MacKenzie Blackwood

A night of ‘finally’ for Devils in win vs. Rangers

It wasn’t always pretty for the New Jersey Devils against the New York Rangers on Thursday night.

The Devils’ first win of 2019-20 wasn’t a work of art. Jack Hughes‘ first NHL point wasn’t all that aesthetically pleasing, either. But the Devils will take it. And being that this came against the Rangers, the sweet will outweigh the bitter even more.

After falling behind 1-0 early, New Jersey fired off three consecutive goals to eventually secure a 5-2 win in front of a mixture of Rangers and Devils fans in Newark. The “workmanlike” nature of the victory really could be summarized by Hughes’ first point not exactly coming as you’d draw it up: an assist that deflected off of Miles Wood‘s backside, essentially.

Let’s work through some of the storylines in this one.

Breaking some droughts, but still some work to do.

Again, the Devils really needed this win, as they came into Thursday at 0-4-2 (now 1-4-2). The Rangers likely felt a little rusty, as they last played on Saturday, and have only appeared in four games, slipping to 2-2-0.

Along with finally getting that first win, and Hughes getting his first point, the Devils finally scored on the power play. New Jersey went 0-for-18 through their first six games, so Kyle Palmieri‘s power-play marker is another source of relief.

Heck, with a long-distance empty-net goal, P.K. Subban also scored his first goal with the Devils.

A pessimist would argue that an empty-net goal only counts for so much, and that Hughes’ assist wasn’t impressive, but those also mean fewer annoying questions during interviews. Like Victor Mete after scoring his first NHL goal, the Devils can just play.

But, yeah, they need to be better. Sure, they finally scored on the power play, but they only went 1-for-7 on Thursday, so they still need to find some answers.

(I hate to say it, but they really need to explore the question of whether Wayne Simmonds is still a top power-play unit guy. He’s struggled in recent years, and while the effort still seems to be there, the “finish” might not be. He has zero goals and one assist through seven games. Maybe it would be better to replace him with Nikita Gusev, who didn’t need much space to score after Artemi Panarin broke a stick on Thursday? A group including Gusev, Hughes, Subban, Palmieri, and Taylor Hall could be lethal.)

An answer in net?

It’s nice to see Cory Schneider possibly being healthy, or healthier, as his free-fall from elite to poor goalie is likely due in part to injuries. The bottom line is that Schneider might just be a backup (or worse) at this point in his career, though. Schneider’s 0-3-0 record and putrid .876 save percentage provide little hope that he’s just going to turn back the clock.

So the Devils really don’t have much of a choice: they need to see how far Mackenzie Blackwood can bring them.

The 22-year-old was off to a rocky start of his own this season, but was sharp on Thursday, stopping 29 out of 31 shots, including six SOG from a Rangers PP that went 0-for-6. After one great stop via the scary one-timer combination of Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, Subban gave Blackwood a tap on the head in appreciation. Rightfully so, I’d say.

Last season, Blackwood generated a .918 save percentage over 23 games (21 of which were starts). That’s not a huge sample size, but being that he was a second-rounder (42nd overall in 2015) and Schneider looks shaky-at-best, the Devils have every incentive to send him out there and see if he can give them at least league-average goaltending.

No.1 vs. No. 2 isn’t there yet

There are moments where it’s already captivating to watch Hughes, right down to nerding out when he does some simple-but-impressive skating, such as using his edges or accelerating with impressive speed.

But if we want Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko to become a rivalry worth watching, we will have to lean on stronger sequels.

Both the Rangers and Devils seem like works in progress, yet with all of the talent they’ve added, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more fireworks in future meetings.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Devils searching for first win of season

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After failing to make the playoffs last season, the Devils made some significant changes to their roster during the summer. First, they drafted Jack Hughes number one overall. Second, they swung deals with the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev. Third, they signed Wayne Simmonds to a one-year contract. That’s some significant movement.

So, it’s only natural that general manager Ray Shero would be disappointed by his team’s 0-1-1 start. They dropped their home opener, 5-4 in a shootout, to the Winnipeg Jets and they also proceeded to get pounded 7-2 on the road in Buffalo. Giving up 11 goals in the first two games is less than ideal and they need to find a way to fix their issues.

“We’re playing soft and light, and we’re playing like we want to have an easy game,” Devils coach John Hynes said after the loss to the Sabres, per NHL.com. “We can talk about it nine different ways; that’s the reality of where we’re at right now, so we’ve got to fix it.”

Of course, the lack of stability between the pipes is also an issue. Cory Schneider was forced to leave Thursday’s game against Winnipeg because of cramps. Mackenzie Blackwood, who entered the game in relief, gave up two goals on nine shots and then lost in the shootout. Blackwood was forced to play the next night and he gave up seven goals on 36 shots.

It sounds like Schneider will be available for tonight’s clash against the Flyers, but the players in front of him need to make life a little easier for whoever is in their goal.

“Defensively, we haven’t been hard enough in any plays, and we’re allowing teams too much time and space,” forward Travis Zajac said. “We know what we have to do and what’s our identity and what’s expected of us as a team, and we just haven’t been able to get to our identity.”

Hynes had the benefit of not having a game for three full days (Sunday through Tuesday), so his team had time to work on things on the practice rink. They better have found a solution to their issues because their upcoming schedule will be tough, as they’ll play in Philly tonight, at home against the Oilers tomorrow night, in Boston on Saturday and at home against the Panthers on Monday afternoon.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Tonight, the Devils face a Flyers team that’s making their season-debut in North America. Philadelphia took down the Chicago Blackhawks in Prague last week. They’ll now look to keep the ball rolling against a struggling divisional opponent.

The Flyers will go head-to-head against a familiar face, as they’ll welcome Wayne Simmonds back to Philadelphia for the first time since they traded him to Nashville last season.

“Hopefully I get some cheers. I was pretty deep-rooted in that community,” Simmonds told NJ.com. “I spent eight years there and had a great time. I enjoyed Philadelphia thoroughly. So I was proud to be a part of that franchise and don’t regret anything I did in a Flyers uniform.”

On Wednesday night’s season debut of Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN, NHL fans will be able to get a sneak peek to a yet to be released Green Day song called “Fire, Ready, Aim”. The song will serve as the opening theme song of Wednesday Night Hockey throughout the 2019-20 season and will be featured on NHL on NBC Sports broadcasts throughout the season.

Produced by NBC Sports, the high-energy show open features the band playing their new song on a hockey rink interspersed with action shots of more than a dozen NHL players, including Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, P.K. Subban of the New Jersey Devils, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, among others.

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.

Will Taylor Hall re-sign long-term?

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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 identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Let’s ponder three questions for the 2019-20 Devils:

1. Has all the offseason work enticed Taylor Hall to re-sign?

In early June, a report from The Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta suggested that Hall had no interest in re-signing with the club.

Fast forward a month, and the team that managed just 74 points in a dismal regular season now had Jack Hughes, the top prospect in the 2019 NHL Draft, P.K. Subban, one of the league’s best defensemen, and were about to embark on adding Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev before August hit.

Ray Shero needed to do something to convince Hall that the Devils were heading in the right direction and perhaps it has worked, although there is still no long-term extension in place for the former Hart Trophy winner.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Hall’s agent, for what it’s worth, says there’s no rush. As does Shero.

And while that may be true, these sort of things only become distractions as the regular season hits in 2019-20. The Devils would certainly need to know by the trade deadline so they could avoid a John Tavares incident.

Two first-overall picks in the past three seasons and a genuine attempt to make the team better has to sit well in Hall’s camp. But there’s always going to be that allure of having the world at his feet with truckloads of money and the ability to chose his destination next summer.

2. What role will Mackenzie Blackwood take on this season? 

Cory Schneider went more than a calendar year without a win and he was horrific to start the season, posting a 0-7-2 record before finally getting that elusive ‘W’ in the middle of February.

From there, he went 6-6-2 with a .927 save percentage down the stretch as he finally looked like the goalie sans the hip issue that had plagued him (and was surgically repaired in May 2018.)

Schneider’s injuries and Keith Kinkaid not being very good allowed the Devils a chance to see what Blackwood could do. And 22-year-old didn’t disappoint, even with the mess in front of him.

In 21 starts he went 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage and two shutouts.

While Schneider appeared to begin his bounceback from surgery in the last half of the season, Blackwood should see increased time (even if the former is making $6 million a season.) Blackwood appears to be the future in New Jersey and the Devils shouldn’t be married to Schneider being their de facto No. 1.

3. What, if anything, will Shero do the rest of his cap space? 

There’s roughly $8 million still sitting in his kitty, although the team still needs to sign restricted free agent Pavel Zacha.

Evolving Wild’s model has Zacha coming in around the $2 million mark in terms of annual average value, which gives the Devils $6 million-ish to work with they want to strengthen the team further.

Of course, the unrestricted free agent pool has shrunk over the summer, but you wonder if a guy such as Patrick Maroon might make for a good addition in terms of grit and experience.

What about a Ben Hutton on defense to make another improvement on the blue line?

There still may be some bargains out there and the Devils appear to have assembled a team worthy of playoff talk.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

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Even during their championship glory days the New Jersey Devils were never a team known for excitement, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you are winning and competing for the Stanley Cup.

But as the franchise regressed over the past eight years into a pit of mediocrity they were stuck in one of the worst possible positions an NHL team can be in — mediocre and boring.

General manager Ray Shero and his front office have done a ton of work this offseason to fix both of those problems.

They continued their overhaul on Monday by acquiring — and signing — winger Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights for draft picks.

When combined with the acquisition of P.K. Subban, the signing of Wayne Simmonds, the drafting of Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, and what will hopefully be fully healthy seasons from Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier the Devils have dramatically uploaded pretty much everything about the team.

They added impact talent that not only makes them better, but is also going to be worth watching.

They have done all of that without having to give up anything of value from their NHL roster or farm system. It has been the perfect confluence of luck (winning the draft lottery) and timing as the Devils were armed with a ton of salary cap space to help them load up in the ongoing Metropolitan Division arms race this summer.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even with all of the improvements the Devils still have one very big question remaining that will probably make or break what happens with their 2019-20 season.

That question: Goaltending. It has been a thorn for the Devils over the past three years as they have finished 27th, 18th, and 22nd in save percentage during that time.

Veteran Cory Schneider was once of the best goalies in the league, but is entering his age 33 season and has not finished with a save percentage higher than .908 since the 2015-16 season. His .908 mark over the past three combined seasons is 35th out of the 38 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games during that stretch. That is obviously not anywhere near good enough.

Mackenzie Blackwood had a promising debut last season, but with only 23 NHL games under his belt he is still a complete mystery. Especially since he did not really dominate at the American Hockey League level before getting an opportunity with the Devils.

The concern here is that if neither one is able to give the Devils an adequate performance in net it can render all of their offseason additions completely useless. There is no position that dictates what happens with a team more than goaltending. The New York Islanders showed us last season that a great performance in net can take an otherwise average team and turn it into a team that is capable of not only making the playoffs, but going reasonably far. Bad goaltending can completely sink a contender.

The good news for the Devils is that even after all of their additions this summer is that they still have more than $12 million in salary cap space to improve their roster and address their remaining weaknesses. The problem is the free agent pool for goalies is completely dry so any potential improvement (if needed) would have to come by way of trade. The Devils do still have all of their future first-round picks to use as trade chips if needed.

The new additions to the Devils lineup are going to go a long way toward putting the franchise back on the NHL map.

They just need to hope two of their returning players can solidify the most impactful position on the ice to make all of the additions worthwhile.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him to two-year deal
Predators send P.K. Subban to Devils
Devils sign Simmonds to interesting one-year contract

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.