Nikita Gusev

A night of ‘finally’ for Devils in win vs. Rangers

Leave a comment

It wasn’t always pretty for the New Jersey Devils against the New York Rangers on Thursday night.

The Devils’ first win of 2019-20 wasn’t a work of art. Jack Hughes‘ first NHL point wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, either. But the Devils will take it. And being that this came against the Rangers, the sweet will outweigh the bitter even more.

After falling behind 1-0 early, New Jersey fired off three consecutive goals to eventually secure a 5-2 win in front of a mixture of Rangers and Devils fans in Newark. The “workmanlike” nature of the victory really could be summarized by Hughes’ first point not exactly coming as you’d draw it up: an assist that deflected off of Miles Wood‘s backside, essentially.

Let’s work through some of the storylines in this one.

Breaking some droughts, but still some work to do.

Again, the Devils really needed this win, as they came into Thursday at 0-4-2 (now 1-4-2). The Rangers likely felt a little rusty, as they last played on Saturday, and have only appeared in four games, slipping to 2-2-0.

Along with finally getting that first win, and Hughes getting his first point, the Devils finally scored on the power play. New Jersey went 0-for-18 through their first six games, so Kyle Palmieri‘s power-play marker is another source of relief.

Heck, with a long-distance empty-net goal, P.K. Subban also scored his first goal with the Devils.

A pessimist would argue that an empty-net goal only counts for so much, and that Hughes’ assist wasn’t impressive, but those also mean fewer annoying questions during interviews. Like Victor Mete after scoring his first NHL goal, the Devils can just play.

But, yeah, they need to be better. Sure, they finally scored on the power play, but they only went 1-for-7 on Thursday, so they still need to find some answers.

(I hate to say it, but they really need to explore the question of whether Wayne Simmonds is still a top power-play unit guy. He’s struggled in recent years, and while the effort still seems to be there, the “finish” might not be. He has zero goals and one assist through seven games. Maybe it would be better to replace him with Nikita Gusev, who didn’t need much space to score after Artemi Panarin broke a stick on Thursday? A group including Gusev, Hughes, Subban, Palmieri, and Taylor Hall could be lethal.)

An answer in net?

It’s nice to see Cory Schneider possibly being healthy, or healthier, as his free-fall from elite to poor goalie is likely due in part to injuries. The bottom line is that Schneider might just be a backup (or worse) at this point in his career, though. Schneider’s 0-3-0 record and putrid .876 save percentage provide little hope that he’s just going to turn back the clock.

So the Devils really don’t have much of a choice: they need to see how far Mackenzie Blackwood can bring them.

The 22-year-old was off to a rocky start of his own this season, but was sharp on Thursday, stopping 29 out of 31 shots, including six SOG from a Rangers PP that went 0-for-6. After one great stop via the scary one-timer combination of Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, Subban gave Blackwood a tap on the head in appreciation. Rightfully so, I’d say.

Last season, Blackwood generated a .918 save percentage over 23 games (21 of which were starts). That’s not a huge sample size, but being that he was a second-rounder (42nd overall in 2015) and Schneider looks shaky-at-best, the Devils have every incentive to send him out there and see if he can give them at least league-average goaltending.

No.1 vs. No. 2 isn’t there yet

There are moments where it’s already captivating to watch Hughes, right down to nerding out when he does some simple-but-impressive skating, such as using his edges or accelerating with impressive speed.

But if we want Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko to become a rivalry worth watching, we will have to lean on stronger sequels.

Both the Rangers and Devils seem like works in progress, yet with all of the talent they’ve added, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more fireworks in future meetings.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Hughes, Kakko unfazed ahead of first Rangers-Devils game

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Thursday night’s game between the Devils and Rangers (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN) will be the first of four meetings this season, and there will be a special significance to the Metropolitan Division matchup.

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, the top two picks in last June’s entry draft, will be facing one another for the first time in the NHL.

The Rangers’ light schedule to begin the season has them eager to get going again following a 4-1 loss on Saturday to the Oilers. They’re in better shape at the moment than the Devils with a 2-1-0 start, but their focus, and Kakko’s focus, isn’t on the much-hyped meeting between the two young stars.

“Of course I’m excited to play again after four days off, but it’s not like me against Jack Hughes,” Kakko said Wednesday. “It’s the Devils against Rangers.”

“[Kakko] is 18 years old, I’m sure him and Hughes have had their eye on each other for a long time,” said Rangers head coach David Quinn. “I’m sure if you put them under truth serum, they’re both excited to face each other. But both teams are looking for a win, and hopefully that’s way more important than any individual matchup. I’m pretty sure it is.”

Both have yet to really get going offensively. Kakko has one goal on four shots in three games, while Hughes is pointless through six. Devils head coach John Hynes remains encouraged by what he’s seen so far from the 2019 top pick.

“He’s really understanding how hard you need to compete in this game and how much puck battles matter, attention to detail when you don’t have the puck, and he’s making strides in those areas,” he said. “He’s just a step away from really creating some pretty good offense.”

The two players will be linked forever, much like Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin. They’ll always be compared to one another, especially given their status as division rivals playing 14 miles apart.

That outside noise, however, won’t be a distraction for either with the focus on their team’s play and not their own.

“It was a big deal when those teams got the first and second picks,” said Hughes. “I mean, it doesn’t happen often when those picks go to rivalries, rivalry games. I think the media makes a big deal out of it, but for me and him I’m sure it’s just about our teams and trying to get a win.”

The Devils have plenty to improve upon as they seek their first win following an 0-4-2 start. Monday’s collapse to the Panthers led to the decision to put assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald on Hynes’ bench for another set of eyes and ideas. After a summer where general manager bolstered his roster with additions like Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds, seats will only get hotter if the results don’t improve. What better way to begin a turnaround than two points against a division rival?

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Thursday with analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones. Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury and Pierre McGuire will have the call from Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

————

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.

PHT Face-Off: High-Flying Oilers; What’s wrong with Bolts?

5 Comments

Heading into today’s action, every team in the NHL has played between three and seven games. That’s not a huge sample size, but it’s enough to spot certain trends. The PHT Face-Off will break down some of the early-season storylines around the league. 

Here we go:

• Arizona can’t score:

The Coyotes made a blockbuster trade to acquire Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately for the ‘Yotes, that hasn’t translated into more goals. Through four games, Arizona has found the back of the net a total of seven times. More than half of those seven goals (four) came in their 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night. They scored one goal against Anaheim, none against Boston and two in an overtime loss to Colorado on Saturday night.

The encouraging thing about Arizona’s start, is that they’re ninth in the NHL in Corsi For Percentage at 52.09 percent and ninth in High Danger Chances For percentage at 54.9 percent (stats provided by Natural Stat Trick). You have to think that if they can continue to post similar numbers, the pucks will start going in at some point.

Arizona will head into Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg with a 1-2-1 record. That’s not terrible considering their lack of scoring. The fact that they’ve given up just seven goals helps in a big way.

• What’s wrong with the Lightning?

Last season, the Lightning ran away with the President’s Trophy crown, as they amassed a 62-16-4 record which was good for 128 points. The Calgary Flames, who had the second-highest point total in 2018-19, collected 107 points. That’s a huge gap. Heading into Tuesday’s clash against the Montreal Canadiens on NBCSN, the Bolts have a 2-2-1 record.

Prior to Thursday’s win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, head coach Jon Cooper admitted that his team still felt the pain of being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I would be lying if I didn’t think there was a burden carried over,” Cooper told assembled media in Toronto on Thursday morning. “But we’ve talked to the players about it. We can’t change last year. We’re defending nothing, so let’s go and attack, and wherever people pick us, that’s for everybody else to talk about. It’s not how we feel. As I said before, we have a completely different team. Yes, a lot of our core is the same, but there’s no question, there’s a little bit of a burden you carry from last year. If we’re fortunate enough to make the playoffs and, hopefully, if we do win a round, we’re probably going to hear it until then. So let’s brush it off and play hockey.”

Give Cooper credit for providing us with an honest answer, because most coaches would’ve denied that there was any carry over at all.

Tampa may not put up another 62-win season, but they should be just fine.

• High-Flying Oilers: 

If you look at the list of NHL scoring leaders, you’ll notice that the first two games at the top belong to Edmonton Oilers players. Yes, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have registered 12 and 11 points respectively through their first five games. Also, James Neal is the only player in the league with seven goals this season. That’s a pleasant surprise considering he scored just seven times in 63 games with the Calgary Flames in 2018-19.

Sure, four of those goals came in one game, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s been really, really good for his new team.

Even though there’s no way Neal is going to keep this pace up all season (breaking news: he won’t score 115 goals this year), it’s encouraging to see the Oilers get offensive production from someone other than McDavid and Draisaitl.

It’s early, but the Oilers are sitting atop the Pacific Division standings with a 5-0-0 record.

You can catch McDavid and the gang on NBCSN (9:30 p.m. ET) this Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

• Quiet start for top two picks in 2019:

The first two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft were both able to crack their respective squads. Jack Hughes is with the New Jersey Devils, while Kaapo Kakko is taking a regular shift with the New York Rangers. The expectations were pretty high for both teenagers heading into this year, but the offensive output they’ve provided has been limited.

Through five games, Hughes has failed to pick up a point. We know that he’s fast, we know that he’s talented, but it may take a little bit of time for him to get used to the pace of play and the lack of time and space in the NHL. Head coach Jon Hynes has kept his rookie’s minutes fairly consistent, as he’s played between 14:23 and 17:36 this season.

Don’t get it twisted, it’s not Hughes’ fault that the Devils are 0-3-2 right now. After trading for Nikita Gusev and P.K. Subban, and then signing Wayne Simmonds in free agency, the expectations were that New Jersey would be much better. Expecting their prized rookie to light it up in his first year just isn’t fair. The points will eventually come.

According to Scott Cullen, Hughes is the first first overall pick since Steven Stamkos in 2008 to open his career with no points in five games.

As for Kakko, he collected his first goal/point in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers (he scored the opening goal of the game). Is this the moment that gets him rolling? It’s way too early to tell, but we’ll find out soon enough. Kakko has played two fewer games than Hughes, but their minutes have been similar (Kakko is averaging 15:25/game, Hughes is averaging 15:31/game).

Can Kakko continue to build his Calder Trophy case?

Both players will go head-to-head for the first time on Thursday night on NBCSN (7 p.m. ET).

• Gibson’s Finest: 

The Anaheim Ducks have played three of their first five games on the road, but they managed to go 4-1-0. Their only loss came in Pittsburgh, as they held the highest scoring team in the league to just two goals in a 2-1 defeat. Yes, the Ducks appear to be giving starting goalie John Gibson some help, but he continues to be one of the top goalies in the NHL.

That loss to Pittsburgh was also the only time this season that Gibson has allowed more than one goal in a game, which is totally ridiculous. He has a 3-1-0 record with a 1.26 goals-against-average and a .961 save percentage this season. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but you’d have to think that he’ll be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy if he can keep his team’s season on the rails.

Gibson got the night off against Columbus on Friday, which means he’ll be fresh for tonight’s tough matchup in Boston.

What’s coming up this week?

• A lot of afternoon hockey on Columbus Day, Mon. Oct. 14, starting at 1 p.m. ET

• Lightning vs. Canadiens, Tue. Oct. 15, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

• Jack Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko, Thu. Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET( NBCSN)

• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs for the first time since they faced each other in the first round, Sat. Oct. 19, 7 p.m. ET

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY
Avalanche vs. Penguins, Wed. Oct. 16, 7 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
Flyers vs. Oilers, Wed. Oct. 16, 9:30 p.m. ET

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 lose again, remain winless: 3 takeaways on slow start

Getty
2 Comments

The New Jersey Devils were one of the biggest stories of the offseason thanks to some aggressive roster moves by general manager Ray Shero.

Along with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall, the Devils won the NHL’s draft lottery and selected Jack Hughes No. 1 overall to add to a young core that already included the No. 1 overall pick from the 2017 class (Nico Hischier). They surrounded their newly formed core with the big summer acquisitions of P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds.

Expectations immediately skyrocketed and there was a ton of optimism around the team.

That optimism might be starting to quickly disappear.

Following Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Devils remain winless (0-3-2) through the first five games of the season and you have to wonder how much longer it is going to be until head coach John Hynes’ seat starts to get a little warmer.

What has gone wrong for the Devils so far? Here are three key factors.

1. It has been a slow start for the new faces

Out of all the big offseason acquisitions, Gusev is the only that has found the back of the net through the first five games (he has two goals). Other than that, it has been a giant goose egg for everyone else that was expected to make a difference.  Simmonds and Subban have combined for just two assists, while Hughes is going through some early growing pains with zero points and only 10 shots on goal through the first five games.

When it comes to Hughes you had to expect some struggles at times. He is 18 years old and making a massive jump to the NHL. Not everyone is going to step in and immediately be Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Connor McDavid. And while Subban is off to a slow start and might be starting to slow down a little, he has enough of a track record and is still good enough that you have to think he is going to shake off this slow start.

Adding to the problems offensively is that Hall, Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri have combined for just two goals so far (both belonging to Palmieri). If you wanted to put a positive spin on this for the Devils it’s that their best players haven’t yet played anything close to their best hockey. They are not going to struggle this much forever.

But as long as they do, goals — and wins — are going to be few and far between.

2. The power play has been awful

Calling it awful might actually be an understatement. After their 0-for-4 performance against Boston on Saturday night the Devils are now 0-for-15 on the season. That is zero goals in 30 minutes of power play time, and it is not like they have been unlucky. Entering play on Sunday their power play unit was one of the worst in the league when it comes to generating shot attempts and getting shots on goal.

3. Goaltending is still an issue 

It is not the biggest issue, but it is still an issue and it was the single biggest question mark the team had entering the season. Through five games the Devils have allowed at least three goals in every game, with Saturday’s game in Boston being the first one where they did not allow at least four. While the team in front of them has not been particularly good on any given night, the duo of Cory Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood has an .863 save percentage after Saturday. No matter what is happening around them, your team has no chance with that sort of production from your goalies.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 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.

Thoughts on Hart, Flyers blanking new-look Devils

3 Comments

The New Jersey Devils headed into 2019-20 with a fair amount of hype as a new-look team. Through three games, the additions of P.K. Subban, Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds have resulted in all-too-familiar results.

The Devils ended Wednesday with a 0-2-1 record as the (also new-looking) Philadelphia Flyers blanked them 4-0.

Speaking of fresh faces, Carter Hart indeed looked like a young phenom against the Devils, pitching the first shutout of his NHL career. His 25-save performance will be immortalized by this incredible save during a 5-on-3 penalty kill against 2017-18 Hart winner Taylor Hall:

Hart is the headliner, and with good reason, but let’s ponder a few other storylines from the Flyers’ 4-0 beating of the Devils.

Hughes hasn’t been huge

If you tuned into Wednesday’s game to get an idea of what the top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft is capable of, you might have ended up being disappointed. Honestly, you might have had a hard time even noticing him.

Hughes, 18, remains without a goal or an assist through his first three games. He was very quiet on Wednesday, failing to even register a shot on goal. While Hughes’ ice time was modest (14:34 overall), he was on the ice for 4:12 of power play time. Not great.

That said, there are certain metrics that argue Hughes’ work has been better than what initially meets the eye:

He’s far from the only quiet Devil to start

Taylor Hall ranked as one of the only Devils players who really stood out, firing five SOG. He’s generally been making an impact; while Hall hasn’t scored a goal yet, he has two assists in three games.

The Devils need more from other players, including P.K. Subban. So far, Subban only has an assist through his first three games with New Jersey. That has to be frustrating, especially as he sees Matt Duchene lighting it up with six assists already for Nashville.

Hot seat for John Hynes?

It’s probably too early to be too worried about the job security of the Devils’ head coach.

That said, the Devils have a ton on the line in 2019-20. Not only did they pay significant money to get better with Subban and Gusev, they also need to convince Hall to stick around, or they’d need to either trade Hall for something or watch him walk away for nothing in free agency.

With that in mind, Hynes needs to find answers — and fast. Maybe he should experiment with putting Hall and Hughes together? It might helpful for the Devils to see what Nico Hischier can do without Hall before they pay him, for one thing.

Flyers have a special night

Philly killed that 5-on-3 power play, which was virtually a full two minutes. They ended up blanking the Devils (New Jersey finished 0-for-5) while scoring two power-play goals on Wednesday. If the Flyers can rekindle their power play magic from the not-so-recent past, and get strong goaltending from Hart more often than not, then they can make the leap many expected to see last season.

Cory Schneider was actually having a pretty strong night, but the Flyers wouldn’t relent, and eventually overwhelmed the Devils goalie.

GM Chuck Fletcher’s experiment looks successful very early on, as Philly’s started the season at 2-0-0. The Devils have to envy Philly’s quick start, and they can’t afford to let this bumpy beginning to linger much longer.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.