Three players from 2011 Draft to watch next season

We’ve heard plenty about all of the top picks by now. But a question that plenty of people are asking is: who will we see in the NHL next season? Which prospects will be able to step into an NHL locker room and compete with the best players in the world as an 18-year-old? It sounds like a daunting task when we put it that way—but we’ve identified three players who we think will make it with the big boys next season: Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche, Adam Larsson of the New Jersey Devils, and Mika Zibanejad of the Ottawa Senators.

To be clear, this is not a list of the only players who will make it over their career—nor is this specifically a list of who will have the best NHL career. In fact, there’s a very good chance that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau will be the best of the 2011 class when all is said and done. But for now, both players could use another year in the minors to increase both size and strength. It’s not a knock on them and in the long-run, it’s usually best for players to full develop in the minors (or juniors in this case) before they try to make the jump against fully-grown professionals. This is a list of the three prospects best equipped to immediately make the jump this October.

It’s a decidedly Swedish list.

Gabriel Landeskog: The big Swedish left-winger was widely regarded as the most NHL-ready prospect in the 2011 draft. Much has been made of his off-the-charts leadership abilities that made him the youngest captain for the Kitchener Rangers in the last 30 years. He was also the first European captain ever for the storied OHL franchise. The skilled forward already proved that he could play with grown men at the age of 16 in the Swedish Elite League. He plays a physical brand of hockey that should make his transition the most seamless of the draft class.

Adam Larsson: The size and speed may be a slight step up for the blue-chip blueliner, but the age of his opponents won’t change when he steps onto NHL ice. At 18-years-old, he’s already played two full seasons in the widely respected Swedish Elite League. At 6’3” and 200 pounds, the talented Swede already has the size to hold his own against NHLers. The key for rookies—and particularly rookie defenseman—is to be able to keep up with the pace of the game. That plays right into Larsson’s strengths as his single greatest attribute is his poise with the puck.

Mika Zibanejad: The Senators’ first round pick might be a dark horse to make the NHL in 2011, but we think he has all the tools to make the jump sooner rather than later. Like Larsson, he also played against men last season in the Swedish Elite League. He finished his 26 game stint with 5 goals and 4 assists with Djurgardens in Stockholm; by the end of the season it was hard to believe that he had started the season with Djurgardens’ junior team. He showed great improvement with his 2-way responsibilities to go with his expected offensive game. Already at 6’2,” Zibanejad will undoubtedly grow into a power forward in the NHL. With his willingness to go to the dirty areas of the ice, his high skill level, and the Senators need for NHL forwards, Zibanejad should get a real shot to make the team and contribute in training camp.

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.

Subban ‘can’t really envision’ Habs without Markov

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The Montreal Canadiens’ defense looks a lot different than it did two years ago.

For the second offseason in a row, the Canadiens have walked away from a seemingly important puck-moving defenseman. Last summer, they traded P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber, and yesterday they announced that they were parting ways with Andrei Markov.

Markov and Subban played a lot of minutes together during their time time in Montreal. The two even became good friends (Subban attended Markov’s wedding earlier this month).

Needless to say, when Subban found out that Markov wasn’t going to be returning to the Canadiens, he was pretty surprised.

“I can’t really envision the Montreal Canadiens without Andrei Markov on the blue line. That’s No. 1. Even before I played for the team, I watched him play for the team and be their best defenseman,” The Preds defenseman told NHL.com’s Arpon Basu. “Even while I was there, I still thought he was our best defenseman, even though a lot of people thought because of what I got paid it was me. You can’t really put a price tag on how he plays because he’s so smart, the way he sees the ice.”

With those two players no longer on the team, it’ll be interesting to see who moves the puck for the Habs. Shea Weber is still playing at a high level, but carrying the puck up the ice isn’t his strongest attribute.

GM Marc Bergevin added Mark Streit, Karl Alzner and David Schlemko this offseason, but none of those guys can do the things Markov is capable of doing when it comes to moving the puck efficiently.

Is there another move on the horizon?

Well, Montreal has a huge hole on the left side of their defense and they have over $8 million in cap space. Maybe there is something brewing.

Related:

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

Habs president pens glowing farewell letter to Markov

Habs sign Streit–is he Markov’s replacement?