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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 send Adam Henrique to Ducks for defensman Sami Vatanen

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Devils send Adam Henrique to Ducks for defensman Sami Vatanen

Even though the New Jersey Devils are off to a surprisingly strong start this season, they were on the lookout for an offensive-minded defenseman.

The Devils filled that need Thursday, acquiring Sami Vatanen from the Ducks in a trade that sent forwards Adam Henrique and Joseph Blandisi to Anaheim. The Ducks also get a 2018 third-round pick in the deal and would send back a 2019 or 2020 third-rounder if they're able to re-sign Henrique.

Ducks general manager Bob Murray called it "a classic sort of hockey deal" rather than one team buying and the other selling.

"It's a good deal for both teams that we both had needs to fill," Ducks general manager Bob Murray said on a conference call. "Hopefully this one works out for both teams."

Murray said Vatanen was "rusty" coming off shoulder surgery, but the 26-year-old has shown the ability to put up points. He has 126 in 280 regular-season NHL games.

Vatanen has just a goal and three assists this season playing on a crowded blue line with Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. He's signed for two more seasons at a salary-cap hit of $4.875 million.

Devils general manager Ray Shero saw the trade as "an opportunity we didn't want to have pass by."

"In acquiring Sami, we bring on a right shot, top-four defenseman who can play in all situations," Shero said. "This move also gives us contract certainty on the back end for the next two-plus years."

In Henrique, the Ducks get center depth as they deal with injuries to Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. The 27-year-old has four goals and 10 assists in 24 games this season and is signed through 2018-19.

Henrique said he was "shocked" when Shero told him he'd been traded.

"It wasn't something I was expecting," Henrique said. "With everything going on in Anaheim with the injuries, it just makes sense. I think the Devils have obviously been looking for a defenseman, and I think everything kind of came together the last day or two here."

Murray hopes to have Getzlaf back by mid-December and Kesler before Christmas. He thinks acquiring Henrique gives coach Randy Carlyle plenty of options to either stack the middle or move him to wing once Getzlaf, Kesler and Rickard Rakell are healthy.

"It makes us really strong down the middle if randy wants to go that way," Murray said.

The conditional pick is exchanged in 2019 if the Ducks sign Henrique prior to making their third-round pick at that draft and in 2020 if they sign him afterward. If they don't re-sign Henrique, no pick is exchanged.

"I think that's fair for both teams," Murray said. "It's part of the hockey deal. Adam's got one more year after this year, and we'll see how it goes and how he fits in here."

New Jersey's forward depth, including the return of Travis Zajac from injury, gave Shero the ability to deal from a position of strength to fill a hole.

Murray and Shero wondered if Henrique might benefit from a change of scenery. Blandisi, 23, has been with the Devils' American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton but could be counted on to step back up to the NHL for Anaheim.

"Jersey has got a lot of forwards, talented forwards, and there was an opportunity for us to kind of fill in our depth where we're kind of weakest," Murray said. "He likes to score. He likes to be around the net. He knows how to play around the net, and he likes to shoot it. Could be a good opportunity for him."

Best of NHL: Predators hold off Ducks in rematch of West Finals

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Best of NHL: Predators hold off Ducks in rematch of West Finals

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Roman Josi scored one goal and assisted on another as the Nashville Predators built a three-goal lead before holding off the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 Friday night in a rematch of last season's Western Conference Finals.

Scott Hartnell, Matt Irwin and Viktor Arvidsson also scored for the Predators in the first meeting between the teams since Nashville won their 2016-17 playoff series in six games to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Pekka Rinne made 35 saves and P.K. Subban added an empty-net goal with 18 seconds left to seal it.

The Predators had lost four straight in Anaheim since their previous victory on April 4, 2014.

Antoine Vermette, Hampus Lindholm and Jakob Silfverberg scored for the Ducks, who cut it to 4-3 in the third period after trailing by three late in the second.

Anaheim pulled within one at 7:41 of the third. Derek Grant's shot went wide of the net and off the backboards before Silfverberg put in the rebound.

Nashville opened a 3-0 lead early in the second. Predators defenseman Matt Irwin fired a shot from just beyond the left circle and past goalie John Gibson for his first of the season (see full recap).

McDavid dishes out trio of assists in Oilers’ win
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Connor McDavid had three assists and the Edmonton Oilers beat New Jersey 6-3 on Friday night to hand the Devils' their first road loss of the season.

Drake Caggiula, Ryan Strome, Oscar Klefbom, Milan Lucic, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored for the Oilers. They snapped a two-game losing streak to improve to 4-7-1.

Taylor Hall, Jesper Bratt and Brian Gibbons responded for the Devils. They dropped to 9-3-0.

Edmonton started the scoring five minutes into the opening period on the power play as McDavid sent a pass through the crease to Caggiula, who tapped the puck in before goalie Cory Schneider could get across.

The Oilers made it 2-0 three minutes later when Adam Larsson's point shot ended up going off Strome and in.

Hall came back to haunt his old team with five minutes left in the first when he backhanded the rebound from Miles Wood's shot past goalie Cam Talbot.

New Jersey tied it five minutes into the second period when Bratt's spin-around shot hit the post and caromed into the net.

The Oilers regained just over a minute later on Klefbom's blast on the rush (see full recap).