Five things to watch out for during the NHL Draft tonight

Tonight’s NHL Draft from Xcel Energy Center will provide us with storylines for years to come. As it is, the lead up to the draft has already provided its fair share of drama with the trades the Flyers made on Thursday and with everyone getting into the action on Friday night with the first round of the draft (rounds 2-7 take place on Saturday) that can only mean there’s going to be a healthy dose of shenanigans and moves worth the intrigue.

We’ve got a list of five things we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for during Friday night’s proceedings in St. Paul.

1. How the top five shakes out

This year’s draft is fascinating because there’s not that be-all, end-all #1 guy to be taken first overall. Mock drafts and analysts all have their ideas on who Edmonton should take first with the choices leaning strongly on forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or defenseman Adam Larsson. Either player would be an instant boost for an Oilers team that’s trending hard toward youth and already has a great trio in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Magnus Paajarvi.

Nugent-Hopkins would add yet another potentially explosive offensive weapon to that young arsenal while Larsson would give them the young defenseman on which to help them continue to build around. Things don’t get any easier to project after Edmonton. Colorado could take Larsson if Edmonton doesn’t or they could be leaning toward Gabriel Landeskog. Florida at #3 could have either of those two or pick from Sean Couturier or Jonathan Huberdeau. New Jersey at four and the Islanders at five will have their choice from who is left or they could go off the map and pick someone else they like better or deal out. It’s always something with the draft.

2. Ryan Smyth being traded and other moves

There’s no doubt that the L.A. Kings will trade Ryan Smyth at some point this weekend to one of Edmonton, Calgary, or Winnipeg. Smyth wants to head back close to Alberta to be closer to his family and the Kings are going to do their part to accommodate him. Calgary is already jumping into discussion but given Smyth’s history with the Oilers, they’ll want to bring him back too. Smyth’s history with Edmonton is strong and his veteran presence would do their host of youth a favor in learning from him.

Calgary would like to tweak out all the fans in Edmonton while adding a net presence guy to help out Jarome Iginla. The issue there for the Flames is how Smyth makes a ton of money against the cap this year. Of course, that’s never stopped them from making an addition in the past so there’s that.

There’s also the chance we’ll see other trades done or completed. Perhaps Robyn Regehr heads to Buffalo finally or other moves come up out of the blue. The draft is where we saw Chris Pronger traded from Anaheim to Philadelphia and going back further than that, deals like Michael Peca to Buffalo. We saw plenty of action yesterday, but there’s always the chance we’ll see more.

3. Winnipeg’s coming out party

When Winnipeg picks at #7 overall, the Xcel Energy Center is going to go bonkers. With Winnipeg being relatively close to St. Paul, the new franchise is going to have a lot of fans in attendance to root on who GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and True North decide to pick to be their first draft choice.

With the virtual confirmation from CBC’s Elliotte Friedman, the team will indeed be called the Jets. When the guys from True North make that declaration along with their pick it will make the Xcel Energy Center go wild. Get used to hearing, “Go Jets Go” all night and season long.

4. Closure of the Phil Kessel trade

While the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup this year, they’ll be wrapping up the last of their rewards from the Phil Kessel trade when they pick in the Maple Leafs spot at ninth overall. Last year, the Bruins netted Tyler Seguin second overall thanks to the controversial deal that saw the Leafs give up two first round picks and a second round choice for Kessel. This year the Bruins could be looking to add a defenseman in the draft and there are a few mock drafts out there projecting Kitchener’s Ryan Murphy to be the guy.

As for the Leafs, they’re not shut out of the first round this time around as they’ve acquired two first round picks this time around and will come up late in the round at 25 and 30. Leafs GM Brian Burke has been dangling those picks as trade bait and while doubting Burke can be dangerous, it’s not shaping up well that he’ll get a deal done there.

5. Pure joy and excitement

Having been to the NHL Draft before, the one thing about it that never changes is the pure joy and excitement from the players and their families. I recall in 2009 seeing Colorado’s Matt Duchene walking around Montreal’s Bell Centre by himself after the first round was over. He was waiting on his parents to get done talking with other families there and he was minding his own business with the brand of smile you couldn’t knock off his face with a bat. After all, he was chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft by the team he grew up loving to watch play, how do you beat that? You don’t.

Keep in mind here that everyone picked tonight is about 18 years-old and not everyone jumps right into the NHL. While there’s a few guys throughout the draft that will be able to make the leap right away, most guys taken are going to play in junior or college hockey again next year and perhaps for the next few years. A lot of guys will make it, but others won’t do as well. The one thing they will have, however, is this night. They’ll get to slip on the team jersey and draft hat, pose with team executives and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and be rock stars for the night. That brand of pure joy is all part of the fun of the draft so sit back and enjoy it for all that it’s worth.

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

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Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
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Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful week.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.