5 European prospects ready for the NHL

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Each offseason there are veterans who fade away, only to be replaced by up-and-coming prospects the following October. Call it the NHL’s version of the Circle of Life—only with ice and without Elton John. Neate Sager broke down the five most likely prospects from the CHL that are most likely ready to make the jump to the NHL. The prospects he lists include Brett Connolly (Lightning), Nino Niederreiter (Islanders), Erik Gudbranson (Panthers), Ryan Johansen (Blue Jackets), and Gabriel Landeskog (Avalanche). In all, there are four players from the 2010 Draft and another from the recent 2011 Draft that was held in Minneapolis.

But there are more prospects chomping at the bit to make the NHL than just those who play in the Ontario, Western, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues. Here we’ll list the five players who are most ready to make the jump to full-time NHL hockey next season.

5. Tomas Tatar, Detroit Red Wings (Slovakia)
The 19-year-old Slovakian would already be an NHL regular if it weren’t for the organization that has been developing him over the last few years. It’s hard to believe the talented left winger has already spent two seasons in the AHL with the Red Wings affiliate in Grand Rapids. Last year, he impressed management enough to for a 9-game call-up to fill-in while the Wings dealt with injury problems. The talented winger has put in a lot of work to become more responsible on the defensive side of the puck—it should pay off with a full season with the NHL club this season.

4. David Rundblad, Ottawa Senators (Sweden)
Rundblad is talented enough to make the jump to the NHL and the Ottawa Senators have a spot for him. Their blueline isn’t exactly the deepest in the league and with low expectations for the season, the team can afford to deal with the unavoidable growing pains of a rookie defenseman. At this point in his development, he’ll be able to score points from the backend, but he’s going to give up his fair share of chances against as well. The bottom line is that he’s a productive player who’s ready to show what he can do in the best league in the world. He had 50 points in 55 games in the Swedish Elite League last season against grown men. Not bad for a 20-year-old. Not bad at all.

3. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix Coyotes (Sweden)
Last season was Ekman-Larsson’s first year in North America—and honestly the Coyotes seemed like they didn’t know what to do with him. The former 6th overall pick played in 48 games in the NHL and could have hung in there for the rest of the season if the Coyotes were desperate. But if Phoenix wanted to develop him properly, he should have spent the majority of the season with San Antonio. Instead, he played half the season with Phoenix, spent 15 games with San Antonio in the AHL, and spent the rest of the time in Jobing.com Arena’s press box. He had flashes of brilliance and he had flashes of “rookie defensemanitis.” With another year under his belt, time to put on added muscle, and a summer to learn from his 2010-11 season, he should be ready to stick with the big club for the entire 82 game season. He has all the makings of a very good defenseman—but just like almost every other blueliner, it’ll just take some time.

2. Adam Larsson, New Jersey Devils (Sweden)
Yet another Swede, yet another defenseman. Larsson’s the newest of the blueliner wave from the Scandinavian country and is this year’s title holder of “the next Lidstrom.” Each year a great defensive prospect gets the unfair label and each year it’s passed onto someone else. Larsson has all the makings of a player who will be able to step into the New Jersey Devils lineup this season—but it’s probably a bit premature to start calling him the next Lidstrom when Nicklas has more Norris Trophies than Larsson has career games played.

Back home in Sweden, Larsson has played on the same Skelleftea team as Rundblad for the last two years. Obviously, he hasn’t had the same breakout offensive season that Rundblad had last year, but scouts say that his defensive play is already better than his highly-touted teammate.  The Devils look like they’ll have a spot for him on their blueline and he’s already told people that he wants to play in the NHL.

1. Mikael Granlund, Minnesota Wild (Finland)
He might not be the best rookie next season, but he’ll certainly be the most exciting. He was almost a point-per-game player with HIFK Helsinki in highly competitive SM-liiga. What he lacks in stature (he’s 5’10”), he makes up for with unbelievable talent and on-ice awareness. His biggest obstacle will be trying to play center against the much bigger players of North America. But even if the Wild have to move him to wing, he’s the type of player who will be able to help the Wild immediately on the scoreboard. Considering they were 26th in the league in scoring, they could use all the help they can get.

Honorary Mention: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues (Russia)
Tarasenko didn’t officially make the list because he’s told Blues management that he’s staying in Russia for the 2011-12 season. Anyone who saw Tarasenko play in the World Junior Championships for Team Russia should be fully aware of just how good this winger can be. Even though he’s only 19-years-old, he already has three full seasons under his belt in the KHL. In 122 career games, he’s managed 29 goals and 24 assists for Novosibirsk Siber. Perhaps more impressively, he’s managed to be a plus player in each of his three seasons with his club. The 16th overall pick in the 2010 Draft is already a two-way player showed incredible toughness and leadership in the WJC when he returned from a rib injury in the 2nd period of the Gold Medal game to score the game-tying goal and set up the game-winning goal for Team Russia. He’s ready—and the Blues could use the additional fire power. If he changes his mind, he immediately jumps to #1 on this list.

The Buzzer: Red Wings win; Laviolette lost a bet

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Three Stars

1. Mark Stone

The fantastic two-way winger performed at a high level for Ottawa, generating two goals (including the impressive overtime game-winner) and an assist while logging a busy 20:53 time on ice.

On a night where stone generated a +2 rating, the 26-year-old fired four shots on goal, delivered two hits, and blocked two shots. Stone was probably the biggest reason the Senators won a battle of not-as-dour-as-expected teams.

(See his booming OTGWG in the highlights section.)

2. Nathan MacKinnon

Gabriel Landeskog‘s two goals (and five goals in two games) grabs your attention, but MacKinnon actually had the better overall game.

MacKinnon scored one goal, already his eighth of 2017-18, and also generated two assists. They were primary helpers on both of Landeskog’s goals.

It was an all-around effort for the speedster, as MacKinnon finished +2, generated five SOG, and also delivered a hit and a blocked shot. About the only thing you’d ask for is more success on draws.

Philipp Grubauer was crucial to Colorado’s success, too, stopping 42 out of 43 shots.

(For more on MacKinnon’s rise to stardom, click here.)

3. Jeff Skinner

You could point out plenty of other three-point games from Saturday; perhaps you’d highlight Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jakub Voracek, or Patrick Kane instead?

Regardless, Skinner’s starting to heat up for Buffalo, with all six of his points coming during the Sabres’ last four games. Skinner’s hat-trick goal itself was an empty-netter, but his Saturday was still sterling; he scored on all three of his SOG and sported a +4 as Buffalo added to the Kings’ miseries. Jack Eichel was fantastic in his own right, collecting three assists.

This sort of result really has to be heartening for the up-and-down Sabres.

Highlights

When in doubt, go with overtime game-winners. There were a few to choose from on a busy Saturday around the NHL, but let’s go with Stone’s authoritative shot:

And Gustav Nyquist taking advantage of a nice play by Dylan Larkin to earn Detroit’s first win of the season:

In what might have been the real highlight of the night, Peter Laviolette lost a bet, and well, this happened:

Factoids

Not bad, Marc-Andre Fleury.

This is quite the zany group of former Senators:

What was that line? Living well is the best revenge?

Scores

Flyers 5, Devils 2
Avalanche 3, Hurricanes 1
Sabres 5, Kings 1
Jets 5, Coyotes 3
Blues 4, Maple Leafs 1
Senators 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Panthers 3 (OT)
Blackhawks 4, Blue Jackets 1
Wild 5, Lightning 4 (OT)
Canucks 2, Bruins 1 (OT)
Golden Knights 3, Ducks 1
Predators 3, Oilers 0
Sharks 4, Islanders 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks saw ‘vintage’ Crawford in tonight’s win

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“Vintage Crow.” That’s how Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville described Corey Crawford‘s first win of 2018-19, as he stopped 37 out of 38 shots as Chicago beat Columbus 4-1 on Saturday.

This marks Crawford’s second game back from concussion issues that put his season – if not career – on the line, and he’s been thrown right in the deep end. The veteran goalie has faced at least 30 shots in each of his two appearances, so Chicago hasn’t exactly been able to make it an easy return.

“Yeah, we gotta play better in front of him, no doubt,” Patrick Kane said, according to the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus. “It’s one of those things where we played pretty well the first five games, then all of a sudden he comes back and maybe you’re just expecting him to bail you out — which he has the past two games.”

Perhaps the clearest moment of Crawford bailing his team out came on this save, as Artemi Panarin made things happen very quickly in setting up this scoring chance for Pierre Luc-Dubois:

Following the 4-1 win, Crawford said that he felt like he was reading plays well, and the numbers back that up. The Blue Jackets fired 11 shots on goal on their four power-play opportunities, but Crawford shut the door on all of them.

With this victory, the Blackhawks continued their generally strong start to the season, improving their record to 4-1-2, giving them 10 standings points from seven games.

Before Crawford came back, Chicago was largely winning despite its goaltending, as Cam Ward looked shaky at best through five games. You could state that perhaps Crawford returned at the perfect time, but either way, this is a promising start for the goalie and his team.

It doesn’t guarantee that Crawford won’t suffer health-related setbacks as the season progresses, but so far, so good.

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.

Concussion worries loom as Predators put Rinne on IR

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Pekka Rinne‘s Friday-night start ended in a painful way: not only did the Flames score on his basically empty net, but he suffered an injury thanks to an unlucky collision with Predators teammate Kevin Fiala.

Rinne was removed from Nashville’s eventual 5-3 win against Calgary on the behest of concussion spotters, and now the reigning Vezina-winner has been placed on IR.

At minimum, Rinne will miss three Predators games: tonight’s contest against Connor McDavid and the Oilers, along with a Tuesday home game against the Sharks and a Thursday road date versus the Devils. He’d first be eligible to suit up again on Oct. 27, when the Predators visit the Oilers in Edmonton.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Rinne will actually be ready to return to play.

As usual with NHL teams, it’s unclear how serious Rinne’s issue is, and there’s no guarantee that Rinne suffered a concussion. It’s difficult not to worry about that being the case, as that’s been a growing concern around the league, as we’ve seen with the likes of Corey Crawford and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Rinne’s injury does bring about an interesting situation, as the Predators could choose to roll out promising backup Juuse Saros in more of a No. 1 starter-workhorse role.

Earlier this week, Bob McKenzie discussed the Predators wanting to sign Rinne long-term.

Considering how well Rinne played at times last season, and all the accolades he’s accrued and will likely pile up with this franchise, one can understand the drive to keep him around.

Still, Rinne’s 35 and probably won’t want to take too much of a cut from his current, expiring $7 million cap hit; meanwhile, Saros is just 23 and will carry just a $1.5M cap hit through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could be the guy, Rinne would move on, and the Predators would set themselves up to be in a decent situation to avoid losing a key skater.

That still-unresolved issue makes even a truncated Saros audition quite fascinating, then.

It’s never good news to lose your starter, particularly a long-time workhorse and reigning Vezina-winner like Rinne. Even so, Saros has shown that he’s quite capable when given opportunities, and it could be valuable to see what they really have here. If Rinne misses more than a week, then the Predators could really feed Saros some reps.

One would assume that the Predators would lean on Saros for most, if not all, of this stretch. If not, we might see called-up goalie Miroslav Svoboda play a bit, too. This would be a big step up for Svoboda, who has been playing for the ECHL’s wonderfully named Atlanta Gladiators, and was a seventh-round pick (208th overall) by Edmonton in 2015.

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.

Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

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.