Jack Hughes

NHL Fantasy Hockey: Bounce-back candidates for the second half

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Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I’d normally focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. For this week though, because we’re coming off the All-Star break, I’m doing something a little different. This week I’m highlighting 10 players who underperformed in the first half and should do better for the rest of the campaign.

Johnny Gaudreau, Flames – LW/RW: With 13 goals and 38 points in 50 contests, you can’t say that Gaudreau is having a bad season, but it is a significant step down from his previous two campaigns. The Flames as a whole have had a rough campaign offensively, going from the second best in 2018-19 to the 25th ranked offense this season. Part of Gaudreau’s problem though might be some rough puck luck. His shooting percentage is significantly off from his career average (9.2% in 2019-20 compared to 12.4% in his career), his PDO is the lowest it’s ever been, and his IPP is the lowest it’s been since the 2014-15 campaign.  Those can be taken as indicators that he’s been rewarded less than he should have been. All that has to be taken with a grain of salt, but even with that qualifier, Gaudreau is a top-tier player so it’s not a bad idea to put your faith in him.

Phil Kessel, Coyotes – RW: The Coyotes added Kessel in the hopes that he would provide them with the one thing they sorely lacked last season: goals. So far that hasn’t quite worked out. Arizona has been a better team offensively this season than they were in 2018-19, but it’s still their main weakness and rather than lead the charge, Kessel has been a decent, but not great top-six forward. Kessel has 11 goals and 31 points in 51 contests after recording 61 goals and 174 points in 164 contests in his previous two seasons with Pittsburgh. Kessel might have needed some time to adjust to his new environment though and he has been doing better lately with seven goals and 17 points in his last 23 contests as well as three goals and 10 points in his last 10 games. The stage seems to be set for him to have a better second half.

Jake Gardiner, Hurricanes – D: Gardiner typically produced solid numbers offensively with the Maple Leafs, but he also was logging over 20 minutes of ice time with them each season. By contrast, he has three goals and 13 points in 50 games while averaging just 16:29 minutes in Carolina. With Dougie Hamilton sidelined indefinitely though, the Hurricanes might need to lean on Gardiner significantly more. He’s averaged 20:22 minutes in the three games since Hamilton’s injury and if that continues then he should have a much stronger second half.

Pekka Rinne, Predators – G: If the season ended today, this would arguably be the worst campaign of Rinne’s career. He has a 16-10-3 record, 2.95 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 29 starts. That save percentage would be the worst he’s ever endured and his GAA is only topped by the 3.80 GAA he had over two games back in 2005-06. Just two years removed from his Vezina win, it’d be quite the collapse. He’s largely been dragged down from one prolonged bad stretch though. From Oct. 31-Dec. 21, he had a 3.91 GAA and .864 save percentage in 12 starts. Before that he was having a terrific season and since he’s bounced back somewhat with a 2.86 GAA and .907 save percentage in nine games. This is probably going to go down as a season where Rinne declined meaningfully, but his second half should still be an improvement on his first.

John Klingberg, Stars – D: Klingberg had two goals and 19 points in 37 games going into the All-Star break. That’s not terrible, but if the season ended today, his points-per-game pace would be the lowest of his career. He’s thawing out though with nine assists in his last nine games. Given his track record, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that he can do better going forward.

Jack Hughes, Devils – C: The first overall pick in the 2019 draft hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm. He has six goals and 17 points in 40 contests so far, which means there hasn’t been much reason to own Hughes if you’re in a standard fantasy league. That being said, the more NHL experience he gets, the better he should be. The fact that the Devils are out of the playoff hunt might also strangely work in his favor. The Devils have already traded Taylor Hall and they will likely attempt to continue selling, which may lead to the team handing Hughes more ice time to compensate. There’s also more incentive for them to give their young players plenty of ice time if their focus is on the future and not the 2019-20 campaign.

Sidney Crosby, Penguins – C: This one is a bit of a cheat. I’ve been avoiding highlighting players who spent most of the first half on the sidelines, but in terms of players who missed time in the first half, Crosby is among those who should have the biggest impact in the second. When he’s been healthy this season, Crosby has been his usual dominant self with eight goals and 25 points in 22 contests. As long as he can stay off the sidelines for the rest of the campaign, he should be among the league scoring leaders from the All-Star break onwards.

Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche – C/LW: Landeskog set a career-high last season with 75 points in 73 games, but he’s had a quiet first half with 13 goals and 21 points in 33 contests. Part of the problem was a lower-body injury that cost him 16 games, but of course that doesn’t explain away his decline in points-per-game. He has a 42.9 IPP, which is very low and might indicate that he’s endured some unusually bad luck. That might be part of the reason for his underwhelming first half and if that’s the case, we might see a better return out of him after the All-Star break.

Jordan Eberle, Islanders – RW: In early January, Eberle described himself as a second-half player and so far he’s backed that assertion up with four goals and seven points in his last eight games. That’s in stark contrast to his three goals and 17 points in 31 contests from Oct. 4-Jan. 6. Eberle has been hit-and-miss in recent years, so it’s entirely possible that his recent run is simply a hot streak, but he underperformed thus far relative to what we’ve seen out of him for most of his career, so it’s not out of the question that he will be better in the second half of the season compared to the first.

Braden Holtby, Capitals – G: Holtby can become an unrestricted free agent this summer and his is not the sort of season he’d like to have in his contract year. While he has a great 18-9-4 record behind the amazing Capitals, his GAA and save percentage leave a lot to be desired at 3.09 and .897 respectively. He’s certainly had some good stretches this season though and perhaps the break came at an ideal time for him because it gives him an opportunity for him to step back from his recent struggles. He’s allowed at least three goals in each of his last seven games, which has dragged down his numbers. The time to reflect might be just what he needed and with his contract expiring, he’s not short on motivation to bounce back.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey.

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

NHL Mock Draft: Lafreniere head of the 2020 prospect class

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By Ryan Wagman, McKeen’s Hockey lead prospect writer

With a little bit more than half of the season gone, both in the NHL and in the various leagues from which NHL clubs draft players come June, it is time to take a fresh look at this year’s draft class. Unlike our last look, we can take this a step further and put the draft in order. For those following along at home, I am using the draft order as of the end of games from January 19, with trades already made accounted for. That means the following:

• San Jose’s pick belongs to Ottawa as a result of the Erik Karlsson trade. There were no conditions on that pick.

• Arizona’s pick belongs to New Jersey. If Arizona misses the playoffs and gets a top three pick, they keep it, as at this moment, they are in the second Wild Card slot in the west, so the pick belongs to the Devils and their new GM, whoever that may be.

• Toronto’s pick goes to Carolina as the consequence of the Hurricanes paying the freight on the final year of Patrick Marleau’s onerous Toronto contract. If the Leafs get a top ten pick, they get to keep it, but as of this moment, they are out of the playoff picture, but have middle of the pack points, so the pick goes to Carolina.

• Finally, Vancouver’s pick goes to Tampa Bay as a result of the J.T. Miller deal. The pick is conditional on the Canucks making the playoffs, and lo and behold, they are in first place in the Pacific Division as of this writing, so Tampa gets a pair of first here.

As with every season, the final pick in the first round goes to the Stanley Cup winner, and the 30th pick to the runner up, while picks 29 and 28 go to the Conference Final losers, in order of their regular season record. For this mock draft we will assume that the worst team in the league won the draft lottery, the second worst won the second pick and the third worst won the first pick. We will also assume that all top seeds won out in the postseason. This will obviously not be the case come June, but so much of the actual draft order will change between now and then so let’s not sweat those details just yet.

Finally, this mock is built from the work of the McKeens Hockey team of analysts. We have people around the hockey globe watching the games, grading the prospects and the McKeens draft list (top 62, plus 38 honorable mentions) is now available for viewing. Without further ado, let’s draft!

1. Detroit Red Wings – Alexis Lafreniere, LW, Rimouski Oceanic (QMJHL)

I have a good friend who grew up in the Detroit area, and in a recent conversation, he explicitly mentioned that he wanted a generational talent for his decrepit Red Wings this year. I can’t oblige on that end, but Lafreniere is pretty close that. The big winger is ready for the NHL today, and has all the makings of the first line winger who can put up points and drive the play for his team for a long time to come. His QMJHL numbers have been remarkable from day one, but he falls short of the “generational” category. He reads the game like a ten year pro and has a fantastic command of the puck. He can slow the game to pick it apart and will be a central piece of the Red Wings’ eventual return to relevance. He isn’t generational, but he’s really, really good. If you want an example, look up his game winning goal from the WJC against the USA. Despite missing a few tournament games to injury, that was the first strike in what was eventually deemed an MVP performance at the prestige tournament. How many draft eligible players can say that they managed that honor? 

Of note, this would be the third first overall pick from Rimouski, following Sidney Crosby, and before him, Vincent Lecavalier. The latter is a much better approximation of the type of player Lafreniere can be at his peak, albeit as a winger.

2. Los Angeles Kings – Tim Stutzle, C-LW, Adler Mannheim (DEL)

After Lafreniere, there are a few players who can reasonably stake a claim to being the second best player in the 202 draft class. With a different team picking second, the pick could be different, but LA seems like a natural home for the most exciting German prospect since Leon Draisaitl, and the best draft eligible to even play in the German Elite League – not forgetting that last year’s 6th overall pick, Moritz Seider, was also with Adler Mannheim when he was selected. The German leagues don’t get the hype that Sweden, Finland, or Russia do, but there is a lot of good hockey played there, and more and more high end German youth are electing to stay close to home. Stutzle had a point per game performance at the WJC, helping Germany upset the host Czech team in the round robin, before missing most of the relegation round with illness. So why would the Kings like him over the other No. 2 candidates? They have a special bond with the DEL, as they oversee hockey operations with DEL squad Eisbaren Berlin. They should be very comfortable with the quality of the league and their views on Stutzle.

3. New Jersey Devils – Quinton Byfield, C, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)

The Devils just let go of GM Ray Shero, so they are the biggest black box of all drafting teams, as we have no priors to look at for draft trends, not even knowing who their GM will be come draft day. That said, we do know that they have drafted heavily from the OHL in recent years, and we believe that the best player available in this scenario would be Sarnia’s man child Quinton Byfield, who won’t turn 18 until mid-August. Some people might be down on Byfield due to an underwhelming performance as a young 17 year old at the WJC (one solitary assist in seven games). Then again, he barely played on the Gold Medal winning squad. He has an elite hockey brain, while his skating, puck skills and shot all rate as well above average. He could be an ideal foil for last year’s first overall pick Jack Hughes. He would also have a chance to play right away, if only because he has nothing left to prove in the OHL, which he has been torching for the last year and a half.

4. Ottawa Senators – Lucas Raymond, LW/C, Frolunda (SHL)

The Senators didn’t get their own first rounder last year (although they later picked up Vegas’ pick), but they will get the No. 4 pick this year due to their own futility, and as of this writing, the No. 6 pick as well, from San Jose. More on that in a moment. Here though, look for the Sens to draft one of the elite Swedes of this draft class. In this scenario, both Raymond and fellow national team stalwart Alexander Holtz are available. They are very close in expected value, but we have Raymond a smidge ahead. Raymond is just a touch toolsier and slightly more of a play driver. It would be difficult to go wrong between the two. And who knows – Holtz could still be there two picks hence….

5. Anaheim Ducks – Jamie Drysdale, D, Erie Otters (OHL)

To anyone wondering if I am rigging this to give Ottawa the chance to draft both Raymond and Holtz, no. Anaheim has only drafted out of Sweden twice in the last four draft classes, although one was a first rounder (Isac Lundestrom). They are actually much more likely to draft someone slated to go to college, although there really isn’t anyone NCAA bound who would be good value at 5th overall this year. Jamie Drysdale, on the other hand, would be a good fit. The top blueliner in the 2020 draft class is undersized, but an excellent skater, smart puck mover and a minutes-eater. He may not be as dynamic an offensive force as the Cale Makar/Quinn Hughes types we have been spoiled with of late, but he could be the next coming of Cam Fowler or Ryan Ellis. The right shot blueliner has the makings of a first pairing stalwart and it’s hard to complain about that for an organization whose previously great blueline depth has dwindled drastically in recent years.

6. Ottawa Senators (from San Jose Sharks) – Alexander Holtz, RW/LW, Djurgardens IF (SEL)

It’s fun to be poetic in mock drafts. In this scenario, the organization of Danial Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson gets to build its next contender with a pair of high end Swedish forwards in Lucas Raymond at No. 4 and Holtz here at No. 6. Known for his goal scoring prowess, Holtz actually plays a commendable two way game. He is starting to play with the consistency shift-to-shift that was sometimes missing last year. Holtz has one of the best shots in the draft class and with him added to Raymond, the Senators have two game breakers to add to their collection of young talent. It won’t be long before the once downtrodden franchise is back in the hunt on the regular.

7. Minnesota Wild – Marco Rossi, C, Ottawa 67s (OHL)

Like with New Jersey, we have no history to draw on to help us project who the Wild will draft as the franchise fired previous GM Paul Fenton last offseason and replaced him with Bill Guerin, giving the latter his first GM job. Similarly, the team’s two Directors of Scouting, Darren Yopyk and PJ Fenton (yes, he is the son of Paul), are both in their first years in this role. So let’s just go with best player available. Rossi is currently leading the OHL in scoring, six points ahead of the runner up (who we will discuss soon enough), despite the runner up having played eight additional games. Rossi is small and lean, but plays a physically intense style of game, driving the net and fighting for every inch. In addition to his high end puck skills, his hockey IQ is extremely impressive. The Wild should be patient with him and he continues to mature physically, but he could grow into the first line center this franchise has long needed.

8. New York Rangers – Anton Lundell, C, HIFK (Liiga)

The rebuild is almost over. There is a good chance that their 2020 first rounder is their last top 15 pick for a few years. The best players on the McKeens board at this juncture are mostly players based in North America, but of late the Rangers have tended to steer towards Europe with their top picks. After years without picking in the first round, both 2018 first rounders were Europeans, two of three from 2019 were Europeans, as was second overall pick Kaapo Kakko last year. Lundell isn’t the top man on the McKeens board, but he’s close. Lundell going at No. 8 will depend somewhat on his recovery from an injury that kept him out of the WJC, but his production as an 18 year old in Liiga this year is not far off Kakko’s last year, or that of other recent high end Finnish players like Patrik Laine, Rasmus Kupari, and others. As many of the recent high end forwards drafted by the Rangers have been wingers, a top center would be a nice addition to their prospect haul.

9. Montreal Canadiens – Cole Perfetti, C, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)

The joke with the Canadiens system is that the organization has a great collection of future third line centers. The players who project to traditional top six roles (Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki) are all wingers. Perfetti projects to the top six. An offensive dynamo, he is equal parts goal scorer and play maker. It would be nice if he was bigger, or if his skating was a touch quicker, but the latter has shown recent signs of improvement. Also, and this is something that Montreal has been known to appreciate, his hockey sense is very advanced, suggesting that his skills will play to their level once he moves up.

10. Buffalo Sabres – Jake Sanderson, D, USNTDP U18 (USHL)

While GM Jason Botterill broke his anti-CHL bias last year with the first round selection of Dylan Cozens, he only touched those leagues the one time and I am not buying that he is fully in on the CHL just yet. I am also not ready to see him drafting from Russia, as his next Russian draftee will be his first. Instead, we will allow Buffalo to stay in their comfort zone. Last year, they selected a big USNTDP blueliner whose father had a long NHL career in Mattias Samuelsson, son of Kjell. Now we can give them another big (although not as big) USNTDP blueliner whose father had a long NHL career in Jake Sanderson, son of Geoff. Sanderson is more likely to grow into a first pairing defender than Samuelsson is, with his combination of above average skating and advanced hockey IQ. He will require some patience (likely two years of school at North Dakota), but the payoff could be special.

11. Nashville Predators – Yaroslav Askarov, G, SKA-Neva St. Petersburg (VHL)

If the Predators end up picking 11th, the season will have been seen as a colossal failure. Then again, a failure is also an opportunity for finding a path to future success. The Nashville system is quite deep with goalies, but with all due respect to Connor Ingram and Milan Kloucek, both having solid seasons, none who have cemented their standing as the “goalie of the future.” Despite a shabby showing at the WJC, where he lost his job to Amir Miftakhov, not that many 17 year old netminders ger the chance to play in the first place. Askarov has a long history as a big name netminder. Named the top goalie of last summer’s WU18 tournament, he would immediately be seen as the long term successor to Pekka Rinne in the Nashville crease. 

12. Chicago Blackhawks – Connor Zary, C, Kamloops Blazers (WHL)

Another year, another advanced center from the WHL for the Blackhawks. Unlike last year’s pick, Kirby Dach, Zary is less physically mature, and more of a dynamic scorer. After a point per game performance as a 17 year old last year, and a strong showing for Team Canada in the WU18, he has hit another level in his draft year. Equal parts scorer and playmaker, Zary looks like a good fit as part of the next generation of Chicago play drivers. Of course, they will have to be more patient with him than they were with Dach, not that the latter has looked out of place thus far.

13. Winnipeg Jets – Dawson Mercer, C, Chicoutimi Saugeneens (QMJHL)

Looking at the Winnipeg NHL roster this year, one would think that the organization needs defensemen more than anything. That said, the organization is actually deepest along the blueline. What the system needs are more talented forwards. Luckily for the Jets, the draft at this point, is strongest with forwards. Although the organization has trended towards Europeans early in recent years, I get the sense that the best fit out there in this scenario is in the form of QMJHL forward Dawson Mercer, one of several draft eligible who played a role in bringing the WJC to Canada this year. Like a number of the forwards selected in this draft, Mercer is more notable for his hockey IQ than for his toolkit, a trait which allows everything to play up. He plays an impressive two-way game and gets his share of points. He has decent size and strength as well, allowing him play up and down the lineup. He may not be as flashy in the NHL as he is in the Q, but he won’t be any less valuable.

14. Carolina Hurricanes (from Toronto Maple Leafs) – Rodion Amirov, LW, Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)

On the one hand, owner Tom Dundon has stated that the Hurricanes would not be using any first round picks on defensemen. On the other hand, the best players available in this scenario are forwards anyways. For an organization that delights in stocking up talented Europeans, they are in the right place at the right time, with Russian winger Rodion Amirov on the board. He has split his season between the KHL, the VHL (Russia’s second men’s league) and the MHL (Russia’s top junior league, all interspersed with international play for his country. He does everything at an above average level, although it is hard to say what his top attribute is at this point. Like many teenagers playing at the KHL level, minutes have been limited, so his production has looked unimpressive. This is a long term play, betting on the talent.

15. Philadelphia Flyers – Noel Gunler, RW, Lulea (SHL)

One of the deepest organizations in the NHL gets more skill added in the form of Gunler, an 18 year old regular in the SHL, with the odd distinction of almost never having played for his country at IIHF sanctioned international events. The knock on him is reportedly that if he isn’t a top six player, he will struggle to play a non-scoring role. Fair enough, but his shot and hockey IQ both grade out as well above average, making him a good gamble in the middle of the round. He is tall and rangy, and skates well, and is already producing respectably against men in a good league.

16. New Jersey Devils (from Arizona Coyotes) – Kaiden Guhle, D, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)

With Quinton Byfield already added to the system, the Devils can afford to look for a longer term play with this pick acquired as part of the Taylor Hall package. Bigger than older brother Brenden, Kaiden also has more offensive bent to his game than his sibling did in his draft year. He also plays a more imposing game. Despite all of that, he is no less impressive a skater. The former No. 1 overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft will join another player with the same distinction in Ty Smith in the Devils system.

17. Vegas Golden Knights – Braden Schneider, D, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

The Golden Knights organization has skewed towards the WHL from day one, with GM Kelly McCrimmon still having deep ties to the Brandon Wheat Kings organization. He should feel comfortable pulling the trigger in the first round on current Wheatie Schneider, who would immediately be the highest ceiling defender in the system. A blend of old school and new, Schneider has good size, is physically engaging, reads the game like a pro, and carries an impressive load of offensive tools, from a right handed shot. Wearing the ‘A’ for Brandon for the second year already, Schneider also brings a leader’s voice to the team. What’s not to like?

18. Calgary Flames – Jeremie Poirier, D, Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

While I never really recommend drafting for need, the Calgary Flames have very little in the way of blueliners – not just high end blueliners, but any blueliners at all – in the system below the NHL level. At this stage of the draft, the gaps in projected value between players on the board is slim and generally exists only in the eyes of the beholder. Further, there is really only defender left before the quality available at the position drops off pretty sharply. Poirier has high end hands, which he puts to use in handling the puck and distributing it accurately and sharply. He has a solid frame and is a fine, if unexceptional skater. His defensive game is still occasionally raw, but the inherent tools are potentially special.

19. Edmonton Oilers – Jack Quinn, RW/C. Ottawa 67s (OHL)

After having selected blueliners with their top picks in each of the last two drafts, it may be time for the Oilers to look at forwards again to supplement the All-World core of McDavid and Draisaitl. Lucky for them, there is a very good one still on the board in Quinn, who has put up his very impressive point totals generally without the benefit of playing with fellow 2020 top prospect Marco Rossi. A hard working, high end goal scorer, he has a full bag of tricks that help him put the puck in the net. This pick could end up being a real steal in short order.

20. Florida Panthers – Dylan Holloway, C, Wisconsin (Big 10)

The Panthers have been among the more inscrutable teams at the draft table in recent years, often betting on physical tools, sometimes to the detriment of recorded production. If that trend holds, Wisconsin freshman Holloway seems to fit the mold. The team would also be very familiar with his work, as two Badgers teammates (Owen Lindmark and Tyler Inamoto) were already drafted by Florida. His collegiate production hasn’t been eye catching yet, but he has already proven the ability for his physical tools to take over shifts and that should become more consistent with time. He could also be long gone by the time the 20th pick rolls around, so if he is still on the board, he is good value here.

21. Tampa Bay Lightning (from Vancouver Canucks) – Carter Savoie, LW, Sherwood Park Crusaders (AJHL)

From South Florida, we move to the Sunshine State’s West Coast. The Lightning have trended towards big players in recent drafts, but there aren’t any sizeable players who would be worth a pick this early on the board. Perhaps with their second first rounder. The Lightning also tend to like goalscorers and they can afford to make a longer term gamble here on a player like Savoie. Scoring a goal per game in the AJHL, the Denver commit receives high grades for his shot, puck skills, and hockey IQ. One would like to see better pace from a player his size, but he isn’t a bad skater, just could use a better second gear. He will need time on campus, but the upside is tantalizing.

22. Dallas Stars – Antonio Stranges, LW, London Knights (OHL)

Julius Honka. Denis Guryanov. Riley Tufte. Miro Heiskanen. Ty Dellandrea. Thomas Harley. Those are the first round picks of the Jim Nill era in Dallas. Aside from No. 3 overall pick Heiskanen, there is not a game breaker in the rest of the bunch. Yes, Guryanov is starting to look like an NHLer, but he is still a far cry from a top six contributor. Dellandrea and Harley are too early to judge, but the former looks like a good third liner and the lattera second pairing defender. So the Stars should be looking to swing for the fences this year. It’s harder at 22 than at 3, but there is still sufficient talent on the boards. Stranges might have more of it than anyone else left. He will need to play more consistent shift to shift before he is ready for the NHL, but there is a dynamic quality to his puck skills that is rare and he plays with extreme confidence. 

23. Carolina Hurricanes – Roni Hirvonen, C, Assat Pori (Liiga)

With the pick they got from Toronto, we are lining the Hurricanes up with talented Russian Rodon Amirov. The Dundon quote about not taking defensemen in the first round still applies, but we can give Carolina the most Hurricanes player on the board in the second best Finn in a good draft class from the Scandinavian nation. Hirvonen is on the small side, but he is a great skater and plays a very mature game. He has been following up a great showing at the pre-season Hlinka with a promising debut season in Finland’s top men’s league. 

24. Columbus Blue Jackets – Jacob Perreault, RW/C, Sarnia Sting (OHL)

The Blue Jackets have only had one first round pick in the previous three drafts and could use a big infusion of talent here, as grit and structure can only take a team so far for so long. In Perreault, son of long-time NHLer Yanic, they would be drafting an offensive leader on the otherwise modest Sarnia squad. He has a big time shot and seems to have inherited his father’s sense for the game. He fits the mold of previous Kekalainen picks like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Liam Foudy.

25. New York Islanders – Ty Smilanic, C, USNTDP U18 (USHL)

Although you wouldn’t know it from their 2019 draft class, the Islanders under Lou Lamoriello have heavily mined the USNTDP for talent. Think first rounders Kieffer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom, but also later round picks like Nick Pastujov, Logan Cockerill, Blade Jenkins (he left the program before his draft year), Jacob Pivonka, and Bode Wilde. This year’s U18 class lacks the impact of the 2019 version, but Smilanic may be being underrated a tad due to an injury plagued draft year. The Quinnipiac commit is a brilliant skater and a very skilled puck mover. He needs some time to hone his finishing instincts and a good season of health will go a long way towards that goal, and towards a middle six role in the NHL.

26. Tampa Bay Lightning – Shakir Mukhamadullin, D, Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)

A few picks prior, we had the Lightning drafting AJHL dynamo Carter Savoie. When a team picks twice in the first, I like to see them take some variety of player type. So after taking the smaller player who may need a longer lead time to reach his peak, here is the chance for them to take a bigger player who is more pro ready. That description fits Russian defender Mukhamadullin to a tee. Already playing regularly in the KHL with Ufa, his skills and game style are masked by a relative lack of ice time, but he has demonstrated ably in international events like last year’s WU18 and this year’s Hlinka and WJAC that he is a solid blueliner who can capably handle modern style skill and pace. The main question is when would he leave Russia?

27. Pittsburgh Penguins – Mavrik Bourque, C, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)

Last year, with their first first round pick since 2014, the Penguins went with a big scoring winger from the QMJHL, and then returned to the Q again with their second pick. It just so happens that the top player on the McKeens board in this scenario is a scoring winger from the Q. While Bourque lacks Samuel Poulin’s size, he has a big time shot and quick and skilled hands. He also processes the game very quickly, making him a capable player in all three zones. He needs to improve his acceleration, which may cause him to slide a bit down draft boards, but he has top six upside.

28. Colorado Avalanche – Sean Farrell, LW, Chicago Steel (USHL)

One thing that has stood out in recent Colorado draft classes is that the team appreciates the college route in its top prospects. In the top two rounds alone of their last four draft classes, we have Tyson Jost, Cam Morrison, Cale Makar, Alex Newhook, and Drew Helleson. Harvard-bound Farrell is the top scorer in the USHL and has a full collection of tools to support his numbers. Not only is a play driving scoring chance creator, but he is consistent at it as well. The Avs will need to be patient while he percolates at Cambridge, but the payoff will be worth it.

29. Boston Bruins – Brendan Brisson, C, Chicago Steel (USHL)

It may be surprising to see two players from the same USHL team going back to back, in the first round no less, but this year’s Steel are that good. Brisson, son of super-agent Pat, might be more naturally skilled than linemate Farrell, although he lacks the latter’s consistency. At his best, he is a high end play driver, with sublime vision in the offensive zone, capable of taking the puck to the net himself, or dishing off creatively for a linemate to get the glory. Headed to Michigan, he may be only scratching the surface of his potential. Also of note, Chicago GM Ryan Hardy is a former Boston scout, which should give the Bruins comfort in taking one of his current high-end charges.

30. St. Louis Blues – Tyson Foerster, RW, Barrie Colts (OHL)

Perhaps this is a case of recency bias, but Foerster, already in the midst of a very good draft season with a struggling Barrie team in the OHL, turned a lot of heads at last week’s Top Prospect game, with a three point MVP performance. He is a high IQ winger with a fantastic shot, good puck skills and patience to wait for the right play. If the Top Prospect Game serves as a springboard to a strong second half, he could already be off the board at this stage. If he gains another half step in his stride, I would say that he is likely to be off the board. At pick 30, he would represent great value for the Blues.

31. Washington Capitals – Jake Neighbours, LW, Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)

The Capitals scout the WHL heavily and practically never draft players out of the QMJHL. I just so happens that one of the top players on the McKeens board in this scenario is a talented playmaker from the WHL who would fit nicely with the goal scorer from the OHL that Washington picked in the first round last year. Thickly built, the winger gets to top speed quickly and shows his patience by holding on to the puck in the offensive zone to create space for his linemates to get open and create scoring chances. He is also impressively competent off the puck and could be brought along slowly in a bottom six role before graduating to a more scoring-based role on a perennial contender like Washington.

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

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. Ryan Dadoun writes have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column by writers from McKeen’s Hockey.

For more coverage of top prospects and the 2020 NHL Draft, follow @Ryan Wagman on Twitter.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for the Rangers — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

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.

Hischier replaces Palmieri as Devils’ All-Star Game rep

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Nico Hischier replaced Kyle Palmieri as the New Jersey Devils’ representative for the 2020 NHL All-Star Game. (Palmieri suffered an injury blocking a shot during the Devils’ upset win over the Lightning on Sunday.)

This marks the first All-Star Game appearance for Hischier, 21, the first pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

There might be a temptation to throw Hischier in with the Devils’ many problems. After all, the Devils lucked into two top overall picks (with Jack Hughes being the latest from 2019), made strong trades including landing Taylor Hall, yet couldn’t get it done.

Don’t blame Hischier, though.

The Swiss-born center ranks among the Devils’ brightest spots — alongside Palmieri, honestly. The young forward brings plenty to the table while rarely taking anything away. Consider his heatmap from Hockey Viz as just one illustration of Hischier’s many strengths:

If standard offensive stats work better for you, Hischier passes those tests, unless you’re grading him too harshly based on his draft status. Hischier ranks second on the Devils in scoring (28 points in 40 games), trailing only Palmieri (31 points in 44). In case you’re wondering, Hall was at 25 points in 30 games before being traded to the Coyotes.

The Devils need more players like Hischier. If his career trajectory continues as such, we also might see more of Hischier in future All-Star Games.

The 2020 NHL All-Star Skills Competition will take place on Friday, Jan. 24 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2020 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 25 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE NHL ALL-STAR GAME COVERAGE:
All-Star Game rosters
NHL All-Star Game captains
All-Star Game coaches
Pass or Fail: 2020 All-Star Game jerseys
Alex Ovechkin will not play in 2020 All-Star Game

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.

Where it all went wrong for Ray Shero and the Devils

Shero Devils
Getty

The New Jersey Devils fired general manager Ray Shero over the weekend, ending his four-and-a-half year run with the team.

On the surface, it’s not hard to see why the decision was made. Given the circumstances, it was inevitable.

The Devils have been a massive disappointment this season after a huge offseason, and were on track to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under Shero’s watch. Not many general managers are going to make it through that sort of run unscathed. Especially when you consider how high expectations were in the preseason after the additions of top pick Jack Hughes and the acquisitions of Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, and Wayne Simmonds.

So where did it all go wrong for Shero and the Devils?

We should start with the very beginning.

1. Shero inherited a mess

While the lack of progress is the thing that will stand out in the wake of the change, it can not be understated how bad of a situation Shero walked into when he was hired by the Devils in May of 2015.

The Devils were coming off of a 2014-15 season where they had one of the worst records in the league, had missed the playoffs three years in a row, had a barren farm system, and had what was by far the oldest roster in the league.

Things were bleak. Very bleak.

Consider…

  • Seven of the top-12 scorers on the 2014-15 season were age 32 or older. Five of them were out of the NHL completely within two years.
  • Of the 35 players that appeared in a game that season, 18 of them were out of the NHL within the next two years.
  • Only two players on the team recorded more than 40 points, and nobody scored more than 43.

It was a team of fringe NHL players that were not only not very good, but were on their way out of the league.

Combine that with a mostly empty farm system and there wasn’t a lot to build on.

He had to start from the ground level and try to build a contender out of nothing. That was always going to take time.

2. The trades always seemed to look good on paper…

… But the timing and the luck was never on the Devils’ side.

Given the lack of quality talent on the NHL roster, Shero had to work quick to bring in talent from outside the organization. And when you break down his individual trades, he almost always seemed to come out on the winning side of them.

Getting Kyle Palmieri for a couple of draft picks was a steal.

He pounced on the Capitals’ salary cap crunch and picked up Marcus Johansson for two draft picks.

Adam Larsson for Taylor Hall was one of the biggest one-for-one steals in recent league memory.

The same thing happened this summer when he managed to get Subban and Gusev for next to nothing. Combined with a pair of No. 1 overall draft picks (Nico Hischier and Hughes) and there was a huge influx of talent on paper over the past couple of years.

But for one reason or another, the results never followed.

For as promising of an addition as Johansson was, his time with the Devils was ruined by injuries that prevented him from ever making an extended impact.

Subban and Simmonds were big-name pickups this summer, but it has become increasingly clear as the season has gone on that he got them at the end of their careers.

There was even some bad luck with Hall when he lost almost the entire 2018-19 season to injury.

3. Cory Schneider rapidly declined, and the Devils never adjusted in goal

This might be the single biggest factor in the Devils’ lack of progress under Shero.

When he joined the Devils he had one franchise cornerstone that he could build around, and that was starting goalie Cory Schneider. And he was a legit building block.

Coming off the 2014-15 season Schneider was one of the best goalies in the league. Between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 seasons he owned the best save percentage in the NHL (minimum 100 games played) and was just beginning a long-term contract that was going to keep him in New Jersey for the next seven seasons.

He was also still at an age where his career shouldn’t have been in danger of falling off. But after one more elite season in 2015-16, Schneider’s career did exactly that. It fell apart.  After his 30th birthday Schneider went into a sudden and rapid decline that sunk him to the bottom tier of NHL starting goalies.

This is where Shero’s biggest failing in New Jersey came into play. He never found a goalie to replace Schneider. That was the biggest question mark heading into this season, and the play of their goalies this season has been one of the biggest factors in their disappointing performance.

Shero’s tenure with the Devils is a fascinating one to look at from a distance. He inherited a team that had absolutely nothing to build around and tried to swing for the fences with some big additions over the years. He made a lot of the right moves and brought in legitimate top-line talent. But some bad injury luck (Johansson; Hall a year ago), a couple of star players declining (Schneider, Subban), and his inability to make the one big move that he needed (a goalie) helped hold back what started as a promising season. The 2019-20 season ended up being one losing season too many for the Devils.

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.