Mailbag: Devils maintaining success, top rookie goalies

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Here is the Jan. 27 edition of the mailbag. Each week, an NHL.com writer will answer your questions asked using #OvertheBoards. 

This week is Tom Gulitti.

 

Can the New Jersey Devils hold their own the rest of this season and contend in the MassMutual East Division or will they eventually come back down to Earth? — @HockeyRon15

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the Devils in their first season under coach Lindy Ruff, beginning with the strong starts by center Jack Hughes, rookie defenseman Ty Smith and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood before he was placed on the NHL list of players unavailable to play or practice in accordance with COVID-19 protocols. Hughes leads the Devils with seven points (three goals, four assists), showing maturation and increased strength after adding 14 pounds of muscle in the offseason that’s helped the 19-year-old elevate his play in his second NHL season. Smith, a 20-year-old, has been almost as impressive by scoring six points (one goal five assists) in his first six NHL games.

Maintaining this will be the challenge for the young Devils with some growing pains likely ahead. Qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the East Division was always going to be a tall order because of the depth of competition, but I think they can remain in the hunt if their goaltending holds up.

Blackwood is one of the best young goalies in the NHL, but the 24-year-old will need some nights off because of the compacted schedule. That’s why Corey Crawford’s unexpected retirement Jan. 9 was such a significant blow.

Without Crawford, the Devils will try to piece things together with Scott Wedgewood, Eric Comrie (claimed off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 12) and Aaron Dell (claimed off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 18). They’ll need much better than the 6-15-4 combined record of their backups last season to stay close in the East.

Video: NYI@NJD: Hughes wires wrist shot short side for PPG

 

Which rookie goalies seem to really be shining lately? I know it’s only been around seven games, but there have been some good ones. — @xavierk414

It’s a small sample size, but rookie goalies including Kaapo Kahkonen of the Minnesota Wild and Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals have thrived after been pushed into larger roles than anticipated. Kahkonen is 2-2-0 with a 2.21 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in four games (three starts). Vanecek is 3-0-2 with a 2.70 GAA and .918 save percentage in five games (all starts).

Kahkonen would’ve been the Wild’s third goalie entering training camp if backup Alex Stalock hadn’t sustained an upper-body injury in the offseason. The 24-year-old was suddenly Minnesota’s starter after Cam Talbot sustained a lower-body injury in the first period against the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 22.

Vanecek was similarly slated to be Washington’s No. 3 goalie before Henrik Lundqvist’s announcement Dec. 17 that he’s unable to play because of a heart condition. The 25-year-old became the starter with Ilya Samsonov in quarantine since Jan. 20 in accordance with NHL COVID-19 protocols.

Another example is Kevin Lankinen, the 25-year-old rookie battling Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia for playing time with the Chicago Blackhawks. Lankinen stopped 55 of 58 shots while getting his first two NHL wins against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 22 (4-1) and Jan. 24 (6-2).

 

With the League-mandated quarantines following trades and work visa issues, do you see a potential unofficial trade deadline happening prior to the actual deadline? — @Rob_Oswald

The 2021 NHL Trade Deadline on April 12 is four weeks before the regular season is scheduled to end May 10. So it would be understandable if teams attempt to complete trades early so the acquired players can play more games during the push to qualify for the playoffs or have more time to get comfortable before the postseason.

A player requiring a new work visa after being traded from a Canada-based team to one in the United States, or vice versa, can sometimes be part of the process, depending on his nationality, during a normal season. But with the necessary COVID-19 protocols in place for this season, it will be interesting to see if teams try to expedite trades because of the possibility that a player will need to quarantine after changing teams.

For example, Canada’s quarantine rules require Pierre-Luc Dubois to isolate for 14 days after the Jets acquired the center in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets for right wing Patrik Laine and center Jack Roslovic on Saturday. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said the Jets requested the period be reduced to seven days, but if the request isn’t granted, this could impact how the seven Canada-based teams approach the trade deadline.

If a team wants a player to help it qualify for the playoffs, waiting 14 days after the trade before the player is available to practice or play, might be a deterrent. Even a seven-day quarantine period might push GMs to be more proactive.

But the teams who will be sellers might not be as eager to pull the trigger early, particularly if they’re unsure they want to give up on qualifying for the playoffs. So that will be a fascinating dynamic to follow.

Video: NHL Tonight reacts to the Blue Jackets and Jets trade

 

The NHL Draft is always a crapshoot. How will this year’s draft be with all the delays and cancellations in college/juniors/Europe? — @LJIannac

This is a great unknown because some the of the top prospects for the 2021 NHL Draft, scheduled for July 23-24, are major junior players in the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League who have yet to play a game this season. Others, including those in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and NCAA, have played sporadically. That might hinder their development and make it difficult for scouts and general managers to project whether they have the potential to play in the NHL.

The OHL and WHL plan to play shortened seasons but have yet to set starting dates. Dan MacKenzie, the president of the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the OHL, WHL and QMJHL, told the NHL Draft Class podcast last week that he remains hopeful of holding the 2021 Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, if it can be done safely.

“Whether it’s in the traditional format or some modified format, we really do want to try to make that happen because this is a big year for a lot of our players,” MacKenzie said. “We want to make sure we can let them showcase their skills.”

Sportsnet reported Saturday discussions of a potential spring tournament that would give draft-eligible players the opportunity to play in a series of games in front of NHL scouts.

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