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A player to watch: Anaheim Ducks forward Devante Smith-Pelly

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When Team Canada hosted their World Junior camp earlier this month in Alberta, it was an opportunity for the hockey world to take a look at some of the NHL’s best prospects. As usual, there were 1st round draft picks that were simply biding their time before they make their inevitable jump to the most skilled league in the world. Guys like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Johansen, and Jonathan Huberdeau aren’t going to surprise anyone—those are the guys who everyone already knows. But every year there are guys who continue to progress and raise some eyebrows, as they show they are capable of taking their game to the next level.

This year, Anaheim Ducks prospect Devante Smith-Pelly showed that he could be that player. Ever since he was drafted in the 2nd round (42nd overall), the knock on Smith-Pelly was his consistency. He’d have games where he looked like a dominant beast on the ice; then he’d have games where he completely disappeared. Over the course of last year’s OHL playoffs, it looks like he has turned the corner and taken the next step. If consistency was the only thing holding him back, then watch out.

“I think it was just me taking every game as it’s ‘the biggest game,’” Smith-Pelly shared with Pro Hockey Talk. “I know in the regular season you can take a couple of nights off. You don’t want to, but it happens. It a long season. I looked at it in the playoffs like there were no nights off and I have to play my best every night. I thought that really helped me.”

There’s an understatement. In 20 postseason games with the talented Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, Smith-Pelly led his team with 15 goals and 21 points. In fact, the 15 goals tied him for the league lead in the OHL playoffs. He continued the strong post-season with three goals, three assists, and a selection to the all-tournament team.

Even though he’s shown impressive scoring touch since he dedicated himself to becoming a more consistent player, he brings much more to the table than just goals and points. For a comparable, fans need to look no further than the other team in Southern California:

“I try to play like a guy like Dustin Brown. A guy who throws huge hits, he can score, he’s a good leader. That’s probably the main guy I try to model my game after… [laughs] although, Dustin’s an LA Kings guy, so I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that,” Smith-Pelly says.

If he can play with the energy and leadership for the Ducks that Dustin Brown brings to the Kings, Smith Pelly will be allowed to say whatever he wants.

Most players constantly have to work at their two-way game before they can be seriously considered for the NHL, but a strong two-way game is one of Smith-Pelly’s strongest attributes. He hits everything that moves, takes good angles on the forecheck, and knows how to finish when he goes to the front of the net. Surprisingly, learning to be a good two-way forward is something new for the Scarborough, Ontario native.

“Yeah, Coach [Dave] Cameron has been helping me ever since I got there to work on my defensive game,” Smith-Pelly explained. “Coming into the OHL, the minor hockey league team I play on, we never really played defense at all, so he’s helped mold me into a two-way guy. When I went back this year I really wanted to work on my two-way game and he helped me out a lot. That’s the kind of thing I need to do to be successful at the next level and I’ve just been trying to show that.”

Although Cameron has immensely helped his game in Mississauga and he impressed observers at Team Canada’s camp in Alberta earlier this month, Smith-Pelly has his sights set squarely on the NHL next season. Scouts noticed an extremely strong, physical, grinding type of right wing. If he continues to develop at the same pace, he projects as a power-forward who will be able to score 20+ goals in the league.

Adding fuel to the fire, Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said earlier this summer that some of the promising prospects, including Smith-Pelly, will have an opportunity to make the team out of training camp this year. Whether he makes the big club this season or next, fans in Anaheim should start getting excited about the prospect they have—it looks like he’s blossoming into a good one.

Gretzky returns to NHL fold as official ambassador of centennial celebration

EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 6:  Former Edmonton Oilers forward Wayne Gretzky greets fans during the closing ceremonies at Rexall Place following the game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The game was the final game the Oilers played at Rexall Place before moving to Rogers Place next season. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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The National Hockey League was founded on November 26, 1917. Almost ninety-nine years later, the commissioner of the league, Gary Bettman, was in Toronto to announce that Wayne Gretzky, arguably its greatest player ever, would be the official ambassador of its centennial celebration.

For Gretzky, whose relationship with the NHL was tested during the Phoenix Coyotes’ bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, it marks a return to representing the league in an official capacity. (In 2013, he was reportedly paid around $8 million in a settlement.)

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Gretzky said in a statement. “I’ve said this a million times that everything I have in my life is because of hockey and because of the National Hockey League. I happen to think it’s the greatest game in the world. It was kind to me my whole life. The game just gets better every year, so for me to be involved in just trying to help promote and sell our sport even more it’s a great thrill for me and an honor to be part of it.”

Watch the following video to see what the NHL has in store for 2017, starting on Jan. 1 with the Centennial Classic at BMO Field between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings:

 

Report: Panarin wants six-year deal from ‘Hawks, at least $6M per season

LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 22:  Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks poses after winning the Calder Trophy named for the top rookie at the 2016 NHL Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Artemi Panarin is looking to cash in on his Calder-winning campaign.

Chicago’s prized Russian sniper and the reigning rookie of the year, Panarin is reportedly seeking a six-year contract extension “worth more than $6 million per season,” per the Chicago Tribune.

As the Tribune points out, that figure could be problematic. Nobody’s arguing that Panarin isn’t worth the money — he’s 24, and coming off a 30-goal, 77-point campaign — but people are wondering how the ‘Hawks can afford him. Eight players on the active roster are pulling in at least $4 million per season, which includes Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, they of the $10.5M cap hits.

That said, it sure sounds like Panarin will get done.

Reports last week said his agent and ‘Hawks GM Stan Bowman were well into extension talks, and Bowman seemed confident a deal would be inked.

“I respect Tom [Lynn, Panarin’s agent], he’s a very knowledgeable guy and I know Artemi put a lot of faith in him,” Bowman said. “Tom and I will work to get something done.”

Panarin’s heading into the last of a two-year, $6.775 million deal with a $3.387 AAV — a deal that gained plenty of notoriety as the season progressed. Since it was so performance-laden, Panarin cashed in a couple of times, including a $1.725 million bonus for finishing among the top-10 scorers in the NHL.

That led to Bowman making some tough financial decisions this offseason, including the deal that sent Bryan Bickell — more specifically, Bryan Bickell’s contract — and Teuvo Teravainen to Carolina in exchange for draft picks.

So, this latest situation isn’t anything new for the ‘Hawks GM. He’s been down the financial squeeze road before, and usually found a way to keep his core players in the mix.

If Panarin is considered a core guy — and at this point, it sure sounds like he is — then finding common ground on an extension shouldn’t be too difficult.

Gudbranson-Hutton pairing will be key for Canucks

Vancouver Canucks' defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers in the off-season, answers questions during a news conference ahead of the NHL hockey team's training camp in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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There’s a long list of things that have to go right for the Vancouver Canucks if their playoff hopes are to be realized.

One of the biggest is for new addition Erik Gudbranson to form a cohesive second pairing with sophomore Ben Hutton. If that happens, and if Alex Edler and Chris Tanev can stay healthy, the Canucks should have a reliable top-four defense, and that’s something they rarely, if ever, had last season.

Gudbranson, a big stay-at-home type, and Hutton, a puck-mover, have been skating together at training camp. The Canucks believe the pairing has great potential, with each defenseman’s strengths complementing the other’s.

“I want to get his feet moving and hit him in stride and get him up the ice with the puck as soon as possible,” Gudbranson said, per The Province. “I think we’re going to be a good partnership. We’re both on the same page. We’re both excited to play with each other and grow as a unit.”

Vancouver’s third pairing remains to be seen. Luca Sbisa with Philip Larsen is the most likely at this point, though Nikita Tryamkin and Andrey Pedan on the left side, and Alex Biega and Troy Stecher on the right, could make things interesting. Jordan Subban is another wild card. Olli Juolevi too, though he’s a long shot and will likely end up back in junior.

The Canucks were decimated by injuries to their best defensemen last season. Edler only played 52 games, Dan Hamhuis 58, and Tanev 69. Other teams with more depth could survive that, but Vancouver floundered.

That’s why health is another big thing that has to go right for the Canucks. Another injury-filled season and it’s hard to picture them staying in the playoff race.

Vancouver opens its preseason schedule tonight in San Jose.

Boedker to make Team Europe debut in World Cup final

DENVER, CO - MARCH 09:  Mikkel Boedker #89 of the Colorado Avalanche controls the puck against the Anaheim Ducks at Pepsi Center on March 9, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche defeated the Ducks 3-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Mikkel Boedker‘s first game for Team Europe will be a big one.

Boedker, a healthy scratch throughout the World Cup, will make his European debut on Tuesday, replacing the injured Marian Gaborik (foot) in the first of the best-of-three final.

Head coach Ralph Kreuger opted for Boedker rather than dressing Luca Sbisa as a seventh defenseman, and lamented losing Gaborik’s presence in the lineup.

“We’re losing some leadership and smarts on the puck that were exemplary,” Krueger said, per the L.A. Times.

What the Europeans will gain, however, is speed. Boedker’s one of the fastest skaters in the league and is coming off a good offensive campaign, tying a career-high with 51 points.

The 26-year-old appeared in two of Europe’s exhibition games, both against Team North America. He received a ton of ice time in the first — 19:46 — but had that cut in half for the rematch, when he had 13 shifts for just 9:22 TOI.

Related: Gaborik (foot) to miss eight weeks