Pre-game reading: Who are the top 31 prospects for the 2017 NHL draft?

— Up top, the Washington Capitals are the next contestants on, Who Can Beat the Blue Jackets? 

— Who are the top 31 prospects for the 2017 NHL draft? International Scouting Services has made its latest list, and it’s still topped by Nolan Patrick. “The biggest risers among prospects in the top 10 in ISS’s January draft rankings – compared to December – are Nico Hischier and Casey Mittelstadt. Hischier, a right winger who plays for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, turned heads at the WJC with four goals and seven points in five games for his native Switzerland. As a result, Hischier rose from the No. 8-ranked prospect a month ago all the way to No. 3. Mittelstadt, a centre who’s playing high school hockey in Minnesota and has committed to the University of Minnesota next year, went from No. 12 up to No. 6.” (Yahoo Sports)

— An interesting Q&A with Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, who used to be a public defender. “The plus side is you’re helping people. You feel good about that. The sad side is you get de-sensitized to some of the trouble they’re in, over and over. That’s the reality of it. The most sobering place, though, the reality check in becoming a defense attorney, was every time I had to go visit somebody in jail. That’s the eye-opener. It’s bars. It’s chains. It’s fences. It’s locks. It’s confinement. The one thing is, I know I got to leave every time when I left there. Everybody I was visiting wasn’t leaving. That’s pretty tough.” (Sports Illustrated)

— After a tough 2015-16 split between the Hurricanes and Rangers, Eric Staal is having quite the bounce-back season for the Minnesota Wild. “We’re winning a lot of games and I’m having fun. The transition, no question, has gone well for me. We have a long way to go, half a season, but I’m on a good team that has had a good start and is in a great position. It’s fun to come to work.” The 32-year-old really does look like the “Eric Staal he was in the past,” and he’s a big reason the Wild are 23-9-4. (The News & Observer)

— The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup with a helping hand from a number of players that came up from AHL Wilkes-Barre. The Baby Pens play the same system as the big club, and that really helps smooth the transition, according to defenseman David Warsofsky. “It’s a pretty complicated system. If you don’t know it right away, it can be difficult to play. When you keep the same thing at both levels, it helps out a lot.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

— The San Jose Sharks will honor former members of the California Seals on Saturday. The Seals were part of the NHL’s 1967 expansion. Granted, they weren’t a very successful part of it, but they’re the only NHL team in history that Tom Hanks ever sold hotdogs and sodas for, so they had that going for them. (Mercury News)

Enjoy the games!

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    Report: Predators avoid arbitration … with Marek Mazanec

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    The Nashville Predators avoided salary arbitration in at least one case on Thursday, but it wasn’t the biggest name they were worried about.

    FanRag’s Craig Morgan reports that Marek Mazanec settled for a one-year deal worth $650K at the NHL level and $100K in the AHL.

    That two-way split is quite relevant, as Mazanec probably comes in fourth on the Predators’ goalie depth chart behind Pekka Rinne, Jusse Saros, and Anders Lindback. Actually, with Matt O’Connor in mind, Mazanec may even come in at fifth.

    One interesting wrinkle is that Lindback gets the same $650K at both levels while Saros and Mazenec see different salaries depending upon where they are, according to Cap Friendly’s listings. From a sheer financial standpoint, that might give Lindback some fuel to push as Rinne’s backup, though Saros is already pushing for starts after strong showings in 2016-17.

    It’s not the easiest situation for Mazanec, but credit Predators GM David Poile for giving his team plenty of options in net. Both Mazanec and Lindback saw elevated action when Rinne was hurt in 2013-14, so these situations can change quickly at times.

    Mazanec was the least crucial of the Predators’ three salary arbitration situations, as Viktor Arvidsson‘s hearing is scheduled for Saturday (July 22) while Austin Watson is set for Monday (July 24). Arvidsson emerged as a legitimate first-line winger last season, so that will be a significantly trickier situation for the Predators.

    For more on Arvidsson’s situation, click here.

    Penguins GM confident they can find third-line center with Bonino gone

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    August is nearing, and the Pittsburgh Penguins haven’t made a trade or signing to replace Nick Bonino, their outstanding (but former) third-line center.

    On the bright side, the Penguins have remarkable breathing room considering their status as repeat Stanley Cup champions. Cap Friendly places their 2017-18 room at about $10.38 million.

    That robust space likely explains why GM Jim Rutherford seemed fairly calm about the whole situation, as Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.

    “I do feel confident that, by the start of the season, we’re going to have a third-line center that we’re comfortable with,” Rutherford said. “Whether it’s one of those guys on the list or one of the guys that I could go and get right today.”

    Rutherford (jokingly?) said that he had a list of “hundreds of names” as options, although it’s difficult to top Mackey’s suggestion of Phil Kessel‘s buddy, Tyler Bozak. After all, Bozak is a competent player who carries a $4.2 million cap hit that Pittsburgh could comfortably absorb (and the Toronto Maple Leafs might need to shed). It doesn’t hurt that Bozak’s contract expires after 2017-18, so the Penguins wouldn’t be on the hook if things don’t work out.

    Of course, Matt Duchene is another name worth considering. It almost feels a little strange to ponder that speedy Avalanche forward being a “third-line center,” especially if Pittsburgh would want to get the most out of him.

    MORE: Duchene might begin next season with the Colorado Avalanche

    After that, though … the pickings could be much slimmer than Rutherford indicated to Mackey.

    Shallow pool

    Take a look at this current list of forwards who are unrestricted free agents.

    There are some potential bargains here (P.A. Parenteau, Jiri Hudler, anyone?), but the situation gets significantly shakier if you’re picky enough to look only at centers. The likes of Daniel Winnik and Ryan White are reasonable roster additions, but the drop-off from Bonino could be pretty drastic.

    What about other trade possibilities?

    That’s a shaky group, too, especially if you apply Bozak-like terms as far as guys who only have one year left on their current contracts.

    Honestly, the Penguins’ best bet in looking at that list would probably come down to an in-season move with a team that realizes it’s not a contender or simply understands that a player won’t be back.

    Maybe the Calgary Flames would want to cut bait on Matt Stajan or (less realistically) Mikael Backlund? Would the Ducks move speedy, versatile sometimes-center Andrew Cogliano? There are other remote possibilities, such as the Leafs instead trading Leo Komarov (or especially unlikely moves in Paul Stastny or Tomas Plekanec).

    Even if the above list seems enticing, how many of those teams would really want to move those players now, especially the bigger difference-makers?

    If you’re the Penguins, you’re probably hoping that a Bozak deal could take place. And maybe you’re sweating this situation more than you let on.

    (Note: There’s also the slight possibility that the Penguins might identify a replacement from within, though a contending team like Pittsburgh might not be so comfortable with that approach.)

    Blues have ‘wiggle room’ after locking up Parayko

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    The St. Louis Blues didn’t break the bank to keep Colton Parayko for five more years, and that’s important since they don’t believe the NHL’s salary cap will rise significantly in the next little while.

    Parayko’s cap hit came in at a manageable $5.5 million, as the two sides narrowly avoided an arbitration hearing that was scheduled for today.

    “You like to have as much wiggle room as possible,” GM Doug Armstrong said, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Now we view the cap will stay flat for the foreseeable future. We’re content with the space we have. We’ll move forward and get ready for training camp.”

    The Blues now have a number of key players locked up long term, including Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund, and Jake Allen.

    For Armstrong, the next big decision could involve Paul Stastny, the 31-year-old center who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

    But a decision on Stastny doesn’t need to be made now, or even before the season starts. It’s the trade deadline that could be the real pressure point, akin to the Kevin Shattenkirk situation this past year.

    Per CapFriendly, the Blues have just over $3 million in cap space, with one roster spot left to fill.

    ‘Highly unlikely’ Suns will pursue shared arena with Coyotes

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    The Arizona Coyotes appear to be on their own in pursuit of a new arena in the Phoenix area.

    That’s because Robert Sarver, the owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, says it’s “highly unlikely” he’ll pursue a shared arena with the Coyotes.

    Instead, Sarver is focused on upgrading the Suns’ current home (and Coyotes’ old home) in downtown Phoenix, Talking Stick Resort Arena.

    From the Arizona Republic:

    Sarver said building a new arena would have “maybe made more sense” four or five years ago when the cost estimate was $450 million to $500 million. The costs now, Sarver said, are “significantly higher.” Thus his focus on upgrading Talking Stick, which soon will be the second-oldest arena in the NBA.

    “I think it’s the most economically viable alternative for the city and us,” he said. “I like downtown Phoenix. That’s my first preference. I think the NBA is more of an urban game. That’s our demographic.”

    Talking Stick Resort Arena, formerly called America West Arena when the Coyotes played there, was designed for basketball and isn’t ideal for hockey. In that way, it’s a lot like Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which hasn’t been a great fit for the Islanders.

    The Coyotes recently hired a new president and CEO, Steve Patterson, whose top priority is finding the team a new home in the Phoenix area.