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NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere

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“The No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft belongs to a team yet to be determined, coming from the qualifying round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

As surprising as it sounded when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly revealed the 2020 draft lottery winner, it was kind of a fitting for a not-so-normal season.

Alexis Lafreniere, the expected top pick in the 2020 draft, will have to wait a little longer to find out which team he’ll be playing. We’ll learn about that in the Phase 2 drawing, which will involve the losers of the eight Qualifying Round matchups.

According to the NHL, that will take place between the Qualifying Round and the First Round of the Return to Play. That means one of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Canucks, Coyotes, Flames, Hurricanes, Islanders, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Panthers, Penguins, Predators, Rangers, or Wild will own the No. 1 overall pick. The eight teams that end up being eligible for the lottery will have an equal 12.5% chance at Lafreniere.

But what if the COVID-19 pandemic the derails the NHL’s plans? The lottery would then include only the eight lowest teams by inverse of their regular season points percentage. That would mean Arizona, Chicago Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg would be in the running for the No. 1 pick.

In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the best possible landing spots for Lafreniere.

[Mock Draft: Projecting top picks for the 2020 NHL Draft]

1. Penguins: Imagine the reaction if the team with the seventh-best points percentage during the regular season wins the No. 1 pick? The franchise selected in the top two four drafts in a row from 2003-06, setting them up for three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still at the height of their powers, which means adding a potential young, elite winger — to a cap spending team on a cheap, entry-level contract for three seasons — would allow them to retain “contender” status even longer. Now imagine a Lafreniere – Crosby – Jake Guentzel top line.

2. Canucks: Vancouver owns a roster that is full of young talent and ready to take that next step into “annual playoff team” world. How does a Lafreniere – Elias PetterssonJ.T. Miller / Brock Boeser top line feel to you?

3. Canadiens: The Habs have not selected a Quebec-born player with their first pick since Louie Leblanc in 2009. He played only 50 games in Montreal and has been out of hockey since 2016. Montreal was supposed to host the 2020 draft, meaning Lafreniere missed out on that emotional moment of hearing his name announced in front of friends and family. “Hometown kid gets picked by local team” would be one of the bigger storylines out of this draft.

4. Oilers: One complaint about the construction of the Edmonton lineup was Connor McDavid didn’t have enough help. That’s improved as Leon Draisaitl has shown us. Adding Lafreniere would be another step in strengthening the roster around McDavid and Draisaitl so they don’t have to do it all themselves.

5. Rangers: The retooling-on-the-fly is moving in the right direction for GM Jeff Gorton. The Artemi Panarin signing made an immediate impact and the goalie picture seems clear with Igor Shesterkin‘s emergence. Kaapo Kakko struggled in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have the pressure of turning around the team single-handedly. Same could be said for Lafreniere, who would enter a market trending upward and, like Kakko, be allowed time to grow.

Getty Images

6. Hurricanes: An important part of the maturation of young players is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. Rod Brind’Amour does that in Carolina, and that would make a fine place for a top pick to settle. The Hurricanes are already filled with an abundance of young talent. Winning the No. 1 pick and adding Lafreniere to that mix would make them even bigger “jerks.”

7. Blackhawks: They’re 23rd in points percentage, so giving Chicago the top pick would fit with the “The draft should help the bad teams” crowd. Kirby Dach was picked third last year and Adam Boqvist was added at No. 8 in 2018. The Blackhawks are transitioning on the fly without making it a full-on rebuild. Their veterans are aging and they own some painful cap hits, but there is young talent coming through the ranks that could form a future core.

8. Jets: In a different world, the Jets actually won the draft lottery. Had the NHL gone with the traditional 16-team playoff format using points percentage and not added eight more teams, then Winnipeg would be Lafreniere’s future home. “Team E” was the placeholder that won the lottery with a 2.5% chance. That spot would have been held by the Jets in that scenario. Sure would be nice to see Lafreniere in a top six among Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine, no?

9. Maple Leafs: Toronto is going to be up against the cap ceiling, especially if it stays at $81.5M for the next few seasons. To stay as a contender that will require cheaper talent making an impact. Lafreniere would be dropped into the center — sorry, centre — of the hockey universe and not be dubbed as “the savior.” Between John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, there’s more than enough offensive weapons to allow the rookie ample time to find his role.

10. Blue Jackets: After losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in free agency, Columbus fought their way into playoff contention for most of the season. They also did it while seemingly losing players to injury every other day. If Jarmo Kekalainen could add a prize in Lafreniere to his prospect pool, it would go a long way to maintaining their momentum after a tough summer.

11. Coyotes: Should Taylor Hall decide to stay in Arizona, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Coyotes finding themselves firmly in playoff position next season. The organization has long possessed a strong prospect pipeline, and now there’s a good youth/veteran mix on the roster. A bounce-back season by Phil Kessel would only strengthen their case for a postseason berth.

Plus, we know what kind of lottery magic Hall possesses:

12. Panthers: Here’s the question for Florida: Is it better for the organization to win their Qualifying Round matchup with the Islanders, thereby making the playoffs, something the organization stressed following Joel Quenneville’s hiring, or is the 12.5% shot at Lafreniere a better option? Do you take the excitement of a series win over an 87.5% chance of ending up picking No. 9-15? Remember, they would also be involved in the lottery if the Return to Play plan does not go off.

13. Flames: If a Johnny Gaudreau trade does actually happen, I know of a talented winger who could slot into his place…

14. Islanders: Fortunately for the franchise, Lou Lamoriello lottery-protected the first-round pick he sent to Ottawa in the J.G. Paguea deal. If New York does get Lafreniere, that pick would transfer to 2021. If the Return to Play doesn’t happen, then the Senators would have a third first-rounder. A Lafreniere-Matt Barzal would be a fun duo to build around, and with Barry Trotz in charge the top pick will certainly be schooled in the ways of two-way hockey.

15. Predators: The cap picture is ugly, and while Nashville could use an elite prospect to help with their eventual turnaround,  how long will that take? David Poile will not be getting any relief via a rising cap ceiling any time soon. The franchise remains in “win now” mode, but in a highly competitive division how much would Lafreniere help immediately?

16. Wild: Kirill Kaprizov will arrive in the NHL one day. Eventually. This summer? Maybe next season? Anyhoo, he’s currently the big fish in the franchise’s prospect pond. With eight current skaters 30 or older, the Wild are desperate to get younger, faster and skilled. A Kaprizov/Lafreniere tandem would help in Bill Guerin’s reshaping of the roster. But with some long, heavy cap hits between Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mats Zuccarello, a turnaround may take some time.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
NHL Draft Lottery memories
Most exciting Qualifying Round series
Qualifying Round storylines
Off-season buyout candidates
Round Robin teams with most to lose

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kane, Blackhawks preparing for training camp 2.0

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CHICAGO — When Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks left the ice after their last game, they had little chance of making the playoffs.

Whenever they play their next game, it sure looks as if they will be one of 24 teams with a shot at the Stanley Cup.

Welcome to the strangest postseason berth in franchise history, one so unusual that it isn’t exactly a playoff appearance at the moment. Assuming everything goes according to plan and the final details are ironed out between the league and the players’ union, the Blackhawks will play Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five qualifier series for the playoff bracket.

”It’s been a weird three months,” Kane said during a video conference call with reporters.

No kidding.

Chicago hasn’t played since a 6-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks on March 11. The Blackhawks were last in the Central Division and 12th in the Western Conference standings when the NHL season was suspended the next day because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Blackhawks were awaiting word on the fate of their season, team president John McDonough was fired by owner Rocky Wirtz. Danny Wirtz, Rocky’s son and a vice president with the team, replaced McDonough on an interim basis.

Longtime general manager Stan Bowman called McDonough a mentor Thursday in his first public comments since the dismissal.

”I think he did a lot of great things for your organization, so I thank him from that perspective,” Bowman said. ”Similarly, I’ve had a chance, I’ve known Danny Wirtz for a few years now and I’ve had a chance over the last six weeks to work closely with Danny, Rocky as well. And they’ve been fantastic to me, too. So I look at this for me as the opportunity to learn from Danny.”

The surprise move could lead to dramatic changes for Chicago’s front office once the season is over. But Kane and Co. are hoping to put that off for a while.

The Blackhawks took two of three against Edmonton this season, winning 3-1 way back in October and 4-3 on March 5. They should get forward Drake Caggiula and defensemen Adam Boqvist and Calvin de Haan back for training camp 2.0 next month after they were sidelined by injuries when the season was suspended.

The 29-year-old de Haan was expected to miss the rest of the year after he had right shoulder surgery in December. His return could be particularly helpful for the Blackhawks as they try to slow McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who won his first Art Ross Trophy for leading the league with 110 points.

”Obviously, we’ve got to get him on the ice, go through camp, and hopefully everything continues to progress as far as his health,” Chicago coach Jeremy Colliton said. ”But I thought the games he did play he was steady back there.”

The Blackhawks started voluntary workouts this week, with Kane and fellow forward Alex DeBrincat among the first players to return to the team’s practice facility.

The dates and site for their series against Edmonton are still to be determined. But Kane thinks making the most of all the time before the games could be a big key to a deep playoff run.

”It’ll definitely be an advantage for a team that can come back and get together quickly and have a good training camp and kind of find their game right away,” he said. ”So I think it might be some surprises, you know, if we get down to playing.”

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Western Conference matchups

While a lot can change between now and actual, meaningful hockey happening, the NHL announced its return-to-play plans on Tuesday. That means we learned the 24 teams who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer, with 12 from the Western Conference and 12 from the East. We also learned about the seven teams who will have a long wait until next season, and how the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will be handled.

Most directly enticingly, we found out about eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play in round robin tournaments to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Western Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of the Blues, Avalanche, Golden Knights, and Stars.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Western Conference qualifying round matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups]

(5) Oilers vs. (12) Blackhawks

Regular season recap

The Oilers surged to the Pacific Division’s second spot on the strength of “The Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid Show.” A lot had to go right for that to happen, even beyond Draisaitl and McDavid dominating compared to their usual, lofty standards.

When it comes to judging the Blackhawks, it’s all about your expectations. If you were expecting the return of dynasty days, then sure, you’d be disappointed. Most have tempered such expectations, and with that in mind, the team at least found ways to scrap toward reasonable competitiveness. Sure, they can be a mess, but sometimes they snatched victory from the jaws of defensive defeat.

With a whopping 110 points, Draisaitl blazed by anyone else to win the Art Ross Trophy. No one else even crossed 100 points, as McDavid finished second in scoring with 97. Other Oilers didn’t provide much offense beyond Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (61 points), as Zack Kassian and Oscar Klefbom finished fourth on Edmonton with just 34.

The Blackhawks didn’t reach the same heights, but were similarly top-heavy. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews continue to run the show. Beyond them, Alex DeBrincat took a step back, but Dominik Kubalik emerged.

On paper, Chicago probably hopes to break even regarding special teams. Yes, both teams featured top-10 penalty kill units this season, but the Oilers boasted the most efficient power play in the NHL, while Chicago’s PP was almost the worst.

Even with Robin Lehner shipped away in a trade, the Blackhawks may hold a goaltending advantage. Corey Crawford finished 2019-20 on fire, while Edmonton’s options were merely average.

Season series

Blackhawks leads season series 2-1. Last meeting: Chicago won 4-3 on March 5.

Injured players who could return

Blackhawks: When Calvin de Haan underwent shoulder surgery in late December, it seemed to be season-ending. Now it’s not so clear. Concussions could be especially tricky to deal with in this climate, so we’ll see how Adam Boqvist comes along. One would think that Andrew Shaw and Brent Seabrook won’t be available, but who knows?

Oilers: Edmonton indicated that Mike Green and Joakim Nygard should both be ready for a return to play.

Storylines to Watch

Considering the gap between McDavid and Draisaitl vs. Kane and Toews, cynics might groan when things are framed as the battle between a dwindling dynamic duo and a rising one.

But … c’mon. It is fun to picture how those rising stars will try to learn new tricks from those old dogs. The truth is that Kane and especially Toews already “passed the torch,” yet this could be a lot of fun. Really, the (mostly) flawed rosters around both duos could make the battles more fun to watch.

I ranked this as the most exciting series of the Western Conference side, but click here to see if it got the overall nod.

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Predators Coyotes
(Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(6) Predators vs. (11) Coyotes

Regular season recap

After stumbling for much of the season, the Predators were starting to get their wits about them entering the pandemic pause. On the other hand, the Coyotes seemed to be running out of gas, and rank among the teams lucky to still be in the dance.

Even before COVID-19 disrupted life and sports, the Predators experienced plenty of drama. It says a lot about the ups and downs of the Predators’ season that they a) fired Peter Laviolette during the season, b) hired John Hynes, who was also fired during 2019-20, and c) managed to finish in the old wild-card setup entering the pause. Phew.

If you’re asking me, you need to squint to see major Predators improvements, unless you really have a thing for coaches benching star players.

That goes for Laviolette to Hynes, and also improving on issues from 2018-19. Despite adding Matt Duchene and removing P.K. Subban, the power play remains a drag. New issues surfaced, too, with Pekka Rinne‘s play sagging to a worrisome degree.

Speaking of things staying mostly the same … hey, at least the Predators still have that defense.  Mattias Ekholm‘s useful, yet Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis stood out the most. Check out where Ellis and Josi rank on Evolving Hockey’s GAR chart for all skaters, not just defensemen:

Evolving Hockey GAR Ellis Panarin Pettersson Josivia Evolving Hockey

Personally, the feeling with the Predators is “they made all of those changes to end up, basically, in the same spot?” You could say similar things about the Coyotes. Despite bringing in Phil Kessel and then Taylor Hall, the Coyotes continue to live off of goaltending (and to a lesser extent, defense).

At least Arizona’s goalies have delivered enough to make that living survivable, if not easy. Darcy Kuemper continued to quietly rank among the league’s best, while Antti Raanta came through when Kuemper got hurt.

Season series

The Coyotes and Predators split their season series 1-1. Nashville won the last meeting 3-2 on Dec. 23.

Injured players who could return

Coyotes: One would expect Conor Garland to be over his knee injury. Arizona should get young defenseman Jakob Chychrun back, too.

Predators: The 2019-20 season presented the Predators with injury issues, but they were healing up nicely around the time of the pause. Dan Hamhuis should probably be healed up, though.

Storylines to Watch

When you look at the way these teams are put together, both the Predators and Coyotes made bold moves to step forward. Instead, they’ve basically stood in place.

Will either team be able to argue that the gambles eventually paid off once play resumes? Can Duchene justify his price tag? Can Phil Kessel regain his scoring touch? How much money will Taylor Hall lose or gain in free agency?

The Predators and Coyotes have a lot to prove, and a lot to lose.

Also, “Coach vs. Player” doesn’t really do much for me when the two say glowing things about each other, but Hynes did coach Hall during Hall’s Hart season so …

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Canucks Wild
(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

(7) Canucks vs. (10) Wild

Regular season recap

As different as their paths and outlooks have been, it’s fascinating how little space there ended up being between the Canucks (78 points, 69 games played) and Wild (77 in 69 GP).

The Canucks already boast some of the premium pieces the sort-of-rebuilding Wild should clamor for. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes look like stars now, let alone later. Their development buoyed Jim Benning’s gambles, from ones that were brilliant (J.T. Miller, costly or not) to not-so-much (Tyler Myers, mainly costly). Pettersson, a few other skaters, and an on-point Jacob Markstrom have made things work just enough.

By most underlying measures, the Wild were actually a pretty competent team in 2019-20. They played well enough, collectively, that Bruce Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired. That’s just how it goes for coaches in the NHL, though, especially since Bill Guerin didn’t hire Boudreau. (Frankly, Jason Zucker wasn’t the problem either, but at least trading him seemed like a gesture toward rebuilding.)

Really, you could argue that Devan Dubnyk was as responsible as anyone for Boudreau getting fired. If the Wild played at about the level they did — including Kevin Fiala rising to something approaching a star level — Minnesota could be a fairly tough out.

They’ll need better goaltending, though, whether they hope Dubnyk can rebound, or they stick with Alex Stalock, who was increasingly grabbing starts.

Season series

Wild won two of the three games, although one of those victories came via a shootout. That aforementioned (Wild won 4-3 [SO]) happened during their most recent meeting on Feb. 19.

Injured players who could return

Canucks: It seems like Markstrom and Chris Tanev should probably be good to go from what seemed like minor, late-season injuries. The break could be beneficial for Micheal Ferland, who was dealing with concussion issues. Josh Leivo should be back.

Wild: Not much to speak of for Minnesota, as Eric Staal missed time for personal reasons. Staal spoke about that recently.

Storylines to Watch

Vancouver missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, and five of their last six. The Canucks also haven’t won a series since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final to the Bruins. As much as it sometimes feels like these youngsters are skipping to the front of line for Vancouver, Canucks fans must be getting antsy.

While it only seemed like the Wild were headed toward two consecutive seasons without postseason appearances, their larger decline extends further. Minnesota won two first-round series in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but otherwise haven’t seen much from the Zach PariseRyan Suter era. (Who, for all the negative talk around them, remain top contributors for the Wild.)

A Parise trade didn’t work out. Mikko Koivu did not get traded, whether the Wild wanted to or not. As badly as the Wild need a rebuild, this unexpected opportunity opens the door for a last hurrah.

So, will it be one more ride for the Wild, or a chance for the Canucks to take big steps toward an even bigger future?

Western Conference qualifying round matchups Jets Flames
(Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

(8) Flames vs. (9) Jets

Regular season recap

When considering the Flames’ 2019-20 season, don’t compare their work to 2018-19 alone. Unless you want to be sorely underwhelmed.

That’s because, frankly, multiple Flames put together career seasons they weren’t likely to replicate. You could argue that all of Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Giordano, Elias Lindholm, and Sean Monahan might have played over their heads last season. Those players cooled off considerably — maybe extremely — and the Flames suffered as a result.

In a twist, that drop-off didn’t explain why Bill Peters got fired.

Even so, that group remains pretty good, especially with Matthew Tkachuk steadily improving (and thus becoming that much more annoying). Cam Talbot‘s also been a nice addition for the Flames, who are seemingly always looking for that goalie.

That goalie in Winnipeg ranks as far and away the main reason the Jets didn’t totally crash. Connor Hellebuyck absolutely saved Winnipeg’s season, as the Jets were absolutely dreadful on defense. As in: even worse than you’d expect after subtracting Dustin Byfuglien (voluntarily or not), Jacob Trouba, and Tyler Myers.

As leaky as the Jets were on defense, they still have the fuel for serious offensive firepower, as Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Patrik Laine remained productive in 2019-20.

Season series

The Jets took the season’s only meeting 3-1 in overtime on Oct. 26.

Injured players who could return

Flames: The timetable seems right for Travis Hamonic to return. Noah Hanifin had also been dealing with some concussion issues.

Jets: How serious were Bryan Little‘s issues? If they were season-threatening, maybe he could come back? If they are closer to career-threatening, then who knows? Perhaps we’ll learn more in the next few weeks.

Storylines to Watch

Last season, the Flames ranked first in the Western Conference, while the Jets managed 99 points. For all the disappointments in 2019-20, and even with some key omissions in mind, it’s not that difficult to imagine both teams putting something special together.

Two star-packed teams hoping to make the most of what is pretty close to a clean slate? That could be fun. Really, it could actually be the most exciting series for the Western Conference side if everything clicks.

Besides, Patrik Laine might say funny things, and Matthew Tkachuk has all that pent-up pandemic pest energy to release. (OK, that last part has me worried.)

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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 Power Rankings: Teams with the best long-term outlook

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the teams with the best long-term outlook.

How are we defining long-term outlook? Pretty simple, and it comes down to one fairly important question: Does this team have a chance to win the Stanley Cup (or two Stanley Cups) over the next five years.

That takes into account talent currently on the roster, talent coming through the farm system, salary cap situation, and pretty much everything else that is required to win it all.

Where does your favorite team sit?

To the rankings!

1. Colorado Avalanche. Unless they royally screw it up somehow this is the ideal situation in both the short-and long-term. They could win the Stanley Cup as soon as this season, and should be a constant contender for the next five years (and more). They have superstar players just now entering their prime, they have great young players on cheap deals and a nice pipeline of talent coming through the system, and they have a great cast of complementary players around the stars. Nearly every core player is signed long-term and they have a ton of salary cap flexibility to add players where needed.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have been one of the best teams in the NHL for more than five seasons now and are still searching for that championship for this particular core. Even with their recent postseason shortcomings this core is still absolutely good enough to get it done, they are still mostly in their primes, and signed long-term. Salary cap situation will be tight, but they have elite players at every position on the ice and plenty of depth.

3. Boston Bruins. A Stanley Cup Finalist a year ago and the best team in the NHL this season. The Bruins are one of the league’s elite teams and well positioned to compete for the foreseeable future. The only thing that might start to slow them down is the age of some of their top players and a few questions beyond this season (contract status for their goalies, adding depth within the salary cap).

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. As long as they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel performing the way they have been they are going to be in a position to compete. There will come a time in the next few years where the former three really start to slow down (or maybe even retire) but that time is not here yet.

5. Washington Capitals. Similar outlook as the Penguins, where as long as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, and T.J. Oshie are doing their thing they are going to be in the mix for the Stanley Cup. They also have a really nice wave young talent starting to emerge with players like Ilya Samsonov and Jakub Vrana.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs. At some point they have to get through Round 1 of the playoffs, and until they do they will be a postseason punchline. But I like to bet on talent, and Toronto, even for all of its flaws, has a ton of talent. Championship talent. The big contracts at the top will require some creative salary cap maneuvering, but every team that wins a Stanley Cup has a similar roster construction with a small number of players eating up a significant portion of salary cap space. That concern is overblown.

7. St. Louis Blues. I like the Blues in the short-term. I like their chances to repeat this season, especially in the Western Conference. But they have some big free agents to deal with in the coming years and that creates at least a little bit of long-term uncertainty. They are not going away yet. But they do have some big questions to answer down the line (Alex Pietrangelo, the goalies, Jaden Schwartz, David Perron, etc.)

8. Carolina Hurricanes. A team that has been on the rise for a while and arrived last season with a stunning trip to the Eastern Conference Final. The Hurricanes have a great young nucleus in place with a sensational defense and a handful of outstanding young forwards led by Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and an emerging superstar in Andrei Svechnikov.

9. Philadelphia Flyers. There is a lot to like in Philadelphia right now. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracak can still be impact players in the short-term, while they have two front-line players in Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny in the prime of their careers. The X-factors here are the trio of Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, and Carter Hart. If they progress and become the players the Flyers hope they will that can be a game-changer in Philadelphia. That is especially true as it relates to Hart.

10. Vegas Golden Knights. An outstanding team in a very winnable division. The big concern here is that it is a little bit of an older team with several players in their core starting to approach age 30 and beyond.

11. New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin is one of the league’s most best offensive players, but what truly makes this team fascinating going forward is the young talent around him. They have two outstanding young goalies (Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev), an emerging star on defense in Adam Fox, and a potential superstar in Kaapo Kakko.

12. Edmonton Oilers. It is very tempting to put them higher on the list because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are that good. They are the best 1-2 punch in the league, and in theory that should give them a great window to compete in. But there remains a lot of questions after them.

13. Calgary Flames. They are not as good as their 2018-19 record and they are probably a little better than they have showed this season. There is a good core in place, as long as they do not do something outrageous like trade Johnny Gaudreau, or something.

14. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes is a potential championship trio, and 2019 first-round pick Vasili Podkolzin has enormous potential for when he makes the jump to North America. They still have a lot of work to do around that young core, though.

15. Florida Panthers. This season has been a massive disappointment, but Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are an amazing steals at the top of the lineup which gives them a huge advantage.

16. Nashville Predators. A tough team to get a feel for long-term. I like their talent, I think they still have a chance to compete for a title, but I also wonder if they already missed their best opportunity.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets. There is some really good talent here, and the defense duo of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski is tremendous. The performance of the goalies in the short-term will dictate a lot.

18. Dallas Stars. I feel like they need more impact talent at forward. Tyler Seguin is still really good, but Alexander Radulov isn’t getting any younger. John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen are the long-term faces of the franchise. A lot of their success this season is goaltending driven, and that’s fine in the short-term, but you can’t rely on that every single season.

19. New York Islanders. Given the current construction of the roster the Islanders are positioned to be a fringe playoff team, but lacking the superstar talent to really become a true Stanley Cup contender.

20. New Jersey Devils. Sometimes timing is everything. The Devils have had two of the past three No. 1 overall picks, but they did not have them in a year where there wasn’t a Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, or even a Steven Stamkos available. Nico Hischier is outstanding, and Jack Hughes has the potential to be there, but there are some big questions around them.

21. Winnipeg Jets. Love the forward talent, really like the goalie, but have some serious concerns on defense. Like Nashville, I think we may have seen this team miss its best shot.

22. Chicago Blackhawks. The window slammed shut rapidly and brutally. They still have some high-end players, and Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach have big-time potential, but this is going to be three consecutive non-playoff seasons and five years without a playoff series win. Not sure if the window opens backup anytime soon. By the time Dach and Boqvist become stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews might be slowing down.

23. San Jose Sharks. I could see the Sharks rebounding next season and being a playoff team again, but the age of their core and the salary cap situation with some of those contracts is a long-term concern.

24. Minnesota Wild. I’m still having a hard time seeing the long-term direction here or where this team is going. Not a bad team. Not a great team. Just sort of stuck in the middle.

25. Arizona Coyotes. This is not a bad team, and there is definitely upside here, but if they can not re-sign Taylor Hall they will have a glaring lack of impact talent at forward and without some significant luck in the draft lottery will not be in a position to add any anytime soon.

26. Montreal Canadiens. They have good players and Marc Bergevin has made his share of good moves, but the end result is never anything other than mediocrity. That is a difficult cycle to get out of.

27. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin should be a reason for optimism, but there is no sign that ownership or management knows how to properly build around them.

28. Detroit Red Wings. The current roster is not good but they have draft assets and one of the most respected general managers in the league. The salary cap situation is also better than it looked a year or two ago. They are still a LONG way from contention.

29. Los Angeles Kings. They are finally starting to lean into the rebuild and have an interesting farm system, but it is going to take some time.

30. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have had a pretty great run throughout the salary cap era, winning a Stanley Cup, making three other Western Conference Finals, and almost always being a playoff team. But that chapter has closed and it is time for a new beginning and a rebuild.

31. Ottawa Senators. There should be reason for optimism here. There are some really good young players in place, they have salary cap space, but it all starts at the top with ownership. It is really tough to buy into them long-term for that reason.

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.

Blackhawks, Ian Mitchell agree to entry-level contract

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks have agreed to an entry-level contract with defenseman Ian Mitchell, one of their top prospects.

The team announced the three-year deal on Monday. The start date and average annual value is up in the air because the NHL season is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mitchell joins a promising group of young defensemen that includes 19-year-old Adam Boqvist, a first-round pick in the 2018 draft. Nicolas Beaudin, who doesn’t turn 21 until October, also could be a factor as soon as next season.

Mitchell, 21, was selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2017 draft. He was a first-team All-American during his junior year at the University of Denver, collecting 10 goals and 22 assists during the regular season. He also served as team captain.

He finished his career with the Pioneers with 18 goals and 71 assists in 116 games.