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.

NHL Free agent roundup: Islanders re-sign two RFAs; Nichushkin joins Avalanche

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It didn’t involve any of the big names that are still unsigned, but there was some movement on the NHL’s restricted free agent front on Monday afternoon thanks to the New York Islanders, while the Colorado Avalanche took a gamble on an intriguing unrestricted free agent.

Let’s take a look at the signings.

Islanders re-sign Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle

The Islanders reached deals with two of their remaining RFAs when they announced new deals for forwards Josh Ho-Sang and Michael Dal Colle.

Dal Colle’s contract is a two-year deal, while Ho-Sang gets a one-year deal that will probably be a make-or-break season for him with the Islanders.

Anthony Beauvillier remains the Islanders’ only unsigned RFA at this point in the offseason.

Ho-Sang is the intriguing one here because he has such enormous potential but has not yet put everything together in the NHL or earned the trust of the organization. If he manages to do all of that he could be a huge X-factor for the Islanders this season.

He has 24 points in 53 career games at the NHL level.

The 23-year-old Dal Colle appeared in 28 games for the Islanders this past season, scoring three goals to go with four assists.

Avalanche get Nichushkin

After spending two years in the KHL, Valeri Nichushkin returned to the NHL for the 2018-19 season and signed a two-year, $5.9 million contract with the Dallas Stars.

It proved to be a disappointing and uneventful deal for both sides. He failed to score a goal in 57 games while recording just 10 total assists. His contract was bought out by the Stars following the season, making him an unrestricted free agent.

On Monday, he signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche with the hopes that he can bounce back.

Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was one of the most bizarre seasons in league history as he became the first player to ever play at least 50 games in a season while scoring zero goals and recording zero penalty minutes.

After a promising rookie season back in 2013-14, Nichushkin’s development offensively has completely stalled, resulting in just nine goals and 31 assists in 144 NHL games. He is a fine defensive forward but has not shown any ability to make much of an impact with the puck.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Barzal is Islanders’ game-changer

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

The New York Islanders have their share of questions entering the 2019-20 season but there is one thing they can be sure of — they have one of the game’s most exciting young players and a franchise cornerstone in Mathew Barzal.

Even though his point totals may have regressed in year two, the 22-year-old Barzal was the Islanders’ most dynamic and impactful player during the 2018-19 season and is on a trajectory that should take him to stardom in the NHL.

He has an incredible mix of speed, vision, and playmaking ability that makes him perfect for the modern game and a force to be reckoned with when he has the puck on his stick.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

He has already become one of the best and most productive playmakers in the league and could be on the verge of taking his production to an entirely new level based on what he has already done.

Two comparisons to consider for Barzal entering this season.

1.  Over the past two seasons (his first two in the league) he is one of just 11 forwards (minimum 100 games played) that has averaged at least 0.65 assists per game, 0.89 points per game, and posted a 52 percent Corsi rating. The others on that list are are Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, Nikita Kucherov, Steve Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Johnny Gaudreau, Mikko Rantanen, Artemi Panarin, and Mitch Marner.

Excellent company to be in, especially when you consider just how young he is and is just now entering his age 22 season.

2. It’s the latter point (his age) that is the key. Barzal is one of just 11 active forwards to average at least 0.89 points through their age 21 season in the NHL, a list that includes Crosby, Stamkos, Marner, Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Ilya Kovalchuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Auston Matthews, and Alex Ovechkin.

Marner, Matthews, and Barzal are all the same age, but the other eight combined to score at a 100-point pace in their age 22 season.

The biggest difference between Barzal and most of the players on that list is that he is not quite the goal-scorer that some of them are and is more known for his ability to drive play and set up his teammates, so a lot of his point production will be tied to what the players around him are able to do once he gets them the puck. He can definitely help put them in better positions to score, but it is still up to them to finish the play. It is also possible he could develop into more of a goal-scorer if he takes on more of a shoot-first mentality. He has never been a low-percentage shooter, and while passing and playmaking is his greatest strength offensively, he could probably put himself in a position to average more than two shots per game. Especially if he does not have elite talent around him at the given time.

No matter what direction he takes, Barzal is the Islanders’ best player and the one player that can swing a game in their favor.

His rapid development into a top-line player is one of the reasons the Islanders were able to overcome the free agent departure of John Tavares without completely falling apart. They already had a star on the roster ready to fill that No. 1 role, and his best days are still ahead of him.

This is the hardest type of player to acquire in a rebuild, and it usually takes a top draft pick to get one.

The Islanders were fortunate enough to be able to get one in the middle of the first-round and have the piece they need to build around.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sustainability and Ho-Sang’s development top questions for Islanders

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 New York Islanders.

1. Can they do it again?

After losing John Tavares and not really doing anything significant to replace him on the ice expectations were understandably low for the 2018-19 Islanders. They ended up shattering all of them, made the playoffs, advanced to the second round for the first time since 1993, and were one of the biggest surprises in the league.

The question, then, is obvious: Can they do it again and build off of that success?

The most shocking part of the turnaround was that the Islanders went from being the worst defensive team in the NHL to the best in just one season. That is where the question of sustainability comes in. While it is easy to point to Barry Trotz and his defensive system as the cause of the turnaround, the reality is the Islanders were blessed with an outstanding goaltending performance from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss that masked a lot of flaws. Can Greiss repeat his performance? Can Semyon Varlamov stay healthy enough and be good enough to match what Lehner did? If the answer to those questions turns out to be no, it could put a pretty significant dent in the Islanders’ ability to prevent goals.

This season will be a big test for just how much Trotz’s system and approach really improved the Islanders because they are bringing back largely the same team, except with a potentially lesser goalie.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure]

2. Who is going to score the goals?

It was a good thing for the Islanders that they were so good defensively last year because their offense was not particularly good. They finished the regular season 22nd in goals scored, 29th in shots on goal per game, and 29th on the power play. Among the 16 playoff teams no team was worse in those same areas.

What did the Islanders do to address that this offseason? Nothing.

They did manage to retain all of their top free agent forwards (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle) but they did not add a significant piece from outside the organization while several teams around them in their own division made significant additions.

There is reason to believe Mathew Barzal can have a bigger season, and that will certainly help. But Valtteri Filppula‘s 17 goals walked out the door in free agency and it seems possible, if not likely, that Casey Cizikas will regress after a completely unexpected 20 goal performance.

3. Will this be Josh Ho-Sang’s year?

One thing that could really help the Islanders’ offense? Josh Ho-Sang putting everything together and becoming a regular in the lineup. Ho-Sang’s young career with the Islanders has been a tumultuous one to this point as he’s never fully gained the trust of any of his coaches (or the organization as a whole) despite having a ton of talent and potential.

His offensive skills have never been in doubt, and he’s actually produced at a pretty solid rate at the NHL level. He has 24 points in 53 career games, a per-game average that comes out to around 37 points over 82 games. It may not seem like an eye-popping number, but keep in mind that only four Islanders recorded more than 37 points last season, and Ho-Sang has produced those numbeers despite getting limited minutes in his brief NHL action.

But his all-around game has never seemed to develop enough for the organization to fully commit to him. He just re-signed on a one-year contract on Monday and can not be sent to the American Hockey League without passing through waivers, so this is probably a make-or-break year for him with the Islanders.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL teams under pressure to win this season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we turn our focus to 10 teams that should be facing a lot of pressure for success during the 2019-20 season.

“Success” can mean different things for different teams and fanbases, and largely depends on what your expectations are for them. For some teams that are more established success is measured by winning it all right now. For others, it’s simply about making progress and getting closer to contender status.

We picked out 10 teams that are facing both types of pressure. Which teams are they?

To the rankings!

Pressure to compete for (or win) a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper this is the best, most complete team in hockey. The roster is loaded with stars in the prime of their career that have done everything in the NHL except win the Stanley Cup. Until they get it there is always going to be the “yeah, but…” that follows them around, especially now as they come off one of the most stunning postseason exits in NHL history. “Championship or bust” is usually an unfair mentality because it only sets you up for the inevitable disappointment that 30 teams will end their season with, but if it ever fairly applied to a team this would be the one.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs. The most hyped team in the league managed to get even stronger this offseason with the addition of Tyson Barrie to its blue line. It is time, though, for all of that potential to finally turn into something because right now this current core has nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and first-round exits to show for all of its talent.

3. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the 2018-19 season as a Stanley Cup favorite but faded in the second half, went out quietly in Round 1, and still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new contracts, a pair of deals that will quickly eat up their remaining salary cap space. They also lost a lot of minutes off of their blue line this summer and did not really do much to replace them.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Coming off of a Round 1 sweep against the New York Islanders, the Penguins traded a popular, productive player for a lesser player, signed another depth player to a long-term contract, and didn’t really do anything to improve a team that has its share of flaws and has drifted away from the recipe it found success with. They only have a few more years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and need to do everything they can to maximize them. Have they done that?

5. San Jose Sharks. Losing Joe Pavelski will be a big blow to the offense in the short-term, but this is still a Stanley Cup caliber team, and as long as Joe Thornton keeps returning (we are assuming he will again for at least one year) there is going to be pressure to finally get him a championship. They have everything they need to get there, except for maybe the goaltending, a position they still have not addressed.

Pressure to simply get better … right now

6. Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t know that expectations are necessarily high for the Blackhawks after back-to-back non-playoff seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman has put a lot of pressure on himself for the team to win. His offseason plan has focussed on the short-term and looks like a GM that think he still has a chance to win with his current core. If he is wrong, he is probably the next one to go.

7.  Edmonton Oilers. They changed the general manager and the head coach and both will have a little bit of a leash to turn this thing around. But they have already wasted three of Connor McDavid‘s first four seasons in the NHL by not even being close to competitive, and that is just something that can not continue. Getting a player like that is a gift and the Oilers are wasting it.

8. Buffalo Sabres. The Eastern Conference version of the Oilers, only worse. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season while the scorched earth rebuild that was supposed to turn things around has produced … nothing. Sabres fans have been ridiculously loyal and deserve a better product than they have been handed over the past decade.

9. New York Rangers. They had an incredible offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. It has absolutely accelerated the rebuild, but has it increased expectations too quickly? This is still a team with several holes and probably isn’t ready to compete just yet. But the pressure will be there, especially as the team still tries to compete in the final years of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career.

10. New Jersey Devils. The additions of top pick Jack Hughes, forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds, and defender P.K. Subban have quickly helped transform the Devils into a team worth watching, especially with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. Even with all of those additions there is still a big question mark in net and they HAVE to show they can win and compete if they have any chance of re-signing Hall. He is a star that has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is one year away from being able to pick his next spot. Winning would go a long way toward convincing him to stay.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.