NHL exec calls Rangers prospect Kreider “legitimate NHL player” — will he be this season?

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Though he’s yet to play an NHL game, Chris Kreider has been a topic of conversation for many New York Rangers fans this year.

And it doesn’t sound like that’s going to change.

Kreider — New York’s first-round selection at the 2009 draft — will lead Boston College into the Frozen Four next week in Tampa. The 20-year-old scored 43 points in 42 games this year, leading the Eagles in scoring and emerging as one of the NCAA’s best talents.

Yet it’s not what Kreider’s doing at the collegiate level that has Rangers fans buzzing…it’s what he could do for the Blueshirts this season.

More, from ESPN (Insider):

After the tournament is decided he’ll be faced with one of the biggest decisions of his life, when the Rangers will no doubt approach him about signing an entry-level deal. It’s entirely possible that, if BC loses on Thursday, Kreider is in the Rangers’ lineup on Saturday in their regular season finale. A chance to burn a year off his entry-level deal could be enticement enough for him to leave college early.

One well-respected NHL executive raved about his speed when talking about Kreider’s game, and has no doubt he’s physically ready.

“That’s a legitimate NHL player,” he said.

Besides burning a year off his entry level deal, there’s an advantage to signing with the Rangers under the current CBA rules. The CBA expires in September, and few think the entry level contracts will look any better for the players under the new deal. It could get worse.

“The rules could all change,” said one NHL source. “It’s like the wild West.”

Kreider is so well thought of that Larry Brooks of the New York Post reported that the Rangers refused to part with him during their Rick Nash trade negotiations with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Bringing Kreider aboard would be a risky, somewhat unprecedented move as few underclassmen have made the leap from college hockey to the NHL in the same season. Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson did it 2007 after his University of Michigan season ended, but he joined a bad Kings team (third-worst in the NHL) and only played five games.

The Rangers, meanwhile, sit atop the Eastern Conference.

The wildcard in all of this is if Kreider — 6-foot-3, 220-pounds — will be able to make the physical and mental adjustment to play professionally. Some will say no given his age and lack of experience, while others will say yes given he’s already played with NHLers for Team USA at the 2011 World Hockey Championships (including Rangers center Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh.)

All that said, Kreider’s primary focus is helping Boston College win a National Championship, not help the Rangers come playoff time.

“You become more of a man over the course of the college career,” he said. “This is my playoff in a sense.”

Report: Vegas among teams in on Pens draftee Byron

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Will Butcher isn’t the only college free agent garnering interest in free agency.

University of Maine senior Blaine Byron, Pittsburgh’s sixth-round pick in ’13, has passed on signing with the club and can now ink with a team of his choosing. Per The Hockey News, the four “lead suitors” for Byron are Vegas, New Jersey, Ottawa and Buffalo.

Byron, 22, is coming off a great year. He racked up 18 goals and 41 points in 36 games, finishing tied for 18th in the country in scoring. It’s unclear where he would’ve fit in the Pittsburgh organization, though, and one has to think the signing of Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese might’ve played a factor in his departure.

In a recent Tribune-Review piece, Byron did make a list of the club’s top-20 prospects, coming in at No. 17.

Yesterday, Butcher — the reigning Hobey Baker winner — announced that he wouldn’t sign with Colorado, the team that drafted him four years ago. Instead, Butcher will parlay a successful senior campaign at Denver University into interest on the open market.

Under Pressure: Barry Trotz

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

When the Capitals hired Barry Trotz three years ago, they said he was “the only coach we coveted,” calling him “an ideal fit to help lead our club.”

And in many ways, Trotz has been an ideal fit. He’s led to the club to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, racking up 156 wins over the course of three seasons. He won the 2016 Jack Adams as coach of the year. Players have performed exceptionally well on his watch: Braden Holtby won his first-ever Vezina, Alex Ovechkin racked up a pair of Rocket Richard trophies and both Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were named All-Stars.

Despite all this, Trotz is now coaching for his job. Essentially.

A string of disheartening playoff failures — each more painful than the last — have put him in an uncomfortable and pressure-packed situation. He’s heading into the the last of his four-year deal with no contract certainty beyond.

Yes, it’s true Caps GM Brian MacLellan didn’t make any changes with Trotz or to his coaching staff following the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh.

But MacLellan didn’t offer an extension, either.

Brian Burke once likened this scenario to being a lame duck. Trotz refused to see it that way, insisting that he wasn’t worried about the spot he was in.

“No,” he told CSN Mid Atlantic in June, when asked if not having a contract changes his approach at all. “It has 0.0 effect on me, actually. Not at all. I think it might have [had] an effect 10, 12 years ago for me. Not now. It has zero effect.

“I’m not worrying about that at all.”

This is pretty much on par with Trotz’s messaging from the moment Washington crashed out of the playoffs. While his players were visibly dejected and downright hurt during locker clean-out day, the 55-year-old was upbeat.

Defiant, almost.

Trotz talked about how the team’s window wasn’t closed, and how it would eventually “break through that barrier.” He suggested “laughing at the past” could “ease us into the future.”

The assembled media took note of this, which contrasted the vibe of his visibly distraught players. So it was asked — why did he seem more upbeat than his players?

From the Washington Post:

“Put it this way — I haven’t slept in two friggin’ days. To say that I don’t feel very distraught, that really sort of angers me, because talk to my family to see if I’m distraught.

“I have to be positive in terms of, ‘do I think we’re going in the right direction?’ Yes, and I’m positive of that. But we haven’t broken through. That’s why I’m probably the way I am. I also said we didn’t get to where we wanted to get to.

“That angers me. When something doesn’t go your way, you can roll up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself. I don’t.”

That Trotz took this approach isn’t surprising. Coaching is a leadership role, and there didn’t seem to be any point to piling onto what was already a fairly miserable day in D.C.

So hey, why not keep that vibe going when it comes to contract uncertainty?

Trotz will likely continue to do so, even in the face of growing pressure. And pressure will continue to grow. Remember, there’s one final and very important dynamic at play — right next to Trotz behind the Washington bench is assistant coach Todd Reirden. The same Todd Reirden who’s thought to be a head-coach-in-waiting, and has been tied to previous openings in Colorado and Florida.

Fun times in Washington. As they always are.

Looking to make the leap: Nathan Walker

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

Should Nathan Walker jump to the NHL this season, it’ll be a significant one.

Washington’s third-round pick at the 2014 draft, Walker would be in line for his big league debut if he makes the team out of training camp — but that’s not the only milestone at hand.

Should the speedy forward get the call, he’ll also become the first-ever Australian to play in the NHL. Heady stuff for a 23-year-old who, just six years ago, was playing for the Sydney Ice Dogs.

Walker’s rise has been a grind. He logged time in the Czech League, the USHL and the ECHL before emerging as a valuable contributor for Washington’s AHL affiliate in Hershey. Last year, he racked up 11 goals and 23 points in 58 games for the Bears — and another six in 12 playoff games — while emerging as a high-energy guy that liked to finish his checks.

More to the point, Walker’s a pest.

Despite standing just 5-foot-8 and weight 186 pounds, the Aussie a real edge to his game. It was certainly on display last preseason when, in a game against Montreal, Walker fought Andrew Shaw after Shaw tattooed Connor Hobbs into the boards. Walker would go on to scrap three more times for Hershey last year, one of the club’s more active pugilists.

That style of play will work to Walker’s advantage, as Washington’s thinned-out forward group has spots up for grabs — especially in the bottom six. Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Daniel Winnik are all gone, which means potential promotions for the likes of Tom Wilson, Brett Connolly and others. Wilson and Winnik were wingers on last year’s fourth line — centered by Jay Beagle — and Walker looks to have the inside track on a replacement spot.

That said, there will be competition. Devante Smith-Pelly was signed in free agency. Riley Barber, who played alongside Walker in Hershey and made his NHL debut last year, is in the mix. Farmhands Chandler Stephenson and Liam O’Brien will battle as well.

But the Caps like Walker, enough to have signed him to a two-year extension this summer. In announcing the deal, GM Brian MacLellan suggested Walker could very well make history this season.

“Walker has a good chance of playing,” MacLellan said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic. “These guys can all come up, and there’s just going to be more opportunity for them to play this year.”

Poll: Will the Caps finally make it to the Stanley Cup Final?

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

If you’re a fan of the Washington Capitals, you’re used to having a lot of fun between October and April. Once mid-April hits, things become a little more frustrating.

There’s no denying that the Capitals have been great in the Alex Ovechkin era. They’re now coming off back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy titles, but they still haven’t found a way to get to passed the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Heading into 2017-18, they’re still expected to be a quality team, but the salary cap has forced them to make a few significant changes over the summer. Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk are all gone. There’s no doubt that those losses will hurt the overall depth they’ve accumulated over the years.

As much as those guys will be missed, general manager Brian MacLellan will be pleased that he was able to lock up key figures like Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie to long-term contracts. With both players still in the fold, the Caps remain one of the deeper teams in the league. Other squads would kill to be able to come at you with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky.

The departures of Alzner, Schmidt and Shattenkirk have left them a little thin on the blue line. Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen are still around, but the only other players on one-way contracts are Brooks Orpik and Taylor Chorney.

If some of their defensemen struggle during the season, they should be able to compensate for that with arguably the best goalie tandem in the league. Both Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer are back, and they should provide the team with some solid performances between the pipes.

It’s pretty clear that the Capitals still aren’t over last spring’s Game 7 loss to the Penguins. Now, it’s all about how they respond this coming season. No one will care about the type of regular season they have (unless it’s bad) until they show they can get over their issues in the playoffs.

Will they overcome this mental hurdle?

Alright, it’s your turn to have your say. Feel free to vote in the poll below and leave your opinion in the comments section.