Yesterday, thanks to the NHL Network, I was had the honor and privilege to interview former New Jersey Devils goaltender and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes about the upcoming Devils season. Needless to say, I was surprised this interview happened at all. Given that the subject was the upcoming season, this is a perfect bonus for our week-long season preview. Hence, the questions were structured as such.
I thank Weekes for taking the time out of his busy day to share his thoughts and answer my questions about this coming season. And I thank the NHL Network for making it possible. What follows are the results of our conversation.
Question: Thank you for taking the time to talk about the upcoming Devils season, Mr. Weekes. Let’s begin with a crucial position: goaltender. Cory Schneider statsticially had a lesser season than usual. The Devils fans are hoping for a bounce-back season. Was it just a down season for Schneider? Or was there some issue with his mechanics or something else that he needed to work on?
Weekes initially went back to the World Cup of Hockey last season. He pointed out that Schneider had that offseason surgery before the World Cup and he really wanted to play for Team USA. In talking with him, Schneider said he was healthy for the World Cup. However, Weekes didn’t think he was 100%. He knows Schneider well from covering Vancouver with Hockey Night in Canada. He described Schneider as a “no maintenance” player; someone who is willing to play, someone who wants to play, and does not want to create an issue. That said, it is possible he was not really at 100% as he claimed and that he played through at least some last season with an injury. On that basis, Weekes says to “look for him to be better.” He believes he is fully 100% and that he’ll have better players in front of him.
Question: I certainly hope so. That goes right into my next question. The players in front of him, the Devils skaters tended to go for blocks for shots and in shooting lanes. In the process, they would screen both Schneider and Keith Kinkaid. That may have been an issue. From your perspective, is that frustrating for a goaltender? What can the Devils do to address that issue? [Aside: Thanks to Mike for this question.]
Weekes initially stated that it comes down to defensive selection and decision making. That is key for any defense. Weekes did explain that it was not always frustrating for a goaltender. Teammates love seeing others be able to make the sacrifice to help them out. For example, when Alex Ovechkin is set-up for that one-timer he loves, you have to appreciate, say, Andy Greene going over to make a block on that play. Or when Patrick Laine flies down the wing and someone gets a stick on the puck to have it hit the netting. The response is usually “Thanks, I appreciate that.” Can it result in a goal? It could, but more often than not, goalies just accept that is just one of the outcomes. 8 out of 10 times, it’s fine.
Question: That leads me to the defense. The Devils tended to have issues with zone exits, resulting in the opposition having an edge in both attack time and possession. What do you think was the cause of that? Is it more on the skaters themselves or the tactics and strategies put in by the coaches?
Weekes stated that it was a little bit of both, but he believed it was primarily personnel. He agreed that the Devils were “stuck in a spin cycle” quite a lot. That led to problems. It’s tires players out to chase the play, rotate to the cover the middle, and react to what the other team does - it’s “taxing.” And that is definitely perpetuates further issues with clearances. Weekes states that there was a lack of precision with passing the puck out and a lack of players who could just skate the puck out. Those skills were lacking last season. Weekes did highlight Will Butcher as someone who can help in that regard; he believes he is a good at passing and at reading plays. Additionally, Weekes believes that the forwards being more “committed to defense” would help a lot. That should be on display earlier in the season when it is easier to “buy-in” on what the team wants to do.
Weekes did digress to note that this is where Kevin Shattenkirk really could have helped. He really believed the Devils would be the ones to sign him. While he understood that he went to his hometown team, Weekes pointed out that the Devils had the ability to offer him money, term, opportunity to play, and all while still being close to home. He was not surprised he signed with the Rangers, but he did think the Devils were going to get him.
Question: Let’s move on to the forwards. In 2016, the Devils big “get” was Taylor Hall, who has been a top even strength scorer and one of the top wingers according to the NHL Network. However, the Devils still struggled on offense. This Summer, the Devils acquired Marcus Johansson, they drafted Nico Hischier, and they added Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes recently to round out their forwards. Is this enough for the Devils to be more productive at even strength? Did they add enough weapons, so to speak?
Weekes immediately thought that the Devils certainly added weapons on offense. He highlighted four players. Weekes stated that Kyle Palmieri has flourished in his time in New Jersey; that will have to continue. Weekes highlighted “Rico” [Adam Henrique] is someone for whom “30 goals should be the goal with his talent, or at least in the high 20s goal range.” Weekes believed Johansson could add another 20 to 25 goals. Weekes thinks highly of Hischier. It’s tough to project, but if he can provide about 20 goals, then that would be huge. The pieces are there for a more productive Devils team.
As far as Hall goes, Weekes believes that he is not only healthy, but that emotionally he feels good. Weekes had the chance to talk to Taylor Hall at the All Star Game earlier this year. He learned that when Connor McDavid was drafted, Hall immediately thought he would become the best player in the league. By extension, the Oilers were on the right path towards success. Hall himself was a #1 overall draft pick, he won the Memorial Cup, he had all of these accolades. He set very high expectations for himself. So when the trade happened, it really did bother him. Weekes thinks that now that a full season has passed, Hall has settled down in New Jersey, he’s processed the whole trade, and he should have a clearer mind ahead of this season. Weekes also thinks it helps that Jordan Eberle is now an Islander.
I followed up by noting that when Hall is on, he’s one of the best 20 skaters in the league. Weekes immediately agreed.
Question: Let’s go behind the bench. Head coach John Hynes is entering the final year of his contract. Given the circumstances, how well has he done behind the bench? What do you think he or the team needs to accomplish for Hynes to stay behind the Devils bench next season?
Weekes stated that, from his perspective, he “needs to see some progression” from the team for Hynes to stick around. That means a “more consistent effort night in, night out in terms of skating and in competition.” A more competitive team; an early April or even halfway through March of meaningful games would be a big step forward. Whatever progression is seen from Hischier, Butcher, and other young players would also play a role towards whether the Devils are making progress. He understands that expectations are high in this larger media market, with two teams nearby who have enjoyed more success. Weekes stated that he thinks the level of respect from the fans and others can grow if the team is playing more competitive hockey both in terms of effort and style of play.
Question: Lastly, there’s a feeling of hope in New Jersey. Preseason went well this season, there’s hope that Hischier will become an important player, Damon Severson is an important player, Pavel Zacha could emerge as an important player, and there are prospects in the system that could make the team faster and more attacking in the future. Based on this, when do you think it would be reasonable for this Devils team to reasonably think they can make the playoffs?
Weekes opened stating that “the key is that the team continues to go through the progressions of a rebuild within the whole organization - and to be patient.” He cited Mike Babcock’s arrival in Toronto. When he started, Babcock stated that there would be a lot of pain. There is a lot to change. Then Auston Matthews appeared and a lot went right between Nylander being an awesome player, Morgan Reilly being strong on the back end, Nazem Kadri living up to expectations, JVR - the Jersey boy - having a big season, Mitch Marner contributing, and Andersen being solid in net. All together, it put the Leafs 1-2 years ahead of schedule. A lot went right to avoid some of the pain.
Could this happen for the Devils? It could; especially with Schneider in net. But Weekes really does believe that playing meaningful games in March should be the next step. If the Devils can finish close to the playoffs, three to five points shy of the last spot; then Weekes believe they should shoot for the playoffs in the next season. Whether that happens in 2017-18 is unknown.
Weekes did compare the Devils’ situation to Buffalo’s. While not exactly the same, the Sabres are a team with a young star forward with plenty of talented pieces but not much in the way in results yet. They are a team that has ways to go, but they could be making progress in the near future.
I did point out that fans may be more tolerant of a rebuild these days perhaps compared to the past, but at some point, they want to see results. Weekes absolutely agreed. He stressed that he’s been a fan of the game between his 20+ years between being a player and an analyst. He gets it. He knows that is very frustrating to see a team that has promise and then proceeds to lose 2 out of 3 followed by 3 out of 5 to winning a couple and then losing 6 out of 10. There has to be some progress in the games. He did emphasize that a team playing with a better effort, seeing the skaters compete hard for pucks and fly up the ice, and such does get recognized by the fans and does earn their respect.
That wrapped up the time I had with Mr. Weekes. Again, I thank him for taking the time to talk about the Devils and answering my questions. I did what I could with respect to notes taken during the interview, quoting him as best as I could. I do not want to misquote Weekes (or anyone else) so this is not a transcription. If I ever get the fortune to do something like this again, I’ll try to do better. Until then, I’ll keep on blogging.
That said, what did you think of the interview? What did you takeaway from Kevin Weekes’ answers? I was surprised that he mentioned Butcher among others on defense as a potential improvement. Likewise that he really thinks Henrique should be able to get 30 goals - I know he’s done it before but it seems to come in bunches for #14. I do agree that if it is the middle of March or late March and the team has something to play for, it is a sign of progress. Whether that means Hynes will stick around after that, that’s up to Ray Shero. Let me know what you learned and what you thought in the comments. Thanks again to Kevin Weekes and the NHL Network; thank you for reading.