31 Thoughts: Taylor Hall contract status looms over slow-starting Devils

New-Jersey-Devils-star-Taylor-Hall-during-a-game-against-the-Philadelphia-Flyers.

New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall. (Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

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• Changes coming to NHL All-Star Skills Competition

Wednesday’s news is that the New Jersey Devils put assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald on the bench next to head coach John Hynes. We’ve seen teams try something like this before — they put a member of the front office or a GM right behind the players. Last year, Bob Murray did it in Anaheim. Lou Lamoriello has done it in New Jersey. Generally it’s for one reason. They want to see first-hand who is part of the solution and who isn’t. My experience with this kind of move is that the New Jersey front office wants that answer.

We knew that the Devils and their pending UFA Taylor Hall were going to be one of the major storylines of 2019–20. What we never suspected was it might happen so quick.

Let’s be clear about one thing: There’s no reason to believe, at this time, the Devils are weighing any option other than signing Hall to a long-term extension. That is the plan; that is the hope; that is what the organization and his agent were discussing prior to the season.

Yes, it is early — and it will be interesting to see which poor starter(s) declare themselves “this year’s St. Louis Blues,” holding together in hope of late-season resurrection.

Yes, the Devils have played three opponents’ home openers, not a schedule anyone would want. (They were outscored 14–2 by Buffalo, Philadelphia and Boston in those games.)

And yes, they’ve suffered two absolutely mind-numbing defeats, blowing a 4–0 lead against Winnipeg and and 4–1 cushion to Florida. Only in your worst nightmares does that continue.

The most interesting person to me in all of this is GM Ray Shero. There was a time he had a cautious reputation. Then he swung the 2008 trade that brought Pascal Dupuis and Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh. Whether buying or selling, he’ll weigh the pros and cons, make a decision and go for it. There’s not a lot of fear there.

When Shero was GM in Pittsburgh, it was specifically written into his contract that he couldn’t trade two particular players without ownership permission. (No prize for guessing who.) I’m not sure what language exists now, but these decisions do not occur in a vacuum. This was a huge off-season for New Jersey, which won its second lottery in three years, took on P.K. Subban’s full salary and made a smart one-year gamble on Wayne Simmonds in an effort to get back to the playoffs.

NHL owners will tell you how critical it is to make the playoffs. In what is still a gate-driven league, the difference between getting in and missing out has massive financial implications. Every indication is the organization recognizes it’s still early. This is the same ownership group that runs the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, which recently went through a rebuild that needed the patience of Job.

The biggest question the Devils need to ask themselves is: What do they believe Hall wants to do? They’ve already been talking to him. The 2018 Hart Trophy winner has said many times that he loved being in the playoffs two years ago, and New Jersey knows the best chance of making him happy is making him believe they can consistently get there.

At last year’s NHL/NHLPA media event in Chicago, it was clear that, of all the players, Hall was most intrigued by John Tavares’s free-agent process. He said it “took a lot of guts” for Tavares to do it, and has asked the current Toronto captain about it.

That’s no guarantee of anything — just another piece of this puzzle the Devils must put together. At some point, they’re going to put a number on the table and gauge Hall’s reaction.

A lot of the heat is coming down on Hynes, but he got an extension nine months ago and I can’t imagine barbecuing hot dogs all summer made him forget how to coach. One of their biggest problems is stopping the cycle, and they’ve already looked at adding a blueliner. I could see them continuing/expediting that search to help with the defensive work.

Right now, they’ll call other teams to see what might be out there. If things don’t improve, those talks will reverse — with others asking them, “What are you going to do?”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

31 THOUGHTS

1. Jinx alert: Heading into Wednesday’s games, there is only one player in the NHL who has been on ice for at least 80 minutes in all situations and not suffered through a goal against. That is Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell (107:48, 4-0 Ducks). He does kill penalties, and Buffalo’s lethal man-advantage is in town. There are only two players who have played 100 five-on-five minutes and not been scored upon. They are Anaheim’s Cam Fowler (101:57, 6-0 Ducks) and Tampa Bay’s Ryan McDonagh (100:46, 4-0 Lightning). Jordan Staal was in the conversation, but that ended with Pierre-Luc DuBois’ game-winner for Columbus last Saturday. (Source: Natural Stat Trick.)

2. One thing I’m hearing a lot: the bottom of the Eastern Conference is much, much better than a year ago. “Those teams are improved,” one scout said. “There won’t be as many (higher-seeded clubs) coasting to the playoffs, like a few of them were used to.”

3. The Canucks are unbeaten since Bo Horvat was named captain, and, in a huge turnaround, trail only Carolina and Nashville for goals by defencemen. Troy Stecher’s ice-time was down from 19:55 in 2018–19 to 13:58 in the first four games of 2019–20. There were rumblings that the Canucks would look to move him for a prospect or a draft pick to ease their cap crunch — but that was denied. Stecher scored his first of the year Tuesday night against Detroit. His ice time was a slightly deceiving 12:16 as he missed the last six minutes due to a misconduct.

4. Bruce Boudreau and the Wild had smiles on their faces when they arrived at Scotiabank Arena for morning skate on Tuesday. A win will do that, getting off the schneid with a 2–0 victory in Ottawa on Monday. But the frustration was back after a 4–2 loss in Toronto. Word on Minnesota is that GM Bill Guerin will listen on everything, but isn’t in a rush to do anything simply for the sake of it. I think they’d like to address a recurring problem — the team’s lack of right-handed shots. Boudreau is in the last year of his coaching contract (there is a consulting gig with the organization scheduled to begin next season). I don’t get the sense Guerin is in any hurry there. If a move did happen, Boudreau’s history as an immediate turnaround artist keeps him in the conversation if anyone else wants to make a change.

5. Not exactly a stunner to see Leon Draisaitl (25:08) and Connor McDavid (23:10) carrying the mail in Edmonton. They were first and second in ice time for forwards a year ago, and are back in that spot to start 2019-20, although now Draisaitl is number one. While the captain is up 20 seconds, Draisaitl’s rise is a whopping 2:33. No forward has averaged 25 minutes a game since 2001-02. That was Pavel Bure, the second of two times he did it. The only others to cross that threshold are Jaromir Jagr, Paul Kariya and Joe Sakic. Only one player this decade even sniffed that air. That was Ilya Kovalchuk — 24:26 in 2011-12 and 24:44 in 2012-13. The Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad, by the way, has jumped from 20th to fourth.

6. At even strength, Draisaitl and McDavid are 18:47 and 18:38 respectively. They were first (McDavid) and third (Draisaitl) last season, joined by Patrick Kane and Dylan Larkin as the only forwards above 18. Right now, they are almost one minute ahead of everyone else, but the interesting thing is who is third. The Islanders’ Mathew Barzal is at 17:41, up almost three minutes. Barzal’s overall time is 18:51, so he’s not getting a ton on the power play. His influence is growing.

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7. Pat Maroon paused when asked what questions the Lightning asked most about winning the Stanley Cup.

“The thing they asked most about was how we handled it when things went wrong. How were we able to overcome that?” Maroon pointed to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, where St. Louis blew a 2-0 lead, losing 4–2. “We plateaued in that game, and didn’t feel good about ourselves when we lost. Craig Berube said he didn’t understand why we were reacting that way. We knew it was going to be a grind, we’d handled things before — (we had to) get back to who we were. That’s the kind of thing I talk about (with the Lightning).”

8. The NHL is on notice: Sidney Crosby is back in Hart Trophy consideration. He won his second in 2014, and almost single-handedly willed the injury-ravaged Penguins to a 2–1 victory over previously unbeaten Anaheim last Thursday. That started a three-game win streak.

“We’re lucky enough to see it every day,” GM Jim Rutherford said last week. “In games, in practices, he always brings 100 per cent.”

9. Head coach Mike Sullivan indicated Pittsburgh’s nine defencemen might have to get used to a rotation. Rutherford admitted there “wasn’t much” of a trade market for what he had out there.

“We might stay with what he have until everyone gets healthy — see where we are then.”

It helps when you have a nuclear weapon like Crosby, and one man’s injury is another man’s opportunity. Among those who have stepped up: Sam Lafferty, who had five points in weekend wins over Minnesota and Winnipeg. A scouting friend had praise for the winger, taken 113th overall in 2014 out of NCAA Brown.

“I saw him at a rookie tournament (in 2018) and didn’t think he was going to be good enough,” he said. “The next thing I knew, he had 50 points in the AHL. Good on him — he worked hard to get better.”

10. Rutherford was not willing to give any timelines on Evgeni Malkin, but said the cornerstone did not undergo surgery. When I asked about the uncertain timelines soft-tissue injuries can present, he laughed and said, “That’s why we don’t give updates.”

11. One thing the GM made clear: He is not interested in trading Pittsburgh’s 2020 first-rounder.

12. I do think Montreal — which has kept an eye on left-shot defenders — took a look at Juuso Riikola. (Rutherford was not the source on this one.

13. Buffalo is another team looking to move a defender, and I thought Arizona might make sense for one of these blueline-heavy clubs when Niklas Hjalmarsson went down. He’s a huge part of what they do. Since he’s going to be back and they are tighter to the cap, a big move is unlikely. The Coyotes believe in 22-year-old Kyle Capobianco, whose 2018-19 season was shortened by a knee injury. He played 13:18 in Tuesday’s victory in Winnipeg.

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14. Win or lose, Nashville is going to score and score a lot. They’ve got 28 goals in six games, a league-leading 4.67 (yes, I know it’s early). Fourteen different players have at least one. There’s been some dialogue in the last few days between the Predators and Roman Josi. There’s a “want” from both sides to get this done, but the magic number looks like it starts with nine.

15. Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk halted the search for a President of Hockey Operations until at least the end of the season. What is uncertain is if the search will continue, or if GM Pierre Dorion’s work convinces Melnyk that no new hire is necessary. It is believed Melnyk was asking an experienced executive for suggestions (I’d heard Glen Sather), but we can’t be sure if that will continue, either.

16. We’re going to see some changes to the All-Star Skills Competition for January’s event in St. Louis. Some of the events that players have really struggled with (such as puck control) are on the chopping block. The NHL and NHLPA agree that you want your guys having fun and looking happy. The opposite is not the best advertisement for the sport. St. Louis has a fantastic alumni group, and discussions are under way on how to involve them — but my dream of having Al Iafrate win the hardest shot while smoking a cigarette appears unlikely. Like the all-stars themselves, there is concern about having alumni compete and not look good. I assume female players will be invited again, too.

17. The most impressive thing about Nashville’s latest win was that it came in Vegas, site of a legit Stanley Cup contender. The Golden Knights were 53-22-7 at home during their first two seasons, giving rise to the “Vegas flu” theory — that the added distractions from the fun capital of North America made it harder to win there. (Trust me, it makes it harder to broadcast there, too.) I love the way the Knights play — they’re a throwback to an edgier era.

“We’re at our best when we play an angry game, when we have emotion, when we’re pissed off,” defenceman Brayden McNabb said last week. “A lot of guys have that identity. Finishing checks fuels our team.”

How big a part do you play in that?

McNabb laughed.

“I don’t think it’s myself. You know who it is.”

Ryan Reaves?

“Yes, blame him. Him and (William) Carrier.”

They’ve lost at home to the Predators and Bruins, so they’ll be squirrelly for Ottawa’s arrival on Thursday.

18. McNabb, a better puckhandler than he gets credit for, spent a lot of time working on the power of his first few steps. He was looking to create muscle memory, because, “If you overthink everything, you get what you get.”

You can bet coach Gerard Gallant will be on them over the next 48 hours to get back to who they are. McNabb will be a part of that.

“I learned from my time in Los Angeles that winning is hard. It comes with bumps and bruises. But if you prepare around the clock, it makes you confident.”

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

19. Carolina improved to 6-1 with a 2–0 win in Los Angeles Tuesday night. Prior to the road trip, I asked Rod Brind’Amour if he’s noticed a change in how his team is perceived after going to the Eastern Conference Final.

“I do,” he answered. “I like to watch video of what coaches say after we play them to hear what they think about the game. Last year, when we beat a team, there would be a lot of, ‘We played poorly’ — not ‘[the Hurricanes] played well.’ … Our wins this year have been hard games. We are getting everyone’s best. You can see the intensity. Our guys have got to be ready. And that respect is good. It’s not bad to be dialled in because the other team is pushing.”

20. Coaches are supposed to worry, to find things they don’t like even when the situation looks solid.

“Our record is great and that’s what we get graded on,” Brind’Amour said. “We’re not quite where I’d like, but we’re pretty close.”

What more would you like?

“We have another gear. We’re a little inconsistent in the way we have to play. We’ve given up too many good looks.”

When they smothered Tampa last week, allowing just two shots in the final 42 minutes, one of the Lightning said the Hurricanes were more aggressive with the short change, and much less so with the longer one in the second period. Brind’Amour thought that was overthinking it a bit. After going to 5-0 with a 5–2 win over the Islanders last Friday, defenceman Brett Pesce told The Athletic’s Sara Civian that he’d never had so much freedom in the offensive zone, which creates an almost a position-less style of play.

I could hear Brind’Amour smiling through the phone when asked about that.

“It’s a tricky question. I watch systems and see more and more teams do it. Our guys love to promote that. I think it’s half tongue-in-cheek. We have a definite commitment to play without the puck. But I do want them to be themselves.”

21. Carolina hasn’t given up hope of Justin Williams returning, maybe as late as Christmas/New Year’s. In the meantime, Brind’Amour thought a lot about “tone” in his second season as a head coach.

“I wanted to keep doing what we did last year, setting a standard for this is still how we do things. I don’t know any other way. You push your guys, but it has to be a give-and-take. I love the group. I alway joke that when I played, I didn’t have a real job, but now I’ve got one.”

22. Remember Anthony Mantha’s four-goal game against Dallas?

The fourth (1:02 mark of the above video) came off a face-off where Detroit’s coaching staff wanted the draw on the other side of the ice.

“[Larkin] told us they had a play they wanted to try,” head coach Jeff Blashill said last week, referring to the group of Larkin, Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi.

Assistant coach Dan Bylsma handles the pre-game planning in this department, letting the trio know about opponent tendencies and what to look for. Blashill loved Larkin stepping up in that situation.

“The best lines in hockey drive their teams to winning. It goes beyond points. For them to have the confidence to say they wanted to try that is great for us.”

23. Blashill felt a late-season winning streak last March gave his players some confidence. The Red Wings won eight of nine, including five over playoff-bound clubs: the Islanders, Vegas, San Jose, Boston and Pittsburgh.

“Against real teams, we played really good hockey,” he said. “Confidence matters. The margin of victory in this league is razor thin. You better believe … it matters to an individual and a team.”

Blashill praised the likes of Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek and current AHLer Joe Veleno for how they prepared during the summer, but we spent the majority of our conversation on the top line.

“They have learned a shared responsibility. It’s not one of them looking at the other two (to do something). I don’t like the phrase, ‘two-way players.’ I prefer ‘winning players.’”

What does that mean?

“It means they are not cheaters. They have developed into that.”

What percentage would you put on them to indicate how close they are to where they need to be?

“I won’t answer that. It puts a ceiling on them and I won’t do that. This league is relentless and ongoing night after night. They are all better today than they were a year ago, three years ago, five years ago. Credit to them.”

24. Blashill on working with Ken Holland and Steve Yzerman: “They are not a whole lot different. Two of the most respected men in the NHL. (Holland) should be a Hall of Famer, his success speaks for itself. Great man. Yzerman is there, extremely respected. Both men believe in reality. No short-cuts. Build through the draft. And they both believe young players have to go through a process. Steve could have forced young players on our team, but would only allow it if they were 100 per cent ready.”

25. Only Connor McDavid has more power-play points (seven) than Jack Eichel’s six. Buffalo’s captain is off to an excellent start, and nothing exhibited his strong relationship with new coach Ralph Krueger more than the aftermath of the Sabres’ only loss — 4-3 in overtime to Columbus last Monday. Eichel was bumped off the puck by Nick Foligno, who set up Alexandre Texier for the winner.

Asked 48 hours later how he handled it by Jeff Marek, Krueger responded. “I took that on myself. I put Jack out, he was the first shift (in overtime). We went back to him on the third (shift). In retrospect, he wasn’t quite ready. His first shift was quite long…. It was not only his deal. We move on quick here. Everybody’s trying to do the right things. We’ve got a group of players that have completely bought in to what we are doing here and we’re going to make mistakes along the way. We park those quick and move on to the next challenge.”

Eichel would certainly seem to appreciate his coach having his back. He had four points in the next game against Montreal, and the Sabres won three straight.

26. Okay, bear with me here. On Thanksgiving Sunday, we went to go see Alegria, the Cirque du Soleil show in Toronto. One of the performers could twirl four hula hoops around her body at once:

Pretty impressive, eh? I sure thought so. As it turned out, so did a trainer of NHL players who happened to be at the show. He said hula hoop routines are being incorporated into rehab programs. I asked for examples, and the one offered up was Arizona defenceman Jakob Chychrun, who had knee surgery in April 2018.

27. The crazy thing about these videos is they happened not long after the operation. Chychrun’s surgeon was recommended to him by well-known chiropractor Mark Lindsay.

“He was a great surgeon,” the Coyote said. “He had a post-operation protocol. Very careful, from week one to four, only certain things you can do — bend your knee 120 degrees, little checkpoints like that. But Mark said, “No, you’ve got to go see Bill.’”

Bill is Bill Knowles. Based in Pennsylvania, he told the Sun (United Kingdom version) in November 2018 that he “doesn’t define his role as working in rehabilitation but rather reconditioning.” Chychrun walked into Knowles’s facility with his father, Jeff, who played 262 NHL games.

“[Bill] was like, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ It was my brace. He says, ‘That’s cute — take that off.’ My dad and I were thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ He told me to leave my crutches in the corner, too. He believes training the brain to use muscles to protect the surgery makes your brain dumb. He wants your muscles to activate, to wake up and fire again. The hula hoops start firing the muscles after you walk on your own. He’s also big with using (a pool) after surgery.”

Can Chychrun do four hula hoops at once like the woman from the show?

“No, I can’t do that,” he laughed. “She’s in Cirque for a reason.”

28. Capobianco used Knowles after his own surgery. Chychrun introduced teammate Jason Demers to the program, and players from other teams have started to reach out.

“I trust (Mark Lindsay) with my body more than anyone else. If he tells me Bill is the best guy for me — I have an open mind.”

Another exercise Knowles got Chychrun to do is the skier’s edge. “It’s my favourite machine, the most similar thing to skating you can find. I bought one for the cottage, and the team has one. It’s great for your quad strength.”

29. Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada — Doughty/Tkachuk, the rematch. Brian Burke noticed in the first meeting that Kyle Clifford poked his head in a couple of times to make sure Doughty didn’t need to fight. No wonder teammates like Clifford so much.

30. Noted University of Alberta cheerleader Bob Stauffer was all over me last year about Golden Bears centre Luke Philp. Calgary signed the free agent, and he’s at AHL Stockton. Luke’s younger brother, Noah, is playing at the university now that his WHL days in Kootenay and Seattle are complete. He did play two games at Stockton last season, but may get another shot in the future.

31. There were many great stories about Ted Green shared last weekend, after the Oilers announced the former player and coach had died at 79. There are three things about Green that get mentioned the most: the vicious stick-swinging incident with Wayne Maki in 1969; his incredible physical conditioning that lasted well after he retired; and his efforts in serving the homeless in Edmonton.

Here’s another: Years ago, I interviewed Anders Hedberg for a piece on Borje Salming. Off camera, he told a fantastic story about Green, who played with him on the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. Hedberg and Swedish teammate Ulf Nilsson received plenty of rough treatment. Hedberg said he wanted to be tougher, only to be told by Green that true toughness was continuing to play at a high level no matter what others did to them. That, he told Hedberg, was true toughness. That’s a great philosophy, and it goes far beyond the rink.

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