Bruins’ biggest question: Is the blue line good enough?

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It was no coincidence that the Bruins missed the playoffs after trading Johnny Boychuk to the Islanders in October.

Boychuk’s departure left a big hole in Boston’s top four, one that became even more pronounced when Zdeno Chara was injured a short time later.

Now consider that young Dougie Hamilton is gone from the B’s, too. Last season, Hamilton led all Boston d-men with 42 points in 72 games, while logging an average of 21:20 per game.

Minus Boychuk and Hamilton, the Bruins have been left with Chara, who’s 38, Dennis Seidenberg, who’s 34, plus Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, Matt Irwin, Zach Trotman, Joe Morrow, and Colin Miller.

Of those nine defensemen, only two — Chara and Seidenberg, neither young anymore — have ever averaged more than 20 minutes per game in a full NHL season.

Hence, the ongoing speculation that GM Don Sweeney will sign a veteran free agent, someone like Cody Franson, Christian Ehrhoff, or Marek Zidlicky. (The B’s were believed to be in talks with Mike Green, before he signed with Detroit.)

But regardless if that happens or not, expect the Bruins to make some tweaks to their system.

“At times, we probably got a little bit too stationary on our breakouts,” Sweeney said, per the Boston Globe. “We need to be in motion a little bit.”

Of course, for any system to be successful, it needs the right horses. And as it stands today, the Bruins’ stable of defensemen is more questionable than it’s been in quite some time.

Related: Vote on whether the Bruins’ Stanley Cup window has closed

Shero has a Devil of an NHL draft decision: Hughes or Kakko

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero doesn’t mind keeping everyone waiting one more day before revealing whether he will select one of the two top projected prospects – American center Jack Hughes or Finland’s Kaapo Kakko – with the first pick in the NHL draft.

What Shero would concede Thursday was his decision having the potential of spicing up New Jersey’s ever-healthy cross-river and Metropolitan Division rivalry with the New York Rangers, who are picking second when the draft opens in Vancouver on Friday night.

”What we’ve got to do is what’s best for the Devils right now,” Shero said. ”Knowing that the team picking No. 2 in this case is in our division, they’re going to get a great player as well.”

If that places a heavier burden on his shoulders, well, that’s fine with Shero.

”It really doesn’t bother me. Some people say the Rangers and Jeff Gorton are in the best spot,” Shero said, referring to the Rangers GM. ”I mean, I’m picking No. 1, so I’m in the best spot, I think.”

For his part, Gorton doesn’t mind the suspense.

”We’re sitting there and obviously one team’s going to indicate to us exactly how it might go for the rest of the draft. I think we’re in a good spot,” Gorton said. ”We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us.”

In a draft that has the potential of featuring a record number of Americans taken in the first round, Shero’s decision rests on choosing between an under-sized play-making center in Hughes or the heftier Kakko, who is considered a purer goal-scorer.

Shero has met with both players over dinner, including traveling to Helsinki, Finland, to meet with Kakko. And though he has a good idea which player the Devils will select, Shero was waiting until Thursday night to make his recommendation to team owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer.

In many ways, the decision is similar to the one Shero faced three years ago, the last time the Devils had the first pick. In 2017, Shero selected Switzerland center Niko Hischier, while New Jersey’s division-rival Philadelphia Flyers took Nolan Patrick.

At 5-foot-10 and 170, pounds Hughes is NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American prospect. He set a USA Hockey development program record by combining for 228 points (74 goals, 154 assists) over his two-year stint. From Orlando, Florida, he’s in position to become the eighth U.S.-born player selected No. 1 and first since Toronto took Auston Matthews in 2016.

At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Kakko is the top-ranked European skater. He completed a season in which he helped his nation complete a gold-medal sweep of international titles by winning the world championship last month along with the world junior and under-18 titles. Kakko’s 22 goals in 45 games were a Finnish Elite League record by a draft-eligible player.

Though he was only formally introduced to Kakko for the first time this weekend, Hughes understands the two will draw comparisons for years to come.

”You saw (Alexander) Ovechkin and (Sidney) Crosby all these years,” Hughes said, referring to the long-time Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins captains. ”I’m not saying we’re going to be Ovechkin and Crosby, but I’m saying it’s going to be pretty cool to be linked with him.”

The top of the draft features a wide mix of talent varying in size and speed. Defenseman Bowen Byram is ranked second among North Americans followed by center Kirby Dach. Then follows a large cluster of Hughes’ USA Hockey teammates, including centers Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras and 5-foot-7 forward Cole Caufield, who set a program record with 72 goals last season.

The NTDP list of potential first-round selections are rounded out by left winger Matthew Boldy, defenseman Cameron York and Spencer Knight, the top-ranked North American goalie.

With Hughes and Kakko expected to be off the board, the real intrigue should begin with Chicago picking third after the Blackhawks bucked the draft lottery odds to jump from the 12th spot in the draft order.

”There seems to be an understanding of how those firsts two picks will go, though you never know until it happens,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said. ”But we’re going to pick one of three players. … We’re not going to be cramming last minute. I think we’re going to be very comfortable with the guy that we pick.”

Colorado follows with the fourth pick, leaving Avalanche amateur scouting director Alan Hepple interested in who the Blackhawks might select.

”I told Joe just to go ask them,” Hepple said, referring to Avalanche GM Joe Sakic. ”We’ve got a few guys targeted. We know what we have.”

NOTES: Knight has the potential of becoming the 10th American-born goalie selected in the first round and first since Dallas chose Jake Oettinger with the 26th pick in 2017. … The record for most American-born players selected in the first round is 12, in 2016. … Center Dylan Cozens, ranked fifth among North Americans, has the chance to become the first player born in Canada’s Yukon Territory selected in the first round.

AP Hockey Writers Stephen Whyno and Larry Lage, and sports writers Tim Booth and Pat Graham contributed to this story.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey

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VANCOUVER — Friday could be an historic day for USA Hockey, and Jack Hughes will likely get the party started.

The projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; livestream) will be only the eighth American to be taken with the first selection in what could be a record-setting Round 1 for the U.S. program.

No more than three players from the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program have been first round selections in previous drafts. There could be as many as seven this year, with Hughes leading the pack. While five NTDP players have been chosen first overall, if Hughes plays in the NHL next season he’ll be the first player to go directly from the program to playing in the NHL.

That achievement is something on the mind of Hughes.

“Yeah, that’s my goal,” Hughes said during Thursday’s top prospects media availability. “I want to be the first player, kind of break a barrier there, that you can go from the program to play in the NHL the following year.”

There were 19 NTDP skaters and goalies on NHL Central Scouting’s final draft rankings this year and there is the potential of a record-setting five U.S.-born players being picked in the top 10. The 22-year-old program has pumped out top players for years, but this U18 class might be its deepest ever, headlined by Hughes.

“The training we do there is second-to-none,” Hughes said. “Our practices, our games, we lift two, three times a week. It’s so competitive. The players you go up against, you’re playing against the best players in the country in your age group on daily basis. When I go into the corner for a puck battle, I have to go against [Matthew] Boldy one time, then I’m going against [Alex] Turcotte the next time, I’m going against [Trevor] Zegras. I think that makes you a better player. 

“It’s a really competitive environment with great people. The coaches treat us unbelievable. Coach [John Wroblewski], he couldn’t have coached us better, [he] treated us really well. Credit to the people that work at the program because they really helped us out.”

[MORE: Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

Hughes had an historic NTDP career finishing with a record 228 points in 110 games, surpassing Clayton Keller’s 189 points. Internationally, he repped the U.S. at two U18 World Championships, winning silver and bronze, and led the tournament in scoring both times while earning MVP honors in 2018. He also helped the Americans to silver at 2019 World Junior Championship and played seven games at the World Championship this spring.

That World Championship experience allowed Hughes to play with and against current NHL players, including future New Jersey Devils teammate Cory Schneider and Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who gave the 18-year-old forward high praise by saying, “I think he does a lot of things better than me, to be honest with you.”

“It was unreal for me on the ice, kind of learned some things that I’ll get better at this summer,” Hughes said of his time at the World Championship. “But I think the most important thing was being in a room with guys, learning how to be a pro on a daily basis. Taking things from certain players. I think that was an invaluable experience for me.”

Hockey has been Hughes’ life. His dad Jim was an assistant coach for the Boston Bruins and served as Director of Player Development for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His mom Ellen played at the University of New Hampshire and was on the 1992 U.S. World Championship team that claimed silver. Older brother Quinn plays defense for the Vancouver Canucks and younger brother Luke will play for the U17 NTDP next season and is draft eligible in 2021.

Along with his immediate family, Hughes said there will be about 65 people in attendance Friday night at Rogers Arena to support him. They won’t have to wait long to hear his name called, which will signal the official beginning of his NHL career.

“It’s awesome. It’s right here,” Hughes said. “You look forward to it for so many years. This year it’s kind of in the back of your mind every day. When you close your eyes that’s what you’re thinking about. Now that it’s finally here I’m going to enjoy it and it should be awesome for all my family members and me, too.”

NBC Sports presents live, exclusive coverage of first round of the 2019 NHL Draft this Friday, June 21, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.

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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.

NHL Draft: Kakko ready to make NHL leap next season

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VANCOUVER — Kaapo Kakko has not been to New York City but has heard all about it, especially after the NHL Draft Lottery when it became clear he would be going No. 2 overall to the New York Rangers.

While he is friendly with Rangers goaltender Alexandar Georgiev after playing with him with TPS of Finland’s Liiga, the 18-year-old winger knows one thing about the Big Apple.

“I think it’s so nice. It’s a nice city,” Kakko said during Thursday’s NHL Draft Top Prospects media availability. “It’s a little bit bigger than [my hometown of] Turku.”

Kakko has worked on improving his English ahead of an NHL career that will more than likely begin in September. Movies and television have helped, as well as playing with former NHLer and TPS teammate Lauri Korpikoski.

When Kakko arrives in New York City next season, he’ll only be a short drive away from Jack Hughes, who is likely to be selected by the New Jersey Devils with the top pick Friday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; livestream). The two forwards have been the consensus top two in projections all season long. Now they’ll be linked together for the rest of their careers.

[MORE: Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

Kakko, who will become the seventh Finnish-born player all-time to be selected in top three, spent his draft year wowing the hockey world and just winning. In January he scored the gold medal-winning goal — at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, no less — to top Hughes and the U.S. at the World Junior Championship. Four months later, he scored six times in 10 games to help Finland win gold at the World Championship. Toss in gold at the U-18 World Championship in April 2018, and it’s been quite a successful run for him.

This past season with TPS he scored 22 goals and recorded 38 points in 45 games. Those 22 goals set a Liiga record by a U18 player, which was previously held by Aleksander Barkov (21).

“If New Jersey wants a winner, they should pick Kaapo,” said Finnish national team head coach Jukka Jalonen to the New York Times last month. “Hughes is a great player as well, but in the important games, Kakko has always been better. He is already playing like a man. He could play in the NHL right now, and in a few months, he will be even better. After a few years, he will be one of the best players in the world.”

Kakko, who said he wants to add strength to his 6-foot-2, 194 lbs. frame this summer, has always played against older competition and excelled. That experience has prepped him to make the transition to the NHL as soon as the 2019-20 season, which will fit in nicely with the rebuild plans of the Rangers.

“That’s my plan, my goal, to be in NHL next [season],” Kakko said.

NBC Sports presents live, exclusive coverage of first round of the 2019 NHL Draft this Friday, June 21, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.

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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.

Back injury ends Ryan Callahan’s career; Lightning put him on LTIR

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Sad news from the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday: Ryan Callahan‘s NHL career is likely over, and his $5.8 million cap hit will be relegated to LTIR.

The 34-year-old spoke with Bryan Burns of the Lightning website about what appears to be a career-ending back injury, described specifically as “degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine,” which Callahan noted affected his lower-back most of all.

” … Unfortunately there doesn’t even seem to be anything they can do immediately to fix the problem,” Callahan said. “And that’s never easy to hear when you’re speaking to a couple doctors and all of them agree on the same thing.”

Callahan told Burns that it’s unlikely that this would be something he could try a comeback from after trying to heal up for a year or two.

“I don’t think a year off or two years off is going to help it to be honest with you,” Callahan said. “From what the doctors have said and the way I feel, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to come back.”

From there, it’s the very sad reality of an athlete who put his body on the line by delivering a ton of hits, blocking a lot of shots, and generally going all-out physically. The goal is for Callahan to maintain a quality of life, and that means daily rehab to manage pain.

About the only bright side seems to be that, at the moment, Callahan doesn’t seem to think he’d need invasive back surgery. Here’s hoping that remains the case, as long as that’s the safest and most comfortable route for Callahan.

Of course, Lightning fans will wonder about the various routes the team will take to handle Callahan’s $5.8M cap hit, now that a buyout isn’t really an option. Cap Friendly notes the savings the Lightning receive from Callahan’s unfortunate circumstances.

That $5.8M will certainly come in handy for the cap-challenged Lightning as they hope to sign rising star and RFA Brayden Point, preferably before he reaches the point where an offer sheet would be a threat (credible or otherwise). The Lightning were almost certain to try to trade Callahan, or at least his cap hit, during this summer, so a small silver lining is that one awkward situation was avoided.

Here’s hoping that Callahan can get to a point where he’s comfortable on a daily basis, and his experiences are another reminder that, for all the talk about hockey players being “warriors,” this rugged sport takes a toll on players, particularly longtime ones such as Callahan.

Callahan scored 386 points (186 goals, 200 assists) in 757 regular-season games between the Lightning and the New York Rangers, a team he captained from 2011-12 to 2013-14, when he was a key part of the Martin St. Louis trade. Callahan was credited with 626 blocked shots and 2,147 hits, according to Hockey Reference, and that ignores 14 games from 2006-07. Callahan brought that same spirit to 121 career playoff games.

And, as a reminder, he was more than just a “heart and soul” player, particularly during his peak with the Rangers. Callahan scored 20+ goals on four different occasions, and reached his career-high of 54 points during two different seasons.

That’s a heck of a career for the 127th pick of the 2004 NHL Draft, but here’s hoping that Callahan achieves the most important victory of feeling better.

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.