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Devils sign GM Shero to multi-year extension

The 2018-19 season turned out to be a massive disappointment for the New Jersey Devils.

After returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago on the back of an MVP season from Taylor Hall, the Devils badly regressed this season and finished with the league’s third-worst record. Even with that fall in the standings, Devils ownership obviously still believes in the job general manager Ray Shero is doing and announced on Monday that the team has signed him to a multi-year contract extension.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed by the team, but Shero will get the opportunity to continue putting his stamp on the team for the foreseeable future. He has been the Devils’ GM since 2015, leading the team to one postseason appearance in four years.

His most significant additions with the team over the past four years include Kyle Palmieri, Sami Vatanen, using the No. 1 pick on Nico Hischier and, most importantly, the trade that landed them Hall from the Edmonton Oilers prior to the 2016-17 season.

Hall’s injury, which limited him to just 33 games this season, was one of the big factors in the Devils’ disappointing year.

Shero’s two big orders of business in the short-term will be working out a new long-term contract for Hall as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract, and also adding to the depth around him.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For as good as Hall is, and for as much as he carried the team to the playoffs a year ago, he alone is not going to be enough to get the Devils back to the postseason and make them a formidable threat in the Eastern Conference. Even with him the team has flaws offensively, and we saw what happened this season when he is not always available.

One area where he might get some help is if the Devils get a little bit of luck in the draft lottery. They have the third best odds (11.5 percent) of landing the No. 1 overall pick.

Related: NHL 2019 Draft Lottery odds and top prospects

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.

Pondering Taylor Hall’s future with Devils after knee surgery

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The New Jersey Devils announced that Taylor Hall underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee this week. This part of the release indicates that he’s not certain to miss the remainder of the 2018-19 season, although it would be surprising if the Devils risked aggravating his issues with no chance of a postseason run:

Hall will begin rehabilitation immediately and will be evaluated regularly by the medical and training staffs throughout the rehabilitative process. Over the next few weeks, a timeline for his return to play will be guided by his progress. Updates on his status will be given when available.

The Athletic’s Corey Masisak notes that Hall’s been hampered for much of this season with the injury, as he had already been forced to miss 31 games.

Obviously, much of this is bad news. Hall’s so explosive that some wanted to nickname him “cannonball,” so it would be a shame if the 27-year-old loses a step or two following knee surgery.

Overall, though, this seems to be the wise decision.

There are plenty of cases where a player will allow an injury to linger before getting surgery. Sometimes those calls are made during the summer, possibly pushing recovery into the next season.

By going under the knife now, Hall increases his chances of beginning the 2019-20 season at full health. With the Devils firmly planted at third-to-last in the East this season, it makes little sense to rush Hall back to action, and New Jersey would only increase its draft lottery odds by losing a lot down the stretch. That’s certainly more likely with the reigning Hart Trophy winner on the shelf.

It’s also worth noting that Hall is scheduled to enter his contract year in 2019-20, seeing his bargain $6 million cap hit expire.

The Devils could sign Hall to an extension as early as this July, but that might be an oversimplification.

After languishing through years of struggles with the Edmonton Oilers, Hall spearheaded that unexpected run to the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet the Devils remain in a murky place. GM Ray Shero deserves credit for not overreacting to that surprise run by mortgaging the future, but the bottom line is that he still has a lot of work to do to make the Devils a true contender. Would Hall be willing to wait things out and trust that the Devils can make the right moves? Perhaps the Devils might flinch at possibly going into the $10M+ range with Hall?

A lot hinges on what happens with Hall, and there could be ripple effects through the Devils’ roster.

Sami Vatanen and Nico Hischier will see their contracts expire after 2019-20, too. Kyle Palmieri is a bargain at $4.65M, but that won’t last forever, as his deal ends after 2020-21.

Knowing what the future holds with Hall could illuminate decisions like what to do with Vatanen, and also might push the Devils in certain directions. Their goaltending situation is fraught, but Hall’s likely presence or absence might also influence what kind of resources the Devils would want to invest in improving that situation. If you have a building block like Hall in place, maybe you go bold in seeking Sergei Bobrovsky, or a cheaper veteran. If not, you’re probably looking for cheaper, younger solutions.

It’s all a lot to take in, whichever way Hall leans. The situation would be even tougher to manage if Hall was hobbling through the rest of this season, so it makes sense to hopefully mend his knee, and focus on patching up the 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.

Penguins’ Brassard ejected for elbowing Devils’ Vatanen

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(UPDATE: No hearing coming for Brassard.)

We have another questionable hit in the National Hockey League.

This one came at the hands… err… elbow of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Derick Brassard, who drilled New Jersey Devils defenseman Sami Vatanen from behind during the third period of their game on Monday.

Here’s the tape:

Brassard was given five minutes for elbowing and was bounced from the game, too.

The Devils scored twice on the ensuing power play but also gave up a shorty.

As far as the hit, there are arguments both ways here.

Brassard didn’t appear to hit Vatanen in the head (or at least it wasn’t the principal point of contact), rather the hit to the back of Vatanen ended up propelling his face into the glass, causing his blood to flow.

On the other hand, Vatanen’s numbers were showing and, well, hitting a guy like that with his numbers showing isn’t the best course of action. And the elbow was high, and it never looks good when the victim of one of these hits crumbles to the ice and is visibly injured.

Whether or not it gets a second look from the league won’t be known until Tuesday.

The Devils ended up winning the game 6-3.


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

Ducks make a hat trick of deals Wednesday as re-tooling continues

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When you’ve lost as many games in a row as the Anaheim Ducks have recently — and you’ve publicly backed your head coach — the only thing left to do is throw a stick of dynamite into the locker room to shake things up.

That’s precisely what Bob Murray has done over the last several hours (and the past couple of days). In fact, at the time of writing this, the top three posts on the Ducks’ website are three media releases involving trades. Scroll a little further down, and another trade appears.

That’s four trades in the span of three days. You can’t say Murray isn’t trying (although the debate will rage on whether these trades really move the needle at all).

The Ducks acquired center Justin Kloos from the Minnesota Wild for winger Pontus Aberg late Wednesday afternoon. Kloos, who has only played in one NHL game this season (and the rest in the American Hockey League for Iowa) led the Wild’s farm team in points and was tied for the most goals.

Aberg, meanwhile, has been a healthy scratch recently after initially showing well to start the season. Alas, his 11 goals and eight assists were cutting it, even if he was near the top of the Ducks’ scoring leaders.

[RELATED: Ducks get younger, ship Cogliano to Stars for Shore]

Michael Del Zotto was watching the Vancouver Canucks lose 3-2 in a shootout to the Edmonton Oilers when he was beckoned by Murray in exchange for fellow defenseman Luke Schenn and a seventh-round draft pick in 2020.

Del Zotto was a healthy scratch on Wednesday, something he’s been quite a bit this season. Schenn, meanwhile, has spent most of the season playing for the San Diego Gulls in the AHL.

And the last trade of the day brought a familiar face back to the west coast.

Forward Derek Grant returns to Anaheim after signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent in the offseason. Grant played in 66 games last season with the Ducks, scoring 12 goals and adding 12 assists.

In 25 games with the Pens, he found the back of the net just twice, adding three helpers.

The Ducks sent center Joseph Blandisi the other way. Blandisi was a sweetener in the Adam Henrique-for-Sami Vatanen trade between Anaheim and the New Jersey Devils last season. He only played six games with the Ducks since arriving last winter, an has no goals and no points in those games.

Murray made his biggest splash on the first deal he made on Monday, sending Andrew Cogliano to Dallas for Devin Shore.

MORE: Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wildcard race?


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 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.