John Tavares

NHL Power Rankings: Best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere

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“The No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft belongs to a team yet to be determined, coming from the qualifying round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

As surprising as it sounded when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly revealed the 2020 draft lottery winner, it was kind of a fitting for a not-so-normal season.

Alexis Lafreniere, the expected top pick in the 2020 draft, will have to wait a little longer to find out which team he’ll be playing. We’ll learn about that in the Phase 2 drawing, which will involve the losers of the eight Qualifying Round matchups.

According to the NHL, that will take place between the Qualifying Round and the First Round of the Return to Play. That means one of the Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Canadiens, Canucks, Coyotes, Flames, Hurricanes, Islanders, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers, Panthers, Penguins, Predators, Rangers, or Wild will own the No. 1 overall pick. The eight teams that end up being eligible for the lottery will have an equal 12.5% chance at Lafreniere.

But what if the COVID-19 pandemic the derails the NHL’s plans? The lottery would then include only the eight lowest teams by inverse of their regular season points percentage. That would mean Arizona, Chicago Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Montreal, New York Rangers, and Winnipeg would be in the running for the No. 1 pick.

In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the best possible landing spots for Lafreniere.

[Mock Draft: Projecting top picks for the 2020 NHL Draft]

1. Penguins: Imagine the reaction if the team with the seventh-best points percentage during the regular season wins the No. 1 pick? The franchise selected in the top two four drafts in a row from 2003-06, setting them up for three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are still at the height of their powers, which means adding a potential young, elite winger — to a cap spending team on a cheap, entry-level contract for three seasons — would allow them to retain “contender” status even longer. Now imagine a Lafreniere – Crosby – Jake Guentzel top line.

2. Canucks: Vancouver owns a roster that is full of young talent and ready to take that next step into “annual playoff team” world. How does a Lafreniere – Elias PetterssonJ.T. Miller / Brock Boeser top line feel to you?

3. Canadiens: The Habs have not selected a Quebec-born player with their first pick since Louie Leblanc in 2009. He played only 50 games in Montreal and has been out of hockey since 2016. Montreal was supposed to host the 2020 draft, meaning Lafreniere missed out on that emotional moment of hearing his name announced in front of friends and family. “Hometown kid gets picked by local team” would be one of the bigger storylines out of this draft.

4. Oilers: One complaint about the construction of the Edmonton lineup was Connor McDavid didn’t have enough help. That’s improved as Leon Draisaitl has shown us. Adding Lafreniere would be another step in strengthening the roster around McDavid and Draisaitl so they don’t have to do it all themselves.

5. Rangers: The retooling-on-the-fly is moving in the right direction for GM Jeff Gorton. The Artemi Panarin signing made an immediate impact and the goalie picture seems clear with Igor Shesterkin‘s emergence. Kaapo Kakko struggled in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have the pressure of turning around the team single-handedly. Same could be said for Lafreniere, who would enter a market trending upward and, like Kakko, be allowed time to grow.

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6. Hurricanes: An important part of the maturation of young players is the ability to make mistakes and learn from them. Rod Brind’Amour does that in Carolina, and that would make a fine place for a top pick to settle. The Hurricanes are already filled with an abundance of young talent. Winning the No. 1 pick and adding Lafreniere to that mix would make them even bigger “jerks.”

7. Blackhawks: They’re 23rd in points percentage, so giving Chicago the top pick would fit with the “The draft should help the bad teams” crowd. Kirby Dach was picked third last year and Adam Boqvist was added at No. 8 in 2018. The Blackhawks are transitioning on the fly without making it a full-on rebuild. Their veterans are aging and they own some painful cap hits, but there is young talent coming through the ranks that could form a future core.

8. Jets: In a different world, the Jets actually won the draft lottery. Had the NHL gone with the traditional 16-team playoff format using points percentage and not added eight more teams, then Winnipeg would be Lafreniere’s future home. “Team E” was the placeholder that won the lottery with a 2.5% chance. That spot would have been held by the Jets in that scenario. Sure would be nice to see Lafreniere in a top six among Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Patrik Laine, no?

9. Maple Leafs: Toronto is going to be up against the cap ceiling, especially if it stays at $81.5M for the next few seasons. To stay as a contender that will require cheaper talent making an impact. Lafreniere would be dropped into the center — sorry, centre — of the hockey universe and not be dubbed as “the savior.” Between John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, there’s more than enough offensive weapons to allow the rookie ample time to find his role.

10. Blue Jackets: After losing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin in free agency, Columbus fought their way into playoff contention for most of the season. They also did it while seemingly losing players to injury every other day. If Jarmo Kekalainen could add a prize in Lafreniere to his prospect pool, it would go a long way to maintaining their momentum after a tough summer.

11. Coyotes: Should Taylor Hall decide to stay in Arizona, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Coyotes finding themselves firmly in playoff position next season. The organization has long possessed a strong prospect pipeline, and now there’s a good youth/veteran mix on the roster. A bounce-back season by Phil Kessel would only strengthen their case for a postseason berth.

Plus, we know what kind of lottery magic Hall possesses:

12. Panthers: Here’s the question for Florida: Is it better for the organization to win their Qualifying Round matchup with the Islanders, thereby making the playoffs, something the organization stressed following Joel Quenneville’s hiring, or is the 12.5% shot at Lafreniere a better option? Do you take the excitement of a series win over an 87.5% chance of ending up picking No. 9-15? Remember, they would also be involved in the lottery if the Return to Play plan does not go off.

13. Flames: If a Johnny Gaudreau trade does actually happen, I know of a talented winger who could slot into his place…

14. Islanders: Fortunately for the franchise, Lou Lamoriello lottery-protected the first-round pick he sent to Ottawa in the J.G. Paguea deal. If New York does get Lafreniere, that pick would transfer to 2021. If the Return to Play doesn’t happen, then the Senators would have a third first-rounder. A Lafreniere-Matt Barzal would be a fun duo to build around, and with Barry Trotz in charge the top pick will certainly be schooled in the ways of two-way hockey.

15. Predators: The cap picture is ugly, and while Nashville could use an elite prospect to help with their eventual turnaround,  how long will that take? David Poile will not be getting any relief via a rising cap ceiling any time soon. The franchise remains in “win now” mode, but in a highly competitive division how much would Lafreniere help immediately?

16. Wild: Kirill Kaprizov will arrive in the NHL one day. Eventually. This summer? Maybe next season? Anyhoo, he’s currently the big fish in the franchise’s prospect pond. With eight current skaters 30 or older, the Wild are desperate to get younger, faster and skilled. A Kaprizov/Lafreniere tandem would help in Bill Guerin’s reshaping of the roster. But with some long, heavy cap hits between Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Mats Zuccarello, a turnaround may take some time.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:
NHL Draft Lottery memories
Most exciting Qualifying Round series
Qualifying Round storylines
Off-season buyout candidates
Round Robin teams with most to lose

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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.

Mixed Blue Jackets injury news for NHL Playoffs: Jones in, Anderson out

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With a Qualifying Round best-of-five looming against the Maple Leafs, the Blue Jackets got mostly positive injury news lately. Seth Jones highlights the good injury news, while Josh Anderson is the most significant letdown.

Jones headlines good injury news for Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets activated Jones and fellow defenseman Dean Kukan off of IR on Thursday.

This capture the bigger picture: that the Blue Jackets should have quite a few key players back if that Qualifying Round series happens against Toronto. Jones joined Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and basically the kitchen sink on the injured list this season.

Jones, 25, scored six goals and 30 points in 56 games before injuries derailed his season.

By certain measures, Jones might not be quite the Norris Trophy-level defenseman many believe. His possession numbers are closer to solid than dominant, although some of that might boil down to playing more than 25 minutes per night.

Wherever Jones ranks in the stratosphere, he’s important to the Blue Jackets. So is Bjorkstrand and Atkinson, as this Evolving Hockey GAR Chart reinforces:

Blue Jackets injury news GAR
via Evolving Hockey

[MORE: Previewing Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs and other East Qualifying Round series]

Players Blue Jackets might not have in the lineup

You may look at that chart above and believe that Anderson isn’t much of a loss. In the framework of the 2019-20 season alone, that’s probably fair.

In the grand scheme of things, it likely is not fair, though. He’s been a useful player for Columbus for some time now. Anderson also boasts the sort of size and physical play that can make him difficult to handle in a playoff format. He was a handful at times for the Lightning during that shocking sweep during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Anderson is unlikely to be available until at least September (sub required).

That’s a big blow, although it does leave the door open for a return during the postseason — if the Blue Jackets made an even better underdog run than in 2018-19.

A lack of Anderson hurts because, frankly, the Blue Jackets figure to struggle to score — even while healthier. With expanded rosters in mind, look at Portzline’s guesses for the forwards Columbus will have on hand:

Cam Atkinson, Emil Bemstrom, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nick Foligno, Liam Foudy, Nathan Gerbe, Boone Jenner, Jakob Lilja, Ryan MacInnis, Stefan Matteau, Riley Nash, Gustav Nyquist, Eric Robinson, Devin Shore, Kevin Stenlund, Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg.

When you stack that group up against the firepower Toronto boasts in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and others, you can see why every Anderson-type helps.

Out of context, the eighth-ranked Maple Leafs probably shouldn’t be big favorites against the Blue Jackets.

Look at the difference in firepower, then consider very different levels of media focus. Put that together, and Columbus is likely to be framed as heavy underdogs.

That’s just the way John Tortorella & Co. like it. With Jones looking good to go, they might just have a shot at making a run.

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.

NHL players not rushing back to rinks for voluntary skates

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John Tavares took his sticks home from the rink in Toronto to tape them up so he wouldn’t waste his limited time there.

Across the border, Andrew Copp is waiting things out in the U.S. before returning to Winnipeg for the start of mandatory training camps because of Canada’s 14-day quarantine regulation because of the coronavirus pandemic.

NHL players could start participating in voluntary small-group workouts, and teams began opening their training facilities Monday. Players learned Thursday training camps can open July 10, pending an agreement on returning to play later this summer. Now, the players are expected to trickle back in preparation of the resumption of the season.

“We’ve obviously got quite a few of our guys here in town and here at the facility kind of getting on the same page, which is great,” said Tavares, the Maple Leafs’ captain. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are still trying to figure out their situation, but obviously have some very good setups and understand their importance to get things up to speed.”

The announcement of a potential start date for camps comes after the league and players already signed off on a 24-team playoff format, and approved protocol for initial workouts.

Next up will be selecting two hub cities which will play host to the games, with a decision expected to come within the next 10 days.

Of the 10 potential hubs, including three in Canada, Las Vegas is considered a strong candidate, a person familiar with discussions told The Associated Press on Friday night. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because talks are private and the selection process hasn’t been completed.

The league and players must also agree on testing and health-and-safety protocols amid the pandemic before games can resume.

Players started skating by the handful this week in places like Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Edmonton, while some teams waited to open their doors. Veteran Nashville general manager David Poile said that while almost a dozen players remained in the area, the NHL has instructed teams not to ask or encourage players to show up because this stage is voluntary.

GMs expect players to adjust along the way.

“Every situation will be different and unique depending on what they have available to them in the areas they are at,” New York Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said. “No different than a normal training camp when some players come in two weeks ahead of time because they don’t have the ice time in their area that maybe they can get here, and then other players will wait because they’re working out with a lot of players in the area they’re at.”

There might be a higher volume of participation in places like Toronto, with more players naturally in town. Sidney Crosby and some Penguins teammates are already on the ice at their shiny practice rink, and the Blue Jackets reported eight or nine players skating daily in different groups.

Up to six players are allowed on the ice at a time with a coach. Tavares described the slice of normalcy as “a breath of fresh air” even as others around the league opted to stay home and skate on their own.

“I’m not sure exactly how much you can do together out there to get a whole lot out of it,” Montreal captain Shea Weber said. “Who really knows, to be honest with you. There’s so many uncertainties with everything that’s going on, with everything that might be going forward here.”

Now that there’s a July 10 date to start camps, there could soon be a flood of players lacing up their skates and returning to their home cities. Canada requires anyone entering the country to quarantine for two weeks, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the same for those returning to the U.S.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said 17% of players are overseas. Many are in Sweden and, as a result, have been able to skate for several weeks.

“If a player went back to Finland and he’s been training and ready to go and he comes back to Nashville and he has to sit at home for 14 days, that kind of defeated the whole purpose of going home in the first place,” Poile said.

Copp said recently from Michigan he was considering relocating to Florida to get his skating legs back but would try to wait out Canada’s quarantine before trying to get back to the Jets’ facility.

“I need to be on the ice,” Copp said. “We are building up right now. I’ve been training off the ice and I feel like going back and sitting in my apartment for two straight weeks in Winnipeg is not going to be good for me, mentally or physically.”

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

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

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

Matt Benning on the Oilers skating

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

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

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

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

*refreshed Ahhhhh*

Tavares doing Tavares things early in NHL Phase 2

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

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

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

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

Josh Bailey among Islanders getting back to skating at facility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE NHL RETURN TO PLAY:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL: Players can start voluntary group workouts next week

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The NHL cleared the way Thursday for players to return to practice rinks next week and firmed up its playoff format even as a ninth player tested positive for the coronavirus.

After unveiling the final details of its 24-team plan if the season is able to resume this summer, the league said teams could reopen facilities and players could take part in limited, voluntary workouts beginning Monday. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association must still iron out health and safety protocols before moving ahead with training camps and games.

Players can skate in groups of up to six at a time under “phase 2,” which includes specific instructions on testing, mask-wearing and temperature checks. It’s another step closer to the ice after the league said every playoff series will be a best-of-seven format after the initial qualifying round and teams will be reseeded throughout.

That announcement came at nearly the same time the Pittsburgh Penguins revealed one of their players had tested positive. The team said the player is not in Pittsburgh, isolated after experiencing symptoms and has recovered from COVID-19.

Of the nine players who have tested positive, five are from the Ottawa Senators, three from the Colorado Avalanche and one from Pittsburgh. The league is expected to test players daily if games resume. The NHL is still assessing health and safety protocols for what would be 24 teams playing in two hub cities.

“We still have a lot of things to figure out, namely the safety of the players,” Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler said earlier this week. “We’ve got to make sure that our safety is at the top of that list. Because we’re a few months into this pandemic, we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be. A lot of questions to be answered.”

The final details of the format answered one question: Players preferred re-seeding throughout a 24-team playoff as a means of fairness, though the league likes the brackets that have been in place since 2014.

“We prefer as a general matter brackets for a whole host of reasons,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. “We’ve told the players who have been debating it internally if they have a preference, we’re happy to abide by it.”

The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences will play separate round-robin tournaments to determine seeding. Re-seeding each round puts more value on the seeding tournaments between Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Philadelphia in the East, and St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas and Dallas in the West.

“Those games are going to be competitive,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

The remaining 16 teams will play best-of-five series to set the final 16.

Toronto captain John Tavares, a member of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, said he preferred the traditional seven-game series once the playoffs were down to the more traditional 16 teams. A majority of players agreed.

“Everybody is used to a best-of-seven,” Pittsburgh player representative Kris Letang said. “You know how it’s structured. You know how it feels if you lose the first two or you win the first two. You kind of know all the scenarios that can go through a best-of-seven.”

Having each series be best-of-seven will add several days to the schedule to award the Stanley Cup as late as October. But players felt it worth it to maintain the integrity of the playoffs.

“Any team that is going to win five rounds, four rounds of best-of-seven … I think it will be a very worthy Stanley Cup champion and they’ll be as worthy as any team or players that won it before them,” Tavares said.