NHL Mock Draft: Wright, Slafkovský, Cooley top 2022 class

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With 2022 NHL Draft this week, the team at McKeen’s Hockey has prepared a mock draft to give you an idea of how the first day could unfold. Director of Scouting, Brock Otten, Director of Video Scouting, Will Scouch, Video Scout, Sam McGilligan and Publisher Robert Howard got together and made our picks for whom we thought best matched the team on the clock. It was a fun and interesting process. They certainly do not mirror our McKeen’s rankings, which are not trying to predict the draft, but which prospects will develop into NHL players and at what level in five years’ time. ]

Every NHL team has its own list, its own goals, and surprises are expected, so, enjoy our best guess on who your teams next great hope is going to be. 

The McKeen’s team has published our annual NHL Draft Guide which includes profiles on over 300 players, feature articles plus much more. It is available as a direct download with a subscription, or on its own. You can learn more here.

1. Montreal Canadiens (Sam McGilligan) Shane Wright, C, Kingston (OHL)

The decision to select Shane Wright is an easy one. There’s a reason he was deemed the potential first overall for the years leading up to this draft and it’s because of his impeccable understanding of the game, killer release and the most pro-ready playstyle of the entire draft. There’s a level of safety and projectability in every one of his strengths and while weaknesses do exist, they aren’t anything significant enough to reasonably predict Wright struggling in the NHL. The floor here is a low level second line center, and some may wince reading that knowing this is a first overall pick who is supposed to alter a franchise. 

Make no mistake, Wright has that potential on the same level that guys like Juraj Slafkovský and Logan Cooley do as well, it just doesn’t show up on the highlight reel in as pretty a fashion. We may never truly know how much his development was impacted by the OHL shut down last year, but it is safe to infer that Wright’s scoring numbers suffered as a result. There’s a world where that shutdown doesn’t happen and Wright continuously builds momentum all the way to this very week with much higher scoring totals, ending the debate before it even has a chance to begin. Considering the upside and the level of safety, the No. 1 pick is a no brainer even if he doesn’t end up as the best player in the class.

2. New Jersey Devils (Brock Otten) – Juraj Slafkovský, LW, TPS (Liiga)

There are just so many options for what happens with this pick. Do the Devils deal it for some form of immediate help as speculated? Who goes first and what kind of impact does that have on this selection? In this mock, Wright goes first so the Devils take Slafkovský second. Slaf is the draft’s most NHL ready prospect thanks to his size, speed, and skill combination. What he has been able to do playing against high caliber competition at the Olympics and at the World Championships is mighty impressive. Sure New Jersey may be looking to deal this pick, but the irony of that is that Slafkovský might just be an ideal fit to play alongside the Devils’ group of talented, but undersized centers.

3. Arizona Coyotes (Will Scouch) – Logan Cooley, C, USN U18 (USNTDP)

This one’s pretty easy to me. Arizona needs, well, everything. Cooley has an excellent combination of skill, creativity, dynamic pace and impressive offense tools and if Arizona can draft other skilled, high pace players who can finish and chip in defensively a bit on Cooley’s wing, he could be one of the most productive players in the draft. One of the most efficient offensive transition players I’ve tracked with a heck of a playmaking mind, Cooley is a great building block to get the Coyotes pointed in the right direction with an exciting streak to his game putting bums in seats.

4. Seattle Kraken (Brock Otten) – David Jiříček, D, HC Plzeň (Cze)

Seems fairly likely that the Kraken look for a defender to build their team around here. You have Jiříček, Nemec, Mintyukov, and even Kevin Korchinski (in their backyard) available. Something tells me that Ron Francis and his director of scouting Robert Kron (a fellow Czech) might favor Jiříček and his two-way upside. He finished the year fairly strong after returning from a knee injury and he may offer the largest boom potential of any defender available this year.

[For more coverage of top prospects and the 2022 NHL Draft, follow McKeen’s Hockey on Twitter]

5. Philadelphia Flyers (Robert Howard) – Šimon Nemec, D, HK Nitra (Svk)

The Flyers will be sorely tempted by Cutter Gauthier here as a fixture at center ice in the future, however, they could use depth at all positions. The most recent rumblings out of the organization are more about adding pieces to win now and perhaps short-term needs will outweigh future options. Nemec may represent the best player available at this point, and a potential future cornerstone on defense with solid two-way play and considerable upside on offense. Playing against men in Slovakia’s pro league for a second season, he scored 26 points in 39 games and set a league record for scoring by a defenseman in the playoffs. He could be making an important contribution on the back end within a couple of seasons. 

cutter gauthier
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6. Columbus Blue Jackets (via Chicago) (Brock Otten) – Cutter Gauthier, LW/C, USN U18 (USNTDP)

There is some talk that Gauthier might not be available even this late, but if he is, I think the Jackets make him their selection. There may be a pull towards drafting a defender here who can help quarterback the powerplay (like Korchinski or Mintyukov), however Gauthier looks like an ideal pro. His game is tailored to having a long and impactful NHL career thanks to a well-rounded skill set. He is one of the better goal scorers available this year and his off-puck play is strong. The jury is still out on whether he can play down the middle, but if you are drafting him this early, you envision that. 

7. Ottawa Senators (Sam McGilligan) – Marco Kasper, C, Rögle BK (SHL)

Kasper has been an interesting player to see ascend up the boards of draft scouts. The reason for his rise is simple — he just spent an entire season playing projectable, professional hockey in Sweden and continuously improved all year long. Not only do his strengths carry over to a smaller ice surface, some think he may even benefit from the change. Where Kasper starts to lose some scouts is his level of upside. Some believe he’s already in the final stages of his development and anything that’s left is simply polishing his play to the level that the NHL demands, leaving him likely to be a middle six center at best. Others are more confident in his upside and believe there’s another level Kasper can bring his game to. The latter would take him this early, and that’s exactly the type of drafting the Senators have been known for in recent years. Kasper joins the line of safe players with reasonable upside that the development team believes might take a step forward. If Kasper slips past Ottawa, I don’t think it takes much longer for him to end up selected this year. 

8. Detroit Red Wings (Brock Otten) – Pavel Mintyukov, D, Saginaw (OHL)

I have a feeling that the Wings have their eye on one of Gauthier or Kasper, but with both gone, they turn their attention to a player right in their backyard. The Saginaw Spirit and Red Wings have had a long-standing relationship and there is no doubt that they have a ton of intel on Mintyukov. His offensive upside is through the roof due to his creativity and playmaking abilities. The defensive game needs refinement, but he is a moldable player who could look terrific beside Moritz Seider in the future.

9. Buffalo Sabres (Will Scouch) – Matthew Savoie, C, Winnipeg (WHL)

This one is just all about upside. Savoie at ninth seems like great value, and while there may be some questions about his likelihood of hitting his production potential due to a lack of separation speed, but to me, that’s just one glaring hole in an otherwise excellent talent profile. He’s one of the most agile and daring players available in the draft, showing me an ability to create plays as well as generate chances for himself over the season. He’s exciting, could play center or wing, and would provide a great offensive boost to the Sabres’ future to complement the more well-rounded forwards they drafted in 2021. Savoie’s defensive game is underrated as well, so I get the feeling that patching his game up here and there while encouraging him to remain creative could do wonders for him.

10. Anaheim Ducks (Brock Otten) – Joakim Kemell, RW, JYP (Liiga)

At this spot in the draft, I see the Ducks targeting one of the many quality goal scoring wingers available this year. The thing that likely draws them to Kemell (even if the Ducks haven’t drafted a ton out of Finland in recent years) is that he’s fairly competitive. Despite a lack of size, he works hard to get to the middle of the ice and his shot is among the best in the draft. How good would Kemell look alongside Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish in the future? 

11. San Jose Sharks (Rob Howard) – Jonathan Lekkerimäki, RW, Djurgårdens (SWE J20)

The Sharks were encouraged by the progress of last year’s first round pick in William Eklund from Djurgårdens and hope to see him graduate as soon as this season. For this reason, they were thrilled when one of the best, natural goal scorers in the draft, and Eklund’s teammate, is available in Lekkerimäki at 11. He is young, just turning 18 in July, and needs to add strength but has not shied away from traffic in the Swedish men’s league. He brings the unteachable instincts of a goal scorer, along with the best shot in the draft. He and Eklund will be formidable on the power play in time.

12. Columbus Blue Jackets (Brock Otten) – Kevin Korchinski, D, Seattle (WHL)

Getting Korchinski this late would be great value for the Jackets after taking Gauthier earlier at sixth. One of the draft’s biggest risers over the course of the year, Korchinski is a terrific puck mover and powerplay quarterback. There are some concerns over his decision making and defensive play, but his improvement over the course of the season was encouraging. Plus, it is rare to get a high-end puck mover with his size and athleticism.

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13. New York Islanders (Sam McGilligan) – Conor Geekie, C, Winnipeg (WHL)

Geekie is an enigmatic center to say the least. His draft range is monstrous, stretching from a possible top ten pick to a late first. This monstrous range exists because there is such a wide spectrum of outcomes with Geekie, with a fringe bottom six physical presence on one end and a polished top six monster with skill and size on the other. While he may not be there yet, a team that trusts their developmental program to create such a nuisance will show no hesitation to selecting Geekie in the top half of the draft. The Islanders match that description as best as anyone left on the board does. 

14. Winnipeg Jets (Brock Otten) – Danila Yurov, RW, Stalnye Lisy (MHL)

Someone is going to do it. Even with the recent (and horrific) news surrounding Flyers’ prospect Ilya Fedotov. If Yurov is still available, I like him for the Jets. A) They have shown little fear of selecting high end Russian prospects in recent years. B) This is a team about to hit a crossroads between rebuilding and remaining competitive. They really need to hit a home run and Yurov is a top five talent this year when you eliminate politics. Taking a chance on him makes sense.

15. Vancouver Canucks (Will Scouch) – Brad Lambert, C, JYP-Pelicans (Liiga)

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Lambert’s potential. I’ve heard many people come and tell me he’s the next Andreas Athanasiou, but I get the feeling Lambert would have smashed Athanasiou’s OHL production in his draft year had he played in the WHL this year, and even if that’s his potential, an offensive, speedy forward putting up 40-50 points a season consistently coming out of the middle of the first round doesn’t sound that terrible to me. Lambert’s speed is utilized at times defensively that I’d love to see more, and Vancouver is just swinging for upside here. Nobody combines skill and speed better, and nobody had as unlucky and mystifying a season as Lambert. Against junior competition, the points flowed. Against men, he tried, but in my viewings had very little to work with. There are improvements to be made, but if I’m Vancouver, I’m taking advantage of everyone overcorrecting on Lambert and moving the team in a more exciting, high upside direction.

16. Buffalo Sabres (via Vegas) (Brock Otten) – Denton Mateychuk, D, Moose Jaw (WHL)

Where Mateychuk goes at the draft is one of the draft’s biggest mysteries. His rankings are all over the map and are likely to be among NHL organizations too. It comes down to whether you think he can defend at the NHL level, because there is no question that his offensive abilities should translate well. With a few strong defensive prospects and young defenders in the system already, Buffalo can afford to take a chance here on someone we feel (at McKeen’s) has among the highest upside of any defender available.

17. Nashville Predators (Rob Howard) – Noah Östlund, C, Djurgardens (SWE J20)

An aging defense core might suggest they are looking at defense, but with Mateychuk and Korchinski off the board, they look to add some creativity to the forward group, targeting a player with significant upside. Östlund has been climbing draft boards rapidly, progressing consistently throughout the season. His outstanding performance at the U18 World Championship with 10 points in six games demonstrated some ability to rise to the occasion at big events. A very intelligent playmaker and offensive creator, there are not many players with as solid a skill set, combining elite vision with clever stickhandling, precise passing and a gift for finding opportunities. Size registers as a concern, and his ability to handle the physical game at a higher level, but the home run potential at this stage of the draft is just too tempting to pass up. 

18. Dallas Stars (Brock Otten) – Ivan Miroshnichenko, LW, Omskie Krylya (VHL)

Talk about draft wild cards. Miroshnichenko is the ultimate one. You have the Russian factor. You have his cancer diagnosis (which looks incredibly encouraging, thankfully). You have his mysterious VISA issues in regard to entering the United States and Canada. However, you also have a big, power, goal scoring winger with good wheels who is a top ten talent this year. If there is a team positioned to take a chance on a Russian player, it is the Stars. This organization has drafted unbelievably well in recent years and now find themselves swimming in quality forward prospects. Denis Gurianov hasn’t really worked out quite as well as they may have anticipated, but I don’t think that can completely sour you on Miroshnichenko if you think he is going to be a high-end NHL player.

19. Minnesota Wild (via Los Angeles) (Sam McGilligan) – Liam Öhgren, LW, Djurgårdens (SWE J20)

Öhgren is one of my favourite players in the draft, one that is likely to go higher in the draft than Bob McKenzie’s final list would indicate. This Swedish winger tore up the Swedish J20 last year at an absurd pace while also playing SHL games and demonstrating his ability to translate his game to a professional environment. What makes Öhgren one of the best value picks this late in the draft is how reliable his projection to the NHL is — he’s almost certainly a lock to play in the show and do so in a third line capacity at least. But there’s real top six possibility here that I’m willing to bet he reaches due to how detailed his ability to find space is and how well he deceptively executes plays that benefit the whole team from within this space. Öhgren is a real 5v5 phenom that contenders want in their top six, and he’s one of the easiest picks you can make in this range with a smile on your face.

20. Washington Capitals (Brock Otten) – Nathan Gaucher, C, Québec (QMJHL)

I mocked this same selection in an earlier mock for NBC and I’ve seen it in others too. I think it makes a lot of sense. The Caps have been heavily invested in scouting the Q in recent years. They also have seen teams beat them with Gaucher type players occupying a spot through the middle of their lineup. This is the ideal pro player for today’s playoffs. Gaucher is big, physical, intelligent, and quick. He could be the perfect lockdown third line center for them…and he could move quickly through the system too.

21. Pittsburgh Penguins (Will Scouch) – Frank Nazar, C, USN U18 (USNTDP)

How did Nazar fall all the way to 21 here? Sheesh. Nazar may not be huge, and he may want to play a game bigger than he is, but size just does not scare me nearly as much. Nazar is a great straight-line skater, one of the fastest blueline to blueline that I tracked of high end talents this year, with excellent individual chance generation offensively. I’d like to see a bit more intensity and physical strength away from the puck, but Nazar plays a strong offensive grinder’s game and with crossover/agility improvements, you could unlock a ton of potential from Nazar over time. Pittsburgh just takes the swing on the guy many rightfully have ranked much higher than this, and I get the feeling his brand of play would go over just fine with Penguins fans.

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22. Anaheim Ducks (via Boston) (Brock Otten) – Lian Bichsel, D, Leksands (SHL)

While I’m a little skeptical of Bichsel’s upside, it seems almost certain that someone will take a chance on him early. The puck skill is a work in progress, but the defensive game shows massive potential thanks to his size, athleticism, and physicality combination. I could see the Ducks favoring someone like Ryan Chesley more here, but something tells me that Bichsel’s bigger frame might appeal to them as they look for future defensive partners for guys like Jamie Drysdale and Olen Zellweger.

23. St. Louis Blues (Rob Howard) – Jiří Kulich, C, Karlovy Vary (Cze)

Another player who significantly enhanced his draft stock at the U18 World Championship earning tournament MVP while scoring with nine goals and 11 points in six games. A goal scorer who fits St. Louis’s style. He is tenacious and aggressive and plays with pace, hustling for loose pucks, working along the boards and can be difficult to separate from the puck. He can play center or wing and is solidly built and makes for a projectable pick with a reasonable floor, but also the ability to find the back of the net. Goal scorers are always a welcome addition, and he will fit well on an attack with Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou, and Jake Neighbours for years to come. 

24. Minnesota Wild (Brock Otten) – Isaac Howard, LW, USN U18 (USDP)

Lots of connections here. Howard has played his minor hockey in Minnesota. He is attending Minnesota-Duluth. Best of all, his skill set as an intelligent and creative complementary winger fits in really well with what they currently have in the cupboard. Between him and Öhgren (who they took earlier), the Wild really cover their bases in regard to high IQ future top six wingers. 

25. Toronto Maple Leafs (Will Scouch) – Lane Hutson, D, USN U18 (USNTDP)

I’ll never ever doubt Kyle Dubas’ scouting team again after pulling a rabbit out of their hat last summer in Matt Knies, who I was and continue to be extremely perplexed by, so I have no idea where Toronto actually goes here, and part of me thought “draft a forward” here, but I also never recommend drafting on current need, especially at 25. Hutson has enormous potential waiting to be unlocked by more powerful skating to generate speed and escape pressure better. The shiftiness, creativity, deception and skill are basically unmatched this year, and his improvement on paper in my work over the season is impossible to ignore. Similar to Savoie, there are some glaring holes, but patching those holes could give Toronto a clear offensive threat off the blueline that they haven’t really had outside of Morgan Rielly, and when Hutson likely hits NHL ice, Rielly will likely be at the tail end of his best years.

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26. Montreal Canadiens (via Calgary) (Brock Otten) – Rutger McGroarty, LW, USN U18 (USNTDP)

If the Canadiens do take Wright first over Slafkovský, it seems only fitting that they target a player like McGroarty with their other first round selection. Sure, the footspeed is an issue. However, the rest of his game is extremely well rounded. This is one of the smartest players available this year. A true power forward who can play in any situation, McGroarty should become a fan favourite in Montreal. 

27. Arizona Coyotes (via Carolina) (Sam McGilligan) – Ryan Chesley, D, USN U18 (USNTDP)

Chesley is the type of defenseman that NHL teams don’t let slip out of the first round often. He’s a physical entity that offers a legitimate defensive presence at the NHL level beyond that of your average third pairing guy. It’s not just securing his own zone that makes Chesley a first-round draw — he certainly has some offensive upside as well that can be developed and nurtured over the next few years due to an underrated passing game and a solid set of hands. Considering the surplus of picks that Arizona has in this draft and the sheer volume of high upside swings they can take after this pick, I say being able to convert a late first round pick into a stable, reliable mid-tier defender that you have cost control over for a few years is a win.

28. Buffalo Sabres (via Florida) (Brock Otten) – Owen Pickering, D, Swift Current (WHL)

When you have three first round picks, you can take some chances. Insert Pickering. He has one of the most intriguing skill sets of any defender available this year thanks to an extremely late (and massive) growth spurt. He flashes some really excellent skills at both ends of the ice, but consistency is an issue at this point in time. Once he matures physically and fills out, could Pickering be a two-way monster? Between him and Mateychuk, the Sabres should at least get one high end NHL defender. 

29. Edmonton Oilers (Will Scouch) – Jack Hughes, C, Northeastern (HE)

Edmonton perplexes me with their draft strategy under Ken Holland, but they gravitate towards a few NCAA names here and there with well-rounded skillsets, even if they don’t excel in certain areas. I think people are a little low on Hughes, even if I have him ranked a bit later. The production wasn’t quite there, but I love the skill and pace in Hughes’ game. He’s a good two-way force up the middle who could also slot in on the wing if need be. There’s offensive upside with the creativity he displayed in flashes but getting stronger to get to more dangerous space and trusting his skill and agility to create passing lanes a bit better could significantly help him drive better results.

30. Winnipeg Jets (via NYR) (Brock Otten) – Jimmy Snuggerud, RW, USN U18 (USNTDP)

Snuggerud is one of those guys that NHL scouts are bound to like more than independent, amateur ones simply because his game lacks flash, but is tailored to playing at the pro level. A high-level thinker, Snuggerud is terrific off the puck and he has improved tremendously on the puck over the last year with the USNTDP. His skating has also come a long way…but will need to come further. It is easy to see Snuggerud as a middle-six fixture in the future. After taking a risk with Yurov, the Jets find safety in the selection of Snuggerud.

31. Tampa Bay Lightning (Rob Howard) – Jagger Firkus, RW, Moose Jaw (WHL)

Winning two Stanley Cups and advancing to the final in a third year will have an impact on the prospect cupboard as picks are used as currency for immediate roster needs. Picking in the first round for the first time since 2019, and without a first pick in 2022 and 2023, they need to make this one count. They do not pick again until the fourth round, making Firkus a perfect fit here with tremendous offensive upside that with the right development can be right up there with most in this draft class. One of the leading U18 scorers in the entire CHL, he brings a well-rounded offensive skill set as an equally adept goal scorer and playmaker. McKeen’s ranked him at No. 20, and he may fall in the draft because he is undersized. Tampa has made the most of that type of prospect in the past and will maximize his sizable talent. 

32. Arizona Coyotes (via Colorado) (Brock Otten) – Filip Mešár, C, HK Poprad (Svk)

The Coyotes have so many selections for this draft. It really is absurd. It will be a monumental and critical day for the franchise. With three first round picks and a bunch of early seconds, you know they will take some chances on high upside guys. Fortunately, at this spot, Mešár is both a high upside guy and someone many would consider the best player available. The Slovak winger loves to push the pace of play and is a skilled transitional attacker. How the rest of his game comes together remains to be seen. However, this is a nice gamble for Arizona to close out the first round.

If you’re looking for more prospect or fantasy hockey information, NBC Sports Edge is a great resource.

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    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.

    Avalanche spoil Kuemper’s return, top Capitals 3-2 as Bednar sets mark

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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    DENVER – Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Alex Newhook scored against former teammate Darcy Kuemper and the surging Colorado Avalanche held off the Washington Capitals 3-2 to give coach Jared Bednar his franchise-record 266th victory.

    Logan O'Connor added two assists, Nathan MacKinnon had an assist for his 700th point and Alexandar Georgiev made 37 saves in the Avs’ season-best sixth straight victory. They moved into third place in the Central Division, one point ahead of Minnesota.

    Bednar, coaching his 500th game for Colorado, improved to 266-185-49 and passed former Quebec Nordiques boss Michel Bergeron for the most coaching victories in franchise history.

    Alex Ovechkin returned from an injury to score his 31st goal for Washington. Conor Sheary also scored and Kuemper stopped 23 shots in his first game in Denver since helping the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in June.

    The crowd stood and applauded after a first-period video tribute for Kuemper, who won 37 games in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs.

    The Avs chose not to re-sign Kuemper, who then inked a five-year deal with the Capitals in July.

    He had his moments against his former team, including nifty glove saves against Jacob MacDonald and Lehkonen in the second period to keep it a one-goal game. But Newhook’s goal with 4:21 left in the second made it 3-1.

    The depleted Capitals dominated the third period but still lost for the fifth time in seven games.

    Ovechkin’s one-timer at 9:44 of the third was his 811th goal after he missed his first game of the season Saturday with a lower-body injury. But Washington was without T.J. Oshie, who left to be with his wife for the birth of their fourth child. And Nicklas Backstrom was a late scratch with a non-COVID illness.

    Then Tom Wilson exited in the second period after blocking a shot and underwent an X-ray between periods.

    The Avalanche, who haven’t trailed during their win streak, solved Kuemper at 8:57 of the first when MacKinnon absorbed a big hit from Dmitry Orlov and fed Lehkonen for his 15th goal and sixth in six games.

    Cogliano redirected Kurtis MacDermid‘s shot 2:04 into the second to make it 2-0. Sheary cut the. lead in half when he tipped in Martin Fehervary‘s shot for his 12th goal just over two minutes later.

    HE BROKE THE CUP

    It also marked the return of Washington’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had 22 points in 67 games for the Avs in 2021-22, He’s remembered for dropping and denting the Cup during the on-ice celebration.

    “It’s part of my journey here,” a smiling Aube-Kubel said of his fumble, adding the season was “the best time of my life.”

    NOTES: Avs D Cale Makar (upper body) practiced Monday and took part in the morning skate, but missed his fourth straight game. … Avs W Anton Blidh cleared waivers and skated on the fourth line. … Aliaksei Protas centered Washington’s third line in his first NHL action since Jan. 5 and was robbed by Georgiev in the first period. … The Capitals have only four games left outside the Eastern time zone.

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    Capitals: Host Pittsburgh.

    Avalanche: Host Anaheim.