Marcus Johansson

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Where it all went wrong for Ray Shero and the Devils

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The New Jersey Devils fired general manager Ray Shero over the weekend, ending his four-and-a-half year run with the team.

On the surface, it’s not hard to see why the decision was made. Given the circumstances, it was inevitable.

The Devils have been a massive disappointment this season after a huge offseason, and were on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Shero’s watch. Not many general managers are going to make it through that sort of run unscathed. Especially when you consider how high expectations were in the preseason after the additions of top pick Jack Hughes and the acquisitions of Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds.

So where did it all go wrong for Shero and the Devils?

We should start with the very beginning.

1. Shero inherited a mess

While the lack of progress is the thing that will stand out in the wake of the change, it can not be understated how bad of a situation Shero walked into when he was hired by the Devils in May of 2015.

The Devils were coming off of a 2014-15 season where they had one of the worst records in the league, had missed the playoffs three years in a row, had a barren farm system, and had what was by far the oldest roster in the league.

Things were bleak. Very bleak.

Consider…

  • Seven of the top-12 scorers on the 2014-15 season were age 32 or older. Five of them were out of the NHL completely within two years.
  • Of the 35 players that appeared in a game that season, 18 of them were out of the NHL within the next two years.
  • Only two players on the team recorded more than 40 points, and nobody scored more than 43.

It was a team of fringe NHL players that were not only not very good, but were on their way out of the league.

Combine that with a mostly empty farm system and there wasn’t a lot to build on.

He had to start from the ground level and try to build a contender out of nothing. That was always going to take time.

2. The trades always seemed to look good on paper…

… But the timing and the luck was never on the Devils’ side.

Given the lack of quality talent on the NHL roster, Shero had to work quick to bring in talent from outside the organization. And when you break down his individual trades, he almost always seemed to come out on the winning side of them.

Getting Kyle Palmieri for a couple of draft picks was a steal.

He pounced on the Capitals’ salary cap crunch and picked up Marcus Johansson for two draft picks.

Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall was one of the biggest one-for-one steals in recent league memory.

The same thing happened this summer when he managed to get Subban and Gusev for next to nothing. Combined with a pair of No. 1 overall draft picks (Nico Hischier and Hughes) and there was a huge influx of talent on paper over the past couple of years.

But for one reason or another, the results never followed.

For as promising of an addition as Johansson was, his time with the Devils was ruined by injuries that prevented him from ever making an extended impact.

Subban and Simmonds were big-name pickups this summer, but it has become increasingly clear as the season has gone on that he got them at the end of their careers.

There was even some bad luck with Hall when he lost almost the entire 2018-19 season to injury.

3. Cory Schneider rapidly declined, and the Devils never adjusted in goal

This might be the single biggest factor in the Devils’ lack of progress under Shero.

When he joined the Devils he had one franchise cornerstone that he could build around, and that was starting goalie Cory Schneider. And he was a legit building block.

Coming off the 2014-15 season Schneider was one of the best goalies in the league. Between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 seasons he owned the best save percentage in the NHL (minimum 100 games played) and was just beginning a long-term contract that was going to keep him in New Jersey for the next seven seasons.

He was also still at an age where his career shouldn’t have been in danger of falling off. But after one more elite season in 2015-16, Schneider’s career did exactly that. It fell apart.  After his 30th birthday Schneider went into a sudden and rapid decline that sunk him to the bottom tier of NHL starting goalies.

This is where Shero’s biggest failing in New Jersey came into play. He never found a goalie to replace Schneider. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season, and the play of their goalies this season has been one of the biggest factors in their disappointing performance.

Shero’s tenure with the Devils is a fascinating one to look at from a distance. He inherited a team that had absolutely nothing to build around and tried to swing for the fences with some big additions over the years. He made a lot of the right moves and brought in legitimate top-line talent. But some bad injury luck (Johansson; Hall a year ago), a couple of star players declining (Schneider, Subban), and his inability to make the one big move that he needed (a goalie) helped hold back what started as a promising season. The 2019-20 season ended up being one losing season too many for the Devils.

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.

Matthews’ incredible goal highlights Maple Leafs win: 3 takeaways

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The Toronto Maple Leafs held off a late rally from the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night to pick up a 5-3 win to continue their recent surge.

Toronto has now won four out of five and is 8-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe. The win also moved the Maple Leafs into a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division as they jump ahead of the Florida Panthers.

Let’s take a look at three quick takeaways from the Maple Leafs’ win.

1. It was the Auston Matthews show

Matthews scored a pair of goals for the Maple Leafs to help them jump out to a 4-1 lead. His second goal is the one that stole the show as he dangled through the Buffalo defense to score this beauty.

With his two goals on Tuesday he now has 21 through the first 35 games of the season. That is a 49-goal pace over 82 games, and the best goal-per-game average his career. He has scored at a 40-goal pace in each of his first three seasons but outside of his rookie year has never been able to play enough games to hit the mark.

Now he has a real shot at 50 goals if he stays healthy.

2. Jack Eichel kept his point streak going

The bright spot for the Sabres is the fact that Eichel continued his point streak with a goal and an assist.

He has now recorded at least one point in 17 consecutive games. He also has multiple points in seven out of the past 10 games. Eichel has been the Sabres’ best player from the moment he arrived and has seen his game reach an entirely new level this season. He is playing at an MVP level and is doing everything he can to drag this team to a playoff spot.

Actually getting this team to the playoffs is going to be a real challenge, however, especially as Toronto and Tampa Bay keep gaining ground. After Tuesday’s games the Lightning now have a better points percentage than the Sabres, while Toronto is just one point back with the same number of games played.

3. Toronto’s depth players also came through

It wasn’t just the superstars making an impact for the Maple Leafs.

The fourth line started the night with an early goal when Frederik Gauthier scored his fourth goal of the season just a few minutes into the game. That line would add a second goal later in the game when Gauthier set up Dmytro Timashov‘s third goal of the season.

The Sabres had an opportunity to tie the game in the closing minutes with a late power play, but a Marcus Johansson turnover at the blue line — with a tired power play unit on the ice — resulted in a Ilya Mikheyev empty-net goal to secure the win for Toronto.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Devils should clean house; Could Hall go back to Oilers?

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Bruins are the best team in the NHL right now, but their fortunes may change soon enough. (Sportsnet)

• The NHLPA is covering up a theft of over $100,000 union funds. (TSN)

• The Devils should clean house after this season. (All About the Jersey)

Marcus Johansson is frustrated by the struggles he’s been having this season. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Snoop Dogg is making an appearance in the NHL 20 video game. (Operation Sports)

• How has Sheldon Keefe changed the Maple Leafs? (The Score)

• There’s a few reasons why the Flyers had so much success in November. (Yahoo)

• The Edmonton Oilers are interested in Taylor Hall, but they will probably be outbid. (Edmonton Journal)

• The St. Louis Blues are gaining strength through injury adversity. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• The Habs have lost nine of their last 10 games. Is it time for them to rebuild? (Spector’s Hockey)

• What is the true value of a fifth-round draft pick? (Japers Rink)

• Gus Katsaros explains how defensemen are evolving with the times. (Rotoworld)

• The Red Wings are looking to have fun during this tough stretch. (MLive)

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.

Sabres’ Dahlin out indefinitely with a concussion

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One day after the NHL Department of Player Safety suspended Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak two games for elbowing Rasmus Dahlin, the Sabres announced the sophomore defenseman will be out indefinitely with a concussion.

During Monday’s 5-2 Lightning win, Cernak, who is first-time offender, caught Dahlin with an elbow to the head that went unpenalized. In their suspension video, the DoPS said that Tampa argued that it was the Sabres defenseman’s glove that drove Cernak’s elbow into his face. That did not change any minds about what happened.

This is the second injury sustained by a Sabres player due to the actions of a member of the Lightning. Earlier this month Vladimir Sobotka suffered a lower-body injury after a hit by Nikita Kucherov during one of their Global Series games in Sweden. Sobotka is out 4-6 weeks after knee surgery. Kucherov was not penalized or suspended for the hit.

Losing Dahlin is not what the Sabres need at the moment. Currently 2-8-2 in their last 12 games, they face the Flames Wednesday night and then have a weekend home-and-home with the Maple Leafs. Another strong early season start has once again developed into a free fall. It wasn’t long ago that they began the season with a 9-2-1 record. Injuries have hit the lineup hard with Kyle Okposo and Marcus Johansson among the names currently sidelined.

MORE: Cernak suspended two games

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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.

What’s gone wrong for the Sabres?

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Exactly one year ago the Buffalo Sabres were in the middle of a 10-game winning streak that would catapult them to the top of the NHL standings. Expectations were increasing, excitement was building, and at the very least it seemed as if the team had at least banked enough points in the standings that their playoff drought would finally come to an end, barring some sort of unspeakably bad collapse.

Then the unspeakably bad collapse happened.

They responded with another coaching change (their fifth in eight years), re-signed Jeff Skinner, made a few tweaks to the roster, and roared out of the gate this season by winning eight of their first 10 games and once again gave their fans a brief glimpse of hope.

It has, once again, been all downhill ever since.

The Sabres enter Monday’s game against Boston having won just two of their previous 11 games (the two wins were against Ottawa and Detroit) and are facing a pretty grueling six-game stretch that has them play Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay, Calgary, and Toronto (twice). There are a lot of divisional games there which means things can swing pretty dramatically in either direction in a very short period of time. Pick up a few wins, and the season can still be salvaged. Lose, and things can start heading down a very disappointing path.

The problem a year ago is that the Sabres’ fast start was the result of a lot of good luck and a lot of smoke and mirrors. Almost every game on the 10-game winning streak was decided by a single goal and required overtime or a shootout. The underlying numbers as a team were poor and it seemed like a team just waiting to collapse on itself.

Let’s take a look at what’s gone wrong this season.

They just don’t have enough offense

Jack Eichel is one of the best players in the league, while Jeff Skinner and Sam Reinhart are solid complementary players at the top of the lineup. That trio has combined to score 13 of the team’s 22 goals over the past 11 games, meaning the rest of the team is doing almost nothing, and some of the numbers are pretty jarring.

Take Casey Mittelstadt, for example. The No. 8 overall pick from 2017 is in his second full season in the league and is supposed to be a long-term core building block. He has been a complete non-factor this season offensively, entering play on Monday with just three goals and only 21 shots on goal in 21 games. He has just five shots on goal over the team’s 11-game slide and has been held without a shot in seven of those games.

Marcus Johansson was one of the team’s offseason additions and got off to a strong start with four goals and seven total points in his first nine games. He has been sidelined for the past two weeks, but even before he went out of the lineup his offense had completely disappeared with only five shots in his final eight games. Six of those games resulted in no shots on goal.

There are 33 forwards in the NHL with at least 15 games played this season and averaging one shot on goal or less per game — four of those 33 players play for the Sabres. You can not score goals that way.

Rasmus Dahlin‘s sophomore struggles

The league’s reigning rookie of the year is actually ahead of his scoring pace from a year ago (at least as far as assists are concerned) but every other aspect of his game has seemingly taken a small step back. He even found himself benched in a recent game. Dahlin is one of the most important players in the Sabres’ organization because of the potential he has and the role he is expected to play. If he becomes the player he was projected to be entering the league he could be the type of defensemen that can significantly change a team’s fortune. During his rookie year he looked like he was on his way to being that player. There is no reason to be overly concerned that he still won’t get there, but he’s definitely going through some growing pains. And since the Sabres don’t have another defender that possesses his skill or potential, if he’s not dominating games from the blue line, no one will.

This simply might be all they are capable of

The biggest issue with the Sabres isn’t necessarily “what’s gone recently,” but rather “what if this this is as good as they are?”

What is the identity of this team? What does it do well?

Even though Eichel has met his pre-draft expectations and become a top-line player, there is not much help around him to make this a good offensive team unless the power play dominates. The power play was hot at the start of the year, but has cooled off considerably since.

They are not great defensively unless they get outstanding goaltending, and everything about their 5-on-5 play points to a mediocre (to maybe even bad) team. They rank 14th in shot attempt differential at even-strength, and sit among the bottom-six in scoring chance, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals (all via Natural Stat Trick), while owning an even goal differential (39 for, 39 against). Nothing stands out about them, and that has to be the most frustrating thing for Sabres fans as they go through what could be a ninth consecutive year of this.

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.