Pavel Zacha

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Devils crumble again, blow another 3-goal lead to remain winless

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When Pavel Zacha scored his first goal of the season just one minute into the second period it gave the New Jersey Devils a three-goal lead over the Florida Panthers and seemed to send them on a path that might finally give them their first win of the season.

They not only failed to win their first game of the season, they ended up allowing five consecutive goals on their way to a 6-4 loss, dropping their record to 0-4-2 and sending them off the ice to a chorus of boos from their home fans.

Free agent acquisition Brett Connolly scored two goals for the Panthers to start the rally (including one with eight seconds to play in the second period), while MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari, and Evgeni Dadonov added third period goals to complete the rally and give the Panthers a much-needed win.

Three quick takeaways on the latest Devils’ meltdown to open the season.

1. This is the second time they have lost a three-goal lead

This is almost hard to believe, but Monday’s loss was already the second time this season the Devils have lost a game in which they have at one point held a three-goal lead. They have only played six games! Doing that twice in a full season is bad enough, but to have it happen within the first six games is just an awful look for everyone involved.

Along with Monday’s meltdown, the Devils also lost a 4-0 lead in their season-opening shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

2. Jack Hughes can’t buy a break … or a point

For one split second on Monday it looked as if the No. 1 overall pick in the draft was going to finally collect his first point. He had the puck on his stick, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was down and out, only for Hughes to ring his shot off the post and stay out of the net. He slammed his stick in frustration and remained pointless through the first six games of his career.

This is the longest a No. 1 overall pick has gone without recording their first point since Steven Stamkos went seven games for the Tampa Bay Lightning at the start of the 2008-09 season.

The good news for Hughes is that Stamkos went on to have a solid rookie season with a strong second half and starting the next year was one of the league’s best players. So it is obviously not time to worry about him or his development. The bad news for Hughes is he doesn’t have the same excuse Stamkos had for his slow start — a coach that didn’t want to play him right away.

3. Is it make-or-break time for John Hynes?

Not to put too much on one game, but the next time the Devils take the ice will be  at home against the New York Rangers, their biggest rival and the other big spending NHL team this summer.

These two teams and their rebuilds were always going to be measured against one other given their rivalry and the parallels that existed with their offseasons (the top two picks in the draft, big-name acquisitions all over each roster), and if the Devils lose that game to fall to 0-5-2 — well, Hynes’ already hot seat will no doubt increase a few degrees.

This is all part of a six-game home stand and if the Devils can not find a way to scratch out a couple of wins it is not a stretch to think that some major changes could be on the horizon for what has been one of the league’s most disappointing and underwhelming teams.

They are not just losing, they are getting crushed in every possible area.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Definitely better. After making the postseason two years ago, the Devils had a disappointing campaign last season. General manager Ray Shero is doing his best to make sure that they take another step forward this year though. They got P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators at a very reasonable price and they also managed to win the lottery, which led to them selecting Jack Hughes. They also added Wayne Simmonds in free agency, they traded for Nikita Gusev and they’re getting Taylor Hall back healthy.

Strengths: Don’t look now, but the Devils have built up some of the best young center depth in the NHL thanks to their high draft position over the last few years. They drafted both Nico Hischier and Hughes first and that has allowed them to grab some significant building blocks. Whether or not this duo lives up to the hype remains to be seen, but they’re definitely on the right track. The two youngsters are also surrounded by veteran Travis Zajac and under-achiever Pavel Zacha.

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

Weaknesses: Can their goaltending hold up over an 82-game season? It’s nice to see Cory Schneider healthy again, but the last two years have been extremely difficult for him. There’s no guarantee that he’s capable of being a work-horse in the NHL ever again. The 33-year-old has played in just 66 games over the last two seasons. That’s a number he’ll have to top if the Devils are going to make it back to the postseason. If he falters, Mackenzie Blackwood pick up the slack? Another inconsistent year between the pipes could force Shero to go out and get himself a goalie.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 4. Yes, the Devils took a step back last season, but that probably had a lot to do with the fact that they lost Taylor Hall for most of the year. Could John Hynes be in trouble if they miss the playoffs again? Maybe. But it appears as though Shero is trying to build something with a long-term vision in mind. It would be surprising to see him get rid of Hynes after this year.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Keep an eye on Subban, Hughes and Schneider this year. Subban was a nice pick up, but he needs to show that he’s fully healthy. His back has given him some trouble over the last little while, and that’s likely one of the reasons the Predators were willing to get rid of his $9 million cap hit. Can he still be a number one defenseman?

It’s only a matter of time before Hughes becomes a star in the NHL, but the question is whether or not he can be an impact player this season. If Hughes adapts to the NHL quickly, the Devils have a shot to finish in one of the top three spots in the Metropolitan Division. If he doesn’t, they could still make the playoffs, but it’ll be a whole lot tougher.

As for Schneider, he just needs to show that he’s regained his confidence. He didn’t pick up a single victory during the 2018 calendar year and the Devils can’t afford to have him go on another long drought like that. They need him healthy and on his game.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. A healthy Hall, the addition of Hughes and Subban, plus the development of Hischier lead the Devils to the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. This is bold, but it’s entirely possible.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL camps opening with list of unsigned free agents

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P.K. Subban doesn’t want to give advice to all the unsigned young players around the NHL. He just vividly remembers his own experience as a restricted free agent.

Before he signed a short, so-called “bridge” contract, he took some motherly advice.

“My mom picked up the phone and called me and said: ‘P.K., listen, you’re young still. You have lots of time. If you’re ready to go and play, go play,’” Subban recalled. “And I went and played and won the Norris Trophy.”

Almost a dozen prominent restricted free agents remain unsigned on the eve of training camps around the league, and several situations threaten to linger into the season, like Subban in 2013 and Toronto’s William Nylander a year ago. Maple Leafs teammate Mitch Marner, Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point, Philadelphia’s Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, Boston’s Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor could all be conspicuously absent when camps open this week.

“Everybody’s waiting on somebody to make a move,” Toronto center Auston Matthews said. “I’m surprised there’s lots of guys. It’s not just (Marner). You’ve got a lot of really good players that aren’t signed yet. I guess everybody’s just kind of playing the waiting game.”

Dominoes could start to fall after Columbus signed restricted free agent defenseman Zach Werenski to a $15 million, three-year deal and New Jersey gave forward Pavel Zacha $6.75 million over three years . The salary cap is a concern: Toronto will have to use long-term injury allowance to get Marner under contract, Tampa Bay has less than $9 million in cap space for Point, Boston is roughly $7 million under with McAvoy and Carlo unsigned, and Winnipeg has $15 million for both Laine and Connor.

“Everybody’s got room to do what they need to do,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “You’re not looking at situations where the restricted free agents haven’t been made substantial offers. It’s they and their agents want more. I respect that.”

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said he would like all those players to have the contracts they want but acknowledged, “That’s not probably the world we live in.” The ongoing contract stalemates have sparked plenty of questions about the lack of rights for restricted free agents and the trend toward younger players wanting to cash in on their second contracts.

“The team has you in a certain situation where you have no rights, so you don’t have much of a say,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. “That’s how it’s set up. Those guys will make their big bucks later on or whatever. It’s just how it works.”

Krug said, “If you just look at the star power, it’s potentially damaging to some teams” if they can’t get their restricted free agents signed in time for the start of the season. Nylander missed the first two months last season when contract talks were at an impasse. Things could also drag out with Marner and others.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said he would like all those players to have the contracts they want but acknowledged, “That’s not probably the world we live in.” The ongoing contract stalemates have sparked plenty of questions about the lack of rights for restricted free agents and the trend toward younger players wanting to cash in on their second contracts.

“The team has you in a certain situation where you have no rights, so you don’t have much of a say,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. “That’s how it’s set up. Those guys will make their big bucks later on or whatever. It’s just how it works.”

Krug said, “If you just look at the star power, it’s potentially damaging to some teams” if they can’t get their restricted free agents signed in time for the start of the season. Nylander missed the first two months last season when contract talks were at an impasse. Things could also drag out with Marner and others.

The Bruins without McAvoy and Carlo and the Flyers without Provorov and Konecny are in a similar spot. Boston could be without half of its top four on defense.

“It doesn’t bother us,” goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “I think it’s more for the general managers and coaches that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Based on his own experience, Krug said, he thinks it can be a distraction not to have key players in camp. He also believes what players are doing in their downtime matters.

“Are they still training, or are they sitting there pouting and wondering, ‘When am I going to sign and when do I actually have to get serious and ramp things up?’” he said. “It’s a different circumstance for all players. (But) once you show up, the contract’s over with and you just start playing.”

Whenever that happens to be.

Devils sign Zacha after brief, amusing KHL flirtation

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To put things mildly, Pavel Zacha hasn’t exactly lived up to being the sixth overall pick of the 2015 NHL Draft during his time with the New Jersey Devils.

In all honesty, the highlight of his time so far might have come recently, when Devils GM Ray Shero profanely reacted to Zacha seemingly trying to use the KHL as leverage in RFA negotiations. Now both sides can laugh about it (?), too, after the Devils signed Zacha to a three-year contract that carries a $2.25 million AAV. This just about wraps up the Devils’ offseason to-do list, at least if they can’t convince Taylor Hall to sign an early extension.

Don’t blame Devils fans if they make a joke about sending Zacha to bleepin’ Brampton if he struggles, because this is gold (Jerry, gold):

Zacha, 22, hasn’t distinguished himself in many good ways, aside from seemingly being useful on the penalty kill.

His possession stats have been weak at best, and he hasn’t provided much offense, generating 13 goals and 25 points in 61 games last season. He’s fallen in that range for some time now, producing 25 points in 2017-18 and 24 in 2016-17.

Maybe the Devils can give more of a [redacted] about Zacha if he can find a fit in what looks like a massively improved lineup, though? Either way, it will be a challenge for Zacha to be more than just that guy who Ray Shero said bad words about.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• 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.

Devils GM doesn’t care if Zacha considers signing with KHL

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero says he is still attempting to sign center Pavel Zacha amid concerns the former first-round draft pick will play in the Kontinental Hockey League this season.

Peppering his comments with profanities, Shero told The Associated Press on Monday that he doesn’t care if Zacha signs with the KHL, a Russian-based pro league, with Brampton, an ECHL team, or anywhere else. Shero says the Devils still retain the restricted free agent’s rights after issuing him a qualifying offer this summer, and he hopes to get a deal completed with training camp opening this week.

Shero says he’s unaware if Zacha has signed with a KHL team, though he adds that possibility was raised by the player’s agent during a recent conversation.

Shero says playing in the KHL is ”not the advice I would give him,” and adds ”it’s a long way back to the NHL” if Zacha goes that route.

Zacha’s agent, Patrik Stefan, did not immediately respond to several messages from the AP seeking comment.

Shero called Zacha an ”important player” entering a key year in his development. He spoke while watching the Devils’ third and final game at the Sabres’ prospects tournament in Buffalo.

The 22-year-old Zacha is from the Czech Republic and had a career-best 13 goals in 61 games last season. Overall, he has 29 goals and 47 assists for 76 points in 201 career NHL games.