Mirco Mueller

What is the Devils’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the New Jersey Devils.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

With Taylor Hall and Blake Coleman now playing elsewhere, the Devils’ long-term outlook is in the hands of recent No. 1 overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.

The Devils thought so highly of Hischier’s development — and potential — that they signed him to a seven-year, $50 million contract that pretty much makes him the new face of the franchise. While his offensive numbers may not be eye-popping, there is a lot to be said for a 21-year-old forward that’s already established himself as a 55-60 point player while also playing a complete two-way game.

Hughes is the player that has the big-time offensive upside.

Beyond those two, Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev are very productive top-six wingers and would make an impact on any contending team. The problem, though, is that both players are unrestricted free agents after next season, and while the Devils should have the salary cap space to retain them if they wanted to, it is worth wondering if such a long-term investment would be wise, especially when it comes to Palmieri who will be 31 years old when his next contract begins.

P.K. Subban has the biggest salary cap hit on the roster, carrying a $9 million salary for each of the next two seasons.

Damon Severson and Will Butcher are also signed long-term on the blue line.

Goaltending was a question mark at the start of the season, but MacKenzie Blackwood has had a very promising start to his career (.916 save percentage in his first two years, well above the league average) and is still only 23 years old.

Long-Term Needs

When you have missed the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons and been one of the league’s worst teams over the past two seasons there are obviously a lot of long-term needs.

Goaltending has been the big Achilles Heel recently due to Cory Schneider‘s decline, but Blackwood has shown a ton of promise and provided some optimism that he could be the long-term solution. But they still lack depth behind him in the short-and long-term.

The addition of Subban was supposed to give them a top-pairing, No. 1 defenseman to lead their blue line, but he will be 31 next season, is in the middle of the worst season of his career, and has almost certainly already played his best hockey. They not only need depth on their blue line, they need somebody to be a difference-maker.

Will Butcher is an underrated player while Ty Smith has a ton of potential, but there are more questions than answers when it comes to the long-term outlook of the blue line.

The other big need is that they need Hughes to be the superstar, franchise player they hope he can be.

Long-Term Strengths

You can not win in the NHL or compete for the Stanley Cup without impact players. The best place to get impact players is at the top of the draft. Fortunately for the Devils they have two of the past three No. 1 overall picks playing for them.

They may not be superstars quite yet, but Hischier is on track to being an outstanding player while Hughes is still only 19 years old and full of potential. Do not even think about writing him off just because he struggled at times as an 18-year-old.

Along with those two, the Devils are looking at the possibility of having three first-round picks in the 2020 class, including their own lottery pick. The other two picks are conditional as a result of the Taylor Hall trade (Arizona) and Blake Coleman trade (Tampa Bay, which sent Vancouver’s pick to New Jersey). The Arizona pick is top-three protected, while the pick from the Coleman trade will move to 2021 if the Canucks miss the playoffs this season. Still, those are a lot of quality assets — and potentially another very high pick — to add to the Hischier and Hughes core.

The Devils also have very few long-term commitments at the moment and as a result have a ton of salary cap space to work with. That could help with the potential re-signings of Palmieri and/or Gusev, as well as adding pieces around their new young core Hischier, Hughes, Butcher, and Blackwood.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils
Devils biggest surprises and disappointments so far 

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: Zucker finding rhythm with Penguins; Kreider’s trade value soaring

Jason Zucker #16 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second goal
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Three Stars

1) Jason Zucker, Pittsburgh Penguins

Sidney Crosby has always excelled when one of his wingers could skate like the wind. General manager Jim Rutherford tried to capitalize on this strategy and acquired Jason Zucker to fill the void. The winger cashed in twice in the Penguins’ 4-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens, while Crosby assisted on both tallies. If Zucker thrives on Crosby’s wing, his contract will start to look like a bargain for the next couple of years. The Penguins have survived an extraordinary amount of injuries this season, but Zucker’s emergence would provide a necessary boost.

2) Chris Kreider, New York Rangers

On one hand, Jeff Gorton has to be pleased that Kreider is acting as his own salesman ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline. However, the thought of trading a premium talent instead of re-signing the forward is dangerous for any general manager. Kreider picked up a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York collected its fourth consecutive win. The Blueshirts are not ready to take the next step but the upcoming decision about Kreider could shape the next few years in a positive or negative way.

3) Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets came up one goal short against the San Jose Sharks Friday, but Connor’s second-period tally was a thing of beauty. The 23-year-old received a pass to the left of the Shark’s goaltender then slid the puck and his stick between his legs to even the game at 1-1. Connor is one goal shy of scoring 30 for the third consecutive season and continues to be one of the more underrated forwards in the NHL. The Jets will continue to rely on their high-powered offense as they look to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race.

Highlights of the Night

Described above, Connor stole the show with this impressive maneuver.

Nikita Gusev stepped around Jaccob Slavin and Travis Zajac set up Mirco Mueller for the easy tap-in.

Kreider scored the go-ahead goal when he hammered a one-timer from the slot.

Stats of the Night

Scores

New York Rangers 3, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
San Jose Sharks 3, Winnipeg Jets 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Montreal Canadiens 1
Carolina Hurricanes 5, New Jersey Devils 2


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

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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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.

2018-19
31-41-10, 74 pts. (8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Jack Hughes
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Nikita Gusev
Connor Carrick
John Hayden

OUT
Kurtis Gabriel
Brian Boyle
Keith Kinkaid
Ben Lovejoy
Kenny Agostino
Stefan Noesen
Drew Stafford
Eric Gryba
Eddie Lack

RE-SIGNED
Will Butcher
Mirco Mueller

2018-19 season review

Season grade: F
Offseason grade: A+

Yes, it appears it can all change that quickly for some teams.

Much like the Florida Panthers, who I wrote about last week, the New Jersey Devils can rest easy knowing that last season is going to feel like a distant memory after the summer Ray Shero and Co. put together.

The Devils were very bad last season, so bad that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they were rewarded (thanks to a bit of luck) with the first-overall pick back in June.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

They came into the draft lottery with the third-best odds but moved up to spots for the honor of selecting Jack Hughes.

They then shook up the hockey world, dropping a massive trade bomb on the second day of the draft as they acquired P.K. Subban to fortify their blue line.

Getting Hughes and Subban in the same weekend helped take the sting off a poor season where they couldn’t score much and couldn’t stop the puck a whole lot at the other end of the ice.

Just two players cracked the 20-goal plateau, only one player hit 50 points and their goaltending was abysmal. It didn’t help that Taylor Hall was limited to just 33 games because of injury and then there were the rumors of his long-term future not being in Newark.

Some of those questions still remain, especially between the pipes, but there’s a reason for optimism after such a big summer.

Aside from Hughes and Subban, the Devils also added some grit in Wayne Simmonds. It’s a one-year ‘prove it’ sort of deal that will keep Simmonds hungry as he goes searching for a longer-term deal next offseason.

And they added a player some consider the best who wasn’t playing in the NHL in Nikita Gusev, a former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick who was then signed by the Golden Knights last year and then traded to New Jersey in July.

A lot of good has happened since the Devils played their final regular-season game of 2018-19. They’ve had to keep up in an arms race across the Hudson River as the New York Rangers took Kaapo Kakko right after New Jersey took Hughes and added Artemi Panarin in free agency and signed Jacob Trouba to a long-term deal.

Either way, gone should be the days where the Devils aren’t considered a perennial playoff contender.

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

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.

With Hughes in Devils camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — With Jack Hughes in the New Jersey Devils’ development camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith.

Hughes was the No. 1 overall selection in the draft last month and much is expected of the playmaking center. It’s almost certain he will be on the Devils’ roster when the regular season opens in October and the packed-crowd at the team’s training rink in the Prudential Center roared on Wednesday when he was introduced before a four-team, 3-on-3 competition.

Much like the other three dozen young players at the weeklong gathering, the 19-year-old Smith received polite applause.

What people tend to forget is Smith was the Devils’ first-round pick a year ago – 17th overall – and he nearly made the roster after a tremendous training camp.

A year later, Smith may be ready to take that next step. The puck-moving defenseman has added about 8 pounds since last year and he is coming off a great season in the Western Hockey League. He had seven goals and a career-high 62 assists, the second-highest single-season total in league history.

Devils coach John Hynes said Smith appears to have matured in the past year, noting his body is thicker and he looks fit.

”He is not a wide-eyed kid here that is taking everything in for the first time,” Hynes said of the WHL defenseman of the year. ”It’s the second time he is coming into the culture of what we are doing. He sees the needs and knows what you are talking about. He seems a lot more confident. I don’t want to say on a mission, but he seems a little more focused as opposed to taking everything in for the first time.”

Hynes expects Smith to be a motivated player when training camp starts in September.

Smith will be trying to break into a veteran defensive unit. It’s led by captain Andy Greene and recently acquired Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick are returning from last season’s team.

Despite being a little bigger and stronger, Smith doesn’t believe he has lost any quickness or agility.

”I like to get the puck and give the puck to the forwards,” Smith said. ”My dad always tells me ‘Get the puck to the skill and then support it.’ They’ll make the play and then join the rush in the second wave and create offense.”

Smith refuses to speculate when he will play in the NHL. He saw action in the preseason last season and was sent back for another year of junior hockey, helping the Chiefs get to the semifinal round of the WHL playoffs.

”I feel confident in myself, that I can play,” he said. ”Whenever the Devils want me to. It’s up to them. I have to be the best I can possibly be and come out and compete, compete for a job. It’s not easy to make the NHL. It’s up to them.”

NOTES: Hughes’ team won the 3-on-3 competition, posting a 1-0 win over a squad that included Joey Anderson, his roommate for the camp and a player who saw some time with the Devils last season. … Xavier Bernard, a fourth-round pick in 2018, had the only goal in the deciding game. Akira Schmid, a Swiss native who was a fifth-round pick last year, had the shutout.

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