyotes 1

Celebrate Labor Day by pondering the ‘hardest working’ NHL defensemen

Getty
8 Comments

It’s Labor Day (or Labour Day), so hopefully you’re getting those last summer nights/hot dog grillings out of your system.

(Not just talking to you, Phil Kessel.)

With the holiday in mind, it seems sensible to get into the theme of things and ponder the “hardest working” players in hockey. For the record, these lists are based on stats, so feel free to project your own opinions about hustle/grit/other things that would show up on a John Cena t-shirt.

If nothing else, it’s refreshing to discuss some stats that don’t get as much attention.

Defensemen tend to be some of the biggest workhorses in the sport, so this first post will be devoted to them.

For forwards and goalies, check out this post.

Sheer volume

In maybe the least surprising development imaginable, Ryan Suter continues to stand out as a guy who just logs an inane amount of ice time.

Suter headlines a list of five players who’ve logged at least 8,000 minutes of regular-season ice time from 2013-14 through 2016-17.

1. Suter: 9,201:55
2. Drew Doughty: 8,906:33
3. Erik Karlsson: 8,897:18
4. Shea Weber: 8,116:20
5. Alex Pietrangelo: 8,055:50

(Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Roman Josi are very close behind them.)

Killing penalties is one of the toughest jobs, and it can be a very specialized one. Using the 2013-14 to 2016-17 standard, only one defenseman logged 1,000 penalty minutes. Meanwhile, six players logged at least 900.

1. Andy Greene: 1,115:48
2. Alex Pietrangelo: 996:28
3. Zdeno Chara: 986:38
4. Karl Alzner: 935:08
5. Jay Bouwmeester: 945:03
6. Francois Beauchemin: 900:15

(Big-minute guys Doughty and Weber also ranked up high in penalty killing.)

For a significant defenseman, Pietrangelo carries a considerable workload. Consider how much tougher his role has become over the last few seasons.

2013-14: 52.3 percent offensive zonne starts vs. 47.7 defensive
2014-15: 48.4 offense, 51.6 defense
2015-16: 46.9, 53.1
2016-17: 43.1, 56.9

Pietrangelo still manages to produce offensively, so the 27-year-old is quite the all-around gem.

Gritty leaders

However you feel about certain “grit” stats and how helpful they actually are for a team, it’s easy to admire players who put their bodies on the line.

Using the framework of 2013-14 to 2016-17, Kris Russell easily leads the NHL in blocked shots with 907, even doing so in 277 games while Dan Girardi comes in second place with 719 in 300 contests. Russell blocks a hearty 3.3 shots per game.

It’s easier to understand Girardi slowing down when you consider the bumps and bruises he likely endures. Girardi blocked 719 shots during that span, and he also delivered 690 hits. (Shea Weber is a similar bruiser: 637 blocked shots, 644 hits in 313 games.)

Karl Alzner piles up those grit stats while spending a lot of time on the PK, which is predictable but also commendable.

***

These stats don’t guarantee that the listed defensemen work “harder” than others. Still, it’s easy to get lost in possession stats and other considerations, and lose sight of how much effort goes into the dirty work in hockey.

If you’re bored and hockey-starved on this holiday, consider clicking around the above links to notice certain names that show up consistently. It might give you a greater appreciation for players you otherwise might have dismissed.

After signing with Devils, Will Butcher thinks he is ‘NHL ready’

Getty
5 Comments

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) Will Butcher believes he is ready to play for the New Jersey Devils right now.

A day after signing a two-year, $1.85 million contract with the rebuilding Devils, the 22-year-old Butcher said he was ready to make the jump from being college hockey’s top player to the NHL without a stop in the minor leagues.

Speaking on a conference call, the defenseman said he chose to sign with New Jersey because he felt good after meeting coach John Hynes and he thought the Devils’ up-tempo system best fit his game.

Butcher was drafted in the fifth round by the Colorado Avalanche in 2013 at the Prudential Center – the Devils’ home rink. He became a free agent on Aug. 15 after failing to reach an agreement with Colorado, although the former University of Denver player said he knew by May he intended to test the free agent market.

After meeting with a number of teams, his decision came down to the Devils, Las Vegas, Buffalo and Los Angeles.

“It seemed like a great fit in how I wanted to play, and they saw me being in a better role with what they wanted to do there,” Butcher said of choosing New Jersey. “It kind of reminded me a little bit of how we were going to play with my college hockey.”

Butcher knows there will be competition to make the Devils’ roster with veteran defensemen Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, John Moore and Brian Strait and youngsters Damon Severson, Steven Santini and Mirco Mueller on the roster.

“I think my game is NHL ready,” Butcher said. “I think there is always stuff to learn and to pick up. That’s mostly the reason why I chose New Jersey, because I felt with coach Hynes (there) was the development and how they cater to guys and help you get ready for the NHL game.”

Butcher described himself as an offensive defenseman who can play defense.

“I am definitely more offensive than defensive,” he said. “I try to cater to my game in the sense of making smart decisions with the puck, joining the rush at the right opportunity and using my experience to help me play in the league that I want to play in.”

When asked what players would have a similar style to him he named Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks, Torey Krug of the Bruins and Greene.

“If I was fortunate to make the big team, he would be a great mentor to me, just because he does everything,” Butcher said of Greene. “He penalty kills, power play, all situations. He is a smart player, not necessarily the biggest guy, but he uses his abilities to defend well and play the game of hockey.”

Butcher could also help the Devils’ power play, especially feeding the likes of Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson and newcomer Nico Hischier, the Swiss-born center who was the No. 1 pick in the June draft.

“I might not be the fastest guy or biggest guy out there, but I like to pride myself that I think fast and use my brain to be fast, in a sense that I try to anticipate plays and just try to use my hockey smarts to help me be effective,” Butcher said.

Besides helping Denver win the national championship this past season, Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award as the top collegiate player.

A Wisconsin resident, Butcher had seven goals and a team-high 30 assists in 43 games last season. He had 28 goals and 75 assists for 103 points in 158 games with the Pioneers.