Capitals’ Brett Connolly knows ups, downs of top prospect’s NHL journey

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WASHINGTON — Brett Connolly remembers the experience fondly, eight years later. In 2010, he was one of the top NHL prospects who got the chance to attend the Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. 

Fresh faced out of Prince George of the WHL, Connolly was an 18-year-old kid getting to meet some of the league’s top players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Chris Pronger and Jeff Carter. On Monday, he was on the other side getting to meet the top prospects of the 2018 NHL Draft class in Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, Noah Dobson, Evan Bouchard, Quintin Hughes and Filip Zadina.

“It’s amazing. Time goes so fast,” Connolly said.

Those seven prospects will likely be going somewhere in the top 10 later this month in Dallas, just like Connolly, who was chosen sixth overall pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning. And from his NHL experience he knows that just because you’re selected high nothing is guaranteed.

After spending one more year with the Cougars, Connolly played 68 games for the Lightning in 2011-12, recording 15 points. Most of the next two seasons saw him refining his game in the AHL with general manager Steve Yzerman preferring he play bigger minutes and not be stuck on the NHL club’s fourth line. The emergence of other young players ahead of him led to a 2015 trade deadline deal that sent him to the Bruins. Two seasons in Boston ended with him failing to make a lasting impression. He entered the free agent market and was signed by the Washington Capitals in 2016 where he’s finally found a comfort zone.

Through his experience, Connolly has gained plenty of wisdom to impart on the next class of prospects.

“For me, when you do get picked, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’ve still got to earn your ice time. You’ve got to be better than the people that are drafted below you. It’s just the start. There’s so much hard work to be done. There’s going to be tough times for all those guys. It’s just a matter of sticking with it and being positive and believe in yourself when times are tough. I’m sure all those guys are good enough players to figure it out. We’ll see those guys in the league soon.”

Having gone through their junior seasons, the NHL Combine and this brief media tour during the Cup Final, the prospects still have a little more than two weeks until draft night.

“A little anxious now for the draft. You have your meetings with teams, you kind of want to know where you’re going,” said defenseman Noah Dobson (NHL Central Scouting No. 5 ranked North American skater), who won the Memorial Cup with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan this season. “At the end of the day it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so you’ve just got to sit back and enjoy it with your family and soak it all in.”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I think it will once I get on the plane to go to Dallas,” said defenseman Evan Bouchard (NHL Central Scouting No. 4 ranked North American skater), who’s gotten plenty of advice from London Knights teammates Robert Thomas (St. Louis) and Alex Formenton (Ottawa), who have been through the process. “I’m just trying to enjoy this experience now.”

Those who have come before them, like Connolly, felt the pressure to succeed being such a high pick. You’re being selected by teams that are hoping to have their fortunes turned around, and some of those hopes are tied to how you succeed — or fail. It comes with the territory. But such is the experience of a top prospect.

“You’re so young. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to be a professional and all that,” said Connolly. “That was the biggest thing for me, just sticking with it and finding a role on a team. There’s definitely pressure, it’s just how you handle it and channel it into a positive. Those guys I’m sure have been dealing with it all year. There’s a lot of pressure all year in your draft year and that’s kind of the start of it, especially for the high picks, those 1-2-3 guys, it’s a lot of pressure. 

“The league is changing so much, the young guys are so talented.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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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.

George McPhee’s strategic moves help Vegas reach Cup Final

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — George McPhee’s endgame has always been about making the Golden Knights contenders.

Strategic moves to keep winning.

The veteran general manager has ridden his savvy all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, a stirring run by the first-year franchise and the first major sports team in Las Vegas. While the expansion draft gets most of the attention in attempts to explain the unusual success, the moves made by McPhee in late February, when the trade deadline came along, have proven just as important.

”I wanted to wait as long as we could to determine what we had as a team,” McPhee recalled. ”At the trade deadline we felt it was a very good team. But it was getting thin, we were getting banged up, guys out of the lineup, we had other guys playing hurt. We wanted to do the very best we could for this team that was playing its guts out, to help it.”

He began moving pawns across the NHL chessboard, starting with the acquisition of forward Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for three draft picks: a first-round pick in 2018, a second-round pick in 2019 and a third-round pick in 2021. Tatar brought with him a contract worth $15.9 million through the 2020-21 season.

While the Golden Knights did send Brendan Leipsic to Vancouver for Philip Holm, perhaps the biggest trade was the one for bruising forward Ryan Reaves from Pittsburgh, a move that included the Golden Knights acquiring 40 percent of Derick Brassard‘s contract. Brassard going to Pittsburgh from Ottawa meant the talented center would not be going to Winnipeg – the team Vegas just beat in a rugged Western Conference final.

Many wondered whether the trade would be worth it given Reaves’ notoriety for physical play. But Reaves brought some brawn to the Golden Knights and scored the game-winning goal in Game 5 at Winnipeg.

”We just thought when we get into the games down the stretch and we’re in the playoffs, we can have a guy that can play the game right,” McPhee said. ”Ryan did a good job of providing the line and getting us good, hard, safe minutes on some nights. Even though they’re not scoring like some of the other lines, they’re one of our better lines because they’re playing the game right. The other team isn’t getting chances, we’re keeping it deep on them and playing physical on them.”

McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant also wanted to make sure the chemistry built over the first five months of the inaugural season wasn’t disrupted. And that meant keeping most of the lineup intact.

That included unrestricted free agents David Perron and James Neal, both of whose names swirled in trade rumors, and at the beginning of the season were perceived as rentals until the deadline. Nobody saw the Golden Knights doing as well they did, so it was conceivable guys like Perron and Neal could’ve been sent to playoff contenders for future draft picks or younger, up-and-coming players by the deadline.

As it turned out, Perron and Neal were already on a playoff contender and on their way to stellar seasons. Perron registered a career-high 66 points in the regular season, while Neal piled up 25 goals, scoring at least 20 in each of his first 10 NHL seasons. The only other current players to do the same: Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews and Thomas Vanek.

”We knew that we weren’t moving anybody out,” Gallant said. ”We were happy with our lineup, we were happy with the group of players we got. We talked about adding players to our team, to make our team better and we definitely did that. But there was no thought about moving any of players out at that time. We had a great season, everything was going good and we wanted to make sure we had enough security for a playoff run and that’s what they did.”

The Golden Knights await the winner of the East final between Tampa Bay and Washington, with Game 7 set for Wednesday night. The Stanley Cup Final begins Monday.

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
Stanley Cup Final Schedule

Byfuglien continues to be key difference maker for Jets

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Dustin Byfuglien busted out his dance moves for a little celebration of his latest big goal, which may have caught many people by surprise.

Not his teammates.

“He’s so loose before games,” Winnipeg center Bryan Little said. “He’s a joker, definitely the prankster on the team. It’s strange for me to see him talking to you guys in front of the camera. It’s like, ‘That’s not who I know.”‘

The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Byfuglien is making a big impression on the NHL playoffs on both ends of the ice as the Jets have muscled their way to within one win of Winnipeg’s first berth in the Western Conference Final. Timely goals, rugged defense, leadership – it’s all part of his game. He dropped jaws during the second-round series against the Predators by literally manhandling two Nashville players, one in each hand.

His journey back to the postseason has been a long one, but the 33-year-old Byfuglien has made Winnipeg his home and is a key reason the Jets are Canada’s last surviving team this postseason. The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was Montreal in 1993, and the 25-year drought is a painful one in the home of hockey.

Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler considers Byfuglien a “great equalizer” and unlike anybody else in the NHL.

“Having him on our team gives us an advantage no matter who we play,” Wheeler said. “That’s the type of player he is and from Game 1 of the playoffs, he has just dominated. You can’t stop it.”

Byfuglien is making the most of his deepest postseason run since helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010,

Not only has he been a strong counter to Nashville by outplaying a group often considered the NHL’s best top four defensemen, Byfuglien is leading all defensemen this postseason with four goals. He’s also tied with Boston’s Torey Krug for most points with 12 while skating an average of 26 minutes, 25 seconds a game.

Byfuglien started the Jets’ rally in Game 3 against Nashville from a 3-0 deficit by scoring the first goal and his tying goal prompted his little dance. He wound up with the game-winning goal in Winnipeg’s 6-2 victory Saturday night that put the Jets on the verge of clinching only their second series – all this postseason.

“What makes him unique is he can, I don’t know if ‘take over’ is right, but he can make an impact in a game in just about every single way possible,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “He can defend, he can play real physical, nobody wants to drop the gloves with him, and then there’s an offensive side, it’s a perfectly placed shot, quick hands, all the other things that he can do offensively.”

And Chicago gave all that potential up in 2010. Byfuglien switched from defense to forward for the Blackhawks and scored three game-winning goals in a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference finals for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final since 1992. He had a hat trick against Vancouver in the conference semifinals.

But the Blackhawks were strapped for salary cap space after contract extensions for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on top of pricey deals for Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell. Byfuglien was traded away to the then-Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise that relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

“There’s only one Dustin Byfuglien, and you want him on your team,” Little said. “You can’t imagine what it would be like playing against him. There’s only one of him. You can’t really compare him to anyone out there.”

Winnipeg has become home to Byfuglien. The town is just 115 miles as the crow flies from where he grew up in Roseau, Minnesota. Since the franchise moved to Winnipeg, Byfuglien married, and has three children. The Jets rewarded him in February 2016 with a five-year, $38 million contract to make him a key piece of the Jets’ future.

He just isn’t a big talker. Asked where his dance came from in Game 2, Byfuglien said he didn’t know.

He sure is talking to his teammates, trying to share his experience from that 2010 Cup run and offering advice on how to handle what they hope is a two-month run.

“We’ve obviously talked as a group,” Byfuglien said. “It’s not going to be an easy ride. It’s just take one game at a time, one shift at a time, and just believe in each other.”

Having Big Buff around certainly provides a confidence boost,

“Any time he’s on the ice, it’s dangerous,” Little said.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Pastrnak’s emergence; Sharks can’t get complacent

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Not having Cam Fowler has been a significant issue for the Ducks through the first two games of their first-round series against the Sharks. (OC Register)

• San Jose owns a 2-0 lead over the Ducks, so avoiding complacency is their biggest challenge heading into Game 3. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• A lot of people believe Brad Marchand is the most dangerous player in the NHL, but Nazem Kadri is giving him a run for his money. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• During a dominant Game 2 performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs, David Pastrnak showed that he’s ready for prime time. (Bruins Daily)

• The city of Humboldt has been changed forever by a bus crash on a Friday afternoon. The lives lost on that day will never be forgotten, but the people there will have to find a way to continue living. (SI.com)

• ‘Hawks captain Jonathan Toews not only donated game-worn jerseys to the Humboldt Broncos, he also went to visit them. (Chicago Sun-Times)

• Now that Ken Hitchcock has retired, the Stars should look internally for their next head coaching candidate. (Defending Big D)

• There’s no way the Canucks will be able to replace what Daniel and Henrik Sedin did for them, but they need their young players to start contributing offensively now that the twins are gone. (Vancourier)

• The Hockey News ranked each fan base’s level of misery. It’s safe to say that fans of the Blues and Sabres have been tortured the most. Life’s good if you’re a Penguins fan though. (The Hockey News)

• Now that Ilya Kovalchuk has turned 35 years old, he’s officially an unrestricted free agent. He still can’t sign with anyone until July 1st. (The Score)

• ESPN looks at which teams have the most playoff experience on their roster and how that can or can’t help them going forward. (ESPN)

• Black Aces rarely get to participate (on the ice) in their team’s playoff run, but that doesn’t mean that the title is meaningless to them. (Eliteprospects.com)

Kyle Okposo‘s on-ice performance has been disappointing since he joined the Sabres. He knows that he’ll have to spend a lot of time in the gym this summer. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• College hockey referee Dan Dreger was on the hook for a portion of his medical bills after taking a slap shot to the face that caused a lot of damage. (Grand Forks Herald)

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.