Kings’ 2019 NHL Draft crop gives much-needed hope

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Ever since Rob Blake took over as Los Angeles Kings GM, they’ve developed an interesting trend of being stuck in the past in some ways, yet showing far-reaching vision in others.

When it comes to their aging core players, the choices have been risky. Instead of making the painful decision to move on from Drew Doughty, they handed the 29-year-old an extension where his enormous $11 million cap hit runs through 2026-27. Anze Kopitar is already 31, and his $10M cap hit won’t expire until after 2023-24. That’s $21M that could really start to sour for the Kings, and they’re far from the only veterans who could look long in the tooth, and plenty already do.

In many cases, the Kings feel at least a little stuck, as it might not even be plausible to trade away problem deals like Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, or Ilya Kovalchuk, while the Kings haven’t had the stomach to wave goodbye to Jonathan Quick.

So … yeah. Let’s just say that Todd McLellan has his work cut out for him next season.

The good news, though, is that the Kings are soaring at the “rebuilding on the fly” portion of their plan. While the Colorado Avalanche arguably had the strongest crop of all, the Kings drew well-earned acclaim for their own work, and suddenly things aren’t as royally painful for a franchise that hit a big hole in the road this past season.

[2019 NHL Draft Results: Round 1; Rounds 2-7; Winners and losers]

At least, the Kings seemingly knocked it out of the park. As we’ve seen with health concerns for Gabriel Vilardi (11th overall, 2017), it remains difficult to truly tell how high school-aged prospects will actually pan out.

All we can do is make guesses that are as educated as possible, and consensus praise is usually a promising sign. That’s what the Kings received for their work in the 2019 NHL Draft, from some of their top picks, to the fuller picture of depth choices.

Let’s consider a few specifics, and then zoom out.

Alex Turcotte – It feels silly to call the No. 5 pick a “steal,” although Elias Pettersson (fifth before Vilardi in 2017) shows that it can sometimes feel that way, nonetheless.

Some penciled in Turcotte as the third overall pick, but the Blackhawks went for a different center in Kirby Dach. After the Avalanche lept to land Bowen Byram as the first defenseman pick at fourth overall, the opportunity opened up for the Kings to select Turcotte.

For a Kings team that seems to have been left behind in the dust as the NHL gets speedier and more skilled, Turcotte’s talent makes this pick appeal to me. But the Kings were a sandpaper plus skill team during their two Stanley Cup runs, so they likely are also enticed by the edge that also apparently surfaces in his game.

“He’s a beast,” Top overall pick Jack Hughes said of Turcotte, recalling their many days together in the U.S. NTDP, via NHL.com’s Mike G. Morreale. “He plays a hard, heavy, skilled game and that’s a tough combination to deal with. Not only does he score goals and make plays, but he’s probably the best face-off guy on our team. A lot of his goals are net-front tips, rebounds and shots in front, proving he’s not just a skilled guy who can score from the perimeter but a guy who goes to the net.”

Tobias Bjornfot: While Turcotte was described as a “home run” by the likes of The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler (sub required), some wonder if Bjornfot was a bit of a reach at 22.

Still, in a first round where teams really reached at times (see: Moritz Seider not even believing he went sixth overall), Bjornfot went around pick 32 on average by Habs Eyes on the Prize’s consensus collection of mock drafts. So, not the end of the world, and their next pick was almost as exciting as Turcotte at 5.

Arthur Kaliyev: Just about every sports draft has its one Aaron Rodgers moment: an expected first-rounder falls all the way to day two.

Kaliyev wasn’t the only expected Friday pick who needed to wait until Saturday, but his snubbing might have been the most shocking. Unlike Bobby Brink likely falling because of his size, Kaliyev is listed at 6-foot-2.

You have to really go deep into armchair psychology about perceived effort to talk yourself out of a forward who scored 51 goals and 51 assists in 67 games for the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs last season, especially since he has the size you’d like to see in a top prospect.

In praising the Kaliyev pick (sub required), The Athletic’s Corey Pronman passed along this great quote from acting Bulldogs head coach Vince Laise:

“Arthur is one of the most dynamic players I’ve coached in the OHL in my six years here,” Laise said. “I coached Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. In my opinion, Arthur is just as good a player as either of those two.”

Kaliyev just turned 18 on Wednesday, too, so he’s one of the youngest players of the 2019 NHL Draft. Sometimes, when you see a player dominate at a level, there’s the worry that they might be taking advantage of being just a bit older than their competition, which absolutely matters in those crucial development years. In Kaliyev’s case, critics couldn’t even knock him for that.

High marks: Personally, the picks of Turcotte and Kaliyev bode well for the Kings, most of all.

Expanding out, experts also approved of their overall haul. People gave the thumbs up for other picks, including Samuel Fagemo at 50th overall. Both Manny Elk and Corey Pronman gave the Kings an ‘A‘ for their work last weekend, and I haven’t personally seen any outlet bashing the work of Blake & Co. Pronman ranks among those who think it’s a special run:

It’s a big weekend, and I’m as excited about this Kings draft class as I’ve been about any I can recall in recent memory.

Last August, Pronman had already ranked the Kings’ system as 10th overall. While a lot can change in a year (see: the health worries about Vilardi, and prospects like Pettersson blowing away expectations), it’s promising that the Kings added a stellar round of selections to a farm system that was already improving.

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Naturally, the Kings still have far more work to do.

If I were Blake, I’d move Alec Martinez. Much like Jake Muzzin, Martinez’s contract is likely to run out before the Kings are truly competitive again, so it’s better to try to snag something promising in return, particularly if Martinez nets a first-rounder like Muzzin did. I’d also trade Jonathan Quick while he still has perceived value around the NHL, as at 33, things could go downhill fast for a goalie who relies so much on athleticism.

Whether they make those courageous moves or not, the Kings must also develop the likes of Turcotte, Kaliyev, and Rasmus Kupari. Todd McLellan’s had a front row seat to prospects flaming out in Edmonton, if they need a reminder of development falling under the “easier said than done” category.

A lot can go wrong, and a lot more needs to be done, but it’s easier to picture better report cards when early exams come back with A’s and B-pluses. By most accounts, the Kings have passed their latest tests with flying colors, making their outlook far brighter today than it was even a full week ago.

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.

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.