Observations on Team USA World Junior camp in Lake Placid

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The World Junior Championships aren’t until late December, but teams got their preparations underway with development camps both in Edmonton for Team Canada and in Lake Placid, NY for Team Finland, Team Sweden, and Team USA. I spent Thursday in Lake Placid to check out Team USA’s game against Team Finland to see how the team was looking. Team USA wraps up their camp today with a game against Sweden.

Team USA is bringing back a lot of talent from last year’s team and those more experienced players played strong against Finland. Panthers prospects Nick Bjugstad and Rocco Grimaldi looked good. Grimaldi’s speed and tenacity allows him to keep up with anyone and his ability to move with the puck is unparalleled. Bjugstad is a big kid and can be imposing when lining up at center. Team USA coach Dean Blais has moved him from center to wing and back to see where they can get him going in camp, but he looked good against Finland.

Another forward who looked good was 2011 New York Rangers first round pick J.T. Miller. Miller had a thunderous first period controlling play, forcing the issue offensively and pressuring Finnish defenders on the forecheck. While Miller did pick up a pair of penalties, one that Blais described as a “momentum killer” his abilities as one of the new guys on the team will help make Team USA a better squad in Edmonton at this year’s championships.

source: Getty ImagesMinnesota wild prospects Charlie Coyle (obtained in the Devin Setoguchi-Brent Burns trade) and Jason Zucker had solid games as well. Zucker was able to make up for a poor early penalty against Finland by setting up Bjugstad for a goal. Zucker’s abilities last year in the World Junior Championships showed he has loads of talent but perhaps some bad luck as he hit a lot of posts. The same happened against Finland, but his abilities on the ice are special and he’s set to be one of the big time leaders of this year’s team.

Team USA’s strengths over the years in the WJCs has come from their defense and goaltending and that’s no different this time around. Team USA is able to roll out there with a host of guys that can play different roles on the blue line. Hurricanes prospect Justin Faulk is a smooth puck handler and an offensive threat, especially on the power play. With guys like Jarred Tinordi and Stephen Johns, the U.S. can handle things physically and defend strong as well.

The guy to keep an eye on for the next few years, however, is Seth Jones. At 6’3″ 198 pounds and just 16 years-old, Jones is going to be a hotly watched prospect when he’s eligible for the NHL Draft in 2013. Seeing Jones get to play against Finland he’s raw, but there’s huge promise there. Blais says that Jones has some work to do yet though.

“He makes mistakes too but he makes them out of trying to do something, ” Blais says. “He’s got to communicate a little bit more. He’s so young that he doesn’t want to talk too much but he has to. He’s got to communicate when he’s open and get the puck. But certainly he’s pretty reliable and pretty impressive so far in the tryouts.”

While Jones may not make the final cut for this year’s WJC team, he’s showing that he’ll be a guy worth watching develop over the next few years.

source: Getty ImagesWhen it comes to goaltending, the U.S. has a wealth of riches. Dallas Stars 2010 first round pick Jack Campbell is set to be the man in goal again but 2011 Ducks second round pick John Gibson and 2012 draft eligible Cornell sophomore Andy Iles are there waiting in the wings. Iles plays a very aggressive style and Blais loves the way he plays goal.

“Andy’s been real good. Andy’s going to push Jack Campbell a lot,” says Blais. “I don’t know how his tean’s [Cornell] going to be if he’s the goalie or not, I’m not sure but for us he’s certainly impressed us. He’s going to challenge, in my mind, Jack.”

With a seeming wealth of riches in goal, Team USA would seem likely to not have too many problems finding a way to win even if Campbell struggles. Having more than one goalie to bank on worked great for Blais when he coached the 2010 Team USA WJC team that won gold as he had both Jack Campbell and Mike Lee to rotate in and out of goal as needed.

As for Finland, there was one player to take note of in Buffalo Sabres 2011 first round pick Joel Armia. Armia scored a beautiful goal in the first period to get Finland ahead early after capitalizing on a Justin Faulk blue line turnover. Good thing for Armia that he played well in an otherwise tepid game for the Finns as Sabres top brass spent the week in Lake Placid watching him including head coach Lindy Ruff and owner Terry Pegula.

Usually when you think of an NHL owner, you think of a guy in a suit and being rather super executive like. Not Terry Pegula as he was there looking like just another fan checking out the action in shorts, sneakers, and a Sabres fleece. Yes, owners are real people too.

Team USA’s chances to win gold at this year’s World Junior Championships are strong again and while Canada is by far the favorite, it’ll be up to the United States to find that motivation and extra gear to be able to win it all. Playing it this year in Edmonton and Calgary will make the atmosphere even more intense to deal with, but that didn’t stop Blais and Team USA in 2010 from winning it all in Canada, and they’ll hope to find that magic once again.

Previewing the 2019-20 Anaheim Ducks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse. The Ducks have been competitive for over a decade, so it wasn’t surprising to see them take a step back last year. Unfortunately for Anaheim, their core is getting older and they really didn’t improve their roster very much over the course of the summer. They lost Corey Perry and some other depth players, but they didn’t add any significant pieces. They hired Dallas Eakins as their new head coach, but it’ll be tough for him to make a significant difference. It’s tough to argue that this group is better.

Strengths: Their biggest strength is between the pipes. John Gibson put together an incredible season last year. His numbers may not jump off the page but make no mistake, he was the reason they weren’t out of it earlier than they were. The 26-year-old had a 26-22-8 record with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage last season. If the Ducks are going to improve this season, they’ll likely need their goalie to stand on his head on a nightly basis. Gibson is one of the top goalies in the league and that shouldn’t change in 2019-20.

Weaknesses: Their overall depth has taken a hit over the last few years. Sure, they still have good players like Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique down the middle, and Rickard Rakell, Ondrej Kase and Jakob Silfverberg on the wings. They also have Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Cam Fowler on defense. The rest of the team has taken a bit of dip. Perry’s gone and Ryan Kesler is injured, and Patrick Eaves is likely retired. When you’ve been good for so long, these things will eventually happen.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 1. Let’s give Eakins some time. He’ll have plenty of challenges ahead with the edition of the Ducks. It’ll be important for him to assess the talent at his disposal quickly and he’ll need to figure out a way to get the most out of this group of players. Again, success probably won’t come as early as this season, but if the Ducks allow him to shape the roster how he sees fit, they could make strides in the near future. How much time he gets to build this program remains to be seen, but he can’t be on the hot seat yet!

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure: Getzlaf | X-Factor]

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see how some of the young players perform this season. Daniel Sprong, Nick Ritchie and Brendan Guhle should all be part of this roster when training camp ends. How much will they contribute though?

Sprong was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. In 47 games with the Ducks, he put up 14 goals and 19 points, which isn’t terrible. Can he build on that season? We’ve mentioned that Anaheim’s depth may be a problem for them this year, so getting added contributions from talented youngsters like Sprong will be key. There’s no denying his ability on the ice, but the 22-year-old needs to put it all together now. 14 goals in 47 games works out to a 24-goal campaign over 82 contests. Can he flirt with 25 goals?

Ritchie is also a fascinating case. The 23-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Ducks back in 2014, but he hasn’t had as big an impact as many expected him to since turning pro. Ritchie had nine goals and a career-high 31 points in 60 games in 2018-19. He needs to pick it up. He needs to lead the next waive of young players in the organization. He’s got size, he’s got skill and now he needs to make an impact on this Ducks roster. He can’t just be another depth player.

As for Guhle, he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres last season. The former second-rounder played in just six games with Anaheim last season. The Ducks have Fowler, Manson and Lindholm on their blue line, but there are openings behind those three players. Guhle has to show that he’s capable of making this roster and eating up some important minutes for Anaheim this season. The 22-year-old needs to add stability to the Ducks on the back end.

Playoffs or Lottery: They’ll be in the lottery this year. Again, they have some talented players, but they don’t have enough of them. It’ll take some time for them to draft and develop the next generation of Ducks, but that re-tooling had to begin eventually. No playoffs for the Ducks this year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Laine apologizes to Little; Can Isles keep having success?

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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.

• Bruins forward Karson Kuhlman will get an opportunity to break camp as a second-line winger. (Boston Globe)

Shea Weber still has a desire to improve every day. (Montreal Gazette)

• The Dream Gap Tour is trying to find a way to build a sustainable women’s hockey league. (TSN)

• Who will serve as the Washington Capitals’ backup goalie this season? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The Tampa Bay Lightning have more openings on their roster than ever before, according to head coach Jon Cooper. (Tampa Times)

• Can the Islanders sustain what they did last year under head coach Barry Trotz? (Light House Hockey)

• Will the Panthers make the playoffs this season? The Rat Trick makes five predictions for Florida’s 2019-20 season. (The Rat Trick)

• Sabres defenseman Matt Gilmour took a different path to get to the NHL. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• Alex Nylander has produced during the preseason, but will that be enough to get him a spot on the Hawks roster? (NBC Sports Chicago)

Klim Kostin may finally be ready to make the jump to the NHL with the Blues. (St. Louis Game-Time)

Patrik Laine apologized to Bryan Little for the comments he made to a Finnish reporter. (NHL.com)

• Speaking of Little, he deserves to play with better players. (Jets Nation)

• 2019 first-round pick Thomas Harley has been impressing during Dallas Stars training camp. (Defending Big D)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Change or keep current playoff format?

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The topic of the Stanley Cup playoff format has bubbled up over the last few seasons which makes you wonder if we’ll see a change in the near future. After switching to the 1 vs. 8 conference format in 1993-94, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to bring back the divisional concept beginning with the 2014 postseason. While the emphasis on bringing back rivalries has worked in some areas, there has been plenty of opinions out there about moving away from the current setup.

During the NHL Player Media Tour earlier this month in Chicago we asked a number of players their thoughts on the current playoff format and whether they’d keep what we’ve got or make a change. Here’s what they said.

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “I’d probably keep it. Maybe the top seed should play the eighth, but this creates a lot of rivalries between team, so I kind of like it as it is.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “The wild card is perfect like that, but I would do whoever has the most points play against [team with fewer] points.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “I think it works right now. I’d keep it.”

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins: “I don’t think it’s beneficial for our division because our division is so tough. In my opinion I would like it to be [1 vs. 8, re-seed after Round 1]. First round you play Tampa Bay, best team in the league, and third round you might play Carolina who was number whatever. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: “I prefer the conference [1 vs. 8] because you have the chance to play different teams every year instead of having to go through the same division team in the first or second round every single year.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “I would keep it. I don’t have any issues with it.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “I’d change it. I think majority of the guys are on that side. I do understand the rivalries and what it creates and it has created some great rivalries. I think from our perspective you want to earn that rank and that position you have in the playoffs, 1-8. I’m probably just a little biased, that’s what I grew up with.”

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: “It is what it is at this point. I do think it should be the top eight teams from each conference. To me, it kind of seems to make the most sense. You’re going to have 32 teams in the league, you want the top 16 teams in the playoffs, right? It’s kind of the way it works. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Maybe go back to the old way [1 vs. 8].”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “I like it. I don’t have a problem with it. I think once you get to the playoffs you’re going to have to win out anyways. Whether you beat the best team in the first round or in the Stanley Cup, they’re the best team, right? You’re going to have to win it all anyway. I don’t mind it.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “I would keep it, I don’t mind it. For me, it doesn’t matter. If you want to win the Cup you have to beat anybody, so I’m good with that.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “I’d change it. It should be No. 1-8 in the conference, doesn’t matter your division, anything. It should just be the top eight teams ranked 1-8.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “I say change it. Either 1 vs. 16 or 1 vs. 8.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I like the current playoff format. I’d also like to see some type of wild card, maybe a three-game play-in series to get a couple more teams. From a business side of it, looking on the other side, you can have a great season and miss the playoffs by a couple of points. Now with adding teams in the league and still being a 16-team format, when you’re the ninth seed and miss the playoffs by two spots, from a fan’s perspective it’s an unsuccessful season not making the playoffs when you were really so close. I think it kind of adds something to support those teams that just missed the playoffs to have some type of play-in series like baseball has now so those market can feel like they accomplished more when they just missed out by a little and the next season the teams a little more ammo when they go and try to sell tickets.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
Most underrated player
2019-20 sleeper team

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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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Toronto Maple Leafs

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse, but things could have been much worse considering their cap crunch — and also the rather obvious need for Nazem Kadri to get a change of scenery.

Ultimately, it’s still a step back to replace Kadri, Patrick Marleau, Jake Gardiner, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, etc. with Alexander Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, and so on. That doesn’t mean that the end result has to be a step backward, but it’s a minor stumble on paper.

Strengths: Yes, the Maple Leafs are paying top dollar for Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and now Mitch Marner. It just so happens that they’re more or less worth that money; fans of NHL teams have just become conditioned to see these types of guys making less than they should, thanks to the likes of Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, and Sidney Crosby.

With Morgan Rielly and now Barrie, the Maple Leafs have some pretty potent options as far defensive scoring goes, although things get sketchy once you reach beyond the best options.

Frederik Andersen is also one of the best goalies in the NHL, and can sometimes will the Maple Leafs into games when their defense is cratering and their offense is cold.

Weaknesses: If Andersen gets hurt or struggles, the Maple Leafs’ backup options sure seem pretty dicey. Such a thought might prompt the team to wear Andersen out even if he plays well and stays healthy.

Depth on defense is a bit of a challenge, too.

Frankly, it’s tough to ignore Mike Babcock as someone who might be holding the Maple Leafs back. It’s not always huge decisions, but the conservative leaning can be a death by a thousand cuts. Not giving Auston Matthews enough minutes. Falling in love with old-school defensemen who, frankly, aren’t very good. It all adds up to a Maple Leafs setup that sometimes doesn’t feel fully optimized. I’m not convinced Babcock is a “bad” coach, yet like a lot of others, he has some bad habits.

[MORE: X-factor | Three Questions | Under Pressure]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): It’s usually not the best sign when you end a season needing a vote of confidence from your GM. Babcock came to Toronto with a big reputation and an even bigger contract, making it slightly awkward to fire him, but despite all of the personnel improvements the Maple Leafs have made, they still haven’t won a playoff series since 2003-04. Some of that comes down to facing tough opponents, including being tormented by the Boston Bruins, but patience is wearing thin. Put Babcock at a 9.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Tyson Barrie.

Marner got his wish with a contract that carries close to an $11 million cap hit; now it’s time for him to silence his doubters by showing that he’s worth that asking price. Fair or not, any cold streak will be magnified.

Nylander’s near-$7M AAV looks a whole lot better months later, but that doesn’t mean that Maple Leafs fans have totally “forgiven” him for a bumpy 2018-19 season once he actually signed. His hair choices will also be fascinating to watch.

Barrie brings a lot of skill to the table, and should have plenty of motivation in a contract year. That said, he also has his warts on defense; Maple Leafs fans and media tend to fixate on such mistakes, and it remains to be seen if Barrie will finish 2019-20 with a high standing among hockey folk.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and another Round 1 exit won’t be acceptable. That might mean finally scaling the mountain that is the Boston Bruins. Even if Toronto draws someone like the Lightning or revamped Panthers, chances are it won’t be an easy challenge, yet people won’t be very interested in excuses — even good ones — if this season ends just like the last few.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.