Swedes Gabriel Landeskog and Adam Larsson top mid-season rankings for 2011 NHL Entry Draft

While the NHL Entry Draft lacks the bloated three-day pomp and circumstance of its NFL equivalent, it’s possible that the draft has become a more immediate window into the league’s future than ever before. The reasoning is simple: younger, smaller players can succeed because the game rewards skill and speed far more than it did during the “Dead Puck Era.”

(It’s also fair to say that there might be a considerably larger influx of young talent, period.)

While NHL Central Scouting Director EJ McGuire says that this year’s more wide-open pool indicates that this isn’t a “Crosby draft year,” they did name two Swedes as the top prospects at this point: left wing Gabriel Landeskog and defenseman Adam Larsson. Landeskog plays for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League while Larsson skates with Skelleftea AIK of the Swedish Elite League. If one of those two players manages to become the first pick of the ’11 draft, that player would become the first Swede to earn that honor since the Quebec Nordiques drafted Mats Sundin first overall in 1989.

(Want to peruse the rankings? Here are Central Scouting’s picks for North American skaters, North American goalies, European skaters and European goalies.)

Here is a little bit of insight regarding Landeskog from McGuire.

Topping Central Scouting’s list of North American skaters is power forward Gabriel Landeskog of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers. Landeskog is currently sidelined with a high-ankle sprain suffered with Kitchener prior to joining the Swedish National Junior Team at the World Junior Championship two weeks ago. He re-aggravated the injury in the first game of the WJC after notching a goal and an assist in a 7-1 victory against Norway.

“He came over to North America as an under-age player and that’s unique in that most Swedes don’t,” McGuire said. “He’s a fearless forward who goes to the net and stays there.”

While many will lazily make the equation: “Adam Larsson” + “Swedish” + “defenseman” = Nicklas Lidstrom, it’s probably not fair to compare him to the best Swede of the last 20 years. It’s probably more balanced to compare Larsson to Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, a fellow Swede and the second overall pick of the ’09 draft. One scout obliged and compared him favorably to the tall Tampa Bay blueliner.

Larsson, a Swedish defenseman whose exceptional puck-handling, poise and booming shot will have scouts and general managers considering their options, is the top-rated European prospect on the board.

One European NHL scout from a Western Conference team told NHL.com that Larsson might be ahead of where Victor Hedman was at the midway point of his draft year two years ago. Hedman was chosen by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the No. 2 pick in 2009.

“Hedman was allowed to do more with his home team in Sweden, so they let him be more active with the puck and try different things,” the scout said. “I think Adam Larsson plays a safer game. I certainly think he has the same potential as Hedman. He’s every bit as good with the puck and he might be a touch tougher. Hedman is a little bigger, but they’re both unbelievably good skaters. I think I would take Larsson over Hedman if I could, based on what I’ve seen the last three years.”

So there’s the lowdown on two players who might end up going first and second in the ’11 draft, but again, this is a pretty wide-open pool. Check out interesting behind the scenes footage of scouts discussing different prospects (including Ken Hitchcock’s “no pressure, kid” comparison between Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Joe Sakic) in the video below.

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Antti Niemi had to make a save with his bare hand

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Antti Niemi made 31 saves in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night, and 30 of them were pretty standard.

The one that wasn’t came in the third period when he lost his glove during a scramble around the net and still managed to instinctively make a save on the puck. With his bare hand.

Niemi said after the game, via the Tribune Review, that he thought the referees would stop the play after his glove came off, and when they didn’t “I just kept playing.”

You can watch the play by clicking here.

Probably not the type of thing you want to see happening because that looks like a great way to break a bone (or the entire hand) and get sidelined for extended period of time. Niemi said the officials told him there will no longer be an automatic whistle for goalies losing a glove or a blocker, but that one will remain for when they lose their helmet.

The Penguins signed Niemi to a one-year contract this summer as a replacement for Marc-Andre Fleury after they lost him in the expansion draft to the Vegas Golden Knights. Niemi is looking to rebound from a tough year in Dallas. He will serve as Matt Murray‘s backup for the season.

‘A good start’ — Stamkos stands out in preseason debut

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The Tampa Bay Lightning and National Hockey League unveiled the 2018 All-Star Game logo Friday.

Far more importantly for the Bolts this evening was the return of their all-star center Steven Stamkos, as he made his preseason debut in what was his first game in 10 months.

His 2016-17 season was abruptly ended in the middle of November because of a knee injury and subsequent surgery, making it the second time in four years his regular season had been disrupted by a major injury.

It may still take a while before Stamkos feels truly comfortable coming back from this injury.But his performance on Friday proved to be a very promising start for No. 91, the Bolts and their fans in Tampa Bay.

He didn’t score, but he assisted on two first period goals, including a nice set-up to linemate Nikita Kucherov, and the Lightning beat the Nashville Predators by a score of 3-1. Stamkos also received a healthy dose of ice time, playing more than 19 minutes, including 5:32 on the power play.

His pass to Kucherov resulted in a power play goal.

“It was exciting to get out there, I was pretty anxious about it… It was a good start, something to build on,” said Stamkos afterward, per the Lightning. “It was nice to just go through a game day, I haven’t done it in a long time… I was glad with how the first one went.”

Golden Knights assign 2017 first-round picks Glass, Suzuki to junior

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The Vegas Golden Knights continue to make roster moves during their inaugural training camp.

On Friday, the expansion club assigned four players to junior. That includes 2017 first-round picks Cody Glass of the Portland Winterhawks and Nick Suzuki of the Owen Sound Attack.

The Golden Knights made franchise history by taking Glass with the sixth overall pick and then selected Suzuki at 13th overall. Both players appeared in two preseason games for Vegas, each recording two points in the exhibition opener versus the Vancouver Canucks.

“Nobody is going to rush (the rookies), that’s for sure,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant told the Las Vegas Sun following the club’s 9-4 win over Vancouver on Sunday.

“We are in a position where we want to make sure they are ready to play. They are going to be good players when they’re healthy and strong enough to play in the league.”

Vegas has all three 2017 first-round picks — Glass, Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom — signed to three-year entry-level contracts.

Mitchell signed PTO with Blue Jackets — shortly after getting cut by Blackhawks

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When the Chicago Blackhawks announced their roster moves yesterday, John Mitchell was among the cuts.

His professional tryout with the Blackhawks had come to an end, as it did for veterans Mark Stuart and Drew Miller.

It can be an uphill battle to make an NHL roster for veterans on professional tryouts. But for Mitchell, he quickly received another opportunity to attend a camp and try to land a spot, signing a PTO with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Mitchell, 32, has appeared in 548 NHL regular season games with 70 goals and 177 points.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets are still without forward and restricted free agent Josh Anderson, as the two sides are stuck in a contract impasse right now. It was reported on Thursday that his representatives have been in contact with Hockey Canada about the 2018 Olympics.