Evgeni Malkin

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Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Power Rankings: Looking at every NHL team’s offseason

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With the 2019 NHL Draft in the rear-view mirror and all of the major unrestricted free agents signed, it is time to check in on how each team has improved (or failed to improve) so far this offseason.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we will be taking a look at the teams that have done the most (and the least) to get better.

Before we get to the rankings we do need to specify something very important: This is NOT a ranking of where each team stands in the league in terms of Stanley Cup contender or playoff status, or a ranking of how good each team is overall. It is simply a look at which teams have had the best and worst offseasons. If you have had a good offseason, you rank high. If you had a bad offseason, you rank low.

Obviously there is still time this summer for teams to get better (or worse), but this is simply a progress report of where their offseason stands right now.

Teams that are significantly better

1. New York Rangers. It would be difficult to have a better offseason than the one the Rangers have had. They added one of the league’s top offensive players (Artemi Panarin), a potential superstar thanks to some draft lottery luck (Kaapo Kakko), and a top-four defender (Jacob Trouba). They did all of that while giving up nothing of significance from their NHL roster. Is it a playoff team this season? That probably depends on how much Henrik Lundqvist has left in the tank, but they are close.

2. New Jersey Devils. Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban joining a core that already has Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall makes the Devils a fascinating team to watch. Now they just need to find a way to keep Hall beyond this season. Like the Rangers they may not be a playoff team this season, but they are definitely improved.

3. Colorado Avalanche. Losing Tyson Barrie off the blue line might hurt, but the Avalanche are loaded with young, impact defenders and by trading Barrie they found a perfect second-line center (Nazem Kadri) to complement Nathan MacKinnon … as long as Kadri stays on the ice and out of the player safety office. Along with the additions of Joonas Donskoi and Andre Burakovsky they now have some actual scoring depth to support their big three.

4. Dallas Stars. It would not be an NHL offseason without general manager Jim Nill raising another offseason championship banner. Even if Joe Pavelski shows some signs of decline and regresses from his 38-goal output this past season he is still just what the league’s most top-heavy team needed.

5. Arizona Coyotes. Phil Kessel is the big, headline-grabbing addition but Carl Soderberg could be a nice depth pickup as well. Even if Kessel starts to slow down he should still be able to run the Coyotes’ power play and make a significant impact.

Teams that are probably better

6. Florida Panthers. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s contract will almost certainly be an albatross on their salary cap in the next three or four years and probably end up in a buyout, but he might get them to the playoffs a couple of times before that. Bobrovsky is the big name, but don’t sleep on Anton Stralman and Brett Connolly as depth additions.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs. Their salary cap concerns were always overblown and they were always going to find a way to get out of them. They not only shed a lot of bad contracts and almost certainly created enough space to re-sign Mitch Marner, but they also managed to add a much-needed top-defender in Barrie. Jason Spezza may not be what he once was, but he should be fine as a third-line center for this team.

8. Chicago Blackhawks. The worst defensive team in the league made two solid additions in Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan, then found a starting caliber goalie that just so happened to be a Vezina Trophy finalist this past season.

9. Minnesota Wild. Still do not understand the direction Paul Fenton has this team going in, but Mats Zuccarello is a definite upgrade in the short-term.

10. Nashville Predators. Matt Duchene is a nice addition and gives them another impact forward that might help a dreadful power play. So why only “probably” better? Because they had to trade an impact defender for almost nothing to be able to sign him. How much better you think the Predators are depends on whether or not you think they needed Duchene more than Subban. Or, probably more accurately, if you think Duchene is that much more valuable than Subban.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Good teams that have stayed the same

11. St. Louis Blues. It has been a quiet offseason for the champs, adding nothing of significance and losing nothing of significance. Nothing wrong with that when you are parading the Stanley Cup around.

12. Boston Bruins. The Bruins look to be returning mostly the same roster next season, and it will still be a Stanley Cup contender.

13. Carolina Hurricanes. Some musical chairs in net, but there should not be much of a drop off. The big win this offseason was Montreal helping them out with Sebastian Aho’s new contract.

14. Washington Capitals. Radko Gudas is probably a better player than Matt Niskanen at this stage of his career. Andre Burakovsky never panned out, but they made a couple of solid depth signings to fill his spot.

15. Calgary Flames. Still a potential Stanley Cup team with one pretty massive flaw in net.

Bad teams that are marginally better

16. Buffalo Sabres. Colin Miller, Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey are all solid additions for what amounts to very little in cost. That is the good news. The bad news this team still has a long way to go before it is a serious threat in the Atlantic Division or Eastern Conference Wild Card races.

17. Vancouver Canucks. J.T. Miller is pretty good and an upgrade for their forward group, but does this team, in this position, in this stage of its rebuild, need to be doing things like trading a future first-round draft pick or giving Tyler Myers a five-year, $30 million contract? It’s like … you’re kinda better, but what’s the point? The Jim Benning era, folks.

Good Teams that have gotten worse

18. Pittsburgh Penguins. Does swapping Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta for Alex Galchenyuk, Dominik Kahun, and Brandon Tanev move you closer to a Stanley Cup? You should have serious doubts about that. At least the speculation on trading Evgeni Malkin or Kris Letang turned out to be just that and nothing ever came from it.

19. San Jose Sharks. Keeping Erik Karlsson is significant, but losing Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and returning the same starting goalie is also significant … for the wrong reasons.

20. Tampa Bay Lightning. The salary cap crunch and the RFA status of Brayden Point has resulted in some subtractions to the roster and no significant additions. That makes them a little worse simply by default, but they are still going to be one of the top teams in the league. Instead of 60 games, they might win … 50? 55?

21. Winnipeg Jets. I don’t really want to call Kevin Hayes a “loss” since he only played 20 regular season games with the team, but they have lost a lot off of their blue line with very little coming in to replace it.

22. Vegas Golden Knights. They are going to miss Colin Miller, and might really miss out on Nikita Gusev if they move him before they even realize what they had.

23. New York Islanders. They kept all of their key unrestricted free agent forwards, but going from Robin Lehner to Semyon Varlamov in net could be a huge downgrade. Given how important goaltending was to the Islanders’ success this past season that could be a problem.

24. Columbus Blue Jackets. The free agent exodus that everyone expected to happen took place with the departures of Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Duchene (and probably Ryan Dzingel). Gustav Nyquist is a fine pickup on a pretty fair deal, but they still lost a ton. And they still do not have a clear replacement for Bobrovsky.

Bad teams that have stayed the same 

25. Montreal Canadiens. The Aho offer sheet had us excited for about 20 minutes until we realized it was just a waste of everyone’s time. The only solution now is to try and offer sheet someone else!

26. Philadelphia Flyers. Kevin Hayes isn’t bad, but there is no way he plays out that seven-year contract in Philadelphia. They added Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen to their defense about four years after they should have. In the end, downgrading the defense (which I think they did) kind of cancels out whatever upgrade Hayes might be at forward. They have made a lot of transactions to remain right where they were.

27. Edmonton Oilers. Based on the moves this offseason (as well as the lack of moves) it seems likely that another prime season of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is about to be wasted. Such a shame.

28. Ottawa Senators. They brought in a bunch of new faces but nothing that is going to prevent this team from continuing to be one of the worst in the league.

29. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman has a lot of work to do and has been fairly quiet this summer.

30. Anaheim Ducks. They had to get rid of Corey Perry’s contract, but they still have a ton of money tied up in players on the wrong side of 30 (or very close to 30).

31. Los Angeles Kings. So far their effort to rebuild and get younger has involved trading Jake Muzzin and buying out Dion Phaneuf. The longer they drag their feet in gutting this roster the longer this team will remain in the basement.

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.

Pressure is on Rutherford, Sullivan after Kessel trade

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The Phil Kessel era in Pittsburgh reached its inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when the Penguins shipped the star winger to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. It finally ended months of rumors, speculation, and even some drama that constantly swirled around an inconsistent regular season and disappointing postseason that seemed to give management and the coaching staff an unquenchable thirst for change.

Whenever that change was discussed, everything that was talked about always made Kessel the most likely candidate to be on the move.

General manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly talked about too many players on the team becoming too comfortable and complacent.

There was talk about commitment and “playing the right way.”

There were salary cap concerns as the Penguins were once again pressed firmly against the ceiling and having little flexibility to make the changes they wanted to make.

Then there was the seemingly tumultuous relationship between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan as the two did not always see eye-to-eye.

After trying to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this summer, only to have Kessel utilize his no-trade clause and block the deal, Rutherford finally found a match with the Coyotes, reuniting Kessel and Rick Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh.

Kessel and Rutherford seemed to disagree over the nature of the departure, with Rutherford saying on Saturday that Kessel had requested a trade during the season, and Kessel simply saying that is not how it happened. Who is telling the truth is anyone’s guess, but now that the trade is completed the how and why is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the Penguins’ roster now looks like and what they do in the coming weeks and months (and years) to make it better.

In the short-term it is almost impossible to argue that the roster is better from a talent standpoint.

[Related: Penguins send Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk]

That puts a ton of pressure on Rutherford and Sullivan because they now have some big tests ahead of them, and they are going to need to be right every step of the way.

The popular sentiment coming out of Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath is the Penguins probably did better than expected given how little leverage they had in trying to make a Kessel trade. It was obvious the Penguins were motivated to move him and he had significant control over where he went, reportedly loading his approved trade list with teams he knew the Penguins would not trade him to. If I were a betting man, I would wager that list included a lot of Metropolitan Division teams, as well as maybe Boston and Toronto, Kessel’s two previous stops in the NHL. That certainly put them in a corner.

Getting a good NHL player and promising prospect in that context probably is a pretty decent haul if you were hellbent on trading him.

But you don’t win championships or give yourself a chance to win championships by simply doing better than everyone expected you to do when trading an elite offensive player.

You win championships by having better players than everybody else. That is now the short-term problem for the Penguins.

At this point there are not any secrets when it comes to Galchenyuk and what he is as a player. He possesses a lot of the same flaws that Kessel does defensively and away from the puck, but does not provide the strength of being a world-class offensive player. You may not like Kessel’s defensive play, but there are only a very short list of players in the world that are better than him when it comes to producing offense. You at least have that going for you when you have him on your roster. If you are going to be a one-trick pony, that is a pretty damn good trick to have at your disposal.

I do not know that Kessel’s style of play, approach, or attitude changed all that much over the past few years. He is what he is as a player and he is who he is as a person. What changed is the Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups. You tolerate the quirky, all-offense, no-defense winger when he is helping to hang banners and taking part in parades.

When all of that stuff stops, it is no longer something most hockey men want to put up with.

Now the Penguins have one less elite offensive player, and unless Galchenyuk somehow puts it all together and scores 30 goals for the first time in three years — a season that is now looking more and more like the outlier in his career — they downgraded their roster in the short-term.

Arguing against that as we sit today is arguing against facts and logic.

Because of that, the entire trade, as well as the direction of the Penguins after the trade, hinges almost completely on the development of Joseph, what the Penguins do with the new salary cap space they now have, and whether or not they were right about needing to change the culture of the team … and if that even matters.

This is where the challenge for Rutherford and Sullivan comes in.

Joseph is an intriguing add because despite the claims of Rutherford earlier this offseason when he said this is the best defense he has ever had in Pittsburgh, his defense is actually quite a mess once you get beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. They also didn’t have anyone in the prospect pool that looked to be even worthy of a mention as a top prospect.

Joseph, almost by default, immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect and actually plays a style that would seem to suit the Penguins when they are at their best. That is good. The key is going to be developing him into something useful at the NHL level. The problem is the Penguins really haven’t done a good job of developing young players over the past few years. They have to get it right with Joseph, not only to justify this move, but because they NEED someone like him to be good. But that is probably a year or two away from becoming a factor, not only because of where Joseph in his development (he has never played above the QMJHL) but because of the logjam the Penguins still have on their blue line.

The more immediate issue is the newfound salary cap space.

When it comes to this offseason, the Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap doesn’t really do anything to remedy the team’s short-term cap issues as it only saves them about $1.9 million. That gives them, via CapFriendly, around $5 million in salary cap space.

Given their own RFA’s they have to re-sign, probably wanting to keep a little wiggle room under the cap at the start of the season, and the cost of any new UFA signing it doesn’t really give the Penguins much added flexibility under the cap without making another move to ship out more salary. Rutherford hinted he may now be able to add someone on Monday at the start of free agency, but unless someone takes a huge discount to go to Pittsburgh, or he makes another trade, he will only be adding a fringe player around the edge.

They do not see any real salary cap savings until next summer (and the summer after that), and that is assuming they do NOT re-sign Galchenyuk. If they do, he probably costs at least $5-6 million and pretty much erases that newfound cap space they got by trading Kessel. At that point they would be betting that Galchenyuk would be a better use of that cap space than Kessel would. Even taking into account a decline from Kessel, that seems like a tough bet to make.

The bigger issue, though, is that if Rutherford is going to make a move in free agency he has to do a better job than he has the past few years where he has not only slowly shifted the Penguins away from what made them a success, but has also made some objectively bad moves.

The Penguins are not in a salary cap crunch because they are paying their stars. It is because they have made some bad investments with their second-and third-tier players. How much better would their salary cap situation look this summer if they did not commit more than $7 million to the duo of Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson? Or the more than $5 million per year (for another five years) they have going to an aging and apparently rapidly declining Patric Hornqvist?

Just look at what the Penguins have done in free agency the past two offseasons.

  • In July 2017 they signed Antti Niemi to be their new backup goalie behind Matt Murray. Niemi didn’t last two months with the team before being waived.
  • That same summer they signed Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. It was a fit that was so bad from the start the Penguins had to trade Conor Sheary along with Hunwick just to dump salary one year ago to create cap space.
  • They used that new cap space to sign Jack Johnson to a five-year, $17 million contract exactly one year ago, a contract that has already become an albatross on their cap.

That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolving door of other roster moves that have led to a decline in success.

Salary cap space is only as good as what you do with it. The Penguins have not maximized what little space they have had in recent years. That trend can not continue.

Then we get to Sullivan and the pressure that is now on him.

Whether it is the reality of the situation or not, the optics from the outside are that he won out over Kessel in what can probably only be loosely described as a power struggle. The player that didn’t conform to the way he wanted to play is gone. The culture changes and maybe the team begins to play the “right way” (in their view) as a result.

But all of it better work out for his sake because there can be no denying his seat is white hot after the way the team fizzled out in the playoffs. Sullivan is entering a season where he is a lame-duck coach, and the general manager does not seem to have much urgency when it comes to signing him to a contract extension.

Adding to the fire is that the Penguins just hired Mike Vellucci, the reigning Calder Cup winning coach in the American Hockey League, to be the new head coach of their top farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That came after Vellucci mutually agreed to part ways with the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Why would he resign from an organization he has been a part of for so long, where he has had recent success, to take a lateral job in another organization?

In his words, it was because he was “presented with an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”

Allow me to translate that: He thinks he has a faster path to an NHL head coaching job in Pittsburgh than he did in Carolina, and that would not be an incorrect assumption. He and Rutherford have a connection from their Carolina days, and he would seem to be the obvious in-house replacement if the team with the lame-duck coach stumbles out of the gate.

If you want to argue that the Penguins had to trade Kessel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they did. Maybe change was necessary. Maybe he was the significant core player on the roster that made sense to move. Maybe he wanted to move.

They still have a lot of work to do to get better as a result of it, no matter the reason, and they are not anywhere near getting there.

Unless something changes drastically in how they evaluate players, what they value in players, and how they utilize their salary cap space none of what took place over the past 24 hours will matter as they run the risk of their remaining championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era closing even sooner than it needs to.

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.

Trade: Penguins deal Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk

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The Phil Kessel drama in Pittsburgh has finally come to an end.

Kessel is moving on to the Arizona Coyotes as part of a deal that was consummated Saturday between the two teams. The 31-year-old forward is reunited with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. The Coyotes also receive a 2021 fourth-round pick and defenseman Dane Birks.

“First of all, I’ll say that he was a terrific player for us and played a huge part in those two Cups. And I can’t say enough good things about him. And I like him personally,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I just think it was time to make a change with him.”

Kessel has three years remaining on a contract that carried a salary cap hit of $6.8 million. Galchenyuk will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 NHL season. His deal brings a cap hit of $4.9 million.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Rutherford tried to trade Kessel, who had 27 goals and 82 points in 82 games this season, once this off-season, but a deal with the Minnesota Wild fell through after the forward refused to waive his no-move clause. Kessel’s clause allows the Penguins to deal him to eight pre-approved teams. If Kessel was going to be leaving Pittsburgh, he would be controlling the situation, which, according to an article in The Athletic this week, was becoming an issue for some inside the Penguins’ organization.

Despite the rumors that swirled around Kessel, he produced on the ice. He’s one of 18 players to record at least 300 points since the 2015-16 season and over that same period of time he scored 110 goals for the Penguins. He’s also a durable player having not missed a game since the 2009-10 season and owns the third-longest active consecutive games streak (774) and is eighth all-time.

“We felt the ability to add a scorer was the primary need for our group,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said during a Saturday night conference call. “Phil has been one of the best offensive producers in the league for a long time and we think he’s going to come in motivated and ready to go.”

“I’m just coming in to do what I do best and try to help the team win as many games as possible,” Kessel said. “I think they’re an up-and-coming team, they’ve got a lot of pieces in place and I want to help them along.”

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk played one season with the Coyotes following a trade from the Montreal Canadiens last summer. He scored 19 goals and recorded 41 points in 72 games. Those numbers could be in for a bit of a boost if head coach Mike Sullivan puts him on the wing next to either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Rutherford said there was going to be change to the roster following their first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. He now has a little over $5 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to continue tweaking the roster. There are no real major re-signings to be done other than decisions on UFAs Matt Cullen and Garrett Wilson, as well as restricted free agents Zach-Aston Reese, Marcus Pettersson and Teddy Blueger. It’s not the greatest of free agent classes to go shopping on the cheap, so more trades could be on the way for the Penguins.

Kessel and the Coyotes make their visit to Pittsburgh on Friday, Dec. 6.

————

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.

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.