Jason Brough

Nolan Patrick headlines Central Scouting’s list of ‘players to watch’

Last year, it was headlined by Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, Patrik Laine, and Matthew Tkachuk.

This year, the list of Central Scouting’s “players to watch” includes 29 prospects with an “A” rating (i.e. first-round draft candidates), led by likely first overall pick Nolan Patrick.

Patrick, 18, is a center for the Brandon Wheat Kings. He is the son of former NHL forward Steve Patrick and the nephew of former NHL defenseman James Patrick.

“Patrick is as complete an NHL package as you are going to find,” said Dan Marr, the director of Central Scouting, per NHL.com. “From his pedigree, his skills and assets, to his performance impact to date, he has everything any NHL team is looking for in a top prospect.”

Click here for the complete list of players. Among the 29 “A” prospects are two U.S. college players, defenseman Luke Martin of the Michigan Wolverines and forward Ryan Poehling of the St. Cloud State Huskies. Three more are in the USHL and one, Casey Mittelstadt, goes to Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota.

Penguins bidding for Cup repeat, with largely the same roster

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12: The Pittsburgh Penguins pose for their photo with the Stanley Cup after their teams 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California. The Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the San Jose Sharks 3-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) Matt Cullen is well aware of the Stanley Cup hangover. The longtime NHL forward helped the Carolina Hurricanes raise the trophy in joy in the spring of 2006 and watched from afar after signing with the New York Rangers while his former teammates missed the postseason completely the following season.

The trappings of success – and the considerable emotional and physical toll it takes to get to the top – make sustaining it all the more difficult.

Yet the 39-year-old Cullen is back for another run with the Pittsburgh Penguins anyway, returning for a 19th season in part because he still loves the game and in part because he doesn’t see the edge the team carried on its way to the franchise’s fourth Cup has dulled in the slightest. The proof came in the form of a three-on-three drill during a training camp practice that Cullen likened to a playoff atmosphere, even with the postseason still more than six months away.

“It would be easy to come in and have a bit of a lackadaisical camp and feel good about what you did last year,” Cullen said. “But I think guys have done a good job of turning the page.”

Pittsburgh’s bold-faced names included. Captain Sidney Crosby, mired in such a deep funk at the beginning of 2015-16 it seemed as if his prime had come and gone, backed up his Conn Smythe-winning performance as the playoff MVP by brilliantly leading Team Canada to victory in the World Cup of Hockey.

“I don’t have to look too far to think about how tough it was a year ago starting out the season,” Crosby said after picking up 10 points during the tournament. “I think I appreciate this a lot.”

And the shot to do it – well, at least the Cup part – again in 2017. Pittsburgh did little to tinker with the roster that toppled San Jose in six games in the Cup final, instead doubling down on the mix of talent, speed, youth and grit that gelled so fiercely when Mike Sullivan was promoted to replace Mike Johnston as head coach in the middle of December.

The only notable departures during the offseason were oft-injured forward Beau Bennett and veteran defenseman Ben Lovejoy. Almost all of the free-agent deals they struck were of the two-way variety for players who will be asked to fill when the regulars get banged up. Regardless of who is out there, the task will be the same as it was since the day Sullivan took over: play fast, play aggressive and never stop working.

“I think we have a courageous group,” Sullivan said. “For me the best kind of toughness is the type of toughness that doesn’t allow your opponents to deter you from your game and what I’ve admired about our group was the focus of determination to play our game and not somebody else’s.”

Some things to look for as Pittsburgh tries to become the first team in nearly 20 years to repeat.

GOALTENDING QUANDRY: At some point the Penguins are going to have to decide who their No. 1 goaltender is after rookie Matt Murray played so solidly during the postseason after Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a concussion on the eve of the playoffs. Sullivan as committed to splitting the playing time fairly evenly, though Fleury will get the majority of the reps early as Murray recovers from a broken hand.

Both players insist they’re fine with whatever role they’re assigned and if they weren’t, it’s not like general manager Jim Rutherford particularly cares.

“I’m happy we have two good goalies regardless of whether they have injuries or not,” Rutherford said.

REUNION TOUR: The “HBK” line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel was Pittsburgh’s most dynamic during the playoffs, combining for 56 points. Kessel led the way (12 goals, 10 assists) to exorcise some of the demons from his tumultuous time in Toronto. In the smooth skating Hagelin and the savvy Bonino, Kessel found ideal running mates. While replicating that level of production will be difficult over the course of an 82-game season, it’s a pretty sweet starting point.

YOUNG D: One of the reasons the Penguins let Lovejoy walk is because of a surplus of talent along the blue line, including 22-year-old Derrick Pouliot. The former first-round pick is still trying to put it all together after spending the last two years bouncing between the NHL and the minors. Sullivan has impressed upon Pouliot the importance of making the simple play instead of the hard one, a differentiation that Pouliot has often struggled with. The Penguins have paired him with Trevor Daley at times in the preseason in hopes Daley’s intelligent approach will rub off.

 

Rangers hoping for bounce-backs from veterans, growth from youngsters

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Head coach Alain Vigneault of the New York Rangers leaves the ice following a 5-0 defeat against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 21, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) After two deep playoff runs, the New York Rangers’ 2016 postseason fizzled out quickly.

Eventual champion Pittsburgh dispatched them in five games in the first round, the last two by a combined score of 11-3.

“Now, obviously, there is going to be some changes,” coach Alain Vigneault said a few days later. “There are still some very good pieces. We have to decide in which direction we’re going to take.”

The direction he and general manager Jeff Gorton wound up deciding to take was mostly to give it another go with those good pieces. The changes over the offseason came mostly around the edges of the roster.

The big move was a trade of centers, sending Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad, who is quite a bit younger – and cheaper.

Veterans Dan Girardi, Rick Nash and Marc Staal are back after disappointing seasons, and the greatest change in 2016-17 could simply come from any or all of them recapturing their previous form.

Henrik Lundqvist will turn 35 during the season. The Rangers will give their returning core at least one more chance at a title in front of the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner before the window closes.

“The hunger for the game and to compete is, I think, the same,” Lundqvist said during the World Cup of Hockey as he thought back to the start of his Rangers career.

Along with Zibanejad, New York’s most notable additions were also younger players. Some members of the Rangers’ youth movement to watch:

Jimmy Vesey: The Hobey Baker winner as college hockey’s top player, Vesey chose to pursue free agency after his senior season at Harvard instead of signing with Nashville, which drafted him 66th overall in 2012.

Vesey picked the Rangers over seven other finalists in August.

“It seemed that they really needed to have me in their lineup,” he said at the time.

The 23-year-old forward had 24 goals and 22 assists in 33 games for Harvard last season.

ZIBANEJAD: Zibanejad is also 23 and already has two 20-goal seasons in the NHL. He set career highs with 21 goals and 30 assists in 81 games for the Senators last season.

Brassard, who just turned 29, had a career-high 27 goals last season.

“I think the potential is there for more upside,” Gorton said of Zibanejad. “He is just scratching the surface at age 23. There are not a lot of guys who have done what he has done as far as scored 20 before that age.”

PAVEL AND PIRRI: Pavel Buchnevich, a 21-year-old Russian left wing who was a 2013 third-round draft pick, is looking to prove he’s ready to make an NHL roster. Brandon Pirri, a 25-year-old center, had a career-high 29 points last season but has already been traded twice in his career. The Rangers signed him to a $1.1 million, one-year deal from Anaheim.

J.T. Miller: The Rangers also kept one of their own, signing restricted free agent forward J.T. Miller to a $5.5 million, two-year deal. Another 23-year-old, Miller had 22 goals and 21 assists, both career highs, last season.

“I don’t want to be satisfied on one pretty good year,” he said.

Related: As training camp opens, the Rangers’ defense goes under the microscope

Ehrhoff, with the Bruins on a PTO, impressed Julien during the World Cup

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Steven Stamkos #91 of Team Canada is checked into the boards by Christian Ehrhoff #10 of Team Europe during the second period during Game Two of the World Cup of Hockey final series at the Air Canada Centre on September 29, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Christian Ehrhoff is hoping to pull a Dennis Seidenberg and turn his World Cup performance for Team Europe into a guaranteed NHL contract.

In an odd twist, Ehrhoff will try to do it with the Boston Bruins, the same team that made Seidenberg a free agent when they bought him out in June. Seidenberg then turned his World Cup performance into a contract with the New York Islanders.

Ehrhoff, meanwhile, is with Boston on a professional tryout. During the World Cup, he impressed Bruins head coach Claude Julien, who was on Team Canada’s bench as an assistant coach.

“He’s a good-sized defenseman, skates well and moves the puck well. What I liked about him, and I told them that, was that his compete level was pretty good,” said Julien, per CSN New England. “If he comes here and competes the same way then he’s somebody that could make things interesting for us. I really felt that he was a good addition to our group trying to make the team on a PTO, and we’ll see where we go from there.”

Ehrhoff, 34, had a frustrating 2015-16 campaign. He started with the Kings, but it wasn’t a “style fit” there. He was traded to the Blackhawks in late February, but only played eight games for them. He was a healthy scratch for the playoffs.

In Boston, he joins a defense that many felt would be upgraded this offseason. But that never happened, making room for him to audition.

Related: The Bruins need Colin Miller to make an impact

Still no arena announcement, but Coyotes president is ‘more confident and excited’ than ever

New York Rangers v Phoenix Coyotes
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The Arizona Coyotes don’t have a place to play beyond this season, and you’d think that would cause some concern.

Publicly, however, the club has maintained an optimistic attitude that a new arena will, indeed, get built in the Phoenix area.

“I’ve never been more confident and excited about the process than I am today,” team president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said Sunday, per Arizona Sports. “Admittedly, these things take more time than any of us expected and humbly, this is the first time I’ve ever been involved in such an extensive development project so I didn’t appreciate that, but people should be comforted by the knowledge that we anticipate communication in the very near future.”

The Coyotes announced in June that they’d picked a site to build the rink; however, they did not name the site. LeBlanc also said at the time that there was a backup plan in case the site did not pan out.

The club has not handled expectations very well during this process, but if it can get something done, all that will be forgotten by the fans.

The Coyotes’ lease in Glendale expires on June 30. It’s possible they could extend the lease while a new arena is built, but you know the drill by now — we’ll have to wait and see how it all shakes out.

Related: The Coyotes ‘have every intention of leaving Glendale as soon as practicable’