Welcome, once again, to Screen Shots – THN.com’s regular feature that takes a few diverse hockey topics and breaks them down into mini-columns. We never do much of an introduction to this piece, and instead, get to the topics right away. Off we go:
– The New Jersey Devils erased a two-goal deficit with three third-period goals Thursday to beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 and claim their fifth consecutive victory. With the win, New Jersey moved into the top spot in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division thanks to an 8-3-0 record to start the season. We said it before, but the Devils were our pick as a team to keep an eye on this season. There was instant pressure on coach Lindy Ruff to win or face the firing line as probably the first NHL coach to get the axe this season, but New Jersey has been playing like they want to keep Ruff around.
In THN.com’s pre-season Burning Questions file on the Devils, we posed three questions: (1) Who’s their starting goalie? (2) Did GM Tom Fitzgerald spend New Jersey’s salary cap space wisely? (3) How long will Ruff survive if things go sideways for the Devils? (Obviously, No. 3 has not been asked, thanks to the job Ruff has done to keep his players confident and aggressive, even when they fall behind.)
Question 1 in the above paragraph has a clear early answer: veteran Mackenzie Blackwood has struggled with inconsistency of late, with an .871 save percentage in five games in October, and another dud in New Jersey’s last game against Edmonton. Meanwhile, first-year Devil Vitek Vanecek overcame a slow start to the season to win four games in a row; after replacing Blackwood Thursday, he held the fort against the Oilers and wound up getting the win to improve his record to 4-1-0. So, it seems like Vanecek is the early winner of the starter’s job. He’s earned more starts, and he’s getting plenty of support on offense from the Devils’ exciting core of young talent.
And as far as Question 2 goes, it looks as if Fitzgerald’s spending has indeed improved things for New Jersey: marquee free agent signee Ondrej Palat had three goals in six games before he was injured. Defenseman John Marino has been solid on the back end, averaging 21:03 of ice time – only star D-man Dougie Hamilton has been used more (21:16) – and winger Erik Haula has fit in nicely. Fitzgerald has to be pleased with what the new guys have brought to the team.
All-in-all, the Devils look like they’re capable of being a playoff team. They may not win at the same pace as the one they’re currently on, but if the goaltending holds up, the offense looks like it’s going to lead the way for them. Again, it will be intriguing to see how they hold up, one way or another.
– The Ottawa Senators are officially for sale, and rumors are rampant that Hollywood actor and onetime Ottawa resident Ryan Reynolds is interested in owning at least a part of the franchise and arena. The idea of the Senators being owned by the Deadpool movie franchise star brings up notions of incredible cross-promotion between the Deadpool character and the organization, but first and foremost, Reynolds has to align himself with a financial group or institution to handle the business end. This is not to say Reynolds can’t handle numbers, only that there are numerous suitors with great financial acumen who may appeal more to late Sens owner Eugene Melnyk’s two daughters, who will have the ultimate say on who the Senators are sold to.
Perhaps we’ll see Melnyk’s daughters sell the team and arena to a local group of investors that includes Reynolds. He could bring the franchise much positive publicity, but it all has to work on the financial front to get him on board. Stranger things have happened, though, so don’t be surprised if Reynolds does become a part-owner of the Sens.
– Finally, let’s take a look at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have been sucking wind on a six-game losing skid (0-5-1) and are presently one of the NHL’s worst teams. Their offense has turned off and on during this streak, but the more consistent factor has been Pittsburgh’s terrible defense. Trading Marino to New Jersey was necessary for them in dealing with the salary cap and being able to re-sign veteran stars Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin, but right now, the choice to part ways with Marino was a big mistake.
New Penguin Jeff Petry and returning vet Brian Dumoulin have not thrived in their own end thus far, and Pittsburgh’s goalie tandem of starter Tristan Jarry (who has a SP of .872 or worse in his past three games) and backup Casey DeSmith (who is on a four-game losing streak of his own, with an SP of .889 or worse in two of his past four games) are not getting the job done, either.
The Penguins’ malaise has dropped them through the Metro standings to a second-to-last spot in the division. They’re relatively healthy, so there are no excuses for them to continue on this terrible trajectory. This is the team GM Ron Hextall wanted, and if they miss the post-season, there should be moves of consequence made to this lineup as it tries to retool on the fly into a new era of Pens hockey. Right now, until they solve problems in their own end, that change is not going to happen for the better. It is up to Pittsburgh’s core to straighten matters out.