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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.

Who needs a fresh start in 2019?

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New Year’s Day is right around the corner, so naturally many of us have already started thinking about our resolutions. Maybe you want to get into better shape, eat better, expand your knowledge on a certain topic, spend less time on your phone, or something totally different.

Hockey people and teams are just like us. They need a reset, too. So who’s most looking forward to Jan. 1 in the NHL?

Corey Crawford – Chicago Blackhawks: It’s been a really tough year for the Blackhawks netminder. The 34-year-old played in just 28 games last season because of a concussion. He managed to return to the lineup in October, but he’s now sidelined by another concussion. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, and you have to wonder if the end is near for the veteran. We hope 2019 brings a lot more health to Crawford and we hope to see him back on the ice really soon.

Eugene Melnyk and the Ottawa Senators: It’s been a bad 12 months for the owner of the Sens. This snowball started rolling downhill last December, when he mentioned the possibility of relocating and it’s just gotten worse and worse for his franchise. Hopefully 2019 is filled with a lot less drama for Melnyk, GM Pierre Dorion and the rest of the Senators organization. From the situation between Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman to Uber-gate, the Sens were the organization that kept on giving when it came to headlines. But even we have to acknowledge that this is getting ridiculous. All the best in 2019, Ottawa.

Peter Chiarelli – Edmonton Oilers: Do I really have to explain this one? Chiarelli tried shuffling the duck with a pair of trades over the weekend, but that won’t calm the waters in Edmonton. He absolutely needs to push the right buttons so that his team can get their season back on the rails as soon as possible. The Oilers are still only four points out of a Wild Card spot, but they’re also just six points away from last place in the West.

Kyle Okposo – Buffalo Sabres: Okposo has failed to pick up a single point since late November. That’s right. He hasn’t scored or picked up an assist at all during the month of December. 14 games without any production is a long time for any player, especially one that makes $6 million per year. Okposo also had a significant injury scare last year, when he battled a concussion.

Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov – Philadelphia Flyers: After making the playoffs last season, the Flyers were expected to be back in the postseason this year, too. Unfortunately for them, things haven’t panned out that way. Goaltending has always been an issue for them, but in-zone coverage hasn’t been great either. They definitely expected more from their two young defenders. If this dynamic duo doesn’t figure things out soon, the Flyers will be watching the playoffs on television.

Dallas Stars: Alright, team president Jim Lites made some serious comments regarding Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s time for the Stars to live up to their potential. They may not be the deepest teams, but there’s no denying that there’s talent on that roster. They all just need to regroup and find a way to grab one of playoff spots at their disposal.

William Nylander – Toronto Maple Leafs: Nylander didn’t report to training camp this year and he also sat out until December because of a contract dispute. Since his return to the lineup, he’s picked up just two assists in 11 games, and they both came in the same game. We know how talented the 22-year-old is, now he just needs to get up to speed with the rest of his teammates. All he needs is a little more time.

Karl Alzner – Montreal Canadiens: After signing a lucrative free-agent contract in the summer of 2017, Alzner found himself as a healthy scratch pretty regularly in the first half of the season. Then, to make matters even worse, the Canadiens assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Laval. Alzner has since been recalled, but he still doesn’t appear to fit in his team’s plans. A fresh start somewhere else may help him, but he’s just not built for this new NHL.

James Neal – Calgary Flames: Neal decided to leave Vegas to join Calgary on July 1st, but that decision is looking shockingly bad right now. The Flames gave the veteran winger a five-year, $28.75 million deal this summer, only to watch it blow up in their face so far. Neal has three goals and four assists in 38 games, and he hasn’t scored since Nov. 1 (24 games). Although he got a fresh start in Calgary a few months ago, it sure looks like he needs another one.

Tuukka Rask – Boston Bruins: The 2018-19 season has been a tough one for Rask. Not only did he have to leave the team for personal reasons earlier this year, he also hasn’t been very good on the ice. The Bruins made a nice move when they signed Jarolsav Halak last summer, but there’s no way they expected him to play as often as he has. Rask has to find a way to be more consistent if the Bruins are going to make a serious push in April and May.

Cory Schneider – New Jersey Devils: Not many NHLers had a worse calendar year than Schneider. Not only did he deal with some significant injuries, he also went all of 2018 without recording a victory, as he went 0-14-2 in 17 starts. Keith Kinkaid has done a nice job for the Devils, but they need their starting goaltender to play a much higher level.

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

The Buzzer: Barkov gets first-career hat trick; MacKinnon and Co. dominate

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Three stars

1. Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers

It takes something special these days to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs. They simply can score at will when they want to.

Barkov’s hat trick, then, was that special moment. He helped the Panthers get out to a 1-0 lead, put them ahead 3-2 in the third and then when Toronto forced overtime, it was Barkov once again to save the day, scoring on an incredible backhand deke for the win.

Not bad for a first-career hatty.

2. Daniel Sprong, Anaheim Ducks

Sprong scored to tie the game 1-1 in the first and then scored 1:19 into overtime to help the Ducks down the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1.

Sprong now has three goals in five games with the Ducks since joining Anaheim in a trade from the Penguins earlier this month. The Ducks have won three straight.

3. Nathan MacKinnon (and Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog), Colorado Avalanche

MacKinnon had a four-point night (one goal, three assists). Rantanen had two goals and a helper and Landeskog had two tallies of his own. That’s nine points for that line.

MacKinnon and Rantanen now have 50-plus points apiece and they led the Avs to a 6-4 win against the stubborn Dallas Stars.

The best line in hockey does it again.

Other notable performances: 

  • Alex Ovechkin scored again (and notched the shootout winner). He’s now got a 14-game point streak (extending a career high) and a six-game goal-scoring streak (one shy of a career high set in 2005-06). He’s got 29 goals in 32 games.
  • Claude Julien earned his 600th career win as a bench boss in the NHL as the Canadiens won 5-2 against the Ottawa Senators.
  • Tyler Seguin did his best to try and help the Stars, scoring twice an adding an assist against the Avs.
  • John Gibson kept his Vezina-caliber season going with 36 saves for the Ducks. He’s won three straight and has a .927 save percentage this season.
  • Keith Kinkaid (27 saves) and Juuse Saros (33 saves) had a nice little goaltending duel going. Saros ended up winning in the sixth round of the shootout.
  • 13 Vancouver Canucks had a point in their romp of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Highlights of the night

Barkov’s OT winner and hat-trick goal:

Obliteration:

Barzal breaking ankles:

Nice release:

Factoids

Scores

Flames 2, Wild 1

Canadiens 5, Senators 2

Panthers 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT)

Islanders 4, Red Wings 3 (SO)

Penguins 4, Kings 3 (OT)

Capitals 4, Sabres 3 (SO)

Ducks 2, Blue Jackets (OT)

Predators 2, Devils 1 (SO)

Avalanche 6, Stars 4

Canucks 5, Flyers 1


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

The Buzzer: Boedker shines in Karlsson’s return; Weber’s big game

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Three Stars

1. Mikkel Boedker, Ottawa Senators. It was a big day in Ottawa as Erik Karlsson, one of the best players (arguably the best) to ever wear a Senators uniform returned for the first time as a visitor. In the end, it was Mikkel Boedker that ended up stealing the spotlight on Saturday with a four-point effort in the Senators’ 6-2 win over Karlsson and the Sharks. The Senators acquired Boedker over the summer in their other big trade with the Sharks when they sent Mike Hoffman to San Jose as part of their ongoing rebuild. His performance on Saturday snapped what had been a four-game point-less streak and was just his third multi-point game of the season.

2. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens. He has only played two games this season but Shea Weber has already made a huge impact on the ice for the Montreal Canadiens. After recording 25 minutes, 13 total shot attempts, and an assist in his 2018-19 debut, he had an even better game on Saturday night by scoring a pair of goals in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers. That win snapped a five-game losing streak for the Canadiens.

3. Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes. The Arizona Coyotes won their third consecutive game on Saturday night by crushing the St. Louis Blues, 6-1. Clayton Keller was the big star in this one with a goal and two assists, one of which was an absolute beauty to set up Alex Goligoski. One of the NHL’s top rookies a year ago, Keller is now up to eight goals and 10 assists in his first 25 games this season. With a 12-11-2 record the Coyotes are significantly ahead of where they were at this time a season ago. They did not win their 12th game of the 2017-18 season until Jan. 22, so there are definitely big steps being taken in Arizona.

Other big performances on Saturday

— The New York Islanders made quite a return to the Nassau Coliseum on Saturday by rallying from a two-goal deficit to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2. After allowing the Blue Jackets to jump out to a 2-0 lead, the Islanders scored two goals during a five-minute stretch in the second period to tie the game, setting the stage for a Casey Cizikas game-winner in the third period.

— Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Andrew MacDonald is not really known for his offense but he recorded three assists in their 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

— Starting goalie Ben Bishop returned to the lineup and stopped 24 out of 25 shots in the Dallas Stars’ 2-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

— With Wililam Nylander finally signed to a six-year contract and Auston Matthews back in the lineup we are about to see the firepower of a fully armed and operational Toronto Maple Leafs team. They were 5-3 winners against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night with Matthews scoring his 13th goal of the season. He is averaging a goal per game this season and is now up to 20 total points. He has four points (including three goals) in two games since returning to the lineup.

Gustav Nyquist had a goal and two assists for the Detroit Red Wings in their 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins.

Mikko Koskinen improved to 8-2-1 for the Edmonton Oilers with a 31-save effort against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Highlights of the Night

The Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils played one of the best overtime periods of the season on Saturday night. Keith Kinkaid made some incredible saves for the Devils, but Mark Scheifele made the play of the game when he stole the puck from Nico Hischier, collected his own rebound, and scored the game-winning goal.

Connor McDavid played big minutes and scored another highlight reel goal as the Edmonton Oilers improved to 4-1-1 under new coach Ken Hitchcock.

Factoids

Brayden Point scored his 19th goal of the season to complete a huge comeback for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was also his 15th game-winning goal since the start of the 2017-18 season. No one in the NHL has more since then.

The Nashville Predators had quite the start on Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. It was another tough game for the Blackhawks, and especially defenseman Duncan Keith as he was ejected and assessed 27 penalty minutes in only four minutes of ice-time.

 

Scores

Ottawa Senators 6, San Jose Sharks 2

Dallas Stars 2, Vancouver Canucks 1

Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Detroit Red Wings 4, Boston Bruins 2

Montreal Canadiens 5, New York Rangers 2

Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Florida Panthers 4 (OT)

Winnipeg Jets 4, New Jersey Devils 3 (OT)

New York Islanders 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 2

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2

Arizona Coyotes 6, St. Louis Blues 1

Nashville Predators 5, Chicago Blackhawks 2

Edmonton Oilers 2, Vegas Golden Knights 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Point’s 91 second hat trick; Kinkaid ties NHL-lead with third shutout

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Three stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

Three goals in 91 seconds, all on the power play. What a night and what a way to score your first career hat trick.

Point becomes the second fastest player to score three goals on the power play after the late, great Jean Beliveau (he did it in 44 seconds back in 1955). He also now ranks sixth all-time in terms of the fastest hat-trick.

Point also shot up the goal-scoring rankings for this season, now sitting in a tie for third place with 12 goals. Oh, and the Lightning bested the Penguins 4-3 to boot.

2. Anthony Beauvillier, New York Islanders

Beauvillier scored his first career hat trick and added an assist in 7-5 Islanders win against the New York Rangers.

Beauvillier had just one goal coming into the game and no assists. His first apple of the season came on Leo Komarov‘s third-period goal, which stood as the game winner.

Perhaps Thursday’s game will get Beauvillier going again. He had 21 goals in 71 games last season but had just one tally through 16 games entering Thursday.

3. Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils

The man known as ‘Blockaid’ on Twitter lived up to his handle on Thursday night, steering aside all 29 shots he faced from the Philadelphia Flyers in a 3-0 win.

Kinkaid is now tied for the NHL lead in shutouts at three with Marc-Andre Fleury. It wasn’t just a standard, run-of-the-mill night for Kinkaid, either. As you will see below, Kinkaid had to pull out a miraculous save to preserve the goose egg.

Other notable performances

  • Nikita Kucherov assisted on all three of Point’s goals.
  • Patric Hornqvist was great for the Penguins, scoring a brace and adding an assist in a losing effort.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 34-of-35 in a 2-1 win for the Ottawa Senators at home to Detroit, including shutting the door on two penalty shots within seconds of each other.
  • Michael Grabner scored his league-leading fourth shorty of the year and the 10th of the season for the Coyotes. The league record for more shorthanded goals in a season is 36. Arizona is well on their way to eclipsing that.
  • Speaking of Arizona, Darcy Kuemper was a bloody stud on Thursday, stopping 44-of-45 shots he faced — a new career high — in a 2-1 win against the Nashville Predators. Twelve of his saves came on on the penalty kill and he took a penalty himself for good measure.
  • Mikko Koivu was gifted a goal and added two helpers as the Minnesota Wild ran over the Vancouver Canucks 6-2.
  • Cary Price made 43 saves to help the Montreal Canadiens to a 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames.
  • Mitch Marner assisted on the game-winner and then put the game to bed with his sixth of the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs prevailed in a 5-3 win against the San Jose Sharks.

Highlights of the night

Kinkaid’s shutout-preserving save:

Point’s hatty:

Beauvillier’s hatty:

You always remember your first time:

Factoids

Scores

Islanders 7, Rangers 5

Devils 3, Flyers 0

Lightning 4, Penguins 3

Blue Jackets 7, Panthers 3

Senators 2, Red Wings 1

Wild 6, Canucks 2

Canadiens 3, Flames 2

Coyotes 2, Predators 1

Maple Leafs 5, Sharks 3


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