Cory Schneider

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Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

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Even during their championship glory days the New Jersey Devils were never a team known for excitement, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you are winning and competing for the Stanley Cup.

But as the franchise regressed over the past eight years into a pit of mediocrity they were stuck in one of the worst possible positions an NHL team can be in — mediocre and boring.

General manager Ray Shero and his front office have done a ton of work this offseason to fix both of those problems.

They continued their overhaul on Monday by acquiring — and signing — winger Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights for draft picks.

When combined with the acquisition of P.K. Subban, the signing of Wayne Simmonds, the drafting of Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, and what will hopefully be fully healthy seasons from Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier the Devils have dramatically uploaded pretty much everything about the team.

They added impact talent that not only makes them better, but is also going to be worth watching.

They have done all of that without having to give up anything of value from their NHL roster or farm system. It has been the perfect confluence of luck (winning the draft lottery) and timing as the Devils were armed with a ton of salary cap space to help them load up in the ongoing Metropolitan Division arms race this summer.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even with all of the improvements the Devils still have one very big question remaining that will probably make or break what happens with their 2019-20 season.

That question: Goaltending. It has been a thorn for the Devils over the past three years as they have finished 27th, 18th, and 22nd in save percentage during that time.

Veteran Cory Schneider was once of the best goalies in the league, but is entering his age 33 season and has not finished with a save percentage higher than .908 since the 2015-16 season. His .908 mark over the past three combined seasons is 35th out of the 38 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games during that stretch. That is obviously not anywhere near good enough.

Mackenzie Blackwood had a promising debut last season, but with only 23 NHL games under his belt he is still a complete mystery. Especially since he did not really dominate at the American Hockey League level before getting an opportunity with the Devils.

The concern here is that if neither one is able to give the Devils an adequate performance in net it can render all of their offseason additions completely useless. There is no position that dictates what happens with a team more than goaltending. The New York Islanders showed us last season that a great performance in net can take an otherwise average team and turn it into a team that is capable of not only making the playoffs, but going reasonably far. Bad goaltending can completely sink a contender.

The good news for the Devils is that even after all of their additions this summer is that they still have more than $12 million in salary cap space to improve their roster and address their remaining weaknesses. The problem is the free agent pool for goalies is completely dry so any potential improvement (if needed) would have to come by way of trade. The Devils do still have all of their future first-round picks to use as trade chips if needed.

The new additions to the Devils lineup are going to go a long way toward putting the franchise back on the NHL map.

They just need to hope two of their returning players can solidify the most impactful position on the ice to make all of the additions worthwhile.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him to two-year deal
Predators send P.K. Subban to Devils
Devils sign Simmonds to interesting one-year contract

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.

Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey

VANCOUVER — Friday could be a historic day for USA Hockey, and Jack Hughes will likely get the party started.

The projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; livestream) will be only the eighth American to be taken with the first selection in what could be a record-setting Round 1 for the U.S. program.

No more than three players from the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program have been first round selections in previous drafts. There could be as many as seven this year, with Hughes leading the pack. While five NTDP players have been chosen first overall, if Hughes plays in the NHL next season he’ll be the first player to go directly from the program to playing in the NHL.

That achievement is something on the mind of Hughes.

“Yeah, that’s my goal,” Hughes said during Thursday’s top prospects media availability. “I want to be the first player, kind of break a barrier there, that you can go from the program to play in the NHL the following year.”

There were 19 NTDP skaters and goalies on NHL Central Scouting’s final draft rankings this year and there is the potential of a record-setting five U.S.-born players being picked in the top 10. The 22-year-old program has pumped out top players for years, but this U18 class might be its deepest ever, headlined by Hughes.

“The training we do there is second-to-none,” Hughes said. “Our practices, our games, we lift two, three times a week. It’s so competitive. The players you go up against, you’re playing against the best players in the country in your age group on daily basis. When I go into the corner for a puck battle, I have to go against [Matthew] Boldy one time, then I’m going against [Alex] Turcotte the next time, I’m going against [Trevor] Zegras. I think that makes you a better player. 

“It’s a really competitive environment with great people. The coaches treat us unbelievable. Coach [John Wroblewski], he couldn’t have coached us better, [he] treated us really well. Credit to the people that work at the program because they really helped us out.”

[Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

Hughes had an historic NTDP career finishing with a record 228 points in 110 games, surpassing Clayton Keller’s 189 points. Internationally, he repped the U.S. at two U18 World Championships, winning silver and bronze, and led the tournament in scoring both times while earning MVP honors in 2018. He also helped the Americans to silver at 2019 World Junior Championship and played seven games at the World Championship this spring.

That World Championship experience allowed Hughes to play with and against current NHL players, including future New Jersey Devils teammate Cory Schneider and Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who gave the 18-year-old forward high praise by saying, “I think he does a lot of things better than me, to be honest with you.”

“It was unreal for me on the ice, kind of learned some things that I’ll get better at this summer,” Hughes said of his time at the World Championship. “But I think the most important thing was being in a room with guys, learning how to be a pro on a daily basis. Taking things from certain players. I think that was an invaluable experience for me.”

Hockey has been Hughes’ life. His dad Jim was an assistant coach for the Boston Bruins and served as Director of Player Development for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His mom Ellen played at the University of New Hampshire and was on the 1992 U.S. World Championship team that claimed silver. Older brother Quinn plays defense for the Vancouver Canucks and younger brother Luke will play for the U17 NTDP next season and is draft eligible in 2021.

Along with his immediate family, Hughes said there will be about 65 people in attendance Friday night at Rogers Arena to support him. They won’t have to wait long to hear his name called, which will signal the official beginning of his NHL career.

“It’s awesome. It’s right here,” Hughes said. “You look forward to it for so many years. This year it’s kind of in the back of your mind every day. When you close your eyes that’s what you’re thinking about. Now that it’s finally here I’m going to enjoy it and it should be awesome for all my family members and me, too.”

NBC Sports presents live, exclusive coverage of first round of the 2019 NHL Draft this Friday, June 21, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
Dylan Cozens eager to make Yukon hockey history
Kakko ready to make NHL leap next season

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL Draft 2019: Jack Hughes ready for rest after busy year

ST. LOUIS — It’s been a pretty busy year for Jack Hughes as the 2019 NHL Draft approaches (June 21-22; NBCSN).

The projected No. 1 overall pick played 74 games between the USA U-18s and U.S. National Team Development Program, as well as seven games at the U-18 World Championship, four games at the World Junior Championship, and seven more with the senior men’s team at the World Championship. 

After competing at the senior Worlds in Slovakia, Hughes then shuttled off to Buffalo for the NHL Combine last week. On Monday, he was in St. Louis along with four other top draft prospects to attend Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. They were able to meet players from both the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues and enjoy some downtime.

“I think the next couple weeks will be pretty important for me to just relax, play some golf, hang out, decompress a little bit, and just be a kid because come June 21st my life will change a lot,” Hughes said.

The New Jersey Devils own the first pick in the draft and it’s expected that general manager Ray Shero will select the 18-year-old forward. Fellow top prospect Kaapo Kakko, who will likely land with the New York Rangers at No. 2, put on a show for Finland as they won gold at the Worlds last month. The idea that both top picks will be playing not only in the division but the same market excites Hughes.

“I think it’ll be really competitive for a lot of years,” Hughes said. “Whether it’s the Devils or Rangers, we’re going to be linked to each other for a long time with us going to places so close to each other. Maybe a little bit of a rivalry between the Devils and Rangers. I think it’ll be a lot of fun for years to come.”

When asked if the prospect of that rivalry would motivate him, Hughes said he didn’t need any extra motivation while playing against the NHL’s best every night.

“You’re playing Crosby, you’re playing O’Reilly, you’re playing unbelievable players every night,” he said.

Representing Team USA at the Worlds, Hughes, who noted he has a relationship with Taylor Hall, got to meet a likely future teammate in Devils goaltender Cory Schneider and head coach John Hynes. The experience allowed him to get his feet wet playing against pros and players he’ll be lining up across for years to come. 

Hughes, who grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan while his dad, Jim, worked as Director of Player Development, for the team, will join brother Quinn as NHL draftees in just a few weeks. The Vancouver Canucks selected Quinn No. 7 overall last year. In two years, younger brother Luke will likely join them.

The hype and long road to the NHL Draft will end in a little over two weeks. The pressure will only increase once he puts on the jersey of his new team, and Hughes is ready to embrace his next step in hockey as the likely No. 1 pick.

“I think it’ll be special,” Hughes said. “Worked a lot of years for this, so if it does end up being that it’ll be an awesome moment.”

MORE: Jack, Luke, and Quinn Hughes grow up together with hockey

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Canada beats U.S. 3-0 to close preliminary round of worlds

KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Pierre-Luc Dubois scored early to back the shutout goaltending of Matt Murray, sending Canada past the United States 3-0 on Tuesday at the world hockey championship. Both teams already were assured quarterfinal berths and were competing for seeding.

Canada won Group A and will next play Switzerland. The Americans, who had five won straight, will face the high-scoring and undefeated Russians on Thursday. Finland will face Sweden, while the Czech Republic plays Germany in the round of eight.

Kyle Turris also scored in the first period for Canada, beating Cory Schneider, and Turris assisted on Jared McCann‘s goal in the second period.

Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin scored for Russia, which closed out its dominant play in Group B with a 7-3 win over Sweden. Earlier Tuesday, Leon Draisaitl scored tiebreaking and go-ahead goals late in the third period to life Germany to a 4-2 win over Finland in Group A.

The Czech Republic closed the preliminary round with a 5-4 win over Switzerland in Bratislava in Group B, getting one goal and two assists each from Jakub Voracek and Dominik Simon.

In matchups of teams that won’t advance, Latvia beat Norway 4-1 in Group B, and the host Slovaks outlasted Denmark 2-1 in a shootout decided by penalty shots.

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