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.

Devils’ Schneider wins first game since 2017 after epic Wild collapse

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Cory Schneider hadn’t won a regular-season hockey game since Dec. 27, 2017.

Not 2018. Oh, no.

2017.

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.”

So much for Bruce Boudreau’s promise of playoff hockey this season. A 4-1 lead should be an automatic win.

The Wild have been in free-fall mode for a while now, with just three wins in their past 10 games.

The loss of Mikko Koivu was deflating — devastating, really — but the team has failed to even attempt to rally around it. Look no further than Friday’s game for proof of that

Given the race for the final wildcard spots in the Western Conference, if the Wild don’t figure it out, they’re going to fall out of the playoff picture in short order.

For now, they own the final playoff berth.

Bonus content — just listen to the call on Hischier’s goal:


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.

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