Blake Wheeler

NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere

Leave a comment

“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

————

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.

NBCSN Hockey Happy Hour schedule: June 22-26

Getty Images
1 Comment

NBC Sports will present live coverage of the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery this Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, hosted by Kathryn Tappen. Immediately following the 30-minute program, a special half-hour edition of NHL Live will be presented at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with reactions to the Draft Lottery as well as a preview of the NHL’s latest Return to Play plans. The show will be hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

The Draft Lottery will feature interviews with Commissioner Gary Bettman, the consensus top prospect Alexis Lafreniere, and the general manager of the organization that wins the Draft Lottery.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Monday, June 22 on NBCSN
NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban (Episode 10) – 6 p.m. ET
NHL Pause: Post to Post – 6:30 p.m. ET

Tuesday, June 23 on NBCSN
#HockeyAtHome: This is Hockey – 6 p.m. ET
• Our Line Starts – 6:30 p.m. ET

Friday, June 26 on NBCSN
• NHL Draft Lottery – 8 p.m. ET
• NHL Live Special – 8:30 p.m. ET

NHL HAT TRICK TRIVIA HOSTED BY P.K. SUBBAN – MONDAY, 6 P.M. ET: Former Rangers goaltender Mike Richter will join the tenth episode of NHL Hat Trick Trivia Hosted by P.K. Subban. The show features fans answering a trio of hockey trivia questions from their homes, along with appearances from NHL players and celebrities, for the chance to win NHL prizes. Additional guests on the episode include Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt, hockey insider Elliotte Friedman, and series regular and NHL referee Wes McCauley.

NHL PAUSE: POST TO POST – MONDAY, 6:30 P.M. ET: The 30-minute show, hosted by model Camille Kostek, takes a look at some of the most memorable hockey-related social media posts during the NHL season’s pause.

#HOCKEYATHOME: THIS IS HOCKEY – TUESDAY, 6 P.M. ET: The final edition of #HockeyAtHome, titled #HockeyAtHome: This is Hockey, highlights the inspiring work the hockey community has organized during the pause in the NHL season. The program, co-hosted by Kathryn Tappen, will feature the efforts of Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, Jets captain Blake Wheeler and Wild forward J.T. Brown.

OUR LINE STARTS – TUESDAY 6:30 P.M. ET: NHL on NBC analyst Anson Carter, NBC Sports Chicago analyst Jamal Mayers and current professional women’s hockey player and Kings scout Blake Bolden will join host Liam McHugh for a conversation on race, diversity and inclusion in hockey on this episode of NBC Sports’ NHL weekly podcast, Our Line Starts.

2020 NHL DRAFT LOTTERY – FRIDAY, 8 P.M. ET: The 2020 NHL Draft Lottery, hosted by Kathryn Tappen, will feature NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly revealing the 2020 NHL Draft order. The program will feature interviews with Commissioner Gary Bettman, the consensus top prospect, Alexis Lafreniere, and the general manager of the organization that wins the Draft Lottery.

NHL LIVE – FRIDAY, 8:30 P.M. ET: A special half-hour edition of NHL Live will be presented with reactions to the Draft Lottery as well as a preview of the NHL’s latest Return to Play plans. The show will be hosted by Liam McHugh alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp.

No full shields for players; NHL talking off-ice protection

2 Comments

NHL players won’t be expected to wear full face shields if games resume this summer, though there could be plenty of covered faces around them.

Equipment changes have not been a focus of return-to-play negotiations between the league and players’ union, according to a person with knowledge of those talks. The person, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because no agreement has been reached, said the emphasis has been on testing and other off-ice safety precautions.

Because players are expected to be tested daily, there isn’t expected to be additional on-ice equipment required for practices and games. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly additionally said he didn’t anticipate any mandatory equipment changes to ensure player safety.

Still, hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer has spoken with the league and teams about medical-grade off-ice visors that coaches, executives, team personnel and others could wear as a measure of protection against spreading or contracting COVID-19. Product vice president Craig Desjardins said the visor, which can attach to the brim of a baseball cap, is “feather light” despite being three times thicker than a medical shield and meeting the American National Standards Institute regulation for preventing droplets.

“There’s been a lot of interest,” Bauer vice president of global marketing Mary-Kay Messier said. “Craig and I have actually had a lot of calls with NHL teams as they consider how to bring back their teams — their entire teams and everyone that surrounds them — safely, particularly in situations where they’re looking at being hub cities where there’ll be a lot of interaction.”

Ten locations are in the running to serve as the “hub” cities that will host 24 playoff teams for initial rounds, Eastern and Western Conference finals and Stanley Cup Final. Players are expected to be quarantined away from the general public in those cities.

Each team is limited to 50 personnel in its game city, with the event level at arenas and practice facilities, hotels and restaurants expected to serve as a quarantine bubble of sorts. Bauer’s “integrated cap shield” that’s being unveiled Wednesday and a polyester face mask would fit for those outside the bubble and for players around the rink when they’re not skating, because they’re required to wear masks even now, during voluntary workouts.

Bauer, which in March shifted to making personal protective equipment for those on the front lines, is gearing its on-ice splash guard mostly to youth and amateur players and has consulted with the International Ice Hockey Federation, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada.

“We have a shared interest collectively around being able to return to play safely,” Desjardins said.

Coaches in the NHL and various other leagues could use the off-ice shield behind the bench, too.

“There’s quite a lot of yelling from coaches,” Messier said, “So when you think about and you talk about that yelling or loud talking that you are at greater risk for the droplets, I would say it is a very viable option at a lot of different levels.”

While there are heath and safety protocols in place for small-group workouts and could escalate when training camps open July 10, players have said they’re unsure about wearing a full face shield or changing too much of hockey itself if the season resumes. They’re focused on the outside protections that would make games safe.

“With the nature of our game, if we’re going to talk about not being able to hit each other and other things, there’s no point in playing,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “The challenge is going to be getting everyone into said bubble, getting everyone tested and having it be that we’re all on the same page and try to nip it in the bud before we get there.”

‘Long overdue’: White NHL players find their voice on racism

1 Comment

Brian Boyle is a 35-year-old grizzled veteran of 13 National Hockey League seasons who grew up outside Boston.

After seeing video of George Floyd’s death, Boyle wanted to say something. The Florida Panthers forward, though, wasn’t sure how and didn’t want it to come off the wrong way. He wound up calling former teammate J.T. Brown to ask some questions — and listen. Brown is 29, black and the only player so far to protest racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem of an NHL game, back in 2017.

The two talked about how Floyd’s death had affected Brown.

“I was kind of at his mercy,” said Boyle, who is white. “I just don’t understand this pain. I’ve never had to live this pain.”

Floyd’s death in police custody has touched off an extraordinary reckoning of race and race relations and sports has been part of it, from European soccer to the NFL. It has also made ripples in NASCAR, which like the NHL has predominately white athletes and, by most accounts, a larger fan base among whites than people of color.

NHL players have no sustained track record of speaking out on societal issues, perhaps part of the reticence that is generally found in hockey. There was no collective outrage after Akim Aliu, Devante Smith-Pelly and Wayne Simmonds joined the list of players who have publicly described their personal experience with racism in hockey.

This time, the culture of silence was nowhere to be found in a league that is over 95% white.

Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and more than 100 other NHL players made statements denouncing racial inequality, acknowledging their privilege and pledging to learn and do better. Tyler Seguin protested in Dallas, Zdeno Chara in Boston, while Patrice Bergeron, Tom Wilson and others made donations. Jonathan Toews met with activists in Chicago.

“We have to be as involved in this as black athletes,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “It can’t just be their fight.”

It was the kind of response San Jose’s Evander Kane hoped for when he called on white athletes to make their voices heard. Some called it “a perfect storm” — athletes, like everyone else, were at home during the coronavirus pandemic and able to focus on the graphic nature of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and the visceral reaction.

“People, I think, are listening more,” said Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. Hired in 2017, she is the highest-ranked African American in the league’s hierarchy and reports directly to Commissioner Gary Bettman.

“While these things have been happening for a long time, I think the COVID pandemic has brought to light for many the racial pandemic,” Davis said. “To be able to just be paused and to stop and witness for nine minutes, somebody’s knee on someone’s neck and to watch the life be taken out of them … that’s your humanity (telling) you there’s something very wrong with that.

“I think that’s why people are speaking out. I think that’s why players are speaking out,” Davis said.

Seguin marched in Dallas along with retired goaltender Marty Turco and kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time prosecutors say Floyd was pinned under the knee of a white police officer while his heart stopped. Seguin, a 28-year-old Canadian from outside Toronto, long believed matters of race were none of his business.

“It’s unfortunate that it took something of this magnitude to get people’s eyes open or myself having the accountability to realize and look in the mirror and say, ‘I’ve got to be better,’” Seguin said. “Am I part of the stigma because I haven’t thought about this, or haven’t really fully realized it or understood the history of it?”

Since Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, hockey has been dotted with examples of racism. Just in the last decade, Simmonds had a banana thrown at him and P.K. Subban and Joel Ward were subjected to racist social media posts after scoring playoff game-winning goals. Smith-Pelly was taunted in the penalty box. As recently as April, New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller had a video chat during the pandemic hacked by someone who posted a racial slur hundreds of times.

Junior and youth hockey are filled with similar stories, too, even amid determined and long-term efforts to diversify the sport.

“There’s clearly a racism problem in our sport,” said Kane, a 28-year-old Canadian from Vancouver who is part of a new effort by black players to do something about it. “It’s been pushed aside and covered up ever since I’ve been playing hockey. And that is a major issue that we need to suppress in a major way. That’s where being able to create a more diverse game, that’s where it’s going to start.”

Retired goaltender Ben Scrivens said he has “a healthy dose of cynicism” in seeing so many of his fellow white hockey players only now speaking out about racism. But he said it is nonetheless meaningful because players “can no longer claim ignorance” anymore.

“The fact that they’re putting themselves out there is a start,” Scrivens said. “And it also opens the door for them to be held accountable going forward.”

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it has only been six months since Aliu’s comments on racism in hockey rocked the league. Bill Peters — who Aliu said used racist language toward him earlier in their careers — resigned as coach of the Calgary Flames and the NHL formed councils to address the issues. The growth in the number of players talking about racism now in the NHL seems logical, at least to Aliu.

“It’s a good step in the right direction, so I’m happy to see that,” he said, then paused. “But I feel like it’s long overdue.”

Early returns: NHL players on getting back in small groups during Phase 2

As of Tuesday, we’re two days into Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan. To put things mildly, not every NHL team has approached Phase 2 in the same way. Considering the protocols for opening things up, plenty haven’t gotten the puck rolling just yet.

This post aims to round up some of the perspectives from players who have gotten the chance to get back a bit, though. Please note that this isn’t a comprehensive list of every team back in action for Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan.

Matt Benning on the Oilers skating

One curious question is: how long does it take to shake off the rust. Considering that the NHL is still trying to hash out details for training camps (aka Phase 3), the answer appears subjective.

“If I’m off the ice for two days, it feels like I’ve never skated in my life before, so three months was a little bit nerve-wracking …” Oilers defenseman Matt Benning said.

Benning noted that it takes different players different amounts of time to get used to edgework and other skating factors. But it sounds like Benning specifically sits in the “more the merrier” camp. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

If you need a moment of zen, enjoy this footage of the Oilers beginning Phase 2:

*refreshed Ahhhhh*

Tavares doing Tavares things early in NHL Phase 2

Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares is known for being something of a thinking man’s hockey star. Sometimes that drive can manifest itself in ways that are … honestly, kind of nerdy.

Tavares told reporters including TSN’s Karen Shilton that he quickly decided to start taping his sticks at home to get the most out of his time.

“There’s a pretty big-time crunch on being in the arena; you only have about 45 minutes to an hour to complete your workout and you’ve got about 40 minutes on the ice,” Tavares said. “The windows are fairly small, but the actual work we’re able to get in is going to go a long way in helping us prepare and get ready. The intensity is there.”

Shilton notes that Tavares is skating in a group with Jack Campbell, Cody Ceci, Mitch Marner, Ilya Mikheyev, and Jake Muzzin.

Josh Bailey among Islanders getting back to skating at facility

Bailey joined Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, and Thomas Greiss for small-group workouts. Bailey admitted feeling some rust, and that there’s no substitute for skating.

There’s also no substitute for family. Bailey acknowledged that the “hub city” system will take some getting used to. At least he’d have his Islanders teammates, though.

“It’ll definitely be different,” Bailey said, via Cory Wright of the Islanders’ website. “No matter how it all comes together, when, how, if, whatever the case may be. It won’t be what we are accustomed to. But when you’re with the team it kind of gives you that feeling of normalcy.”

Plenty still needs to be settled before NHL goes from Phase 2 to Phase 3

Overall, the Phase 2 return to ice seems more like a trickle than a stampede.

For every instance such as Marc-Andre Fleury getting geared up with the Golden Knights, there are players who want to avoid taking risks, or teams facing restrictions.

In some cases, players are able to skate on their own. During an appearance on “Lunch Talk Live,” Blake Wheeler explained that he’s been able to get some reps in with Adam Oates in the Boca Raton area in Florida.

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:

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.