Mike Halford

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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

‘It’s not fun’ — Bonino tries to practice, injured foot and all

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NASHVILLE — Nick Bonino arrived in town on crutches, wearing a walking boot.

Today he was taking power play reps at the Penguins’ practice.

Such is life in the Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s not fun,” Bonino said of testing his injured foot during Sunday’s media availability. “It’s day-to-day, and we’ll see what happens tomorrow. I just wanted to get out there and try to move a little bit.”

Bonino dipped in and out of practice, wearing a left skate padded with extra protection. This came after he sat out Game 3 with what’s officially classified as a lower-body ailment — though clearly, it’s a foot problem — suffered while blocking a shot in the first period of Game 2.

There’s no denying Bonino wants back in, and there’s no denying the Penguins would love to have him. Through the first three games of the Stanley Cup Final, they’re 1-for-14 on the power play, with just four total shots. And that lone man advantage goal came on a 5-on-3.

Bonino would certainly be a boost.

He finished fifth on the team in goals (six) with the man advantage this season, and has averaged 1:29 power play TOI this postseason. That’s down slightly from the 1:43 he averaged during the regular season. He’s a deft passer, blessed with good vision. Both his experience and familiarity on the PP would seemingly pay dividends.

In that vein, consider what head coach Mike Sullivan said of his power play looks at practice today.

“We practiced some concepts that we’ve been working on all season,” Sullivan said. “It’s not anything that’s new to them. But obviously we haven’t had the success in this particular series, but we believe that these guys are capable. We’re just trying to reinforce some strategies.”

With all that said, Bonino knows if he’s going to dress, he has to be able to play. Getting on the lineup card and then having to exit early would put his team at a decided disadvantage, and could cause Sullivan some major matchup headaches.

“You’ve got to be honest at this time of the year,” he explained. “If you go in, you’ve got to assume you’re going to play the whole game.”

So Bonino tested it out, as injured players are wont to do at this time of the year.

It just didn’t sound like he loved the results.

From Calder Cup to Stanley Cup Final, Gaudreau’s had a wild ride

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NASHVILLE — Thirty-nine days ago, Frederick Gaudreau was having himself a pretty good postseason.

He opened with three goals and four points in his first three games, firing an impressive 14 shots on goal. He scored once at even strength, one shorthanded, and once on the power play.

A very solid playoffs.

But it was for the Milwaukee Admirals. In the Calder Cup playoffs.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gaudreau’s spent most of his professional life in the AHL, emerging as a good scorer and skill guy. Then this spring, fate intervened. Injuries to Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen opened the door for Gaudreau to join the Preds, and get a realistic shot at minutes.

He made his NHL postseason debut in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, and has since seen both his role and impact grow steadily.

Gaudreau has two goals through the first three Cup Final games, including the game-winner in Saturday night’s 5-1 victory over the Pens. He also received his highest ice-time total of the playoffs, at 13:01.

To put that in perspective, James Neal played 14:33.

Which begs the questions: Who is this guy? And how is this happening?

“He came highly regarded from our minor league club,” Preds head coach Peter Laviolette said on Sunday. “[We were told] he’s a very, very smart two-way player that would not hurt us in any zone. He would be able to contribute inside the game.

“But the next part of that is making the step to the next level, to the National Hockey League. While a lot of these guys have come up from Milwaukee, he’s probably the least experienced of that group. He’s stepped in and done such a terrific job. He’s been able to play different positions on different lines for us, and he’s done it very well.”

Gaudreau, 24, had a brief taste of NHL life earlier this season. He made his big league debut and went on to appear in nine games for the Preds, most of them coming in December. After one final appearance in early January, he was reassigned to Milwaukee and spent the next four months there.

At times, the Stanley Cup playoffs must’ve felt a million miles away.

But as mentioned above, fate broke Gaudreau’s way. Johansen’s season-ending thigh injury left a significant hole down at center, forcing the likes of Colton Sissons and Calle Jarnkrok to shoulder a major load.

Gaudreau got the call based on his overall body of work, though one has to think Nashville brass was intrigued by his career-high offensive numbers — 25 goals and 48 points in just 66 games with the Admirals this season.

Laviolette said the club recognized what Gaudreau’s strengths were, and has encouraged him to play to them. Even if it means doing so against the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

“We just had some quick conversations about him and his game, talked to him just a little bit, told him to play his game and have fun,” Laviolette explained. “Enjoy the experience. Sometimes, if you think too much about a situation or the pressure of a situation, that can work against you.”

So far, so good for Gaudreau. He’s won over a number of folks in Nashville, Neal included.

“I think he’s surprising everybody how good he is,” Neal said. “He’s calm and collected. He’s a young kid, in a huge, crazy atmosphere, a huge time with the Cup Final.

“He’s done an unbelievable job.”

Report: Rangers, Leafs among several clubs to express Kovalchuk interest

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Last week, Devils GM Ray Shero said Ilya Kovalchuk was driving the bus with regards to his potential NHL return.

Now, we’re learning where he might steer toward.

Per the New York Post, “more than a half dozen” teams have expressed interest in acquiring Kovalchuk via trade, with two of the league’s biggest markets — New York and Toronto — on the list.

Other known suitors include St. Louis (where Kovalchuk’s former teammate, Martin Brodeur, is the assistant GM) and San Jose (where Kovalchuk’s former coach, Peter DeBoer, is currently employed).

Toronto, of course, is the home of ex-Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who brought Kovalchuk to New Jersey from Atlanta seven years ago, then signed him to a 15-year, $100 million extension.

Kovalchuk, who just turned 34 in April, hasn’t played in North America since his shock retirement in 2013. He left with 12 years and $77 million still remaining on that aforementioned monster deal, and has spent the last four campaigns with KHL powerhouse SKA Saint Petersburg.

In Russia, Kovalchuk remained an elite player. He’s actually coming off his most productive campaign with SKA, having racked up 32 goals and 78 points in 60 games.

To get him back in an NHL lineup won’t be a simple task. As TSN’s Bob McKenzie laid out here, the only way Kovalchuk could play somewhere other than New Jersey is if the Devils sign him first, then trade him.

But there’s also the real possibility he stays in the KHL, which would allow him the opportunity to represent Russia at the 2018 Olympics.

After rough start, ‘life’s pretty good’ for Rinne

NASHVILLE — After two games of the Stanley Cup Final, you would’ve understood if Pekka Rinne wasn’t totally loving the experience.

His team was trailing 0-2 after he allowed eight goals on just 36 shots. Reporters were asking him what was wrong. When they weren’t doing that, they were asking Peter Laviolette about a potential goalie switch.

So when Rinne buckled down on Saturday night — stopping 27 of 28 shots in Nashville’s 5-1 victory in Game 3 — some asked how hard it was to deal with the uncertainty, the doubt, the noise.

Not very, it turns out.

“Not happy with going down two nothing but, at the same time, I didn’t try to change anything,” Rinne said during his postgame media availability. “I knew that I was playing [in Game 3] all the time.”

Because Laviolette doesn’t comment on his lineup, reporters were able to keep the will-you-start-Juuse-Saros thing going since Game 2.

Daily, one intrepid soul would ask the coach if he’d announce his starter and, daily, the coach would decline.

And that’s how you get the makings of a goalie controversy.

Adding fuel to the fire was Rinne’s ghastly .778 save percentage, and the fact he’s struggled historically against the Pens. The veteran netminder admitted his play wasn’t up to snuff.

“It’s been a battle,” Rinne explained. “I think at those moments, you just mentally try to erase your mind and just focus on the next save, and remind yourself that you’re still in the Final, and life’s pretty good.”

Rinne’s best work on Saturday came in the second period, when the Penguins fired 13 shots on net. This stretch save might’ve been his finest of the evening:

It was the kind of performance Rinne had regularly through the first three rounds of the playoffs. He was Nashville’s MVP and, heading into this final, the odds-on Conn Smythe favorite.

That could be why, in the aftermath of tonight’s game, Laviolette scoffed at the notion he’d ever go away from Rinne.

“There was no decision. No decision. Just you guys,” Laviolette said of the supposed goalie controversy. “[Rinne] was terrific. I said it after Game 2.

“He’s the backbone of our team.”