Cam Tucker

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Canucks need Virtanen to realize ‘what he’s capable of at his size and speed’

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Jake Virtanen’s bottom-line numbers in the AHL last season certainly stand out. Just not necessarily in a good way.

The Canucks’ 2014 first-round pick, sixth overall, had only nine goals and 19 points in 65 games with the Utica Comets, after he was sent down from Vancouver.

It’s underwhelming production for a player taken as high as he was in the first round and considering William Nylander, Nikolaj Ehlers and Nick Ritchie — all taken after Virtanen in the top 10 of that draft class — have each: a) played more NHL games than the 65 Virtanen has appeared in so far; b) scored more goals; and c) recorded more points.

Virtanen’s shot metrics, however, paint something of a different story about his year on the farm. Per Garret Hohl, co-founder of HockeyData, the Canucks prospect had a 60.1 per cent Corsi rating over a 15-game sample size.

From The Province:

Sixty is a really good number. That means 3 out of every 5 shot attempts at even strength were going towards the opposition’s net while Virtanen was on the ice for the Utica Comets in 2016-17.

In a season where he didn’t find the net often, that still shows he was making a positive offensive contribution. 

It fits with how things went for most of 2015-16, his professional debut. When he was with the Canucks (he missed a month mid-season with the Canadian World Juniors squad), he was the team’s best possession forward for a lot of the season.

The Canucks last season added prospect forwards Jonathan Dahlen and Nikolay Goldobin, while Brock Boeser made his NHL debut late in the year. This summer, they added Sam Gagner, Alexander Burmistrov and re-signed Anton Rodin. They still have three restricted free agents — Bo Horvat, Brendan Gaunce and Reid Boucher — to sign, as well.

The Canucks could use the size, speed and shooting ability Virtanen brings, but the recent additions mean there is internal competition up front to make the roster next season.

“But it’s getting him to understanding the details and what he’s capable of doing at his size and speed. It takes time. Some guys make the adjustment right away. Some guys take longer. We want to be patient because it’s hard to find power forwards,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told The Province.

Virtanen is a pending restricted free agent at the end of next season, when his entry-level deal comes to an end.

Islanders prospect Barzal admits to being a ‘little star-struck’ last season

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Mathew Barzal had a brief glimpse of life in the NHL last season, before he was ultimately sent back to junior for the remainder of the campaign.

The 16th overall pick in 2015 played in two games for the Islanders and was then returned to Seattle, eventually becoming the most valuable player in the Western Hockey League playoffs — another promising development for the talented prospect forward.

The Islanders, who have 13 forwards under contract for next season, have stockpiled high-end talent up front, including Barzal. He made his debut last season, as did Josh Ho-Sang, and there may be opportunities for the younger players to crack the roster for 2017-18.

“Last year, I was maybe a little star-struck sometimes playing against [Nicklas] Backstrom and [Alex] Ovechkin and those guys,” Barzal recently told NHL.com. “This year, I just want to hopefully come in and not kind of feel that, just feel like I belong and that I can really play with those guys.”

Just over two years into his time with the Islanders, Barzal was recently mentioned in trade rumors involving Colorado’s Matt Duchene.

From Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet:

There’s been criticism of the way Colorado’s handled this. I do think everyone — including Duchene — would benefit from a fresh start, but the Avalanche need this deal. The Ryan O’Reilly trade didn’t work, and you can’t move two of those talents without getting some kind of win. They are looking for young players with term, and I think the guys they’ve targeted include Mathew Barzal and Ilya Sorokin from the Islanders; Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy from the Bruins; Mattias Ekholm from the Predators. (Before someone from Barstool comes at me, I don’t think the McAvoy conversation was a long one.)

Such a deal — if it were to ever happen in the future — would give New York two of the top three players selected from the 2009 NHL Draft, and highly talented No. 1 and 2 centers in John Tavares and Duchene.

Tavares has one year left on his deal, with an annual average value of $5.5 million, and the Islanders need to get him secured into a contract extension. Duchene has two years left on his deal, which has an AAV of $6 million, before he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Meanwhile, Barzal still has all three years left on his entry-level contract, according to CapFriendly, and shows plenty of promise based on his production in junior.

After a ‘rough year’ for Duclair, Coyotes pursue short-term deal

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It’s been an up-and-down two seasons for Anthony Duclair in Arizona.

In 2015-16, he scored 20 goals. He had 44 points. He hit those marks while at the age of 20, a few months removed from Arizona acquiring him as a key and youthful component in the Keith Yandle trade two years ago.

But that impressive production dipped last season to just five goals and 15 points in 58 games with Arizona, and Duclair was eventually sent to the minors for more than a month to re-discover his scoring capabilities.

There were trade rumors. He was a healthy scratch from the Coyotes lineup at certain times.

Duclair is now a restricted free agent, following the completion of his entry-level contract that paid him $832,500 last season, per CapFriendly.

The Coyotes, according to AZCentral Sports, are seeking a short-term deal of only one or two years for the now 21-year-old forward.

“That’s just the reality of the situation,” said Coyotes general manager John Chayka. “I like ‘Duke’ as a player a lot, as a person a lot, but he had a rough year. I think it’s more just about getting him back on the horse, getting him going. For both the team and the player, short-term is the best.”

In addition to trying to get Duclair signed to a new deal, the Coyotes and fellow restricted free agent Jordan Martinook have a player-elected arbitration hearing scheduled for July 26.

It will be interesting to see what impact a new coach, Rick Tocchet, has on Duclair’s play in the upcoming season.

He expressed the importance of creativity with his players, which may help a player like Duclair regain his form from only two seasons ago.

Capitals bring back gritty forward Liam O’Brien with one-year, two-way deal

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The Washington Capitals have now signed all their remaining restricted free agents, inking Liam O’Brien to a one-year, two-way contract worth $650,000 at the NHL level.

O’Brien, 22, played in one game last season for the Capitals, going without a point. He has 14 career NHL games under his belt with Washington dating back to the 2014-15 season, when he made the club out of training camp despite never being drafted.

Known more for his toughness, O’Brien scored 10 goals and 30 points in 64 games with Hershey last season, his most productive campaign in the AHL. He also had 117 penalty minutes.

The Capitals have undergone significant changes throughout their roster this offseason since getting bounced again in the second round by the Penguins.

They currently have $70.9 million committed to 17 players, which means they’ll likely look to their younger prospects on more affordable contracts to supplement the remainder of their roster.

“We’re going to be getting younger, our prospects are developing and they’re going to take a bigger role. It’s just going to be a different feel to it,” said general manager Brian MacLellan in May.

In 2014, O’Brien got his chance in part because of numerous injuries up front. He did, however, take the opportunity afforded to him in camp. In the words of coach Barry Trotz, he “demanded to be noticed.”

Three years later, there should be spots up for grabs when camp begins in September. It will be up to O’Brien to once again grab the attention of the coaching staff.

Stars won’t rush Heiskanen’s development, says Nill

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Miro Heiskanen hasn’t even turned 18 years old yet, and already he’s under contract.

The Dallas Stars signed the third overall pick to an entry-level contract yesterday, taking another official step with the talented defenseman, who joins a pool of skilled blue liners that also includes Julius Honka and John Klingberg.

It’s a selection and move that bodes well for the future of the Stars’ blue line, especially with Klingberg signed for another five years. Dallas, however, is in the win-now part of its evolution and the many different roster moves they’ve made since missing the playoffs in 2016-17 signifies that.

Heiskanen’s impact on this team may not be felt in the immediate short-term, and there isn’t any sense in hurrying his development.

From the Dallas Morning News:

He’ll get a chance to earn a spot on the NHL roster, but his odds of making it this season are probably slim. With Dallas already carrying nine defensemen, the best thing for Heiskanen’s development would probably be returning to HIFK in the Finnish Elite League, where he played 37 games last season and tallied five goals and five assists as a 17-year-old.

“He’s a very good player,” general manager Jim Nill said. “He’s a very level-headed kid, he’s already played against men, really it’s just a maturing thing. In the end, his play will dictate where he ends up, but we’re not going to rush him.”

After finishing 24th in the overall standings, the Stars had a 5.8 per cent chance of winning the draft lottery. They moved up enough to secure the third overall pick, leading them to Heiskanen, who celebrates his 18th birthday on July 18.