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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Oilers coach on Draisaitl negotiations, cap crunch and more

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As NHL.com reports, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan doesn’t seem too worried about Leon Draisaitl‘s contract negotiations.

“I’m confident we’re going to see Leon in an [Oilers] uniform,” McLellan said at a charity golf tournament. “We want him to be there, he wants to be there, and it’s just a matter of getting a few things done over the summer.”

Granted, as confident as McLellan is, he also admits that he doesn’t really get involved in that side of the hockey business, preferring to leave that to GM Peter Chiarelli.

On that note, McLellan said he’s aware that locking down Drasaitl, Connor McDavid, and other key members will likely leave the Oilers with a “tight wallet … and that’s not going to change for many years.”

(For an in-depth look at the Oilers’ salary structure, check out this deep dive.)

McLellan faces the challenge of aligning those big-ticket items with bargain signings, something that’s likely only to become a more common situation as time goes along. He also must deal with an obstacle that isn’t new to him considering his Sharks days, but will be unusual for many Oilers: no longer slipping under the radar.

“Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club, mentally and physically, and we haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team,” McLellan said. “We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us, our fans in particular, to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”

If they fail, McLellan will shoulder much of the blame, even if management makes some poor decisions with that “tight wallet.”

Blues re-sign goalie Binnington

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Jordan Binnington, the netminder taken 88th overall by the Blues in 2011, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced on Friday.

Binnington, 24, has played almost exclusively with St. Louis’ AHL affiliate since turning pro four years ago, though he did spend some time in the ECHL.

Last year he worked alongside Ville Husso and Pheonix Copley in the Wolves’ goal, and will likely do so again with Husso moving forward (Copley was traded to Washington as part of the Kevin Shattenkirk deal.)

Binnington’s NHL body of work is brief — one 13-minute relief appearance during the ’15-16 campaign. Right now he’s jockeying with Husso to be the organization’s No. 3 netminder, a potential call-up should either Jake Allen or Carter Hutton get hurt.

Chris Neil wants a one-way deal, and says he’s received offers

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Here’s what we know about veteran tough guy Chris Neil.

He won’t be back in Ottawa, the city where he’s spent his entire 15-year career. But he does want to keep playing. What’s more, he’s not ready to accept a two-way deal or training camp PTO, because offers for a one-way deal have already come in.

“The offers I’ve had so far haven’t been [two way or PTO]. They’ve been a one-way deal,” the 37-year-old forward said, per the Ottawa Sun. “For me, that’s what I’d be looking for.

“It’s up in the air right now. There’s some interest. There’s some teams you’d prefer over others.”

Neil was informed by the Sens last month that he wouldn’t be brought back next season, which marked the end of an era. Ottawa took Neil in the sixth round of the 1998 draft, and he made his NHL debut three years later. He went on to become one of the club’s most recognizable players, in large part to his pugilistic ways — during the 2003-04 campaign, he fought a remarkable 24 times.

That trademark toughness could be something teams are interested in bringing aboard. There were rumblings St. Louis was eyeing him after trading Ryan Reaves to Pittsburgh, with Fox Sports Midwest reporting that Neil had three offers on the table.

If there’s one thing that’s for certain, it’s that Neil believes he can still play. After learning that he wouldn’t be brought back to the Canadian capital, he had some choice words for Sens head coach Guy Boucher and the perceived lack of opportunity Boucher afforded him.

“I have a lot of respect for Randy [Lee, Sens assistant GM] and Pierre [Dorion, GM] … I think, if it was up to them, I’d be back,” Neil explained, per the Citizen. “But they kind of put it in the coach’s hands and that had a lot to do with it. For whatever reason, Guy [Boucher] never really gave me the chance to show I can play.

“Even before I got hurt, I was a healthy scratch for a couple of games and I saw the writing on the wall.”

After tough year in Florida, Smith ready to reunite with ‘players-first’ Gallant

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For Reilly Smith, the anticipation of playing for Las Vegas next season goes beyond playing for the league’s newest team.

It’s also about playing for his old coach, Gerard Gallant.

“I think he kind of embodies the motto that it’s a players-first league and everything kind of revolves around that,” Smith said, per the Golden Knights website. “I know particularly last year in the Florida Panthers organization, there was a lot of change and things going on and I know one of the main messages that he always put forth was that whatever goes on outside, make sure you guys are a tight-knit group inside and play for each other.

“That was one thing that he definitely tried to convey to the team and try to get us to rally behind.”

Smith’s time in Florida was a two-part tale.

After coming over from Boston as part of the Jimmy Hayes swap — Marc Savard’s contract was also shipped to Florida — Smith had a terrific ’15-16 campaign under Gallant, posting career highs in goals (25) while helping the Panthers qualify for the playoffs.

In the postseason, he was a consistent scoring threat, finishing the series with four goals and eight points in six games.

Year two wasn’t nearly as successful.

Gallant was fired early on — controversially so — and Smith’s production dropped off. He ended with just 15 goals and 37 points, disappointing figures that were exacerbated by the big five-year, $25 million extension he signed in the offseason.

Reading between the lines, fair to suggest Smith struggled with the coaching change from Gallant to Tom Rowe. Things came to a head in early March, when Rowe called out Smith following a loss to Dallas.

On the Stars’ first goal, Smith seemed to lose his man in front of the net. Rowe was asked about it, and responded.

“We went over that exact play in team meeting and we haven’t learned our lesson yet,” he said. “That is the problem.”

Rowe wasn’t done there. Later, he was asked about Dallas’ winning goal, which may have been deflected in off a skate. The criticism went back to Smith.

“I don’t know,” said Rowe. “All I know is Reilly Smith was blowing the zone doing exactly what he is not supposed to be doing.”

Smith will certainly be a guy to watch this season. He’s still only 26 years old, looking for a bounce back, and noted that Gallant gave him the opportunity to play a larger role than he had with the Bruins (and, prior to that, the Stars).

One wonders if that’ll happen again, this time in Vegas.