Jack Eichel

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‘The media’s pumping it down’ — Patrick rejects notion of weak draft class

NASHVILLE — Nolan Patrick could be the first pick in a draft many have called the weakest in years.

It’s a bit of a weird situation to be in.

But it’s the one Patrick, the top-ranked prospect for this year’s draft, found himself in on Monday as he and other top prospects met with reporters ahead of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

And so it was asked: What’s it like to hear comments about this year’s class not being very good?

“I think the media’s pumping it down a lot more than it is,” Patrick said. “A lot of scouts that I talked to this week [at the NHL scouting combine in Buffalo] said this is an above average draft.”

To be clear, it’s not just the media offering underwhelming projections. North American Central Scouting’s Mark Seidel told the Toronto Star 2017 is an “average draft” and “a step down from previous years.”

Then, there was the head of NHL Central Scouting, Dan Marr.

“The top guys are going to be able to have an impact on their NHL clubs,” Marr said, per USA Today. “But the list does get shallow pretty quick.”

Of course, virtually any draft is going to look weak compared to the last two. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in 2015, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine last year — those are generational talents, ones that made an immediate impact both on their teams and the league.

Patrick acknowledged as much.

“I think the NHL was spoiled with two unbelievable players in the last two years,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to get a Connor McDavid for a while. He was one of the top players in the NHL when he was 19 years old.”

It’s a salient point. McDavid and Matthews set the bar unbelievably high (and, to a lesser extent, so too did 2014 first overall selection Aaron Ekblad). But prior to those three, the No. 1 picks were Nathan MacKinnon, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, all of whom have had varied levels of success.

The point? That a lot of the time, the draft is still a crapshoot. Sure things like McDavid and Matthews are exception rather than the norms. And this year, they shouldn’t be used as measuring sticks.

“I don’t think any of us think we’re that, and none of us should be compared to a guy like [McDavid],” Patrick explained. “We don’t think we’re going to step into the league and put 40 goals up.

“We’re not trying to compare ourselves to those guys, we’re just trying to be our own players.”

Related: Patrick says misdiagnosed sports hernia derailed him last season

Are the top three picks at the draft all in play?

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The New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars own the first three picks at this year’s entry draft.

All three got there with some fortuitous lottery results. All three are also eager to get back into the playoffs, and not really in rebuild mode.

Which makes the following unsurprising:

In an interview with TSN’s Pierre LeBrun, Devils GM Ray Shero acknowledged he’s received calls about the No. 1 overall selection.

“I’ve had some inquiries,” Shero said. “We’re more focused on the player we’re going to pick but, again, we’ll see what happens over the next few weeks.”

• While at the NHL’s scouting combine in Buffalo, Flyers GM Ron Hextall admitted he too has taken calls about the second pick.

“I’ve had some talks. I’ll just leave it at that,” Hextall said, per Philly.com. “We’re going to listen because if people want to talk, I’d be doing a disservice not to listen.”

• It’s been widely reported that Stars GM Jim Nill is shopping the No. 3 selection.

Mostly because Nill came out and said as much.

“I have talked to other teams already about possibly moving that pick, getting an established player back,” he told SiriusXM’s NHL Network Radio last month, per NHL.com. “It gives us lot of options. I think this will heat up more as we go.”

On Thursday, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that Dallas and Vancouver have had discussions about the third pick. That’s interesting, given the Canucks already hold the No. 5.

There’s no surprise about jockeying atop the draft board. As mentioned, the Devils and Flyers and Stars all want back in the postseason, and there’s uncertainty about the depth of this draft and the overall talent level available.

The assumption is that picks one and two are locked in, with a pair of centers — Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier — occupying the spots. After that, it’s something of a crapshoot. Two more centers, Gabe Villardi and Casey Middlestadt, are thought to be in the top five, while Finnish d-man Miro Heiskanen has shot up various boards in recent months.

The problem, especially for New Jersey and Philly and Dallas, is that the players mentioned might not be impact players right away. There’s certainly no Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine or Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the group.

Which could make for some fireworks in Chicago at the end of June.

Sabres sign prospect goalie Johansson to entry-level deal

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The Buffalo Sabres have signed prospect goaltender Jonas Johansson to a three-year entry-level contract, following the 21-year-old puckstopper’s brief stint in the American Hockey League this past season.

The Sabres selected Johansson in the third round, 61st overall, in the 2014 NHL Draft. He spent three seasons with Swedish club Almtuna IS, before coming over to North America and playing seven games for the Rochester Americans on an amateur tryout.

In those seven contests, he allowed 20 goals against, although that’s a small sample size of work in the minors.

While the Sabres got Johansson under contract, they have another prospect netminder, Cal Petersen, who had been weighing his options for next season.

Petersen, selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, has spent the last three years at the collegiate level, playing for Notre Dame. He was one of five Richter Award finalists for the top NCAA goalie this year. While he recently spent time with Team USA at the World Hockey Championships as the No. 3 goalie, he had the option of returning to Notre Dame for his senior year.

“I haven’t decided that yet,” Petersen told USA Hockey of his potential future plans during the tournament. “I’m giving this opportunity as kind of a big measuring stick to see where I match up and see if I can be successful and compete at this level, so this is a huge opportunity for me to help clear up any questions I would have had about what to do for next year.”

According to the Buffalo News, Sabres’ star forward Jack Eichel was able to talk to Petersen while together at the international tournament.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to him,” said Eichel. “It’s his decision. I told him, ‘You’ve got to do what’s best for you at all times, but if you have any questions, if you need anybody to talk to about it, about the process, the situation, you can reach out to me.’”

Firing Bylsma, Murray was a ‘bit of a shocker’ to Sabres star Eichel

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Despite speculation of a rift between Jack Eichel and Dan Bylsma this past season, the Buffalo Sabres star forward has expressed his surprise with the organization’s decision to clean house, firing both the head coach and general manager Tim Murray.

The Sabres fired Bylsma and Murray on the same day, following reports earlier that same week of internal turmoil, most notably between Bylsma and Eichel, the latter being the 20-year-old face of the franchise.

Eichel, in conversation with the Buffalo News, said in a report published Wednesday that it was “a bit of a shocker” to him that both Bylsma and Murray were fired. He then added: “I think the Pegulas and the rest of the organization, if they think that was best for the future, then that needed to happen.”

Eichel had a late start to his sophomore season due to an ankle sprain, but still managed 24 goals (which tied his total from his rookie campaign) and career highs in assists (33) and points (57), despite playing in 20 fewer games from his first year.

Still, the Sabres finished 26th in the overall standings, prompting Eichel to sound off following such a disappointing season, admitting frustration with the team’s culture.

More than a month after the organizational shakeup, it seemed Eichel still couldn’t put his finger on exactly why it went so wrong for the past regime of Bylsma and Murray, or future developments for the Sabres, particularly behind the bench.

“I’m not really sure,” Eichel continued to tell the Buffalo News. “I went through both of my end-of-the-year meetings, and I thought things were all right. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. That’s not my position really. I’m more in terms of playing, as you know. Whoever the GM, whoever the coach are, I’ll just try and show up with a good attitude and be a good player.”

The Sabres have since hired a new general manager, naming Jason Botterill to the position. The search for a new coach still continues. The latest is that San Jose assistant coach Bob Boughner has reportedly interviewed with the Sabres.

Related: ‘I want to be here for a long time’: Eichel says he isn’t interested in leaving Buffalo

After earning Memorial Cup MVP, Coyotes prospect Dylan Strome faces another important offseason

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Dylan Strome began this season in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes. He ended it in junior, earning most valuable player honors in the 2017 Memorial Cup.

Strome and his Erie Otters didn’t capture the championship, as their season ultimately ended with a loss in Sunday’s finale. The Memorial Cup title went to the Windsor Spitfires thanks to a dominant performance from Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco.

Still, Strome posted 11 points in five games at the Memorial Cup, including a record-breaking seven points in a single game. That was on top of a campaign in which he had 109 points in 57 games combined between regular season and playoffs.

“There are a lot of players who get sent back and have trouble overcoming the disappointment,” Erie’s head coach Kris Knoblauch told NHL.com. “But Dylan has never been like that. That’s a major reason we are here.”

Taken third overall by the Coyotes in the 2015 NHL Draft, Strome began this season with the big club, but after appearing in only seven games with one assist, Arizona made the decision to send its prized prospect back to juniors. (Remember, Strome wasn’t eligible at the time to play in the AHL.)

That 2015 draft was loaded with top-end, first-round talent. It started with Connor McDavid, then Jack Eichel as the top two picks. Strome was third, followed by Mitch Marner at fourth.

The Strome vs. Marner debate and comparisons started well before the draft took place. Marner has played 77 games in the NHL for the Maple Leafs, with an impressive 61 points. Could’ve been rookie of the year had it not been for playing in the same freshman class as Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.

Of the top 11 picks in that draft, Strome has played the fewest NHL games so far. But he also plays center, and physical strength, especially at that position, seemed to be a focal point of his development when the Coyotes sent him down earlier in the year. His skating, too, is something Central Scouting had previously identified as needing improvement, even before the draft.

“I think Dylan, physically, it’s going to take him some time,” said Coyotes general manager John Chayka earlier in the season. “That’s where we got to — that he needs to get stronger.”

Chayka later added that on-ice performance is what the Coyotes would be keeping track of while Strome was back in Erie. Strome was certainly productive — again. He had a goal and an assist in the Memorial Cup final, before receiving his MVP nod.

Last year, Strome made the Coyotes roster out of training camp, along with other youngsters Jakob Chychrun, Lawson Crouse, and Christian Dvorak.