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Habs have interesting decision to make with third overall pick

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The 2017-18 season was a huge disappointment for the Montreal Canadiens, but they finally got some positive news on Saturday night, as they jumped up one spot in the draft. In June, GM Marc Bergevin will have an interesting decision to make with the third overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft.

Not winning the lottery after being one of the final three teams in the hunt for the top pick must have been deflating for the Habs, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ll have the opportunity to come away with a talented teenager. Rasmus Dahlin playing on a pairing with Shea Weber would have been nice, but that’s not going to happen.

So, now that Dahlin is out of the picture, where should the Canadiens go with their pick?

For a team like Montreal, trading the selection should almost be out of the question. Of course, they can always listen to offers from rival general managers, but unless there is a can’t-miss deal on the table, they need to hold on to the pick. As tempting as it might be to get immediate help in the form of a proven NHLer, teams have to consider the value of “cheap” entry-level contracts on their roster.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

The consensus top four players available in the upcoming draft are: Dahlin, Russian right winger Andre Svechnikov, Czech right winger Filip Zadina and Boston University left winger Brady Tkachuk.

Getting a talented winger isn’t a problem, but it doesn’t solve one of the Canadiens’ two biggest needs. First, they have two major holes down the middle. They don’t have a legitimate first or second line center on their roster. They drafted Ryan Poehling in the first round last year, but he’ll be heading back to St. Cloud State next season. When it comes to centers, Finnish prospect Jesperi Kontkaniemi is considered by many to be the best one available. Even though he’s been pegged as a top 10 pick by many, no one seems to have him as a top three selection.

Both Svechnikov and Zadina have shown an ability to find the back of the net. This season, Svechnikov scored 40 goals in 44 games with the Barrie Colts of the OHL, while Zadina 44 goals in 57 games with the Halifax Mooseheads. Tkachuk’s offensive numbers don’t stand out as much (eight goals in 40 games), but he’s a big power forward that has a good combination of size and skill. You know Bergevin will appreciate those attributes.

The other pressing need is a left-handed defenseman. Finding someone talented enough to play top-pairing minutes with Weber has been a problem. Again, there’s no one in the system that can fill that void right away.

There’s a plethora of young defensemen like Evan Bouchard, Quinn Hughes, Noah Dobson and Adam Boqvist worthy of being selected in the top 10. Of those four blue liners, only Hughes shoots left.

But finding a true number one center has been a 30-year problem for this organization. Should they stick to taking the best player available, or should they reach a little for a potential top-line center with size? Many people would suggest simply taking the best player and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are examples of teams going against the grain to select a position of need.

The most recent example near the top of the draft occurred two summers ago, when the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had the third pick, selected center Pierre-Luc Dubois over winger Jesse Puljujarvi. Leading up to the 2016 draft, almost every draft expert had Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Puljujarvi as their top three selections. The fact that the Jackets opted for Dubois was a bit of a surprise. It wasn’t an “off-the-board” selection because Dubois was still considered to be a high-end prospect, but very few people envisioned him going in the top three. Fast-forward two years an that selection has worked out pretty well for Columbus.

With Kotkaniemi making a push up most draft boards, it’ll be interesting to see how much he pops up on the Canadiens’ radar. He had a solid year at the Finnish league as a teenager, as he racked up 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games. In his latest mock draft, TSN scout Craig Button said that Kotkaniemi “plays the game in a similar fashion to Anze Kopitar and to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.”

If the young Finn comes anywhere close to being Kopitar or Toews, it won’t matter how good the other draft-eligible players turn out to be.

Now, the Canadiens just have to decide whether or not that’s the direction they want to go in with this pick that they absolutely can’t afford to miss on.

A lot of front-office jobs are depending on it.

MORE: Buffalo Sabres to select No. 1 overall after winning 2018 NHL Draft Lottery

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Oilers’ Jesse Puljujarvi bouncing back strong from AHL demotion

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It wasn’t the easiest start to a career, but Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers has used an AHL demotion to take hold of a regular NHL spot this season.

The No. 4 overall pick from the 2016 draft played 28 games last season in Edmonton before being sent down to Bakersfield for the rest of the year. It was the right move by general manager Peter Chiarelli, even though it should have happened earlier than it did, especially when you look at just how much his ice time had been declining.

Fast forward to training camp this past September and the 19-year-old Puljujarvi still needed some more seasoning in the AHL. Head coach Todd McLellan said at the time they expected him to be one of their nine-best forwards and weren’t willing to keep him up with the big club to be stuck on the fourth line.

“We didn’t feel like he won that position and therefore we wanted to get him to Bakersfield and have him start the season there and get him working on his game,” McLellan said after camp.

Puljujarvi got a second chance in November when injuries forced an opening on the Oilers’ right side. “He’s not going to be our savior,” McLellan said. “Everybody else has to contribute and help him feel comfortable.”

Had it not been for injuries, it was anyone’s guess when Puljujarvi would have received another shot. He wasn’t exactly lighting it up in the AHL with a goal and five points in 10 games. The call up was basically a test. We need a body on the right wing. Show us what you got. The answer so far has been a passing grade: nine goals and 14 points in 30 games.

Using his size — 6’4, 211 lbs. — Puljujarvi has positioned himself in and around the net more compared to last season and it’s reflected in where most of his 80 shots have come from, as HockeyViz.com shows. He’s also shooting more and is currently second in the league in shots per 60 at even strength (11.77), per Natural Stat Trick, up from 7.27 a season ago.

The production has resulted in more ice time, which is up three minutes from last season. As a young player, it’s common for the points to dry up and have that drought affect your play, but that hasn’t been the case for Puljujarvi, something the coaching staff has noticed.

“He’s played well. He’s played confident,” said McLellan earlier this week. “The big test for him is that he went dry for five, six, seven, eight games without anything. Was he going to regress and lose his confidence? I thought he looked very confident the other day so that tells me he’s continuing his growth and he’s able to fight off those negative demons, if you will. As a result, he gets a little bit more time on the power play and we’re trying to position him where he can use his shot somewhat. He’s really starting to understand the systematic part of it and he’s been fun to be around the last little bit because he’s believing in himself and everyone else is believing in him.”

On and off the ice, Puljujarvi has shown an infectious personality as he works on his English. The hanging tongue when he skates? “That’s my thing, I don’t know why I do it.” Videobombing Connor McDavid while eating pizza? “That’s one time!”

Then there was the one afternoon during Edmonton’s bye week where Puljujarvi hit up a local outdoor rink and ended up playing some shinny with a couple of stunned young fans, leaving them with some photos, a signed stick and plenty of memories.

“I just wanted to go outside and do something. It’s always fun to skate,” he said.

One thing to take out of an Oilers season that hasn’t had a lot of positives is Puljujarvi’s emergence. He took advantage of an opportunity and it appears as if his days in Bakersfield are behind him for good.

“The sky is as tall as he wants it to be,” said Connor McDavid. “He’s big, skates well, is confident, has a great shot. But I think it all goes back to his size. He’s 6-4, still young, trying to (grow) into his body. He’ll be that solid-on-his feet, good puck-battle guy. Good in front of the net. The sky’s the limit for him.”

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Oilers vs. Predators on NBCSN

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WATCH LIVE on NBSCN

PROJECTED LINES

Edmonton Oilers

Forwards

Patrick MaroonConnor McDavidLeon Draisaitl

Milan LucicRyan Nugent-HopkinsJesse Puljujarvi

Jujhar KhairaRyan StromeMichael Cammalleri

Drake CaggiulaMark LetestuZack Kassian

Defenseman

Andrej SekeraKris Russell

Darnell NurseAdam Larsson

Oscar KlefbomMatt Benning

Starting goalie: Cam Talbot

NHL on NBCSN: Oilers hoping ‘bounces’ start going their way vs. Predators

Nashville Predators 

Forwards

Pontus AbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson

Kevin FialaKyle TurrisCraig Smith

Scott HartnellNick BoninoColton Sissons

Miikka SalomakiCalle JarnkrokAustin Watson

Defenseman

Roman JosiRyan Ellis

Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban

Alexei EmelinYannick Weber

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings vs. Edmonton Oilers

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CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE – 9:30 p.m. ET

PROJECTED LINES

FORWARDS
Tanner PearsonAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Marian GaborikAdrian KempeTyler Toffoli
Kyle CliffordNick ShoreTrevor Lewis
Alex IafalloTorrey MitchellJussi Jokinen

DEFENSE
Jake MuzzinDrew Doughty
Kurtis MacDermidAlec Martinez
Derek Forbort – Kevin Gravel

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

[NHL On NBCSN: Penguins, Oilers need to start turning things around now]

FORWARDS
Milan LucicConnor McDavidJesse Puljujarvi
Juhar Khaira – Leon DraisaitlRyan Strome
Patrick MaroonRyan Nugent-HopkinsDrake Caggiula
Anton SlepyshevMark LetestuZack Kassian

DEFENSE
Darnell NurseAdam Larsson
Andrej SekeraKris Russell
Oscar KlefbomBrandon Davidson

Starting goalie: Cam Talbot

Which NHLers could be heading to the World Juniors?

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The World Junior Hockey Championship is just a few weeks away, which is great news. Although most countries have named their preliminary rosters for the upcoming tournament, there’s still a chance that NHLers could be added in the next little while.

NHL teams have the option to loan out their junior-eligible players to their respective countries for the two-week tournament that runs from Dec. 26, 2017 to Jan. 5, 2018 in Buffalo, New York.

Reminder: Teams have until Dec. 19 to decide if they’re going to loan their players to their respective countries.

So, who’s in and who’s out?

TEAM CANADA

Jakob Chychrun-D-Arizona Coyotes

Chychrun made his 2017-18 regular season debut on Sunday, after he missed the start of the season because of a knee injury. He played 22:40 and scored a goal against the Golden Knights in his first game of 2017-18. Chychrun heading to the World Juniors is probably unlikely, but it simply can’t be ruled out because of the amount of time he missed due to injury.

Pierre-Luc Dubois-C-Columbus Blue Jackets

The Jackets rookie has a modest 11 points in 28 games, but six of those have come in the last five games. Dubois wasn’t getting much ice time early on in the season. That seems to be changing, as it appears as though he’s earned head coach John Tortorella’s trust. He’s played over 18 minutes in five of his last seven contests. Dubois is starting to become a big part of the team. It would be mildly surprising to see him be loaned out for the tournament.

Samuel Girard-D-Colorado Avalanche

At the start of the season, you probably would’ve thought that Girard would be playing in the tournament, but things have changed. Since being traded from Nashville to Colorado, he’s played a huge role with his new team. He’s played under 20 minutes in each of his last five outings, but he’s still averaging 19:22 of ice time per game.

Tyson Jost-F-Colorado Avalanche

Jost missed a significant amount of time because of a lower-body injury, but he’s back in the lineup right now. The 19-year-old has no points in five games since returning and he’s up to just one goal and one assist in 11 contests this season. Colorado is four points out of a playoff spot, which isn’t significant, but they’re probably a year or two away from being a serious contender anyway. Jost won a silver medal with Team Canada last year. He had a goal and four points in 7 seven games during the tournament. Don’t be surprised if he represents his country again.

Victor Mete-D-Montreal Canadiens

Mete had a terrific training camp with the Canadiens, but he’s come down to earth a little bit. The 19-year-old has been made a healthy scratch a couple of times this season and with Jakub Jerabek and David Schlemko now on the roster, Montreal could opt to send their young blue liner to the tournament. Mete was part of Team Canada’s Summer Showcase roster last summer.

Nolan Patrick-F-Philadelphia Flyers

The second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft has had a tough introduction to pro hockey. Not only has he missed nine games because of an upper-body injury, he also hasn’t really played much when he has been in the Flyers lineup. Patrick has two goals and four assists, while averaging just over 12 minutes of ice time in 19 games. The 19-year-old missed last year’s tournament because of an injury. Playing heavy minutes with players his own age could prove to be a valuable experience for the rookie.

TEAM FINLAND

Patrik Laine-F-Winnipeg Jets

This is probably the biggest no-brainer on the list. There’s absolutely no chance that Laine is going to Buffalo to represent his country. We’ll just leave it at that.

Jesse Puljujarvi-F-Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers didn’t loan Puljujarvi to Team Finland last year when he playing in the minors, so it’s unlikely that they’d let him take off now that he’s contributing on the NHL roster. He owned the tournament last time he played in it in 2016, as he had an incredible 17 points in seven games.

TEAM RUSSIA

Mikhail Sergachev-D-Tampa Bay Lighting

Sergachev had a disappointing tournament last year, but he’s been way too good with the Bolts to head back there. The 19-year-old has averaged 14:32 of ice time, which isn’t significant, but he’s been productive in limited minutes. Sergachev has six goals and 19 points in 28 games. That puts him on pace to score 18 goals and almost 60 points.

TEAM SWEDEN

Jesper Bratt-F-New Jersey Devils

In the first third of the 2017-18 season, there probably hasn’t been a bigger surprise than Bratt. The 19-year-old was the Devils’ sixth-round pick in 2016, and no one expected him to produce like this. The rookie now has nine goals and 19 points in 27 games. Would they ever consider sending him to Buffalo for the tournament? No way.

TEAM SWITZERLAND

Nico Hischier-F-New Jersey Devils

The top pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft is having a strong rookie season. He’s picked up five goals and 20 points in 27 games, which puts him on pace to hit the 60-point mark in his first year. The Devils, who have shocked the hockey world by being in top spot in their division, need Hischier too much to allow him to leave for two weeks. He’s not going anywhere.

TEAM USA

Clayton Keller-F-Arizona Coyotes

Even though he’s slowed down over the last month, there’s no way the ‘Yotes will be sending Keller to the world juniors. The 19-year-old is an important part of his team and he doesn’t have anything left to prove in the junior ranks.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.