Jesperi Kotkaniemi making late push up draft boards

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Throughout the season, many draft experts mentioned that the top end prospects available in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft were wingers and defensemen. Teams looking for a center were out of luck. But that opinion seems to have shifted in the final few days leading up to the event.

That’s where Jesperi Kotkaniemi comes into play.

The 17-year-old was always going to be a first round draft pick, but his performance in the Finnish first division with Assat Pori (10 goals, 29 points in 57 games) as a teenager is pretty impressive.

Another reason why Kotkaniemi is getting so much positive press late in this process, is because he was one of the standout-players on Finland’s team that won gold at the under-18 World Junior Hockey Championship. He had three goals and six assists in seven tournament games.

“Here’s a guy who has been playing the whole season with men and against men and has played extremely well,” NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb said, per NHL.com. “He has improved his skating. His skating was always OK, but he’s improved and this is a guy with a guy with a very special understanding of the game. He makes very intelligent decisions on the ice. He can shoot, pass, score and is a very nice young man too.”

The fact that the Montreal Canadiens own the third overall pick in this week’s NHL Entry Draft has also helped connect the dots between Kotkaniemi and a top-three selection. You see, the Canadiens have been lacking a true number one center for decades. They remain thin down the middle to this day.

The Habs took Ryan Poehling in the first round last year, so that added a bit of depth in the pipeline at that position. Adding Kotkaniemi to the mix would arguably turn the center position into a strength when it comes to prospect depth. Every team that wins the Stanley Cup seems to have quality down the middle. Montreal needs to develop a franchise player there if they’re going to be competitive again.

“I think Kotkaniemi is the best center of the draft, I think he’s superb, I think he has a game reminiscent in style to (Los Angeles Kings center) Anze Kopitar,” former NHL GM and TSN’s Craig Button said. “I don’t know where you get (centers) if you don’t draft them. (Montreal Canadiens GM) Marc Bergevin has been looking for a center, he’s trying to take wingers and making them centers or take third line centers and make them first line centers. So now you have a guy sitting right there and maybe you can use the third pick to take him at No. 3.”

If Kotkaniemi ends up being one of the biggest risers on Friday night, it’ll be interesting to see what that means for Halifax winger Filip Zadina, who is still in play for the Canadiens at third overall.

For a while, Zadina was considered as the favorite to be selected third after Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov, but all this chatter about Kotkaniemi has taken some steam out of the Zadina hype train.

Even if the Canadiens opt to pass on Kotkaniemi, he could still end up going to Ottawa at four, Arizona at five or Detroit at six, which would be higher than most expected him to go.

But as we all know, it’s hard to trust anything anyone says about prospects and their stock at this time of year. Teams won’t be honest and the players won’t reveal their true thoughts about where they think they’ll end up, so all most of us have to lean on are Youtube clips and independent scouting services.

Ahhhh you’ve gotta love this time of year.

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.

Trading Ryans: Rangers get Strome, Oilers nab Spooner

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Perhaps mid-November is the time for lateral trades and troubling injuries?

Oilers fans probably tense up whenever their team makes a trade, yet this one is more of a shoulder shrug than a forehead-slapper: Edmonton receives Ryan Spooner, while the New York Rangers get Ryan Strome.

(Hey, stop yawning.)

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that the Rangers retained $900K of Spooner’s salary (for each of the next seasons) to make the trade work; each forward now carries a $3.1 million cap hit in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

You really need to crane your neck to see the differences between Strome, 25, and Spooner, 26. Reactions have gone both ways as far as which team “won” the trade, as you might expect from a move that more or less merely shakes things up.

Plenty of people are, instead, merely enjoying just how negligible the difference is between the two forwards:

… Or using this as another opportunity to ridicule bumbling Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, who acquired Strome in that ill-fated Jordan Eberle trade before the 2017-18 season.

As PHT’s Adam Gretz notes, this trade is mainly a reminder of past mistakes:

Chiarelli drafted Spooner during his days with the Boston Bruins, so that likely explains why he targeted the forward.

At least, that explains it beyond making a trade for the sake of making a trade.

While I’d argue that the Penguins edged the Kings by landing Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin, it’s most likely to be a small victory. The difference, on paper, might be even less obvious here, unless a change of scenery truly sparks one or the other. Strome’s possession stats have been better and their production has been comparable over the years. Maybe Spooner could find chemistry with Connor McDavid in a way that would allow Leon Draisaitl to play on his own line? From here, this is a marginal trade, but there’s always a chance it might be a little more fruitful than expected.

If nothing else, it could serve as a wakeup call. That sure beats the Oilers’ unfortunate tradition of trades being a kick in the gut.

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.

Tavares living up to hype for Leafs with Matthews out

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The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot going on right now, and quite a bit of it is no good.

Auston Matthews‘ bad injury luck continues. The William Nylander contract impasse is dragging on far longer than most of us expected.

Good thing the Maple Leafs won The John Tavares Sweepstakes, then, right?

Thursday presented the latest example of that free-agent gift that keeps giving, as Tavares and the Maple Leafs beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3 in a game that was frequently filling. For some, it was a reminder that Tavares’ transition has been seamless compared to Erik Karlsson‘s growing pains with the Sharks. Such comparisons feel petty, really, when you consider just how joyous Tavares’ run has been so far with the team he rooted for (and slept on bedsheets for) as a child.

Consider that Matthews has last played on Oct. 27. Since then, Tavares has really embraced his role as the clear go-to guy for the Maple Leafs. While he was unable to generate a point in Toronto’s flat loss to the Flames in the first game following Matthews’ injury, Tavares has been trading off being electric and automatic since then.

The talented center managed to generate a point in every November game so far (five goals and five assists for 10 points). Tavares’ goal from Thursday also extended his goal streak to four games.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer provided praise heading into that Leafs – Sharks game that ended up being prophetic.

“I just love the honesty to his game. He plays both ends of the rink, he wins battles, he goes to the dirty areas of the rink, he makes other people around him better, which you think is everybody in the NHL, but it’s not,” DeBoer said, via Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. “That’s a short list of guys. You can put a John Tavares with almost anybody and he’s going to make a line go or make those guys better. Joe Thornton has that ability, too.

“He’s just a special player.”

Indeed, Tavares showed that he can score ugly just about as efficiently as he can set up beautiful chances.

Of course, the Maple Leafs aren’t subsisting on Tavares’ shrewd play alone. Morgan Rielly continues to put up highly impressive offensive numbers from the blueline. While the Maple Leafs’ hit-or-miss defense can sometimes hang him out to dry, Frederik Andersen builds a case as an underrated goalie, including making 42 saves against the Sharks in that 5-3 win. Kasperi Kapanen is taking advantage of a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself, and Mitch Marner has been just about as explosive as many expected when it became clear that he’d line up with Tavares. Nazem Kadri is thriving as a second-line center.

Still, Tavares stands out for his consistency and versatility.

” … He’s been a leader,” Rielly told the AP after the Maple Leafs beat the Kings 5-1 on Tuesday. “He’s been a 200-foot player. He’s been putting the puck in the net.”

With respectable-yet-unspectacular possession numbers, it’s true that Tavares stands out most for his offense (23 points, including 12 goals, three of which were game-winners).

Even so, it’s heartening to see that Tavares can carry the Maple Leafs during those stretches where their deadly one-two punch goes down to just one (or, at least, a solid but less spectacular two in Kadri).

Considering a slightly-high 16.9 shooting percentage, perhaps Tavares will cool off during the grind of an 82-game season. So far, he’s living up to the considerable hype … and, besides, Matthews might be back in time to warm things up if Tavares suffers a cold spell.

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.

Flyers’ goalie nightmare continues with Elliott injury

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Life presents few constants: death, taxes, and the Philadelphia Flyers’ goalies letting them down.

The latest nightmare comes as the Flyers announce that Brian Elliott will miss approximately two weeks with a lower-body injury. Looking at the Flyers’ schedule, it would probably be safest to assume that Elliott will miss 5-6 games, as there’s a substantial gap between Philly’s Dec. 1 game against the Penguins and their Dec. 6 contest against the Blue Jackets.

Sat, Nov. 17: vs. Tampa Bay
Wed, Nov. 21: @ Buffalo
Fri, Nov. 23: vs. New York
Sat, Nov. 24: @ Toronto
Tue, Nov. 27: vs. Ottawa
Sat, Dec. 1: @ Pittsburgh
Thu, Dec. 6: vs. Columbus

Elliott suffered his injury (or re-injury?) as Kyle Palmieri scored a wraparound goal during the Flyers’ eventual 3-0 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Elliott. Not that long ago, Elliott seemed to be getting on track, rattling off a four-game winning streak while allowing just four goals Oct. 30 – Nov. 10 (albeit with one of those victories happening in a relief appearance).

Even during these past two losses, the 33-year-old has mostly given the Flyers a chance to win, allowing two goals each time (though that Palmieri goal was the end of his Thursday night).

With Michal Neuvirth still on the shelf, the Flyers go back to what sometimes feels like an unendingly bleak situation. Calvin Pickard has been the Flyers’ go-to guy, and that hasn’t worked out well at all. While Elliott’s been merely adequate overall (.911 save percentage), Pickard’s sporting a disastrous .865 save percentage over seven games.

This isn’t the first time such woes have inspired many to wonder if the Flyers should just bite the bullet and given much-ballyhooed goalie prospect Carter Hart some NHL-level exposure, and it’s probably not going to be the last time people call for such a decision.

Like it or not, it seems like management (maybe stubbornly?) is sticking to the plan with Hart, as the Flyers instead recalled Alex Lyon from the AHL.

GM Ron Hextall has been loading up with options in net, creating an unsettlingly stark quantity over quality situation. Along with Hart and Lyon, the Flyers could also conceivably turn to Anthony Stolarz if Pickard continues to struggle … yet those goalies are struggling in their own right.

If you look at the small sample size of AHL games for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, you won’t see much to like, and Hart’s shaky play (.893 save percentage in eight games) is no exception.

Between huge goalie headaches and plenty of fans calling for the ouster of head coach Dave Hakstol, the Flyers have been awfully frustrating lately. Despite all of their talent, perhaps it’s fitting that this team currently sits at a middling 9-9-1?

The temptation would be to imagine how different things would be for the Flyers if they could actually enjoy some good goaltending but … you and Flyers fans know that story all too well.

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.

Archibald to have hearing for illegal check to head of Hartman

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Josh Archibald could be facing a suspension in the near future. The Arizona Coyotes forward will have a hearing for his illegal check to the head of Nashville Predators forward Ryan Hartman on Thursday night.

As you can tell from the video above, Archibald caught Hartman with a shoulder to the head right near the blue line. He was given a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head after the incident occurred late in the second period. Even though he’s not a repeat offender, You’d have to think that the obvious contact will result in him getting at least a one-game suspension.

After leaving the game momentarily, Hartman was able to return to the Predators bench during the third period.

Archibald has no goals, no assists and a minus-1 rating in nine games this season. The two penalty minutes he received for the high hit were his first two of the season.

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.