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.

NHL’s top two teams meet as Lightning, Maple Leafs face off

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The NHL’s best team is getting even stronger on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning will welcome back starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Vezina Trophy finalist from 2017-18 hasn’t played in more than a month, while the Lightning still managed to go on a 12-3-0 run during his absence including the seven-game winning streak the team is currently riding into Thursday night. It’s a testament to how dominant the rest of the team around him is that they kept piling up wins at such a ridiculous pace.

His return comes at a perfect time for the Lightning and helps set up a titanic regular season matchup of Stanley Cup contenders when the Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As far as mid-December regular season games go, it doesn’t really get much more exciting than this.

[Related: Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s stretch of solid play]

The Lightning and Maple Leafs enter Thursday as the top two teams in the NHL, sitting first and second in total points, first and second in goal differential, first and second in goals scored, and are both among the top-10 in terms of fewest goals against. The two teams also boast six of the top-30 individual scorers in the league (including three of the top-seven) and that list doesn’t include Auston Matthews, one of the game’s elite offensive talents, who has 16 goals and 27 total points in only 17 games.

Tampa Bay’s offense has been especially dominant this season and is currently averaging an almost unheard of four goals per game. The last time an NHL team averaged more than four goals per game over an entire season was the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins with an average of 4.41. Only five other teams since then have been above 3.80 over a full season.

Only three teams over the past 25 years have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 130 through the first 32 games of a season: The 1995-96 Penguins, 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, and the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators.

The Maple Leafs are not far behind them with 113 goals (a 3.61 goals per game average) in their 31 games, and they have done that while only getting 20 combined man-games from Matthews and William Nylander, two of their top-three leading scorers from a year ago.

That all brings us to the next big thing regarding Thursday’s game as both star-laden rosters are starting to get back to full-strength.

While the Lightning are getting Vasilevskiy back on Thursday, the Maple Leafs recently welcomed Matthews back to their lineup after he was sidelined with an injury and also have Nylander starting to make an impact after he missed the first quarter of the season due to an unresolved contract issue. The only key player for either team that isn’t playing on Thursday night is Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

It’s also a pretty massive game for what it means to the Atlantic Division playoff race because a Lightning win would extend what is already a pretty significant lead.

If the Lightning end up taking this game in regulation it would extend their lead in the Division (and also the lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference) to eight points. Even if it’s only the middle of December that would still be a significant lead and a gap that would be extremely difficult for any team to make up — even one as good as Toronto. A Maple Leafs win in regulation cuts the gap to four. That is a massive swing one way or another.

If nothing else, this game is a great preview for a potential early playoff matchup.

Barring some sort of second half collapse from either team they have established themselves as the top teams in the Atlantic Division and look like strong bets to finish at least in the top-three, with Tampa Bay positioning itself well for the top spot. Assuming all of that happens, and assuming both teams take care of business in their opening round matchups where they will almost certainly be favored, they would be meeting in the second round. There is a lot of hockey to be played before it gets to that point, and a lot of things still have to happen, but on paper it’s an exciting matchup to think about and we will get to see our first preview of what it might look like this season on Thursday night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s solid stretch of play

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Andrei Vasilevskiy will be back in goal Thursday night as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs. It will be the netminder’s first appearance since a fractured foot knocked him out of the lineup a month ago. 

That loss could have spelled danger, even for a strong team like the Lightning; and general manager Julien BriseBois could have gone out and plucked a goalie off waivers or made a trade for the short-term. Instead, they rode Louis Domingue (and Eddie Pasquale for one start) to a 12-3-0 record and enter this matchup between the NHL’s top two teams on a seven-game winning streak.

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It was Nov. 2017 when the Lightning acquired Domingue from the Arizona Coyotes as an insurance policy. When Vasilevskiy’s backup at the time, Peter Budaj, got hurt, Domingue stepped into the No. 2 role and ended up starting 11 games last season.

Having already been an NHL starter in Arizona and having worked previously with Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean, it seemed like a good fit. Domingue’s play in 2017-18 earned him a two-year, $2.3M extension and he’s proven to be worth every penny so far. Not bad for a guy whose career was in limbo just before he landed in Tampa.

In Domingue’s 14 starts since Vasilevskiy’s injury he’s posted a .919 even strength save percentage while facing the second-most shots at 5-on-5 (374) over that span. It hasn’t always been pretty — he’s allowed three or more goals eight times in that stretch — but when you’re on the NHL’s top-scoring team, they’ll bail you out on a bad night more often than not.

“When your starter goes down and you know this isn’t a couple of days thing, it’s a month thing, now you’re looking saying ‘Holy cow, I’m going to be starting a bunch of games in a row here,'” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “So mentally there’s a hurdle there to get over. He was probably sitting there saying I’ve got to make every single save. When you start putting a little too much pressure on yourself… he just needed to relax a little bit and understand we’ll get some goals, just make the saves when you can and if you can help bail us out sometimes, do it. That’s what he’s done of late and been really confident in net.”

Also, during most of his run, Domingue wore a neat mask during Hockey Fights Cancer month which featured drawings done by kids being treated at Children’s Cancer Center of Tampa Bay.

As Vasilevskiy returns, the Lightning now know they have a proven No. 2 behind him who can instill confidence in teammates when he gets the call. And with Vasilevskiy having started 64 games last season, Domingue’s presence will allow Cooper to rest his starter when needed — an issue that came up last season.

“It’s a team sport and the reason you’ve got guys in line waiting to play is in case injuries happen,” said Cooper. “You don’t want anybody get to hurt, ever, but you can lose your starting goaltender for a month or so. That’s 15 or 16 games. Somebody’s got to fill that void and step in and Louis has done an unreal job.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sorry, Seattle: NHL GMs learned from Vegas expansion draft

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By STEPHEN WHYNO (AP Hockey Writer)

Hindsight is 43/35 for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That’s how many goals and assists William Karlsson put up for the Vegas Golden Knights after the Blue Jackets let him go in the most recent NHL expansion draft. They also sent first- and second-round draft picks to Vegas to unload David Clarkson‘s contract and hold on to forward Josh Anderson and goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

”I think we’ve looked at probably 100 times already that, ‘Could we have done something different the last time around?”’ Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”Probably not. You’re going to make some mistakes and you might let the wrong guy go. You do your studying, you do your evaluation of your players and you do your projections and it’s not an exact science.”

Maybe the second time’s the charm.

NHL teams face another expansion draft in 2021, when Seattle enters the league. And the Seattle GM, whoever that turns out to be, probably won’t receive the same kind of windfall George McPhee picked up in 2017 to help the Golden Knights make a run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final because some important lessons have been learned.

”We might get to a situation where we’re like, ‘Boy I don’t want to lose any of these guys,’ so a team may have to do it again,” Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said. ”But we’ve lived it now and I think we’ll have a better understanding of it. And if you’re going to (make a trade), you’re going to make sure it’s for the right person. You’re going to be like: ‘I’m giving up a lot of assets here. Is this the right thing to do?”’

McPhee held all the leverage that summer, and he stockpiled talent as a result. Because only seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender (or seven skaters at any position and a goaltender) could be protected, a lot of deep teams were stuck with core players unprotected and willing to do almost anything to keep them.

Just some of the ”fear factor” moves: The Wild traded prospect Alex Tuch and let center Erik Haula go to Vegas to keep Matt Dumba. The Panthers traded Reilly Smith and lost Jonathan Marchessault. The Islanders traded a first-round pick to get rid of Mikhail Grabovski’s contract. The Ducks traded Shea Theodore to clear Clayton Stoner’s salary and keep Sami Vatanen and Josh Manson. The Penguins even sent a future second-round pick to ensure Vegas would take goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Chuck Fletcher, who was Minnesota’s GM, figured out the hard way that expansion means every team loses something. Now with Philadelphia, his approach will likely be to lose as little as possible to Seattle.

”No matter what you do you’re going to lose a good player,” Fletcher said. ”You either let them make the choice for you or you try to help them out by making sure you’re keeping the things you want to keep. It was a great process to go through and I’m sure there were some lessons learned, but at the end of the day, if you have too many players than you can protect, you’ve got to pick your poison.”

A popular choice last time? Teams giving up players to clear salary-cap space. That was the impetus for the Fleury move and others, but so much time to prepare could reduce the need for those trades in the summer of 2021.

”That’s just one thing that I see could happen, that if the teams aren’t financially strapped against the cap then they don’t have to make those sacrifices of young players to get the cap relief,” Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning said.

With two full offseasons until Seattle can plunder 30 NHL teams (Vegas will not participate), a lot of GMs are already planning ahead. Offices in Columbus and Dallas have already been the scene of some long-range preparation while acknowledging a lot can change between now and then. Nill said teams will likely need to decide whether someone is a ”core player” or someone who isn’t going to be around in the future.

All GMs will need to grapple with the impact of no-movement clauses in player contracts that the NHL decreed must be protected in any expansion draft. Ottawa lost defenseman Marc Methot, in part, because Dion Phaneuf wouldn’t waive his no-movement clause. Now that GMs know the rules, deals through 2021 could be affected.

”You’re reluctant to give no-move clauses at any time, but certainly with knowing what your expansion protected list is going to be, I think that will make teams a little more cautious,” Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said.

According to PuckPedia , there are already 36 players with no-movement clauses for 2021-22. The Penguins, Stars and Blackhawks lead the league with four players each. Don’t be surprised if GMs attempt to change some of those situations to put themselves in a better spot.

”You don’t want to fill your protection list with guys that you have to protect because of the clauses in their contract,” Kekalainen said. ”You want to fill it with the guys you want to protect, so you want to leave that option to yourself.”

DE-IMPROVED PENGUINS

After sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 20, Pittsburgh is 6-2-2 in its past 10 games to surge up the standings. Backup goaltender Casey DeSmith, who has stepped up for injured starter Matt Murray, is a big part of that with his 2.10 goals-against average and .927 save percentage over that time.

”I’m not surprised,” Rutherford said. ”Casey took the long road to the National Hockey League. He worked at it. He’s worked very close with Mike Buckley, our goalie coach, and he’s a goalie that really worked on his fundamentals.”

The Penguins activated Murray off injured reserve Wednesday. Even with Murray’s return, don’t expect Pittsburgh to keep DeSmith on the bench for long.

”You have to have two goalies because if you want to have a long run in the spring, you can’t wear your No. 1 goalie out,” Rutherford said.

GAME OF THE WEEK

The top two teams in the Atlantic Division face off Thursday when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.

LEADERS

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 25; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 39; Points: Rantanen, 52; Ice time: Seth Jones (Columbus), 26:29; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.91; Save percentage: Rinne, 9.32.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed from Vancouver.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

PHT Morning Skate: 2018 U.S. Hockey HOF class inducted; Weezer at Winter Classic

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Former Michigan coach Red Berenson, three-time Olympic medalist Natalie Darwitz, Nashville Predators GM David Poile, Leland “Hago” Harrington, the first American-developed player to record a hat trick in the NHL, and ex-NHL referee Paul Stewart were inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Wednesday night. Late USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson was honored with the Lester Patrick Trophy. [U.S. Hockey HOF]

• Weezer will be your 2019 NHL Winter Classic (Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET; NBC) entertainment at Notre Dame Stadium when the Boston Bruins take on the Chicago Blackhawks. [Hollywood Reporter]

• The “college hockey line” is working quite well for the Bruins. [Bruins Daily]

Andrei Vasilevskiy is on the verge of returning for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He could be in goal tonight vs. Toronto. [NHL.com]

• Will the Detroit Red Wings ultimately decide to trade Jimmy Howard or keep him? [Detroit News]

• Guy Boucher’s future is among many questions the Ottawa Senators need to answer. [TSN]

• Brent Flahr follows Chuck Fletcher from Minnesota to become the Philadelphia Flyers’ Vice President and Assistant General Manager. [Flyers]

• Teenage defensemen are taking over the NHL. [EP Rinkside]

• Speaking of teenage defensemen, Miro Heiskanen is living up to expectations with the Dallas Stars. [ESPN]

Connor Hellebuyck has rebounded nicely, which is good for the Winnipeg Jets. [Sportsnet]

• A look at Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving’s penchant for dealing first-round picks. [Flames Nation]

• The Derick Brassard trade has done what it was supposed to do. [PensBurgh]

• Teams playing above their heads need to be realistic about their playoff chances. [Yahoo]

• Looking at the NHL’s best forward duos this season. [Nucks Misconduct]

• Ken Hitchcock is having quite the positive affect on the Edmonton Oilers. [The Point]

• A high school club hockey player has been suspended indefinitely from USA Hockey activities after he struck a defenseless player twice with his hockey stick during a game on Sunday. (With video) [WFAA]

• Finally, Darren Dreger was on Wednesday Night Hockey to talk about the the rumors in the trade market:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.