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Sabres’ Kyle Okposo returning to ice after health scare

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Here’s some heartwarming hockey news for you: apparently Kyle Okposo is playing hockey tonight.

Considering his late-season health scare, it was promising enough that the Buffalo Sabres expect him to be ready by training camp. But in mid-July? This is even more promising.

Apparently he’s one of many NHL-relevant participants in … “Da Beauty League?”

Again, there are a lot of familiar names, as you can see based on this lineup sheet:

Wow. Along with Okposo, there are many other noteworthy participants, including Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan McDonagh, and Zach Parise.

Here’s more insight on the event, via their “About Us” section:

Da Beauty League was established in the Fall of 2015 by local business people in an effort to bring professional hockey to Minnesota on a year round basis. Da Beauty League centers itself on bringing fans fast paced professional hockey in a casual environment. For the players, Da Beauty League serves as a training ground for the players as they prepare for their upcoming professional seasons. Da Beauty League provides fans with 3 fast paced regular season games played out of Braemar Arena on a nightly basis during the summer. Fans will experience a relaxed atmosphere to watch hockey and enjoy typical intermission entertainment while watching the best hockey talent in the world.

Really, though, it’s just great to see that Okposo’s apparently feeling close to 100 percent.

(H/T to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.)

Can prospect Neal Pionk start the season with the Rangers?

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The New York Rangers’ defense is going to look different next season, but training camp will show us just how different it’ll be.

New York bought out Dan Girardi, while Kevin Klein decided to retire from the NHL. Meanwhile, they signed Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency and they traded for Anthony DeAngelo.

One under-the-radar signing that could also crack the roster, is undrafted free agent Neal Pionk, who spent the last two years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

The 21-year-old put up an impressive seven goals and 34 points in 42 games last season, and he believes he can make the jump to the NHL without spending time in the minors.

“Whatever happens after training camp happens, but my goal going into training camp is to make the team,” Pionk said, per NHL.com. “I think I can fit the Rangers’ style. I know coach [Alain] Vigneault likes to play an up-tempo game.”

On the surface, this just looks like a prospect that is saying all the right things, but when you consider the righty/lefty breakdown on New York’s defense, you realize Pionik might just have a chance.

Of the top seven defensemen on the roster, Shattenkirk and DeAngelo are the only righthanded shots. Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith, Brady Skjei, Nick Holden and Marc Staal are all lefties.

If the Rangers want to keep three right-handed blue liners on the roster, Pionk certainly has a chance to stick. It doesn’t mean he’ll play every night, but he could be a guy who sees some game action here and there.

“He has power-play potential,” Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark said. “He has a great mind on him. He can find the cross diagonal pass that makes you go, ‘Oh my god no … wait, how did he see him?’ He’s got that.”

Related:

Optimism replaces pessimism after changes to Rangers defense

Optimism replaces pessimism after changes to Rangers defense

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Last summer, we wrote about the New York Rangers’ defense and how it was the biggest worry for the team.

Well, a heck of a lot has changed since then.

Gone are Kevin Klein (retirement), Dan Girardi, Dylan McIlrath, and Adam Clendening.

In are Kevin Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith, and Anthony DeAngelo. Those three join the remaining foursome of Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Brady Skjei, and Nick Holden.

Shattenkirk was the big addition, considered the best player available in unrestricted free agency. Not only that, GM Jeff Gorton was able to get the 28-year-old for less than market value. The cap hit’s a reasonable $6.65 million, and it’s only a four-year commitment.

For Shattenkirk, a New Rochelle native, it’s always been a dream to play for the Blueshirts. That’s why he left money on the table elsewhere.

“Obviously there were some sacrifices, but in my mind those sacrifices are what you leave on the table to live out a dream like this,” Shattenkirk said, per NHL.com. “As much as it is a dream for me, it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to joining a team that is capable of winning a Stanley Cup and that’s also a lifelong dream for me.”

Next season, one could picture a top four of McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Smith and Skjei. The latter, just 23 years old, took a big step last season, racking up 39 points in 80 games as a rookie. In the playoffs, he had four goals in 12 games.

But Skjei will need to keep progressing, and Smith will need to keep playing with an edge. That’s because Staal, the 30-year-old veteran, is aiming for a top-four role himself.

“Regardless of your role, you want to put your best hockey on the ice and I was able to do that at times this year, but not as consistently as I wanted to,” Staal told TBNewsWatch“That’s what I’ll be looking to do next year and getting back to playing elite hockey all year long.”

All in all, there are still questions that this new-look Rangers defense will have to answer. But there is more optimism now than pessimism, and that’s a big change from a year ago.

Now, about the centers…

Burns edges Karlsson for his first Norris Trophy (video)

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One would maybe say that Brent Burns won his first Norris Trophy by the hair on his chin … but then that would mean by, you know, a lot.

Anyway, Burns edged Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman to be named “defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.”

As expected, his speech and beard were equally fantastic, including Burns’ hope that his kids aren’t “chasing around wildebeests” in Texas.

(?)

Burns topped defensemen with 29 goals and 76 points. Karlsson generated 17 goals and 71 points while Hedman 16 goals and 72 points, rounding out a true three-horse race between high-scoring, fantastic all-around defensemen.

Here are the voting results.

2016-2017 Norris Trophy Voting

Pts. 1st-2nd-3rd-4th-5th
1. Brent Burns, SJS 1437 (96-61-10-0-0)
2. Erik Karlsson, OTT 1292 (63-86-9-4-3)
3. Victor Hedman, TBL 728 (3-13-106-21-14)
4. Duncan Keith, CHI 384 (2-4-19-70-31)
5. Ryan Suter, MIN 175 (2-1-9-25-28)
6. Shea Weber, MTL 100 (1-0-6-11-27)
7. Drew Doughty, LAK 51 (0-0-1-10-16)
8. Mark Giordano, CGY 41 (0-0-1-11-3)
9. Dougie Hamilton, CGY 23 (0-0-0-6-5)
10. Justin Schultz, PIT 22 (0-0-2-2-6)
11. Roman Josi, NSH 19 (0-1-0-2-6)
12. Dustin Byfuglien, WPG 15 (0-0-2-1-2)
13. Jared Spurgeon, MIN  14 (0-0-2-1-1)
14. Kevin Shattenkirk, WSH 9 (0-0-0-1-6)
15. Torey Krug, BOS 7 (0-1-0-0-0)
16. Alex Pietrangelo, STL 7 (0-0-0-1-4)
17. Ryan McDonagh, NYR 5 (0-0-0-1-2)
18. Seth Jones, CBJ 4 (0-0-0-0-4)
Zach Werenski, CBJ 4 (0-0-0-0-4)
20. Jaccob Slavin, CAR 2 (0-0-0-0-2)
21. Cam Fowler, ANA 1 (0-0-0-0-1)
Dmitry Orlov, WSH 1 (0-0-0-0-1)
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJS 1 (0-0-0-0-1)

Click here for the full history of Norris Trophy winners.

NHL Draft profile — Miro Heiskanen

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Like we’ve done in the past, we’re profiling top prospects who may hear their names called in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.

And, for the second year in a row, we’re featuring special guest analysis from Ryan Kennedy, associate senior writer and prospect expert at The Hockey News.

Miro Heiskanen (D)

Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 172 pounds Shoots: Left

Team: HIFK (SM-liiga)

Country: Finland

NHL Central Scouting ranking: No. 4 European skater

Kennedy says: “Much more was expected from Finland at the World Junior Championship, one year after the nation struck gold with Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi leading the way. But at least scouts got to see the coming-out party of Heiskanen while his team fought off relegation.

“The smooth-skating defenseman was Finland’s best on the back end and may end up being the first blueliner taken in the 2017 draft.
Though he’s not blessed with much size, Heiskanen goes to the tough areas and brings a lot of skill to the table.

“Playing against men back home, the Ryan McDonagh-esque teen logged substantial minutes and produced very nice results for HIFK, where he will likely return next season (and once again be eligible for the world juniors).”

For the rest of the 2017 NHL Draft profiles, click here