Nikolaj Ehlers

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Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

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Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

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.

Pressure ratchets up on already cap-strapped teams

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News of a lower-than-expected salary cap for the 2019-20 season would have put a damper on the 2019 NHL Draft over the weekend for some NHL outfits.

The number, $81.5 million, came down shortly after the conclusion of the final round of Saturday’s seventh round and was $1.5 million shy of what was expected to be around $83 million since December.

For some, they leave Vancouver unperturbed by the news. Not every team is experiencing a cap crunch this season. But for others, the flight home may have been slightly sweatier, and not because of any in-flight turbulence, but rather the increased instability on the balance sheet heading into next season.

Let’s take a look at a few teams who are feeling the squeeze the most with the news.

1. Toronto Maple Leafs 

For a team that still has a player hoping to make $11 million at least, it’s not ideal that even with the trade of Patrick Marleau, there’s only $13.5 million to play with and roughly $7 million of that expected to go to Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen as soon as Sunday. Toronto’s price to shed Marleau came in a future first-round pick, which came along with Marleau to Carolina. That means Kyle Dubas needs to trim even more fat off his roster to make way to accommodate Marner’s Auston Matthews-like cap hit.

2. Vegas Golden Knights

As of Sunday, the Golden Knights have $0 in cap space. In fact, they’re over the limit. And they still have William Karlsson, a restricted free agent, to pay, and perhaps Brendan Pirri, and unrestricted free agent, too. Someone’s got to go.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

The sell-off began on Saturday when J.T. Miller and his $5.25 million contract was shipped to Vancouver. The Lightning must make room for Brayden Point, who is going to command a pretty penny. With Miller’s departure, they have just over $10 million to spend, with most, if not all, going to Point. And it gets worse for Tampa next season when Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s time as a very underpaid Vezina winner comes to an end.

4. Winnipeg Jets

Perhaps the best example of building through the draft and then having to consider parting ways with players they’ve pumped all sorts of development into, the Jets have been forced into making decisions such as trading Nikolaj Ehlers (along with trading Jacob Trouba, although in a much different scenario).

The Jets have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor this offseason, two deals that could combine for $18 million or somewhere in that region. Winnipeg has $23 million to throw around at the moment, but Laine and Connor are just two players on a roster that only has 14 signed so far for next season. Like it has in the past, the Jets will employ the services of players they’ve developed after drafting them.

* * *

It’s hard not to sympathize with teams who draft well, develop better and then have to sell off those players or others as a punishment for doing a good job as an organization.

But the realities of a capless world means teams with owners that have the deepest pockets would most likely reign supreme.

Perhaps there’s a compromise? What about teams not having to count players they draft and develop against the cap? Or perhaps only a portion of their salary, so they don’t have to sell off those players down the road because they’re forced to be cap compliant?

For now, every team dealing in the upper limits is forced to adapt.

We saw that on Saturday with the trade of P.K. Subban out of Nashville to the New Jersey Devils. We saw it with the aforementioned Lightning and Miller. And we will see more of it in the days and weeks to come with other teams plastered to the ceiling.

“I know we’ve taken a good player off our team so I can’t sit here and say we’re a better team for doing that,” Preds GM David Poile told the media in Vancouver on Saturday.

“We had to make a business decision. With an aim at strengthening our forward corps this offseason, and the continued strength of our defensive group, we felt it was necessary to clear up salary cap space this way.”

Parity in the NHL comes at a cost, but one has to wonder if that cost won’t become a point of contention somewhere down the line.

Being penalized for drafting well or pulling off a shrewd move or two shouldn’t sit well for teams in an uber-competitive league, where every advantage is needed to get ahead.

At the moment, it’s a feeding frenzy for bottom-feeding teams who can absorb large contracts and get immediately better — see: New Jersey. The Devils could go from a terrible team in 2018-19 to a playoff contender with Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban. Meanwhile, a team like the Predators — a legitimate Stanley Cup contender — perhaps ceases to be that caliber of a team, at least for now.

Nobody said life was fair.

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
• Shero on Subban trade, Hall’s future with Devils
• 
Round 1 draft tracker
• Rounds 2-7 draft tracker

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.

Trading Tyson Barrie sounds like a bad idea for Avalanche

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This already-fascinating offseason serves as a warning to NHL teams: be proactive with key players’ next contracts, because if you leave it until the last minute, you could get burned.

Look at what almost feels like city-wide anxiety in Toronto over the RFA future of young star Mitch Marner. Soak in the agonizingly paltry return the Jets received for Jacob Trouba, which was maybe bound to be bad.

Yet, sometimes when a trend forms, there’s also a risk of overcorrection. The Colorado Avalanche face a risk if they get too hasty and trade underrated defenseman Tyson Barrie.

The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun passes along word (sub required for full post) from at least one anonymous Eastern Conference executive that the Avalanche are at least listening to offers about Barrie, a 27-year-old defenseman whose bargain $5.5 million cap hit expires after the 2019-20 season. LeBrun didn’t indicate that a trade is necessarily imminent, but added, “it certainly sounds possible.”

Now, let me say this before I dive deeper: there are scenarios where it could make sense to trade Tyson Barrie.

Someone like Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers might make sense, as he’s young, and not only similarly priced, but locked up at $6M AAV through 2024-25. Ehlers would be a wonderful fit for a Colorado offense that could use some support beyond their mega top line, and his wonderful transition skills would be absolutely terrifying in high-elevation home games in Colorado.

(Seriously, if that happens, pray for any defensemen without the cardio of an elite cyclist.)

But, occasional examples aside … I can’t say I love the logic of moving Barrie, especially if it’s about the Avalanche’s blueline being too crowded with right-handed defensemen, as LeBrun indicates because of Cale Makar (he’s very good!) and Erik Johnson (eh).

First, consider that Barrie is really good, and then realize that the Avalanche are in a situation where they can almost certainly afford to extend him.

Barrie good

The Avalanche have been crawling back up to relevance in recent years, which means that people have probably been sleeping on just how strong a player Barrie is, particularly at that affordable $5.5M clip.

Last season, Barrie generated an outstanding 14 goals and 59 points in 78 games, hitting 14 goals and 50+ points for the second season in a row (he managed 57 points in 2017-18, which is actually pretty astounding because he only played in 68 games). Barrie hit 53 points in 2014-15, so while his numbers are undoubtedly juiced a bit by being the guy often on the ice when Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are ruling the world, it’s not as though Barrie is a mere bystander.

Since 2013-14, Barrie’s 294 points ranks eighth among NHL defensemen, tying him with P.K. Subban (in one fewer game played), and leaving Barrie ahead of the likes of Torey Krug, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty, and Alex Pietrangelo. If you look at the past two seasons, Barrie’s 116 points ranks him sixth among blueliners, and just one behind Victor Hedman.

Chances are, a lot of hockey fans didn’t know that Barrie has been that prolific, and he isn’t just scoring points. Barrie passes just about every test, often with flying colors.

You can see that he’s an important all-around defenseman when you ponder routinely strong possession stats, particularly compared to Avalanche teammates. If you prefer a visual aid, consider how he compares on this GAR chart (visualization by Sean Tierney, data by Evolving Hockey), which also speaks kindly to Samuel Girard‘s impact:

Barrie outclasses Erik Johnson in the transition game, already, and that should only become more pronounced as the two age (Barrie, again, is 27, while Johnson is 31).

Maybe you can get really granular and claim that Barrie isn’t as strong defensively as (insert high-profile defenseman), but you’d really have to start stretching to find ways to badmouth a player who’s just … really good.

And, here’s a rule of thumb: teams probably shouldn’t trip over their feet trying to find ways to get rid of their really good players. That might sound painfully obvious, but NHL teams sometimes make moves that defy logic, so it has to be said.

Because, frankly, the Avalanche are in a great position to just keep Barrie around, and bask in the competitive advantage.

Plenty of space, and plenty more opening up

One thing that’s really exciting about the Avalanche is that, thanks to MacKinnon’s outrageous bargain contract, Gabriel Landeskog still being affordable for a bit, Philipp Grubauer being primed to provide very nice value for two more seasons, and one year of Barrie, they really have a lot of values on their books.

While Rantanen’s second contract will certainly be a steep upgrade, the Avalanche are still in a pretty comfortable place, as Cap Friendly estimates their pre-Rantanen cap space at a bit more than $36 million, assuming it lands at $82M.

Even with Rantanen primed to possibly bump that space closer to $26M, the Avalanche are in an enviable cap situation both now, and really in the next few years.

Along with best-in-class bargains for the likes of MacKinnon, the Avalanche also: get two more entry-level years out of Makar, one more out of Girard, and also stand to get below-market value from the fourth overall pick of 2019, whether that prospect makes the immediate jump or Colorado has them marinate at a lower level for a year or two.

If that isn’t enough to impress upon the Avalanche that they should be adding, not subtracting a player like Barrie, consider some of the less-ideal money that will go away. Carl Soderberg‘s $4.75M is gone after 2019-20, while Ian Cole ($4.25M) and Matt Calvert ($2.85M) see deals expire after 2020-21.

Carl Soderberg at $4.75M is simply too much, but that deal goes away after next season. Ian Cole is also an issue at $4.25M, but only through 2020-21. Even Matt Calvert’s $2.85M through 2020-21 will be better used elsewhere. That’s almost $12M that can go toward new deals for Barrie, Makar, and other younger players.

So … if the Avalanche can trade Barrie for a comparable player, shouldn’t they just keep Barrie around? Really, shouldn’t they be eager to do so? Defensemen like Barrie don’t exactly grow on trees.

Really, if anything, the Avalanche should be exploring avenues to move Johnson, instead. At 31, his value is only likely to decline, so the already-shaky prospect of paying him $6M gets pretty scary as it goes along, being that Johnson’s deal runs through 2022-23. Traditional-thinking NHL teams love big tough defensemen with pedigree, so it wouldn’t be that shocking if the Avs were able to get the first pick of the 2006 NHL Draft off of their books in hopes of keeping younger, faster, better players.

***

Barrie isn’t a household name, even in many hockey households, but he’s an excellent defenseman. For a young, speedy team like the Avalanche, he’s honestly an incredible fit.

Sometimes there are fair deals out there, and Barrie would likely draw interest. It’s just uncomfortably easy to imagine the Avalanche on the wrong end of such a trade.

Then again, the Avalanche have taken lemons and made lemonade, such as with the staggeringly brilliant return for Matt Duchene, so maybe they’d win an Ehlers trade, too? Colorado is on the short list of teams that might actually pull that off … but generally speaking, I’d just try to keep Barrie around.

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.

Which players might be on the move this week?

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Since the Stanley Cup Final came to an end last week, we’ve seen NHL general managers make a plethora of moves to bolster their teams. Jacob Trouba, Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen have already been moved and Kevin Hayes has inked a mega deal with the Philadelphia Flyers. But who else might be shipped to a different team in the coming days?

With the feeling of disappointment still fresh in most teams’ mind (except you, St. Louis), this is where general managers want to wheel-and-deal in order to make themselves as competitive as possible heading into next season. There’s always plenty of trade chatter at this time of year, but it appears as though there’s a real opportunity for us to see some blockbuster moves this summer.

There also appears to be a number of offer sheet possibilities, which is hard to believe because that’s a route general managers don’t typically jump on. But with so many superstar restricted free agents about to hit the market, it appears as though some teams may be willing to part with these players via trade instead of losing them to an offer sheet.

Alright, so let’s take a look at which players could be traded before the NHL Draft (Friday, 7:30 pm ET on NBCSN) or before NHL free agency begins.

Nikolaj Ehlers – W- Winnipeg Jets: The Jets probably don’t want to unload Ehlers, but their current cap situation might force them to. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has roughly $25 million in cap space at his disposal right now, but he has to re-sign Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Tyler Myers and Neal Pionk, who was recently acquired from the New York Rangers. Ehlers is about to enter the second year of his seven-year, $42 million extension ($6 million AAV). He posted 21 goals and a disappointing 37 points in 62 games last season. Again, those numbers were low for a player of his caliber but it’s clear that he possesses the talent to be a top-line player in the NHL. Teams should be lining up for his services.

P.K. Subban – D – Nashville Predators: Subban is just three years into his tenure with the Predators, but a group of high-priced defensemen could lead to him being on his way out the door. It would be surprising to see GM David Poile unload Subban so soon, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Subban has missed 16 and 19 games in two of his three seasons in Nashville and he’s entering his age 30 season. Could that play a factor in Poile’s decision? The Preds also have to sign captain Roman Josi to a long-term extension and he’s going to make way more than the $4 million they’re currently paying him.

Jason Zucker – W – Minnesota Wild: Zucker was reportedly part of the trade that would’ve seen Phil Kessel head to Minnesota from Pittsburgh. That puts the 27-year-old in a bit of an awkward position with his current team, so they may be forced to part ways with him soon. Zucker scored 21 goals and 21 assists in 81 games last season, but he’s just one year removed from a 33-goal and 64-point season. He has four years remaining on a contract that pays him $5.5 million per year.

Phil Kessel – W – Pittsburgh Penguins: Is a move still possible? You’d have to think that if Kessel is going to be traded, it will happen sometime before or during the NHL Entry Draft. The Pens seem motivated to move on from the veteran winger, and teams are desperate for goals so it seems like there’s still a chance he could end up somewhere else before the start of next season. Where is he willing to be moved to though?

Nazem Kadri – C – Toronto Maple Leafs: This potential move has nothing to do with Kadri’s ability to play. The 28-year-old is coming off a down year, but he’s still a quality center, which is hard to find in the NHL. The problem is that he allows his emotions to get the best of him in critical times. This year, a suspension forced him to watch from the press box as his team was eliminated in the first round by the Boston Bruins. Has he run out of chances in Toronto?

T.J. Brodie – D – Calgary Flames: Brodie has one year remaining on his contract. It comes with a cap hit of $4.65 million, which means he’ll probably be looking for a raise heading into next summer. The Flames have to re-sign some key parts like Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk and they have to find themselves a starting netminder before the start of the year. Brodie is a left-handed shot capable of playing over 20 minutes per game. The 29-year-old had nine goals and 34 points in 79 games this season.

William Karlsson – C – Vegas Golden Knights: Karlsson took off after he was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft. The pending restricted free agent put up 43 goals and 78 points in his first year with the Golden Knights and he followed that up with 24 goals and 56 points last season. He’s a quality two-way center that will need to get a significant raise this offseason. The Golden Knights don’t have the salary cap space to bring him back without making another move or two, so he could be the target of an offer sheet after July 1st.

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: Thornton not ready for retirement; Best Lundqvist trade scenario

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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.

• Cam Neely and Jeremy Jacobs were impressed by Zdeno Chara‘s level of courage throughout the Stanley Cup Final. (WEEI)

• It’s going to be a really interesting off-season for Torey Krug. (Bruins Daily)

• The Canadiens should force the Jets’ hand by going after Nikolaj Ehlers. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Could the Capitals move up or down in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft? (NBC Sports Washington)

• ESPN looked at how former first overall pick Patrik Stefan was able to move on from a disappointing career. (ESPN)

• The Hockey News got to chat with Penguins star Sidney Crosby at the NHL Awards. (The Hockey News)

• Will Barry Trotz and/or Robin Lehner come away with major awards in Vegas? (Newsday)

• What does the ideal Henrik Lundqvist trade scenario look like? (New York Post)

Rasmus Dahlin had one of the best rookie seasons in Sabres history. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

• It doesn’t sound like Joe Thornton is ready to hang up his skates just yet. (NHL.com)

• Flames forward Sean Monahan believes his teammates Mark Giordano is a no-brainer for the Norris Trophy. (Flames Nation)

• What do the Vegas Golden Knights look for in a draft pick? (Sinbin.Vegas)

Neal Pionk was shocked when he found out he was being traded to the Jets. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• Bobby Brink might be the first player from Minnesota taken in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. (Minneapolis StarTribune)

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.