Devils’ Mueller stretched off after scary crash into end boards

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Yikes.

New Jersey Devils defenseman Mirco Mueller had to be stretched off the ice just over a minute into the third period of Wednesday’s game against the Calgary Flames after a nasty crash rendered him motionless for some time.

Mueller was trying to get to a cross-ice pass from Travis Zajac, but whiffed on the shot attempt. The puck went behind Flames netminder David Rittich, with Mueller and Flames forward Michael Frolik chasing it down.

Mueller’s right foot appeared to pick into the ice, sending Mueller awkwardly into the end boards and Frolik crashing down on top of him through the collision.

Medical attention was immediately summoned, with the Devils’ doctor and training staff from both teams attending. A stretcher was rolled out as players nervously watched on, many stunned.

Mueller appeared conscious as he was getting loaded onto the stretcher and was able to give the crowd a thumbs up as he was rolled across the center line, which drew a nice roar from the home crowd.

The Devils had good news following the game, reporting through their official Twitter account that Mueller had “full feeling and movement in his extremities.” The Devils said he alert oriented and conscious and was taken to local hospital for further evaluation.


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

Ilya Kovalchuk ready for cold reception in return to New Jersey

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“I wanted to go to the place where I have a chance to win the Cup, and the Kings are definitely one of the teams.”

Year One of Ilya Kovalchuk’s return to the NHL isn’t going as planned, with the Los Angeles Kings selling off pieces as they contemplate the future while eyeing the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

The NHL comeback continues on Tuesday as Kovalchuk returns to New Jersey for the first time since his shock 2013 retirement announcement. Only two players remain from that Devils team — captain Andy Green and Travis Zajac. They might have some friendly exchanges on the ice, but the Prudential Center crowd will probably have different feelings, ones still with them nearly six years later.

“I am pretty sure there will be a lot of booing,” Kovalchuk said, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, after LA’s overtime win against the New York Rangers Monday night, “but I love that, so it’s all good.”

Of course, it was only “retiring” from the NHL so he could go to the KHL for five seasons and also represent Russia (a.k.a. Olympic Athletes of Russia) during the 2018 Winter Olympics and win gold.

The controversial decision, which came three years after he signed a 15-year, $100M extension with the Devils, worked for both sides. Kovalchuk got to go home and New Jersey freed up cap space. The league did fine the team $3M and docked them a 2011 third-round pick and a future first-round choice, but the NHL then decided in 2014 to give New Jersey back the first-rounder and forgave part of the fine.

(Kovalchuk’s original 17-year, $102M contract signed in 2010 was deemed salary cap circumvention and the NHL and NHLPA went to arbitration where the deal was nullified.)

In 222 regular season games with the Devils Kovalchuk scored 89 goals and recorded 201 points. His production continued into the postseason where he scored 10 goals and recorded 25 points in 28 playoff games, which included New Jersey’s 2012 appearance in the Stanley Cup Final against the Russian forward’s new team in LA.

After years of speculation about a return, Kovalchuk was free to come back to the NHL after turning 35 last April. The Devils had held his rights since his “retirement.” With the Kings ponying up a third year, he signed in LA for $18.75M and there was plenty of excitement and intrigue about how he would play after so long away from the NHL.

Well, through 42 games, Kovalchuk has 10 goals and 25 points. Despite claiming he’s a “young 35,” the offense has been serviceable on a famously slow Kings roster, even as he missed a time with an ankle injury. His ice time is only at 16:40, not like the 20-plus minutes a night he played during his prime years. He’s been benched, put on the third line and played a net-front presence on the power play.

It’s been a weird year all around in LA.

Given the state of the Kings and Kovalchuk still showing he can be of service with the right useage, his name has popped up in the trade rumor mill ahead of the Feb. 25 deadline. But two more years with a $6.25M cap hit will probably dissuade teams from heavily pursuing such a move.

For now, Kovalchuk is focused on Tuesday night’s game against the Devils and the memories of his years in New Jersey.

“We had a great team,” he said. “We went to the Final. It was a lot of fun. I played with some great players there, a few Hall of Famers and some guys have their jersey retired. It was a great experience for sure.”

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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.

The Buzzer: Hart continues impressive run; Zajac runs wild on Penguins

Three stars

1. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

Hart has four straight wins, so now, too, do the Flyers.

The future has arrived in Philly’s crease and it’s looking good so far. Hart stopped 31 shots against a potent Winnipeg Jets offense that was rather stymied by the rookie netminder.

Hart isn’t just beating up on poor teams, either. He’s got wins against the Wild, the Bruins, the Canadiens and now the Jets during his streak.

Unsolicited advice for the Flyers: give this kid what he needs to shine.

2. Travis Zajac, New Jersey Devils 

A four-point night by Zajac helped get the Devils past the Penguins in a 6-3 win.

Zajac opened the scoring in the game and assisted on three of the next four New Jersey goals, including the eventual game-winner.

The Penguins have lost two in a row now and sit in the second wild-card spot in the East. The Devils, despite the win, are 13 points adrift.

3. Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers

Hart needed some run support to beat the Jets and Konecny made sure he got it, scoring the game-winner in the second period and then assisting on the James van Riemsdyk‘s insurance marker in the third.

It’s back-to-back two point games for the 21-year-old, who has 13 goals and 28 points now in 49 games in his third NHL season.

Highlights of the night

Passing so good:

Shorty:

Factoids

Scores

Flyers 3, Jets 1
Devils 6, Penguins 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

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.

The Buzzer: Taylor Hall does it all for Devils, Maple Leafs rout Kings

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Three Stars

1. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils. The reigning league MVP played like it on Tuesday night as he contributed to all four goals in the Devils’ 4-2 win over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins. Hall scored the game-winning goal 8:07 into the third period and then put the game away with an empty-net goal later in the period. Along with his two goals he also had the primary assist on the Devils’ first two goals, setting up Travis Zajac and Damon Severson. Hall is now up to 18 points in 16 games this season.

2. Tom Kuhnhackl, New York Islanders. We have to give some attention to Kuhnhackl here because this is the type of game he just does not have. He not only scored one of the weirdest goals of the season (watch it here) when he somehow slipped the puck behind Jakob Markstrom while falling to the ice and looking in the wrong direction, but then he went and added another goal later in the game to help the Islanders pick up a 5-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks. With his two goals on Tuesday night he now has three goals on the season in only seven games. Keep in mind he only scored two goals in 69 games a year ago, and only four in 57 games the year before that, and only five in 42 games the year before that.

3. John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs. This was not even a contest. The Maple Leafs completely rolled over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday by a 5-1 margin in a game that was not anywhere near as close as the final score. John Tavares was the star of the night for the Maple Leafs with three points and seven total shot attempts (including four on goal). He is now up to 22 points in 18 games this season. The Maple Leafs, even without Auston Matthews and William Nylander, are very good. The Los Angeles Kings are struggling.

Other notable performances from Tuesday night

— Thanks to a three-point night from Mike Green the Detroit Red Wings were 6-1 winners over the Arizona Coyotes and have now won seven of their past eight games. Who saw that happening?

Tom Wilson returned to the lineup sooner than expected and had a crazy night. He scored a goal and got called for a penalty on the same play, got into a fight, and was a plus-two on the night. He was an assist shy of the Gordie Howe hat trick. The Capitals rolled to a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

Max Domi‘s 10th goal of the season (more than he scored in each of the past two seasons) was not enough for the Montreal Canadiens as they dropped a 6-2 decision to the Edmonton Oilers. The duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl was the difference for the Oilers as they each had three points on the night.

Jeff Skinner has been exactly what the Buffalo Sabres needed. He scored another goal in their big 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.

Highlights of the Night

Just because it is worth one more look.

Joe Thornton hits the 400-goal mark with the game-winning goal against the Nashville Predators.

Factoids

It was not just a big night for Joe Thornton in San Jose. Erik Karlsson is still searching for his first goal of the season but he did reach a personal milestone of his own on Tuesday night.

The Florida Panthers are on a roll thanks in large part to Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov.

Mathew Barzal is one of the league’s best players and an exceptional playmaker.

Scores
New Jersey Devils 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2
New York Islanders 5, Vancouver Canucks 2
Florida Panthers 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Buffalo Sabres 2, Tampa Bay Lightning 1
Detroit Red Wings 6, Arizona Coyotes 1
Washington Capitals 5, Minnesota Wild 2
Edmonton Oilers 6, Montreal Canadiens 2
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Los Angeles Kings 1
San Jose Sharks 5, Nashville Predators 4

MORE: Your 2018-19 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.