NBC Sports

PHT’s 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Preview

2 Comments

(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Central Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

The Metropolitan Division produced the Stanley Cup champion for the third season in a row, yet you couldn’t call it a familiar sight.

After decades of heartbreak as a franchise and a decade of heartbreak for signature star Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals finally did it. After seeing their Presidents Trophy run end and “only” winning the Metro, the Capitals won their first-ever title. Fittingly, they ended up needing to get through the Penguins, a team that’s crushed their dreams multiple times in the past. In hindsight, it HAD to happen that way.

Five Metro teams ended up making the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the surprising Devils, persistent-if-frustrated Blue Jackets, and rising Flyers joining the Capitals and Penguins. Few would bat an eye if the division once again sent a maximum of five squads to the postseason in 2018-19, although the cast of characters could change.

This post winds through the ups, downs, dreams, and fears for all eight teams.

CAROLINA HURRICANES:

Better or worse?: Oh dear, that’s a loaded question.

One thing’s for sure: they’re different. They changed their coach and GM, so we’ll see if Rod Brind’Amour can maintain the possession-happy ways that partially explain why the Hurricanes have frequently been go-to dark horse candidates. (Here’s hoping that “Rod the Bod” is more progressive and modern than “Team Grit” and “Team Grind” would indicate.)

They’re also wildly different on the ice, with the biggest tweaks being Dougie Hamilton, Petr Mrazek, and Andrei Svechnikov joining the mix while Jeff Skinner, Cam Ward, Noah Hanifin, and Elias Lindholm are out of town.

Let’s lean toward better because, frankly, it’s tough to imagine their goaltending declining from last year’s season-sinking mess.

Strengths: Hamilton and free agent signing Calvin de Haan bolster a defense that already ranked among the deepest in the NHL. That’s especially true if the Hurricanes hang onto Justin Faulk, even if Brind’Amour will need to juggle to get everyone proper ice time. (Most other NHL GMs are sarcastically playing the world’s smallest violin.)

Beyond defense, Carolina boasts a ton of youth, and Svechnikov only strengthens that point.

Weaknesses: Goaltending, duh.

Mrazek didn’t exactly stop every puck that came his way after being traded from Detroit to Philadelphia, and while he showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his best Red Wings days are moving further away in the rearview mirror. Mrazek and Scott Darling could be OK, yet they don’t exactly inspire utmost confidence.

Also, while that offense has some pieces, it’s fair to wonder if there are enough gamebreakers. Trading away Skinner did not help.

2017-18 Highlight: The team kindly collects the best of last season in this clip.

MVP Candidate: Hamilton may put on an exhibition that will make him the guy in Carolina, but let’s bet on Aho, who led the team in scoring last season and is just 21 years old. Aho isn’t a household name, yet if you turn on a Hurricanes game, he’ll likely be the player who captivates you.

Playoffs or Lottery?: As “fool me once” as this feels, Carolina leans closer to the playoffs. No, this is not a recording; yes, it will be tough for them with plenty of other viable teams in the East. Whether they actually make it or not, Carolina is much more likely to be in the bubble than in the cellar this season.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

Better or worse?: Worse, in some ways for matters that are out of their hands. The uncertainty surrounding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky – two enormously important players – hangs over Columbus like a dark cloud. If one or both gets traded away, you can move this from a soft worse to a hard worse.

Strengths: Zach Werenski and Seth Jones might comprise the NHL’s most dazzling young defensive duo, and if they continue progressing in this current direction, you might not need the young caveat much longer.

Also, the Blue Jackets currently have a high-end forward (Panarin) and a Vezina-quality goalie (Bob). Currently.

Weaknesses: It could all come crashing down if they move Bob and Bread. We can all acknowledge that Pierre Luc-Dubois was a success as a rookie, but how good is he really if he doesn’t have one of the world’s most explosive wingers helping him out? They might need to go back to a rat-like mentality if they lose their stars.

2017-18 Highlight: If this John Tortorella medley isn’t enough, enjoy that awesome Artemi Panarin overtime game-winner from the Capitals series.

MVP Candidate: Panarin and/or Bob if one or both stays. If not, Seth Jones was really drumming up Norris Trophy buzz, although he’d need to fight off his buddy Zach, who’s generally an even more explosive scorer.

Playoffs or Lottery?: It’s easy to forget that the Blue Jackets generated 108 points in 2016-17, and were quite potent with 97 last season. They haven’t met their goals during the postseason yet, but they’ve been a force during regular seasons. Of course, losing their stars could warp that outlook …

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

Better or worse?: If you’re comparing them to the team that made the playoffs, they’re worse, as they lost rentals (Patrick Maroon and Michael Grabner) along with defenseman John Moore.

Generally speaking, they’ve mostly just stayed in place, but call it a step back.

Strengths: Taylor Hall faces long odds in producing back-to-back Hart Trophy seasons, but he’s a spectacular winger who absorbed a comically outsized array of abuse during his Edmonton days. Hall is awesome, and the Devils have some other nice forwards, including Nico Hischier, who immediately backed up his status as the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. Kudos to New Jersey for embracing its strengths on offense last season, and there’s little reason to expect them to turn away from what worked.

Weaknesses: Cory Schneider was basically in a crisis in 2017-18, and it’s not as if that defense is really equipped to bail him out. The Devils’ forward group has some other nice pieces (especially if Marcus Johansson can get healthy), yet they still ask Hall to pull off one too many miracles.

2017-18 Highlight: All Hail Hall.

MVP Candidate: Uh, duh, the reigning MVP.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Last year, it was a no-brainer to be lottery, and then the Devils made a stunning run to a playoff berth. GM Ray Shero deserves some credit for not overreacting and messing things up by adding a bunch of short-term investments, but New Jersey is unlikely to walk that tightrope again. They’re closer to lottery fodder heading into 2018-19.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS:

Better or worse?: (Laughs awkwardly.)

Strengths: Mathew Barzal should soothe some of the John Tavares-related wounds, as he is a splendid scoring wizard of a sophomore. Sure, it will be tough to ask him to top or match last season, especially with a lot more pressure on his shoulders and far more attention from opposing defenses. Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, and Nick Leddy provide the sort of offensive spark that might make the Islanders fun to watch, at times.

Also, Barry Trotz could help clean up that disastrous defense.

Weaknesses: Good grief, that defense was horrendous last season, and the goaltending couldn’t clean up matters, either. Both stand as likely problems heading into 2018-19, although improvements are easy to imagine simply because the bar is so long. Unfortunately, no Tavares means that their offense is weaker by a face of the franchise-sized margin.

2017-18 Highlight: The Islanders might as well put up a Barzal billboard.

MVP Candidate: Sorry to heap all of these expectations on you, Barzal, but there’s no other choice. The 21-year-old scored 85 points in 82 games last season, and who’s to say that isn’t just the tip of the iceberg?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, by a mile. On the bright side, the Islanders hit it out of the park during the 2018 NHL Draft, and could very well land another blue chipper in 2019. Jack Hughes could look really nice as a one-two punch with Barzal, eh?

NEW YORK RANGERS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet by design. Management acknowledged that a rebuild is in motion. The fascinating question is: how long will they commit to that plan? What happens if Artemi Panarin really does heart New York?

Strengths: If there’s one person who can derail a Rangers’ tanking attempt, it’s Henrik Lundqvist, even at age 36. They aren’t totally bereft of talent, either, with Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Mats Zuccarello coming to mind. Kevin Shattenkirk might deserve a mulligan after last season’s injury issues. Also, David Quinn could be a huge upgrade over Alain Vigneault, for all we know. (Plenty of Rangers fans almost wanted to co-opt their rivals’ “Yes!” chant right there.)

Weaknesses: That defense is a tire fire inside a Dumpster fire transported by a train wreck. Holy smokes. Also, Lundqvist may indeed be feeling his age and all of that past hockey mileage, and the offense is unlikely to hang with other explosive groups in the Metro. So, let’s broadly say “lots.”

2017-18 Highlight: Pavel Buchnevich made a fan’s day last season.

MVP Candidate: If anyone’s even in the realm of Hart chatter, it has to be King Henrik. Even Rangers management might root against that, consider New York’s eyeing of the basement.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Lottery, and expect the Rangers to chase more chances at first-round picks. Could they trade Zuccarello? Maybe the question is actually, “Who won’t they trade?”

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

Better or worse?: The glorious return of James van Riemsdyk gives a boost to a power play that already consistently ranked among the NHL’s most terrifying groups. Considering how Nolan Patrick ended last season, it wouldn’t be surprising if he made a nice jump – if not leap – this season, too.

Strengths: Remember that bit about Columbus’ defensive duo? Philly readers might have been yelling at their screens while eating decadent sandwiches (seriously, I need to get to Philly one of these days). Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere are right up there with the best young duos in the NHL. With Claude Giroux revamped last season, Sean Couturier climbing the Selke ranks, and other scorers looking promising – opponents can’t be happy that Travis Konecny blew up once the calendar turned 2018 – this offense should be potent.

It sure seems like GM Ron Hextall’s vision is coming into focus, and it’s a sight for sore eyes.

Weaknesses: Head coach Dave Hakstol isn’t exactly beloved by Flyers fans, so that’s something to watch if Philly stumbles out of the gate.

Brian Elliott tends to play best when people count him out, and all three of Philly’s potential goalies should have motivation (contract years for Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, Carter Hart wanting to prove himself as NHL goalie now). Still, goaltending is the eternal question for the Flyers, and this year probably won’t disappoint.

2017-18 Highlight: Giroux clinched a Flyers playoff spot in style.

MVP Candidate: Giroux crossed the triple-digit barrier for the first time last season, collecting a whopping 102 points. If he can avoid the erosion of age – he turned 30 in January – then the Flyers captain could be in the Hart discussion once again.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. Considering the young players Philly boasts, it’s not outrageous to daydream about exponential growth for the Flyers. If they see more baby steps than leaps, they’re still likely to at least be in the bubble.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Better or worse?: While there were smaller moves, you can boil down Pittsburgh’s summer to giving up valuable forward Conor Sheary to make room for ( … polarizing?) defenseman Jack Johnson. The Penguins are resolute that Johnson is a great fit, but they’re making a dangerous leap of faith.

On one hand, Matt Murray is likely to enjoy a better season, and the hope is that Kris Letang will be healthier. On the other, this team’s getting older; considering how star-dependent this team can be, any slippage from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could really sting.

Strengths: Still, those stars.

Crosby and Malkin remain among the cream of the crop. All of the drama around Phil Kessel really distracts from the remarkable feat he accomplished in 2017-18, setting a new career-high with 92 points, including 34 goals.

This team has a lot of weapons, and a coach willing to actually deploy them. It’s plausible that Derick Brassard will rebound during a contract year, too.

Weaknesses: This Penguins team gives up almost as much as it produces, and that puts a heavy burden on Murray. If Brassard and others can’t get it together, Pittsburgh will continue to ask the world of their world-beaters. In a team sport like hockey, that frequently translates to asking too much.

2017-18 Highlight: Last season felt like an elaborate MLB tryout for number 87.

MVP Candidate: The Penguins remain a pick your poison proposition: will Crosby be the top star this year, or will Makin snatch the crown? Despite playing four fewer games in 2017-18, Malkin generated 98 points to Crosby’s 89. Sometimes it’s as simple as which superstar center enjoys the most help. In that regard, did you know that Jake Guentzel is entering a contract year?

Playoffs or Lottery?: Playoffs. This team’s managed to clinch berths even during seasons when multiple star players miss huge chunks of time due to injury. The Penguins remain all-in, and the window to contend remains open. We’ll see if they can put it all together.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

Better or worse?: Worse, yet not to the extreme that plenty of championship teams encounter. They managed to bring back key pieces of their magical curse-breaking Stanley Cup run, with John Carlson‘s re-signing ranking as arguably the biggest surprise. They didn’t even break the bank with depth players, generally speaking, as many championship teams do. That Michal Kempny deal was remarkably reasonable.

Then again, they did give Tom Wilson a gobsmacking amount of money, and Barry Trotz is out. Also, they killed untold number of brain cells celebrating their epic victory …

Strengths: The Capitals feature the many building blocks of a juggernaut. Alex Ovechkin is the high-end sniper. They have a great one-two punch of centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, while their supporting cast features a nice veteran (T.J. Oshie) and intriguing young scorers such as Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky. For all the worries about Todd Reirden taking over for Trotz, he might be more willing to unleash Vrana and Burakovsky. The defense has some nice pieces, and Braden Holtby shook off a tough regular season to remind us why he’s one of the league’s most reliably great goaltenders.

There just aren’t a lot of holes on this team.

Weaknesses: Reirden’s never been a head coach, and he’s facing a huge challenge in trying to repeat. Like the Penguins, the Capitals aren’t ancient, yet Father Time is at least hovering as a threat, at least when it comes to competing at the highest levels. With Philipp Grubauer in Colorado, Washington may not have much of a safety net if Holtby once again falters.

2017-18 Highlight: Pick your favorite.

MVP Candidate: People expect Ovechkin to stagger through the first few months of the season after knocking the biggest, silver item off of his bucket list, and understandably so.

On the other hand, he’s Alex Ovechkin. Despite playing a physical style where he receives and delivers a raucous number of hits, Ovechkin’s managed to play almost every game possible. Ovechkin’s played in far more games than Crosby (1,003 to 864) despite his rambunctious style.

What I’m trying to say is that Ovechkin is nigh-indestructible. This Russian Machine May Not Break.

Playoffs or Lottery?: Most seasons, it’s more reasonable to merely wonder if the Capitals will win the Presidents’ Trophy, or just their division. With a coaching change, less certainty at backup, creeping age, and the Stanley Cup hangover, maybe the Capitals will relinquish the Metro crown. Regardless, they still have the tools for a playoff berth.

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.

Taylor Hall not expecting complacency from Devils after playoff return

Getty Images
1 Comment

CHICAGO — We see it often in sports. A team has a successful season and enters the next year believing the same magic will happen again. One team that will be interesting to watch during the 2018-19 NHL season is the New Jersey Devils. After making a 27-point jump in the standings, they reached the postseason for the first time since 2012.

General manager Ray Shero made few changes to his roster, but they will get a healthy Cory Schneider back in net after Keith Kinkaid helped vault the Devils into playoff contention while the No. 1 was out injured. 

After a taste of the playoffs, Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall is eager to get going again and is confident that last season wasn’t a fluke.

“It’s easy to get complacent with us making the playoffs last year, but I don’t really see that with our group,” Hall told Pro Hockey Talk during the NHL Player Media Tour on Thursday. “We have a really hard-working group of guys and a lot of guys that are still playing for a lot — whether that’s contracts and their future and everything like that. I’m looking forward to seeing if our young guys can take a step and really lead our team. If we can stay healthy, that’s probably the biggest thing for every team in the league, is just staying healthy — if we can do that we’ll be fine.”

In his third season behind the Devils’ bench head coach John Hynes pushed the right buttons and got help from Hall’s MVP play to get his team to the postseason. The additions of Marcus Johansson, Sami Vatanen, Brian Boyle and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier were the ingredients that meshed well with the coach’s system and resulted in a winning season.

Hall credits his career year to his relationship with Hynes.

“I think he’s a guy that gets a lot from me, personally. He knows how to motivate me and knows what to say and what not to say,” he said. “For our group, he did a great job for us last year. It wasn’t just in the games coaching, it was off the ice, dictating how hard our practices were, how often we practiced, his messages to the team, how he wanted us to play. I think that really culminated into us having a successful season. He’s a coach that I have a great relationship with and I’m looking forward to seeing him.”

As the Devils surged up the Metropolitan Division standings, Hall went on an offensive tear, ripping off a 26-game point streak, something he believes may not happen again. He would finish with 39 goals and 93 points, both career highs, and become the first player in franchise history to win the Hart Trophy.

Like the Devils as team, Hall is confident he can remain at the level he reached last season.

“As far as being as successful player, a successful offensive player, I have no doubt that I can do that again this season for the Devils and I’m excited to see what happens,” he said.

MORE PHT DEVILS COVERAGE:
Under Pressure: Cory Schneider
Three questions facing the Devils

————

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 Team Previews: Examining past, present, future

Getty Images
1 Comment

Throughout the month of August we examined different aspects of all 31 NHL teams. We looked back at their 2017-18 season, took a dip in their prospect pool, pointed out a player/coach/executive under pressure, highlighted a player coming off a breakthrough season, and asked questions about the future.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback on each post. Below are links to every team day post from the last month to get you ready for the 2018-19 campaign. Training camps open in two weeks!

2017-18 REVIEW
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks 
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

UNDER PRESSURE
Jake Allen
Mike Babcock
Jim Benning
Bruce Boudreau
Scott Darling
Pierre Dorion
John Gibson
Connor Hellebuyck
Mike Hoffman

Carter Hutton
Jack Johnson
Evander Kane

Jarmo Kekalainen
Ilya Kovalchuk
Dylan Larkin
Robin Lehner
Nathan MacKinnon
Joel Quenneville
Carey Price
Antti Raanta
Tuukka Rask
Todd Reirden
Pekka Rinne
Cory Schneider
Tyler Seguin
Kevin Shattenkirk
Cam Talbot
Tomas Tatar
Brad Treliving
James van Riemsdyk
Steve Yzerman

Getty Images

BUILDING OFF A BREAKTHROUGH
Mathew Barzal
Brock Boeser
Pavel Buchnevich
Thomas Chabot
Kyle Connor
Evgenii Dadonov

Alex DeBrincat
Jake DeBrusk
Travis Dermott
Pierre-Luc Dubois
Matt Dumba

Vince Dunn
Radek Faksa
Kevin Fiala

Brendan Gallagher
Noah Hanifin
Nico Hischier
William Karlsson
Ondrej Kase
Clayton Keller
Adrian Kempe
Travis Konecny
Anthony Mantha
Timo Meier
Darnell Nurse
Jamie Oleksiak
Brayden Point
Mikko Rantanen
Sam Reinhart
Teuvo Teravainen
Tom Wilson

THREE QUESTIONS
Anaheim Ducks
Arizona Coyotes
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Calgary Flames
Carolina Hurricanes
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Columbus Blue Jackets
Dallas Stars
Detroit Red Wings
Edmonton Oilers
Florida Panthers
Los Angeles Kings
Minnesota Wild
Montreal Canadiens
Nashville Predators
New Jersey Devils
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Ottawa Senators
Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins
San Jose Sharks
St. Louis Blues
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
Vancouver Canucks
Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals
Winnipeg Jets

MORE:
Where should Jonathan Toews rank among NHL’s top centers?
Q&A: Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar
Back issue makes Henrik Zetterberg’s future ‘real unknown’
Panthers do one thing about as well as anyone in the NHL
Expect huge year from Max Pacioretty no matter where he plays
Rangers could once again be active in trade market
Will Sidney Crosby win another scoring title in his career?
Sabres’ Eichel focuses on keeping fiery emotions in check
• Maple Leafs should be NHL’s best offensive team

————

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.

Under Pressure: Cory Schneider

Getty Images
6 Comments

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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Statistically speaking, last season was Cory Schneider‘s worst as a professional hockey goaltender, usurping the previous year of his then-worst numbers as a netminder in the NHL.

That’s an unfortunate trend for a goalie with four years left on a seven-year, $42 million contract and someone who the Devils have placed a lot of faith in to be a rock behind a team that’s gone the youth direction in front of him..930

Schneider caught the injury bug in a bad way last season. After starting off the year posting good numbers, he plummeted after Christmas, forced to miss weeks with a lower-body injury.

In that time, Keith Kinkaid emerged as a capable replacement to Schneider. Kinkaid played so well, in fact, that he took the starter’s job from the $6 million man until relinquishing it in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Kinkaid’s play was pivotal down the stretch and helped the Devils win a fierce battle for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Schneider didn’t win a regular season game in 2018, losing all 10 games he started with a 0-9-1 record. It was only after he took over from Kinkaid following the latter’s struggles in the playoffs that Schneider bounced back, posting a .950 save percentage in the games he played against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

To be fair to both goalies, the Devils offered no run support in the postseason, but Schneider showed well and perhaps looked as if he finally out his regular season in the rearview.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

Offseason surgery could play a factor as well.

Schneider revealed that he had been playing with a bothersome hip injury for more than a year, one that got fixed after he went under the knife in May.

“It was something that had kind of cropped maybe a year and a half ago, a season and a half ago,” Schneider said on the Devils All-Access Podcast. “It’s just something that nags and it there, but you don’t ever feel like it’s bad enough that you need to sit out for six months, because there’s no real good time to do it, unfortunately.”

Schneider is questionable for training camp as well as the opening of the regular season with a five-month recovery timeframe.

A fully healthy Schneider is an elite goaltender in the NHL and worth every penny of his large contract. If Schneider can bounce back from a couple of bad years with injuries, the Devils could be in very good shape given what they were able to do last season despite not having him.

They need him to. The team is moving in the right direction, providing Schneider doesn’t continue to move backward.


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

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

Getty Images
3 Comments

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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

[Under Pressure | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

2017-18:

44-29-9, 97 pts. (5th Metropolitan Division; 8th Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost 4-1 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, second round

IN:

Eric Gryba

OUT:

Michael Grabner
Patrick Maroon
Jimmy Hayes
Brian Gibbons
Christoph Bertschy
John Moore
Ken Appleby
Drew Stafford

RE-SIGNED:

Blake Coleman
Stefan Noesen
Steven Santini
Nick Lappin

The New Jersey Devils took a nice step in the right direction last season.

Gifted with some luck even before the season started, the Devils jumped from fifth to first in the draft lottery and selected Nico Hischier with the pick.

From there, the team battled through adversity in the form of a mid-season trade of a fan favorite, an oft-injured starting goalie and the heat of the playoff chase down the stretch.

And at the end of it, New Jersey made it to the playoffs, returning to the promised land for the first time since they lost in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final to the Los Angeles Kings and they did so on the back of a Hart Trophy-winning season by Taylor Hall, who put the Devils on his back with a 26-game point streak that began on Jan. 2 and carried right on their the beginning of March.

Hischier also rose to the occasion, playing in all 82 games last season and finished second in team scoring with 20 goals and 52 points.

That’s a good year in most books, especially given New Jersey’s recent drought come spring.

The Devils weren’t without fault, however.

There was a large disparity in scoring. Hall finished with 93 points, and the next closest, Hischier, finished a distant 41 points adrift. Third-best ended with 44 points, a 49-gap, and only three players on the team had 20 or more goals, leaving the Devils in the middle of the pack in terms of goals-for as a team.

The Devils shuffled the deck in November, sending Adam Henrique to Anaheim in exchange for Sami Vatanen. The deal filled the needs of both teams at the time. Vatanen, in just 57 games, finished sixth on the team in scoring, but the Devils missed Henrique’s production, especially in the playoffs where they managed just 2.4 goals per game.

A slow offseason means the Devils will continue to drink from their fountain of youth (they have 11 players 25 years of age or younger), and Jesper Bratt shouldn’t be forgotten amongst the Hischiers and the Halls of the team.

Bratt had 13 goals and 35 points during his rookie season last year and the Devils will hope he can take the next step this coming year.

A healthy Marcus Johansson, who was limited to just 29 games due to a bevy of injuries, will also give the roster a shot in the arm, offensively.

New Jersey can tie a lot of it together with a bounce-back year from Cory Schneider in goal. Schneider battled injury and inconsistent play, not winning a game in 2018 until he surfaced in the playoffs.

Schneider is the starter, no doubt. He’s making $6 million a season and has four years left on his deal. His save percentage has gone from .908 in 2016-17 to .907 last year.

It goes without saying, but the Devils need him back to his best, such as the numbers he displayed in 2015-16 with a .924.

Prospect Pool:

• Ty Smith, D, 18, Spokane Chiefs (WHL) – 2018 first-round pick

Smith took a big step in the Western Hockey League last season with 14 goals and 59 assists in 69 games, more than doubling his numbers from his rookie season. His play helped him to the 17th spot in the draft where the Devils took him. He prides himself on his skating ability and is a future stalwart in New Jersey’s rearguard if he continues to progress.

Michael McLeod, C, 20, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL) – 2016 first-round pick

Big — he’s 6-foot-2 — and has the ability to move his feet very quickly. McLeod was only slowed last season by an injury at the beginning of the year. He was still able to put up 16 goals and 44 points with the Steelheads in 38 games and had four points in seven games at the world juniors, helping Canada to gold. The Devils haven’t added much on forward this offseason, so a good showing in camp could help McLeod onto the opening night roster.

• John Quenneville, C, 22, Binghamton Devils (AHL) – 2014 first-round pick

Quenneville, like McLeod, will have a shot at making the big club out of camp. The 22-year-old produced another solid year in the AHL with 34 points in 43 games and has the ability to play on either wing as well as his natural center positon, which will only help his chances come the fall.


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