A Devilish Mess

Pressure is already mounting for John Hynes only six games into the Devils season. AP Photo by Fred Kfoury III via Getty Images

When they won the lottery and selected Jack Hughes first overall last June, there was plenty of excitement surrounding the New Jersey Devils. Landing the 18-year old top rated American center was a home run for a franchise that struggled mightily in ’18-19.

Hughes is the kind of kid who can dramatically improve a team. He has terrific speed, vision and scoring instincts. The season is only six games old. It hasn’t gone well so far. He’s without a point despite having some close calls. He’s getting closer to his first career milestone. Something Rangers second pick Kaapo Kakko did this past Saturday in a loss. They’ll face off tomorrow in Newark.

This isn’t Kakko versus Hughes. Something the Rangers rookie right wing reminded reporters. It’s the Rangers against the Devils. The latest installment of the Hudson Rivalry. A epic battle between bitter rivals with the Holland Tunnel separating them. It used to be the Lincoln Tunnel. But the Devils play in Newark at The Prudential Center. The site of Thursday’s first meeting.

While the schedule has been ridiculously light for the Rangers, the Devils have played six times. They still are without a win. Something that eluded them in the season opener on home ice. A game they led 4-0 became a gut wrenching 5-4 shootout loss to Winnipeg. It was a harbinger of things to come. Recently, they blew a 4-1 lead on Columbus Day in a jaw dropping 6-4 home loss to the Panthers. They were greeted with boos off the ice.

That defeat dropped them to 0-4-2. They’re in last place overall with two points. That’s tied with the Wild and Senators for the least. But at least Minnesota and Ottawa have wins. The Devils are at rock bottom ranking 31st. They’ve been outscored 29-13. The worst differential so far.

Alright. Not much has gone right. However, it’s only six games out of 82. Last year, they started much differently by winning their first four before becoming one of the NHL’s worst teams. That’s just some perspective for panicked New Jersey fans. Even the best teams can get off to bad starts. However, let’s not compare this team to the Stanley Cup winning Blues, who celebrated the franchise’s first ever championship by visiting the White House on Tuesday.

Rebuilding teams take longer. I’m not suggesting the Devils are in a total rebuild. Not when GM Ray Shero acquired former Norris winner PK Subban to help the defense. He also took a risk by signing former KHL star Nikita Gusev after acquiring the Russian forward from Vegas. The results have been mixed with Gusev scoring two goals and one in the shootout. However, he’s not playing top six minutes. The NHL is an adjustment for him.

Which brings us to coach John Hynes. A nice guy, who has guided the Devils to one postseason since Shero brought him in a few years ago. Granted. Those were bad teams. In ’17-18, Taylor Hall carried the team to their first postseason since they played for the Stanley Cup in 2012. He deservingly won the Hart Trophy as league MVP to become the first Devil to do so. However, they were quickly eliminated by the high powered Lightning in the first round.

That team had a good top line centered by then rookie Nico Hischier, who also went first overall to the Devils. He’s a good two-way player that can be trusted in any situation. However, Hischier still hasn’t reached his full potential. But he’s already proven a capable center, who can play in the top six. It’s easy to forget he’s only 20. With two assists in six games, he just eclipsed 100 points. He’s 37-64-101 over 157 games. The only way to go is up.

Right now, it’s Hischier centering the familiar first line with Hall and Kyle Palmieri. The trio have good chemistry, but haven’t found their stride yet. Most importantly, Hall is in a contract year. He only has one goal with four assists. They need more goal production from him and Palmieri, who’s at two. If the team continues to struggle, that could make it tough convincing Hall to stay. He is going to be an attractive free agent that should draw considerable interest given his age (28 on Nov. 14) and talent. If he ignores the rumors from annoying media, he should do well. That could mean a huge payday in estimation of $12 million AAV over the long-term.

At the moment, the Devils have plenty of issues. They’re very easy to play against due to not always making it hard for opponents defensively. Former Hall of Fame captain Scott Stevens said as such along with ’03 Cup hero Mike Rupp on NHL Network following Monday’s debacle. Stevens said there should be a lot of soul searching. Both he and Rupp pointed the finger directly at the players instead of the coach, who’s clearly on the hot seat. So much so that fake Twitter accounts were tweeting his demise, which sadly many people believed. They didn’t look for a blue check mark to make sure they were verified. Oops.

When you’re struggling as badly as they are, it will just increase the scrutiny. Hynes is in his fifth year behind the bench. There are increased expectations due to the additions of Hughes, Subban and Wayne Simmonds, who is without a goal. Subban has struggled defensively having been caught out for quite a few goals against. He acknowledged that he must improve his play along with the team. He also went out of his way to defend the coaching staff.

The thing is even if you’re an outsider like me watching from the opposite side of a unique rivalry, some of the lineup decisions have been puzzling. With Hughes struggling defensively, Hynes decided to slide him down to the third line to ease responsibilities. A center has more to learn. Hughes will in due time. It’s hard to understand having Travis Zajac as your second center. Sure. He’s been a staple and by all means is a good all around player that remains a top penalty killer along with shorthanded threat Blake Coleman. But at this stage of his career, he can’t be asked to fill that role.

They should let Hughes learn on the job. Due to Hischier leaving the game the other day, he got to play with Hall and Palmieri. A good experience that we could see more of. While Hynes figures out where Jesper Bratt fits along with Gusev, Miles Wood looks like a fourth liner instead of a top nine forward. If he didn’t take so many undisciplined penalties and buried some chances, it would be different. He’s a frustrating player.

The blueline is weakened without veteran captain Andy Greene. On the injured list, that’s forced the coaching staff to play both Connor Carrick and Mirco Mueller. Not exactly the plan. Sami Vatanen has probably been their best D so far. He just needs to stay healthy. Damon Severson has the capability to be more than he is, but he struggles with inconsistency defensively. Will Butcher has the skating and offensive instincts to get back to producing as he did in ’17-18. But he’s still developing.

So, where are the Devils? They certainly haven’t made it easy on Cory Schneider, who’s already left a game trying to make a stretch save due to a cramp. He’s got over a 4.00 GAA and .876 save percentage in four games. The sad part is it could be worse if not for some of the tough saves he’s had to make.

Mackenzie Blackwood is struggling badly in his second season. The numbers are ugly. Not worth mentioning. That’s what happens when you play on a team that doesn’t look committed to winning. Have they tuned out coach Hynes? Every coach has an expiration date. There’s also this development.

This looks like something the Rangers once did when they were awful. Tom Fitzgerald is the assistant GM. Now, they’re asking him to be on the bench next to Hynes? This reflects poorly on the organization. So, Hynes needs a watchdog this early in the season. Holy moly.

It might be early. But these aren’t your father’s Devils, who once won three Cups. Something must change soon.

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Where is Quinn going with these lines?

Two days before the first meeting between the Rangers and Devils on Thursday, coach David Quinn made some changes to his lines. Before I get into my befuddlement over it, let’s take a look at what reporter Vince Mercogliano tweeted.

For starters, he’s decided to end the Ryan Strome experiment on the second line. Instead, second-year center Brett Howden will get the opportunity to play between Chris Kreider and Kaapo Kakko.

This strikes me as a little odd for two reasons. Howden hasn’t proved anything in the first three games despite a lot more ice time than Lias Andersson. The other oddity is Strome got a nice assist on Kakko’s first NHL goal. The timing is strange.

If he’s gonna go that route, why not try Andersson? He’s been more noticeable during his shifts. The sad part is he is stuck on the fourth line, hardly playing more than eight minutes a night. How is this fair treatment to the seventh overall pick in 2017? Especially after the good training camp he had. Andersson just turned 21. It is his second NHL season. So, there’s time for things to change. It just seems like he’s getting the short end of the stick.

Another notable change is moving Brendan Smith up to the third line where he’ll play in the top nine. Uh. Why? I get that the secret weapon has been effective in his dual role where he also served as the team’s top penalty killing defenseman. But how is having Smith on a third line with Strome and Fast smart? Are they simply rewarding him? It isn’t a long-term solution. So, I wouldn’t go overboard on the overreactions we’re seeing on social media.

To be blunt, Fast needs to get it in gear. If he’s going to play top nine minutes while being one of their reliable penalty killers, he can use a goal or assist. Secondary scoring has been an early issue. It probably will be for a majority of the season until Filip Chytil makes it back. I’m not sure when that is. But he’s obviously closer than newcomer Vitali Kravtsov, who’ll take longer to develop in Hartford.

Strome is a better fit for the third line. But he’s much more effective on the right wing. That’s where he got most of his 18 goals after coming over from Edmonton. He was good on a second power play unit last season. An area he can excel at when Quinn isn’t giving the top unit the majority of power play time. That also limits Kakko, who is stuck behind Pavel Buchnevich. A good offensive player who won’t shoot. He has two shots in three games. Far from enough to be considered a threat playing with Mika Zibanejad and Artemiy Panarin.

At the moment, the fourth line is Andersson, who must feel like he’s stuck in Siberia. He practiced with Michael Haley and Greg McKegg. Brendan Lemieux took turns with Haley due to being under the weather. I’m not sure that’ll improve with heavy rain forecast for tomorrow.

As for the mixed D pairings, it remains the same. That means Marc Staal with Tony DeAngelo, Libor Hajek with Jacob Trouba and Brady Skjei with Adam Fox. While the new defense has been a little better, I’m not sure this is sustainable. In order for it to work, Trouba must be on the top pair as the shutdown defenseman. He can do it all.

No disrespect to Staal and DeAngelo, who weren’t as bad as perceived in the 4-1 home loss to the Oilers. If you looked at the three goals Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid got in the third period, the first was on the power play with McDavid banking one off Trouba. The second was Draisaitl going through Lundqvist on a backhand that was stoppable. The third was an empty net. The problem is I don’t think you want Staal and DeAngelo as your match up pair.

I could see going to Staal and Trouba over the short-term until Skjei finds his game. That’s the issue. Skjei must perform better. He’s being paid handsomely. Not to be on a third pair at this point in his career. He must find consistency. Until that happens, it won’t matter how much improvement Fox and Hajek show. They need Skjei to deliver or this blueline is in deep trouble.

At the moment, the Rangers remain 2-1-0 due to the ridiculous schedule. They’ll draw a desperate Hudson rival that remains winless after blowing a 4-1 lead on Columbus Day in awful fashion. John Hynes is already on the hot seat. Jack Hughes remains without a point. You know the Devils will be hungry on Thursday.

It’ll never the less be interesting to see what unfolds.

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Devils discover yet another blown lead

I guess I should be glad the Devils actually decided to have a game on what’s become a faux holiday afternoon and I had to work, missing going to another predictable fiasco.  I remember growing up having off from school on Columbus Day but for whatever reason – PC, cancel culture, whatever you want to call it – it’s become de-emphasized in recent years on the state and federal level.  And yeah Christopher Columbus was a bad guy but really now, the holiday’s not celebrating him as much as it’s celebrating the discovery of America.  Sure we still have Independence Day for America’s true founding but it’s still nice for the next generation to learn the story of how America was ‘discovered’.

Be that as it may, how American hockey teams can have afternoon games on a weekday that isn’t a real holiday anymore (at least not here, it is Canadian Thanksgiving so let them play home games today) is beyond me.  I get baseball teams do but you have 82 home games a year and have to have some weekday afternoon games for travel.  Plus many of their weekday games are during the summer when school’s out anyway.  If the Devils were playing better I’d be annoyed over missing this game, but with the way things were going I expected the worst, even against a Florida team struggling themselves.  I figured they were too talented with too good a coach to keep puttering along, I’m not sure about either of those things with us.

Even as negative as I am about the Devils right now, I didn’t think we’d lose them all.  And when they took a 4-1 lead over the Panthers in this unusual weekday matinee, I figured this was just gonna be one of those random wins that we’d forget about in a couple weeks when the team’s 2-10-3.  Yet when I saw the score was 4-3 at the end of the second period and they gave up still another goal in the final fifteen seconds of a period I knew, you knew, everyone and their brother knew the Devils were blowing this game.  The Devils’ defense and goaltending is as bad as the Met bullpen.

Sure enough, three more goals followed in the third due to the usual quota of mistakes, bad penalties and airhead coaching.  Not that I saw most of it even after getting home early and turning it on, after the game had already been tied up.  Neither today or in the Winnipeg game did Hynes use his timeout to try to stall the momentum of the other team as the roof was falling in, instead he used his timeout in the final minute down two goals as if to torture the fans still there on their day off.  Or maybe he senses the end near and wanted to do something as a head coach before getting his walking papers.  In a normal organization we’d be talking about days for Hynes to turn around the ship at most, but with owners all too willing to ‘trust the process’ and a GM who’s buddy-buddy with the head coach will GM Ray Shero do what needs to be done if this season continues to spiral out of control on this six-game homestand?

And as much as I want to bag on the staff and it usually is the staff’s fault when everyone on the team stinks and is playing below career norms, it’d be nice to see some form of leadership out of this locker room too.  Yes that means you Taylor Hall, P.K. Subban, Kyle Palmieri, Andy Greene and Travis Zajac.  I’d say Cory Schneider too but I’d settle for him actually just making a clutch save once in a while.  Someone needs to take the bull by the horns and say enough is enough, we’re playing like dog crap and we need to hold ourselves accountable here.  Unfortunately one of the bad trends of the end of Lou’s tenure has continued through Shero’s in having too many milquetoast guys who won’t rock the boat.  It’s little coincidence that the one season that this team actually broke out of the loser mold they had vet leaders like Brian Boyle who would get down and dirty and say what needs to be said.

Honestly there isn’t much left to say right now until the inevitable coaching change, whoever that is.  I haven’t the foggiest idea whether anyone’s out there, unless they bring in Guy Boucher who has at least made a couple of deep playoff runs and has a prior relationship with Nico Hischier (as his coach in juniors), which is a plus.  Although Nico himself was hurt in today’s game with an undisclosed injury, adding to the misery.  And Jack Hughes missing his first NHL goal on a gimme was indiciative of both the team’s poor play and fans’ frustration.

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Wolf Pack earn split as Chytil continues hot start, Kravtsov gets first point

This weekend, the Hartford Wolf Pack had two games. They were able to earn a split. On Saturday night, they defeated Springfield 3-1 at the XL Center where the Hartford Whalers used to play.

Filip Chytil continues to perform well in the early going for new coach Khris Knoblauch. After picking up his first two assists last weekend, the 20-year old Czech center notched a primary assist on Phil Di Giuseppe’s game-winner and scored into an empty net at the end.

Nick Jones picked up the other goal for the Wolf Pack. Defensemen Ryan Lindgren had an assist in the home victory. He had a nice goal in a win last week as did defenseman Sean Day, who got an overtime winner on a nice move around the net.

Igor Shesterkin made 17 saves to pick up his second win. The Russian prospect earned the game’s second star. First star went to Di Giuseppe.

In the traditional 4 PM Sunday matinee, the Wolf Pack fell to the Rochester Americans 3-2 in a shootout. The teams traded two goals apiece in the second and third periods.

For Hartford, Chytil got on the scoreboard for a second consecutive game from AHL veteran Danny O’Regan to put his team on top. Boo Nieves added his first of the season from Vitali Kravtsov and experienced former NHL vet Matt Beleskey.

It was Kravtsov’s first point for the Wolf Pack in his third game. A positive step for the 19-year old forward, who made news when he was a healthy scratch last week in the club’s second game. Hopefully, this can boost his confidence as he gets more familiar with the North American style.

To their credit, Rochester was able to rally with two goals in the third period. Remi Elie had a goal that started the comeback. He also assisted on Zach Redmond’s game-tying goal with 13 seconds left in regulation. Sabres prospect Tage Thompson had two assists.

Following a scoreless overtime, Thompson scored the only goal in Round One of the shootout to beat Adam Huska. Former Ottawa hero Andrew Hammond shutdown Hartford shooters Chytil, Vinni Lettieri and Di Giuseppe.

So far, so good for Chytil. Playing his natural position, he has two goals and three helpers over four games. It’s easy to forget that the 2017 first round pick played there in ’17-18 for 46 games, putting up 31 points (11-20-31). Now, he’s learning the center position so that when he comes back up, Chytil will be more prepared for the second line role Rangers coach David Quinn wanted to see him in.

Huska had a busy day stopping 35 of 37 shots he faced. Even though he didn’t win, that’s a good job. He’s splitting time with Shesterkin, who they’re grooming for New York. It’ll probably be that way the whole season unless something happens to Henrik Lundqvist or Alexandar Georgiev.

The Wolf Pack return to the ice on Friday to host Springfield. Game time is 7:15 PM.

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HARD HITS: Hot starts by late signings prove one thing

For the whole summer, Mikko Rantanen couldn’t reach agreement with the Avalanche on a new contract. Like many pricey Group II free agents, the high scoring right wing remained unsigned.

It didn’t matter. He waited until September 28 to sign a brand new six-year contract worth $55.5 million that pays him an average cap hit of $9.25 million through 2023-24. Basically, he missed all of training camp including preseason like Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner, who hasn’t missed a beat. Over their first four games, both Rantanen and Marner each have six points. They’re gonna have big seasons due to their talent. Plus who they play with.

Rantanen with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog while Marner gets to work with John Tavares and Kasperi Kapanen. Each also can take advantage of even more world class players on the power play.

How many players who missed all of preseason have struggled? Brayden Point’s return saw him net two goals and a helper in the Bolts’ 7-3 statement win at Toronto. Patrik Laine is off to a great start with Winnipeg. His 10 points (3-7-10) are tied for third in scoring behind Oilers dynamic duo Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Matthew Tkachuk has six points for the Flames, who lost in ugly fashion to the Golden Knights on Saturday night. The point is these players keep themselves in great shape. So, once they sign, they’re ready from the get go. It kind of defeats the purpose of a long preseason where you have teams playing six to seven games. It’s pointless.

Speaking of which, can anyone from the league office explain the early schedule for the Rangers? They played two games in three nights last week and then had a whole week between the second and third game that was played yesterday in a ho hum atmosphere at MSG. A sleep inducing 4-1 defeat to the suddenly improved Oilers. At least Kaapo Kakko scored! <Inserts a million and one Gifs on Twitter with every NYR fan losing their minds!!!!!>

That guy would be proud. That’s how fans act these days. It was nice to see Kakko score, but as the mature 18-year old second pick said, it wasn’t enough.

So after completing Game 3 of 82, the Blueshirts get another four days off before facing the depressing Devils on Thursday night in Newark. Billed as the first showdown between Kakko and top pick Jack Hughes, it might wind up being something entirely different if the Devils lose another game on Monday to the Panthers. They are 0 for 5 so far and even get shutout 3-0 to the Bruins in a game they didn’t play badly in. However, the inconsistency, perplexing efforts and puzzling lineup decisions from John Hynes can’t be sitting well with management following a good offseason.

I sarcastically joked to Devils buddy Robert Kraze Davis that if they finally pull the plug on General Hynes, they should hire Scott Stevens. He’s doing studio work on NHL Network. Would the Hall of Fame defenseman, who captained the Devils to all three of their Stanley Cups consider it? He’s worked as an assistant teaching defense. There’s no way he’s enjoying breaking down some of these high scoring games where defense is optional. Imagine the respect coach Scott Stevens would command if he took over behind the Devil bench. That would be a culture shock.

I don’t understand the point of having the Flyers and Blackhawks play one game overseas. It takes too long for teams to fully recover. Though the Alain Vigneault Flyers took advantage of the dreadful Devils by blanking them for Carter Hart’s first NHL shutout. They lost in a shootout on Saturday. They’re 2-0-1 while the Blackhawks are 0-2-1 after blowing one to Winnipeg at home. At least they have a valid reason for playing just three times.

So, who’s ready for that 2020 Stanley Cup between the Oilers and Sabres? Sometimes, astute coaching hires can really change an organization’s mindset. The irony is Ralph Krueger once coached Edmonton. Now, he was lured out of soccer to return to an NHL bench in Buffalo. They’re 4-0-1 thus far.

It isn’t surprising that the Hurricanes won their first five games. Of course, they came back in three with a 4-3 overtime win over Tampa highlighting how dominant they can be. They outshot the Lightning 28-2 from the second period on. Carolina also came from two goals down to beat the Capitals in OT. Talk about Deja Vu. The only surprise is their first loss came at home to a bad Columbus yesterday by a score of 3-2. Both were in the second of back-to-backs.

Biggest surprise so far is the Stars off to a disappointing 1-4-1 start. They’re not scoring much and Ben Bishop hasn’t gotten untracked. They started slowly out of the gate last year too.

Biggest surprise II are the Ducks winning four of their first five by outscoring opponents 11-6. So, Anaheim doesn’t score much. However, having John Gibson definitely helps. Ryan Miller is a solid backup too. Is such a stingy style sustainable?

There are three winless teams remaining. They are the Wild (0-4-0), the Devils (0-3-2), and the Blackhawks (0-2-1). Minnesota looks like they could be in for a long year.

Then you have the defenseless Sharks, who look like they forgot how to play defense. And you wonder why Martin Jones struggles to stop pucks. Try watching Erik Karlsson defend. Brent Burns isn’t known for his defense either, but he’s healthier than a beaten up Karlsson. At least Mr. Shark, Patrick Marleau returned in style by scoring twice to highlight their first win that came in Chicago. Pretty cool.

There have already been two four goal games. James Neal did it to the Islanders to match his ’18-19 total of seven with Calgary. Anthony Mantha also went for four in a Red Wings win. He has six so far in their first five games. Is this finally the year Mantha hits 30 and erupts for career highs across the board? He, Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi have excellent chemistry since being put together last season.

With both Hughes and Kakko off to slow starts, perhaps they’ll get some competition for the Calder from Victor Olofsson, Cody Glass, Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes.

Even though they’re not that good, Ilya Kovalchuk is back to scoring and setting up goals for the Kings. Maybe having an offensive minded coach in Todd McLellan has helped rejuvenate the Russian veteran. If only Jonathan Quick could still stop the puck. It’s hard to believe those Cups weren’t that long ago. They might have to seriously consider giving the net to Jack Campbell.

Matt Duchene has been a terrific fit in Nashville. He’s setting up lots of goals and making a huge difference for Peter Laviolette’s club. They shouldn’t be counted out in the West. Especially with that improved center depth to go with a good defense. It all depends on Pekka Rinne.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for John Tortorella, who’s seen some strange goals go in past Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. You can’t substitute for good goaltending. Not that Sergei Bobrovsky is doing well in Florida. One win with a 3.86 GAA and .882 save percentage under Joel Quenneville isn’t the start he had in mind. That defense will need to adjust to his system.

I still don’t know why Robin Lehner isn’t an Islander while Semyon Varlamov is. He’s also wearing the same number 40. Yikes.

I like what Barry Trotz is trying to do with rookie Noah Dobson. He’s not gonna play every night, but the veteran coach is giving the 2018 first round pick good ice time.

I don’t understand why Lias Andersson gets so little time under David Quinn. It was the 2017 first round pick, who outplayed Brett Howden and Filip Chytil during training camp. Why is he centering the fourth line while playing seven to eight minutes? To quote an old failed Rangers slogan, Hockey’s Different Here! 😬😨

If you give Nikita Gusev a contract that basically states that you believe he’s in your top six, what the heck is he doing on your fourth line? And why is Brett Seney playing over Jesper Boqvist? Travis Zajac cannot play a second line role at this stage. I understand why they have Hughes centering the third line. But the combos on lines 2-4 make no sense. No wonder Devils blogger Hasan is in midseason form.

PK Subban might want to do less commercials with Lindsey Vonn and focus more on the hockey part.

What Sam Reinhardt’s highlight goal doesn’t show is Subban caught dancing inside the Buffalo blueline when his team trailed 6-2. That kind of sloppy play isn’t what he was brought in for.

Evgeni Malkin out week to week already in injury riddled Pittsburgh due to an incidental trip from teammate Kris Letang on a line change. You cannot make it up.

Who’s a better story? Zack Kassian or Marleau.

Best Defense? Carolina, St. Louis or Dallas even though they’re not playing like it.

Kevin Shattenkirk has three goals and an assist so far in Tampa. He’s a good guy, who had bad luck here. That’s a much better situation. Plus he gets to skate with Victor Hedman, which is like hitting the jackpot.

It’s hard to believe they lost to Ottawa. Vladislav Namestnikov was why as he scored twice and had an assist. Good for him.

Keep an eye on rookie Ilya Samsonov. He got his second win for Washington.

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McDavid and Draisaitl led Oilers spoil Kakko’s big day

Kaapo Kakko is all smiles as he celebrates his first career NHL goal. It came in a 4-1 loss to the Oilers. AP Photo by Bruce Bennett via Getty Images

The first goal of a promising NHL career came at 18:28 of the first period. Kaapo Kakko was all smiles and full of excitement as fans loudly cheered his wonderful finish off a good pass from Ryan Strome to beat veteran goalie Mike Smith for a 1-0 lead.

Unfortunately, it was the only lead the Rangers would have. They proceeded to play a dismal final two periods against a much stingier and tighter checking Oilers, who got the last four goals to win 4-1 this afternoon at MSG. There are going to be days like this for David Quinn’s rebuilding team that dropped its first game of the season to fall to 2-1-0.

Save the excuses about the week layoff. Edmonton had no problem coming into the New York/New Jersey area and going a perfect three for three against the Islanders, Devils and Rangers. The Oilers improved to 5-0-0 to continue their perfect start under veteran coach Dave Tippett. They no longer play the wide open run and gun style that too often hung their goalies out to dry. With more emphasis on defense and tight checking, they held the Rangers to 21 shots.

In fact, even though they took it to the Rangers the final 40 minutes, Edmonton themselves only finished with 27 shots. That tells you something about the drastic change in a more organized system that should produce more wins this season. Under new leadership that includes GM Ken Holland, the Oilers look very focused to start the season. Even with question marks Smith and Mikko Koskinen in net, they’re out to prove they belong. So far, so good.

This wasn’t the most entertaining game. There were moments like the big one for Kakko when he was one on one with Smith and went to a nifty backhand finish off a perfect forehand deke for goal number one. Number 24 celebrated the first milestone behind the Edmonton net with happy teammates.

However, it was a frustrating day. The Rangers got sloppy and paid dearly. They couldn’t convert on any of the four power plays the Oilers gave them. That even included a 39-second five-on-three early on. Artemi Panarin was stopped by Smith in tight and he missed on another chance. With Pavel Buchnevich refusing to shoot, it made it easier for the Edmonton penalty kill to defend. At least he wound up with two shots on goal. Otherwise, it was a rough game for the 24-year old right wing, whose icing led directly to Oscar Klefbom scoring the tying goal on a clean Ryan Nugent-Hopkins faceoff win through traffic.

The odd thing about the second is there were only 10 total shots. Each side had five. That made it a combined 25 through two periods. That’s how tight the neutral zone was. It easily could’ve been Edmonton up 3-1 if not for a few big saves from Henrik Lundqvist on odd man rushes. The Rangers turned over pucks and drew the ire of their coach afterwards.

There weren’t a lot of penalties in this one. However, following another miss on a Connor McDavid tripping minor in the third, Brendan Lemieux held up the Edmonton captain just enough to get a interference minor with 11:27 remaining. Fittingly, it was McDavid who was able to score the game-winning power play goal when his centering feed banked in off Jacob Trouba’s skate with 10:16 left.

Prior to Leon Draisaitl putting the game away, there was a quality scoring chance for Lias Andersson to tie it. But his rebound try was denied by a quick Smith, who made sure to close up the five-hole. A frustrated Andersson banged the glass in disbelief. He was noticeable along with Jesper Fast, Brendan Smith and Greg McKegg.

That was the issue. Matched up most of the day with second pair Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo, the top line of Mika Zibanejad, Panarin and Buchnevich were shutout. When they don’t score, where are the goals gonna come from? Kakko was strong throughout in 16:49 of ice time including 2:21 on the power play. However, he wasn’t on the top unit and remained with Strome and Chris Kreider, who’s looked so so in the first three games on a mismatched second line. Kreider did hit the post during a power play on a good pass from Zibanejad. He just hasn’t generated enough at five-on-five on that line.

When the bottom two lines are more noticeable, that’s not a ringing endorsement. Panarin was the only Ranger skater with over two shots, registering six due to his unique combination of skating and creativity. He wound up minus-three along with his line and DeAngelo. Staal was on for two goals against including Draisaitl’s continuation on a backhand that trickled through Lundqvist to give the Oilers all important insurance with 6:48 remaining.

Draisaitl would add the empty netter by skating away from Kakko, who fell. So, even on a day where they were held in check for two periods, McDavid and Draisaitl combined for five points (2-3-5). All coming in the deciding third that saw the better Oilers outshoot the Rangers 14-9.

That’s all it took. Quinn wasn’t pleased with his team’s effort, noting that there were instances in which they refused to shoot the puck. That sounded like a direct reference to Buchnevich, who could be in jeopardy of losing his spot on the first line and top power play unit to Kakko.

I thought Adam Fox was a standout in the loss. He received 17:39 and 2:23 on the second unit. Fox made a couple of excellent reads including one in the neutral zone where he stepped up to intercept a pass and then skated around the net to set up a good point shot. That kind of maturity and hockey sense is why good things should happen soon for him.

On a day he was pretty good overall, Lundqvist would want the Draisaitl goal back. He finished with 23 saves in a losing effort. Smith only had to make 20. Now, the Rangers have another layoff before visiting the Devils on Thursday. The schedule doesn’t make any sense. At least you’ll finally have a Hudson Rivalry game between Kakko and Jack Hughes. The top pick is also still looking for his first NHL point. Hopefully, he gets it tonight in Boston before that anticipated showdown.

As for the Blueshirts, it’s back to the drawing board. They’ll definitely be getting in some practice time following such a disappointing game. Expect changes.

THREE 🌟:

3rd 🌟 Kaapo Kakko, Rangers (1st career NHL goal in 16:49)

2nd 🌟 Oscar Klefbom, Oilers (goal and 🍎 in 21:43)

1st 🌟 Leon Draisaitl, Oilers (2 goals and an 🍎 in 23:24, plus-two)

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Kaapo Kakko scores a highlight reel first NHL goal

Late in the first period of a scoreless game between the Oilers and Rangers, Kaapo Kakko finally scored his first NHL goal. The wonderful moment came when Ryan Strome was able to make a perfect backhand pass to put the 18-year old second pick in.

Edmonton goalie Mike Smith was the first victim. Kakko made a great move by going to a forehand, backhand deke to beat the veteran for the only goal of the first period.

The smile on Kakko’s face was great. You could feel the excitement as MSG went nuts. It was a beautiful finish by a young player, who’s sure to bring many more memorable moments to the New York Rangers.

Congrats to Kaapo on a magic moment he won’t ever forget.

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Rangers finally back from vacation to face Oilers

Believe it or not, there’s a game this afternoon for the Rangers! It feels like they took a vacation. I kid. But really, what kind of schedule is this? You have teams that played four games already while the Blueshirts enter today’s match 2-0-0 against unbeaten Edmonton.

Game time is 1 PM at The Garden. One of those rare early matinees for fans who are going to get out to quickly. Good luck to anyone who drove. Finding spots on a Saturday is about as fun as going to the dentist. I think Oilers buddy John will be there. He gets to take the Path train into Penn Station to see the surprising first place Oilers.

Edmonton is a perfect 4-0-0 to start the season under new coach Dave Tippett. It’s not only about leading scorers Connor McDavid (3-7-10) and Leon Draisaitl (2-6-8). James Neal has been reborn. He leads the league with seven goals highlighted by a four goal game in a road win at the Islanders. Five of the seven have come on the power play. The seven goals match his ’18-19 season total in Calgary, who foolishly swapped him for Milan Lucic. Oops.

Zack Kassian enters with five points (3-2-5) while benefiting from playing on the top line with McDavid and Draisaitl. The former Buffalo first round pick has found a home. He knows where to go to get the goals and has turned himself into a good hockey player. It helps that he cleaned up his life. He could’ve been a bust.

Edmonton isn’t going to blow you away after the vaunted top line featuring the game’s best player and the talented Draisaitl, who can make goalies look silly such as his perfect snipe off the far post and in to beat Mackenzie Blackwood the other night in a shootout. You knew the game was over for the Devils right after he came out.

The Oilers can skate with anyone. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom are excellent skaters, who make things happen. Plus Nugent-Hopkins is a smart two-way center. Klefbom is a smooth skater who can transition the puck and get involved offensively. Darnell Nurse is the steady two-way defenseman that continues to improve. He and Klefbom do the heavy lifting on a back end without Adam Larsson, who’s already out six to eight weeks.

There are supporting cast parts such as shot blocker Kris Russell, unheralded Matt Benning and unknown forwards Joakim Nygard and Gaetan Haas. Plus savvy vets Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheehan.
When you look at this roster overall, you wonder if it can sustain the early play over 82 games. Having a good coach like Tippett should help due to the system. Defense and checking are emphasized. Something that’s needed to be successful with a goalie tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen.

So, how will the week layoff affect the Rangers? Mika Zibanejad was off to a torrid start with eight points in the two wins including his third career hat trick and a helper to do in former team Ottawa. They are very bad.

Zibanejad has excellent chemistry with new toy Artemi Panarin. The Bread Man already has two power play goals while adding two assists and a plus-four rating on the top line with playmaker Pavel Buchnevich (2 assists). Buchnevich is without a shot on goal through two games. He needs to be more selfish to become a threat. Otherwise, he won’t stay on that line for long.

The key to the season is getting the second line going. So far, it’s been quiet with Ryan Strome admitting that they can be better. They need to have the puck more to be successful. Especially with power forward Chris Kreider out there with second pick Kaapo Kakko, who is a puck beast. A harder forecheck is the answer. Kakko is still searching for his first NHL point. If he gets it later, he’ll beat top pick Jack Hughes, who is now centering the Devils third line. Strange doings in New Jersey.

Jacob Trouba has been as good as advertised. In two games, he has a goal and three helpers while logging over 23 and a half minutes as a responsible top defenseman. He plays power play and penalty kill while adjusting to new partner Libor Hajek.

Brady Skjei is off to another slow start. It’s all about consistency. At some point, he needs to find it. He gets paid handsomely to be more reliable. Adam Fox will again partner up. I like what I’ve seen from him. He’s a good skater, who makes smart decisions. Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo remain intact like most of last season. DeAngelo’s speed and skating is the key to the pair.

I would like to see Lias Andersson get more shifts. He’s a hard working center David Quinn trusts enough to kill penalties with Zibanejad. Now, he’ll play with Greg McKegg, who replaces recently traded Vladislav Namestnikov. Brendan Smith continues to impress with his work ethic, which explains why he has a unique role on the fourth line while shifting back to D to kill penalties. The Rangers have only allowed one power play goal.

For now, it’s Brett Howden with Jesper Fast and antagonist Brendan Lemieux, who DQ liked so much, he bumped him up in two straight games to make Namestnikov expendable.

Henrik Lundqvist gets his second start.

In case you’re wondering about Hartford, they’re 2-0-0 so far by sweeping last weekend. Both Ryan Lindgren and Sean Day scoring from an active blueline that includes Joey Keane, who also has a pair entering their third game tonight.

Vitali Kravtsov became an early story when he was a healthy scratch in the second game. He wasn’t good in his pro debut with the Wolf Pack, only getting nine minutes of ice time. The AHL isn’t like before. There are a lot of new faces trying to make an impression. No player is above getting benched. Even if you’re a top prospect like Kravtsov from the KHL. We’ll see how he responds.

Filip Chytil bounced back from a quiet first game at center with two assists in the second Hartford win. Both Igor Shesterkin and Adam Huska were victorious.

That’s it for now. I’ll have more later. It should be a good test for the Rangers.

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New players, same dissapointing Devils

I said after the Devils’ horrendous opener that I didn’t want to go nuts in terms of calling for John Hynes to be fired or anything drastic like that, although I certainly didn’t like the signs coming out of that game and the parallel to how other disasterous seasons began (this year’s football Jets, or the ’10-11 Devils to name two).  If the Devils wanted to drive me nuts and get me on my last nerve in record time, okay here it is – I’m nuts now.  This might be blow it up time and not just with the staff although god help us I really don’t see any reason after five years why things will improve on that end.  It certainly has to start with the staff at the very least.  Especially with quotes like this:

Really?  We’re gonna take bows after a close loss to the OILERS?  At home?!  Where we blew yet another lead?!

Perhaps my best decision this week is to only have watched the Devils sparingly.  Not as if there was a lot of entertainment value involved, in spite of GM Ray Shero’s offseason additions and the franchise mantra of ‘fast, attacking and supportive’ which has never seemed more laughable than now.  You can get whatever brand of player you want, the first requirement above all else needs to be that they’re good hockey players!  There’s no way to spin this first four games as anything other than an unmitigated failure on all levels.  After the ghastly opener, to go on the road and get your scalps handed to you 7-2 by Buffalo(!) was frightening.  Then to follow it up with a passionless 4-0 loss to the Flyers last night was dispiriting.  Tonight’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Oilers was infuriating and not because of that stupid non-disallowed goal late when the Devils blew YET ANOTHER lead in the dying moments of the third period.  I don’t want to hear the whistle blew (especially since it shouldn’t have anyway), that’s a loser’s lament.  Bad teams don’t deserve breaks and this is a bad hockey team right now.

I get the Oilers and Sabres are both off to hot starts right now but my god if you’re lost against these teams, how are you going to fare against the Bruins, Lightning and other proven good teams?  This was supposed to be a winnable part of the schedule and right now they have zero wins in four games, which is actually one less than the John MacLean Devils had at the same point of their train wreck half season.  It’s truly frightening how much I’m getting 2010 flashbacks.  I mean both seasons they blew Opening Night in spectacular fashion (‘only’ losing 2-0 and 3-2 leads to the Stars at home, before dying in OT) and then went on the road to get housed 7-2 the next night each time.  Only then it was at least the Caps destroying us as opposed to an unproven outfit that’s getting over its own recent streak of losing seasons.

Buffalo it has to be said, may have finally found the right coach for their young group bringing back Ralph Kreuger from soccer.  It’s time for Shero to try it, it’s just not gonna work with Hynes.  It’s not any one decision or a number of decisions – although scratching Pavel Zacha and Jesper Boqvist in favor of AHL role players Kevin Rooney and John Hayden in Philly was a ‘seriously dude?’ moment.  And Hynes was all too quick to switch the lines around and change something that was working against the Jets, while he was too happy to lay off the trigger finger in Buffalo.  Even beyond all the stupid decisions, what young players – specifically the defensemen – have actually gotten better under this staff?  Maybe Zacha for a few meaningless games last year?  Damon Severson after looking like he was ready to take a step forward at the end of last season has taken like three steps back this year with an awful start.  Mirco Mueller’s been an abject failure and one of Shero’s few trades that looks like a total dud.  I guess you could say Taylor Hall’s taken a step forward but it’s not like he wasn’t a great player before getting here.

Development was supposed to be what this staff was good at and I really don’t see a lot of it here.  Certainly tactics and lineup decisions are questionable at best…does this team even have a system beyond running around like chickens with their heads cut off?  Special teams (both PK and PP) have been a tire fire this year.  Maybe if this were another season Shero could afford to be patient, heck he was patient enough last year when he trolled the fanbase giving Hynes an extension during the downslide of another poor season.  But after all the moves this offseason – trading for P.K. Subban and Nikita Gusev, signing Wayne Simmonds and drafting Jack Hughes – Shero can’t afford to just say business as usual, especially with the future of Hall likely riding on what this team does going forward, both because Hall himself won’t want to commit to a loser long-term, and because if this team continues to careen downhill Shero might wave the white flag and go to rebuild #2, in which case he should go immediately onto the hot seat himself.

I’m sorry, it’s time for the excuses for Shero to end now.  This is year #5 of the new era, Shero’s had more than enough time, and a couple of lottery ball breaks to build his own team.  Rebuilds do not take ten years, I’m sorry – this isn’t 1985.  Especially in this market, you can’t afford to have the fanbase get apathetic in a market with a small base of hockey fans to start with and so many other options for entertainment dollars.  Maybe all of his moves looked great on paper, but it’s possible that they weren’t right in terms of team-building.  Gusev for example…the dude’s got talent but right now he looks like Damien Brunner plus in that all he is, is a playmaker.  Hynes certainly doesn’t trust him defensively, and he probably doesn’t deserve it.  It’s early to get on Hughes but he certainly isn’t as ready-made as Nico Hischier was two years ago.

Certainly the new additions and key players haven’t been pulling their weight either.  Hall you could excuse based on rust, but where is the supposed impact of a Subban?  Simmonds looks too slow to keep up with the frenetic chickens with their heads cut off system.  Gusev if he’s only going to play ten minutes then he certainly isn’t any kind of an answer in the top six.  When so many players are underachieving it usually comes down to coaching, but effort is definitely a players issue and the effort already hasn’t been there in two games…the Philly fiasco would have been even worse if Cory Schneider didn’t play well in the first two periods before caving in during the third.  At least he managed to finish this game upright and so far he’s played better than Mackenzie Blackwood, who stunk in Buffalo.

Whether Shero fires the staff or not – and god knows if this gets to 1-7 or 0-8 with the inevitable Rangers embarassment of the Devils at the Rock next Thursday it’ll be impossible to avoid the five-alarm fire this season is becoming – decisions also need to be made on key players.  Hall’s a free agent that’s still unsigned, but if the team continues to stink to this level at least it makes the decision to trade him at the deadline a whole lot easier, assuming he doesn’t re-sign.  Defensemen Andy Greene (who missed tonight with an UBI) and Sami Vatanen are also free agents and this D really can’t afford to lose any talent.

All I know is I’m getting depressed over losing the same ways each season and doing the same darn recaps.  All we’ve gotten for change, change, change so far is one quickie playoff appearance that was over with inside a week.  Eventually Shero’s going to have to answer for why the rebuild has stagnated.

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Wayne Simmonds speaks about his time with Flyers before big return

Good guy Wayne Simmonds returns to play his former team the Flyers as a Devil in a unique Turnpike Rivalry. AP Photo by Bruce Bennett Philadelphia Inquirer via Getty Images

Tonight, Wayne Simmonds returns to the city of Philadelphia. It was there where he developed into a good power forward, who gave everything he had to the Flyers.

After being traded from the Kings to the Flyers with Brayden Schenn in a deal that saw Mike Richards go back to Los Angeles on June 23, 2011, Simmonds gave Philadelphia fans the kind of popular tough, rugged player they love. For eight years, he produced 203 goals including two 30-plus goal seasons. He amassed over 100 penalty minutes four different times while being a stand up teammate, who wasn’t shy about making opponents accountable with his fists.

Now, following a brief stint with the Predators last Spring, he will be on the opposite side of a unique Turnpike rivalry between the Devils and Flyers. He spoke to reporters about it.

Simmonds felt he deserved to stay in Philly. But it wasn’t to be with the team he knew since age 22 moving in a different direction. They cleared cap space to sign Kevin Hayes and swapped tough defenseman Radko Gudas to the Caps for stay at home type Matt Niskanen.

He’ll wear his trademark number 17 for the evil black and red instead of orange and black. Considering how popular he was, he should get a video tribute and acknowledgement from the crowd before the boos start.

Most importantly, Simmonds knows his new team hasn’t played well so far. After blowing a 4-0 lead in a gut wrenching 5-4 shootout loss in the home opener to the Jets, they embarrassed themselves in Buffalo on Saturday night. It wasn’t a contest with the Sabres blowing out the Devils 7-2. The worst moment coming when PK Subban made an awful mistake by dancing around with the puck at the Buffalo blueline. It led to a brutal turnover and Sam Reinhardt breakaway goal on Mackenzie Blackwood for the death blow.

With top pick Jack Hughes struggling so far, he will play on a third line with Simmonds and two-way threat Blake Coleman. That’s probably the way to go due to Hughes’ defensive issues in the first two games. He’s admitted he must get better.

The start of this Rivalry game is after 7:30 PM on NBCSN. Good news is that Cory Schneider returns to the net after leaving the first game due to cramps. It looked more serious, but fortunately isn’t for the Devils.

It will be a special night for Simmonds, who’s a good guy. Maybe he rises to the occasion and gets one of those tips for a power play goal to spark his new team.

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