Kyle Palmieri

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Devils avoid salary arbitration with Will Butcher

New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero has been busy this summer and he took care of some more business on Wednesday morning. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Devils have re-signed restricted free agent defenseman Will Butcher to a three-year deal. The contract carries an annual average value of $3.73 million.

Butcher and the Devils were scheduled to go to salary arbitration on Aug. 2, but that will no longer be necessary.

The 24-year-old just completed his second season with New Jersey. He had five goals and 44 points in 81 games with the Devils in his rookie year but his number came down slightly last year, as he posted four goals and 30 points in 78 contests.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The youngster is an important part of the Devils’ power play, as he picked up 14 points on the man-advantage in 2018-19. Only Kyle Palmieri (18) had more points on the power play than Butcher last season.

Butcher becomes the fifth-highest paid defenseman on his team behind P.K. Subban ($9 million), Andy Greene ($5 million), Sami Vatanen ($4.875 million), and Damon Severson ($4.166 million).

Shero only has one more restricted free agent to get signed before the start of the year and that’s forward Pavel Zacha. After the Butcher signing, the Devils still have $8.715 million in cap space, so they could probably make another move or two if they wanted to.

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.

Where do Hughes, Kakko fit in respective lineups?

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The top two picks from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft have both signed their entry-level contracts. Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko signed his deal with the New York Rangers on Thursday, while American center Jack Hughes inked his contract with the New Jersey earlier this morning.

Barring an injury, both Hughes and Kakko will be in their teams’ respective lineups once the regular season kicks off in October. But how will they fit into those lineups? Will they both get to play an offensive role for their team this year?

Let’s start with Jack Hughes. 

The Devils have to sign restricted free agents Pavel Zacha, Mirco Mueller, Will Butcher and Connor Carrick, so they still have almost $20 million in cap space to do so. Even if they bring every one of those players back, they still have to money to add a quality player or two via free agency (there’s not much left) or via trade.

Currently on their roster, the Devils have Nico Hischier, Zacha and Travis Zajac down the middle. When Taylor Hall was healthy last season, he spent a good chunk of time playing with Hischier, so there’s no reason to believe that those two won’t be reunited again once the training camp starts. That duo could either play with free-agent signing Wayne Simmonds or veteran Kyle Palmieri.

Of all the forwards on the Devils roster, Hischier spent the most time on the ice with Palmieri, so a top line of Hall, Hischier and Palmieri could terrorize opposing teams all season. If head coach John Hynes decides to play those three together, what’s left for Hughes?

Again, assuming they don’t add a major piece to the roster between now and the start of the season, Hughes could end up centering the second line with Wayne Simmonds on one wing. Simmonds isn’t the same player he was a couple of seasons ago but playing a big-bodied veteran who isn’t shy about throwing his weight around next to Hughes could be a good idea.

Playing the 18-year-old on a second line would also allow him to get “easier” matchups, as teams will likely focus their energy on stopping the top three offensive weapons.

Hughes will also certainly contribute on the power play, as he has the speed and offensive instincts to be a difference maker in that area right away.

The Devils have been conservative with Hischier’s ice time in his first three seasons (he’s averaged 16:19, 18:23, and 18:06). Will they automatically give Hughes 20-plus minutes per game? That’s unlikely. But Hughes might be more NHL-ready than Hischier was at the same age. So don’t be surprised if he’s somewhere in the 17 to 19-minute range when his first year is over.

How about Kappo Kakko?

Well Kakko’s adjustment to the NHL might be a little smoother because he’s probably going to break into the league as a winger. Playing at this level at 18 years old is never easy, but the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about the defensive responsibilities of playing center should help facilitate offense.

The Rangers have made some improvements to their roster this summer. Their biggest splash came in free agency, as they were able to sign Russian forward Artemi Panarin to a long-term contract. Panarin, who immediately becomes the best winger on the roster, could line up next to Mikka Zibanejad, who is the best center on the team. Head coach David Quinn could add Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich to that line, or he could also place Kakko there depending on how aggressive they want to be with their prized rookie.

After Zibanejad, the Rangers are extremely young down the middle. Brett Howden and Lias Anderson are 21 and 20 respectively, and they’ll be leaned on heavily to contribute offensively this season. But do the Rangers really want to line up a rookie with another young player trying to learn how to play center? Probably not.

So there’s a very real chance that Kakko could get quality even-strength minutes next to Zibanejad and Panarin. If that doesn’t end up happening, he’ll likely play with a young center and a veteran like Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich.

Like Hughes, Kakko will see a good amount of time on the power play. The 18-year-old has put up points at every level which says a lot about his offensive upside. Giving him added time and space on the man-advantage could make his first year a season to remember.

We should witness a great battle for the Calder Trophy this season.

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.

Devils should go bold, and not just to keep Taylor Hall

Winning an NHL Draft Lottery should attach a rocket to your team’s hopes, especially when you land that top overall pick even though you don’t have the best odds.

Yet, Taylor Hall‘s been here plenty of times before, so forgive him for not looking at a draft lottery win as a cure-all. Instead, through his time seeing the Edmonton Oilers, and now the New Jersey Devils, landing unexpected No. 1 overall picks, Hall’s name has been associated more with memes (also: “the trade is one for one”) than with being one of the best wingers in the NHL.

The one-time Hart Trophy winner couldn’t help but lean into the jokes himself after the Devils landed the top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft:

No rush on extension

The Fourth Period’s Dave Pagnotta created a stir with a report that mentioned that “as of now,” Hall isn’t interested in signing a contract extension with the Devils, which he would be able to do by July.

Hall, 27, addressed the rumblings, telling The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required) that he’s confused that it would be such big news that he’s simply not in a rush to sign an extension. Hall’s agent and Devils GM Ray Shero made the same general points about there being no real rush to NHL.com’s Mike Morreale.

“We never really looked at July 1 as a deadline and Ray hasn’t looked at it like that either,” Hall said to Basu.

One key point people emphasized from Pagnotta’s report, either way, is the phrasing “as of now.”

In a way, you almost wonder if a light bulb was going off over Taylor Hall’s head as he watched Kawhi Leonard’s situation play out with the Toronto Raptors. Despite being an excellent scorer and player basically since his first NHL game, Hall’s only been to the playoffs once, and that was thanks to his Herculean Hart season where he dragged the Devils into the 2018-19 postseason. Why shouldn’t Hall wait and see if the Devils can actually contend before signing away his rights to hit the open market? As Hall’s agent Darren Ferris mentioned, some players only get one chance to truly sign the contract they want with the team they want to play for – without the artificial bindings of RFA status, and without the aging curve limiting their demands. Hall deserves to explore his options as much as just about anyone else, so it only makes sense that the Devils would need to be really convincing to lock him up for what would could be the rest of his prime.

Got to be smart to take advantage of being lucky

The thing is … the Devils should be aggressive to improve, even if Hall’s $6M cap hit wasn’t expiring after 2019-20.

While Hall’s Oilers blundered despite winning multiple draft lotteries, the Devils should view Jack Hughes’ or Kaapo Kakko’s rookie deal as a window of sorts. You can compete beyond that potential three-year entry-level contract, but you’ll never enjoy savings like these again with whoever the Devils pick first overall on June 21.

Consider that:

  • The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup of their current era (in 2008-09) when Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal were in the final year of their rookie contracts, and made it to the previous Stanley Cup Final in the last year of Sidney Crosby‘s rookie deal.
  • The Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup of their run (in 2009-10) during the final year of rookie contracts for both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Toronto Maple Leafs could still compete for years thanks to the bounty of talent they’ve accrued, yet the 2018-19 stings a bit extra because it represents the end of those rookie contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

So, really, the Devils have two directives to get aggressive during this offseason. First, adding more talent can show Taylor Hall that they’re serious about competing, after Shero’s (wisely) taken the slow-and-steady approach before. Secondly, with Jack Hughes/Kaapo Kakko, the Devils could have a difference-maker on a limited contract for three seasons.

A ton of cap space for Devils

While the Devils have a lot to work on – this post from January lays out big issues for their rebuild, including goaltending – Ray Shero has plenty of ammo to use if he wants to be bold. Which, again, the Devils should be, what with that top overall pick and the need to woo Hall.

As you can see from their Cap Friendly page, the Devils have a ton of cap space to work with, as they have an estimated $35.6M in space with 14 roster spots covered. Will Butcher is really the only truly prominent free agent to deal with, although Devils fans might interject with a Stefan Noesen or two.

Yes, Shero must be cognizant of future decisions. Along with Hall being up after 2019-20, Nico Hischier only has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, Sami Vatanen is also entering a contract year, and Kyle Palmieri‘s bargain $4.65M cap hit expires after 2020-21.

But, for the most part, the Devils boast as close to a clean slate as you can hope for in the modern salary cap era, and now is the time to really start taking advantage.

Trades, free agency … offer sheets?

While the free agent route is fascinating and more straightforward (is Newark close enough to New York for Artemi Panarin?), Shero can also get creative.

The Devils have three second-rounders and two third-rounders to go with their normal choices in the 2019 NHL Draft, so Shero could use those picks to swing trades for roster players or try to move up in the draft.

Maybe just as tantalizingly, the Devils’ bounty of 2019 NHL Draft picks could also make them more comfortable with the idea of forking over picks to go the offer sheet route. What if the Devils presented Hall with the opportunity to play with, say, Hughes/Kaakko, Hischier, and Mitch Marner or Brayden Point in the future?

Admittedly, offer sheets are a “believe it when you see it” proposition in the risk-averse NHL. Still, the Devils are one of the teams that are best situated to make such a move, as they have the cap space, the urgency to improve, and the requisite picks to hand over a challenging offer sheet.

(All About the Jersey’s CJ Turturo has a fantastic deep dive on offer sheets and how they relate to the Devils, which also understandably emphasizes that it’s an unlikely route.)

***

Don’t get me wrong; it makes sense that Devils fans might feel a little frightened here. There’s the nightmare scenario where Hall leaves the Devils for nothing, much like what happened with John Tavares and the Devils’ buddies on Long Island.

But, really, this situation should give the Devils another push to be aggressive – and maybe even creative – to get better, fast. Even if Hall isn’t a part of the longer solution, the Devils were gifted with the No. 1 pick, and should take advantage of the significant competitive advantage you can enjoy in competing while key players are on entry-level contracts.

If that aggressiveness impresses Hall enough to stay, then it’s all gravy … or sauce.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Devils sign GM Shero to multi-year extension

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The 2018-19 season turned out to be a massive disappointment for the New Jersey Devils.

After returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago on the back of an MVP season from Taylor Hall, the Devils badly regressed this season and finished with the league’s third-worst record. Even with that fall in the standings, Devils ownership obviously still believes in the job general manager Ray Shero is doing and announced on Monday that the team has signed him to a multi-year contract extension.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed by the team, but Shero will get the opportunity to continue putting his stamp on the team for the foreseeable future. He has been the Devils’ GM since 2015, leading the team to one postseason appearance in four years.

His most significant additions with the team over the past four years include Kyle Palmieri, Sami Vatanen, using the No. 1 pick on Nico Hischier and, most importantly, the trade that landed them Hall from the Edmonton Oilers prior to the 2016-17 season.

Hall’s injury, which limited him to just 33 games this season, was one of the big factors in the Devils’ disappointing year.

Shero’s two big orders of business in the short-term will be working out a new long-term contract for Hall as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract, and also adding to the depth around him.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For as good as Hall is, and for as much as he carried the team to the playoffs a year ago, he alone is not going to be enough to get the Devils back to the postseason and make them a formidable threat in the Eastern Conference. Even with him the team has flaws offensively, and we saw what happened this season when he is not always available.

One area where he might get some help is if the Devils get a little bit of luck in the draft lottery. They have the third best odds (11.5 percent) of landing the No. 1 overall pick.

Related: NHL 2019 Draft Lottery odds and top prospects

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.

Pondering Taylor Hall’s future with Devils after knee surgery

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The New Jersey Devils announced that Taylor Hall underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee this week. This part of the release indicates that he’s not certain to miss the remainder of the 2018-19 season, although it would be surprising if the Devils risked aggravating his issues with no chance of a postseason run:

Hall will begin rehabilitation immediately and will be evaluated regularly by the medical and training staffs throughout the rehabilitative process. Over the next few weeks, a timeline for his return to play will be guided by his progress. Updates on his status will be given when available.

The Athletic’s Corey Masisak notes that Hall’s been hampered for much of this season with the injury, as he had already been forced to miss 31 games.

Obviously, much of this is bad news. Hall’s so explosive that some wanted to nickname him “cannonball,” so it would be a shame if the 27-year-old loses a step or two following knee surgery.

Overall, though, this seems to be the wise decision.

There are plenty of cases where a player will allow an injury to linger before getting surgery. Sometimes those calls are made during the summer, possibly pushing recovery into the next season.

By going under the knife now, Hall increases his chances of beginning the 2019-20 season at full health. With the Devils firmly planted at third-to-last in the East this season, it makes little sense to rush Hall back to action, and New Jersey would only increase its draft lottery odds by losing a lot down the stretch. That’s certainly more likely with the reigning Hart Trophy winner on the shelf.

It’s also worth noting that Hall is scheduled to enter his contract year in 2019-20, seeing his bargain $6 million cap hit expire.

The Devils could sign Hall to an extension as early as this July, but that might be an oversimplification.

After languishing through years of struggles with the Edmonton Oilers, Hall spearheaded that unexpected run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the Devils remain in a murky place. GM Ray Shero deserves credit for not overreacting to that surprise run by mortgaging the future, but the bottom line is that he still has a lot of work to do to make the Devils a true contender. Would Hall be willing to wait things out and trust that the Devils can make the right moves? Perhaps the Devils might flinch at possibly going into the $10M+ range with Hall?

A lot hinges on what happens with Hall, and there could be ripple effects through the Devils’ roster.

Sami Vatanen and Nico Hischier will see their contracts expire after 2019-20, too. Kyle Palmieri is a bargain at $4.65M, but that won’t last forever, as his deal ends after 2020-21.

Knowing what the future holds with Hall could illuminate decisions like what to do with Vatanen, and also might push the Devils in certain directions. Their goaltending situation is fraught, but Hall’s likely presence or absence might also influence what kind of resources the Devils would want to invest in improving that situation. If you have a building block like Hall in place, maybe you go bold in seeking Sergei Bobrovsky, or a cheaper veteran. If not, you’re probably looking for cheaper, younger solutions.

It’s all a lot to take in, whichever way Hall leans. The situation would be even tougher to manage if Hall was hobbling through the rest of this season, so it makes sense to hopefully mend his knee, and focus on patching up the future.

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.