Mikko Rantanen

Kaapo Kakko has made his case to be top pick at 2019 NHL Draft

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If the IIHF World Championship is a last-chance-hotel of sorts for a few lucky youngsters looking to lift their draft stock, Finland’s Kaapo Kakko certainly hasn’t checked out yet.

If anything, he’s given the New Jersey Devils brass a headache leading up to the NHL Draft on June 21.

A good headache, of course.

Jack Hughes, the American prodigy who’s set the USA Hockey National Team Development Program ablaze, has been the consensus No. 1 prospect for most of the year, and the year leading up to this draft, and perhaps sometime before that, too. He’s a special player who, in 50 games this season with the program’s U-18 team, put up 34 goals and 112 points, 20 more at the U-18 world championships and four assists in four games at the world juniors.

Thus, Hughes is rated as the top prospect in North America from NHL Central Scouting, and the top prospect in the world by several pundits. When you average 2.24 points per game, these things come pretty naturally. When you put up 228 points in 110 games with the USNTDP — a 2.07 point-per-game clip — you become one of the best, if not the best, to ever emerge from the program.

Hughes has earned his stripes heading into Vancouver, but has his reputation warded off Kakko’s rise at the Worlds?

Kakko hasn’t exactly flown under the radar. Not at all, but he’s lived in Hughes’ shadow. At least, he did.

While both are playing at Worlds right now, it’s Kakko who’s getting the big minutes playing on a Finnish team that isn’t nearly as star-studded as the U.S. So while Hughes has a lonely assist in the tournament, and has only really featured in spurts, Kakko has launched a full-on assault on the minds of Devils general manager Ray Shero and his scouting staff.

Kakko has six goals and one assist in seven games played now at the tournament. He’s shown he can take over games with his hat trick vs. Slovakia, and he’s shown his sublime skill.

That’s two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray between the pipes.

Kakko cares little. Just like he didn’t when he slotted home the game-winning goal to give Finland a gold medal against Hughes’ Americans at the the IIHF World Junior Championship in January.

Kakko is another link in the chain that’s been Finland’s golden years of young prospects who are remarkable. Whatever was in the water 18 to 22 or so years ago should have been bottled.

And it has to make the Devils think.

At 6-foot-2 and nearly 200 pounds already, Kakko comes ready for the NHL game in size. He’s played with men in the Finnish Liiga and is having no issues at all against NHLers at the Worlds either.

In his first full season with TPS, Kakko put up 38 points in 45 games, including 22 goals.

The recent Finnish lineage has included the likes of Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, Arturri Lehkonen, Mikko Rantanen and Miro Heiskanen, among others. Neither of those guys were first overall picks, yet all of them are making massive impacts of the teams they play on.

Hughes probably still goes first in June, and that might just be alright for the New York Rangers, who sit in the second hole knowing they get one or the other.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hertl’s contract already looking like bargain for Sharks

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Tomas Hertl has been one of the biggest stars for the San Jose Sharks this postseason, and that is helping to make him one of the biggest steals in the NHL under the salary cap.

Entering Game 2 of the Western Conference Final on Monday night (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream), Hertl finds himself near the top of the playoff leaderboards in goals and points while also scoring several season-saving goals for the Sharks, including a Game 6 overtime winner in Round 1 and two of the Sharks’ three goals during their third period Game 7 comeback.

That performance has also made him one of the current front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP (though he might have a tough time surpassing his teammate, Logan Couture, if the Sharks win it all) and comes on the heels of a breakout regular season performance that saw him take a massive step forward in his development and realize pretty much all of his potential.

It also happened in the first year of a four-year, $22.5 million contract that is well below what other comparable players are pulling in right now.

First, just look at the season that Hertl had.

He finished with a career high in goals (35), total points (74), while also recording a 54 percent Corsi percentage. The Sharks not only controlled the pace of play when he was on the ice, but he helped put the puck in the back of the net. A lot. Even better, he did the bulk of that damage at even-strength, not needing to rely only on a ton of power play production to boost his numbers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

That performance across the board put him in some pretty exclusive company among the NHL’s elite forwards.

Consider the following…

  • There were only 16 forwards in the entire NHL, including Hertl, that topped the 30-goal, 70-point, 53 percent Corsi marks this season. When you look at the salaries of those players, Hertl pretty clearly outperformed his contract.
  • Out of the 16 players in that group four of them (Sebastian Aho in Carolina, Mikko Rantanen in Colorado, Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary, and Auston Matthews in Toronto) were still on their entry-level contracts and making less than $1 million per season against the cap.
  • Among the remaining players that were beyond their entry-level deals there were only two of them that made less than $6 million per season against the cap — Philadelphia’s Sean Couturier, and Hertl. The average salary cap hit for those remaining players (not including Hertl) was $6.9 million per season. Hertl counted just $5.25 million against the Sharks’ cap.
  • It is also worth pointing out that the four entry-level players are all going to see significant bumps in their pay this summer that will put them well above the $6 million mark. Matthews already signed an $11 million per year deal, while Aho, Rantanen, and Tkachuk are all in a position to demand — and get — significant money.

In hindsight it is easy to look at that and think, wow, Hertl really sold himself short on that deal. If he continues to perform at the level he has shown throughout the regular season and playoffs he is definitely going to be playing on a well below-market contract.

But it was not that easy to see at the time of the deal.

When Hertl signed that contract this past summer he had not yet seen his play — or role — blossom the way it did this season. He was obviously a talented player with a lot of upside, and a pretty productive one. He was a fairly consistent 20-goal, 45-point player, and at that level of production was probably doing fairly well for himself at $5.25 million per season.

A lot of things went right for Hertl and the Sharks since then.

For one, he saw a pretty significant increase in his ice-time and went from being what was mostly a 16 or 17 minute per might player, to a 19-minute per night player. An extra two or three minutes per game over the course of a full season adds up, especially for a skilled player that is going to get more chances as a result of it.

He was also entering his age 25 season, which is usually when scorers tend to hit their peak level of production.

And then there was the fact he absolutely shot the lights out all year, scoring on 19.9 percent of his shots during the regular season and 16.4 percent of his shots in the playoffs. That is a significant jump for a player that is usually more of a 10-12 percent shooter. That spike in shooting percentage probably added another 10-12 goals to his total for the season. That number is also probably to regress next season, but even if it does the Sharks are still going to have what should be a 25-30 goal, 60-65 point, possession driving winger in the prime of his career on what still might be a below market contract.

Getting a top-line player for a million or two below the cap isn’t a total franchise-changing move, but every additional dollar helps when building the rest of your team around them. Especially when you are a team like the Sharks that has to deal with some pretty significant free agency questions this summer with Erik Karlsson and Joe Pavelski.

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.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: Fresh teams pave way for new breakout stars

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When Rod Brind’Amour watched pregame shows during the regular season, he didn’t think much thought was put into analyzing his Carolina Hurricanes.

”They’d look at the stat sheet and they’ll say: ‘Oh, Sebastian Aho is a good player. Watch for him,”’ Brind’Amour said recently.

Now that the Hurricanes are in the Eastern Conference final as part of a fresh final four in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin is among the breakout stars who are now in the limelight. Boston’s Brad Marchand, San Jose’s Logan Couture and Brent Burns and St. Louis’ Ryan O'Reilly are a bit more established, but they’ve replaced the stars of NHL playoffs past like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin who aren’t playing anymore.

Even with a lot of hockey’s household names gone, there’s still plenty of star power and story lines for those who look a little closer.

”The more kind of crazy the playoffs get, the more interest is driven, and that’s really exciting,” NHL Network senior coordinating producer Josh Bernstein said. ”There’s so many great story lines going on in the playoffs right now, and I feel like it really piques everybody’s interest. It’s great for the game. ”

Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen dazzled for two rounds, Columbus winger Artemi Panarin showed why he deserves a massive July 1 payday, and Dallas goaltender Ben Bishop put himself back in the conversation among the best in the league. But those guys are gone now, too.

Still in the playoffs, Couture leads all scorers with 11 goals and 17 points. His 45 playoff goals since making his debut in 2010 trail only Ovechkin over that time, and his all-around game has him as a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate this year.

”Logan Couture, if he’s not the top two-way center in the league, he’s in that conversation,” San Jose coach Peter DeBoer said after his team’s Game 1 victory against St. Louis on Saturday. ”He plays a 200-foot game, always on the right side of the puck, always making the right reads. When your centerman is like that, he drives the guys around him to play as honest a game as that.”

Couture isn’t driving the Sharks by himself, of course. Brent Burns, who two seasons ago won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, is second in the playoffs in scoring and standing out with more than just his offensive acumen.

”He’s always been a good defensive player,” goaltender Martin Jones said. ”He’s always been tough to play against in the D-zone. He’s a big guy, chews up a lot of ice. He swarms you.”

One of the Sharks’ biggest challenges in the West final against St. Louis is containing O’Reilly, who hasn’t put up the points as much as he did in the regular season, but was among the best players on the ice in Game 1. O’Reilly is a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward and said he’s re-energized by this playoff run after missing the postseason each of the past four years.

”It brings back that life and that excitement, for sure,” said O’Reilly, who has 10 points in his first playoffs since 2014. ”This is what it’s all about: playing for the Stanley Cup. That’s what you train for in the summer and every time you touch the ice the goal is to get to playoffs and compete for it.”

No one on the Blues’ active roster has won the Cup, and Jones – as a backup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014 – is the only Sharks player with his name on the trophy. That’s not true for several core Bruins players who are still around after winning it in 2011.

That includes Marchand, who might be known more outside hockey as the player who licked an opponent last year but is making waves with his play and mostly staying out of trouble now. There was that time against Columbus that he stepped on Cam Atkinson‘s stick and broke it, but there is also an Eastern Conference-best 15 points through 14 games.

”He’s been in these big games,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”He’s a Stanley Cup champion, so he understands maybe a little more than meets the eye sometimes. There’s a time and a place where you really have to be disciplined.”

Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask, like Jones, has a Cup ring as a backup and is trying to earn one as a starter. His .938 save percentage is best among playoff goalies who have been in at least four games.

Incredibly in a sport where the aim is to score goals, Carolina’s biggest breakout star is Slavin, who hasn’t scored one. But he does lead the Hurricanes with 11 points – all assists – and averaged over 26 minutes a game while also drawing the toughest defensive matchups.

Slavin is no slouch, and the Hurricanes have known for a while what he’s capable of. Now the rest of hockey is seeing it and lavishing some much-deserved attention on him.

”It’s part of the game,” Slavin said. ”Anyone would be lying if they said it’s not nice, but I’ve still just got to go out there and play well and obviously play for the team.”

Avalanche offseason presents big opportunities — and challenges

The Colorado Avalanche don’t want to hear this – not after falling painfully short against the Sharks in Game 7 – but to many observers, that agonizing ending feels like just the beginning.

Just consider the players who spearheaded their surprising five-game steamrolling of the Calgary Flames in Round 1, and the players who pushed San Jose to the limit in Round 2.

  • Nathan MacKinnon‘s the headliner, and at 23 with a ridiculous bargain $6.3 million cap hit through 2022-23, he might be the best value in all of the NHL.
  • After a bumpy start to his Colorado stay, Philipp Grubauer sure looks like a legitimate No. 1 goalie. He’s 27 and cheap ($3.33M) though 2020-21, too.
  • Mikko Rantanen‘s not that far behind MacKinnon, and just 22.
  • It feels like Gabriel Landeskog has been around forever, but he’s just 26. His $5.571M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.
  • Cale Makar looked right at home in the pressure cooker of the playoffs, and he’s 20. Samuel Girard is another nice piece, and could improve since he’s just 20, too.
  • Tyson Barrie‘s like Landeskog in that he’s still young (27), and affordable ($5.5M through 2019-20).

Of course, it’s not just all that precocious youth that makes the Avalanche seem like a Team of Tomorrow.

Thanks to that brilliant Kyle TurrisMatt Duchene trade by GM Joe Sakic, the Avalanche didn’t just add Girard and other more immediate pieces; they also snagged what would become the Ottawa Senators’ first-rounder in 2019 (along with Ottawa’s third-rounder).

While Colorado didn’t enjoy the sexiest option of getting a shot at Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, you won’t see a ton of teams make two consecutive playoff appearances and land the fourth pick of the draft. That happened thanks to the Turris trade, and the Avalanche are also slated to pick 16th with their own selection, as confirmed by NHL.com.

[Sharks hold off Avs in Game 7]

Having two picks in the top half of the 2019 NHL Draft gives Sakic & Co. some fascinating options.

Most directly, they can stick with both picks. They could also move one or both of those selections for more immediate upgrades via trades.

Both options are tantalizing, but the latter scenario is fascinating because of the road ahead for the Avalanche. Let’s take a look at the decisions Sakic must make, both in the near and longer-term future. As always, Cap Friendly is a crucial resource for contract information and other details, and served as a great resource for this post.

Tons of cap space, but some big names to re-sign

Via Cap Friendly, the Avalanche have about $46.9 million in cap space devoted to 13 players, with few problem contracts (aside from, I’d argue, Erik Johnson‘s deal).

There’s some significant money coming off the books as this season ends, and it remains to be seen if Colorado wants to bring back any of veterans Semyon Varlamov (31, $5.9M in 2018-19), Derick Brassard (31, $3M after retention), and Colin Wilson (29, just under $4M). Honestly, the Avs would probably be wise to let both Varlamov and Brassard walk, and maybe see if Wilson would take a little less cash for some term.

Either way, a ton of money will be allotted to RFAs. Rantanen figures to come in at a big clip, and it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if he landed in double digits. Honestly, even if he did, his trio with MacKinnon and Landeskog could probably still be underpaid as a group.

Rantanen isn’t the only noteworthy RFA. Alex Kerfoot, 24, and J.T. Compher, 24, both need new deals, and each player is somewhat tough to gauge value-wise. (Kerfoot is sneaky-effective from a two-way perspective.) Nikita Zadorov is another interesting situation as a 24-year-old RFA.

A window opens

Considering how young this Avalanche core is, the instinct might be to take a zen-like, slow approach.

Yet, if the Avalanche look at cap-crunched teams like the Maple Leafs, they should realize they have an unusual advantage to know that a window is opening, and that they should seize opportunities when they come along.

MacKinnon’s contract represents the outer limits (2022-23) of that window, but Colorado should also consider more immediate “deadlines.”

  • Landeskog and Grubauer are eligible to become UFAs after 2020-21, and should expect hearty raises.
  • Tyson Barrie’s deal runs out after 2019-20, and could be pricey considering his offensive production.
  • Girard’s slated to be an RFA after 2019-20, while Cale Makar’s rookie deal ranks as another competitive advantage for Colorado.
  • Granted, there will also be moments of cap relief. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M cap hit ends after 2019-20, so that should come in handy. The Brooks Orpik buyout ends after 2019-20, too.

With all of that in mind, the Avalanche should strongly consider ramping up their aggressiveness by either landing a free agent (maybe recent opponent Erik Karlsson, if he springs free? How does Artemi Panarin feel about skiing?) or by trading for a big ticket player. It’s tough to imagine the Predators trading P.K. Subban in general, yet especially to a division rival where they’d face Subban multiple times per year, yet Subban might be the type of gamebreaker Colorado should try to land.

Again, this is where that fourth or 16th pick could make things that much more interesting. Colorado could sell a trade partner on receiving cap space and/or a high draft pick in exchange for taking a known quantity, and a player who’s already x number of years into their development.

Imagine the Avalanche team that battered the Flames and challenged the Sharks adding an All-Star-level player, or even two? It’s a scary thought for opponents, and the Avalanche shouldn’t wait forever to try to make big strides. MacKinnon’s contract gives them a lengthy advantage, yet other bargains will evaporate soon. Why not get a surplus of talent while you still can?

***

Whether you believe the Avalanche should go bold or take a more measured approach, it sure seems obvious that this team has a lot of potential.

If management makes the right decisions – and, honestly, gets a few lucky breaks – then the Avs might just reach that potential.

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.

The Playoff Buzzer: Pavelski returns for Game 7 to lead Sharks past Avs

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Joe Pavelski made his series debut and was a major impact player right out of the gate.

The Avalanche thought they battled back from a 2-0 deficit, but their second goal was taken away because Gabriel Landeskog was ruled as being offside during a line change.

Colorado out shot San Jose 15-2 in the third period, but the Sharks held onto the lead.

San Jose Sharks 3, Colorado Avalanche 2 (Sharks win series 4-3)

The Sharks didn’t confirm until nearly the last minute that Joe Pavelski would play, but the captain certainly made it worth the wait. He scored the opening goal and assisted on Tomas Hertl‘s marker to give San Jose a 2-0 lead by 11:35 of the first period. Meanwhile, Nathan MacKinnon left the contest early after crashing into the boards. Everything seemed to be trending towards a clean Sharks victory, but momentum swung to the Avalanche’s side when MacKinnon returned late in the first period and Mikko Rantanen scored with just seven seconds before intermission. Colorado seemed to tie the contest in the second, but the goal was overruled due to an odd offside call on Gabriel Landeskog. To add insult to injury, Joonas Donskoi scored a stunner midway through the second to put the Sharks up 3-1. Tyson Jost put the Avalanche back within one again early in the third period, but San Jose held on despite being out shot 15-2 in the third period.

Three Stars

1. Joe Pavelski, San Jose Sharks. This one is easy. Not only did Pavelski manage to rejoin the Sharks after suffering a scary injury in Game 7 of Round 1, but he was a huge factor in this game. He had a goal and an assist while logging 19:49 minutes of ice time. Only two Sharks forwards were used more in Game 7.

2. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks. One of the two forwards who was used more. Hertl recorded 24:01 minutes of ice time, which is incredible for a forward in a game that didn’t go to overtime. No one on the Avalanche — forward or defenseman — matched Hertl in terms of minutes played. A big part of it was Hertl’s work on special teams. He got 4:39 power-play minutes and 2:42 shorthanded minutes. Of course, it wasn’t just how much work Hertl got in. He also contributed a goal and an assist.

3. Joonas Donskoi, San Jose Sharks. His goal proved to be the game-winner. It was his first marker of the playoffs after he scored 14 goals during the regular season. It wasn’t just how important the marker was though, it also was an amazing goal to cap a great sequence for San Jose.

Highlights of the Night
Pavelski’s deflection goal early in the game gave the Sharks an edge early on. The game had so many twists and turns so it might be a stretch to say that this marker defined the game, but it certainly made a big impact.

Factoids

  • The Sharks are the sixth team in NHL history to start their run with two Game 7 victories at home. [TSN’s StatsCentre]
  • This will be Peter DeBoer’s third trip to the Conference Final as a head coach. The other two times he got this far, his team ended up losing in the Stanley Cup Final.
  • The Western Conference Final will be a rematch of the 2016 series between the Sharks and Blues. San Jose won that one in six games.
  • Mikko Rantanen’s playoff run ends with him recording six goals and 14 points in 12 games.

Thursday’s Schedule

Game 1: Carolina Hurricanes at Boston Bruins, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.