Here is the Oct. 13 edition of the mailbag, where we answer your questions asked using #OvertheBoards.
New Jersey Devils, make or miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs? — @HarryJB4
Miss, but that’s not a bad thing or a knock on the Devils because they have the potential to be one of the most improved teams in the NHL this season.
The problem is they need just about everything to break right to get in the playoffs in the Metropolitan Division, especially when you consider the New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are in their way. Health, special teams, goaltending, scoring depth, it must come together for them along with a healthy dose of good luck. It’s asking a lot for a team that finished seventh in the eight-team MassMutual East Division last season, 26 points out of a playoff spot.
But the Devils can be a fringe playoff contender, playing meaningful games in March and April if the following things happen:
1. Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier form one of the top goaltending teams in the division. This is a possibility, but there is already concern because of Blackwood’s status as a currently unvaccinated player. If he remains unvaccinated, Blackwood would not be able to travel to any of the nine games the Devils play in Canada this season. That puts added weight on Bernier’s shoulders, but this is a developing storyline that could change.
2. Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier combine to score at least 125 points. It doesn’t matter how they get there, but the Devils need more production from their top two centers. It eases the burden on everyone else if they produce and would be a significant bump for both players. Hughes averaged 0.55 points per game last season (31 points in 56 games), a 45-point pace for an 82-game season. Hischier was limited to 21 games because of injury last season and averaged 0.52 points per game (11 points in 21 games), a 42-point pace in 82 games. It’s realistic to think Hughes and Hischier each will have better numbers this season if they stay healthy because the Devils should be better on the power play with the addition of defenseman Dougie Hamilton. New Jersey was 28th in the NHL on the power play last season (14.2 percent), a big reason why it was also 26th in goals per game (2.59). Speaking of which …
3. Special teams must be overhauled if the Devils want to be a playoff contender. In addition to their lack of success on the power play, they were last in the NHL on the penalty kill last season (71.0 percent). Hamilton’s addition should help the man-advantage. He was tied for sixth among NHL defensemen in power-play points last season (18; two goals, 16 assists), and the Hurricanes, his former team, were No. 2 at 25.6 percent. But Hamilton wasn’t a top penalty killer for Carolina, averaging 1:26 of shorthanded ice time per game. New Jersey may need him to be a top penalty killer.
4. Develop an identity. Who are the Devils? What will make them a difficult opponent to play against? Is it their speed, tenacity and forecheck? Is it their physicality? Is it their goaltending? Can they make it a combination of all that? They need to form that identity early in the season if they want to be a contender late. They have the makings of a team that is on the rise.
The Central Division is an interesting one to watch this year. Do you think the Chicago Blackhawks can sneak into a wild card spot? What if Seth Jones has a bounce-back year and the defense cleans up? — @JCheris17
Here’s the thing with the Blackhawks: They aren’t sneaking up on anybody, not with Jones, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and center Tyler Johnson on the team. Not with captain Jonathan Toews as the top center doing all he does on special teams and in the dressing room. Not with forwards Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat forming one of the best scoring duos in the NHL. It won’t be a surprise if they get into the playoffs.
DeBrincat could lead the NHL in goals after finishing third with 32 last season. Toews’ return, particularly for power-play purposes, and the addition of Jones should help DeBrincat. Fleury brings instant credibility to the net, a missing element last season, as the reigning Vezina Trophy winner voted as the best goalie in the NHL. Jones should have more stability in Chicago than he did with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. That should help. It was a tough year for everyone in Columbus, and Jones is one of the top defensemen in the NHL. Johnson brings experience, a Cup-winning pedigree gained with the Tampa Bay Lightning the past two seasons, and an understanding for how to play with elite players, which he could do at the start as the center between Kane and DeBrincat. There’s a chance for center Kirby Dach to move into that spot too, and that will benefit the Blackhawks if he does because they should want their top young center to play a prime role.
Johnson going from the fourth line in Tampa Bay to the first line in Chicago is telling of the Blackhawks’ overall depth concerns. They can hang with any team in the NHL one through five or six up front and one through three at defenseman, but they do not have the same depth in those areas as many of the other teams in the Central Division. Teams win with goaltending and depth. Elite talent at the top of the lineup isn’t enough.
How do you think the All-Star Game and Olympics will affect teams come the playoffs? Not just in terms of potential injuries but have to imagine guys will play harder with their country’s crest on the jersey. Will that leave their tanks empty come playoffs? — @mikeybox
The 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Game won’t have an impact, but the 2022 Beijing Olympics could. I spoke with Lightning coach Jon Cooper about this Monday. Cooper will coach Canada at the Olympics. The Lightning could have nine or 10 players in Beijing representing their countries. Cooper’s main concern for the Lightning and their potential to three-peat as Stanley Cup champions is rest. Yes, he cited the miles they put on their bodies through back-to-back Stanley Cup runs, but he mentioned the Olympics and the condensed schedule as part of it.
That’s true in Tampa Bay’s case, but it may not be true in another team’s case. This is going to be on a team-by-team, case-by-case basis. Players who go to the Olympics will play as if it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then come back and hit the toughest part of the NHL regular-season schedule. It’s a lot of travel and emotional hockey that they’ll be taking on in February only to come back and deal with the grind with pressure on them in March and April. The Lightning, for example, play 33 games after the Olympic break, including 16 from April 1-29. That’s tough and it means for them, and really every team, that rest and recovery will be paramount, that rotating goalies early will matter to keep them both fresh for later. It’s going to be a lot, and I expect a handful of teams will be negatively impacted.
What do you make of the New York Rangers’ decision to go with six alternate captains and why do you think coach Gerard Gallant opted not to name a captain? — @jonweinberg99
Gallant said Monday it was his decision to go with six alternates rather than name one as captain. He said he made the decision because distributing the leadership in the group like this is what he’s used to and comfortable with. He never had a captain in his 2 1/2 seasons coaching the Vegas Golden Knights. It never seemed to impact them.
New York is going withdefenseman Jacob Trouba and forwards Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Strome as alternate captains. I thought the Rangers would name a captain. I thought it would be Zibanejad after he signed his eight-year contract extension Sunday. But in the end, it makes some sense to keep it to six alternates because Gallant is still getting to know the players and the organization’s leadership hierarchy. Doing it this way gives him more time to evaluate. This shouldn’t change how any of these six players lead, nor should it change how they are respected in the room by the younger players. If it does, Gallant will have successfully weeded out the players who do change and can eliminate them from the possibility of being the next Rangers captain.