Recent Devils trade should open Ron Hextall's eyes

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Recent Devils trade should open Ron Hextall's eyes

The New Jersey Devils took a significant step this past week in their quest to be a serious contender in the Eastern Conference playoff picture by acquiring 26-year-old defenseman Sami Vatanen from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi and a third-round pick.

Seemingly not content with his team’s red-hot start, Devils general manager Ray Shero jumped at the chance to improve his team, which had nothing to do with navigating the salary cap, bolstering his position in future drafts or building a future contender.

It was a pure hockey move to get better right now. Vatanen is a puck-moving, top-four defenseman who gives New Jersey depth and can play in whatever situation the Devils need. The play of Jersey's young forwards made Henrique, a very good two-way center, expendable. For a team that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference a season ago with just 70 points, the Devils have seemingly made a 180-degree turn quicker than if Shero was operating a jet ski.   

Compared to their neutral-zone trapping Stanley Cup title days, this brand of Devils hockey is actually enjoyable to watch. While they could eventually come back to the Metropolitan Division pack, the Devils have something brewing and Shero is not willing to wait around, sit on his hands and just watch it happen. 

Since taking over in the summer of 2015, the Devils' GM has made bold moves that have included the additions of Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmeiri, Brian Boyle, Marcus Johansson and now Vatanen. And, of course, he had the first overall pick, Nico Hischier, fall into his lap. While some hockey executives in a similar rebuild may see a light at the end of the tunnel, Shero’s road map has just about avoided the tunnel altogether.       

Just down the turnpike, Ron Hextall’s turnaround has been a considerably slower process in spite of a one-year head start over Shero. In the three-plus years since taking over as the Flyers' general manager on May 7, 2014, Hextall has executed 15 trades, and almost every transaction has involved future considerations through draft picks and few, if any, difference-makers. 

The Hextall era started with the lopsided deal in June of 2014 involving Scott Hartnell to Columbus for R.J. Umberger and a 2015 fourth-round pick. All Hartnell did was score 64 goals along with 146 points with the Blue Jackets, while Umberger contributed just 11 goals and 26 points all while playing through injuries he had sustained prior to the trade. Sure, Hextall was able to shave a few years off a contract, but Umberger was simply damaged goods.

More recently, there was the 2017 draft day swap of Brayden Schenn to St. Louis for a pair of first-round picks and a possible third, to go along with forward Jori Lehtera. While Schenn has emerged as a No. 1 center for the Blues, Lehtera is now a potential buyout candidate at the end of the season, much like Umberger was after his two years back in Philadelphia.

What the Flyers have received in Hextall’s trades have been secondary pieces, hardly key contributors: Jordan Weal (from L.A. as part of the Vinny Lecavalier-Luke Schenn trade), Valtteri Filppula (from Tampa Bay in the Mark Streit deal), and Radko Gudas (from Tampa Bay as part of a Braydon Coburn swap). Once again, role players, but not the necessary moves capable of taking the franchise to the next level.

Furthermore, with Hextall's combination of trades and free-agent signings, there’s a widespread belief that the team isn’t surrounding cornerstones Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek with a supporting cast good enough to be a perennial playoff power and there's a feeling that their prime years are being wasted. And the misery of the current 10-game losing streak doesn't help a single thing.

The last time both star players won a playoff series came in 2012 when Giroux was 24 and Voracek was just 22. Since then, there have been three non-playoff seasons and a pair of first-round exits as Giroux and Voracek inch closer to 30. Giroux will turn 30 in January.   

Regardless of their record, the Flyers have been able to stare down at the Devils within their division, as New Jersey has finished below Philadelphia in the standings every season since 2009-10, even though the Devils eliminated the Flyers from the playoffs in 2012 and went on to the Stanley Cup Final that year. But the order now appears to be changing.

Following the Flyers' ninth straight loss this past Tuesday vs. the Sharks, Hextall reiterated to the media that the team he’s assembled is good enough to make the playoffs, while also adding, “I try to make this team better every day if there’s something that can be done.”

Which begs the question, exactly which team is Hextall referring to? The one preparing for the Calgary Flames on Monday night or the Philadelphia Flyers of 2020?  

There’s proof you can address the present and the future at the same time. 

Those details are in the Devils and Shero.  

Devils' Hall wastes no time in overtime

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Devils' Hall wastes no time in overtime

PITTSBURGH -- Taylor Hall beat Matt Murray on a breakaway 27 seconds into overtime to lift the New Jersey Devils to a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night.

Hall was all alone when Nico Hischier found him with a long lead pass. Hall then slipped the puck between Murray's legs for his 33rd goal of the season as New Jersey picked up two vital points in the race for one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference.

Hall added two assists for New Jersey. Hischier finished with a goal and an assist, and Blake Coleman and Will Butcher also scored for the Devils. Keith Kincaid made 40 stops for the Devils, who finished a season-high six-game road trip 4-2.

Sidney Crosby scored his 25th of the season for Pittsburgh. Brian Dumolin and Phil Kessel scored in the third period as the Penguins erased a two-goal deficit. Murray finished with 30 saves as the Penguins lost for just the second time in their last 17 home games.

New Jersey's drive to end a six-year playoff drought has stalled since the All-Star break. A lopsided loss in San Jose dropped the Devils to just 13-12 since Jan. 30 and skated onto the ice at PPG Paints Arena with a tenuous grasp on the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference (see full recap).

Bruins win on Pastrnak’s last-second goal
DALLAS -- David Pastrnak broke a tie with 12 seconds left and the Boston Bruins scored three straight goals in the third period to rally past the fading Dallas Stars 3-2 on Friday night.

A scramble followed a faceoff in the Dallas end, and Brad Marchand passed to Pastrnak in front. While falling down, he put the puck past Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen.

Tuukka Rask made a season-high 40 saves for the Bruins. Marchand scored Boston's first goal and also assisted on a short-handed goal by Tim Schaller that tied it midway through the third period.

The second-place Bruins won for the first time in three games (1-0-2) to move within four points of Atlantic Division leader Tampa Bay. Boston has already clinched a playoff berth.

The Stars are winless in their last seven games (0-5-2). They remained four points behind Colorado for the second Western Conference wild card (see full recap).

Berglund, Blues push win streak to 4
ST. LOUIS -- Patrik Berglund scored twice and the surging St. Louis Blues beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 on Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Vladimir Tarasenko and Dmitrij Jaskin also scored for St. Louis. Jake Allen made 19 saves in his eighth straight start as the Blues won for the sixth time in seven games.

Sam Gagner scored for Vancouver, which has lost eight of nine. Anders Nilsson stopped 21 shots.

The Blues swept the season series and have won their last five games against the Canucks.

Tarasenko extended the lead to 3-1 just 14 seconds into the third period, slipping Jaden Schwartz's pass between Nilsson's legs. Tarasenko missed the previous two games with an upper-body injury.

Jaskin's sixth goal of the season with 2:29 left sealed it for St. Louis (see full recap).

5 crucial developments behind Flyers' playoff push

5 crucial developments behind Flyers' playoff push

With seven games to go, the Flyers are in playoff position.

They sit in the Eastern Conference's top wild-card spot, four points ahead of the next-closest team, while also lurking just one point out of third place and two out of second in the Metropolitan Division.

You would have been hard-pressed to envision such a scenario back when the Flyers had lost 10 straight games and were in dead last of the Metro on Dec. 2.

But, through the streaks — both good and bad — here the Flyers are.

So how did they get here?

Let's look at five keys:

1. Giroux, period
The revitalization has been astounding. 

Claude Giroux's precipitous turnaround is the biggest reason the Flyers find themselves smelling postseason hockey again.

At age 30 and coming off a career low in goals for a full season and a third straight drop-off in scoring, the Flyers' captain has buried those 14 markers and 58 points in the past. This season, he has 26 goals and an NHL-high 64 assists, while reaching the 90-point plateau for the second time in his career. 

When the regular season is over, he will very likely own new career highs in goals, assists and points.

Tip your hat to the guy.

2. Do-it-all Coots
Sean Couturier has done yeoman's work in his breakout year.

Obviously the team-best 30 goals are nice, but he does so much more for this team.

He plays the third-most minutes (21:38) among all NHL forwards, leads the Flyers in PK time by a landslide and his plus-26 rating is top 10 in the league.

3. The kid is here
With a greater role, Travis Konecny has made a crucial jump in Year 2.

Since Dec. 28, the 21-year-old has put up 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists) and a plus-17 rating in 38 games, a stretch in which the Flyers are 22-12-4.

And since Jan. 20, Konecny has the same number of goals (16) as Alex Ovechkin and Nathan MacKinnon.

4. Defensive leaders
While the Flyers have stomached inconsistency and change on defense, Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere have served as two pillars.

Imagine if one of the two got hurt? Or if Provorov endured a sophomore slump and Gostisbehere didn't rebound from his own last season?

Who knows where the Flyers would be.

Provorov and Gostisbehere are first and third, respectively, in minutes per game on the team, while both have netted 13 goals with "Ghost" leading all NHL blueliners in power-play tallies (seven) and man-advantage points (29).

It's not just offense, either. Provorov is ultra steady and Gostisbehere has improved in his own end.

5. Lookin' like No. 2
Nolan Patrick's numbers don't jump off the page, but his evolvement from the start of the season to now is one of the bigger storylines of this season.

Following an underwhelming first 40 games (with an injury mixed in), the second overall pick now looks supremely comfortable and makes a clear impact, even when he's not scoring.

The 19-year-old is playing well centering Jakub Voracek and Oskar Lindblom on the second line and showed tons of power-play potential filling in for an injured Wayne Simmonds.

Patrick has 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in his last 26 games after recording nine (three goals, six assists) in his first 40.

He's been a different player.