Nico Hischier

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Hischier set to face pressures of contract year

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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.

The guys at the Spitting Chiclets podcast did an excellent interview last week with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.

Why are we talking about MacKinnon on Devils Day at PHT? Just keep reading.

MacKinnon spoke about his sophomore season being a tough one with just 14 goals after winning the Calder Trophy a year before.

It took him two more seasons before he’d flip a switch in his head, one that would take him from a mid-50-point guy to the near-100-point player he’s been for the past two seasons.

MacKinnon said he was starting to feel like he was a bust after being taken first overall in the 2013 NHL Draft.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Now, I’m not saying that Hischier feels the same way. Both are different players. But both are first-overall picks with a tremendous amount of expectations levied upon them, ones that will last throughout their respective careers.

So if MacKinnon was battling mental demons, one could come to the conclusion that Hischier may do so at some point as well.

Hischier dealt with injury in his second year, much like MacKinnon, and was limited to 17 goals and 47 points — down from the 20 goals and 52 points in his rookie season. That said, his points per game rose in his second campaign even if the overall number didn’t.

And none of this is to say that Hischier has been a bust at all. He’s far from that and an excellent two-way center who, now given some tools around him, a great candidate to have a breakout season.

But the pressure is, nevertheless, going to be there for the Swiss kid. There’s a lot of money waiting on the table for him next offseason when his entry-level deal comes to a close.

Hischier remains a massive piece for the Devils moving forward.

The team now has him and Jack Hughes as their 1-2 punch down the spine of the team, a better defense with the addition of P.K. Subban and a greater supporting cast with Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds.

And while the point totals may not jump off the page, the fact is the Devils outscore opponents and create more high-danger scoring chances when Hischier is on the ice.

Hischier is far from being labeled a bust, much like MacKinnon was.

The pressure is on, however, as he enters a season where a big impact could lead to a bigger contract next summer.

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.

Laine, Barkov heading home for regular season games next year

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Finnish supremacy will be duked out in the homeland of Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov next season.

The NHL is sending four teams to Europe during the 2018-19 season, with a marquee matchup that will pit two of the best Finland-born players currently plying their trades in the NHL for a battle in the Land of the Midnight Sun come November.

The Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers will play a two-game set in Helsinki, roughly two hours north of Laine and Barkov’s hometown of Tampere.

And while the battle for the best Finn title will take place between both superstars, more could be in the mix.

The Jets boast forward Joel Armia, a fellow Finn from Pori, who has become a staple on the roster this season.

Winnipeg also has prospect forward Kristian Vesalainen, a first-round pick in the 2017 draft, and defenseman Sami Niku in their system, although both would have to secure roster spots out of training camp next year to make the trip home.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have goaltender Harri Sateri on their roster currently, but have Roberto Luongo and James Reimer ahead of him in the pecking order at this point.

In their system, 2016 first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom hails from Helsinki, while fellow prospect forward Henrik Haapala comes from Tampere.

Elsewhere in Europe, Connor McDavid and Nico Hischier will take their talents to Sweden to open the regular season.

The Edmonton Oilers and the New Jersey Devils will play two games in Sweden to cap off an extended stay in Europe. Both teams they will face each other twice in the preseason — once in Germany, the home country of Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl and again in Switzerland, where Hischier hails from.

In other NHL games abroad, TSN’s Darren Dreger reported that the Calgary Flames and the Boston Bruins are candidates for a two-game series in China next year.

Fellow TSN insider Pierre LeBrun said the league and the NHLPA are ironing out the details.


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

Hischier asked to be benched after penalty-filled stretch

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WINNIPEG — Nico Hischier might only be 18 years old, but he’s already revealing a maturity that’s well beyond his years.

New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero told The Star-Ledger this past week that the forward asked head coach John Hynes to “just (bleeping) bench me,” after the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft took a penalty 45 seconds into a 3-2 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 9.


Two nights earlier, in a 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, Hischier took a penalty 36 seconds into the first period.

The Devils were shorthanded 44 times and were in the lower third of the league in terms of penalty kill percentage (79.6) in the month of October.

Something had to change.

“We had talked to the team about controlling (penalties) and if it didn’t get better, guys were going to sit for a certain amount of time,” Hynes said on Saturday. “We held strong to that and made it clear that it didn’t matter who it was.

“(Hischier) took a penalty the game before. We addressed in between games. He took the first penalty in the next (game) and he came back down and I said, ‘You’re going to have to sit for a bit,’ and he said, ‘I should. It’s my fault.’”

Hischier sat for just over seven minutes but still managed 21:18 of ice-time in the game. He hasn’t taken a penalty in three games since his brief foray riding the pine.

Hynes praised his rookie’s resolve as a team player that hasn’t put his ego before the team.

“He’s not one of these younger players that comes in and thinks, just because of where he was drafted or what his status is or because he’s a good player that he gets preferential treatment,” Hyne said. “That’s why he’s such a special guy for us to have on our team and in our organization. He’s an elite player that really understands what it means to be part of the team. Winning and the team comes before him and his ego.”


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