Jason Brough

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 27:  Alex Tuch is selected eighteenth overall by the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 27, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Looking to make the leap: Alex Tuch

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This post is part of Wild Day on PHT…

The Minnesota Wild have made the playoffs four straight seasons, meaning they haven’t had access to the top prospects in the NHL draft for a while now. The last time they made a pick in the top 10 was back in 2012, when they selected defenseman Matt Dumba seventh overall.

Still, there are a few intriguing prospects in the system, and that includes forward Alex Tuch, a 20-year-old right winger who signed his entry-level contract in April after two years with Boston College.

Tuch was drafted 18th overall in 2014. He’s a big kid (6-4, 225), and he thinks he’s got a “good chance” of playing in the NHL this coming season.

“I think there are a couple roster spots that are up for grabs right now,” he told the Pioneer Press in July, “and I’m going to be willing to do what it takes to grab one of those spots. … They have a great core group of guys, and I hope to be a part of that group someday soon.”

The most likely scenario has Tuch headed to AHL Iowa to start 2016-17. When the Wild signed Chris Stewart in free agency, it meant one less NHL spot for Tuch to grab.

But with a strong showing at camp and during exhibition play and, well, you never know.

“He seems like a guy that really wants to make the team and really wants to impress,” new head coach Bruce Boudreau said of Tuch, per CBS Minnesota. “So I’m looking forward to seeing him in actual combat.”

Backes and Brouwer may be gone, but Hitch says Blues youngsters still have room to grow

SAN JOSE, CA - MAY 21:  Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues looks on from the bench in game four of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on May 21, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The St. Louis Blues may have lost David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency, but head coach Ken Hitchcock is confident that what’s left on the roster is more than enough to keep his team competitive.

“We’ve got experienced players who are just hitting their prime now,” Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch in a summertime interview. “We have a lot of guys that started young and we’ve grown them into the group. We are a veteran team that has a chance to get even better because they’re just starting to reach maturity.”

Among the forwards, the Blues still have veterans like Paul Stastny, Alex Steen and Patrik Berglund. They also signed David Perron on July 1 and are still expected to get Vladimir Sobotka back (though nothing is official yet).

But what Hitchcock seems to be counting on is getting even from already-accomplished youngsters like Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. Recall that the former went through some struggles in the playoffs, particularly in the Western Conference Final against San Jose, an experience the coach referred to as “learning hard lessons, like any young player.”

Another key forward next season will be Robby Fabbri, the 20-year-old who finished second in Blues playoff scoring with four goals and 11 assists in 20 games. Can he take his game to an even higher level?

Similarly, on defense, what can 23-year-old Colton Parayko do for an encore after his surprising rookie season? If the Blues trade Kevin Shattenkirk, which remains a possibility, that question becomes even bigger.

“We have experienced players who have a lot of growth still in them and that part is exciting,” Hitchcock said. “Everybody is good in the Central (Division), everybody. But who’s going to get better? Well, I look at us and we’ve got a real chance to get better because we’re not bringing in a bunch of first-year players and seeing if they can play.”

That last part sounded a bit like a shot at the Blackhawks, but Hitch would never do that, would he?

Blackhawks could make strong pitch for Vesey

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 23:  Jimmy Vesey #19 of the Harvard Crimson skates against the Boston College Eagles during the second period of the 2015 Beanpot Tournament consolation game at TD Garden on February 23, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Blackhawks Day on PHT…

Artemi Panarin chose Chicago, and it worked out pretty well for him, wouldn’t you say?

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman will no doubt share Panarin’s story with Jimmy Vesey later this week. The ‘Hawks are reportedly among the favorites to land the 23-year-old winger, and the opportunity for Vesey to come in and make an immediate impact, on a team that’s won three Stanley Cups in the last seven years, is a big reason why.

Recall what Bowman was saying about Panarin heading into last season, not long after the cap-strapped ‘Hawks had traded wingers Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.

“There will be a little adjustment there but he has special ability,” said Bowman. “It’s fun to think of the possibilities there.”

Granted, nobody could’ve possibly expected Panarin to score 30 goals with 47 assists, but that’s exactly what he did on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov. He took the opportunity he was given and made the most of it. And now he’s in line for a big payday.

For Vesey, the opportunity with the ‘Hawks, who once again had to shed forward talent this offseason, could include a shot on a line with Jonathan Toews. At the moment, the top candidate to be skating on the captain’s left side is probably Richard Panik, a good player, but certainly no superstar.

And even if asking Vesey to step into a top-six role is unrealistic — because let’s remember he hasn’t even played a game of pro hockey — there are additional openings in the bottom six, possibly on a third line with Marian Hossa and Marcus Kruger.

Vesey told NHL.com that part of choosing where to sign included “sifting through teams and rosters and prospect pools and stuff like that.” After winning the Hobey Baker in his senior year with Harvard, he clearly believes he’s ready step into an NHL lineup right away, an opportunity he already had with the Predators but chose to turn down.

In making his big decision, Vesey may also want to consider what happened to Justin Schultz, another college player who spurned his draft team to become a free agent. Schultz ended up signing with Edmonton, where there was no shortage of opportunity for the young defenseman. In fact, there may have been too much opportunity. When it proved he still needed time to develop, there wasn’t enough veteran talent around him and he eventually buckled under the weight of expectations, his confidence shot.

According to one report, the three favorites to land Vesey are the Blackhawks, Rangers and Devils. While all three of those teams can promise him an opportunity to be in the NHL next season, possibly even in a top-six role, only the ‘Hawks can offer the chance to join a dynasty, surrounded by a bunch of future Hall of Famers.

That’s a heck of a pitch that Bowman can make to Vesey. We should find out later this week if it’s good enough to get him.

Under Pressure: Marcus Kruger

Chicago Blackhawks' Marcus Kruger (16) works with teammates before an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals in Chicago, Tuesday, Oct.1, 2013. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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This post is part of Blackhawks Day on PHT…

Now that Bryan Bickell has moved on, expect more attention to be paid to Marcus Kruger‘s contract in Chicago. The 26-year-old center is about to start a three-year, $9.25 million extension, and he’s coming off a season in which he had no goals and just four assists in 41 games.

To be fair to Kruger, he wasn’t really signed for his point production. He’s more of a defensive forward. In fact, no Blackhawks forward averages more time than he does on the penalty kill. He also missed 41 games after undergoing wrist surgery in December, and that’s a tough injury to come back from.

Still, for a cap hit of just over $3 million, a bit more offense is expected. In 2013-14, he had 28 points in 81 games, so he’s proven he can do it.

Next season, it’s possible that Kruger could start on the third line with Marian Hossa on his wing. Head coach Joel Quenneville apparently liked that combination in the playoffs against the Blues, even though Kruger finished the postseason with just one assist in seven games.

“Obviously, playing with a guy like that, it can’t get much better than that,” Kruger said, per The Athletic. “He’s an unbelievable player. That doesn’t change too much how I prepare for the season. Obviously (it’s) motivating hearing that I might get a chance to play with him. He’s been so good for so long. He’s such a great player.”

Of course, to whom much is given, much is required. So if Kruger does indeed get a chance to skate with Hossa, he knows he’ll be expected to be more than defensively responsible. He’ll need to put up the odd point, here and there.

Kruger will also have the advantage of suiting up for Sweden in the World Cup, playing with and against the best players in the game, something he called a “perfect way to start the season.”

We’ll see if all of the above helps Kruger get off to a productive start. If not, that contract of his may prove to be a rare blunder by GM Stan Bowman, a la Bickell’s.

Poll: Are the Blackhawks in better or worse shape than last season?

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 23: (L-R) Patrick Kane #88, Andrew Shaw #65 and Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrate Shaw's third period goal against the St. Louis Blues in Game Six of the Western Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on April 23, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Blues 6-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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This post is part of Blackhawks Day on PHT…

The case for ‘better’:

Chicago’s biggest issue last season was solved by the signing of Brian Campbell. Once again, they’ll have four top-four defenseman, with Campbell joining Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. That means less pressure on Trevor van Riemsdyk, who maybe wasn’t ready for a top-four role but should absolutely be fine on the bottom pair. Long story short, the Blackhawks’ defense has gone from a weakness to a strength.

Meanwhile, there’s been way too much made about the losses of forwards Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andew Ladd. After all, there’s still Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Artemi Panarin. And besides, the NHL is a young man’s game, and the ‘Hawks have youngsters Ryan Hartman, Vincent Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, Tanner Kero, and Nick Schmaltz knocking on the door. That group should provide a great boost of energy and enthusiasm, and they’ll do it for cheap.

The case for ‘worse’:

If the NHL is a young man’s game, then the ‘Hawks should be worried, not excited. That defense that apparently got so much better? Campbell is 37 years old, Keith is 33, Seabrook is 31, and Hjalmarsson is 29. The biggest concern is Seabrook, who has five years left at a cap hit of $6.875 million; his possession numbers were awful last season, and that’s not a good sign.

As for the forwards, none of the youngsters mentioned above have proven they can play in the NHL. Schmaltz, arguably their top forward prospect, may be an NHLer one day, but he only just turned pro. Chances are, he’s going to need some AHL time. Make no mistake, losing Shaw is going to hurt badly. He was a huge part of the 2015 Stanley Cup run, a hard-nosed contributor in whichever role he was handed. And let’s not forget about Marian Hossa, who will be 38 when the 2017 playoffs start. His production fell off a cliff last season, no real surprise given his age. And you don’t just replace a guy like Hossa in the top six.

OK, time to vote:

(Click here if the poll doesn’t show up for you.)