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New Jersey Devils 2018-2019 Season Preview

New Jersey Devils

44-29-9, 97 points, fifth in the Metropolitan Division

Additions: RW Kurtis Gabriel, D Eric Gryba, D John Ramage, F Eric Tangradi, D Egor Yakovlev

Subtractions: G Ken Appleby (signed by Manitoba, AHL), C Christoph Bertschy (signed with Lausanne, NL), D Yaroslav Dyblenko (released; signed by SKA Saint Petersburg, KHL; traded to Spartak Moscow, KHL), F Brian Gibbons (signed by ANA), W Michael Grabner (signed by ARI), RW Jimmy Hayes (signed by PIT), C Bracken Kearns (signed by Black Wings Linz, EBEL), C Michael Latta (signed by Kunlun Red Star, KHL), LW Mario Lucia (signed by Stavanger Oilers, GET-ligaen), LW Patrick Maroon (signed by STL), D John Moore (signed by BOS), F Ben Thomson (signed by San Diego, AHL)

Offseason Analysis: As tempting as it is for me to use this preview to just write about how much I enjoy watching D Will Butcher play, I must resist.

Oops… Not a good start.

It may not look like it from the length of the lists above, but the Devils were actually pretty quiet this summer. Of all the players departing the organization, only Gibbons and Moore logged more than 50 games played with the senior club last season (59 and 81, respectively), meaning General Manager Ray Shero needed to find only one forward and one defenseman – whether from outside the system or within – to complete his 2018-19 roster.

With Gibbons’ hole residing on Jersey’s fourth line, there’s no doubt that just about any forward in the system is going to have the opportunity to audition for the role. However, leading favorites to claim the job as their own include RW Joseph Anderson and C Michael McLeod.

Selected with the 12th-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, McLeod was the Devils’ first round selection from the Mississauga Steelheads. The hometown hero played four seasons with the Steelheads (including being named captain for two campaigns) to amass solid 76-131-207 totals in 215 regular season OHL games, highlighted by a 27-46-73 effort in 2016-17.

Speaking of that 2016-17 season, McLeod took the Steelheads all the way to the OHL Finals that season with an impressive 11-16-27 performance in 20 playoff games played. Mississauga cruised through the first three rounds of the tournament, dropping only three tilts before running into an Erie side that eliminated them in five games to claim the J. Ross Robertson Cup.

Devils fans should already be familiar with McLeod’s name, as there was an outside shot that he could have turned pro last season instead of returning home for a final season in juniors. However, he suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee during a preseason game with New Jersey last year that required surgery, so the logical course of action for the youngster’s rehabilitation was to keep him away from the bigger bodies in the professional ranks.

Also selected in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Anderson was picked in the third round from the United States National Team Development Program. At 20-years-old, Anderson has spent the last two seasons playing for the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs. In 75 games played with the Bulldogs, Anderson posted 23-41-64 totals, including solid 12-25-37 marks during his freshman year.

Of note, both of Anderson’s seasons in Duluth ended with the Bulldogs playing for the NCAA Championship. In 2017, the Bulldogs fell to the Denver Pioneers 3-2, but not until he posted solid 2-5-7 totals in the four-game tournament – including the primary assist on F Alex Iafallo‘s power play goal in the second period that set the score at 2-1 in Denver’s favor.

2018 was a much more memorable experience for Anderson’s squad, as the Bulldogs beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 2-1 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Anderson failed to register a single point in the tournament last year after a season that saw him experience a bit of a sophomore slump, so I’ll be interested to see if his declining numbers are a sign of what is to come for his career or if he can use it as motivation to rejuvenate his play now that he is a pro.

As for the Devils’ hole on the blue line, it is likely that last year’s seventh defenseman, Steven Santini, will earn the promotion into consistent minutes. Over the past two seasons, Santini has made 74 appearances, averaging 18:07 per game. In those outings, he’s managed 4-13-17 totals, including last season’s 2-8-10 marks in 36 showings.

If Santini can’t prove his worth, I’d peg D Mirco Mueller – who’s likely going to be staying with the senior club as either the sixth or seventh defenseman – to steal the show. He played in 28 games with the Devils last season, averaging 16:41 per game and tacking on four assists.

One problem with being so quiet this summer is that RFA LW Miles Wood, New Jersey’s fourth-best goalscorer from a year ago with his 19-13-32 totals, has not been resigned yet. As such, he has not yet reported to training camp (I mean, who can blame him? I wouldn’t show up to work either if I didn’t have a job.), but I have a hard time believing an agreement won’t be reached sooner or later. Shero has over $18 million in cap space to play with for this season, and he’ll want to lock Wood up in anticipation of the 10 players reaching the end of their contracts following this campaign.

Offseason Grade: B

With such a young team that looks like it still has much room to grow, there wasn’t much reason to make too many moves this offseason considering the Devils made the playoffs ahead of schedule (at least in the opinion of some). New Jersey will earn a promotion to at least a B+ the minute it gets Wood under contract.

2018-19 NHL Schedule Analysis

It’s that time of year again – it’s time to analyze the NHL’s schedule for the upcoming season.

As mentioned in last year’s edition of this post, these sorts of columns aren’t usually associated with the NHL due in large part to the fact that every team plays every other team at least twice – once at home and once on the road – for a fairly even strength of schedule for each and every club. However, there’s more than a few benchmarks on the league’s calendar, as well as some important stretches in each organization’s individual schedule, that makes each team’s campaign unique.

In terms of how the schedule can be divided, the NHL’s offering for this upcoming season is very similar to the one we just completed in June in that it can be divided into fourths. One quarter of the season – approximately 21 games played for every team – is compacted between Opening Day (scheduled for October 3) and American Thanksgiving, the second of nine days this year without any regular season play.

American Thanksgiving is not an arbitrarily picked date, mind you. Longtime fans of DtFR know there’s more than a few stat-heads in residence around here, and one of our favorites is that teams in playoff position by American Thanksgiving qualify for the postseason over 75 percent of the time. For those wondering, last season was a bit wild in regards to that statistic, as only 11 (instead of the usual 12) of the teams in playoff position by the Thanksgiving Break punched tickets to the dance.

I’m not here to point fingers, but the St. Louis Blues were on top of the Western Conference when they sat down for their 2017 turkey feasts. Maybe the tryptophan stuck around for the remainder of the season?

Excuse this Blues fan’s digressions.

I usually consider the second and third quarters as one group (for those bad at math, that’s half the schedule), meaning Black Friday (November 23) to February 24 provides the main bulk of the season – approximately 41 games per team (funny how that works out to half an 82-game season, isn’t it?). Just like Thanksgiving, February 24 is not a date simply drawn out of a hat. Instead, that is the last day of play before February 25’s trade deadline.

It is in this chunk of the season that a team truly proves itself in the face of a grinding schedule, as clubs will be playing at least three games a week for 13 weeks with only two major breaks – the standard three-day Christmas holiday and the All-Star Break/bye week (more on that in a moment).

After the trade deadline, the NHL’s regular season schedule is hot and heavy until it comes to a close on April 6 (You hear that Boston? No extending the season this year!). With every club packing approximately 20 games into only 41 days, teams will effectively be in action every other day as they scramble to complete their playoff qualification or improve upon their seeding.

Of course, there’s always a few wildcards that try to mess with this system. Take, for example, the Florida Panthers, who for the second season in a row have a backlogged schedule. With only 19 games on their calendar before Thanksgiving, the Panthers will play a whopping 22 games after the deadline to close out the season, meaning they just might complete they playoff push they came so close to pulling off last season.

On the flip side, Nashville is a team that has potential to see a stellar position in the standings – say, possession of the Presidents’ Trophy like Tampa Bay had for much of the season – slip through its fingers at the bitter end. The Predators will lace up their skates only 18 times after the trade deadline for the fewest number of tilts in that time span of any club in the NHL.

In terms of spacing their games evenly across the season, the teams with the most-balanced schedules include the Avalanche, Blackhawks, Bruins, Canadiens, Flyers, Lightning, Rangers, Senators, Sharks, Stars and Wild.


This season marks the third season of bye weeks in the NHL, and the league is continuing to make adjustments on the breaks to maximize the benefits for players while minimizing the impact on its overall product.

Year 1 featured byes scattered throughout the schedule from New Year’s all the way into March, creating confusion among fans and, presumably, opposing coaching staffs alike as we tried to keep track of which organizations had taken their breaks already and which were still playing on tired legs.

To alleviate that concern, the NHL condensed all byes into the span of two weeks in January last season with relative success. Gone was the chance of catching a team that had played for four-straight months without much of a break, as well as the chance a team could enter the playoffs with any sniff of an edge due to enjoying their bye later in the season. However, what that design created was a month book-ended by the Christmas and All-Star Breaks that lacked much action, as it’s tough to have games taking place when literally half the league is resting.

In my opinion, the league just might have found a winning formula in its third try. This year’s schedule sees every team’s bye week attached to the All-Star Weekend in San Jose. 21 clubs will enjoy the majority of their breaks following the festivities on January 24-27, while the remaining 10 will take their byes before the weekend or have it split on either side of the break.

What results is a minimum of four days off for all players regardless of their participation in San Jose, plus the four days allocated to the All-Star events that only a handful of players will attend. In addition, by selecting a majority of the 10 teams that will take their byes before the All-Star Break from the Eastern Conference, the NHL can schedule those sides for enough games to fill the scheduling void since travel between those cities is far shorter than in the West.

The players get their breaks and the NHL keeps hockey in arenas and on TV: I’d say everybody wins.


My favorite days of the regular season are always when there’s 15 games on the schedule, leaving only one team inactive. I guess that means I’ll have to do my Christmas shopping on a different day, because the first of those dates is November 23 – right after American Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately for Kings fans, their favorite club will be left out in the cold that day (who am I kidding, is there ever a cold day in Los Angeles?), but they’ll get to participate in December 29’s loaded schedule at the expense of Columbus.

Finally, the last 15-game day of the calendar is on April 6 – the final day of the regular season. Just like the Kings were the first team to be absent on a slammed schedule, the Ducks will be the odd team out, as their 82nd and final game of the regular season will take place the day before against Los Angeles at Honda Center.

ANAHEIM DUCKS – eliminated in First Round, 101 points

It’s hard to tell: did the Ducks have the worst road record of any 2018 Pacific Division playoff team because of all their injuries, or because their style of play is on the verge of extinction in the NHL’s current era of speed and skill?

I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll know soon enough, as four of Anaheim’s first six games are away from Honda Center. Should the Ducks struggle in Glendale against the potentially up-and-coming Coyotes in Game 2 of the regular season on October 6, there just might be cause for concern in Orange County.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (December 15-27)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 14 days (December 29-January 11)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Colorado, vs. Florida, vs. Winnipeg, vs. San Jose, at Los Angeles, at Vancouver, at Calgary, at Edmonton, vs. Calgary, vs. Los Angeles

ARIZONA COYOTES – 29th, 70 points

Going 0-10-1 in your opening 11 games is going to have a majorly detrimental effect on more than your overall record, so it’s no surprise the Coyotes ended the season with the worst home and road records of any club in the Western Conference. However, Arizona posted an 11-7-2 record in its last 20 games to close the campaign, so perhaps the Yotes aren’t as far off the mark as they seem on the surface.

Just like last season, Arizona’s first 11 games could answer a lot of questions about this organization moving forward, as the Coyotes have drawn a balanced schedule to open their season. Six of their first 11 opponents qualified for the playoffs last season (including Winnipeg [Oct. 20] and the Lightning [Oct. 27]), but almost all of the other five were nowhere close to the playoff bubble (Dallas [Oct. 4] was closest, but still missed the postseason by three points). Now, the Coyotes don’t necessarily have to have a winning record by the time October is through, but at least a .500 record would be reason enough to begin believing in this squad.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 17 days (January 20-February 5)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 14 days (February 24-March 9)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Tampa Bay, at Florida, at New Jersey, at NY Islanders, vs. Chicago, at Colorado, vs. Minnesota, vs. Los Angeles, at Vegas, vs. Winnipeg

BOSTON BRUINS – eliminated in Second Round, 112 points

Known for its brutal winters and Nor’easters, few look forward to making the trip to Boston during the wintertime. Count hockey players in particular among the professionals unexcited about a visit to New England, as TD Garden was home to the best home team in the Atlantic Division.

The Bruins fell just one point short of claiming the Eastern Conference crown last regular season, but they’ll have a chance to take an early lead this year when they open the season with eight-straight games against teams that failed to miss the playoffs. After visiting Washington D.C. for the Capitals’ banner raising ceremony on October 3, Boston will head to Buffalo (Oct. 4) before returning home to host the Senators (Oct. 8), Oilers (Oct. 11) and Red Wings (Oct. 13). Then, they’re off to Canada, taking on Calgary (Oct. 17), Edmonton (Oct. 18), Vancouver (Oct. 20) and Ottawa (Oct. 23) before returning home.

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (February 15-23)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 12 days (February 26-March 9)

LAST 10 GAMES: at NY Islanders, at New Jersey, at Florida, at Tampa Bay, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Florida, at Detroit, at Columbus, at Minnesota, vs. Tampa Bay

BUFFALO SABRES – 31st, 62 points

Is it a surprise that the worst home team of the NHL ended up being the worst team at the end of the season? KeyBank Center was not a friendly place for the Sabres last year, but that’s sure to change with first-overall draft pick D Rasmus Dahlin joining the club to excite the loyal Buffalo fans.

Surely to the surprise of many, the Sabres did not finish the 2017-18 season with the worst road record in the league (that belonged to division rival Montréal). 14-20-7 away from home is far from pretty, but is is certainly something to build off of as Buffalo tries to return to the postseason for the first time in eight years.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 17 days (January 14-30)

BYE WEEK: January 19-28 (10 days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 15 days (February 1-15)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Toronto, at Montréal, at New Jersey, at Ottawa, vs. Detroit, at NY Islanders, vs. Columbus, vs. Nashville, vs. Ottawa, at Detroit

CALGARY FLAMES – 20th, 84 points

Teams with outstanding road records in the regular season are usually pretty dangerous in the postseason – but only if they qualify. Enter the curious case of the Calgary Flames last season, as they tied St. Louis for the honor of Best Road Team among those that failed to qualify for the playoffs with a 20-15-6 mark away from the Saddledome.

If new Head Coach Bill Peters can maintain that success in white, he’ll need to make sure his troops are in tip-top shape at the start of the New Year when the Flames begin their longest home stand. During that extended stay in Alberta, Calgary will host tough competition of the likes of the Avalanche (Jan. 9) and Panthers (Jan. 11), as well as the improving Coyotes (Jan. 13) and Sabres (Jan. 16).

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days (January 9-18)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (February 9-16)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Columbus, vs. Ottawa, at Vancouver, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Dallas, vs. Anaheim, at San Jose, at Los Angeles, at Anaheim, vs. Edmonton

CAROLINA HURRICANES – 21st, 83 points

Upon first glance at their 36-35-11 record, you might think you would want the Hurricanes to be traveling to your favorite team’s arena in hopes of them earning two points. However, just the opposite was true, as the Canes tied Florida for the best road record of any Eastern Conference club to miss the postseason.

With that in mind, Metropolitan rivals Pittsburgh (Feb. 5) and New Jersey (Feb. 10) cannot afford to rest on their laurels when Carolina takes to its longest road trip of the season just after the bye week, as the Hurricanes are going to be more than eager to defend their Road Warrior title.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 14 days (November 10-23)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (February 5-12)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Minnesota, vs. Montréal, at Washington, vs. Washington, vs. Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, at Toronto, vs. New Jersey, at Philadelphia

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – 25th, 76 points

My, how the mighty have fallen. After winning its most recent Stanley Cup only three years ago, Chicago took a massive tumble last season to end up in last place in the Central Division, only six points removed from the bottom of the Western Conference. To add insult to injury, the Hawks’ 18-18-5 record at home and 15-21-5 record on the road qualified them for the division’s worst in both categories.

Playoff teams take care of business at home, so that is where the Blackhawks should focus most of their energy at the start of the season. It won’t take United Center very long to spring back to life if the Hawks can earn at least 10 points on home ice in October – an easy task considering four of their seven visiting opponents that month failed to qualify for the playoffs last season.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in seven days (December 12-18)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Three games in five days – 3x (February 1-5; February 27-March 3; March 26-30)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Philadelphia, at Colorado, vs. Colorado, at Arizona, at San Jose, at Los Angeles, vs. Winnipeg, vs. St. Louis, vs. Dallas, at Nashville

COLORADO AVALANCHE – eliminated in first round, 95 points

This might be intrinsic of any 16 seed, but the Avs had the worst home record of any Central Division playoff team and the worst road record of all playoff teams.

Excitement in Denver for the Avalanche is growing by the minute, so I think it’s a safe assumption that Colorado will improve on its 28-11-2 mark at Pepsi Center this season. However, it’s the Avs’ 15-19-7 away record that I’m most concerned with, and they’ll get a nice, balanced road trip in January to work out the kinks in their white sweaters. That road swing starts in Winnipeg with a tough match against the Jets (Jan. 8), followed by two softer tilts against the Flames (Jan. 9) and Canadiens (Jan. 12). The intensity gets ratcheted up again with a stop in Toronto (Jan. 14) before culminating with a visit to Ottawa (Jan. 16). If Colorado can come home with at least seven points from that Canadian swing, it will be more than set up for another playoff appearance.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (January 8-16)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 18 days (January 19-February 5)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Minnesota, at Dallas, vs. Chicago, at Chicago, vs. Vegas, vs. Arizona, at St. Louis, vs. Edmonton, vs. Winnipeg, at San Jose

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – eliminated in first round, 97 points

A 2-0 advantage heading back to Nationwide Arena wasn’t enough to get the Blue Jackets their first playoff series victory, so it’s back to the drawing board again this season.

Going off last year’s table, the toughest stretch in Columbus’ schedule is surely its six-game run leading up to the Christmas break. The Jackets host the Kings (Dec. 13), Ducks (Dec. 15), Golden Knights (Dec. 17) and Devils (Dec. 20) before heading east to take on Philadelphia (Dec. 22) and New Jersey (Dec. 23). Since those last three matchups are in the division, they’re obviously more important, but if Columbus is as good as I think it is, it should come away with at least eight points over that stretch.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 13 days (December 8-20)

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in nine days (March 16-24)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Calgary, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Montréal, at Nashville, at Buffalo, vs. Boston, at NY Rangers, at Ottawa

DALLAS STARS – 19th, 92 points

Dallas’ 26-12-3 home record tied with Columbus for the 13th-best home mark in the NHL last season, yet the Stars failed to qualify for the postseason (in fact, the Stars had the best home record of any Western Conference club to miss the playoffs).

That’s what draws me to the Stars’ Halloween road trip throughout the Eastern Conference. If American Airlines Center is going to maintain its status as one of the tougher places to play in this league, the Stars are going to need to expel some ghosts and improve on their road effort if they want to extend their season beyond 82 games.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (October 28-November 6)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 21 days (January 12-February 1)

BYE WEEK: January 20-29 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Florida, vs. Colorado, vs. Pittsburgh, at Winnipeg, at Calgary, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Philadelphia, at Chicago, vs. Minnesota

DETROIT RED WINGS – 27th, 73 points

How nice is it that the league is letting the W Filip Zadina Era officially get underway with his NHL debut taking place at home? That game might be against a solid Blue Jackets team, but there shouldn’t be an empty seat in Little Caesars Arena on October 4 in anticipation of seeing what this kid is capable of.

Unfortunately for the rebuilding Red Wings, there’s 81 more games remaining on their schedule that might not be met with quite the same fanfare. Even if Detroit is still in contention late in the season, it’ll be hard pressed to make up any ground in the standings as six of its last 10 games – including five straight – are on the road.

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days (February 17-26)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days (March 19-28)

LAST 10 GAMES: at NY Rangers, at St. Louis, at Vegas, at San Jose, at Buffalo, vs. New Jersey, vs. Boston, vs. Pittsburgh, at Pittsburgh, vs. Buffalo

EDMONTON OILERS – 23rd, 78 points

With one of, if not the best player in the game in C Connor McDavid on their team, the Oilers surely have to be better than last season, right? If that is the case, Edmonton’s comeback story will find an interesting start when it squares off against New Jersey at Sweden’s Scandinavium – the home nation of LW Pontus Aberg, D Oscar Klefbom, D Adam Larsson and RW Jesse Puljujarvi – on October 6.

However, the point of the Oilers’ schedule I’m most interested in is the seven games leading up to their bye week. All seven of those tilts will be against clubs that missed the playoffs last year, with all but one taking place at Rogers Place where the Oil were the best home team in the Pacific Division that failed to qualify for the postseason. If Edmonton can’t capitalize on a juicy stretch like that, this team is beyond hope.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 14 days (December 18-31)

BYE WEEK: January 23-February 1 (10 days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (February 25-March 4)

LAST 10 GAMES: at St. Louis, vs. Columbus, vs. Ottawa, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Dallas, vs. Anaheim, at Vegas, at Colorado, vs. San Jose, at Calgary

FLORIDA PANTHERS – 16th, 96 points

Though finishing in ninth place in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18 is usually reason enough to predict the Panthers could qualify for the playoffs this season, there’s even more evidence for those willing to dig a little bit deeper.

The Devils (Nov. 26), Ducks (Nov. 28), Lightning (Dec. 1), Bruins (Dec. 4) and Avalanche (Dec. 6) may be coming to Sunrise during Florida’s longest home stand, but the fact that the Panthers were the NHL’s best home team to miss the playoffs will surely play in their favor. Similarly, there will be no fear in the Cats’ eyes when they travel to Philadelphia (Nov. 13), Columbus (Nov. 15) or Tampa Bay (Nov. 21) during their longest sabbatical from BB&T Center, as Florida also boasts (along with Carolina) the best road record of any Eastern Conference team to fail to qualify for the 2018 postseason.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (November 13-23)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Eight games in 15 days (November 24-December 8)

BYE WEEK: January 22-31 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Dallas, vs. Arizona, vs. Boston, at Toronto, at Montréal, at Ottawa, at Boston, vs. Washington, vs. NY Islanders, vs. New Jersey

LOS ANGELES KINGS – eliminated in First Round, 98 points

This year’s winner of the 2018-19 Bye Lottery is none other than the Kings of Tinseltown, who’ll get a whopping 11 days off the ice to rest and recuperate for the final 32 games of their regular season.

Speaking of byes, keep an eye on the Kings in the days following American Thanksgiving. From November 24-December 4, they’ll play seven games, all of which are against competition who’s 2017-18 campaigns ended after 82 games last season. Making that slice of their schedule even sweeter, six of those sides are from within Los Angeles’ own division, meaning the Kings could start staking a real claim for the Pacific before Christmas if they take care of business – something they didn’t exactly do a good job of last season (the Kings had the worst home record of any playoff team last season).

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 17 days (October 28-November 13)

BYE WEEK: January 22-February 1 (11 days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (February 2-11)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. San Jose, vs. Anaheim, at Calgary, at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Chicago, vs. Calgary, at Arizona, at Anaheim, vs. Vegas

MINNESOTA WILD – eliminated in First Round, 101 points

Every team looks forward to its bye week, but none will need it as much as the Wild. The toughest stretch of Minnesota’s schedule is the six games leading up to the festivities in San Jose, as all of those matchups are against clubs that qualified for the playoffs a season ago.

Minnesota starts that run in Philadelphia on January 14, followed only a day later by a visit to Xcel Energy Center by the Kings. After that, the Ducks (Jan. 17) and Blue Jackets (Jan. 19) both make trips north before the Wild head west to take on Vegas (Jan. 21) and Colorado (Jan. 23). It’s a tough run (especially the game against the Avs, against whom the Wild lost three of four games last season by a combined 19-4 score), but this Minnesota club is a veteran group that should rise to the occasion.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 14 games (October 29-November 11)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (March 11-19)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. NY Islanders, vs. Colorado, at Washington, at Carolina, vs. Nashville, at Vegas, at Arizona, vs. Winnipeg, vs. Boston, at Dallas

MONTRÉAL CANADIENS – 28th, 71 points

The start of the season has a decent chance of being painful for the Habs (they open their campaign at Toronto [Oct. 3] and Pittsburgh [Oct. 6] before returning home to host the Kings [Oct. 11] and Penguins [Oct. 13]), but they’ll then have five-straight tilts against teams that missed the playoffs last season to warm up in anticipation of their first meeting of the year against arch-rival Boston (Oct. 27).

If the Canadiens are going to improve this campaign, they’re going to need to figure out their road woes from a season ago. Finishing the season with a league-worst 11-26-4 record away from Bell Centre is simply not going to cut it – unless Montréal is planning on drafting D Bowen Byram, F Cole Caufield or C Jack Hughes with another lottery pick next summer.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (December 19-31)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 22 days (January 19-February 9)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Philadelphia, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Buffalo, at Carolina, vs. Florida, at Columbus, at Winnipeg, vs. Tampa Bay, at Washington, vs. Toronto

NASHVILLE PREDATORS – Presidents’ Trophy winner, 117 points

The Predators had their sights on something a little bit bigger than the Presidents’ Trophy last season (the Capitals know all about that plight), but their championship window is still wide open – just as long as they figure out when they want to hand the crease over to G Juuse Saros.

Of the many games and series I’m looking forward to this season, few shine as bright as the Preds’ four showdowns with Winnipeg. Fortunately for us, the first of those is scheduled for October 11 – only nine days into the 2018-19 season – but the series will really heat up in March when the final two meetings take place in the span of 23 days. Though Winnipeg is known for its home-ice advantage, Nashville has full intentions of improving on a NHL-best of its own: a 25-9-7 road record.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (November 25-December 3)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 10 days (January 4-13)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at San Jose, vs. Toronto, vs. Pittsburgh, at Winnipeg, at Minnesota, at Pittsburgh, vs. Columbus, at Buffalo, vs. Vancouver, vs. Chicago

NEW JERSEY DEVILS – eliminated in First Round, 97 points

Like a top-flight college football team, the Devils are playing a neutral-site game to open their regular season. However, what sets New Jersey apart from Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC and the likes is that its tilt against the Oilers will not take place in North America, but instead at Scandinavium in Gothenburg, Sweden (homeland of W Jesper Bratt and F Marcus Johansson).

Talk about a truly impartial crowd.

Few teams are going to be looking forward to the Christmas break quite like Jersey. Starting with a showdown in Washington on November 30, the Devils will begin a series of 10-straight games against teams that were in the playoffs last season – none more anticipated than a home rematch against the Lightning on December 3.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in eight days (October 11-18)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Seven games in 13 days (October 30-November 11)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Colorado, vs. Washington, vs. Boston, vs. Arizona, vs. Buffalo, at Detroit, vs. St. Louis, vs. NY Rangers, at Carolina, at Florida

NEW YORK ISLANDERS – 22nd, 80 points

As someone who’s never visited either Barclays Center or Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, I do not know if the Isles’ three homecoming games are going to be awesome because (a) the team returns to the building where they won four-straight Stanley Cups or (b) they’re playing in a building actually built for hockey, but I do know they’ll be awesome nonetheless.

Another thing I know is that the Islanders’ longest home stand (five games, all of which will be contested in Brooklyn) will likely not be a fun one, as C Mathew Barzal‘s side will be hosting the Maple Leafs on February 28 (complete with former captain C John Tavares), Capitals (Mar. 1) and Flyers (Mar. 3) in the span of four days, all of which were playoff teams only a few months ago. That tough stretch will do the Islanders no favors as they try to shed the label of the Metropolitan Division’s worst home team.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (October 13-20)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in eight days (February 26-March 5)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Boston, at Montréal, at Philadelphia, vs. Arizona, at Columbus, at Winnipeg, vs. Buffalo, vs. Toronto, at Florida, at Washington

NEW YORK RANGERS – 24th, 77 points

There’s a few fans and analysts out there that think the Rangers can complete their rebuild and get right back into the playoffs this season. That remains to be seen, but we’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from these Blueshirts by the end of November.

No, I’m not talking about the American Thanksgiving thing that was mentioned earlier – though that is mathematically backed. Instead, I offer this note: good teams can beat other good teams, but great teams almost always defeat the clubs they’re supposed to. In that strain, eight of New York’s last nine tilts before Thanksgiving are against sides that failed to make the playoffs last year, with a majority of those tilts taking place in the Big Apple. If the Rangers can earn at least 12 points during that run, I’ll buy in that this team is for real. For them to do that, they’ll need to improve on a Metropolitan Division-worst 13-23-5 record away from Madison Square Garden.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days – 2x (October 25-November 1; February 12-19)

BYE WEEK: January 20-28 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in nine days (February 2-10)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Detroit, at Toronto, vs. Pittsburgh, at Boston, vs. St. Louis, at Philadelphia, at New Jersey, vs. Ottawa, vs. Columbus, at Pittsburgh

OTTAWA SENATORS – 30th, 62 points

We shared our hot-like-a-Canadian-Tire-fire takes in the season previews earlier this summer, but I always have my concerns about a team enjoying its longest home stand before October even comes to a close. That means much of the Senators’ travels will be condensed into six months without the opportunity for an extended series of nights sleeping in their own homes.

If Ottawa can, by some unpredictable act of God, manage to get back on track this season, it has a very favorable schedule to close the campaign. Seven of its last 10 opponents failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, and the three that did all have to come to Canadian Tire Centre. If the Sens are within six points of a playoff spot by mid-March, they could be just the team to squeak into a fifth postseason berth in the last eight seasons.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 14 days (October 10-23)

BYE WEEK: January 23-31 (nine days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in eight days (February 14-21)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Vancouver, at Calgary, at Edmonton, vs. Buffalo, vs. Florida, vs. Toronto, vs. Tampa Bay, at NY Rangers, at Buffalo, vs. Columbus

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – eliminated in First Round, 98 points

To all Flyers season ticket holders: consider grabbing a holiday ticket package to the 76ers this December, because you’re going to be hard pressed to watch much hockey at Wells Fargo Center that month. Of the 14 games Philadelphia will play in the final month of the year, a whopping 10 will be away from Broad Street.

Making matters even more difficult, eight of those December games will be against clubs that qualified for the postseason last year, including two contests against division rival Columbus. By midnight of January 2 (the Flyers are in Nashville on New Year’s Day), we will surely know if this season’s Philadelphia club can build upon last year’s success. If last year’s campaign is any indication, these Flyers should return to the City of Brotherly Love in good shape, as they had the best road record of any team in the Metropolitan Division last season.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 10 days – 2x (November 8-17; February 2-11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days (December 23-January 1)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Montréal, at Chicago, vs. NY Islanders, at Washington, vs. Toronto, at Carolina, vs. NY Rangers, at Dallas, at St. Louis, vs. Carolina

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – eliminated in Second Round, 100 points

Last season, Penguins fans bemoaned the number of back-to-back games on their favorite club’s schedule. The NHL must have heard those complaints, because there’s only 11 instances of that occurring this season, the first of which isn’t until November 23 (at Boston) and 24 (vs. Columbus) – the weekend following American Thanksgiving when every team but Minnesota and Ottawa plays two games in three days.

However, what Pittsburgh got in fewer back-to-backs, it gave up in home stands. The most consecutive home games the Pens will play this season is three, which they do a whopping six times in a 41-game home schedule at the toughest arena in the Eastern Conference (at least according to the Pens’ home record last season). That’ll lead to a lot of plane rides and hotel stays, which could wear on the squad as the season progresses.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Three games in eight days (October 4-11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in nine days (January 11-19)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Philadelphia, at Carolina, at Nashville, at Dallas, at NY Rangers, vs. Nashville, vs. Carolina, at Detroit, vs. Detroit, vs. NY Rangers

SAN JOSE SHARKS – eliminated in Second Round, 100 points

Good luck finding a more balanced schedule in the Pacific Division, if not the entire NHL. The Sharks have two five-game road trips to go with their six-game home stand, and it’s rare that they have only a one-off stay at SAP Center. That means the Sharks should spend more nights in their own beds than other clubs, which will surely pay dividends later in the season when other teams are getting tired after a full season of play.

Based on last year’s standings, one of the toughest stretches of San Jose’s schedule looks like it will occur in mid-March, as the Sharks will host the Predators (Mar. 16) and Golden Knights (Mar. 18) before heading south to take on their California brethren on back-to-back days (Mar. 21 and 22). With that in mind, I’d expect San Jose to be in the mix for its seventh Pacific Division title and maybe, just maybe, a shot at the top seed in the Western Conference.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 10 days (October 5-14)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 13 days (November 11-23)

BYE WEEK: January 23-February 1 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Vegas, at Los Angeles, at Anaheim, vs. Detroit, vs. Chicago, vs. Vegas, vs. Calgary, at Vancouver, at Edmonton, vs. Colorado

ST. LOUIS BLUES – 18th, 94 points

One of the most striking things about the Blues’ schedule is that, of the five times they play Chicago all season, three of those showdowns are scheduled in October. If that doesn’t get F Ryan O’Reilly excited to play for the Notes, I don’t know what will.

Undoubtedly, one of the most important six-game stretches in St. Louis’ schedule occurs around American Thanksgiving, as the Blues will square off with five of last season’s Western Conference playoff teams, including a home-and-home series with the Predators on Thanksgiving Eve and Black Friday. For the Blues’ sake, hopefully G Jake Allen will choose any other time of the season for his annual month-long meltdown.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 18 days (October 25-November 11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in 18 days (January 21-February 7)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Edmonton, vs. Detroit, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Vegas, at NY Rangers, at New Jersey, vs. Colorado, at Chicago, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Vancouver

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – Prince of Wales Trophy runner-up, 113 points

There’s no way to start a campaign quite like an extended home stand, and that’s just what the Lightning have the privilege of this season. However, the Bolts can’t afford to get too comfortable (even if the toughest competition they’ll face during that home stay is Columbus on Oct. 13), as they’ll immediately embark on their longest road trip (a tour of the Western Conference) after a division tilt against the Red Wings (Oct. 18). Fortunately, they boasted the Eastern Conference’s best road record last season, so that surely won’t be a problem for them.

Coincidentally, we can combine a Californian road trip and the Blue Jackets to find the toughest stretch of Tampa Bay’s schedule – at least in terms of last season’s standings. The Bolts will head to Orange County for a New Year’s Eve showdown against the Ducks, followed three days later by a Tinseltown tilt and a jaunt up to San Jose on January 5. When C Steven Stamkos and co. return to the friendly confines of Amalie Arena on January 8, Columbus will be waiting for them to cap a four-game streak against playoff teams from a season ago – the longest such run on Tampa’s schedule.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 13 days (October 6-18)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (October 20-27)

BYE WEEK: January 20-29 (10 days)

LAST 10 GAMES: vs. Arizona, at Washington, at Carolina, at St. Louis, vs. Boston, vs. Washington, at Ottawa, at Montréal, at Toronto, at Boston

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – eliminated in First Round, 105 points

The Maple Leafs were good before Tavares showed up, but now Torontonians have Stanley Cups dancing in their dreams. We’ll have a discussion about the Leafs’ chances in their season preview later this summer (spoiler: that defense still hasn’t been fixed), but first it’ll be worth mentioning that they seem to have a balanced schedule in front of them.

Toronto gets a nice and easy initiation into its 2018-19 campaign by playing its first five games against clubs that failed to qualify for the 2018 postseason, but the pedal hits the metal on October 13 when five of the Maple Leafs’ next six opponents finished in the NHL’s Sweet 16. In fact, from Opening Day until American Thanksgiving, just under 60 percent of Toronto’s first 22 games will be against 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff teams, meaning the Leafs will need to be ready right out of the gate if they want to avoid playing catch-up in the standings for the remainder of the regular season.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Four games in 10 days (December 29-January 7)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 11 days (February 9-19)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Nashville, at Buffalo, vs. NY Rangers, vs. Florida, at Philadelphia, at Ottawa, at NY Islanders, vs. Carolina, vs. Tampa Bay, at Montréal

VANCOUVER CANUCKS – 26th, 73 points

With RW Brock Boeser and C Bo Horvat already in Vancouver and F Elias Pettersson champing at the bit to fulfill the Canucks’ Swedish quota, it’s hard to believe British Columbia’s NHL representative can remain at the bottom of the table for many more seasons.

Pretending, if only for a moment, that this is the year the Canucks start their upward climb, their seven-game home stand that effectively closes the season (Games 81 and 82 are in Nashville [Apr. 4] and St. Louis [Apr. 6]) will play a major role in determining their postseason fate. That series starts slow with visits from the Senators (Mar. 20) and Flames (Mar. 23), but picks up some real steam when Columbus (Mar. 24), Anaheim (Mar. 26), Los Angeles (Mar. 28), Dallas (Mar. 30) and San Jose (Apr. 2) roll into town. Every point is precious that time of year, so the blue-and-green’s extended time in their own beds could provide just the edge they need to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in six seasons.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 13 days (October 6-18)

BYE WEEK: January 24-February 1 (nine days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Seven games in 14 days (March 20-April 2)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Chicago, vs. Ottawa, vs. Calgary, vs. Columbus, vs. Anaheim, vs. Los Angeles, vs. Dallas, vs. San Jose, at Nashville, at St. Louis

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS – Stanley Cup runner-up, 109 points

In their inaugural season, the Golden Knights got blessed with an unbelievable seven-game home stand to open T-Mobile Arena (the venue that proved to be the best home-ice advantage in the Pacific Division). It looks like it’s time for the NHL to cash that $500 million check, as Vegas will embark on a five-game road trip only three days into the season after hosting the Flyers on October 4 (much to the chagrin of the rest of the league, Vegas finished last season tied with Los Angeles for the honor of “Best Visitor in the Pacific Division,” as they both had matching 22-14-5 records away from home).

Speaking of five-game runs, an important one for Vegas will get underway on Valentine’s Day. The Golden Knights host Toronto that night, followed by a visit from the Predators two days later. Then Vegas is off to Colorado (Feb. 18) before returning home to host the Bruins (Feb. 20) and Jets (Feb. 22). That is Vegas’ longest stretch of consecutive games against 2018 playoff teams, and the fact that three of those clubs are Western Conference foes means postseason seeding could be on the line.

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Five games in eight days (October 6-13)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Five games in 13 days (October 16-28)

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at San Jose, vs. Winnipeg, vs. Detroit, at St. Louis, at Colorado, vs. Minnesota, at San Jose, vs. Edmonton, vs. Arizona, at Los Angeles

WASHINGTON CAPITALS – Stanley Cup champion, 105 points

Winning a championship is hard, but successfully defending that title can be even harder. That’s the next challenge facing W Alex Ovechkin‘s crew, and we’ll see if they’re up to it after their first five games – all of which are against clubs that qualified for the playoffs last season, including rival Pittsburgh (Oct. 4) and the reigning Western Champion Golden Knights (Oct. 10).

Even if the Caps don’t come out with a solid record after that series, they’ll still have more than enough time to whip their play under new Head Coach Todd Reirden into shape, as their next eight opponents all failed to extend their seasons beyond 82 tilts.

BYE WEEK: January 24-31 (eight days)

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 11 days (February 1-11)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Six games in 12 days (February 12-23)

LAST 10 GAMES: at New Jersey, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Minnesota, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Carolina, at Carolina, at Tampa Bay, at Florida, vs. Montréal, vs. NY Islanders

WINNIPEG JETS – Campbell Bowl runner-up, 114 points

RW Blake Wheeler and the Jets took a major step forward last season to advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals before falling in five games to Vegas. Expectations in Manitoba are going to be extremely high this campaign, but it’ll be interesting to see if this young roster can perform with a large target on its back.

A good indication of how Winnipeg will perform under that pressure will come in the first month of play. After a nice, long home stand that ends with a major matchup against the Maple Leafs (Oct. 24) at the league’s most intimidating home arena, the Jets will take to the road for a back-to-back in Detroit (Oct. 26) and Toronto (Oct. 27), then fly to Finland (RW Patrik Laine‘s homeland) for another back-to-back against the up-and-coming Panthers (Nov. 1 and 2). If G Connor Hellebuyck and co. can come away with a winning record after that extended, 9328-mile (that’s 15 megameters, Canadians) road trip, I have no doubt these Jets will be challenging for their first division title since 2006-07’s Southeastern title as the Atlanta Thrashers.

LONGEST HOME STAND: Six games in 11 days (October 14-24)

LONGEST ROAD TRIP: Four games in 13 days (January 17-29)

BYE WEEK: January 20-27 (eight days)

LAST 10 GAMES: at Anaheim, at Vegas, vs. Nashville, vs. Dallas, vs. NY Islanders, vs. Montréal, at Chicago, at Minnesota, at Colorado, at Arizona

2018 Offseason Preview: New Jersey Devils

Now that the current Colorado franchise is out of the way, next up in DtFR’s offseason previews are the former Colorado Rockies: the New Jersey Devils!

Ending a five-year playoff drought is hard, but maintaining and growing upon that success can often be harder.

Such is the situation facing this young Devils squad headlined by Hart-finalist F Taylor Hall. New Jersey finished the season with a 44-29-9 record that was good enough for fifth place in the Metropolitan Division and eighth in the Eastern Conference, staving off the Florida Panthers by only a lone point for the second wild card.

One of Jersey’s best strengths was its special teams, both of which were ranked among the top-nine in the NHL. However, the next step for this club is to improve its average play at even-strength, the status at which most action takes place.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

To help the Devils in that effort,  they have the opportunity to take advantage of this deep draft class with the 17th-overall selection. Especially given their cap flexibility (New Jersey has almost $20 million in space available for this season, and that only grows even higher until no current players are under contract for the 2023-24 season), there’s certainly potential the Devils could flip this pick for a major return in NHL-ready talent.

However, lets assume that General Manager Ray Shero wants to keep this pick, shall we?

Should he do just that, I think Shero will select D Adam Ginning (Linköping HC), D Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs), C Akil Thomas (Niagara IceDogs) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP).

Smith and Wilde represent yet another two-way defenseman option for a team that already employs the services of D Will Butcher and D Sami Vatanen, while Ginning is definitely of the traditional, stay-at-home variety.

Should Thomas end up being the most attractive option to Shero, he certainly won’t be disappointed. In his first two seasons in the OHL, Thomas has proven to be a 20+ goal scorer, and he’s also vastly improved at his puck distribution in this most recent season with 59 assists to his credit (32 more than his rookie campaign).

Chances are slim Thomas would be ready for the NHL this season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he ripens a bit quicker than his peers. After all, his 81 points this season exceed that of presumed No. 2 overall pick RW Andrei Svechnikov (72 points) and barely trail Czech LW Filip Zadina (82 points).

Pending free agents

Like Uncle Ben said in Spider-Man: “With great cap flexibility comes many new contracts.”

Something along those lines.

Looking just at the Devils forwards, eight players are pending free agents that need to be addressed before July 1. F Brian Gibbons, W Michael Grabner, RW Jimmy Hayes, W Patrick Maroon and W Drew Stafford are all currently slated to test unrestricted free agency, while F Blake Coleman, RW Stefan Noesen and LW Miles Wood are of the restricted variety.

Without a doubt, signing Maroon needs to be among Shero’s biggest priorities, as the former Oiler (how many of those currently play for the Devils?) provided .58 points per game last season – a mark that is made even better when only considering his production with New Jersey (.76 points per game in 17 contests). While Maroon’s 27-goal total from the 2016-17 season did drop off by 10 tallies last year, his usual production in even-strength play is just the help the Devils could use to improve.

10 players provided .58 points per game last season, amassing an average salary of over $3.25 million (three players earned $6 million). With 30-year-old Maroon coming off a three-year, $2 million deal, any contract under $4 million should be a win in Shero’s book.

27 goals in each of the last two seasons have seen Grabner revitalize his career just in time to test free agency and improve on the two-year, $1.65 million contract he signed with the Rangers a couple summers ago.

A pure goalscorer is a weapon Jersey could certainly use for a full season (unless you consider fellow pending free agent Gibbons’ 12 goals on 72 shots [.167 shooting percentage] to qualify him for sniper status), but there has to be fear that the Devils could end up with the same Grabner Toronto did three years ago: one making $3 million, but providing only nine markers and 18 points.

An interesting note in Grabner’s contract negotiation – whether it’s with New Jersey or any of the other 30 teams – will be the status of Stanley Cup champions W Andre Burakovsky and RW Tom Wilson. Both also finished their seasons with .45 points per game and will undoubtedly be receiving raises on their respective $3 million and $2 million contracts given their new hardware. If either are signed before Grabner, he’ll surely try to use their contracts as a benchmark in his own negotiations.

On the surface, a final 30-year-old worth a look is Gibbons, the player who brilliantly returned to the NHL last season after a 2.6-year stint in the AHL. Gibbons posted a breakout campaign with 12-14-26 totals in 59 games played. However, after suffering a broken right thumb in late January that required over a month to heal, he returned to provide only three assists in his last 16 showings (that includes the two playoff games against Tampa he participated in).

If it seems like he’s fully healed from that injury and ready to be a potent scoring threat from a bottom-six position, then perhaps Gibbons is worth another contract similar to the one-year, $650 thousand deal he played on last season. If not, Shero would be wise to let another team make the mistake of signing him based on his overall season statistics.

Simply put, neither Hayes and Stafford are worth big money. Shero can certainly afford to sign them to low-cost contracts, but he could also find players of a same or higher quality on the free agent market.

Wood represents the Devils’ best RFA, and at 23-years-old (as of September 13), he’ll likely get another contract. He’s coming off a three-year, $925 thousand contract and will likely receive a $1-1.5 million bridge contract.

John Moore and Steven Santini represent Jersey’s two defensive free agents, with the former being a pending UFA and the latter being a pending RFA. Both played top-four minutes per game last season, as well as averaging at least .22 points per game. They’re both worth new contracts.

A (forked) Tale of 3 Periods: Devils drop Game 2 to Lightning, but can build on strong play.

 

Often times, hockey games can be looked at as stories. Three separate periods of play strung together as a single narrative, often carrying a common theme among them.

Then, there are games like this one. Games where each 20 minute segment is entirely its own, almost entirely unrelated to one another. In a way, Game 2 could be considered a short story compilation.

Chapter 1: The Slow Start

After dropping Game 1, the Devils and young goaltender Keith Kinkaid (who had not lost back-to-back starts since February) were hungry for redemption, knowing a win before heading back to home ice for Games 3 and 4 could swing momentum greatly in the underdogs’ favor.

With some bad blood boiling over at the end of the first contest, it wasn’t surprising to see the two teams again start their fourth lines, and it didn’t take long for the action to pick up, as Tampa’s Cedric Paquette and Jersey’s Stefan Noesen had a coming-together at the end of an energetic first shift. Unfortunately, the tensions stalled out as when the first set of line changes were made, one of the Lightning bench doors suffered a broken latch and play had to be halted for about five minutes for a repair. When play resumed, Dan Girardi (apparently not a fan of the tempered tone) laid a booming hit on Miles Wood around three minutes in to get the crowd back in it.

A few minutes later it would be Girardi’s former-turned-current teammate Ryan McDonagh firing a wrister in from the point that took a dramatic change of direction right in front of Kinkaid, who somehow managed to stretch out his left pad to deny J.T. Miller‘s bid, having had the deflected shot come right to his tape for a prime scoring opportunity.

This seemed to briefly turn things in the Devils’ favor, as they’d kill off a Tampa power play shortly after, and have two quality chances in quick succession. First it would be Taylor Hall taking a hail mary pass for a partial breakaway, then John Moore stepping up to intercept an attempted clear to walk in and make a strong backhanded bid on the following shift. Unfortunately for the Devils, Andrei Vasilevskiy was equal to the task on both occasions.

After the Vasilevskiy save on Moore, the puck would make it’s way to center ice, where Ondrej Palat would corral the bouncer in traffic and feed a quick pass to Brayden Point breaking in on the right wing. Point walked in and patiently waited for Kinkaid to go down in the butterfly before shelving a quick shot crossbar – left post – and in to put the Lightning on top 12:15 into the period.

Jersey would quickly turn things back in their favor though, first with a quality chance for Travis Zajac on an oddman rush with Blake Coleman. Coleman would take an extra whack at Vasilevskiy as he covered the puck, causing Victor Hedman to come over and have a few words with the young Devils forward.

On the next shift, just 1:23 after the Point goal, a dominant shift by the New Jersey top line would be capped off by Nico Hischier scoring his first career playoff goal, gathering up the rebound of a Damon Severson shot and burying it over top of a sprawled Vasilevskiy.

The two teams would grind out the final 6 minutes and head to the first intermission tied at 1-1. New Jersey limited Tampa to just six shots, firing 10 of their own at the Lightning goal.

Chapter 2: The Wheels On The Bus Are Falling Off

After going 1-for-1 in Game 1, the Tampa power play was held shotless on their only first period opportunity in this one. In the second period, however, they went off.

First it was a Steven Stamkos one-timer ripping just wide of the cage, bouncing off the end boards directly to the tape of Nikita Kucherov on the opposite wing, and #86 would quickly fire a pass to Alex Killorn waiting in the slot to tip home the 2-1 goal at 3:14, moving Tampa’s power play to two-for-three in the series.

The Bolts’ fourth line followed up the power play with a strong shift that would see Ryan Callahan ring a shot off the goalpost to Kinkaid’s right, narrowly missing the 3-1 goal. However on the next shift it would be the dominant second line making up for Callahan’s miss when Tyler Johnson slipped into the high slot to perfectly redirect a McDonagh point shot past Kinkaid at 4:35.

Hall would attempt to negate some momentum on the following shift, flying in and using a Tampa defender as a partial screen to rip a wicked wrister at Vasilevskiy, who flashed the left leg and stopped the puck with the toe of his skate, before having to cover up when the rebound careened dangerously off the stick of teammate Anton Stralman.

Hall’s efforts were rendered all-for-not when again on the very next shift it would be Kucherov dangling Sami Vatanen at the blueline, retrieving the puck and throwing it at the front of the net, where the chasing Vatanen would accidentally kick the puck past Kinkaid into his own net, putting the Lightning up 4-1 with 13:59 still to play in the second. Ironically, this goal did not count as a shot on net, giving the Bolts four goals on 10 shots.

The Lightning then turned their focus to physical play, first with Miller leveling Ben Lovejoy twice in a sub-10 second span, then Ondrej Palat throwing a big hit on Moore on the shift after.

With 6:48 to play in the second, Killorn would tally his second power play goal of the period (third goal in two games after scoring two in the final 15 of the regular season), again after a Kucherov feed, this time fighting off multiple checkers to lift it over a scrambling Kinkaid. John Hynes had seen enough and pulled his young netminder in favor of Cory Schneider.

Whether it was the Lightning slowing down, or the Devils being reignited by the goaltending change, it was at that coaching decision where the tide began to turn. The final six minutes and change saw Tampa held without another shot, as New Jersey began to pour it on.

Finally with just 25 seconds left, Vatanen would rip home a beautiful wrist shot from the high slot after leading the rush himself. It was a solid redemption shift for Vatanen, who made up for his earlier gaffe by leveling Callahan (who would not return to the game after the hit) to create the turnover that eventually led to his goal.

Outscored 3-1 in the period, New Jersey still managed to widen their advantage on the shot clock to 25-17 after their dominant final six minutes.

Chapter 3: Off The Schneid

The third period was all-out domination by New Jersey at both ends of the ice.

Early in the frame it was Schneider showing spectacular form (and likely laying claim to the starting job from here on out) by first stopping a beautiful tip play orchestrated by Stralman and executed by Kucherov, then making a pair of spectacular stops a few minutes later on a Chris Kunitz redirect and follow-up attempt by a driving Paquette.

Then it was basically an uninterrupted offensive assault by the Devils for the final 15 minutes.

Wood found a goalpost at one point, and lost the puck on a breakaway forehand-backhand move at another. Vasilevskiy made a handful of sparkling saves on a Jersey power play. Maroon and Hall linked up on a two-on-one that was denied, followed up shortly after by a great redirect from Pavel Zacha on a Will Butcher slap shot which was again gobbled up by the big Tampa netminder.

Zacha got another golden opportunity with 8:45 to play but was handcuffed by a cross-ice pass that had him staring at a yawning cage. Luckily for both him and his team, later in that same shift it would be Blake Coleman finally beating Vasilevskiy with a laser of a one-timer from the top of the left circle to make the score 5-3 with just over eight minutes remaining.

After the third goal the attack only strengthened for New Jersey. Hischier rang one off the post at the four minute mark, and Miles Wood thought he scored on the very next shift, but video review showed no conclusive evidence of the puck (tangled in the gear of Vasilevskiy) ever crossing the line.

Pat Maroon made a great save on a Stamkos bid for the open net right after Schneider made his way to the bench, keeping hope alive for the Devils, but they just couldn’t solved #88 in net.

Things got scrappy with nine seconds left when everyone piled on Taylor Hall after he took an aggressive charge at the net when Vasilevskiy stopped a Vatanen blast, and it took a few minutes to get things settled down before the final nine seconds could pass without incident.

So, to review:

A closely-contested, grind-it-out first period where both teams looked very evenly matched.

Tampa blows the doors open in the second until the goaltending change turns the momentum.

Schneider lays claim to his net and New Jersey shows that Tampa is very mortal in the third.

The Lightning may lead this series 2-0 on two multi-goal difference victories, but there’s much more to this story. If Schneider plays the way he did in this one, and the Devils can get a boost from their home crowd, they have a lot to build on after this game. This could definitely be a series to watch going forward.

For those wondering, Game 3 will be Monday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and @kephartc will have our recap coverage for you.

Deal(t) with the Devil: Tampa fends off scrappy New Jersey to take Game 1

 

Funny thing, hockey.

In one corner we have the Atlantic Division champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that for long stretches of the year looked nigh-on immortal, and made ritual of beating basically everyone who dared stand in their path.

In the other corner stands a New Jersey squad that just squeaked into the playoffs in a wild card spot, have a roster with almost as many ‘misfit toys’ as the upstart Golden Knights, and… went undefeated against the Lightning in the regular season?

Well. Color me interested.

The Devils made a season of being the eternal underdogs. Apart from Hart Trophy favorite Taylor Hall, they really don’t possess much in the way of name value. Goaltender Cory Schneider spent much of the year hurt, and struggled upon his return. But career-backup Keith Kinkaid won 26 games this year (he’d won just 23 in four previous seasons combined) and stole the starting job heading into the playoffs.

New Jersey headed into Amalie Arena as perhaps the biggest underdogs in all the playoffs, and for good reason. Tampa Bay is as deadly a hockey team as you’ll find in the NHL today, boasting four stellar lines, six quality defensemen, and a Vezina candidate goaltender. For the first half of this game, the script went just as the numbers suggested it should.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper elected to start the game with his fourth line, and John Hynes elected to follow suit. It gave the start of the game some energy, and showed that neither coach is afraid to try something a bit off-the-beaten-path.

Apart from a follow-through on an attempted shot by Miles Wood treating Bolts defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to a bloody nose, the first few minutes passed without many notable incidents or quality chances, but saw Tampa controlling a good portion of the play. As the clock neared halfway point of the period, Tampa began to settle in and the chances started coming.

First it was Yanni Gourde chipping a loose puck past a pinching defender to create a two-on-one. The winger streaked into the zone and put Kinkaid out into about the fourth row of seats with a beautiful move, but just couldn’t quite direct the puck into the yawning cage as it rolled off the end of his stick. He wouldn’t need to wait long for another chance, as on his line’s next shift he corralled a loose puck out of a netfront scramble, but Kinkaid was able to track it through the mess of sticks and skates to shut the door on #37.

The very next faceoff saw a bouncing puck lure Kinkaid out of the blue paint while attempting to cover up, and the puck ended up coming right to – you guessed it – Gourde who wasn’t quite able to control it and get a shot away.

Finally at the 15:00 mark it would be Tampa’s second line going to work down low in the zone and Tyler Johnson would feed Ondrej Palat from below the goal line, and after a quick set of dekes the 2016 playoffs standout lifted a backhand shot over the pad of Kinkaid to put the Lightning up 1-0.

Still, the Bolts kept coming. Anthony Cirelli nearly scored on a wraparound with 2:30 to play, but the toe of Kinkaid was equal to the task.

Finally New Jersey got a quality chance, as Vasilevskiy turned the puck over attempting to play it behind his net, but was able to recover in time to cover up as everyone crashed the net and a scrum ensued.

With 28 seconds left to play, it would be Tampa’s second line again making plays deep in the offensive zone, this time with Palat and Brayden Point forcing a turnover, and Palat sending a perfect pass to the tape of a driving Johnson who made no mistakes and buried it over the glove of Kinkaid.

Shot clock only read a two-shot advantage (13-11) to Tampa at the end of one, but the quality chances were all on one end of the ice.

The momentum would continue in Tampa’s favor at the beginning of the second period, as an early power play opportunity presented itself and they made sure to cash in. Gourde, on what by my count was about his 42nd quality scoring chance of the game, hammered home a slam-dunk after a ridiculous kick-pass across the netmouth by Palat to put the home team up by three.

The very next shift is when things began to change, as Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon would combine for about three legitimate bids in quick succession, but Vasilevskiy was able to turn them all aside. Later in the frame it would be New Jersey with a power play opportunity, where they’d get three or four high-quality chances that Vasilevskiy had the answers to.

Finally with just over six minutes to play in the second, Hall (because who else?) would crack the goose egg and get his team on the board, pouncing on an egregious defensive zone turnover by Palat and burying the opportunity before Vasilevskiy could get set.

The Devils didn’t let up, nearly scoring again with just over a minute remaining on a big-time deflection (chest height to the ice in the blink of an eye) on a Mirco Mueller point shot that Vasilevskiy somehow managed to track and react to, kicking out the right pad in a flash and gobbling up the rebound to prevent further chaos.

Capitalizing on the big momentum shift, New Jersey heavily outshot the boys in blue to lead on the shot clock 26-20 after 40 minutes, hoping to carry it into the third and try to close down the two-goal margin.

Carry it into the third they did not. The Bolts would tally the first seven shots of the period, and at one point briefly thought they had scored when Alex Killorn tipped a shot at the side of the net that Kinkaid just barely managed to keep out (Killorn even momentarily raised his arms in celebration). The third line kept the Devils hemmed in their own zone after the near-miss, and finally a dominating shift came to an end when Gourde (obviously) took a cross-ice pass from Cirelli off of a turnover and ripped a one-time blast just over the crossbar and out of play. New Jersey would not register a single shot until nearly 9:30 into the third period.

But, at 9:35 of the third, Jersey’s second shot of the period was a power play goal by Travis Zajac (one of only two players on either roster to have played the last time these two teams met in the playoffs 11 years ago*) who deflected a beautifully-sold shot-pass by Hall just over the glove of Vasilevskiy to drag the visitors to within one.

*The other was Andy Greene

Now Tampa is on the back foot. New Jersey is charging. Can they complete the comeback? How will the Lightning survive the onslaught?

Oh hey look, it’s that Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde line again.

Yes, the unstoppable force known as Tampa’s third line did it again, this time with Gourde forcing a turnover by Maroon at the blueline, then leading his linemates on a three-on-two rush up the ice, eventually feeding it to the trailer Killorn in the high slot. Cirelli drove the net to create the diversion, but Kinkaid was never catching up to this one anyhow. PING goes the crossbar, an absolute laser by the Harvard grad restores the two-goal lead just under two minutes after it had been erased.

Tampa followed their goal with a solid fourth-line shift, capped off by a thundering check on Hall by the playoffs’ only four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz, and the Devils star would be slow to his feet, though he would finish the game.

Kinkaid retreated to the bench with 2:30 to play, but it would be all-for-not, as with 1:12 left Nikita Kucherov (who had been mostly silent until that point) dangled a Devils defender and waltzed in to bury the dagger.

At the final horn, a good deal of pushing and shoving came about, with the Devils hoping to set a tone heading into Game 2 (which I’ll just so happen to be covering, as well) on Saturday afternoon.

The story of this game was really a tale of two major plots.

First was simply the unbridled speed of Tampa Bay. New Jersey is arguably one of maybe two teams in the league that have a legitimate shot at keeping up with Tampa’s pace, and in this one they were totally outclassed. If they can’t find a way to clog things up and slow the Bolts down, they are going to be in trouble.

Second, and probably the even more daunting challenge, is the sheer depth of the Lightning lineup. The Devils did a spectacular job of silencing Tampa’s lethal #1 line of J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Kucherov, but the Devils simply don’t have the same top-to-bottom quality that the Bolts depth chart possesses.

Palat-Point-Johnson is a top line on probably a third of other NHL squads.

Killorn-Cirelli-Gourde is an impossible speed/skill matchup for nearly any other third line.

Kunitz-Paquette-Callahan will forecheck whatever is left of you into the ground.

Tack on one of the best one-through-six defense corps in the league, and it’s borderline impossible for any club to gain a matchup advantage, especially on the road where the home team gets last change.

Nothing is impossible in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but New Jersey is going to need some help from the hockey gods from the looks of things.

March 23 – Day 163 – A Devil of an opportunity

Loverboy says everybody’s “Working for the Weekend,” but is it truly work playing hockey?

In anticipation of said weekend, only five games are on this Friday’s schedule. The action gets started at 7 p.m. with two tilts (Montréal at Buffalo [RDS/TSN2] and New Jersey at Pittsburgh [NHLN/TVAS]), followed by another pair (Vancouver at St. Louis and Anaheim at Winnipeg) an hour later. Finally, Boston at Dallas completes the evening’s festivities with their 8:30 p.m. matchup. All times Eastern.

The Devils caught a break with Florida losing yesterday, but they’re still far from clinching a berth into the postseason. Let’s see how they fare tonight against Pittsburgh.

 

Tonight’s fixture is the finale of a six-game road trip for the 37-28-8 Devils. While the jaunt – which took them all the way to California and back in the span of 10 days – was an overall success (they’ve gone 3-2-0 so far, with victories over Nashville, Vegas and Los Angeles), a win tonight would certainly earn the trip a stamp of approval from Head Coach John Hynes.

There’s been little flashy about New Jersey during this road swing, but sometimes that’s all a team needs to find six points while clad in white.

Take, for example, the Devils’ offense. Averaging 3.4 goals over their last five games, the attack has certainly been the backbone of the Devils’ game lately, but it ranks only (t)12th-best in the league since March 10.

Far and away, my favorite Devil during this road trip has been LW Patrick Maroon, who’s posted 1-3-4 totals over his last four showings (he missed March 17’s game in Los Angeles with a lower body injury) to improve his season marks to 16-22-38 and be the only Jersey player to average a point per game since March 10. Even though he plays on the fourth line, the fact that he has F Brian Boyle (13-10-23 season totals) and F Blake Coleman (10-10-20) as linemates has given the Devils a potent attack regardless of which trio is on the ice.

As for New Jersey’s defense, we need look no further than tonight’s starter, 19-10-2 G Keith Kinkaid. Though he began the season as the Devils’ clear backup, 17-15-6 G Cory Schneider‘s struggles since returning from injury have given Kinkaid the opportunity to shine.

And shine he has. In his last four starts, Kinkaid has posted an impressive .932 save percentage and 2.42 GAA, even though he’s playing behind a defense that has allowed an eighth-worst 35.4 shots against per game since March 10. This recent run of success has improved his season marks to a .908 save percentage and 2.9 GAA.

Meanwhile, the 42-27-5 Penguins have fallen into a bit of a slump lately. Since March 7, Pittsburgh has posted only a 4-2-1 record that looks better than the club has actually played, as the Pens have alternated wins with losses over their last seven games.

If that trend continues tonight, the Pens should be concerned considering they beat the Habs Wednesday… But I digress.

The blame for the inconsistent play definitely does not lie on the shoulders of the Penguins’ skaters. Pittsburgh is averaging an impressive 3.43 goals per game since March 7 (ninth-best in the league in that time), due in large part to the stellar play of the two-headed monster known as F Evgeni Malkin (4-5-9 totals since March 7, 41-50-91 overall) and C Sidney Crosby (2-7-9 since March 7, 24-55-79 overall).

Similarly, the defense has also been solid lately, as Pittsburgh has allowed only 27.86 shots against per game over its last seven showings – the fourth-best mark in the NHL since March 7. D Olli Maatta (2.1 blocks per game since March 7) and D Jamie Oleksiak (3.3 hits per game over the past seven games) have played major roles in that success.

Instead the biggest issue for the Pens has been their goaltending. 5-4-1 G Casey DeSmith has earned most of the starts during this run, posting a .911 save percentage and 2.39 GAA in his four showings.

However, that situation got a major face lift Tuesday when 23-14-2 G Matt Murray resumed his starting duties after a month-long hiatus. Though he lost that game against the Islanders 4-1, his playoff experience and .909 season save percentage and 2.83 GAA is an immediate improvement over anything DeSmith can offer.

Trailing Washington by only four points, Pittsburgh is still eyeing the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, but more pressing issues have arisen following Columbus’ dominating 4-0 victory over the Panthers last night. With those two points, the Blue Jackets are now tied with the Penguins at 89 points, but the Pens still have tonight’s game in hand to pull back ahead. If Pittsburgh wants to stave off the streaking Jackets for home ice in the first round, it desperately needs to win tonight’s game.

As for the Devils, they’re also facing some serious pressure in the standings, though last night’s win by Columbus was also a win for them. New Jersey is clinging to a one-point advantage over Florida for the second wild card, but the ninth-place Panthers still have a game in hand that will double to two following tonight’s festivities. Any type of loss – even one that sees the Devils earn a point – by Jersey tonight puts a major damper on its playoff aspirations.

Through the first two meetings in the four-game series between these sides, the Devils have had a clear advantage over tonight’s hosts. They first squared off on February 3 at Prudential Center, where New Jersey earned a 3-1 victory (C Travis Zajac scored two goals, including the game-winner, in a three-point night). 24 days later, the Devils won again – this time with a 3-2 score at PPG Paints Arena (RW Stefan Noesen provided the lone tally in the third period to win the game).

This is a tough game to predict, but I’m leaning towards the Devils earning two points tonight. They seem to have had the Penguins’ number so far this season, and I think they’re champing at the bit to capitalize on Florida’s loss last night.


I expected a competitive back-and-forth matchup in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at Nationwide Arena, but the Columbus Blue Jackets instead elected to dismantle the Florida Panthers 4-0 for their 10th-straight victory.

With a perfect 33-save performance, G Sergei Bobrovsky earned First Star of the Game honors as well as his 34th win of the season.

Unfortunately for G Roberto Luongo, he was not so lucky as he managed only 29 saves on 32 shots faced (.906 save percentage). Though he escaped from the first period without allowing a goal, Second Star RW Cam Atkinson (LW Artemi Panarin) needed only 59 seconds after the first intermission to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Turnovers have a way of being especially deadly during the second period when the long change is in effect. That point was no more apparent than when Panarin intercepted C Aleksander Barkov‘s lazy tap pass towards center ice. After ensuring he could get the puck back into his offensive zone without going offside, the Breadman drove towards Luongo’s crease before sliding a pass to Atkinson when they were even with the face-off dots, allowing him to beat the leaning netminder to the left post with a snap shot.

2:21 after the horn stopped blaring for Atkinson, F Sonny Milano (LW Matt Calvert and Third Star F Pierre-Luc Dubois) doubled the Jackets’ lead with a snapper, followed by D Seth Jones (Atkinson and Dubois) burying a power play slap shot at the 5:42 mark to give Columbus a swift three-goal advantage.

W Thomas Vanek completed the game’s scoring with an unassisted wrist shot on an empty net with 2:25 remaining in regulation, setting the 4-0 final score.

With the Blue Jackets’ home victory, the 90-53-20 hosts in the DtFR Game of the Day series have earned their 200th point of the season, a mark that is superior to the visitors’ mark by 35 points.

March 18 – Day 158 – This might be one of those weird games…

With eight games on the schedule this Sunday, surely it’s possible to find a game for everybody to watch.

The day’s action finds its start at 3 p.m. with Detroit at Colorado, followed an hour later by Calgary at Vegas (SN360). 5 p.m. is a major starting time today, as three tilts (Edmonton at Tampa Bay, Carolina at the New York Islanders and Washington at Philadelphia [NHLN]) will get underway then. Another pair of matchups (St. Louis at Chicago [NBCSN] and Dallas at Winnipeg [SN/TVAS]) drop the puck at 7:30 p.m., with New Jersey at Anaheim closing the night out 90 minutes later. All times Eastern.

There’s a few rivalries on tap today, and the return of a former player as well.

  • Detroit at Colorado: Man, the Avs and Wings played some serious games in the late 90s, didn’t they?
  • Washington at Philadelphia: Both of these teams are in desperate need of two points, but only one is going to come away from this contest happy.
  • St. Louis at Chicago: Somehow, today is only the Blues’ first visit to Chicago all season. A win is a must to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
  • New Jersey at Anaheim: After joining the Ducks’ organization since being drafted 106th-overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, D Sami Vatanen was shipped to the Devils in late November.

In addition to the Vatanen story, both the Devils and Ducks are in brutal fistfights to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.  That alone is reason enough to take in that game!

 

Though they’ve certainly experienced their ups and downs this season, the 37-26-8 Devils are playing some solid hockey right now (look no further than yesterday’s 3-0 shutout victory at Staples Center).

In fact, New Jersey has posted an impressive 4-1-0 record over its last five games, and it’s all because of some stellar play on the offensive end.

The Devils have featured some of my favorite rookies this season, and it’s been their play paired with the equally stellar contributions of some of the league’s most respected veterans that have been behind an offense that has averaged a second-best 4.2 goals per game since March 6.

Over the past five games, no Devil has played quite like reigning number one-overall pick C Nico Hischier, who’s managed 3-2-5 totals to inflate his season marks to 16-30-46 – the second-best on a team that also features a fellow by the name of F Taylor Hall (31-45-76).

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have veterans like F Brian Boyle (2-3-5 totals over his last five games) and C Travis Zajac (3-1-4 since March 6) – not to mention fellow rookie phenom D Will Butcher (averaging an assist-per-game for his last five showings) – helping to share the load. After hitting a bit of a slump in January, this offense has rediscovered its form lately in anticipation of a playoff surge.

Another vital component to these winning ways has been the stellar play of 19-9-2 G Keith Kinkaid. Taking responsibility for all of the Devils’ last four wins (despite a defense that has allowed an 11th-worst 34.6 shots against since March 6), he’s posted an impressive .94 save percentage and 2.21 GAA in those starts to increase his season marks to a .909 save percentage and 2.85 GAA.

However, since Kinkaid earned yesterday’s shutout victory over the Kings, it would seem likely Head Coach John Hynes will give usual starter 17-14-6 G Cory Schneider the nod tonight (it is his birthday, after all) on the tail end of the back-to-back, especially considering the only reason the backup has been getting the starts lately is because he’s been the hot hand. Schneider has earned a .912 save percentage and 2.81 GAA on the season, but has posted an abysmal 0-8-2 record in his last 10 starts going back to December 29 having allowed no fewer than three goals in any of those games.

Between Kinkaid and Schneider, the Devils have allowed only 2.4 goals against per game since March 6, the seventh-best mark in the NHL in that time.

So we can compare apples to apples, let’s see how 36-24-12 Anaheim has performed over its last five games. Though the Ducks are currently riding a two-game winning streak, they were riding a three-game losing skid beforehand, meaning Anaheim is 2-3-0 in its last five showings.

Just like offense is the reason the Devils are winning lately, offense – or the lack thereof – is the reason the Ducks have not been as successful lately as they would like. Even with C Ryan Getzlaf averaging a point per game during this run with 1-4-5 totals (10-42-52 on the season), Anaheim is averaging only 2.4 goals per game since March 8, the (t)sixth-fewest in the NHL in that time.

What makes those offensive struggles even more frustrating is the fact that Anaheim’s defense and goaltending gives it a chance to win every night. Led by D Cam Fowler (1.8 blocks per game since March 8), W Ondrej Kase (averaging a takeaway per game in his last five showings) and LW Nick Ritchie (three hits per game over this run), the Ducks’ defense has allowed only 30 shots against per game since March 8 – the 12th-best mark in the NHL. With that lighter workload, 27-17-6 G John Gibson has sparkled, posting a .911 save percentage and 2.54 GAA in his last four starts for a .926 save percentage and 2.47 GAA on the season as a whole.

Mix those things together, and you get a Ducks team that has allowed only 2.4 goals against per game since March 8 – the (t)sixth-lowest mark in the NHL in that time.

With New Jersey currently in a playoff spot, this game has to mean more for the Ducks, right? With the Kings being inactive tonight, anything better than a regulation loss propels Anaheim into third place in the Pacific Division. However, the very fact that the Kings are not playing tonight is also to the Ducks’ detriment, as Los Angeles will have a game on hand on Anaheim coming out of the weekend (that game in hand is the Kings’ tilt in Minnesota tomorrow).

With a five-point edge on the ninth-place Panthers, the potential to fall out of the playoffs has relaxed ever so slightly for second wildcard New Jersey (but remember, the Panthers still have two games in hand). However, there’s still more than enough time for Jersey to climb the table, as a win tonight would propel it into at least the first wild card, with the chance for third place in the Metropolitan Division should the Flyers fall to Washington.

The Ducks made their yearly trip to New Jersey way back on December 18, but it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable trip to the Garden State as they were treated to a 5-3 loss. RW Stefan Noesen led the way for the Devils in that contest, as he scored two third period goals – including the game-winner – to earn First Star of the Game honors.

This has the potential to be one of those weird games. We have an excellent offense in the Devils going up against a solid defense and goaltender, while Anaheim’s struggling attack gets the benefit of squaring off against slumping competition in Jersey’s defensive zone. Considering the Devils just played yesterday, I suppose Anaheim has the upper hand tonight, but this game might just boil down to which team scores last.


Behind a shutout from First Star of the Game G Tuukka Rask, the Boston Bruins beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-0 at Amalie Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Rask was obviously solid in this game considering he saved all 23 shots that came his way, but I would argue the most impressive part about that statistic is his defense limiting the Bolts to so few attempts.

After all, Tampa was trailing for 56:53 of this game, as that’s when Third Star RW David Pastrnak (Second Star D Torey Krug and D Adam McQuaid) scored the game-winning goal. After ending up with the puck following a scrum along the boards between F Tommy Wingels and two Bolts, McQuaid tapped a pass along the blue line to Krug. The Michigander proceeded to center a pass to Pastrnak, who drove towards G Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s right post before backhanding a shot into the back of the net.

Boston’s lead expanded to two goals with 9:06 remaining in the first period when F David Backes (Krug and LW Brad Marchand) buried a power play wrist shot.

With D Mikhail Sergachev getting sent to the penalty box for hi-sticking RW Brian Gionta with 7:37 remaining in the second period, F Riley Nash (W Rick Nash and Krug) completed the game’s scoring with a power play wrister only 10 seconds later, setting the 3-0 final score.

Vasilevskiy takes the loss after saving 24-of-27 shots faced (.889 save percentage).

There’s no stopping road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series lately, as they’ve posted eight-straight games where they earned at least a point. As such, the 87-52-19 hosts’ advantage in the series has been trimmed to 32 points.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 21

Skater of the Week: Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon was the definition of an unstoppable force this week, and he encountered no immovable objects. With five goals (two on the power play, and two game-winners), six assists (also two on the power play), and 11 points in four games, his breakout campaign continues to the tune of 77 points in 57 games.

After notching a pair of goals and a helper on Monday against Vancouver, he put up 1-and-1 against Calgary on Wednesday, before leading his team’s 7-1 torching of Minnesota on Friday night with two goals and five assists to go with a flawless +5 rating (even more impressive when you consider one of his points was on the power play, meaning he was on the ice for six of the seven goals his team scored), before ending the week with a lone helper against Nashville.

With the Avs fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot, they’ll need their former #1 overall pick to continue his immense play down the home stretch.

Tendy of the Week: Roberto Luongo

Nobody tell the man he’s 38-years-old.

The Panthers are on an absolutely ridiculous run since the beginning of February, having won 11-of-15 games in that stretch, and Luongo (who returned from injury on February 17) has been a huge part of that. He’s lost just one game of the seven he’s played since his return, and this week was a perfect 3-0-0 for the Florida netminder.

Stopping 37-of-39 against Toronto on Tuesday, 29-of-31 against he Devils on Thursday, and capping the week turning aside 39-of-40 Philadelphia attempts on Sunday, Luongo finished the week with a .955 save percentage and 1.63 GAA as his Panthers now miraculously sit just one point outside of the final wild card spot in the east.

Catching the top three in the Atlantic is a nearly impossible task at this point, but if the other wild card teams falter (please not Columbus) and Florida continues this play, they’ll sneak their way into a very unlikely playoff birth.

Game of the Week: Philadelphia Flyers 6 @ Tampa Bay Lightning 7 (SO), Saturday March 3, 2018

I mean, this was one of those hilariously entertaining affairs that you know took years off the coaches’ lives but it was just so much fun that you couldn’t help but love it. I’m not even going to try and recap all the goals (there were 13 of them for god’s sake) but here’s what you need to know:

This was one of those rare cases where both goaltenders leave the game with numbers worthy of the waiver wire, yet somehow are also the stars of the show, as both of them made so many ridiculous saves that I honestly believe this game could have been an 11-10 final score. Two of the league’s most terrifying offenses just shelling each other with every weapon they had. Tampa came back from multi-goal deficits on two occasions, and Philadelphia had to erase a lead in the dying minutes of regulation to make it to overtime. Philly got a power play in overtime and Andrei Vasilevskiy stood on his head to survive the onslaught. Then ‘Mr. Automatic’ Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos burned Petr Mrazek in the skills competition to put away the orange menace and send the Bolts faithful home with big fat smiles on their faces.

Go watch the highlights, seriously.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Boy, Bettman. First no-showing the Olympics, then an epic snoozefest of a Stadium Series game on national television (to the point that apparently some markets turned off the game in favor of local news before it had ended). Really growing the game, aren’t we?

Max Pacioretty is likely to be out for 4-6 weeks with a knee injury, and could potentially be shut down for the remainder of the season. This, of course, would be ironic, considered his entire team has basically been shut down since opening night.

Seattle, answering the “Is it a true hockey market?” question with resounding vigor, sold out their initial 10,000 season ticket allotments in about 12 minutes, and had sold about 25,000 within a few hours.

The bad news continues for the struggling Blues, who have now lost Jay Bouwmeester for the remainder of the season to a hip injury. Starting to look like this could be a very entertaining offseason (read: someone drops a grenade in the front office) in the Gateway City.

You should go watch the Nick Seeler vs Luke Witkowski fight.

Taylor Hall has now scored in like…a million straight games or something, so that’s pretty neat.

David Poile is now the winningest General Manager in NHL history, surpassing Glen Sather at 1,320 wins between his stints with Washington and Nashville. The only GM in Predators history has yet to win the Stanley Cup, but his Nashville squad looks like just about as good a bet as any this year, and a big shiny ring on his finger would likely put Poile in the all-time greats discussion.

Phil Kessel shoved Zdeno Chara in a scrum, and everything that followed was solid comedy.

March 2 – Day 142 – Metropolitan grind

It’s Friday, so live it up at your local rink! No matter if you’re watching the NHL, AHL, ECHL, NCAA, juniors or any other league, any hockey on a weekend is good hockey.

Like most nights, the action begins at 7 p.m. when Montréal visits the New York Islanders (RDS/TSN2), followed half an hour later by the next pair of tilts (Buffalo at Florida [TVAS] and New Jersey at Carolina). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of Detroit at Winnipeg, while another duo of matchups (Minnesota at Colorado and the New York Rangers at Calgary) waits until 9 p.m. to get underway. Finally, 10 p.m. proves to be the busiest starting time of the night, as the final three games on the day’s schedule (Nashville at Vancouver, Ottawa at Vegas [RDS2] and Columbus at Anaheim [SN360]) close out the action with a bang. All times Eastern.

After beating the Flyers last night to snap a six-game losing skid, Carolina is right back in the mix for a playoff position. Let’s see if the Canes can duplicate that success when they host division-rival Jersey.

 

Losing six games in a row is never fun, but that doesn’t matter to the 28-25-11 Hurricanes all that much now considering they are responsible for snapping Philadelphia’s six-game winning streak.

It may seem like basic analysis in the sport of hockey, but the two biggest issues facing the Canes in their past seven games has been a struggling offense paired with horrendous goaltending.

Since it’s easier to criticize goaltenders statistically, let’s start there.

10-16-7 G Scott Darling, who will likely be in net tonight since 18-9-4 G Cam Ward played in Carolina’s victory yesterday, has not been very good in the three starts he’s earned since February 15. He’s managed only an .842 save percentage and 4.01 GAA, dropping his season marks to .889 and 3.08.

Now, before you go off and start defending Darling or Ward, I would like to present you with the fact that over their past seven games, the Hurricanes’ defense have allowed only 25.71 shots against per game. That’s the best mark in the NHL since February 15 by more than a quarter of a shot.

Like I said, some rough goaltending is 100 percent responsible for Carolina allowing 3.57 goals per game over its past seven showings.

Of course, those struggles on the defensive end put even more pressure on the offense, but the attack has done little to rise to the circumstances. Even with F Teuvo Teravainen (4-1-5 totals) and RW Justin Williams (2-3-5) leading the way, the attack has managed only 1.86 goals per game over this run – the second-worst mark in the NHL in that time.

But last night, the script turned an entirely different way. In hostile territory, the Canes came away with a 4-1 victory. Williams dominated the game with two goals and three points to his credit, and Ward saved all but one of the 22 shots sent his way. The Canes will need a similar performance tonight if they want to turn yesterday’s victory into a winning streak.

Meanwhile, 33-23-8 New Jersey has posted a 6-2-0 record over its past eight showings, and it’s all because of the solid play of 15-8-2 G Keith Kinkaid – tonight’s projected starter since 17-12-6 G Cory Schneider was in net for last night’s 3-2 loss at Florida.

Taking over Schneider’s net while he was injured was not always an easy task for Kinkaid. In fact, he posted three losses in five days in early February.

However, Kinkaid has been stellar lately to win five of his last six starts, posting a solid .933 save percentage and 2.12 GAA in spite of his defense allowing 33.22 shots per game since February 13, which has been the median for the NHL since then. With that success, Kinkaid has improved his season marks to a .903 save percentage and 2.99 GAA.

Tonight’s matchup is Game 3 in a four-game regular season series between these two clubs. So far, New Jersey has had the better of the Hurricanes, as the Devils beat them 5-2 on February 15 (C Nico Hischier earned First Star honors with his three-point effort), followed only three days later by a 3-2 overtime victory at PNC Arena (F Taylor Hall provided the game-winner with 23 seconds remaining in overtime).

Of the two teams involved, Carolina undoubtedly has the most to gain currently. Should the Hurricanes earn a win in any way but the shootout and the Blue Jackets lose to Anaheim in regulation, Carolina would advance into the second wild card.

That’s not to say the Devils can’t improve tonight, though. Due to losing a regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker to Pittsburgh, New Jersey can only pull into a tie for third place in the Metropolitan Division with two points tonight, but applying any pressure to the Penguins has to have a positive result for Jersey.

With both clubs playing last night but bucking their recent trends, it’s hard to guess how this evening’s game will go. Though the game is taking place in Raleigh, I think the Devils have a good shot at earning two points this evening since Kinkaid will be back in net.


After allowing two scores in the first period, the Los Angeles Kings responded with five unanswered goals to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 at Staples Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

RW Cam Atkinson (LW Artemi Panarin) wasted no time in getting the Jackets on the scoreboard in this one, as he scored his wrist shot only 3:41 into the game. That marker was followed 9:52 later by D Seth Jones (W Matt Calvert and D Zach Werenski) doubling Columbus’ advantage with a snap shot.

After receiving what I’m sure was a serious tongue-lashing by Head Coach John Stevens, Los Angeles took control of the game in the second period starting with Second Star of the Game F Nate Thompson‘s (First Star D Christian Folin and D Dion Phaneuf) fifth goal of the season, a snapper at the 2:48 mark. 2:23 later, Third Star F Alex Iafallo (Folin and D Jake Muzzin) tied the game on a tip-in.

The final goal of the third period belonged to LW Tanner Pearson (D Drew Doughty and F Tyler Toffoli), and it proved to be an important one. With Panarin in the penalty box for hooking the eventual goalscorer, Pearson turned from goalie screen into shot re-director when he tipped Doughty’s wrister from the blue line past G Joonas Korpisalo‘s right skate and into the back of the net with exactly one minute remaining on the penalty and 3:27 remaining in the frame.

With only a one-goal advantage in the second intermission, the Kings continued to apply pressure in the third period. F Jeff Carter (Folin) scored a shorthanded backhanded shot 8:22 into the frame to set the score at 4-2, followed 8:21 later by Iafallo’s second goal of the night to set the 5-2 final score.

G Jonathan Quick earned the victory after saving 30-of-32 shots faced (.938 save percentage), leaving the loss to Korpisalo, who saved 29-of-34 (.853).

For the second-straight day, the home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series earned a 5-2 victory. As such, the 76-47-19 hosts now have a 22-point advantage on the roadies in the series.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Week 19

Skater of the Week: Nico Hischier

Boy, what a devil of a week for this kid, huh? HUH? (not even crickets chirp for this pun)

In four games, the 19-year-old centerman put up four goals (one in each game) and three assists for seven points, and is currently riding a five-game point streak overall. A +8 through the first three games was marred slightly by a -2 in the final game of the week, but any coach would gladly take a +6 week for any of his players. Perhaps the best stat in all of this, though, is Hischier’s shooting percentage throughout the four-game goal streak. In those four games, Hischier has only fired seven total shots at the net, leaving him with a ridiculous .57 shooting percentage.

With 39 points in 59 games, the league’s most recent first-overall pick is having himself a very solid year. With his Devils entrenched in the knock-down, drag-out dogfight that is the Metropolitan playoff race, he’ll need to continue his strong play to help New Jersey go from the basement to the playoffs.

Tendy of the Week: Antti Raanta

The Arizona Coyotes have won four consecutive games. This is not a drill.

For the first time since January of 2016, the ‘Yotes have strung together four straight, and Raanta is arguably the entire reason for it. In three starts and one relief appearance throughout the week, Raanta managed to string together a 3-0-0 record with a .976 save percentage and 0.91 GAA. The Finnish netminder started the week stopping 37-of-38 against Chicago, before stopping all 12 shots he faced against San Jose, turned aside 34-of-36 attempts by Montreal, and capped the week with a 40-save blanking of Edmonton.

Obviously Arizona is in no position to even entertain the idea of a playoff run, but they can at least have some confidence in the performance of Raanta this year. He currently holds a .924 save percentage and 2.45 GAA on the season, and is two wins under .500 on a very bad team.

Game of the Week: New Jersey Devils 5 @ Philadelphia Flyers 4 (SO), Tuesday February 13th, 2018

Who would have guessed that two bitter rivals fighting for position in the division standings would produce a fun game?

71 shots and 51 hits in a game that saw no major penalties looks a lot like a playoff stat line. Just good, hard hockey.

Things would get rolling shortly into the opening frame, as Claude Giroux fed a speeding Travis Konecny with a beautiful backhand stretch pass, allowing Konecny to steam past Will Butcher across the New Jersey blueline before firing a beautiful wrister past the blocker of Keith Kinkaid and putting the Flyers up 1-0 just 1:54 into the game.

The rest of the first and first few minutes of the second would pass scoreless, due in part to solid netminding, and arguably moreso to a symphony of goalposts. But 4:06 into the second the Devils finally knotted the scored, as Taylor Hall streaked down the left wing side and found just enough daylight between Michal Neuvirth and the post to squeak in the 1-1 tally. Hall would get absolutely buried by Radko Gudas just as the puck was finding its way into the net, but the hit was clean and Hall shoo’d away the tweetie birds in short order and looked none the worse for wear. Just 43 seconds later the Flyers would reestablish their lead as Michael Raffl took an indirect pass off the end boards from Andrew MacDonald and fed a turnaround pass to Scott Laughton in the slot, who managed to get just enough of it to get it past the pad of Kinkaid and across the goal line. Then about six minutes later a Radko Gudas point shot would redirect off of a New Jersey stick past Kinkaid to put the Flyers up 3-1, before John Moore would answer at the 13:17 mark with a bomb from the point that blurred past the glove of Neuvirth and drew the Devils back within one. Just under three minutes later it would be Philly captain Claude Giroux firing home a power-play goal from the left circle, but just 10 seconds later Nico Hischier would again cut the lead to one heading into the third.

Neuvirth and co. held the fort for nearly the entire third period, but a jam play in front would create a loose puck for a circling Taylor Hall who would pounce and send the game to overtime. The extra frame saw a pair of dazzling glove stops (Neuvirth on Hall just seconds in, and Kinkaid on a Voracek redirect with just over a minute remaining), but no more pucks would find twine until Drew Stafford continued his shootout mastery in the second round of the skills competition, and a Kinkaid stop on Voracek would end the game and give the Devils the victory.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

Four ‘Blackhawks fans’ (I use the term loosely, as no one I’ve ever encountered that roots for the Hawks deserves to be lumped in with these lowlifes) were booted from the arena and later issued a permanent ban by the organization for shouting racial taunts at Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly as he was serving a penalty. Personally, I think they should have been invited into the penalty box with DSP as part of their punishment, but that’s just my opinion.

Speaking of the Blackhawks and Capitals, the two teams made a deal that sees defenseman Michal Kempny head to D.C., while a third round pick finds its way back to the Windy City, likely to be turned into a superstar player because Stan Bowman is a wizard.

Also on the trade front are rumors of Petr Mrazek being dealt to Philadelphia, who are currently relying upon third-stringer Alex Lyon after injuries to Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. As someone who owned Mrazek on their fantasy team at one point this season, I feel I am qualified to ask the Flyers why in the name of all that is holy they would want to do such a thing.

Editor’s note: Pete’s crystal ball was on point Monday night. Mrazek was shipped to Philadelphia in return for two draft picks: a conditional fourth-round pick in 2018 and a conditional third-round pick in 2019. Detroit retained half of the goaltender’s salary. Read our recap here.

Nick Foligno is out for what looks to be a couple of weeks, and I’m not crying, you’re crying.

The Olympic men’s hockey tournament has been even weirder than we could have predicted, but after an early hiccup it looks like the Artists Formerly Known as Russia are set to steamroll everything in their path just as it appeared they should on paper.

Barry Trotz became just the fifth coach in league history to coach 1,500 games. Don’t let his ‘angry Russian mob boss’ looks fool you, Trotz is one of the nicest humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and I’d like to extend a sincere congratulations to him.

Dion Phaneuf and Marian Gaborik changed places, in a move that would have been landscape-shifting in the NHL in about 2008. Phaneuf did score in his first game as a King, because the hockey gods are just having all sorts of fun at Ottawa’s expense this year.

 

It’s looking more and more likely (depending on who you ask, anyway) that we could see Erik Karlsson dealt at the deadline. I’m not sure what sort of return that would yield, but considering some believe Jack Johnson is worth a first round pick, I’d have to assume that the Sens would legally own the first-born child of the other involved GM.