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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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Stephen Johns played in his first game in almost 22 months when the Dallas Stars visited Minnesota on Saturday night.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old defenseman hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

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.

Stars’ Stephen Johns nears return after 22-month absence

DALLAS — Star defenseman Stephen Johns appears on track to return to Dallas’ lineup for the first time in 22 months on Saturday.

Johns, who returned from a conditioning assignment with Texas of the AHL, was not active for Thursday’s game but will travel with the Stars for their game at Minnesota.

He has not played in an NHL game since March 29, 2018, because of post-traumatic headaches.

”There’s a good chance he’ll play Saturday,” interim coach Rick Bowness said, ”so we’ll evaluate that (Friday) and Saturday morning.”

In two games for Texas, Johns had a goal and three assists.

The Stars could be in need of a defenseman after Miro Heiskanen didn’t play the second half of Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres because of an upper-body injury. Bowness said Heiskanen’s availability is considered day to day.

Outdoor hockey in Texas? Sure thang, and was a hoot to boot

DALLAS — Ryan Clare chewed on a turkey leg as he milled about the Texas state fairgrounds hours before another major sporting event inside historic Cotton Bowl Stadium.

No, this wasn’t the Texas-Oklahoma football game, always held in October during the fair. Clare has never been to the annual Red River rivalry, but the Dallas resident has been a fan of hockey and the Stars for more than 20 years.

Getting tickets to the NHL’s Winter Classic for Dallas’ 4-2 win over Nashville was a no-brainer for Clare, and probably many others among the 85,630 who filled a venue that used to be famous for college football on New Year’s Day.

”This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime event and everything,” said Clare, the bottom of the Dallas resident’s green No. 4 Miro Heiskanen jersey covering the top of his black kilt. ”When are you going to something like this in Texas ever again?”

Yes, outdoor hockey in Texas was as much the spectacle as that phrase sounds, with racing pigs just outside the rink on the stadium floor, and horses spooked by fireworks during ”The Star-Spangled Banner.”

At one end of the stadium, line dancers stepped to the beat of live country music in front of a stage that wasn’t far from a mechanical bull.

”I understand Twitter is going nuts in a good way about the pig races,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”We tried to blend Texas and hockey. Each year we try and learn something and do it a little bit better.”

The midway on the fairgrounds was filled with thousands of fans several hours before the game, some riding the giant Ferris wheel just southwest of the stadium and others on the swinging pirate ship or the haunted house ride.

Some waited in line at least an hour for the other headliner alongside a turkey leg at the State Fair of Texas every fall: a corn dog. ”It was worth it,” one said. There were so many lines, some didn’t know where one started and the other ended.

Others almost ended up on the sky tram that crisscrosses the fairgrounds, when all they wanted to do was get in the stadium.

”We didn’t know,” said Samantha Williams, a Nashville season ticket-holder visiting Dallas for the first time.

There was some impatience in a huge cluster of fans outside the main entrance to the Cotton Bowl about an hour and a half before the start, a standstill bad enough for some to think it was the only way into the stadium when there were actually plenty of other entrances.

”It’s been sensational,” Bettman said. ”The only complaints that we’ve been getting is that it’s been too crowded. And in this business, you’ll take that.”

Bettman said the weather was perfect in every way: a temperature in the mid-50s with overcast skies that blocked the sun to prevent glare without bringing rain, which would have been an even bigger problem for the ice.

The Predators took a 2-0 lead early in the first period before the Stars thrilled the huge crowd with four goals in less than eight minutes in the second and third periods.

”We’re very fortunate to be a part of it, hockey down in Texas and a couple of Southern teams, and fill the building the way we did,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. ”It was an incredible day. You want the score to go in a different direction if you’re part of the game. But the game overall, the ice, the atmosphere, it was excellent.”

The biggest difference from the Texas-OU spectacle was the fairgrounds emptying out once the game started. When the Longhorns and Sooners play, there are still thousands of regular fair-goers to see in the aerial television shots.

Inside, there was a bunch of Dallas green rather than the 50-yard line split of burnt orange and crimson, and a strong contingent of yellow-clad Predators fans.

Among them was Sonya Baird, a lifelong resident of southeast Texas who can’t really explain how she became a Nashville fan. Baird did say she liked the style and energy of Shea Weber, who spent his first 11 seasons with the Predators.

And Baird’s never been to the state fair, so …

”I didn’t know where this place was,” she said. ”It’s pretty cool. I don’t like crowds for some reason. It wasn’t going to keep me away.”

Same with Bryan Granstaff, who came from outside Nashville because his daughter wanted to attend. He wasn’t much of a football fan, and couldn’t say he’d seen a football game from the Cotton Bowl on TV.

”The only thing I keep up with is hockey,” said Granstaff, a Predators fan for about five years. ”Hockey and huntin’.”

Well, at least half of that is quintessential Texas. As for the hockey half, it took quite a step to start 2020.