Tonight on Versus: It’s the Sidney Crosby comeback party

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It wasn’t supposed to be a Penguins-Islanders battle on Versus tonight (7 p.m. ET) but with Sidney Crosby making his return to action after missing 10 months with a concussion, things change. With the game’s biggest star making his return to game action, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were already roaring this season, all of a sudden become a lot scarier to play against.

Crosby will cruise the ice with a pair of familiar linemates in Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Nothing beats welcoming him back to action like having his old running crew on the wings for him to roll with. By doing that, coach Dan Bylsma can also keep his line of Steve Sullivan, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal together. While Kunitz and Dupuis might not stand out as big time scorers, Crosby will be able to help lift their game even if he ends up being a bit rusty.

The Penguins’ opponents in this battle, the Islanders, are taking a backseat to all the Crosby headlines and they might be happy about that for a good reason. The Isles have been terrible of late and sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Rick DiPietro is now the man in goal and having to deal with Crosby and the Penguins is about as difficult of an assignment as it gets.

In his career against the Islanders, Crosby has 18 goals and 44 assists in 33 games. Crosby’s success against the Islanders is only matched by what he’s done against the Flyers as he’s scored 62 points against both teams in his career. Just so long as DiPietro doesn’t threaten to fight anyone, things might stay somewhat normal tonight.

Bylsma says that Crosby won’t get thrown to the wolves and play 20 minutes or more tonight believing that he’ll get around 15 minutes or so. Good luck keeping him off the ice though. If Crosby looks like he hasn’t missed a day, never mind 10 months, they’ll be hard pressed to hold him back.

Canucks could really use Patrick or Hischier

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The Vancouver Canucks are hoping for better luck in tomorrow’s draft lottery. If they receive it, they may get a player who can step right into their lineup, and stay there for years to come.

The top two picks in the 2017 draft are expected to be centers Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.

It remains to be seen who will go first overall. Patrick was the consensus pick for a while, but Hischier started to gain ground with an impressive showing for Switzerland at the World Juniors.

“I think the top two players in this draft have the potential to maybe step in and play next year and be productive players at the NHL level,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning. “But I think the next three players, whether you’re looking at a play-making center, or potentially a power-play defenseman, there’s good choices there too.”

Gabe Vilardi and Casey Mittelstadt are two centers the Canucks could select if they fall out of the top two. Cale Makar, Miro Heiskanen, and Timothy Liljegren are options on defense.

But getting Patrick or Hischier would be a huge win for a team that will soon have to replace Henrik Sedin, who turns 37 in September.

Benning says Patrick offers a combination of size (6-3, 198), skill and hockey sense, with “no real weakness in his game.”

As for, Hischier it’s his speed that really stands out.

“He’s built for today’s game,” said Benning. “His speed going through the neutral zone is fun to watch.”

The Canucks have the second-best odds to win the draft lottery. The furthest they can fall is to fifth.

Last year, Vancouver fell two spots from third to fifth, with Winnipeg and Columbus moving up. The Canucks drafted Finnish defenseman Olli Juolevi with their selection.

Draft lottery odds

Colorado Avalanche 18.0%
Vancouver Canucks 12.1%
Vegas Golden Knights* 10.3%
Arizona Coyotes 10.3%
New Jersey Devils 8.5%
Buffalo Sabres 7.6%
Detroit Red Wings 6.7%
Dallas Stars 5.8%
Florida Panthers 5.4%
Los Angeles Kings 4.5%
Carolina Hurricanes 3.2%
Winnipeg Jets 2.7%
Philadelphia Flyers 2.2%
Tampa Bay Lightning 1.8%

Paajarvi out, Barbashev in as Blues look for ‘physical element’

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After losing Game 1 — and with it, home ice advantage — of their series against Nashville, the Blues are making a lineup change for Friday’s Game 2.

Ivan Barbashev, who’s been a healthy scratch the last three games, will draw in, replacing Magnus Paajarvi. Paajarvi sits despite being a fairly productive player recently, notching a goal and three points in his last five games.

This, of course, includes the game-winning, series-clinching OT goal against Minnesota on Saturday:

“We like to give players a chance to respond and a chance to get back in there when they’re coming out of the lineup,” Blues head coach Mike Yeo said, per NHL.com. “We saw what that did for (Jori Lehtera). It’s in no way anything against Magnus. We’re very grateful and appreciative of what he’s done and what he can do for us, but ‘Barby’ has been a good player for us for a long time, too.

“Having him in the lineup, he’ll be energized and bring a physical element… When he gets the puck of the offensive zone, he has a chance to create something. We’ll see how he does tonight.”

The hope is that Barbashev can rediscover some of the form shown during the regular season. The Russian rookie made an impact, scoring five goals and 12 points in 30 games.

Sabres granted permission to speak with Futa

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Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Kings promoted Mike Futa to assistant general manager.

But Futa received that promotion before the Sabres cleaned house last week, and that timing is important to note.

Because it’s now being reported, via a Kings spokesman, that the Sabres have been granted permission to speak with Futa about their GM vacancy.

It’s no surprise that Buffalo has asked to interview Futa. He was a candidate for the Sabres’ GM job in 2013 — a job that eventually went to Tim Murray.

Futa was once thought to be heir apparent to Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles. But when Lombardi was fired, the Kings went with Rob Blake instead.

Some background on Futa, courtesy the Kings:

Futa most recently served as Kings Vice President, Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel. This upcoming season will be Futa’s 11th season with the Kings.

Futa recently concluded his 10th full season with the Kings, and third in his most recent position. He was named VP of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel in May of 2014 after serving as Director of Amateur Scouting, a position he assumed on June 5, 2007, when he originally joined the Kings.

Futa came to the Kings when he was appointed Co-Director of Amateur Scouting along with Mark Yannetti. Together, Futa and Yannetti rebuilt and retooled the entire Kings Amateur Scouting staff.

Related: Darryl Sutter wants to keep coaching

Habs sign Quebec League sniper Waked

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On Friday, Montreal agreed to a three-year, entry-level deal with QMHJL Rouyn-Noranda forward Antoine Waked.

Waked, 20, is coming off a strong season in which he racked up 80 points in 67 games. He finished tied for ninth in the league in goals, with 39, in what was something of a surprise. Previously, the Quebec native had never scored more than 15 goals in a campaign, suggesting Waked could be the prototypical late bloomer.

An undrafted free agent, Waked had been tied to the Habs earlier this season, with reports he’d receive an ELC at the end of his junior campaign.