The race for number one… In the 2011 NHL draft

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While attention to the playoff position jockeying is rightfully gathering a lot of attention through most cities in the NHL, there’s a special race of its own developing for the also-rans.

Fans in Ottawa, Denver, Edmonton, and Long Island haven’t had too much to get excited about this year but perhaps the prospect of being able to draft one of the NHL Central Scouting bureau’s top prospects is a reason to have hope for the future. Sure there’s no one guy like John Tavares or Steve Stamkos that stands out above all nor a Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin kind of debate shaping up for 2011, but there’s a host of potential stars that these playoff non-hopefuls can look forward to.

Among the names worth remembering right now there’s top ranked skater from the OHL Gabriel Landeskog, Swedish defenseman Adam Larsson, QMJHL forward Sean Couturier, WHL forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and QMJHL forward Jonathan Huberdeau. When it comes time to draft in St. Paul this summer, those names could be arranged in any order at the top of the draft and with the race for the top pick being as curious to see as the race for the playoffs is the speculation is rampant as to who people believe is the best.

As it stands as of this writing, the race for the best odds in the NHL draft lottery looks this way:

  1. Ottawa – 53 points
  2. Edmonton – 54 points
  3. Colorado – 60 points
  4. NY Islanders – 60 points
  5. Florida – 60 points

With things being as tight there, there’s a new storyline developing in the race for the top pick and it surrounds the Senators and Avalanche. As you recall, the two teams swung a deal at the deadline trading for each other’s starting goalie. Brian Elliott headed to Colorado and continued to be his mediocre self from this season whereas Craig Anderson has been lights out and fantastic in Ottawa. Depending on how you view things as a Senators fan, it’s either great to see the team rally like this or terrible because now they’re not tanking for the top pick.

The Denver Post’s Adrian Dater ruminates about things today and says that the work Anderson is doing in Ottawa helping them win more games might actually help his old team land the top pick in the draft.

Anyway, one of the reasons for paying attention to the rest of the season, for Avs fans, is where they’ll finish in the overall standings. Right now, they have more points than only three teams – Islanders, Oilers and Senators. All three teams are actually playing some of their best hockey of the season right now, and the gap between the Avs and the lowest-place team (Ottawa) was only seven points.

While it’s still likely the Avs will finish ahead of both Edmonton and Ottawa, the Oilers do play the Avs twice more this season, so that six-point gap could be more easily narrowed. That leaves Ottawa maybe only standing in the way of that No. 1 pick, and Anderson’s red-hot goaltending since the trade (though he lost his last start) could make the difference in dropping Colorado to No. 30.

Obviously Anderson isn’t a secret agent working against the Senators and for the Avalanche (or Oilers) to help them get closer to the top pick. If there was a definitive talent at the top of the draft in 2011 perhaps the tinfoil hat brigade could have a leg to stand on, but as it is who would be taken by which teams is anyone’s guess.

If you’d like a really premature scouting report on the 2011 draft, you’d have to think that Edmonton with their wealth of young forward talent in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, and Linus Omark they’d be looking at defense meaning Sweden’s Adam Larsson would ideally be at the top of their shopping list.

Ottawa has a dearth of young  forward talent in their farm system and haven’t had a great forward drafted since Jason Spezza. Any one of Couturier, Landeskog, and Nugent-Hopkins are possibilities for them.

For Colorado though, they’re a wild card. They could stand to have a little more forward talent but you’d have to bet they’d love to get their hands on Larsson and have him grow up with Erik Johnson along their blue line for the foreseeable future. Consider the Islanders also as a team that would love to get a hold of Larsson. The Panthers would like to get anyone talented at all, period.

Into the fire: Halak, recalled yesterday, starts for Isles in Pittsburgh

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A little scene setting for you.

New York heads into tonight’s massive game in Pittsburgh sitting two points back of Boston for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference. The Isles have two games in hand on the B’s — who are idle tonight — so a win could move them into a playoff spot.

As such, the Isles will start a goalie that hasn’t played in the NHL in 85 days.

Against the league’s highest-scoring offense.

The goalie in question is Jaroslav Halak, who’s spent the last three months playing for the Isles’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. Recalled yesterday, Halak will now face big league competition for the first time since Dec. 29, when he allowed four goals on 24 shots in a loss to Minnesota.

(Afterward, then-head coach Jack Capuano ripped Halak, saying he gave up “some soft goals to start” and “wasn’t sharp at all.”)

But Halak’s been really good in Bridgeport.

He’s posted a 17-7-1 record with a 2.15 GAA and .925 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts. And given how spotty Berube’s play has been as Greiss’ backup, the Isles really had no other choice than to recall Halak.

The club is in the midst of a compacted part of the schedule. Greiss was excellent in Wednesday’s win over the Rangers — stopping 34 of 36 shots in a 3-2 victory — but he was also busy.

The Isles are in Pittsburgh tonight, then host the Bruins on Saturday — another massive game — then host the Preds on Monday. It’s a compact part of the schedule, and Berube’s struggles have rendered him virtually unplayable, given how meaningful the games are (and, to borrow a timeless cliche, how vital points are at this time of the year.)

So it’s Halak tonight, and possibly more down the stretch.

For Tuukka Rask and the Bruins, a ‘bad goal’ at the worst possible time

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The growing ranks of Tuukka Rask detractors gained some serious ammunition during last night’s loss to Tampa Bay.

The deciding goal in the 6-3 defeat was a “bad one,” according to Rask and most anyone else who was watching.

It may have been a hard shot by Jonathan Drouin, unleashed at the top of the circle, but it still should’ve been stopped.

After the game, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy told reporters that Rask “needed to be better tonight.”

In fact, Rask hasn’t been very good the past few months. Since Jan. 1, his save percentage is just .888. But with nobody trustworthy behind him, he’s had to just play through his struggles.

It’s impossible to say if Rask’s numbers would be better if the Bruins had a more capable backup. He’d be more rested, though. And when he was struggling, the coach would at least have another option to consider. With an .897 save percentage on the season, Anton Khudobin simply hasn’t been reliable enough to garner that consideration.

Don’t expect Rask to get the next game off. Saturday in Brooklyn, the Bruins — losers of four straight in regulation, and suddenly on the verge of falling out of the playoff picture — face the Islanders in arguably the biggest game of both teams’ seasons.

Bolts recall Koekkoek, putting Garrison’s status into doubt

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The Tampa Bay Lightning, after earning a big win last night in Boston, may not have defenseman Jason Garrison tonight in Detroit.

The Bolts recalled d-man Slater Koekkoek from AHL Syracuse this morning — a move that would seem to put Garrison’s status into doubt against the Red Wings.

Garrison was forced to leave the Bruins game in the second period with a lower-body injury.

Koekkoek has played 29 games for the Lightning this season, recording no goals and four assists.

Melnyk blasts ‘whiner’ Crosby, who won’t face hearing for Methot slash

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Sidney Crosby won’t face a disciplinary hearing for his slash on Ottawa d-man Marc Methot, an NHL spokesman confirmed — news that won’t be welcomed by Sens owner Eugene Melnyk.

The incident occurred during Ottawa’s 2-1 win on Thursday night, and forced Methot from the game with a bloodied, lacerated finger. The club later announced that Methot would be “out for weeks” with the injury.

Crosby’s slash came two nights after he speared Sabres forward Ryan O’Reilly below the belt. It should be noted that neither the O’Reilly spear or Methot slash resulted in penalty calls, and neither was subjected to supplementary discipline.

One individual that’s guaranteed to be upset with today’s news is Melynk. He appeared on TSN 1200 radio this morning and seemed to suggest the league was looking into the Crosby-Methot incident.

He also had a few choice words for No. 87: