Ever since Stefan Matteau played in his fifth NHL game, he’s been a healthy scratch. That made sense, considering that the first year of his entry-level contract would be enacted as soon as he played his sixth game. Matteau hadn’t really shown enough to deserve burning a year of his deal, I thought. Yet after that game, he hung around … and hung around and hung around. For four games he was a healthy scratch and most of us presumed he was simply biding his time until he returned to junior with his ELC untouched.
Then came this morning’s skate, when Dainius Zubrus was ruled out of Thursday’s game against the Lightning and Matteau was inserted into his spot as left wing on the Devils’ first line. Once Matteau is declared active for tonight’s game, that precious first season of the entry-level contract becomes live and suddenly Matteau is one year closer to restricted free agency and eventually one year closer to unrestricted free agency.
One would assume that means Matteau will spend the season with the NHL club, learning on the job as one of the team’s bottom-six forwards, scratched for the occasional game and shifted up in the lineup for the occasional shift. Not so fast, says Pete DeBoer.
DeBoer: "I don't think by playing him this game it's a lifetime contract or a guarantee he'll be here all year."— Rich Chere (@Ledger_NJDevils) February 07, 2013
Matteau, who’s motto all year has been “day by day,” unsurprisingly echoed his coach in the locker room after Thursday’s skate. The soon-to-be-19-year-old rookie knows nothing is guaranteed beyond tonight. But that doesn’t help Devils fans a bit confused by how Lou Lamoriello and DeBoer are navigating this situation. Does this mean he’s staying with the Devils all season? Can he still be returned to his junior club? What about the AHL?
When you’re playing four game a week, it’s a little difficult to find time to practice. Coach Pete DeBoer hast to find the right balance of extra work, voluntary skates and mandatory sessions while making sure his veteran-laden team doesn’t get tired out before halfway point. That’s why having a day off in between a home game and a close road opponent is so very important in this lockout-shortened season.
“You’re going to deal with some sloppy hockey because of the circumstances of the schedule and the number of games,” DeBoer said. “I think the teams that can recognize an off night and manage it the best are the teams that are going to get points. We’ve got a veteran group and we should be able to handle those situations. To our credit, we handled it well enough to get one on a night we were off, but you want to get two.”
A lot of the work today was on simple things they usually do well when they’re winning – working the puck down low in the offensive zone, feeding the point men for shots and going to the net for screens, deflections and rebound. There was also focus on their down-low coverage on defense.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of practices down the road either,” right wing Ilya Kovalchuk said. “We’re watching a lot of videos. The rest is important as well because we’ve got a lot of games and all the games are very important. A lot of games are going to overtime around the league, so it takes a little extra every game. You’ve got to be focused on that. We’ve got a veteran group of guys here who know how to handle those situations.”
DeBoer made a similar point after last night’s game, noting that there’s going to be ebbs and flows to this schedule that the team, the fans and the media will have to adjust to. Every game won’t be perfect and there will be stretches of bad hockey because teams had almost no training camp to work on things. It’s a work in progress. This is where the Devils’ roster and coaching staff comes into play, though. This a smart, smart coaching staff that is very familiar with its roster. The coaches know when to push and went to lay off and when to tell a player to quit whining and gut it out. The players, being mostly veterans, also understand the importance of these limited practice opportunities, like Kovy alluded to above. They know that you have to treat every film session and all the on-ice work with the utmost care and value of importance.
While you might think younger teams will have better legs this season, I tend to think the veteran teams that already know the rigors of the season and understand their bodies and have good practice habits will be the ones that win out in the end. You may see a yougn team like the Isles or Oilers get into the playoffs, but by then they’ll just be happy to be there. Whereas with veteran teams like the Devils, they’ll know when to push it and which games you can maybe take your foot off the gas a bit because they know they’re not just playing to make the playoffs. They need something left when they get there.
It’s no secret the Devils could use some more offensive firepower, particularly a top-six winger. While there’s been a lot of talk about Petr Sykora re-signing once the lockout is officially over (still waiting), TheFourthPeriod postulates the Oilers might be looking to move winger Ales Hemsky in exchange for help on the back end, with the Devils listed as one of several interested parties.
Tambellini might prefer to send Hemsky to the Eastern Conference, as teams will only play within their own conference this season.
The Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets would all like to add a playmaking winger to their roster and could target Hemsky.
The Devils have enough depth on the blue line both at the NHL and AHL level to make a deal happen, but I question whether the Devils would want to make the necessary salary commitment to acquire Hemsky. Hemsky is scheduled to make a pro-rated $5 million this season, which would fit well into the Devils’ $14 million in cap space. However, he’s slated for the same pay day next season when the cap will drop drastically to $64.3 million. According to Cap Geek, the Devils only have a little over $32 million committed to five forwards, six defensemen and both goalies in 2013-14. Assuming the Devils spend to the cap ceiling (which they won’t), Hemsky’s $5 million salary would account for 15 percent of their available cap space in ’13-14. Then, add in the fact that Adam Henrique will be an RFA, while Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, Dainius Zubrus, David Clarkson and Marek Zidlicky will be unrestricted free agents and it seems entirely too expensive a proposition for the Devils.
Although the players wrapped up their electronic CBA voting process at 8 a.m., there’s still be no word on the basically assured passed of the CBA. The NHLPA says that will come later Saturday when the sides finalize the Memorandum of Understanding.
Per agreement with the NHL, we will announce results of player vote later today.Discussions to finalize the MOU continue this morning.
This means Kovalchuk will miss at least the first three days of training camp and will likely have to spend the rest of camp recovering from jet lag. However, assuming he’s healthy it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. He’ll have played roughly the same amount of games up to this point in the KHL that he played up to this date last year (36 in KHL vs. 38 last season with Devils). Also, since he’s been playing, he has far less need for a training camp than those player trying to make the team or those have haven’t been playing competitively. The most important thing for the Devils is Kovalchuk gets some practice time with Travis Zajac and gets his body clock set before the season kicks off on Jan. 19. On a side note, let’s hope this is the last time this year I have to write about SKA St. Peterburg and the KHL. REAL hockey is just around the corner.
Most of the Devils are fine with Ilya Kovalchuk’s KHL dalliances — although Patrick Elias doesn’t seem too pleased with it. With news that Ilya has finally relented and will leave Russia as early as Monday, I started to wonder how you guys feel about his dance with the Russian devil, so to speak. Let your voice be heard in the poll below!
The NHL schedule is set to officially hit the airwaves tomorrow morning, which means Twitter is abuzz this morning with all sorts of nuggets regarding what might be on the Devils’ 48-game slate this season. Here’s a quick rundown.
1. The Devils will reportedly host the Flyers on Tuesday, Jan. 22, in their home opener:
Devils will play Philadelphia in home opener on January 22nd at the rock.
2. A possible version of the New York Rangers’ schedule leaked, which shows the Devils playing their cross-river rivals four times: on the road at MSG on Feb. 5 and March 19; home at the Prudential Center on April 21 and 27, which could be both teams’ regular season finales.
3. Todd Cordell of The Hockey Guys has learned the Flyers are one of two Atlantic teams the Devils will play five times this year.
The #NJDevils are on the road in Philadelphia March 15th, April 3rd and April 18th. Will host the #Flyers twice.
4. Why so many schedule leaks? Well, according to Pierre LeBrun, the league has given NHL clubs their schedules and the teams and league are currently hammering out any necessary changes, meaning these dates may be legit but are still in flux.
It appears the Ilya Kovalchuk standoff is slowly drawing to its inevitable conclusion. The Russian winger finally addressed the issue after playing for SKA St. Petersburg and wasn’t shy about who he would rather play for.
“I want to stay in St. Petersburg but I have contractual obligations in the NHL, which will be hard to break,” Kovalchuk told Sport-Express in Russia, according to the sports daily’s U.S. correspondent, Slava Malamud.
Malamud later clarified that Kovalchuk was speaking about remaining with SKA St. Petersburg for the remainder of this season and then returning to the Devils in the fall.
“Right now, I can’t imagine how (my staying in the KHL) can be arranged… But I don’t know anything yet,” Kovalchuk said.
Regardless of whether Kovy wants to stay for the season or for his career, the transfer agreement between the NHL and the KHL won’t allow it. With 13 years left on that 15-year, $100 contract he signed with New Jersey, Ilya had best get used to playing on foreign soil. We’ll have more on this whole saga over the weekend, but it will be very interesting to see how Kovy is treated at home games this season.