Wednesday Night Hockey: What went wrong for Devils this season?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Devils shocked the hockey world last season when they finished in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. No one saw it coming. In the end, they fizzled out in the first round, but the 2017-18 campaign was filled with positives for this young Devils squad.

Fast forward one season, and things are very different. They’re nowhere near a playoff spot with just under a month to go and they’ve been out of the race for a while already. They sold players like Brian Boyle, Keith Kinkaid and Marcus Johansson at the trade deadline for draft picks, which showed they were focused more on the future than the present.

But why did things fall apart this year? Was last year just a blip on the radar?

Let’s take a look.

The biggest difference between this year and last, is Taylor Hall. The 27-year-old was named league MVP last year, as he accumulated 93 points in just 76 games. Unfortunately for Hall and the Devils, he just couldn’t stay healthy this year (he’s been out since Dec. 23 with a knee injury). When he played, he remained as productive as ever, scoring 37 points in 33 games. But there’s no way the Devils could compete for anything without Hall in the lineup. That’s the case for a lot of the borderline playoff teams in the NHL. No Hall=No playoffs. It’ll continue to be that way going forward, too.

Will Butcher was another one of the unexpected positives for the Devils last season. The 24-year-old had a terrific rookie season with five goals and 44 points in  81 games. This year, those numbers have come way down, as he has four goals and 26 points in 68 contests. Many of his key advanced stats have dipped, too. His CF% has gone from 53.14 to 49.72 percent, while his FF% dropped from 53.89 to 50.74 percent. That’s not completely unexpected when you consider how everyone on the team’s play has fallen.

Keeping the puck out of their own net has been a major issue, too. When Cory Schneider was injured or struggling in 2017-18, Kinkaid was there to pick up the slack. The veteran had a respectable 2.77 goals-against-average and a .913 save percentage in 41 outings. Before being traded to Columbus last month, he had a 3.36 GAA and a 891 save percentage in the same amount of games. That’s a significant difference.

As for Schneider, injuries and overall inconsistency have held him back over the last couple of seasons. If the Devils are going to make a run at a playoff spot next year, they’ll need him to be a lot better than he’s been lately. He and Hall could be the biggest keys to turning this thing around.

2018 Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne Schofield will serve as an analyst for NBC Sports’ Devils-Oilers Wednesday Night Hockey telecast. Coyne Schofield made her broadcasting debut as an analyst on Wednesday Night Hockey in January and has also served as a studio analyst for NHL Network.

Coyne Schofield will join Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) for the call of Devils-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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.

Golden Knights could win big thanks to Seattle’s expansion draft

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What if the Vegas Golden Knights “win” the expansion draft … again?

In a fascinating article that’s absolutely worth your time (sub required), The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun ran down how the Golden Knights could leverage the fact that they’re exempt from exposing players to Seattle’s expansion draft to land some great trades from teams who don’t want to lose players for nothing.

Parking ticket

The possibilities are almost overwhelming, especially if GM George McPhee finds creative ways to get assets, picks, and players from teams unable to protect certain guys Seattle might otherwise get. What if McPhee gets really creative by pushing the limits to help teams essentially “circumvent” the expansion draft?

One idea might be to “park” a player in Vegas for the expansion draft, giving the Golden Knights some sort of asset, only for Vegas to send that player back later on?

The league will allegedly take measures to make sure that doesn’t happen.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told LeBrun that “you can’t park players on Vegas,” hinting that, since the NHL must approve all transactions, they could reject a shady-looking deal.

“I don’t see that happening, they’re just not part of this expansion,” Daly said. “Obviously, we’ll make sure that Vegas isn’t used in the process by other clubs to circumvent the purpose of intent of the expansion draft rules, but I don’t anticipate that happening.’’

Actually enforcing circumventing moves could end up being easier said than done, however.

Thin line between “parking” and a valid trade

Sure, the league could stand in the way of truly blatant moves, much like they shot down that cap-circumventing Ilya Kovalchuk contract with the New Jersey Devils.

But what about more straightforward trades, where a team senses they’d lose a player, so they give up on that guy for picks and prospects? This is a league where Taylor Hall was traded one-for-one for Adam Larsson, so how far could the NHL go in making value judgments for potential trades?

LeBrun provides an example of the Predators theoretically trading P.K. Subban to Vegas as the odd man out, and down the line, that could make sense even outside of the expansion draft. After all, Subban will be getting up there in the years by then – he’s already 29 – and Nashville might legitimately prefer to stick with their other key defensemen, what with Roman Josi nearing a raise and Subban carrying a $9M cap hit.

And, really, how long can you keep a player “parked” before he’s fair game again?

Let’s say a player is sent to Vegas for a season, only to return to his original team. What would make such a move unacceptable when you remember the path of Jamie Oleksiak? The Penguins traded a fourth-round pick to Dallas for the towering defenseman back in Dec. 2017, only to get their draft pick back from Dallas when they returned Oleksiak to the Stars on Jan. 28 of this year. None of this is to say the Oleksiak trades were nefarious. Instead, there’s precedent for recent returns, so even handing out “parking violations” might be quite challenging.

Frankly, it all sounds like a nightmare for the NHL to try to police.

Really, though, the greatest “deterrent” arguably should be just how poorly teams handled trades to the Golden Knights to avoid protection issues.

Repeating history?

Most infamously, the Panthers sent Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas, to a) get rid of Smith’s contract and b) protect the likes of marginal defenseman Alex Petrovic. But check out this trade history and you’ll see other teams who pulled a muscle trying to beat the system. The Blue Jackets ended up doing all sorts of maneuvering, only to make the wrong call on William Karlsson. The Wild fared very poorly. Plenty of teams loaded up Vegas with draft picks, and in just about every case, the Golden Knights profited greatly from those GMs outsmarting themselves.

Seattle will try to do the same thing, but teams will be wary of making those mistakes again — plus they’ll have Vegas to work with.

Also, it’s easy to say you don’t want to repeat history with past mistakes, but Flames GM Brad Treliving gave an interesting take on that to LeBrun:

” … Are people going to be a little more hesitant because of the history and success Vegas has had of doing side deals? Maybe,” Treliving said. “But at the end of the day, you’re not going to say, `I’m not going to do this because something did or didn’t happen last time.’ You’re going to make the best decisions for the club. It’s always easy to Monday morning quarterback it, but the biggest thing is that everyone is going to be more familiar with the process. It’s the same rules.”

At some point in reading this post, you might be thinking that Vegas has an unfair advantage. Shouldn’t they have to give up a player in Seattle’s expansion draft after being able to go through the NHL’s teams like a buffet during their own expansion draft?

LeBrun reports that some GMs grumbled to him about that exemption, but the gripes lose their muster when you remember that the Golden Knights also aren’t getting a cut from the $650 million expansion fee from Seattle.

Ultimately, it is what it is when it comes to Vegas being exempt.

The Golden Knights could really be a wild card during expansion draft time, so good luck to the NHL in trying to keep all of that in control. Like Vegas’ zany pregame shows, this also only makes it a tougher act for Seattle to follow, too.

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.

Player safety, offense key topics at NHL GMs meetings

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The annual NHL’s general managers meetings took place in Boca Raton, Florida this week and as has been the case in recent years player safety and increased offense were among the major talking points.

Perhaps the most noteworthy proposal is one that would penalize players that do not immediately leave the ice after they have lost their helmet during play.

Helmets have been mandatory in the NHL since the 1979-80 season (players already in the league at that time were grandfathered in, which is how Craig MacTavish, for example, played helmet-less into the 1990s) but there has never been a rule that has forced a player to exit the ice should they lose their helmet during play.

It is something that happens quite regularly in the NHL and is obviously a safety concern.

“I don’t see any reason why we’re waiting around for something to happen in this space,” said George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, via NHL.com.

“God forbid something should happen. I think this rule would go on the list right away, so everybody was on board with that. We’ll figure out what that rule will look like, draft up some options and push it through the proper channels.”

Parros also added that the league has looked into making helmets mandatory during warmups. Currently, NHL players are allowed to take part in warmups without their helmets and in recent years we have seen a couple of notable injuries take place as a result.

Pittsburgh Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist has been hit in the head by pucks on two different occasions in recent years, while Taylor Hall, back during his Edmonton Oilers days, needed 30 stitches to repair an injury he suffered during a warmup collision.

One of the other proposals that will be up for debate centers around teams having the option of choosing which face-off circle they want to begin a power play on.

Instead of the current rule, which has the location determined by where the puck went out of play or where it was last touched, the general managers are proposing that teams should be allowed to choose which side the initial face-off takes place on. In theory, this would enable coaching staffs to set up plays and get players into their best possible position for a quick strike on the man-advantage. This would allow teams like the Washington Capitals or Tampa Bay Lightning to put the face-off in the right circle to open every power play in an effort to set up Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos for their one-timers right off the draw.

This is one of those rule changes that, from a big picture outlook, doesn’t seem like it will make much of a difference in league-wide goal-scoring rates or style of play, but could have a big impact in an isolated sampling at the end of a game or in overtime.

What might be an even bigger change is the recommendation that the face-off remain in the attacking zone when the puck is shot out of play by an attacking player. Under the current rule the ensuing face-off is moved outside of the offensive zone in such situations. Keeping it in the zone, whether it be on the power play or at even-strength, could make a big difference because it keeps the attacking time in what could be a prime scoring position instead of making them have to not only win possession of the puck, but also regain entry into the offensive zone.

One other idea that was talked about was to forbid teams from making a line change if their goalie covers the puck on a shot that originated from outside the blue line, while others proposed making a two-minute penalty for delay of game.

This is more of a pace-of-play issue would aim to cut down on unnecessary stoppages.

The only time now when teams are not allowed to make a line change is after they ice the puck.

Before any of these ideas can officially become rules they must first be agreed upon by the NHL and the NHLPA, and then approved by the board of governors at the end of June.

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.

Devils say Mueller didn’t suffer concussion or neck injury from scary fall

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When New Jersey Devils defenseman Mirco Mueller suffered a frightening fall during Wednesday’s game against the Flames, many feared the worst. He was stretchered off after that incident, at least showing that he was able to give the “thumbs up,” but it was still a pretty scary scene.

From the sound of the latest update, maybe it looked worse than it really was?

Devils coach John Hynes said that, somehow, Mueller didn’t suffer a concussion nor a neck injury from that fall with Michael Frolik. Instead, Hynes described it as “basically a left shoulder injury right now,” according to Amanda Stein of the team’s website.

” … For as bad as the hit looked and what we all thought possibly could happen, there was really good news on that,” Hynes said. “It’s nice to see him not be too injured, and a left shoulder injury coming out of that is a real positive.”

Indeed, it’s pretty hard to believe that Mueller, 23, may only end up dealing with a shoulder issue from that moment. (You can see the collision and fall in the video above this post’s headline.)

Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, has been making some headway since being traded to the Devils from the San Jose Sharks in 2017. After generating four points and averaging 16:41 ice time per game in 28 contests last season, Mueller’s managed 10 points in 47 games this season, logging a career-high 18:09 TOI per game in 2018-19. Here’s hoping this injury isn’t too big of a setback for a defenseman who seems to be establishing himself as an NHL regular.

This isn’t the only bit of injury news for the Devils this week, as the team announced that star Taylor Hall underwent knee surgery.

New Jersey hasn’t officially announced that either Mueller or Hall are done for the season, but with little but pride to play for, it would be surprising to see either back before 2019-20.

Honestly, it’s promising that such a possibility is even being considered for Mueller, considering how bad his fall into the boards looked the moment it happened.

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.

Hip surgery ends miserable season for Oilers’ Puljujärvi

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It’s been a day of tough news for prominent Edmonton Oilers draft picks – one former, and one many believe will inevitably leave, too.

While the Devils haven’t outright said that Taylor Hall‘s season is over thanks to knee surgery, the Oilers confirmed that Jesse Puljujärvi’s season is finished as he readies for hip surgery.

Here’s more from the Oilers and assistant/interim GM Keith Gretzky:

Assistant GM Keith Gretzky says the injury has been bothering Jesse for some time now, and after careful consideration with the player, his agent, and the team’s medical staff, the best decision was to have the surgery and miss the remainder of the season.

The team believes that Puljujärvi will be healthy by training camp for the 2019-20 season.

This is the latest dramatic development in what’s been an increasingly uncomfortable situation between the player and team, as he’s bounced in and out of the lineup, and up to the NHL and down to the AHL over these bumpy first three years since being selected fourth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Puljujärvi and his agent Markus Lehto were not in favor of a recent push to demote him to the AHL, and also made some eyebrow-raising comments about ending his time with the Oilers in general.

Ultimately, this boils down to struggles for both the Oilers and Puljujärvi.

At some point, you have to start producing some offense, so Puljujärvi’s nine points in 46 games this season is troubling, especially after making baby steps in the right direction last season (12 goals and 20 points in 65 games). Those numbers make you worried if the Finnish winger will ever truly catch on. Could he be another Nail Yakupov?

Yet – stop if you’ve heard this before – the Edmonton Oilers made questionable calls when it came to his development.

Puljujärvi’s spent portions of each of his first three seasons in the AHL, sometimes bouncing up and down.

He also tends to bounce around the lineup, and is only averaging 11:57 TOI per game in 2018-19. Even last season’s career-high of 13:22 TOI per game isn’t exactly a true “sink or swim” opportunity. Looking at his teammate numbers at Natural Stat Trick, his linemates have been a true hodgepodge when Puljujärvi manages to crack the lineup.

It becomes something of a tug-of-war situation. Even Puljujärvi’s most passionate defenders would probably admit that he could be doing more to earn better opportunities, yet his critics should also understand that the Oilers haven’t really committed to giving him many chances to shine.

Considering the Oilers’ unfortunate recent history with struggling prospects, it feels like this story won’t have a happy ending. The foreshadowing looks grim.

There is one happy scenario, whether it’s realistic or not.

Puljujärvi’s rookie contract is about to expire. That could be a blessing in disguise for the Oilers, as former GM Peter Chiarelli’s forced the team into a lot of salary cap corners with poor value judgments and other gaffes. Picture this, then:

  • The Oilers sign Puljujärvi to a cheap deal with some term.
  • Edmonton makes real changes to the front office, replacing “the old boys’ club” with fresh thinkers.
  • Those fresh thinkers bring in an innovative coach, who also gives Puljujärvi a clean slate and a greater role with the team.
  • Puljujärvi gets his career on track, and the Oilers enjoy some sorely needed cap savings on a quality young player.

If the last three years haven’t already totally burned that bridge, maybe things might actually work out?

A “change of scenery” may end up being more likely, and possibly an amicable way to end this difficult relationship. Of course, there’s a lot of recent history to argue that such a move could blow up in Edmonton’s face.

For all that’s gone wrong, at least the Oilers have a chance to salvage this situation, whether that chance is remote or not.

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.