Sami Vatanen

Devils should go bold, and not just to keep Taylor Hall

Winning an NHL Draft Lottery should attach a rocket to your team’s hopes, especially when you land that top overall pick even though you don’t have the best odds.

Yet, Taylor Hall‘s been here plenty of times before, so forgive him for not looking at a draft lottery win as a cure-all. Instead, through his time seeing the Edmonton Oilers, and now the New Jersey Devils, landing unexpected No. 1 overall picks, Hall’s name has been associated more with memes (also: “the trade is one for one”) than with being one of the best wingers in the NHL.

The one-time Hart Trophy winner couldn’t help but lean into the jokes himself after the Devils landed the top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft:

No rush on extension

The Fourth Period’s Dave Pagnotta created a stir with a report that mentioned that “as of now,” Hall isn’t interested in signing a contract extension with the Devils, which he would be able to do by July.

Hall, 27, addressed the rumblings, telling The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required) that he’s confused that it would be such big news that he’s simply not in a rush to sign an extension. Hall’s agent and Devils GM Ray Shero made the same general points about there being no real rush to NHL.com’s Mike Morreale.

“We never really looked at July 1 as a deadline and Ray hasn’t looked at it like that either,” Hall said to Basu.

One key point people emphasized from Pagnotta’s report, either way, is the phrasing “as of now.”

In a way, you almost wonder if a light bulb was going off over Taylor Hall’s head as he watched Kawhi Leonard’s situation play out with the Toronto Raptors. Despite being an excellent scorer and player basically since his first NHL game, Hall’s only been to the playoffs once, and that was thanks to his Herculean Hart season where he dragged the Devils into the 2018-19 postseason. Why shouldn’t Hall wait and see if the Devils can actually contend before signing away his rights to hit the open market? As Hall’s agent Darren Ferris mentioned, some players only get one chance to truly sign the contract they want with the team they want to play for – without the artificial bindings of RFA status, and without the aging curve limiting their demands. Hall deserves to explore his options as much as just about anyone else, so it only makes sense that the Devils would need to be really convincing to lock him up for what would could be the rest of his prime.

Got to be smart to take advantage of being lucky

The thing is … the Devils should be aggressive to improve, even if Hall’s $6M cap hit wasn’t expiring after 2019-20.

While Hall’s Oilers blundered despite winning multiple draft lotteries, the Devils should view Jack Hughes’ or Kaapo Kakko’s rookie deal as a window of sorts. You can compete beyond that potential three-year entry-level contract, but you’ll never enjoy savings like these again with whoever the Devils pick first overall on June 21.

Consider that:

  • The Penguins won their first Stanley Cup of their current era (in 2008-09) when Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal were in the final year of their rookie contracts, and made it to the previous Stanley Cup Final in the last year of Sidney Crosby‘s rookie deal.
  • The Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup of their run (in 2009-10) during the final year of rookie contracts for both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

The Toronto Maple Leafs could still compete for years thanks to the bounty of talent they’ve accrued, yet the 2018-19 stings a bit extra because it represents the end of those rookie contracts for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

So, really, the Devils have two directives to get aggressive during this offseason. First, adding more talent can show Taylor Hall that they’re serious about competing, after Shero’s (wisely) taken the slow-and-steady approach before. Secondly, with Jack Hughes/Kaapo Kakko, the Devils could have a difference-maker on a limited contract for three seasons.

A ton of cap space for Devils

While the Devils have a lot to work on – this post from January lays out big issues for their rebuild, including goaltending – Ray Shero has plenty of ammo to use if he wants to be bold. Which, again, the Devils should be, what with that top overall pick and the need to woo Hall.

As you can see from their Cap Friendly page, the Devils have a ton of cap space to work with, as they have an estimated $35.6M in space with 14 roster spots covered. Will Butcher is really the only truly prominent free agent to deal with, although Devils fans might interject with a Stefan Noesen or two.

Yes, Shero must be cognizant of future decisions. Along with Hall being up after 2019-20, Nico Hischier only has one year remaining on his entry-level contract, Sami Vatanen is also entering a contract year, and Kyle Palmieri‘s bargain $4.65M cap hit expires after 2020-21.

But, for the most part, the Devils boast as close to a clean slate as you can hope for in the modern salary cap era, and now is the time to really start taking advantage.

Trades, free agency … offer sheets?

While the free agent route is fascinating and more straightforward (is Newark close enough to New York for Artemi Panarin?), Shero can also get creative.

The Devils have three second-rounders and two third-rounders to go with their normal choices in the 2019 NHL Draft, so Shero could use those picks to swing trades for roster players or try to move up in the draft.

Maybe just as tantalizingly, the Devils’ bounty of 2019 NHL Draft picks could also make them more comfortable with the idea of forking over picks to go the offer sheet route. What if the Devils presented Hall with the opportunity to play with, say, Hughes/Kaakko, Hischier, and Mitch Marner or Brayden Point in the future?

Admittedly, offer sheets are a “believe it when you see it” proposition in the risk-averse NHL. Still, the Devils are one of the teams that are best situated to make such a move, as they have the cap space, the urgency to improve, and the requisite picks to hand over a challenging offer sheet.

(All About the Jersey’s CJ Turturo has a fantastic deep dive on offer sheets and how they relate to the Devils, which also understandably emphasizes that it’s an unlikely route.)

***

Don’t get me wrong; it makes sense that Devils fans might feel a little frightened here. There’s the nightmare scenario where Hall leaves the Devils for nothing, much like what happened with John Tavares and the Devils’ buddies on Long Island.

But, really, this situation should give the Devils another push to be aggressive – and maybe even creative – to get better, fast. Even if Hall isn’t a part of the longer solution, the Devils were gifted with the No. 1 pick, and should take advantage of the significant competitive advantage you can enjoy in competing while key players are on entry-level contracts.

If that aggressiveness impresses Hall enough to stay, then it’s all gravy … or sauce.

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.

Penguins’ Brassard ejected for elbowing Devils’ Vatanen

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(UPDATE: No hearing coming for Brassard.)

We have another questionable hit in the National Hockey League.

This one came at the hands… err… elbow of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Derick Brassard, who drilled New Jersey Devils defenseman Sami Vatanen from behind during the third period of their game on Monday.

Here’s the tape:

Brassard was given five minutes for elbowing and was bounced from the game, too.

The Devils scored twice on the ensuing power play but also gave up a shorty.

As far as the hit, there are arguments both ways here.

Brassard didn’t appear to hit Vatanen in the head (or at least it wasn’t the principal point of contact), rather the hit to the back of Vatanen ended up propelling his face into the glass, causing his blood to flow.

On the other hand, Vatanen’s numbers were showing and, well, hitting a guy like that with his numbers showing isn’t the best course of action. And the elbow was high, and it never looks good when the victim of one of these hits crumbles to the ice and is visibly injured.

Whether or not it gets a second look from the league won’t be known until Tuesday.

The Devils ended up winning the game 6-3.


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’ Vatanen with one of the saves of the year

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Do you remember when you were young and your coaches kept telling you never to give up on a play?

To keep playing until the whistle sounded?

Yeah, Sami Vatanen was listening.

There have been a lot of good saves in the NHL this year. Great ones, too. But most of them have come from goalies — the ones tasked with, and paid for, stopping the puck.

Vatanen’s job, as a defenseman, is to prevent shots. But every once and a while he, too, is called upon to keep the puck out of the net. And he did one hell of a job doing so on Friday night against the Ottawa Senators.

Just watch this sequence above. It’s incredible.

NEWARK, NJ – DECEMBER 21: Sami Vatanen #45 of the New Jersey Devils blocks a shot by Brady Tkachuk #7 of the Ottawa Senators during the second period at the Prudential Center on December 21, 2018 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Senators 5-2.(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

There’s Vatanen flailing across the crease to try and keep the puck from entering the net. And he does it so perfectly.

The result, too, is spectacular, with the Devils going in on a 2-on-1 and Hall scoring.

The moral of the story here is never give up. You never know what might happen.


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

Nikita Kucherov hit forces Sami Vatanen from game; worthy of suspension?

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Here we go again.

Another night in the Stanley Cup Playoffs produces another questionable hit that will certainly be debated.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov crushed Sami Vatanen with a hit in the first period of Game 4 between the Lightning and New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night.

At game speed, the hit looked clean, with Kucherov making initial contact with Vatanen’s shoulder. But when slowed down, it sure looks like Kucherov’s shoulder made contact with the left side of Vatanen’s head.

The latter clutched his head before struggling to get back to his feet. He headed straight down the tunnel and did not return to the game.

Kucherov was not penalized on the play and finished the game with two goals, including the game-winner, and an assist as the Lightning took a 3-1 series lead with a 3-1 win.

The series shifts back to Tampa for Game 5 on Saturday.

Do you believe Kucherov deserves supplemental discipline for the hit? Or do you think the hit was clean?

Let it be known.


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

Adam Henrique shows Devils what they’re missing

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Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that the trade between the New Jersey Devils and the Anaheim Ducks made a lot of sense for both clubs back on Nov. 30.

New Jersey needed help on the backend and the Anaheim needed something to stop the bleeding stemming from a litany of injuries to the Ducks’ forwards.

But man, this can’t make the Devils feel very good about their dealings.

In this filthy video, one in which Henrique scores a highlight reel goal against his former club, it’s the lead up to the goal that’s particularly interesting.

Yes, that’s Henrique flipping the puck over Vatanen, proceeding to beat him in a footrace and then scoring on a nifty backhand shot for good measure.

And on the night he returned to New Jersey for the first time since the trade.

Ouch.

Naturally, the Ducks Twitter account couldn’t help themselves.

Henrique had a pretty cool moment earlier in the night as well.

UPDATE: The Devils got the last laugh, winning 5-3 and reclaiming the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.


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