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Game Preview #67: New Jersey Devils vs. St. Louis Blues

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Coming off the heels of a terrible performance versus Vegas, the Devils take on the leader of the Central Division.

NHL: FEB 18 Devils at Blues
Jack Hughes has just one point in his last 11 games. Is he due for something tonight?

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (26-28-12) versus the St. Louis Blues (40-17-10). SBN Blog: St. Louis Game Time.

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+

The Present and Future Defense of St. Louis:

The Blues have a lot of money locked up in just a few defensemen right now.

Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, and Justin Fault all earn over $4,000,000 - and Pietrangelo leads them this season with a $6,500,000 cap hit. However, Justin Faulk, currently age 26, signed a seven year, $45.5 million contract extension after being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes. Therefore, Faulk will carry a $6,500,000 cap hit himself for the next seven season after this one.

When you look at the CapFriendly page for the St. Louis Blues, you will see that they have $7,241,667 in current cap space. One would think at a glance that the Blues can easily resign Alex Pietrangelo, but given a scroll down the page, and Vladimir Tarasenko’s $7,500,000 cap hit can be seen under long-term injury reserve cap relief. Tarasenko will be back in April for the playoffs, according to the team, and they will have to send down a player on their current roster to make cap space for him. That will push the St. Louis Blues right against the cap ceiling for the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues have two considerable salaries coming off the books this off-season, though one of them already is not counting against the cap. As a result of Jay Bouwmeester’s cardiac episode earlier this season, the 36 year old defenseman’s $3,250,000 cap hit is currently counted in LTIR relief. Bouwmeester plans on addressing his future at a later point in time. Aside from him, the Blues will have Marco Scandella’s $2,000,000 cap hit expiring this season.

Surprise, Surprise: Scandella has had one of his best seasons in 2019-20, with four goals and nine assists in 58 games, while playing 17:22 a night between 31 games in Buffalo (3G-6A in 16:36 ATOI), 20 games in Montreal (1G-2A in 17:38 ATOI), and seven games in St. Louis (1A in 20:02 ATOI). He has a career high CF% at 52.2 for a total +0.4 relative rate according to Hockey-Reference. In Buffalo, he had a 52.8 CF % (+3.8 relative). In Montreal, he had a 51.1 CF% (-4.5 relative). In St. Louis so far, he has a 53.3 CF% (-0.5 relative). For reference in the improvements Scandella has made this season, here’s his 2016-19 RAPM chart from Evolving-Hockey:

Evolving-Hockey

One of the reasons I had not considered Marco Scandella an option to improve the defense when Ray Shero was shopping for a defenseman early this season was his history of relatively below-average performances while being given too many minutes for a player of his even strength impact. The Devils had seen a lot of that, and I considered the 29 year old Scandella better to pass on. The Canadiens, and now the Blues, seem to have made a good bet for this season.

Evolving-Hockey

Scandella given his performance might be due for a slight raise for his performance in his contract year, but the Blues might not be the team that gives him that raise.

The Nine-Million Dollar Man: Given the extensions recently given out to top defensemen in the NHL, I would expect Alex Pietrangelo to carry a nine, maybe 10 million dollar cap hit when he signs his next contract. In 66 games this season, Pietrangelo has 13 goals and 36 assists with an average ice time of 24:10. He is on pace for career highs in all offensive categories, seeking to best his mark of 15 goals in 78 games in 2017-18, and his mark of 43 assists in 81 games in 2013-14. Pietrangelo has been an underappreciated model of consistency and performance in the NHL since 2010, never having had a season with under 0.50 points per game, and having a positive relative CF% score in all but three seasons (14-15: -2.8%; 15-16: -1.6%; 17-18: -0.3%). Pietrangelo does not have the defensive impacts of some of the other elite players of the league, but he is still reliable - and his offensive impact is enough to build a team around. In John’s piece earlier this week, “A Model Opponent: A Pre-Preview of New Jersey Devils vs. St. Louis Blues”, he wrote:

The last time they picked in the top-ten of a draft was back in 2008 when they picked defenseman Alex Pietrangelo fourth overall. The draft lottery back then was only for moving a team up four spots, with the bottom five teams taking first overall had they won the lottery. St. Louis did not win it that year and took the third defenseman out of four straight picks.

Alex Pietrangleo joined a decent team, but provided them with something that the Devils haven’t had since Scott Niedermayer laced up his skates - a franchise-building defenseman. Andy Greene was arguably approaching elite - at least defensively - between 2010 and 2015, but he did not carry the level of impact Pietrangelo had. Pietrangelo jump-started a considerable jump in opportunities for the Blues offense upon his full arrival in 2010, and still has the same effect to this day. Mind you, he was 21 when the Blues gave him his first full season, and turned 30 years old on January 18 of this year.

The main point is that this is a team that has blossomed since 2008 and never really crashed again to get another top draft pick since then. While they missed the playoffs three times since Pietrangelo was picked, they did not miss it by a big margin either. One would say they were mired in a land of not being bad enough to get prime prospects but not being good enough to make the postseason. Clearly, they pulled out of it and found plenty of success. They are a great example of how good management, good drafting, and getting the right kinds of players makes it possible to have a really good team without being led by a core of high draft picks.

It’s too late this season to turn away from the high draft pick model just yet. With the underperformances of Taylor Hall, P.K. Subban, Cory Schneider early this season; and the bust acquisition of Wayne Simmonds, the attempt at competitiveness just did not pan out this season. So mark good management as something not going on right now for the Devils. But I would argue that the development of that top draft pick is something that has simply not been allowed time to occur for our team, as well. In Alex Pietrangelo’s first roughly-full season of 79 games in 2010-11, when he was 20-21 years old, he played an average of 22:00 per game. Since then, he has ranged from a low of his 24:05 mark last season to a high of his 26:18 mark in 2015-16.

When you can count on a player like Alex Pietrangelo to lead the team on the ice for 25 minutes a game, and be blessed with his breakout ability and passing - it would be a disappointment if the Blues were not consistently in the playoffs from his age 21-30 seasons. You could say he was the pillar of their rebuilt team, and the team has always been competitive with him on the ice.

However, the Blues might have trouble affording an extension for him this offseason, since their cap space will likely be around $8-10 million. I think that Pietrangelo could earn himself a $10,000,000 salary and cap hit if his term is five or fewer years, but we’ll see how him and his agent want to approach free agency.

Hughes: Jack Hughes had had a rough go of things at even strength in the last couple of months. With seven goals and 14 assists in 58 games, he is statistically respectable in his rookie season. However, since December 27 - or in Hughes’ last 25 games, he has two goals and five assists. Worse, he only has one goal and two assists at even strength in that time. Hughes is going to have to turn it around and not get into a funk at the end of the season, or there may be doubts about his game that linger from this season to next year.

Butcher Out For the Season: Yesterday, it was reported that Will Butcher had surgery to repair ligaments in his right thumb after he had an injury in St. Louis in February. He will be out for three to four months - and will be able to get back into practices and game situations in the summer.

This season, Will Butcher has four goals and 17 assists in 56 games. Since his season is over, he has had 13 goals and 82 points in 215 games for the Devils across three seasons. Butcher has been disappointing this season on the power play - something he was so good at when the Devils signed him. If nothing else, his presence on the ice still contributes to more goals scored by the Devils, even if his name hasn’t gotten on the scoresheet as much. I hope to see him back next season in a better situation.

Practice Lines: Amanda Stein posted these practice lines yesterday:

I’ll stop beating a dead horse in saying that Fredrick Claesson should be playing over Connor Carrick - at least for a few games. However, putting Miles Wood on the first line is incomprehensible. In 65 games this season, Miles Wood has 10 goals and 11 assists. All of his scoring has com at even strength this season, which is good - but he is still very bad defensively at even strength.

Notice how I had to change the Y-axis values from the default
Evolving-Hockey

If you want to see someone get eaten alive by the Blues’ top lines, look no further than Miles Wood. I do not think that Wood can cover David Perron, or Ryan O’Reilly, or beat Alex Pietrangelo to a loose puck. Miles Wood belongs off the first line, at the very least. Ideally, he wouldn’t even rise above the bottom six. But, since this is the Devils, Alain Nasreddine thinks it’s justifiable to put someone with no positive defensive impact in their game on the top line. Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri need someone who is functional on both ends of the ice - they can’t carry the line that much.

Meanwhile, Michael McLeod and Joey Anderson remain on the fourth line with Kevin Rooney and John Hayden. While I won’t be a stickler about their ice time, I will say that Joey Anderson was doing great in the position Miles Wood was bad in last game along with Jesper Boqvist on the wings of Travis Zajac. If nothing else, I wish the Devils would bring up one more player - perhaps someone like Janne Kuokkanen - and let the prospects run the fourth line. But I don’t make these decisions, so McLeod and Anderson will have to play with at least one albatross at a time.

Your Thoughts: What do you think about tonight’s game? How do you think Jack Hughes should be handled for the rest of the season? Should he be rested? Should he get more top line time? Should he be moved back to center? How does his (and Nico’s) quick entry into the league affect our expectations versus what the Blues expected from Alex Pietrangelo a decade ago? Are you looking forward to watching Miles Wood on the top line? How do you think the Devils should approach Will Butcher moving forward? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.