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Oliver Wahlstrom goes from viral stardom to NHL top prospect

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There some pretty neat benefits to having a parent work at your local hockey rink. For Oliver Wahlstrom, it meant hours and hours of free ice time to hone his skills before and after school.

Growing up in Cumberland, Maine, that time on the ice helped develop the 17-year-old Wahlstrom into a highly-rated prospect as the 2018 NHL draft approaches. It also led to the hockey world first knowing his name when we was only nine years old.

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While playing for the Portland Junior Pirates in 2009, Wahlstrom was invited to participate in the TD Bank Mini 1-On-1 competition before a Boston Bruins game. It was there that all those hours in the rink by himself paid off with a viral sensation of a goal.

“I would just mess around, try some things,” Wahlstrom recently told Pro Hockey Talk. “I got up to that move and I just kept doing it and doing it and I just fell in love with it, so I was like, Hey, why not, I’m just going to try it.”

The video blew up on the Internet, even as Twitter was still in its early days of popularity. The trick shot led to a media tour that included appearances on CBS’s “The Early Show” and SportsCenter with Barry Melrose, among others. Eight years later, as Wahlstrom enters his draft year and the attention surrounding him has only increased, he looks back at that experience as good training.

“That was really cool. It was really special. At the time, it was very nerve-wracking,” he said. “But I think that was very good for me to go through at a young age. I learned all about that stuff early.”

(Two and a half years later, he scored another wild trick shot goal in the same competition.)

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Eight months from now, Wahlstrom, a center, will hear his name called in Dallas during the 2018 draft, likely within the top 10-15 picks if the various rankings are any indication. Those rankings, however, aren’t on his mind. As he helps the U.S. National Team Development Program side in the United States Hockey League this season, he has his NHL future in the “way back” of his mind, and is focusing on another title at the U-18 World Championships next spring.

“All I want to think about right now is winning gold and making sure I develop as a person,” he said. “Obviously, my mindset is to be No. 1, to be the best, so I work to be that every day. I have a mindset of I want to be first overall. I want to have that mindset. It’s cool to have the draft coming up, but right now I’m just focused on the season and getting that gold medal at the end of April.”

The 6-foot-1, 205 lbs. Wahlstrom, who models his game after the power and shots of Patrik Laine and Evgeni Malkin, is currently viewed as a sure first-rounder, and as we’ve seen with other top prospects, a good draft year could vault him up the rankings. Before the season, TSN’s Craig Button had him at No. 16, while Bob McKenzie pegged him at lucky No. 13 and ISS Hockey has him at No. 11. There’s no doubt scouts like him as a player, but there’s still plenty to improve upon.

“Wahlstrom has long been among the top forwards in his age group. A lot of it has to do with his offensive creativity. He simply makes plays. We obviously all know about his viral moment as a kid, but as a teenager he continues to grab attention with his play on the ice,” said Chris Peters, ESPN’s NHL Draft and prospects analyst. “I think we’ll all be looking for consistent production from him this year and making the players around him better. The skills are there to be a producer at the next level, with his ceiling being a top-six forward, most likely on the wing. He sees the ice so well and has the creativity that seems to translate into goals and assists.”

From the media experience at an early age to playing against older competition since he was 13 to working out with NHL players at Edge Performance Systems in Massachusetts in the off-season, Wahlstrom has prepared himself well for the next step in his hockey career.

That next step will be one of two things: the NHL or Harvard University, where he committed as a 15-year-old, 18 months after committing and de-committing to Maine as a seventh-grader. Being friendly with the Donato family, including Crimson head coach and former NHLer Ted Donato, played a big role in his college selection.

“He’s a great coach and how they’ve been doing the past couple of years, they’re really coming along,” Wahlstrom said. “Hopefully I can come in and contribute a lot and be a good player for them coming up in the future.”

In helping him get to the point where he had NCAA D-I programs to choose from, Wahlstrom credits the NTDP program for preparing him for what lies ahead and also bringing a once shy kid out of his shell.

“It’s probably the best decision I ever made coming here. Last year was probably one of the toughest years of my hockey career, to be honest. I face a lot of adversity,” he said. “We went through a lot last year, getting beat up by older guys. The NTDP here taught me how to fight through adversity, how to overcome that.

“This year, U-18 year, all of us can focus on playing in the USHL, beating those guys and getting that anger and stuff out from last year and bring it this year and accomplish greater things.”

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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.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.