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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 Projected Standings

It’s still way too early to make these bold claims, but let’s do it anyway.

Using marginal goals for and marginal goals against from the 2017-18 regular season– let’s assume there were no roster, coaching or front office changes this summer that would otherwise flip everything upside-down– here are expected points totals for all 31 National Hockey League teams for the 2018-19 season.

Eastern Conference

Atlantic Division

  1. z-Tampa Bay Lightning, 114 points
  2. x-Boston Bruins, 113 points
  3. x-Toronto Maple Leafs, 108 points
  4. Florida Panthers, 92 points
  5. Detroit Red Wings, 77 points
  6. Montreal Canadiens, 71 points
  7. Ottawa Senators, 65 points
  8. Buffalo Sabres, 61 points

Metropolitan Division

  1. y-Pittsburgh Penguins, 100 points
  2. x-Washington Capitals, 99 points
  3. x-Columbus Blue Jackets, 96 points
  4. x-Philadelphia Flyers, 95 points
  5. x-New Jersey Devils, 93 points
  6. Carolina Hurricanes, 81 points
  7. New York Islanders, 79 points
  8. New York Rangers, 78 points

2018-19 Eastern Conference Outlook

Not much is different in the Atlantic Division heading into 2018-19.

The top teams are the top teams, regardless of their additions (John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs) or subtractions (uhh, James van Riemsdyk from the Maple Leafs?) and there’s going to be a little movement in the Metropolitan Division (most notably, a new division leader from 2017-18 to 2018-19).

Carolina’s revamped defense and the Rangers post-trade deadline to present overhaul are wild cards to watch for any surprises in the standings.

2017-18 Eastern Conference Expected Points Totals vs. (What Actually Happened)

Atlantic Division

  1. y-Montreal Canadiens, 102 points (z-Tampa Bay Lightning, 113 points)
  2. x-Boston Bruins, 101 points (x-Boston Bruins, 112 points)
  3. x-Toronto Maple Leafs, 95 points (x-Toronto Maple Leafs, 105 points)
  4. x-Tampa Bay Lightning, 95 points (Florida Panthers, 96 points)
  5. Ottawa Senators, 91 points (Detroit Red Wings, 73 points)
  6. Florida Panthers, 81 points (Montreal Canadiens, 71 points)
  7. Detroit Red Wings, 77 points (Ottawa Senators, 67 points)
  8. Buffalo Sabres, 77 points (Buffalo Sabres, 62 points)

What happened in the Atlantic? Injuries and age slowed the Canadiens way, way down, while Tampa reemerged as one of the top teams in the NHL, appearing in their third Eastern Conference Final in four years (despite losing to the Washington Capitals in seven games).

Boston proved to be ahead of schedule in their plan, while the Leafs were right on track. Meanwhile, the floor fell out from underneath the Senators and a new head coach didn’t bring the expected progress in development for the Sabres.

Florida turned a few heads, though ultimately proved to be a non-contender, missing the playoffs by a point (Columbus and New Jersey locked up the Eastern Conference wild cards with 97 points on the season), while Detroit fell within the expected margin of error (anywhere from 72-82 points on the season).

Metropolitan Division

  1. p-Washington Capitals, 125 points (y-Washington Capitals, 105 points)
  2. x-Columbus Blue Jackets, 114 points (x-Pittsburgh Penguins, 100 points)
  3. x-Pittsburgh Penguins, 111 points (x-Philadelphia Flyers, 98 points)
  4. x-New York Rangers, 106 points (x-Columbus Blue Jackets, 97 points)
  5. New York Islanders, 91 points (x-New Jersey Devils, 97 points)
  6. Philadelphia Flyers, 85 points (Carolina Hurricanes, 83 points)
  7. Carolina Hurricanes, 83 points (New York Islanders, 80 points)
  8. New Jersey Devils, 67 points (New York Rangers, 77 points)

What happened in the Metropolitan? Sometimes it’s not about the number of points, but rather, the divisional standing that matters.

Washington may have surprised some experts by finishing 1st in their division in 2017-18 (then going on to win the Cup), but to us it wasn’t (the division win, not the Cup). The rest was a crapshoot. Three teams (Washington, Columbus and Pittsburgh) made the playoffs from our predictions heading into last season, while one (N.Y. Rangers) fell flat and hit the reset button.

New Jersey had one of the biggest improvements from 2016-17 to 2017-18, while the Carolina Hurricanes hit the nail on the head (albeit one position higher than our prediction) with 83 points in 2017-18.

Western Conference

Central Division

  1. z-Winnipeg Jets, 114 points
  2. x-Nashville Predators, 113 points
  3. x-Minnesota Wild, 99 points
  4. x-Colorado Avalanche, 99 points
  5. Dallas Stars, 95 points
  6. St. Louis Blues, 93 points
  7. Chicago Blackhawks, 81 points

Pacific Division

  1. y-Vegas Golden Knights, 108 points
  2. x-Los Angeles Kings, 105 points
  3. x-San Jose Sharks, 100 points
  4. x-Anaheim Ducks, 99 points
  5. Edmonton Oilers, 81 points
  6. Calgary Flames, 80 points
  7. Vancouver Canucks, 74 points
  8. Arizona Coyotes, 73 points

2018-19 Western Conference Outlook

Before the additions of Ryan O’Reilly (via trade), Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon (via free agency), the St. Louis Blues were destined to slide through another season of mediocrity. Now, they’re the most unpredictable team of the Central Division– and, yes, that’s even acknowledging what kind of season Jake Allen has in net.

Allen could make or break St. Louis’s season, though Mike Yeo will have to balance Allen’s starting time with Chad Johnson‘s play as a solid backup, but enough about the Blues (for now).

Everything else looks just the same in the Central with Colorado, Minnesota and Dallas as the teams that are most likely to change places and hit or miss one of the last playoff spots in the West.

In the Pacific, the arms race for the top of the division rages on with the Golden Knights, Kings and Sharks auditioning for the role of top-dog and the Ducks bumbling their way into a wild card spot.

It’s status quo in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, with the Arizona Coyotes entering the 2018-19 season as the biggest underdogs (hint, if they had played the way they did from February through April 2018 all season last season, they would be a lot higher up in these expected totals).

2017-18 Western Conference Expected Points Totals vs. (What Actually Happened)

Central Division

  1. z-Minnesota Wild, 115 points (p-Nashville Predators, 117 points)
  2. x-Chicago Blackhawks, 104 points (x-Winnipeg Jets, 114 points)
  3. x-St. Louis Blues, 99 points (x-Minnesota Wild, 101 points)
  4. x-Nashville Predators, 98 points (x-Colorado Avalanche, 95 points)
  5. Winnipeg Jets, 89 points (St. Louis Blues, 94 points)
  6. Dallas Stars, 76 points (Dallas Stars, 92 points)
  7. Colorado Avalanche, 47 points (Chicago Blackhawks, 76 points)

What happened in the Central? Simply put, the stars aligned.

The Blackhawks were kept far away from the 90-point plateau (and a playoff spot) by virtue of injuries to their starting goaltender, Corey Crawford, while the anemic offense of the 2016-17 Colorado Avalanche was no more in 2017-18.

Both are surprises– by definition, given expected points totals are driven by an equation that takes last season’s offense into account for the following season– but any inherent intuition would show that Colorado was destined to improve (by that much, perhaps not).

St. Louis fell out of the race while Connor Hellebuyck backstopped the Winnipeg Jets to a 50-plus win season and the Wild surged quietly. The Stars were thought to be further off the path back to the playoffs than they turned out, but alas, Dallas was still 6th in the division at season’s end.

Pacific Division

  1. y-Vegas Golden Knights, 106 points (y-Vegas Golden Knights, 109 points)
  2. x-Edmonton Oilers, 106 points (x-Anaheim Ducks, 101 points)
  3. x-Anaheim Ducks, 101 points (x-San Jose Sharks, 100 points)
  4. x- San Jose Sharks, 100 points (x-Los Angeles Kings, 98 points)
  5. Calgary Flames, 94 points (Calgary Flames, 84 points)
  6. Los Angeles Kings, 90 points (Edmonton Oilers, 78 points)
  7. Vancouver Canucks, 67 points (Vancouver Canucks, 73 points)
  8. Arizona Coyotes, 66 points (Arizona Coyotes, 70 points)

What happened in the Pacific? One of the best things about making predictions using a set of data is the outliers that cause some people to doubt all of math in its entirety. Nothing is concrete in the world of projections and expectations. The 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers are a great example of that.

Based on a spectacular breakout 2016-17 season, the Oilers should’ve done a lot more than *checks notes* leave Cam Talbot in the net for too many games, facing too many shots, while Milan Lucic exerts some type of energy in the midst of another 100-point season by Connor McDavid only to miss the playoffs (by a lot) and still receive enough pity votes for the Hart Memorial Trophy to finish 5th in the voting. Hmm.

One player does not make a team. One expected points total before a single puck drops on the regular season does not guarantee anything.

Meanwhile, Vegas surprised everyone, Anaheim and San Jose hit their expected points totals, Los Angeles was ahead of schedule (though the core is still aging), Calgary regressed and the rest was as expected (again, given the margin of error– about +/- 5 points).

St. Louis Blues 2018-2019 Season Preview

St. Louis Blues

44-32-6, 94 points, fifth in the Central Division

Additions: C Tyler Bozak, F Brian Flynn, G Chad Johnson, D Joey LaLeggia, LW Patrick Maroon, D Niko Mikkola, F Jordan Nolan, F Ryan O’Reilly, W David Perron, D Tyler Wotherspoon

Subtractions: RW Beau Bennett (signed with Dinamo Minsk, KHL), F Patrik Berglund (traded to BUF), C Kyle Brodziak (signed with EDM), G Carter Hutton (signed with BUF), D Petteri Lindbohm (signed with Lausanne, NL), C Wade Megan (signed with DET), F Vladimir Sobotka (traded to BUF), F Tage Thompson (traded to BUF)

Offseason Analysis: The best metaphor for the Blues’ offseason just might be a fishing analogy.

While there was certainly a big fish to be caught (for those still in the dark, Toronto signing C John Tavares is by far the catch of the summer), General Manager Doug Armstrong won the volume competition, as he cast a wide net and brought in at least four offensive additions that should see significant playing time this season.

And that’s not to say Armstrong simply acquired anyone willing to move to the Gateway to the West. To continue our fishing analogy, Armstrong’s nets had large holes to grab only the biggest of names available this summer.

Bozak and Perron represent St. Louis’ primary signings from the summer’s free agency frenzy. Bozak, a player coming off posting 11-32-43 totals in Toronto last season, and Perron, who scored 16-50-66 marks (by far a career-high in assists) with the Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights, were both signed on July 1 and would have represented an excellent offseason simply between themselves.

Maroon, who has posted more than 40 points in both of his last two seasons, was signed nine days later to a one-year deal, but it was really the July 1 trade with the Sabres for O’Reilly that set the Blues apart and set such high expectations. For the price of two bottom-nine forwards, a prospect, and two draft picks (a first in 2019 and a second in 2021), the Blues added a legitimate top-six center that has posted at least 55 points in six of his last seven seasons (an injury limited his action to only 29 games in 2012-13).

Fifty-five points, with his best being a 64-point effort in 2013-14? Aren’t expectations a little high that he’ll be the one to propel the Notes back into the playoffs?

We need to remember that O’Reilly has only played for Colorado (2009-2015) and Buffalo (2015-2018) during his career – neither of which I would say were exactly abounding in talent during his tenures. Should he earn the role of starting center (as many expect he will) over F Brayden Schenn, he’ll be playing alongside one of the best right wings in the league in Vladimir Tarasenko and up-and-coming 26-year-old F Jaden Schwartz, who posted 14-21-35 totals in 30 games to open the season before suffering a lower-body injury that sidelined him for more than a month.

If we’re looking for something that smells fishy, I’d sooner look to St. Louis’ goaltending situation. Far and away, the Notes’ best netminder last season was Hutton with his 17-7-3 record on a .931 save percentage and 2.09 GAA. Instead of resigning him, Armstrong allowed him to take his talents to the Queen City, leading to former Sabres goalie Johnson making his way to the Gateway City.

With no new starter in sight (23-year-old G Ville Husso still needs more time in the AHL to develop), that means G Jake Allen (who just yesterday was reported to be struggling with back spasms that will keep him off the ice for much of training camp) will regain his starting job even though he managed only a 27-25-3 record on an abysmal .906 save percentage and 2.75 GAA last season.

For at least the last two campaigns, Allen has made a horrendous habit of falling into cold streaks that extend longer than a month. In 19 appearances between December 12 and March 8 last season, Allen managed a terrible 2-14-0 record on a .897 save percentage and 3.17 GAA.

For a team with aspirations as high as the Blues’, I’m surprised this issue was not given more attention to result in a better acquisition than Johnson. While the goalie free agent market was fairly lean, Armstrong showed he was willing to make a blockbuster trade when he made the O’Reilly deal. Instead, this entire season rests firmly on Allen’s shoulders, as his incredible defense (the Blues’ 29.7 shots allowed last season was best in the Western Conference) can do only so much before he has to make a save.

Offseason Grade: B+

There’s no doubt the Blues were unhappy missing the playoffs last season. However, while they certainly did more than enough to improve an attack that already boasted three 20-goal scorers (Tarasenko, Schenn and Schwartz), I have major concerns with Allen getting handed the reins after being arguably the biggest problem last season. If he can’t rise to the challenge and return to his 2015-2016 form that led the Notes to second in the Central Division (remember, G Brian Elliott was in net when that team went all the way to the Western Finals), all this offseason work was for naught.


As a bonus interesting note, Perron has never signed a contract with any club other than the St. Louis Blues, even though he’s worn four other crests in his career and is embarking upon his third stint with the organization.

I don’t know how important that is, but now you’ll have an answer if you’re ever posed with that trivia question at your local watering hole.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #114- Mark Speed: The Mark Recchi Episode

Nick, Cap’n and Pete announce their top-10 right wingers of their lifetimes while Connor mails it in and Nick reads his list (somebody has to do work around here). Keeping with tradition, all of Thursday’s big news was announced during or shortly after recording.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #113- We’re Still UFAs for the Record

Nick and Connor discuss John Tavares signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Crosby/Malkin vs. Tavares/Matthews argument, best and worst free agency signings and more. At this point, we’re also strangely optimistic about the St. Louis Blues.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

It’s July 1st… Here’s some UFAs*

*Technically speaking, these players cannot sign until noon on Sunday, but thanks to a week long interview period with all the other teams, they might already have agreements in place.

With that in mind, let’s try to weigh the options in front of the best options in the market this summer, keeping in mind these rankings are completely arbitrary and ultimately meaningless– like everything in the postmodern world (that was for you, Islanders fans, in case You-Know-Who doesn’t re-sign).

First, let’s get this out of the way– signing Ryan Reaves for two-years at $2.775 million per season is… bad. Yeah, not great. That’s over half of what James Neal was making (at least according to his $5.000 million cap hit in Vegas) in 2017-18 and, well, Reaves is a fourth liner.

Neal can still reach the 30-goal plateau.

Granted, his stock will undoubtedly rise too, given a remarkable Golden Knights inaugural season run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Anyway, on with the show, eh (Happy Canada Day, Canadian readers).

Five of the best UFA forwards:

1) John Tavares, 27, 36-47–83 totals in 82 games played, $5.500 million cap hit (2017-18)

Tavares may leave the New York Islanders, then again he may stick around. Also at play (at the time of this writing around 1:30 a.m. ET and in no particular order), the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins and Dallas Stars.

He can only sign for a maximum of seven years and will likely cost around $10 million per season. For contending teams, his decision means everything for the rest of the dominoes to fall in place.

For those outside the playoff picture looking to get back into the swing of things, well, expect those small deals to be announced right away at noon.

2) James van Riemsdyk, 29, 36-18–54 totals in 81 games played, $4.250 million cap hit (2017-18)

van Riemsdyk shouldn’t be in the $9.000 million range, but stranger things always happen on July 1st every offseason. All indications thus far point to a reunion with the team that drafted him 2nd overall in 2007– the Philadelphia Flyers.

Will it be a smart deal? Yes and no.

Assuming Philadelphia rids themselves of Jori Lehtera‘s $4.700 million per season on the books next summer and finds a way to keep Wayne Simmonds around, this is a lateral move that fills what could become a hole in their top-six forwards. Then again, perhaps the Flyers are already thinking of moving on from Simmonds via a trade? Time will tell.

Meanwhile van Riemsdyk is a two-time 30-goal scorer, so that should offset Philadelphia’s lackluster goaltending, right?

3) James Neal, 30, 25-19–44 totals in 71 games played, $5.000 million cap hit (2017-18)

Neal is two years younger than the next guy on this list, but he’s been more consistent as a glue-guy that can slide up on your second line when necessary. Will he be overpaid? For sure. Will he score more than 30 goals in 2018-19? It’s possible. Neal tends to have two or three seasons under 30 goals before a “breakout” year like in 2011-12 (40 goals) and 2015-16 (31 goals).

Anything longer than five years is a bad deal in the long run (not for Neal though). Even five years is pushing it as he’ll be well past his prime by then.

4) Paul Stastny, 32, 16-37–53 totals in 82 games played, $7.000 million cap hit (2017-18)

Stastny is one of the best playmakers in the league that doesn’t always get enough recognition. Unfortunately for one general manager, that’ll mean a lot of money packed into too long of a deal this summer.

Oft injured and not quite the dominant force he was when he broke into the league in 2006-07, Stastny doesn’t come with any receipts or refunds, but rather a “buyer beware” tag. In the right role, he’ll elevate your team to the Western Conference Final, a la his run down the stretch with the Winnipeg Jets.

Otherwise, paying him more than $7.000 million and expecting different results as a first or second line center without support is insane.

5) Tyler Bozak, 32, 11-32–43 totals in 81 games played, $4.200 million cap hit (2017-18)

Bozak had one season past the 50-point plateau (he had 55 points in 2016-17), but he consistently manages upper-40s from season to season. That’s points, not goals alone, mind you.

Something in the $6.000 million range sounds perfect. Especially if you’re putting Bozak on the second line on your roster. Similar to Stastny, though, the right support around him can elevate his production. Unlike Stastny, however, Bozak is less injury prone.

If you can’t sign one of these five forwards, take a pamphlet on David Perron (66 points), Thomas Vanek (56 points), Riley Nash (41 points), Patrick Maroon (40 points) or Michael Grabner (36 points).

Five of the best UFA defenders:

1) Thomas Hickey, 29, 5-19–24 totals in 69 games played, $2.200 million cap hit (2017-18)

Hickey didn’t play a full season in any of the three seasons of his most recent contract with the Islanders. Baring any setbacks, he should be due for a raise and an increased role as a top-4 defender looking for a fresh start (assuming he leaves New York).

Look, there are no surefire 30 or 40-point scorer defenders available on the market this summer unless you take a gander at some RFA blueliners like Matt Dumba (49 points), Colin Miller (41), Brandon Montour (32), Noah Hanifin (31) and Ryan Pulock (30).

If you’re simply trying to fill a need and have done enough scouting, Hickey could be your guy. Just saying.

2) Ian Cole, 29, 5-15–20 totals in 67 games played, $2.100 million cap hit (2017-18)

Buy low, sell (potentially) high is what one can expect from Cole.

Considering how the Pittsburgh Penguins traded him to the Ottawa Senators as part of the Derick Brassard trade, then was flipped to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nick Moutrey and a 2020 third round pick, Cole at least brings interested eyes from playoff hopeful general managers looking to add to the blueline.

He could be a big steal or expendable. The choice is yours.

3) Dylan DeMelo, 25, 0-20–20 totals in 62 games played, $650,000 cap hit (2017-18)

DeMelo is a top-6 blueliner that for some reason, wasn’t in the plans for the San Jose Sharks and their latest attempt at the “Cup or bust” mantra (hey, it worked for Washington finally– despite abandoning the “Cup or bust” mentality thanks, in part, to the salary cap).

Yes, he didn’t score a goal in 2017-18, but 20 assists is still something as a defenseman. Also, not every defenseman is counted on to score. That’s offense and they’re defensemen after all.

4) Calvin de Haan, 27, 1-11–12 totals in 33 games played, $3.300 million cap hit (2017-18)

Injuries and surgery kept de Haan from playing a full season. Otherwise, yes, the production of optimal defenders to attract this offseason really does fall off in the UFA category.

de Haan is only 27, so he’s still in his playing prime and ripe as a defender (blueliners really tapper off around 33-years-old if you use the eye test– there are always exceptions, however). If the Islanders can’t keep him around, there’s a good chance he’ll do better elsewhere in a legitimate role.

5) Andrej Sustr, 27, 2-5–7 totals in 44 games played, $1.950 million cap hit (2017-18)

Being 6-foot-7 and 220-pounds should be good enough to prevent other players that are (on average) half-a-foot shorter from breaking into the offensive zone.

Sustr was the odd man out in Tampa as the Lightning exploded with youth on the blueline this season. He could lock up a $3.000-$4.000 million AAV deal easily this summer and do well in a top-4 role for a team needing a right shot defender to make the difference.

If you can’t sign one of these five defensemen, perhaps take a chance on John Moore (18 points), Nick Holden (17), Luca Sbisa (14), Roman Polak (12) or yes, Brooks Orpik (10) for his rough-and-tough qualities.

Five of the best UFA goaltenders:

1) Carter Hutton, 32, .931 save percentage and 2.09 goals against average in 32 GP, $1.125 million cap hit (2017-18)

Hutton realistically has three solid years left as a goaltender and will likely end up with the Buffalo Sabres as they plan to transition the rights to tending the net from Hutton to Linus Ullmark, theoretically, right?

At least Hutton’s been above average as a backup for the last three seasons with a 2.33 GAA and .918 SV% in 17 games for the Nashville Predators in 2015-16, 2.39 GAA and .913 SV% in 30 games for St. Louis in 2016-17 and his 2.09 and .931 this season for the Blues.

If he’s signed for more than three years that’s not great. Considering he’s about to cash in on $4.000 million per season, probably.

2) Kari Lehtonen, 34, .912 SV% and 2.56 GAA in 37 GP, $5.900 million cap hit (2017-18)

Any team looking to add a backup on a one or two-year deal while they’re waiting for a prospect to make the full-time backup role would be smart to land Lehtonen in net for that transition period.

Especially if that team has a solid defense in front of him and an offense to steal a game or two. While Lehtonen was 15-14-3 this season in 37 games for the Dallas Stars, that’s still only three games below .500.

Think about that. He played more games than usual for a backup– appearing in almost half of the season for Dallas– and the net result was only a few points out of the postseason. A nice two-year deal gives Lehtonen some job security as he joins the 35-year-old club in November.

Another plus, for those interested, he won’t be at a $5.900 million cap hit on his next deal.

3) Anton Khudobin, 32, .913 SV% and 2.56 GAA in 31 GP, $1.200 million cap hit (2017-18)

In his two-year reunion with the Boston Bruins, Khudobin went from a 2.64 GAA and .904 SV% in 2016-17 (16 games played) to a 2.56 GAA and .913 SV% in 2017-18 (31 games played).

The last time he played over 30 games was for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2013-14, when he went on to suit up for 34 appearances and yielded a 2.72 GAA and .900 SV%. Ouch.

Khudobin will be overpaid simply because he’s a “durable” backup, but mostly because he’s younger than Lehtonen (34), Cam Ward (34) and Jaroslav Halak (33).

Sample size is everything. Was 2017-18 a lucky fluke or a product of having a good team in front of him? His next team in 2018-19 will be more telling (and it just might be the Dallas Stars). Approach with caution.

4) Cam Ward, 34, .906 SV% and 2.73 GAA in 43 GP, $3.300 million cap hit (2017-18)

Ward is no longer a starting goaltender and was over-relied on in Carolina this season thanks to Scott Darling‘s vanishing act as a starter (albeit in his first season as a starting goaltender).

At 34, Ward isn’t getting any younger, but signs are pointing to the Chicago Blackhawks, where, at least they have Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith on the blueline to limit shots against.

Oh and a healthy Corey Crawford, hopefully, to really limit Ward’s workload. This is going to be like that time Marty Turco was Chicago’s backup, isn’t it?

5) Jonathan Bernier, 29, .913 SV% and 2.85 GAA in 37 GP, $2.750 million cap hit (2017-18)

Bernier literally saved Colorado’s season when Semyon Varlamov went down with yet another injury. Now Philipp Grubauer is manning the pipes for the Avalanche with Varlamov moving into a refined role unless General Manager Joe Sakic can find a trading partner and keep Bernier from going where he is expected to go on Sunday.

The Detroit Red Wings are calling Bernier’s number as the next backup to Jimmy Howard and it’s a lateral move from Petr Mrazek‘s 2.89 GAA and .910 SV% in 22 games in 2017-18 with Detroit before he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Seriously, Bernier’s only saving grace was that the 2017-18 Avalanche were a lot better than the 2016-17 Avalanche had they been in front of the netminder (Bernier was with the Anaheim Ducks in 2016-17).

Regardless, the Red Wings are rebuilding, so it makes sense (somehow).

If you can’t sign one of these UFA goalies, hopefully you’re not looking to sign a starter from the market this offseason, much less a backup. Start working those phonelines for a trade, because Halak, Robin Lehner and others are your UFA options. *shudders*

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.

Bolts beat Devils 3-1 in Game 4 and lead series 3-1

Unknown-3New Jersey Devils Logo

 

 

 

 

Entering Wednesday night the Tampa Bay Lightning held a 2-1 series lead over the New Jersey Devils and after leading most of the game, 2-1, it was only fitting that Nikita Kucherov’s empty net goal at 18:52 of the third period reflected what the game and the series would be— 3-1, in favor of Tampa.

Yes, the Lightning stole Game 4 on the road at Prudential Center and the Bolts will have a chance to finish the Devils in Game 5 on home ice.

Andrei Vasilevskiy made 27 saves on 28 shots against for a .964 save percentage in the win, while New Jersey’s Cory Schneider had 34 saves on 36 shots faced for a .944 SV% in the loss.

It didn’t take long for the first penalty of the game to be called. In fact, it only took 34 seconds. Taylor Hall was sent to the penalty box with a minor penalty for hooking Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point. The Lightning did not convert on the ensuing power play and the Devils made the kill without their best player on the ice.

Alex Killorn got his name on the event sheet as a result of hooking New Jersey forward, Marcus Johansson, 7:47 into the first period providing the Devils with their first power play of the night. Cedric Paquette made his way to the sin bin shortly thereafter for tripping Hall and gave New Jersey a 5-on-3 power play at 8:12.

It only took 11 seconds for the Devils to convert on the two-man advantage.

Travis Zajac won a faceoff and the puck ended up working its way to Kyle Palmieri (1) who fired one past Vasilevskiy with Patrick Maroon providing a hefty screen in front of the Tampa netminder.

Will Butcher (2) and Hall (4) had the assists on Palmieri’s power play goal that made it 1-0 New Jersey.

Not long after, the Lightning responded with a goal of their own to tie the game, 1-1, at 11:30 of the first period.

J.T. Miller (1) rushed on a breakout and sent a pass to Steven Stamkos who dropped it back to Kucherov. With Miller heading for the goal, Kucherov lobbed the puck to his linemate and Miller sent a shot high and past Schneider’s blocker side.

Kucherov (5) and Stamkos (4) notched the assists on the goal and Tampa surged in momentum.

Cory Conacher thought he had his first goal of the postseason when he beat Schneider cleanly on the glove side, but Devils head coach, John Hynes, challenged the call on the ice and the refs reviewed the play entering the zone for offside.

After review, the ruling on the ice was reversed and the score remained tied, 1-1. Hynes’s coach’s challenge was successful.

But the Lightning had already got the ball rolling on a momentum swing and nonetheless, capitalized on their next great scoring chance as Kucherov (3) sent a shot past Schneider’s glove side to put the Bolts ahead for the first time in the game, 2-1. Braydon Coburn (1) and Miller (2) had the primary and secondary assists, respectively.

Late in the first period, Kucherov was the topic of controversy as he caught Sami Vatanen without the puck in what some may view as a shoulder-to-shoulder check, while Devils fans may see otherwise. There was no penalty called on the play and Hynes was irate behind New Jersey’s bench as Vatanen skated off the ice and left the game with an upper body injury.

It’s hard to tell via replay whether or not Vatanen’s head is the point of contact at all, but regardless of whether or not it was the principal point of contact— given the precedent set this postseason by Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty’s one-game suspension for his hit on Vegas Golden Knights forward, William Carrier— Kucherov should expect something from the league.

Once the blood got boiling as a result of Kucherov’s hit, both teams were riled up the rest of the night.

Lightning forward, Alex Killorn, hit New Jersey defender, Ben Lovejoy, from behind and was assessed a minor penalty for boarding at 16:49 of the first period. As a result of the blatant hit to the numbers, a scrum ensued prior to Killorn’s exit from the ice to the penalty box.

This scrum mentality continued a couple of minutes later when a stoppage in play resulted in every player squaring off with an opponent. New Jersey’s Miles Wood and Blake Coleman, as well as, Tampa’s Anton Stralman, were given roughing minors and the Lightning ended up on the power play with less than a minute to go in the first period.

After 20 minutes of play, the Lightning led the Devils, 2-1, on the scoreboard while New Jersey led, 13-12, in shots on goal. New Jersey had a slight edge in blocked shots (2-1) and hits (9-6) and was 1/3 on the power play through the end of the first period. Tampa was 0/2 on the man advantage.

Midway through the second period, Hall tripped up Stralman and the Bolts went back on the power play until Kucherov’s ensuing holding minor penalty ended the run of 5-on-4 hockey at 11:28. Less than 20 seconds of 4-on-4 hockey occurred and Hall was released from the box, giving New Jersey a shorter than usual power play.

Brayden Point followed up with the next penalty in the game after he bumped into Schneider and got sent to the sin bin for goaltender interference about three minutes later.

Finally, Stefan Noesen got his name on the event sheet for high-sticking Point at 18:38 of the second period.

Through 40 minutes of play, the score remained 2-1, Tampa. The Lightning led in shots on goal (24-18) and blocked shots (7-6), while the Devils led in hits (18-12), takeaways (8-7), giveaways (8-5) and faceoff win percentage (63-38). The Bolts were 0/4 with the man advantage and the Devils were 1/5 on the power play.

Miller slashed Hall at 7:18 of the third period. New Jersey didn’t get anything going on the power play.

Andy Greene tripped Stamkos at 12:52 of the third period. Once again, the Lightning didn’t get anything going with their special teams.

Finally, with Schneider pulled for an extra skater, Tampa put away the game with an empty net goal courtesy of Kucherov (4) at 18:52. Miller (3) had the only assist on the goal that put the Bolts up 3-1 in the game and in the series.

Tampa finished the night leading in shots on goal (37-28), but the Devils led in just about every other stat— hits (25-19), giveaways (11-5), faceoff win% (59-41) and even had a power play goal (1/6 on the night). The Lightning didn’t bring the thunder on any of their power play opportunities and finished the night 0/5.

Game 5 is scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. Puck drop is expected to be a shortly after 3 p.m. ET and viewers in the United States can tune in on NBC/NBCSN (check your local listings, because it appears they’re going to do what they did when New Jersey and Tampa were playing at the same time as Colorado and Nashville about a week ago). Fans in Canada can tune in on SN360 or TVAS2.

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.