2019 NHL Draft tracker — Round 1

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The 2019 NHL draft kicks off with the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers at the top of the board.

The Devils began the night by selecting Jack Hughes, making him the eighth American-born player to be selected No. 1 overall.

The New York Rangers followed that up by taking Kaapo Kakko with the No. 2 overall pick.

It was a huge night for USA hockey with nine American-born players going in the first round. It was a disappointing night for hockey fans that like trades because there was only one — the Philadelphia Flyers moving from the No. 11 pick to the No. 14 pick in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes.

1. New Jersey Devils — Jack Hughes, forward, U.S. National team

“Elite skating, hockey sense and skill. Hughes has most attributes you look for in a star player. A very agile player with incredible speed. He is also equipped with fast hands and his puck handling along with his skating allows him to regularly beat player one-on-one.” — Elite prospects

For the second time in three years the Devils were the owners of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and added another potential franchise player to an organization that already has Nico Hischier (the 2017 No. 1 overall pick) and a former NHL MVP in Taylor Hall.

2. NY Rangers — Kaapo Kakko, forward, TPS Turko (Finland)

“A quick-thinking winger, Kakko never seems to be in a rush. He reads the game exceptionally well and finds himself a step ahead while the play is still developing. He is confident with the puck and capable of handling it in small spaces. With his size, Kakko protects the puck well and uses his high hockey IQ to make smart offensive plays. Kakko excels offensively and beats opponents with smarts and skill both on and off the puck.” — Elite prospects

The Rangers were huge winners in the draft lottery in moving up to the No. 2 overall pick, and getting a potential impact player like Kakko could really accelerate their rebuild.

3. Chicago Blackhawks  — Kirby Dach, forward, Saskatoon Blades

“A Ryan Getzlaf-type pivot.” — TSN

It was pretty much a given that Hughes and Kaako were going to be the top-two picks in this year’s class, meaning the real intrigue began here with the Blackhawks, another team that was a big mover in the draft lottery. The Blackhawks still have a strong core of veterans with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of their lineup and need some cheap, young impact talent to complement them. Perhaps Dach can make that impact as soon as this season. Stan Bowman said on NBCSN immediately after the pick that Dach will have every chance to make the team.

4. Colorado Avalanche (from Ottawa Senators) — Bowen Byram, defender, Vancouver Giants

“An exceptionally gifted defenceman who knows his strengths and plays by them. He possesses elite skating ability and is at his best when playing high energy, up-tempo hockey. He handles the puck well and is able to keep control of it under pressure. He makes calculated decisions that consistently shift momentum in his team’s favor. His creativity in the offensive zone speaks to his confidence in his ability to be a game-changer.” — Elite prospects

The Avalanche received this pick as a result of the 2018 Matt Duchene trade and used it to take the first defender off the board, adding Byram to an already talented young blue line that already features Samuel Girard and Cale Makar. Those two, plus Byram, should be the foundation of the Avalanche’s blue line for the next decade.

5. Los Angeles Kings — Alex Turcotte, forward, USHL

“Exceptional hockey sense, impressive skating and compete-level. There is a lot to like about Turcotte. He is a very gifted playmaker, but also has fine release and goal scoring ability. Can be used in most situations and plays a very complete game.” — Elite prospects

The second American-born player taken in the top-five. The Kings need an organizational overhaul and an infusion of young talent. They hopefully get that with Turcotte to start that rebuild.

6. Detroit Red Wings — Moritz Seider, defender, DEL

“Seider is a mobile and very smart two-way defenseman with few weaknesses. Plays a mature game with strong and consistent defensive decisions. Offensively, his vision allows him to be a very good passer and he is also good at getting his shot through.” — Elite prospects

Steve Yzerman begins his rebuild of the Detroit Red Wings with what can probably be described as an “off the board pick.” Seider has great size and can move the puck and will now be one of the faces of the Red Wings’ rebuild.

7. Buffalo Sabres — Dylan Cozens, forward, Lethbridge Hurricanes

Dubbed “The Whitehorse Workhorse” and a “can’t miss” player by TSN’s Craig Button — TSN

The first of the Buffalo Sabres’ two first-round picks, the Sabres pick a two-way forward that they badly needed after giving away Ryan O'Reilly before the season. Cozens is the first player from the Yukon to ever be selected in the first round.

8. Edmonton Oilers — Philip Broberg, defense, Sweden

“Philip Broberg is a gifted two-way defenseman. His fluid skating ability allows him to punish over-extension immediately with how quickly he can start plays from his own end. On the fly, he pays close attention to where the puck’s going and where it’s been. This allows him to read the play early and make the most of any time and space found. On the downside, his defensive play could be more consistent as well as his decision making. Additional improvement when it comes to his release as well as puck distribution could make him a high-scoring defenseman.” — Elite Prospects

Ken Holland knows his team needs help on the blue line and players that can skate and move the puck. Broberg is a good place for him to start when it comes to reshaping an Oilers team that has holes all over its lineup after Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

9. Anaheim Ducks — Trevor Zegras, forward, USHL

“Zegras is an elite two-way forward that can play both wing and center. His pro-level mobility is the foundation of his game, supplementing an in-transition speed that shifts the pace of play. He knows how to get under the skin of opponents and will actively seek out opportunities to lay the body and create separation, all the while staying attentive to the unfolding play. This unique aspect of his game makes him difficult and frustrating to play against.” — Elite Prospects

The third player from the U.S. National development program in the first round and all went in the top-10. The Ducks lineup needs some creativity and skill and Zegras brings the potential for plenty of both.

10. Vancouver Canucks — Vasili Podkolzin, forward, Russia

“A skilled winger who plays with an edge. Podkolzin combines his fine hockey sense, puck handling and shooting with an aggressive, in-your-face, type of game. He competes hard, is very difficult to play against and has the tools to be a high scoring player.” — Elite Prospects

The first Russian-born player take in 2019 and a potential impact player, but Canucks fans will have to wait for two years for him to play in the NHL. So be patient, Canucks fans.

11. Arizona Coyotes (from Philadelphia Flyers) — Victor Soderstrom, defender, Sweden

“An uber competitive two-way defenceman who thinks the game at the highest level, A gifted skater, his ability to traverse all three zones is best described as smooth and effortless. He never looks disinterested and it’s always apparent just how badly he wants to win. His vision and awareness is great, allowing him to play a responsible yet dynamic brand of hockey. He’s a dangerous puck-carrier with a great shot. Defensively, he makes good decisions quickly and consistently, never looking out of place when pitted up against the other team’s top players. He pressures the opposition and limits options, never getting in the way of his goalie.” — Elite Prospects

Our first trade of the draft saw the Coyotes move up from No. 14 to No. 11 in a deal with the Flyers. The Coyotes moved up to continue the first-round run on defenders.

12. Minnesota Wild — Matthew Boldy, forward, USHL

“Boldy is a highly skilled winger. A finesse player with impressive creativity, a quick release and fine playmaking ability. Not the fastest of skaters, Boldy’s hockey sense and overall skill level still allows him to be reliable offensive threat.” — Elite Prospects

Another big win for the US National Development program as Boldy goes to the Wild at No. 12 to add some skill to the Wild’s farm system. He is ready to play at Boston College next season.

13. Florida Panthers — Spencer Knight, goalie, USHL

Yet another player from the US Development team and the first goalie off the board. The Panthers have some long-term goaltending questions with Roberto Luongo being near the end of his career and James Reimer potentially out the door. It remains to be seen when Knight will make an impact in the NHL, but he is an incredible athlete in net. He is just the third goalie drafted in the first round since 2012, so it is a bit of a gamble pick.

14. Philadelphia Flyers (from Arizona Coyotes) — Cam York, defender, USHL

“A highly skilled defenseman. York has impressive hockey sense and his overall skill level is high. Furthermore, he is very mobile, has a good passing game and a quick release. Defensively he is solid with an active stick and strong positioning.” — Elite Prospects

The SIXTH player from the US National Development team. The Flyers get York, as well as an additional pick in the 2019 draft, by moving down three spots in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes.

15. Montreal Canadiens — Cole Caufield, forward, USHL

“A game-breaking goal scorer that, despite his diminutive frame, thrives under pressure and is difficult to contain. Defensively, he’s uncomfortable having the puck in his own end for long and he’ll make the extra effort to pressure around the blue line and take away cross-ice options. Upon procuring puck possession, he’ll be the first to explode up ice in-transition. The hallmark of his game is his exceptional goal-scoring ability. He has a shot that absolutely leaps off his stick with pinpoint accuracy when he lets loose and a low centre of gravity that facilitates fast and flashy puckhandling at pace.” — Elite Prospects

This could be an absolute steal. The best goal-scorer in the draft and an electrifying talent that probably would have been a top-10, or even top-5 pick if he were just a few inches taller.

16. Colorado Avalanche — Alex Newhook, forward, Victoria Grizzlies 

“Offensively driven player, he handles the puck with finesse and excels when leading a rush.” — Elite Prospects

The second of Colorado’s two first-round picks, Newhook becomes the newest member of the Avalanche organization. After bolstering their defense depth at No. 4, the Avalanche add another skilled center with Newhook with their own pick at No. 16 overall.

17. Vegas Golden Knights — Peyton Krebs, forward, Kootenay Ice 

“Krebs is a potent point-producer and offensive catalyst that rises to the occasion whenever he’s on the ice. He is a smooth, shifty skater that traverses all three zones with ease and closes the gap on the backcheck quickly. Defensively, his understanding of the game communicates itself through his proactive positioning and an active, lane-disrupting stick. Willing to go to the dirty areas and fight for the puck, but isn’t at his best there.” — Elite Prospects

The Golden Knights have traded a lot of prospects and draft picks in recent years, but they now have Krebs and Cody Glass to still drive their prospect pool down the middle at center.

18. Dallas Stars — Thomas Harley, defender, Mississauga Steelheads

“Harley skates well and stands out with his hockey sense, especially when handling the puck. He sees openings many players don’t and is a very good passer. On the downside, there is room for improvement when it comes to his decision making and compete level.” — Elite Prospects

An organization that is already blessed with John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen at the top of its blue line for the next decade gets another gifted playmaker.

19. Ottawa Senators (from Columbus Blue Jackets) — Lassi Thomson, defender, Kelowna Rockets

“Skilled two-way defenseman with above average offensive tools. Thomson is a fluid skater and moves the puck well up the ice. Not a bad passer, but stands out more with his slapper from the blue line.” — Elite Prospects

The Senators had to make a deal at the deadline to get back into the first-round of the 2019 draft, and while it may not have been the top pick they would have wanted for such a down year, they still add another solid defense prospect to the system to go with Thomas Chabot and Erik Brannstrom.

20. Winnipeg Jets (from New York Rangers) — Ville Heinola, defender, Finland

After trading Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers the Jets need to start rebuilding their defense and Heinola is a good place to start. Craig Button said on Friday night he is probably two or three years away and projects as a second-pair defender.

21. Pittsburgh Pittsburgh — Samuel Poulin, forward, Sherbrooke Phoenix 

“Poulin is a very all-round player. He plays a good two-way game and has very few weaknesses to his game. Furthermore, he competes hard, has leadership qualities and is a decent point producer.” — Elite Prospects

This is the Penguins’ first selection in Round 1 since 2014, while their most recent first-round pick on the roster is Sidney Crosby, taken during the 2005 draft. Poulin is still couple of years away from the NHL so do not expect him to be scoring goals in Pittsburgh anytime soon.

22. Los Angeles Kings (from Toronto Maple Leafs) — Tobias Bjornfot, defender, Sweden

“Björnfot is a very capable two-way defenseman with few weaknesses in his game. A strong skater who reads the game well and contributes both offensively and defensively. Also a good leader and he competes hard on every shift. Can be used on the powerplay, but stands out more in his own end with this solid play.” — Elite Prospects

The second Kings pick of the first-round and the result of the trade that sent Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Kings use it to add another defender to the organization.

23. New York Islanders — Simon Holmstrom, forward, Sweden

“An offensively skilled player who competes hard. Holmström is a good skater and stands out with really good hands and impressive puckhandling skills. Quite shifty and a player that can do the unexpected offensively. Has a good wrister and his two-way game is underrated. Great character and team player.” — Elite Prospects

The Islanders were the big surprise team during the 2018-19 season but really lacked impact goal-scorers. Holmstrom could one day help solve the latter part as he has the potential to be a finisher in the NHL.

24. Nashville Predators — Philip Tomasino, forward, Niagara IceDogs

He nearly tripled his offensive production this past season and as a result rapidly climbed draft boards. Speedy forward that can make an impact all over the ice.

25. Washington Capitals — Connor McMichael, forward, London Knights

“A smart center with impressive hockey sense. Reads the game very well and plays well in his own end too. Puckhandling is good and he has a decent nose for the net. Some consistency issues.” — Elite Prospects

Versatile player that can play a number of different roles. Had 72 points in 67 games for the London Knights during the season.

26. Calgary Flames — Jakob Pelletier, forward, Moncton Wildcats

Undersized, but very talented. Just the type of player you want to take a chance on late in the first round. The Flames have had success with a player like that in Johnny Gaudreau. He recorded 89 points in 65 games in the QMJHL this season. Played center and wing in juniors but Craig Button sees him as a winger at the NHL level.

27. Tampa Bay Lightning — Nolan Foote, forward, Kelowna Rockets

Two years after the Lightning selected Cal Foote in the first round, they selected his brother, Nolan. This is Julian Brisebois’ first pick as general manager of the Lightning. He scored 36 goals and finished with 63 total points in 66 games for Kelowna this season.

28. Carolina Hurricanes — Ryan Suzuki, forward, Barrie Colts

“Suzuki is a good skater, excellent passer and is very good at putting himself in scoring positions, where he rarely fails to capitalize. He does not play overly physical, but is very good at avoiding contact while doing so. He has excellent hands and all around vision. On the downside, his effort-level has been questioned.” — Elite prospects

The younger brother of Montreal Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki. The Hurricanes add another playmaker to promising young roster. He started the season as a potential top-10 pick but slid down a little throughout the year.

29. Anaheim Ducks (from San Jose Sharks- from Buffalo Sabres) — Brayden Tracey, forward, Moose Jaw Warriors

Excellent production for Tracey this past season to go with a lot of talent. The Ducks use their second pick of the first round to add some much-needed skill and offense to an organization that just lost Corey Perry (buyout) and Ryan Kesler (injury).

30. Boston Bruins — John Beecher, forward, USHL

The eighth player taken in the first round from the US National Development team. The Bruins have a bunch of excellent centers at the NHL level but they are not going to play forever. Have to restock the cupboards at some point, and Beecher helps do that.

31. Buffalo Sabres (from St. Louis Blues) — Ryan Johnson, defender, USHL

The Sabres need Ryan Johnson to pan out, not only because they need as much help as they can get on the NHL roster, but because this pick, along with the development of Tage Thompson, is the only hope the Sabres have to salvage the Ryan O’Reilly trade.

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.

 

Previewing the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

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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: Maybe slightly worse, but largely the same.

Montreal brought in Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid while letting Antti Niemi and Jordie Benn walk. They also traded away Andrew Shaw.

Aside from a Sebastian Aho offer sheet that had little chance of succeeding, it was a very quiet offseason for Marc Bergevin.

Strengths: Depth, five-on-five play, and possibly strong starting goaltending if Carey Price continues getting back on track.

Claude Julien really had this group firing on all cylinders last season, which had to make missing the playoffs extra-painful. Still, it’s generally easier to reproduce even-strength success than it is to shoot or stop pucks at a high level, so that’s nice. This team can send wave after wave of forwards at you, and their top four of Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, and Jeff Petry is better than a lot of people realize.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Canadiens had to be dominant at even-strength last season because their power play was so putrid.

You might be able to chalk it up to the larger feeling that the Canadiens have some very nice forwards, especially Brendan Gallagher, but seem to lack that super-duper-star. The power play might be better in 2019-20 by sheer luck, but personnel-wise, they didn’t really address the problem during the offseason.

It sure looks like Montreal will need to lean heavily on Price, as Kinkaid doesn’t strike me as that much of an upgrade over Niemi, if he even is an upgrade.

(Nice use of emojis, though.)

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Canadiens front office members (especially Bergevin, but also Julien) have weathered some of the bigger storms, as while Montreal missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they generally exceeded expectations in 2018-19. Even so Montreal’s missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and hasn’t won a series since 2014-15. Julien is an excellent coach, but professional sports aren’t always fair to coaches, and things could really heat up if a lot of Canadiens follow career years by plummeting back to their lesser, past selves. A rating of 7 feels about right.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, and Carey Price.

If Kotkaniemi ends up not being worthy of the third overall pick of 2018, it looks like that will only come down to people merely having a preference, for say, fourth pick Brady Tkachuk — and so on. The point is that Kotkaniemi was brilliant as a rookie, and considering limited usage, could be capable of even more than an already-solid 34 points in 79 games. Honestly, Julien owes it to this team to experiment with just how quickly Kotkaniemi can grow. He aced his first test in the NHL.

Entering 2019-20, a big question is: will the Max Domi we see look more like the 2018-19 sensation, or the 2017-18 Coyotes forward who needed four empty-netters to reach nine goals? Domi’s entering a contract year, so if he can show last season wasn’t a fluke, he can go from a healthy raise from his $3.15M AAV to a huge jump.

Price is basically always fascinating in Montreal: the franchise, $10.5M goalie in a city that’s watched some of the best netminders to ever play the game. Can Price be dominant at 32? The Habs are counting on it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Montreal was unlucky that the East was pretty stout at the playoff-level in 2018-19, and figure to face big obstacles again this coming season. Not only will the Atlantic’s top three figure to be tough (Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs), but the Panthers made investments to be hugely improved, too. For all we know, it may all come down to the Panthers vs. the Canadiens, especially if the Metropolitan Division isn’t a total flop in providing wild-card competition.

There’s quite a bit to like with this team, so playoffs seem more likely than the lottery — although we also know that this tough market can also turn the volume up on any slump.

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.

Previewing the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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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: Much better … and they’re paying a premium to do so, what with Sergei Bobrovsky‘s risky seven-year, $70 million contract.

The changes in net didn’t stop there, with Roberto Luongo retiring and James Reimer being traded away. Joel Quenneville is the other big-name addition as head coach, while the Panthers also paid a pretty penny for Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman.

If nothing else, the Panthers proved that they’re willing to spend money.

Strengths: The Panthers entered 2018-19 with optimism for a simple reason: they have some great, young forwards. Aleksander Barkov is the headliner, but Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, and (if healthy) Vincent Trocheck are all excellent players, most of them signed on bargain deals.

On paper, there’s a pretty big drop-off from the top six to the two lower forward lines, even if Connolly ends up being a boost for Florida’s depth. One thing that can swing the depth battle a bit would be promising prospects graduating. Can Henrik Borgstrom take that next step? Might Owen Tippett leap to become a full-time NHL winger? Aleksi Heponiemi was already sent down to the AHL, but there are others who might win training camp battles, and they might just move the needle in playoff bubbles for the Cats.

Weaknesses: Florida’s defense is expensive, but not necessarily worth the money. That was an uncomfortable undercurrent to their goaltending struggles last season: how much of this came down to putting netminders in a position to fail? Stralman had some great highs during his underrated career, yet his play dropped off badly recently, so he might be yet another Panthers blueliner who fails to justify his price tag.

This is an area where Florida hopes that the combination of Bobrovsky’s often-elite goaltending mixes with Quenneville’s system to keep the puck out of the net, while that offense hogs the puck. There are situations where that juggling act might fail, and there are also doubts about Florida’s backup options if Bob struggles and/or gets injured.

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

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Quenneville hopes to prove that he still has it, and the Panthers must be feeling impatient after years of disappointments, particularly after spending big bucks to get better. Coach Q isn’t bulletproof, but he’s pretty safe with this being his first season. Let’s call it a 2 on the seat scale.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Bobrovsky, Hoffman, and Trocheck.

After some drama and a final season of peaks and valleys in Columbus, Bob got his wish. He’s out from under Torts, and he got paid. Excuse me, he got paid. Now it’s time to prove that he’s still a Vezina-level goalie, even as he turns 31 on Sept. 20.

Hoffman, meanwhile, is chasing his big payday, as the sniper enters a contract year where his next deal can really climb or fall depending upon how he performs in 2019-20.

Trocheck has been a gem for the Panthers, yet it’s unclear how well he might perform not that far removed from a ghastly injury last season. It’s impressive that he was able to return in 2018-19, but can he find that pre-injury game that was so all-around brilliant?

Playoffs or Lottery: They’re closer to the playoffs than the lottery.

It’s not out of line to paint a picture of a huge jump, with health, Bobrovsky’s goaltending, strong top scorers, and Quenneville coalescing into a new-look contender. There are plenty of ways things can go wrong, too, including Bob having another so-so season like he did in 2018-19.

More than anything else, the Panthers might just face long odds to climb into the Atlantic’s top three, as they’re less of a sure thing than the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins. That doesn’t mean Florida can’t dislodge one or more of that seemingly mighty group, but it’s easier to picture them battling for a wild-card spot.

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.

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

Agent says Laine, Rantanen ‘not close’ to new contracts

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The list of RFAs without contracts is getting smaller, but that doesn’t mean that every big situation is on the verge of being settled.

Agent Mike Liut represents two of biggest RFAs remaining: Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) and Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche), so it’s significant that he gave a not-so-optimistic update about their negotiations during a Wednesday interview on Sportsnet 650.

Around the 4:00 mark of that interview, Liut admitted that “we’re not close,” while adding that “nothing has gone on that we didn’t anticipate.”

Another key note in the Liut interview comes later on, as he largely shoots down the notion that Laine and/or Rantanen will do much to pursue contracts with European teams that include out clauses. Liut’s explanation was pretty simple: said teams might not want to deal with the potential disruption of Laine or Rantanen briefly being a part of their teams, only to leave (although injuries could change the arithmetic).

Anyway, let’s break things down a bit for both Rantanen and Laine.

Rantanen = Marner?

Liut acknowledged that he views Mitch Marner as the best comparable for Rantanen, pointing out that they both bring great strengths as playmakers, even if they go about doing so in different ways (Rantanen being at around 225 lbs., Marner … not). It’s not shocking that Marner is mentioned for Rantanen, in particular, and it presents an interesting challenge for the Avalanche.

Via Cap Friendly, the Avs currently have about $15.62 million in cap space, so theoretically they could accommodate an AAV in Marner’s $10.893M range. In last week’s edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Colorado would prefer that Rantanen not make $4M more than Nathan MacKinnon, whose ridiculous bargain $6.3M cap hit runs through 2022-23.

Rantanen will turn 23 on Oct. 29. So far in his career, he’s generated 80 goals and 209 points in 239 games (.87 points per game). Marner (turned 22 in May) has 67 goals and 224 points in 241 games, which translates to .93 points per game.

If people are going to downgrade Marner’s big 2018-19 season because of John Tavares‘ influence, then they can make a similar claim about MacKinnon’s benefit to Rantanen. Since Rantanen began his career with nine regular-season games in 2015-16, he’s played 1,632:31 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and just 552:24 without MacKinnon, according to Natural Stat Trick.

MacKinnon and Rantanen clearly have a symbiotic relationship, but it’s nonetheless difficult to fully grasp how much Rantanen is worth on his own.

Of course, it’s not the worst problem to have, as Colorado is getting those cheap years with MacKinnon, and we know that the MacKinnon + Rantanen combo is dynamite.

Some unrest with Laine

Speaking of linemates, that talking point flared up regarding Laine and the Jets, as the sniper hasn’t been able to stick with the combo of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler with much consistency. Instead, his most frequent even-strength linemate has been Bryan Little.

His recent Finnish interview with iltalehti.fi created quite a stir in that regard.

To some extent, Laine has a point. He likely would have ended up with more than 30 goals and 50 points in 2018-19 (a significant drop from 2017-18’s 44 goals and 70 points) if he spent the majority of his shifts with Scheifele and/or Wheeler.

Of course, it’s fair for the Jets to wonder if they’d be better off loading up in that way — and not just to spread the offensive wealth.

Frankly, the criticisms of Laine’s two-way play aren’t totally out of line, at least when you’re debating just how much he should be paid. Consider his troubling multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for one quick look at his defensive warts:

According to Cap Friendly, the Jets have about $15.45M in cap space, which sounds promising until you realize that Winnipeg is looking to lock down not just Laine and Kyle Connor. One wonders if Colorado may be OK with Rantanen’s contract negotiations slipping into the regular season (maybe bumping down his cap hit long-term, like the Maple Leafs did with William Nylander), but TSN’s Frank Seravalli noted last week that the Jets would be better off getting one or both of Rantanen and Laine done before the regular season kicks in.

Of course, the uncertainty surrounding Dustin Byfuglien’s future adds another wrinkle to the Jets’ already complicated dealings.

***

Each situation is different, and challenging in its own way.

Regardless, this figures to be a lucrative stretch for Liut. Puck Pedia places Vladimir Tarasenko‘s $7.5M AAV as the highest AAV of any active Liut client, so even if the Jets and Avalanche “win” discussions with Laine and Rantanen, it’s likely that Liut will see a new top two once the smoke clears.

What’s a fair price for each player?

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.