Pavel Zacha

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Quinn Hughes made quite the debut for Canucks

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When Quinn Hughes joined Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser on the ice during 3-on-3 overtime for Vancouver on Thursday, you couldn’t really blame Canucks fans for thinking “The future is now.”

(Granted, they might have thought that in a less-cliched, but maybe more profanity-laced way. Depending upon the specific Canucks fan, of course.)

Hughes made his NHL debut during Vancouver’s 3-2 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings, and showed why fans were chanting “We want Hughes!” before his first shift. The 19-year-old didn’t disappoint, either, showing why people think he was a steal as the seventh overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

Hughes grabbing an assist in the game wasn’t promising merely because he already produced offense. Instead, it really encapsulated a lot of the reasons people think he’s going to be a big deal. During the play, he absolutely bamboozled Trevor Lewis with his excellent skating and anticipation, banking the puck to himself, and then letting go a shot that created a juicy rebound. Brock Boeser then fired it home, so this was very much a primary assist by Hughes:

And that 3-on-3 OT sequence seemed like a portal into a future — a future where Pettersson, Boeser, and Hughes give opponents fits.

Hughes’ skating and scoring ability seem like they’ll translate incredibly well to the modern NHL game, and that showed on Thursday.

It’s also a reminder that, while this ranks as another painful season for the Canucks, it’s tough to dismiss the feeling of hope in Vancouver. For all GM Jim Benning has done wrong – and the list isn’t necessarily small – it sure seems like he’s hit it out of the park multiple times with draft picks, at least in the first round.

And while the Canucks dynamic duo/tremendous trio weren’t exactly lingering in the late rounds of drafts, these weren’t necessarily layup picks like, say, selecting Sidney Crosby first and Evgeni Malkin after Alex Ovechkin.

  • Boeser, 22, went 23rd overall in 2015. The Canucks’ hated foes the Bruins had three opportunities to pick Boeser. Also, Boeser was selected after the likes of Pavel Zacha, Evgeny Svechnikov, and Joel Eriksson Ek. (Sorry, fans of the several teams who whiffed especially badly there.)
  • It feels strange to call the fifth pick of the 2017 NHL Draft a “steal,” especially this early … but Pettersson already looks like a star at 20. If there was a re-draft, Pettersson would go ahead of Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, Miro Heiskanen, and Cale Makar … right? He certainly would last as long as fifth.
  • Hughes, 19, went seventh. The opening picks of that draft have made remarkable impacts already, from obvious guys like Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov, to players who maybe had to scrape for their positions in Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Brady Tkachuk. Hughes might not be a “steal” like the other two, but the Canucks would still prosper if he merely ends up being a really useful player.

It’s tantalizing, then, to wonder how much the Canucks may skip in line if they hit another homer in the first round, this time in the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft.

From a fun headlines standpoint, you wouldn’t be able to top the Canucks getting projected top pick Jack Hughes to join his brother Quinn. That’s possible, although unlikely — via the Push for the Playoffs, you can see that Vancouver’s draft lottery odds currently stand at just six percent.

In the likely event that Vancouver doesn’t win the draft lottery, the Canucks have shown that they can make the most of a first-rounder, even when it’s not at the absolute top of a draft. (At least lately, as the jury’s still out on players like Olli Juolevi, who went fifth in 2016.)

Honestly, even if the results are more modest this time around, the future seems brighter every time a new gem is added to the mix, and Hughes looks like he might continue that trend. This trio should also make the Canucks a lot more fun to watch in the present while they build toward that 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.

Devils face slew of tough choices in rebuild

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The New Jersey Devils signed head coach John Hynes to an extension on Thursday, answering a significant question about their future. Honestly, GM Ray Shero faces far more complicated and difficult ones as this rebuild goes forward, though.

Granted, the bright side is that Shero’s at least acknowledging that this will take time, rather than battling a rebuild every step of the way, as NHL.com’s Mike Morreale reported:

“Doing something for the sake of getting a little bit better, or to just say you’re doing something, is patchwork and not a plan,” Shero said. “There’s only one way to do this. The idea is to build something that once you do build it, you’re in a good position each year to have a chance to make the playoffs and at a certain point you’re considered a Cup contender.”

On one hand, that’s easier said than done, and some of that comes down to landing blue-chip prospects at the best time.

Still, it’s better to at least have the right perspective, rather than risking being in that puck purgatory: too good to land the Jack Hughes of the world, but too bad to become a credible contender.

Let’s go over the many “easier said than done” parts in greater detail, then.

[More on the Hynes extension.]

Stocking the cupboard

In overachieving their way to a berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs on the strength of Taylor Hall‘s MVP season, the Devils broke a slump of five seasons without a playoff berth.

Unfortunately, drafting Nico Hischier with the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft broke a different slump: the Devils had an agonizing run of botching some of their premium picks. Take a look at their first-rounders before Hischier:

2016: Michael McLeod (12th overall)
2015: Pavel Zacha (sixth)
2014: John Quenneville (30th)
2013: None
2012: Stefan Matteau (29)
2011: Adam Larsson (fourth)

McLeod and Zacha sting the most considering where they were drafted, and who went afterward. (Seriously, scrolling the 2015 list in particular will do Devils fans no good.)

To some extent, these tough times are to be expected for a franchise that enjoyed a resounding run of success during the Martin Brodeur days, but it’s not the greatest sign when you suffer for years but still see your farm system listed as low-end. Getting a high pick in 2019 to combine with Hischier and intriguing prospect Ty Smith would make things look brighter, for sure, but Shero would be wise to try to buy more “dart throws” in the draft by trading veterans for picks.

Hall of a challenge

Shero would be wise to tread lightly for a firesale for one key reason, though: Taylor Hall’s contract is coming up.

Hall’s been a brilliant steal at just a $6M cap hit, but that ends after 2019-20. While there are some reasons to worry about the aging curve – Hall would be 29 once his next deal kicks in – the Devils would likely gladly gamble on an extension if Hall would allow it. The question is: will he want to stick around? The freight train of a winger has endured two protracted rebuilds with Edmonton and now New Jersey, so could anyone blame him if he wanted to sign with a proven contender?

It’s up to the Devils to convince Hall that they’re building such a structure in New Jersey.

Other pivotal contract situations

Hall can sign an extension as early as July, or opt for a contract year in 2019-20, and he’s far from alone.

Consider these prominent cases of players whose current deals run out after this season or next:

  • Nico Hischier: His rookie deal ends after the 2019-20 season, so the Devils might want to learn a bit more about the promising Swiss-born center. To be specific, how effective can he be without Hall?

While it’s promising that Hischier has been able to stick with Hall, he’s really been attached at the hip with the star winger basically since day one. New Jersey may find it very valuable to see how well he can play on his own.

  • Sami Vatanen ($4.875M) sees his contract end after 2019-20, and he’s 27, much like Taylor Hall. Vatanen’s been an important, if imperfect, addition to a Devils defense that remains quite flawed, but New Jersey will need to decide if he’s a part of the long-term solution. Especially if he calls for a substantial raise.
  • Will Butcher will see his entry-level deal expire after two seasons with the Devils, making him a pending RFA after 2018-19. The 23-year-old’s offense cooled off this season (14 points in 38 games) after generating 44 points as a rookie, yet Butcher’s possession stats are promising, and he stands as an important building block for this defense. Locking him up to the right deal is crucial, and could be quite challenging.
  • Marcus Johansson‘s another interesting expiring contract. Injuries have hampered him since joining the Devils, which leads to an interesting question: should NJ part ways with him, or do they see a potential bargain here? It’s plausible that they can re-sign Johansson for quite a bit less than his current $4.58M cap hit.

Letting rentals Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon walk after last season was one thing, but can Shero make the right calls often enough in those situations?

Glaring areas of concern

Hashing out the right deals for those players – and begging Hall to stay? – won’t be easy. It’s sobering to realize that Shero needs to pull off some magic even if those situations go really well.

Looking at things from a more immediate perspective, there are three key weaknesses to work on: goaltending, scoring beyond Hischier/Hall/Kyle Palmieri, and improving on defense.

With each discouraging start, it seems less and less likely that Cory Schneider will find a way to get his career back on track. His $6M cap hit appears to be a sunk cost through 2021-22. Apologies to Keith Kinkaid and Mackenzie Blackwood, but it sure seems like the Devils need to look outside their organization for a lasting answer in net.

There are some pieces on the Devils’ defense, particularly compared to the days before they landed Butcher and Vatanen, but they lack a premium, Norris-type. As you’ve likely noticed, franchise No. 1 defensemen aren’t easy to find, either.

***

It’s not all bad for the Devils. Even with Schneider and Travis Zajac ranking among their problem contracts, they’re not saddled with as many problems as many others. Hall won’t be cheap if he decides to stick around, yet New Jersey can make up some of the difference with Andy Greene‘s $5M dissolving after 2019-20, as one example.

“Our car is in good shape,” Shero said while making an odd metaphor back in December, according to The Athletic’s Corey Masisak (sub required). “Some other ones on the same highway aren’t.”

Can Shero keep the Devils on the right course despite all the speed bumps and potholes waiting up ahead? It should be fascinating to see how that wild ride turns out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.

Three questions facing New Jersey Devils

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

1. Can youth lead the way?

We mentioned earlier that this team is going the young route as general manager Ray Shero continues to craft it around youthful exuberance.

The Devils will be led by Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier next season, and it’s important the latter takes the next step in his game while the former continues the play that won him the Hart Trophy. But the supporting cast needs to progess as well. Jesper Bratt had a solid rookie outing and will be counted on to forge ahead.

Ditto for Will Butcher, who had a productive year on the back end and likewise for Pavel Zacha, who enters his third season in the NHL this year and could have a more prominent role if the Devils decide to split Hischier and Hall up.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

2. Can Schneider bounce back from two poor seasons and offseason hip surgery?

It bears repeating that Schneider is the most important component to the success of the Devils.

With the strides the Devils have made outside of the crease, Schneider getting back to the numbers that garnered him his $42 million contract seems like a surefire way for the Devils to stick out in a talent Metropolitan Division.

His .908 and .907 in the past two years, respectively, won’t cut it if the team wants to ride him for 60 games.

It may not come early for New Jersey. Schneider’s arrival next season largely depends on how he’s healing from offseason hip surgery. Keith Kinkaid can handle the load until Schneider makes his return, so there’s no reason to rush Schneider back in just to have him end up back on injured reserve.

The Devils showed they could compete despite adversity this season. Void of that this season, and the Devils could be competing for more than just the final playoff spot in the East.

3. Will secondary scoring come? 

The line with Hall and Hischier combined for a good chunk of the Devils offensive production last season.

Even between those two, there was a 41-point gap. Between Hall and the next best producer, it was 49 points.

Hall can lead the way, as he showed this year, but others need to step up and reciprocate to close that gap. It’s possible Hischier hits 70 points this season. It’s possible that healthy Marcus Johansson can hit the 50-point mark once again.

There’s a lot of scenarios, including New Jersey’s young contingent improving on last season’s numbers.

The lack of scoring was exploiting in the playoffs at just 2.4 goals per game. That was never going to be enough to see off the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there’s no reason to suggest that will change this season.

Bonus round: What should Ray Shero do with the $18 million he has left floating around in cap space? The team needs to re-sign Miles Wood still, but what should be added and where? 


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

Building off a breakthrough: Nico Hischier

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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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

There’s an unwritten wishlist that every team has when they select first overall in the NHL Entry Draft.

In no particular order, team’s hope their scouting work over the course of the year paid off in the case of a close decision, that something can be salvaged from the year that got them there (some of that was luck with the Devils, who went from 5th to 1st in the lottery) and then you hope that the player you just gave a new home doesn’t turn into the next Patrik Stefan.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Three questions]

The good news for the New Jersey Devils is that all worked out, it would seem.

Nico Hischier was dropped right into the laps of the Devils last season and made an immediate impact throughout the season, playing all 82 games while being second on the team in scoring with 20 goals and 52 points as an 18-year-old in the National Hockey League.

Impressive stuff.

The wish now going forward is continued improvement. The bridge between Taylor Hall and the next leading scorer, Hischier, was 41 points last season. That’s a testament to Hall’s Hart Trophy season, but also the fact that the Devils are starving for another elite point producer.

The other good news is that an apparent wrist injury that nagged Hischier for much of last season seems to be squared away.

Hischier is the centerpiece of New Jersey’s youth resurgence, which also includes the likes of Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Will Butcher and Steven Santini, to name a few. It’s a philosophy change that seems to have worked last season after the Devils erased six-year playoff drought.

“We set standards upon our management and coaching staff and we raised the expectations and projected an idea of what we wanted to be,” general manager Ray Shero told the Ottawa Sun last week. “We started competing on the first day of training camp. Maybe there were some younger players who were at their first camp and nervous, but we told them the worst thing they could do was look at the depth chart. We also told the veterans that the worst thing they could do was look at the depth chart.”

An interesting question heading into the new season is whether the Devils will break up the line of Hall and Hischier in an effort to diversify their scoring portfolio. Together, the duo had a 59 percent GF% and performed very well last season.

That move would require other pieces to come up and prove that they can handle top line duties next to Hall. Perhaps Zacha, who showed well with Hall when paired with him. In any scenario, more good than harm has to be the case on a team that can’t afford a dip in scoring.

There’s a lot of pressure on Hischier to take another step this coming season, whoever he plays with. So far, he’s lived up to expectation. That wrist injury likely only held him back from reaching his true potential last season, so seeing what a 100 percent healthy Hischier can do should have Devils fans salivating.


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

Devils turn back to Cory Schneider to salvage series vs. Lightning

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The New Jersey Devils are facing the prospect of falling behind 3-0 in the opening round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night. In an attempt to shake what’s ailed them through two games, head coach John Hynes is making changes for Game 3 (CNBC, 7:30 p.m ET, stream here).

Most notably, Cory Schneider will get the start after watching Game 1 and coming in relief of Keith Kinkaid during Game 2 on Saturday afternoon’s 5-3 loss. Marcus Johansson, who was skating on a line with Pavel Zacha and Patrick Maroon during Monday’s morning skate, will also return to the lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion on Jan. 23.

“We believe we have two very good goaltenders,” Hynes said. “Keith had played extremely well, and we’re not taking Keith out really because he was bad, we have two guys that we feel can both help us win and it’s an opportunity to get Cory back in the net. He came in and played pretty well the other night, which was good to see, so we’ll give him an opportunity here at home.”

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Schneider had a subpar regular season that saw him miss over a month with a groin injury and struggle mightily when he returned. Kinkaid was given the opportunity to start and snatched the No. 1 job away, helping get the Devils to the playoffs. Monday night’s start will only Schneider’s sixth since March 1, but he feels the 24 minutes he played in Game 2 was good for him heading into tonight.

“It helps. It always helps,” Schneider said. “Just getting out on the ice, that was a great opportunity for me to go in, make some saves and show that I’m feeling good about myself. It doesnt mean much if you come out and don’t play well. Hopefully I can parlay that into a good start tonight.”

Tampa has 10 goals from six different players through two games, so why that will be a problem for Schneider and the Devils, they also have to figure out how to capitalize on their chances having out-shot the Lightning 54-47 at even strength so far.

Meanwhile, in other goalie matters, Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz has made up his mind on who will start Game 3 Tuesday in Columbus, but he hasn’t informed his players yet. All signs point to Braden Holtby getting the call yet again after Philipp Grubauer allowed eight goals on 41 shots as the Blue Jackets hold a 2-0 series lead.

More: What can Devils do to slow down Lightning offense?

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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.