Ben Bishop

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Central Recasting: Division rivals ready to challenge Blues

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The NHL isn’t a copycat league. It’s a response league.

After the big and gritty St. Louis Blues muscled their way to the Stanley Cup, division rivals have responded in different ways.

The Nashville Predators inked top free agent center Matt Duchene ; the Dallas Stars beefed up with tough, playoff-tested scorers Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry; the Minnesota Wild got faster by signing Mats Zuccarello; the Colorado Avalanche replenished their scoring depth up front by trading for Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky and signing Joonas Donskoi; and the Chicago Blackhawks went bargain hunting and ended up with Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Robin Lehner.

There is no precise blueprint on challenging a champion. Teams in the East tried to ratchet up the speed and skill to keep up with the 2016 and 2017 Cup-winning Penguins, and Pittsburgh spent the past year adding size and toughness to go toe to toe with the Washington Capitals after they won.

Now the Central Division is stacked with the reigning Blues, Stars, Avalanche, Wild, Predators, Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets ready to battle it out just to make the playoffs next season. Pacific powerhouses San Jose and Vegas lost some talent in free agency , and hockey’s balance of power has tilted further toward the Central.

”Everyone is a contender before the season starts,” said Zuccarello, who left the Stars for the Wild. ”A playoff spot is where to start and then everyone knows once we get to the playoff it’s about momentum and confidence. You never know what’s going to happen. Take St. Louis. Nobody thought they were going to get to the playoffs on Jan. 1 and then they got a boost and got some confidence, and boom, they’re the Stanley Cup champions.”

A year ago, the Blues dominated July 1 by signing Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak and David Perron and trading for eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Ryan O'Reilly. Those moves paid off with the first championship in franchise history.

St. Louis was quieter this year, leaving the door open for plenty of activity around them. Dallas reached double overtime of Game 7 against the Blues in the second round and could sell that opportunity to win to pending free agents.

The Stars being one goal away from the Western Conference final lured Perry, who said ”they have a legit chance to win.” They sure think so with the additions of Perry and Pavelski to a core of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Ben Bishop.

”Our team’s trending up and it’s a good sign,” Dallas general manager Jim Nill said. ”You can never be competitive enough. We saw that in the playoffs. I think St. Louis showed everybody that’s how you’ve got to play and we were right there with St. Louis.”

Nashville finished ahead of St. Louis the past two seasons before signing Duchene, and Winnipeg was right there in a six-game slobberknocker of a first-round series.

Playoff wild card Colorado is also trending up after being one win away from beating San Jose and facing St. Louis in the West final. The Avalanche had arguably the NHL’s best line in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen and went into the summer stuffed with salary-cap space and the intention of supplementing those stars with more offensive forwards.

”We’re adding a supporting case to that group,” GM Joe Sakic said. ”The coaches have a lot of options to mix and match with line combinations.”

That supporting cast includes a major upgrade at second-line center with Kadri, more speed with Burakovsky and a little bit of everything with Donskoi. Colorado still has plenty of room to sign Rantanen to a new contract and has enough young pieces that Kadri was convinced to waive his no-trade clause with Toronto to go there.

”The Colorado Avalanche are going to be contenders for many, many years to come with such a young team with great players,” Kadri said Tuesday. ”I definitely think that this team has a chance to not only do it once but multiple times hopefully in the future with the pieces that they have.”

That won’t be easy, especially in this division. Zuccarello believes Minnesota can rebound from missing the playoffs and ride talent and goaltender Devan Dubnyk to be the Blues of 2020.

”I think we are a competitor,” GM Paul Fenton said after signing Zuccarello and forward Ryan Hartman . ”You look at our team right now and the stability we have with our goaltending. There’s not a lot of teams that have the top-four defensemen like we do in the league. And our center ice is just solid right down the middle. You put the excitement of our wingers on the outside, and I think we have a really good team that has a chance to win.”

The regular season and first couple rounds are enough of a gauntlet that players aren’t counting on anything done in June and July to guarantee success.

”We’re enjoying the position we’re in, but we haven’t done anything yet,” Landeskog said. ”It’s about taking that next step for us, and it’s about making sure that we’re all growing and we’re all doing our part to get better.”

AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell and Schuyler Dixon contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Pavelski, Perry missing pieces for Stars?

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In a lot of ways it’s pretty remarkable that the Dallas Stars were a double overtime, Game 7 loss (to the eventual Stanley Cup champions) from reaching the Western Conference Final.

In early December the organization looked to be a dysfunctional mess after the team’s CEO publicly put his best players on blast for not doing enough (even though they were carrying the team), while the roster around them was lacking in several key areas.

Even as the team turned it around in the second half and went on its run through the playoffs there was a pretty significant weakness throughout the roster.

Depth.

The 2018-19 Stars were the very definition of a “top-heavy” team that relied almost entirely on the top trio of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Alexander Radulov, two elite defenders (John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen), and an outstanding goalie (Ben Bishop).

There were a few developments along the way that helped (the late season emergence of Roope Hintz, as well as the acquisition of Mats Zuccarello once he was healthy come playoff time), but the lack of forward depth was still a pretty significant Achilles Heel that was always going to hold them back when it mattered most.

General manager Jim Nill tried to address that on Monday with the free agent additions of Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, adding to his extensive list of offseason victories that goes back to his first year on the job in Dallas.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Both players come with their set of risks.

In Perry’s case, he is 34 years old, played just 34 games in 2018-19, and has watched his production take a cliff dive over the past three years. In 2015-16 he was still an elite goal-scorer and topped the 30-goal mark (he scored 34) for the fifth time in six years. In three seasons since then he has scored just 42 goals. It is clear he is no longer a top-line player and given the Ducks’ willingness to buy him out, and the fact he had to settle for a one-year deal with a significant paycut shows just how far his value has dropped across the league.

The hopeful angle here is that it is a low-risk deal and that perhaps Perry can be capable of a bounceback season as the Stars catch lightning in a bottle.

It’s a long shot, but there is virtually no risk with it.

Pavelski is the player that provides the most reason for optimism because he is coming off of a monster season with 38 goals in 75 games. On a per-game level it was the most productive goal-scoring season of his career, and for the Stars to get him on a $7 million salary cap hit seems like a pretty strong deal.

The risk here is that Pavelski is entering his age 35 season and is coming off a season where he shot at a career-high 20.2 percent. That is important to keep in mind because he is highly unlikely to come close to that number in 2019-20, which means you should be expecting a pretty sharp decline in his goal production.

If he had shot at his normal career level in 2018-19 on the same number of shots he would have been a 23-goal scorer, which is the level he scored at in the two seasons prior.

The other factor here is that it is almost unheard of for a player that age to shoot at such a level. Pavelski was just the fourth different player in NHL history (at least as far back as we can track shooting percentage numbers) that scored on at least 20 percent of his shots (minimum 150 shots) in their age 34 season or older. Hall of Famer John Buyck did it three times (age 35, 37, and 40), Jim Pappin did it twice (age 34 and 35), and hockey legend Mario Lemieux did it once (age 35).

So there is not a lot of precedent for that sort of performance this late in a player’s career.

But the Stars don’t really need Pavelski to play at that level for him to make an impact.

They don’t need him to be a 40-goal scorer, they don’t need him to be a top-line scorer, they don’t need him to be the player to carry the offense.

They need him to be a secondary option that teams have to at least account for and worry about so they can not load up on trying to stop the Seguin, Benn, Radulov trio. Even if his shooting percentage regresses and he falls back to a 23-25 goal output that is still going to be a substantial upgrade for the Stars.

Just to get a sense of how thin the Stars’ forward depth was in 2018-19, they only had four forwards top the 30-point mark all season, and one of those players (Radek Faksa) had exactly 30 points. That was by far the lowest total of any Stanley Cup playoff team (the next lowest team had six such players).

They were also so bad that when none of Seguin, Benn, or Radulov were on the ice during even-strength play the Stars were outscored by an 84-65 margin, controlled just 48 percent of the shot attempts, and were outchanced. In other words, they were a bad team when the three best players were sitting on the bench. Every team will see a drop in that situation, but this was an extreme drop. It was not until Zuccarello showed up via trade (and was then healthy) that they finally had at least the threat of a second-line option.

The Stars have the most difficult pieces to find when it comes to constructing a championship roster: Impact players at the top of the lineup, and as long as Seguin, Benn, Radulov, Klingberg, Heiskanen, and Bishop play even close to the level they were at this past season the foundation will continue to be in place.

They just needed the secondary options to complement them.

Perry is going to be a lottery ticket that may or may not work out. But Pavelski, even if he regresses and declines should at least give them one or two more years of high level play and be just what they need.

Related: Ten things we learned from crazy first day of NHL free agency

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.

Pavelski heading to Dallas on three-year deal

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The man who’s never known life outside of San Jose in the NHL is heading deep into the heart of Texas.

Joe Pavelski joined the Dallas Stars in the Central Division on a three-year, $21 million deal.

That AAV means a $1 million pay hike for Pavelski who scored 38 goals and had 64 points last season in 75 games.

Pavelski, 34, has played all of his 13 seasons in the NHL with the Sharks, scoring 355 times and adding 406 assists in 963 games.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

“It is not every day a player the caliber of Joe becomes available, and we’re thrilled to be able to add him to our club,” said Stars GM Jim Nill. “He is a leader in every sense of the word, and a proven goal-scorer that continues to produce at an elite level. In meeting with him, it is evident how much he values winning, and that mindset will mesh perfectly with our leadership group.”

For San Jose, the loss of Pavelski was summed up by GM Doug Wilson in a statement.

“From being a seventh-round draft pick in 2003 to serving as captain of our team for the last four seasons, Joe Pavelski’s place in Sharks history is firmly cemented and he will be sorely missed,” Wilson said. “Joe led by example, not only as a player but as a person, and the impact he has had on this franchise and his teammates will be felt for years to come.

“Under a cap system, these extremely difficult separations are a reality and, unfortunately, we could not find common ground on dollars and term to keep Joe in San Jose. However, like many other players around the NHL, Joe has earned the right to become a free agent. We respect his decision and want to thank Joe, his wife Sarah and son, Nate, for 13 wonderful seasons. They will always be part of the San Jose Sharks family.”

It remains to be seen how age will affect the former Sharks captain. If Pavelski can squeeze out a couple of more seasons like his last, it’s a big get for the Stars who need more scoring after finishing 28th in goals-for this past season.

Dallas’s defense and goaltending is very good — they allowed the second-fewest goals-against last year. But when Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn or Alex Radulov had an off night, secondary scoring was often nowhere to be found.

But the Stars may just be on the cusp. If Ben Bishop can stay healthy and they can find more goals, the wins will come. With some of the Central’s superpowers weakening — Nashville (P.K. Subban gone) and Winnipeg (Jacob Trouba gone), namely — it’s as good a time as any for the Stars to stockpile resources for a push.

And they now have Corey Perry, too.

Perry signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million plus an extra $1.75 million available in performance-based incentives.

Perry was put on the free agent market after having been bought out by the Anaheim Ducks, the only NHL team he’s known in his tenured career.

“Corey is a warrior in every sense of the word and his experience playing in big situations will be a big asset to our group,” said Nill. “He has a championship pedigree and this addition gives us tremendous flexibility with how we can manage our forward group.”

Perry comes at a bargain for the Stars. And he says he’s ready to win a Cup again. His head might be. Whether or not his body cooperates is another issue altogether, but time will tell. Perry on a friendly deal is worth the risk.

Nill wasn’t done with Pavelski and Perry. The Stars have also signed defenseman Andrej Sekera to the mix.

Sekera, 33, comes with a one-year deal worth $1.5 million along with an extra $500,000 to be earned in bonus money. Sekera has missed considerable time over the past two seasons, with injuries limiting him to just 60 games.

The move is low-risk for the Stars, who get a solid d-man when healthy. The only question now is if he can stay out of the infirmary.

Meanwhile, it looks like the Tampa Bay Lightning were attempting to make another withdrawal from their money tree for Pavelski, but it just didn’t work out.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Pavelski and the Sharks couldn’t get a deal done, the almighty salary cap had something to do with it. Or everything.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Roundtable: Under-the-radar UFAs; offer sheet targets

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What under-the-radar UFA could make the most impact next season?

SEAN: Brett Connolly turned himself from a top-five draft bust into a very reliable bottom-six forward with the Washington Capitals. He was vital in their run to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup title and his numbers improved in each of his three years in D.C. all while getting modest ice time (10:41, 12:00, and 13:20, respectively). He topped out is his walk year this past season with 22 goals and 46 points. The 27-year-old earned himself a nice raise from $1.5M salary this past season, and given how desperate some teams are for depth scoring, he might land in the category of an overpay even if he can give you 30ish points playing in your bottom six.

JAMES: The Flames already reportedly having interest in Cam Talbot makes me worried that the second-biggest reason I’m eyeing him (possibly being cheap?) could fall through … but if it’s a one-year deal, he’s low-risk all the same.

Consider this: even after two rough seasons with the Oilers, Talbot’s career save percentage is still a solid .915. That’s not world-beating stuff, but I’d honestly feel better about Talbot – David Rittich than how they rolled the dice with Mike Smith last season. Besides, if it’s one year, so if things went off the rails, they could also pursue someone at the trade deadline. (As they, frankly, should have done re: Jimmy Howard in 2018-19, if you ask me … hey, Howard does only have a one-year contract in rebuilding Detroit. Hmmm …)

I’m not saying Talbot will be the next Robin Lehner, but maybe he could be the next Jaroslav Halak?

Otherwise, here’s my advice: sign players closer to training camp than July 1. If you need a slogan: “PTOs are the way to go.”

ADAM: Joonas Donskoi is the guy that I keep coming back to. I thought he got kind of a raw deal toward the end of this season in San Jose and could probably use a fresh start with a bigger opportunity. He’s always had some decent production, his underlying numbers are strong, and he’s still pretty young as far as unrestricted free agents go. He is still probably going to get a pretty nice deal for himself, but he is not the biggest name out there and I think I’d rather bet on him than a lot of the other names on the market.

JOEY: With Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and a few other big names grabbing all the attention, it seems like Gustav Nyquist is flying under the radar. Sure, he struggled with the Sharks in the postseason, but he still managed to put up 22 goals and 60 points last season. He’s a top-six forward that would immediately improve any team he joins this summer. Nyquist has hit the 20-goal mark four times in his career.

SCOTT: I’m torn on this one. Is Semyon Varlamov an under-the-radar free agent? If so, I think he’d be a great add for several teams in need of a goalie, and a starter. Could he fit in Edmonton even after that insane Mikko Koskinen deal? Would Calgary welcome a No. 1 goalie with open arms? What about Ottawa or Buffalo. Varlamov didn’t have the world’s best season in Colorado but played a lot of games when the Avs were a poor team. He had a .920 the year before.

If Varlamov isn’t an under-the-radar choice, then Brett Connolly most certainly is. The former sixth-overall pick in 2010 had a great contract year with 22 goals and 46 points, both career highs. The risk here is that all the good production came in a contract year. But he’s a positive possession player in five of the past six seasons and is still quite young at 27. His cap hit last year was $1.5 million. That will go up, but if the Caps can’t find room in their cap, others will. Paging the Edmonton Oilers.
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What team/GM needs to hit a homerun this summer?

SEAN: Dale Tallon has promised to be aggressive this off-season and many are expecting the Florida Panthers to land one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, if not both. The organization needs to strengthen big time to back up their talk, and if they underwhelm in free agency, how will that affect the fan base going forward and what will that mean for the temperature of Tallon’s seat?

Hiring Joel Quenneville was a boon. Now they need to add talent to the roster, starting with a replacement for Roberto Luongo in goal.

JAMES: I’d like to see the Dallas Stars pull the right moves, with the requirement being that, if they land big fish, they really need to play a more entertaining style. Even Ken Hitchcock would probably want them to pick up the pace a bit. Scratch that, Jacques Lemaire even would.

Jamie Benn looked dominant at times during the playoffs, and who knows how much more often that will happen with him being 29? Ben Bishop is 32; you can’t expect him to be the best combined regular season and playoff goalie year after year. And even consider the youngsters: you only get two more years of Miro Heiskanen on his rookie contract, while John Klingberg‘s obscene discount $4.25M will run out after 2021-22.

There’s a lane here, so the Stars should bowl over the finish line like Roope Hintz when he’s really on the loose.

ADAM: I think the obvious answer here is Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is going to lose his two franchise players, he is (probably) going to lose the two big trade deadline acquisitions he received, and is going to have to try and piece together a roster to fill out all of those spots. That will not be easy, especially as it relates to goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is not going to be easy to replace and they have nothing in house. Unless you get Robin Lehner the free agent market is pretty slim, too.

Dale Tallon in Florida is also probably under a lot of pressure. There has been so much anticipation around them heading into the summer and what they might be able to add. The core of that team is good enough to win … he just needs to make sure he puts something decent around them. Bobrovsky could be great in the short-term before he starts to decline in a couple of years, and Panarin would be a bonafide star going into that lineup.

JOEY: I think the pressure is on Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers to deliver on Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. This team missed the playoffs in 2018-19 and they need to make sure that they create a buzz in their market going forward (easier said than done). Everyone expects them to land prized free agents on July 1st, so failing to do so will be perceived as a wasted opportunity to improve their team. They have a good group of young players and it’s time they get them some help.

SCOTT: In my opinion, it’s without a doubt Jarmo Kekalainen in Columbus. Here we have a general manager who chose to keep both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the NHL Trade Deadline instead of shipping both Russians off for returns. And he sold other pieces off to acquire the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel for a playoff run that started out tremendously against the Tampa Bay Lighting only to fall flat on its face in Round 2 against the Boston Bruins.

The Blue Jackets had two fourth rounders after doubling down on the 81st pick in the third round in a deal with the Florida Panthers. Their third and final pick in this year’s draft came in the seventh round. Not much restocking there. The Blue Jackets stand to lose their best forward and their best goalie this summer, along with Duchene and perhaps others. Kekalainen sold his soul to the devil and the deal burned to ashes. Now he has to rebuild from the rubble. Those fond memories of a two-round playoff run will provide little warmth when they’re dead last by Thanksgiving.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Finally, are we really going to finally see an offer sheet signed this summer? If so, who is the most likely candidate?

SEAN: I’ll believe it when we see it. This year might be the closest because of the high number of talented RFAs, but I think NHL GMs will remain conservative and not want to upset the apple cart. If we were to see a player actually sign one, how about Kevin Lebanc from the Sharks? He’s coming off a great year and ready to cash in.

The 23-year-old forward scored 17 goals and record 56 points in in 82 games this season and nine points in 20 playoff games. Coming out of his entry-level deal, Labanc could fetch an AAV of a little more than $3.5M a season — by Evolving Wild’s model — and, according to the NHL’s offer sheet compensation for 2019, it would cost only a second-round pick. If a team wanted to try and make the Sharks not match, the next tier of AAV between $4,227,438 – $6,341,152 would cost a first- and third-rounder.

Doug Wilson has a lot of decision to make while using his $14M of cap space, but it’d be tough to imagine him not bringing back Labanc, who shows plenty of promise.

JAMES: My vote is no, it won’t happen.

For all the courage that’s demanded of hockey players, hockey executives are often among the most conservative, risk-averse people out there. Combine that notion with the prohibitive costs of signing an expensive offer sheet, and you quickly realize why offer sheets are a fun idea that would won’t happen any time soon, like the abolition of offside calls.

At first, I though Sharks’ rising star Timo Meier, as he might be a less-obvious choice than, say, Mitch Marner.

But context makes me wonder about Sebastian Aho. The Hurricanes may very well be a budget team even after that great run, and judging by how they’re seemingly trying to lowball Aho, I wonder if a team try their luck in seeing if Tom Dundon would divert some of those AAF bucks to Aho? (Uh oh.)

When in doubt, follow the money, or in this case: perhaps an urge not to spend it.

(I still wouldn’t expect too much drama, but would be DELIGHTED if I’m wrong. I might stock up on some extra popcorn, just in case.)

ADAM: We should, but we will not. Mitch Marner is the logical candidate due to Toronto’s salary cap situation, and maybe Brayden Point in Tampa Bay, but I just don’t see it happening. Every year we try to talk ourselves into this and every year it never happens. I will say this: if I am Joe Sakic in Colorado I am marching into my owner’s office and trying to get the okay to spend as close to the cap as possible, because that team is the perfect one to make an offer sheet on a player Marner or Point. They are already a potential Stanley Cup contender and a team quickly building something special, they have more salary cap space than anyone, they just had two of the top-16 picks in the 2019 draft and have a bounty of young players so giving up the draft pick assets in the future would not crush them, and they could probably sign Marner and re-sign Rantanen to massive contracts and STILL under the cap. If any team could do it; this is the team. If they will not, no one will.

JOEY: I don’t expect to see one, no. But if there is one, I think it’ll be Sebastian Aho in Carolina. Would the Hurricanes be able to match a front-loaded contract from another team? Would they even want to? The ‘Canes are one of those small-market teams that need to make sure they take care of business with their best player before July 1st. It would be a shame to see them take a step back after having such a positive campaign in 2018-19.

SCOTT: I’ll be bold here and say yes. Someone is going to fire off an offer sheet to Mitch Marner that will cripple the Toronto Maple Leafs if they match. The New Jersey Devils are having quite the summer and they’ve taken Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes in two of the past three drafts and added P.K. Subban to the mix last weekend, too. Want to keep Taylor Hall in the organization? Throw enough money at Marner that Kyle Dubas can’t match. You have the cap space to do it and could probably find ways to get back into the first round down the line, especially if Hall gets shipped out.

MORE: Top NHL free agents to sign, and ones to avoid

2019 NHL Draft primer: Hughes vs. Kakko; draft bloodlines

VANCOUVER — The Stanley Cup Final is over, the NHL Awards have been handed out, so it’s now time to look toward the future as the NHL Draft arrives this Friday and Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Here’s the rundown of some of the biggest topics heading into the weekend.

When is the 2019 NHL Draft?

Round 1 is Friday night, June 21 beginning at 8 p.m. ET (livestream). (Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.) Rounds 2-7 will be held Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch full coverage on NBCSN and on the NBC Sports app.

Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will host coverage alongside Pierre McGuire and NHL Insiders Bob McKenzie, Craig Button and Darren Dreger.

The last time Vancouver hosted the draft was 2006 when Erik Johnson went first overall to the St. Louis Blues.

Who’s going No. 1 and No. 2?

It’ll be Jack Hughes to the New Jersey Devils with the first pick, followed by Kaapo Kakko to the New York Rangers at second overall. These two have been the consensus top picks all season long and despite a late push by the Finnish forward with a very strong performance at the World Championship, Ray Shero will be announcing the American forward’s name Friday night, two years after he chose Nico Hischier with the top pick.

If the top two picks are decided, what about No. 3?

This is where the draft really starts and the fun begins. The Chicago Blackhawks hold the third pick. It’s only the second time the franchise has had a top 10 pick since 2007 when they took Patrick Kane No. 1 overall. GM Stan Bowman selected defenseman Adam Boqvist with the eighth pick last year and he could go that route again with Bowen Byram (Vancouver, WHL). But after taking defensemen in the last two drafts and adding Olli Maatta this week via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, they may leaning toward a forward. Alex Turcotte (U.S. National Team Development Program, USHL) is a local kid; Kirby Dach (Saskatoon, WHL) was nearly a point-per-game player in junior and has size at 6-foot-4, 198 lbs.; Then you have Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge, WHL), and the U.S. National Team Development Program trio of Matthew Boldy, Trevor Zegras, and Cole Caufield to choose from.

[MORE: Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

What’s going to happen with Vasili Podkolzin?

The talented forward has two years remaining on his contract with SKA St. Petersburg and he plans on honoring it. The No. 2 ranked international skater on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, Podkolzin is hoping teams will show patience and wait the two years before he’s able to come over. That extra development could bode well for a team if they pick him as many scouts and draft analysts don’t see many players in this class jumping into the NHL next season outside of Hughes and Kakko. 

Will Spencer Knight join an exclusive goalie club?

Among the numerous USNTDP players likely to go in Round 1 Friday night, Knight, the top-ranked North American goaltender by NHL Central Scouting, is likely to hear his name called. If selected, Knight would become only the seventh netminder to be picked in the first round since 2009. Only 19 goalies have been taken in Round 1 since 2003.

It’s going to be a good year for USA Hockey

Nineteen players from the USNTDP Under-18 team were included on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for North American players (17 skaters, 2 goalies). That includes the No. 1 spot for skaters (Hughes) and goaltenders (Knight), along with half the top 10 for skaters and half the top four for goaltenders.

What kind of family ties and NHL bloodlines are we looking at in 2019?

Among the bloodlines in the 2019 draft… Jack Hughes’ brother, Quinn, plays for the Vancouver Canucks. Nick Robertson’s brother, Jason, was picked by the Dallas Stars in 2017. Ryan Suzuki’s brother, Nick, went 13th overall to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. Jonathan Williams’ cousin is Ben Bishop. Julius Honka‘s brother, Anttoni, is eligible to be drafted this year. Max Paddock’s uncle John was a longtime NHL coach. John Farinacci’s uncle is Ted Donato, making Ryan Donato his cousin. Nolan Foote is looking to join his dad, Adam, and brother, Callan, as NHL players. Alex Vlasic is cousins with Marc-Edouard. Alexander Lundqvist’s uncle is Nicklas Lidstrom. Mason Primeau’s dad is Wayne and his uncle is Keith. Nathan Staios’ dad, Steve, played 1,001 NHL games.

Who needs to hit a homerun in the draft?

If you’re the Los Angeles Kings and you’re in the middle of trying to get younger, you need to strengthen the prospect cupboard during this transition phase. It might be two years before they’re playoff contenders again, which would align with bringing along a Kirby Dach, Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Cole Caufield, or Trevor Zegras. Ken Holland’s scouting staff in Detroit helped the team build a good prospect collection and help turn them into NHL players. Now in Edmonton, and holding the No. 8 pick, he’ll need that kind of draft success in order to turn the Oilers around.

Is it going to be a quiet or loud weekend on the trade front?

Well, that depends. After news this week that the NHL and NHLPA are still finalizing the salary cap range for the 2019-20 season, and we won’t get an answer until likely Saturday, that could put a pause on any trades this weekend. Teams will want to know what limits they’re working with before they go pursue any big fish in the pond. The cap ceiling may not increase higher than $82M for next season, which would be lower than the $83M projection general managers were given in December.

If there are trades, who’s most likely to be dealt?

Third time might be the charm for Jason Zucker and the Minnesota Wild. After failing to send him to the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline, and then having their hopes of a swap with the Pittsburgh Penguins fall short because Phil Kessel shut that down, GM Paul Fenton will have to look elsewhere to ship the 27-year-old forward. Jesse Puljujarvi‘s time in Edmonton seems up and a “change of scenery” deal is coming for him. With the way Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher has been active of late, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make another move as he reshapes the team. Could Shayne Gostisbehere be the odd-man out on a crowded blue following the additions of Justin Braun and Radko Gudas?

Are the Penguins going to finally draft in Round 1?

The Penguins have made only one pick since 2012 in the first round when they took Kasperi Kapanen 22nd overall in 2014. GM Jim Rutherford, and Ray Shero before him, have used their top pick in trades as they contended and won two Stanley Cups in the last seven years. Following a disappointing playoff exit and the trade rumors that have swirled around the team since, it would be wise yet again to use that first pick as trade bait if they can acquire a player to help them contend again in 2019-20. Sidney Crosby is turning 32 this summer and Evgeni Malkin‘s 33rd birthday is next month. The two superstars are still playing at an elite level, so why wait two-plus years for a late-round prospect to develop when you can potentially add an impact player now?

SLAP SHOTS:
• Jack Hughes will join Brian Lawton (1983: North Stars), Mike Modano (1988: North Stars), Bryan Berard (1995: OTT), Rick DiPietro (2000: NYI), Erik Johnson (2006: STL), Patrick Kane (2007: CHI), and Auston Matthews (2016: TOR) as the only Americans to be selected with the first overall pick.

• The Avalanche, Kings, Sabres, and Ducks are the only teams with multiple picks in Round 1.

• The Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs, Sharks, and Blues are the only teams without a first round pick.

• The Devils, Kings, Red Wings, Canadiens, Hurricanes have the most picks in the draft with 10, while the Blue Jackets (Round 3 and Round 7) have the fewest with two.

The full Round 1 draft order:
1. New Jersey
2. NY Rangers
3. Chicago
4. Colorado (from OTT)
5. Los Angeles
6. Detroit
7. Buffalo
8. Edmonton
9. Anaheim
10. Vancouver
11. Philadelphia
12. Minnesota
13. Florida
14. Arizona
15. Montreal
16. Colorado
17. Vegas
18. Dallas
19. Ottawa (from CBJ)
20. Winnipeg (from NYR)
21. Pittsburgh
22. Los Angeles (from TOR)
23. NY Islanders
24. Nashville
25. Washington
26. Calgary
27. Tampa Bay
28. Carolina
29. Anaheim (from SJS-BUF)
30. Boston
31. Buffalo (from STL)

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey
Dylan Cozens eager to make Yukon hockey history
Kakko ready to make NHL leap next season
NHL draft in 2020 awarded to Montreal

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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.