Cory Schneider hadn’t won a regular-season hockey game since Dec. 27, 2017.
Not 2018. Oh, no.
A 21-game winless streak (0-17-4) and a year and a bit of frustration thanks to injury. Nobody had a bigger monkey on their back.
And when he was inserted into a 4-1 deficit to the Minnesota Wild on Friday night, he wasn’t expected to end that drought either. His job was merely to relieve Keith Kinkaid, who was chased after allowing four goals on 17 shots in the second period.
But the Devils, who came into the game as the worst team in the NHL, Schneider’s appearance seemed to rally the team. Will Butcher snagged a late goal in the second frame to pull the Devils to 4-2. From there, the Devils rattled off two more in the third, including a game-tying goal by Ben Lovejoy with 2:45 remaining in the game to force overtime.
The Wild simply fell apart and Schneider’s 15 saves made sure New Jersey had a chance.
Nico Hischier supplied the overtime winner off a gaffe from Devan Dubnyk, who’s misplay of the puck summed up the second half of the game for the Wild — and utter embarrassment.
“Everyone else was probably more excited than I was,” Schneider said in a post-game interview on MSG+. “For me, it’s just nice to get a win and get two points. It’s been a long time, obviously. It’s just one, but it’s nice to get it.”
Schneider said 2018 was “just a bad year” and he was really looking forward to 2019.
“I’m my harshest critic. I’m hard on myself and I expect a lot from myself,” Schneider said. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t working. I’ve never gone through anything like that in my career, my life, to be honest.
“It seemed like no matter what I did, nothing was really going my way or working for me. I always want to play well for this franchise. For the owners and management who put a lot of faith in me and a lot of expectations on me, which is what I accept. It’s been a while, but hopefully, we can get back to try to play hockey, win games and get my career back on track here.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Nico Hischier's rookie season:
• 82 games played • 52 points • 2.58 5v5 points/60 (25th in NHL) • +22 penalty differential (5th in NHL) • +11.7 Goals For Rel% at 5v5
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.”
Hall feels Nico Hischier deserved "a lot more Calder votes."
"He had 50 points as a centreman as an 18-year-old and, us playing on a line together, we played the top lines each and every night. I'm proud to be his teammate, I'm proud to be on a line with him…"
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.
In his rookie season, Nico Hischier scored 20 goals as the #NJDevils top line center. He didn't miss a single game and it all happened with a chronic left wrist/hand injury. 🤷🏻♂️
Summer summary: If your main complaint about the Hurricanes was about the franchise getting too stagnant – considering that they’ve missed the playoffs since being swept from the 2009 Eastern Conference Final – then the team has you covered. Ron Francis is out as GM, making way for Don Waddell. Rod Brind’Amour replaced Bill Peters as head coach. And the team will look different on the ice, too.
Cam Ward‘s finally gone, with Petr Mrazek coming in with the hopes of supporting Scott Darling after a disastrous first season as Carolina’s would-be No. 1 goalie. To avoid introducing too much change, Carolina maintained its status as analytics darlings by adding solid defenseman Calvin de Haan to an increasingly impressive group.
More to do?: The Hurricanes come into 2018-19 with a ton of cap space and an anxiousness to break the playoff drought, so you wonder if they might want to jump in, say, the Max Pacioretty sweepstakes.
That said, perhaps Jeff Skinner gets traded? The talented skater is entering a contract year, and the Hurricanes might not want to cough up a new contract, so we’ll wait and see there.
Where they stand: In a familiar place, seemingly on the precipice of a breakthrough, yet also with serious questions about goaltending.
(The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?)
The Hurricanes boast quite a bit of talent, but also a lot to prove, especially with a new coach and Hamilton stepping in as a prominent new defenseman. Will they fall short of the hype once again?
Columbus Blue Jackets
Summer summary: Generally speaking, the most prominent talk about changes in Columbus revolve around next summer.
Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are entering contract years, and Panarin in particular seems to be a tough nut to crack. The Blue Jackets might feel the need to trade Panarin rather than seeing him walk for nothing (except cap space) in free agency. It’s a disquieting situation, as Panarin showed signs of being the difference-maker the Blue Jackets have lacked ever since they climbed into relevance.
Columbus did make some nice low-risk, medium-reward plays, though. Anthony Duclair is an interesting addition considering his bargain rate, and Riley Nash could be a savvy pickup, too.
More to do?: Again, sorting situations out with Panarin and “Bob” should keep the Blue Jackets very busy.
Not much has been made of this, but Cap Friendly pegs their space at about $5.63 million, and that’s with an overstuffed roster. If the Blue Jackets decide to just roll the dice in 2018-19 and then let the pieces fall how they may when it comes to Panarin, maybe they’d be wise to try to land an expiring contract? Skinner, Max Pacioretty, and Erik Karlsson all could conceivably push this team over the top.
The Blue Jackets could justify a vacation before things pick up, generally, as most of their concerns are more forward-thinking.
Where they stand: No doubt, it must be beyond frustrating for Columbus to see the Stanley Cup winner come out of their division for three seasons in a row, yet they still haven’t won a single playoff series as a franchise. Such frustrations clearly boiled over when Torts beefed about Jack Johnson‘s perceived slights while joining the hated Penguins.
New Jersey Devils
Summer summary: If you count Taylor Hall winning the 2018 Hart Trophy, this was a solid-enough summer for the Devils.
New Jersey deserves credit for restraint, more than anything else, this off-season. Sure, it would be great to continue adding key pieces, as they’ve done for multiple summers now. Still, plenty of franchises overreact to an unexpected postseason surge by making reckless, shortsighted investments.
Instead, the Devils allowed Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, and John Moore walk rather than possibly giving them problem contracts. GM Ray Shero clearly prefers maintaining flexibility for the moments when he might be able to land another asset in a winning trade. Can you blame him?
More to do?: Unless the Devils are lurking on another big deal, it’s mostly smaller stuff, like signing RFAs Miles Wood and Steve Santini. It might not hurt to start battering around potential extension offers with Will Butcher, though, as he’s on a deal that expires after 2018-19.
Where they stand: Hall provided a Herculean effort to get the Devils into a surprise spot in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To make a repeat appearance, he’d almost certainly need to be as good or better this season.
New Jersey heads into this campaign as an underdog once again, yet there’s quite a bit to like about what the Devils are cooking. They still need some help behind Hall to really scare other teams, though.
New York Islanders
Summer summary: *Cough* oh dear, this is awkward.
So, the Islanders began the summer on a relatively strong note. They enjoyed one of the best weekends at the 2018 NHL Draft and brought in Lou Lamoriello as GM, who then hired a reigning Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz. Pretty, pretty good.
All of that crumbled, of course, when John Tavares decided to leave the Islanders for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Lamoriello responded to that rebuke by clogging up an already expensive bottom-of-the-order with a blah contract for Leo Komarov, a mediocre signing in Valtteri Filppula, and trading for Matt Martin. Yikes.
At least their moves in net might help stem the tide in that regard. Jaroslav Halak‘s turbulent era is over, as volatile (but occasionally brilliant) goalie Robin Lehner comes in to compete with Thomas Greiss and others.
More to do?: The Islanders need to think long and hard about trading some valuable players entering contract years rather than risking losing them altogether, or signing them to deals that could end up being a waste of money. (Sometimes it’s better just to commit to a rebuild instead of taking half-measures.)
Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee all see their current deals expire after 2018-19. Trading one or more of those useful forwards could give the Islanders’ rebuild another big boost.
Where they stand: Look, the dark times have outweighed the peaks for Islanders fans for decades now. Asking for patience won’t be the easiest sell.
That said, with a budding star in Mathew Barzal, the Islanders have a chance to – in a way – get the Tavares situation right this time. They merely need to look around their division to see teams that landed premium prospects in multiple drafts, made some smart moves on the periphery, and yes, enjoyed some good fortune to turn things around.
Finishing at or near the playoff bubble year after year did them very little good.
New York Rangers
Summer summary: Around trade deadline time, the Rangers embraced a rebuild much like the Islanders arguably should. They took another step in that direction by replacing polarizing head coach Alain Vigneault with David Quinn. The Rangers’ logic all seemed sound here.
Still, as an “it” destination for free agents, there might have been a temptation to, say, throw a bunch of money at Ilya Kovalchuk as the latest quick-fix.
(After all, the Rangers have been seduced by headline-grabbing moves essentially since Glen Sather started chewing cigars at MSG.)
Instead, they stood pat, and time will tell if they made the most of three first-rounders and six picks within the first three rounds.
More interesting questions loom around some other players. Would the Rangers consider shopping beloved winger Mats Zuccarello, who’s entering a contract year and might not want to stick around for a rebuild considering he’s already 30? Also, if Artemi Panarin favors a market like New York, would the Rangers be able to move closer to competing close to 2019-20? Management needs to answer questions like these.
Where they stand: This team seems fairly transparent about pivoting for at least one season. Credit management for seeing the writing on the wall, though 2018-19 could be painful to watch as a result.
It’s fascinating to wonder how Henrik Lundqvist truly feels about all of this, and how many times he’ll snare victory from the jaws of defeat (maybe to the Rangers’ short-term detriment).
Summer summary: Spending $35M over five years is a bit pricey to be called a “mulligan,” but either way, the Flyers brought back James van Riemsdyk after getting hosed in the Luke Schenn trade. GM Ron Hextall’s M.O. mostly revolves around being patient and either trading away lousy deals or letting them evaporate with time, so it should be fascinating to see how an old-fashioned, big-money Flyers signing works out in a more … stable era.
More to do?: Somewhat like Columbus, the Flyers’ biggest concerns rest on what to do after 2018-19.
Wayne Simmonds is due a big raise, and it’s plausible that JVR is penciled in to be his replacement. Both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are entering contract years, so the Flyers’ perpetual goalie questions seem likely to continue. Ivan Provorov’s about to enter the final year of his rookie deal, too.
Clearing up those situations – eventually – will play a big role in Philly’s future.
Where they stand: The Flyers are already translating promise to tangible results. Hyped players like Provorov are producing as advertised.
So it seems like the Flyers have “good” more or less locked down. The next step ranks as one of the toughest mountains to climb in sports: going from good to great. There’s a solid chance that the Flyers can make that leap, but it won’t necessarily be easy.
Summer summary: After falling short of a three-peat, the Penguins made some interesting choices.
The key subtraction was Conor Sheary while it seemed like the team’s machinations went into landing Jack Johnson. By just about any metric (beyond “third pick of the 2005 NHL Draft” and “Sidney Crosby‘s friend”), Johnson isn’t particularly effective. The Penguins’ front office obviously believes otherwise, and their off-season basically comes down to exchanging Sheary, Matt Hunwick, and others for Johnson.
More to do?: Pittsburgh doesn’t have any free agents left to deal with, but there are some pressing issues after this coming season. The biggest wild card is that Jake Guentzel is scheduled to become an RFA after his rookie deal expires. What to pay a player with solid stats in the regular season, but most noticeably, generating an excellent 42 points in 37 playoff games?
There are other smaller questions. There were also strange rumors about Phil Kessel being shopped (hot take: they probably shouldn’t do that). But, generally speaking, the big picture for Pittsburgh is the status quo.
Where they stand: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup twice in a row, then finished last season in the second round. Despite such an impressive run, Pittsburgh seems poised to contend once again, as they still have Crosby, Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray.
There’s always concern about hitting a wall, though, particularly since the Penguins’ core players have so much mileage on them between deep postseason runs, international play, and in many cases a decade-plus of intense NHL play.
Crosby and Kessel are 30; Malkin and Letang are both 31. The Penguins’ window should still be open, probably for a while. Even so, fates can turn on a dime in sports. There’s always the chance that this talented group slips.
Summer summary: The summer … you mean, one long hangover for the Capitals? After years of frustration, Alex Ovechkin & Co. won it all after it seemed like the best opportunities went out the window. Repeating won’t be easy, but it’s probably the No. 1 problem the Caps always wanted to have.
The Capitals saw some losses, though smaller than you might expect from a team that just won the Stanley Cup. Jay Beagle was well-liked, but ranks as an expendable “energy guy,” while Brooks Orpik left and then returned. The toughest loss is Philipp Grubauer, an excellent backup receiving his chance to transition into a top guy with Colorado. If Braden Holtby stumbles in the regular season again, the Capitals’ grip on the Metro crown may finally loosen.
Overall, Washington did a nice job keeping players at a reasonable clip, including somewhat unexpectedly managing to retain John Carlson‘s services. Rather than falling into the trap of giving playoff heroes way too much money, the Caps generally leveraged the “we just won” factor to sign Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly to perfectly reasonable contracts.
Of course, the biggest change of all ranks as quite unusual. You don’t see coaches leave teams they won Stanley Cups with very often (Mike Keenan comes to mind; Jimmy Johnson in the NFL), yet that is exactly what happened with Barry Trotz. Todd Reirden faces the tough task of attempting to repeat as a rookie head coach.
Interestingly, Washington might actually be in a halfway-decent spot to try to land a premium rental. While Wilson will eat up a significant chunk of the available space, Cap Friendly puts Washington’s room at about $6.27M right now.
Where they stand: They’re the defending champions and they didn’t lose a major piece of their roster. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Capitals won: they have two fantastic centers, the world’s most lethal sniper, a reliably excellent goalie, and some other very nice supporting cast members to buoy their chances.
Like their BFFs in Pittsburgh, there’s concern about the aging curve, though both teams are more likely to worry about tougher days on the horizon rather than next season.
Still, it’s worth noting that Ovechkin is 32, Nicklas Backstrom is 30, and T.J. Oshie is somehow 31. They aren’t ancient by any stretch, but some players hit the wall sooner – and harder – than others.
Considering the victory parade that may stretch (unofficially) through the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Capitals see a slight dip through the dog days of 2018-19. It’s most likely that they’ll place themselves in a strong position to defend their title once the games start to matter quite a bit more.