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PHT Power Rankings: Breakout candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at 10 potential breakout candidates for the 2019-20 NHL season.

We are looking for young players who have already made their NHL debut (so no Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko) and could be on the verge of taking a big step toward stardom.

Who makes the cut? Let’s find out. To the rankings!

1. Andrei Svechnikov, Carolina Hurricanes. He is one of just eight players since the start of the 2000-01 season to score at least 20 goals as an 18-year-old in the NHL. The previous seven (Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jordan Staal, Nathan MacKinnon, Steven Stamkos, Jeff Skinner, and Patrik Laine) scored an average of 31 goals in year two. With his talent and rocket shot don’t be surprised if Svechnikov tops the 30-goal mark and becomes a top-line player for the Hurricanes.

2. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche are loaded with young talent and with the offseason trade of Tyson Barrie are going to be relying on a lot of youth on defense. Makar made his NHL debut in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and never really looked out of place, showing the type of skill and potential that could make him a Calder Trophy favorite entering the 2019-20 season.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers. Flyers fans have reason to believe their long-time goaltending headache could finally be going away. Hart finished with a .917 save percentage as a 20-year-old and is going to enter the season as the team’s starter. He could be a franchise-changing player.

4. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. Not every No. 1 pick is going to enter the NHL and immediately become a superstar. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. Hischier has been really good his first two years in the league and probably still has another level he can reach, and with the Devils adding some impact talent to their roster this offseason he should have a little more help in getting there.

5. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks. There is an argument to be made that Labanc already had his “breakout” season this past year (17 goals, 56 assists) but it might still yet be ahead of him. He not only should get a bigger role this season for the Sharks but he also kind of bet on himself to have a big year with a one-year, $1 million contract. He has talent, he is already productive, and he has a lot to play for.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning. Ton of talent, potential and already productive at a young age. He just turned 21 and has already played 150 games and has averaged 0.36 points per game. Only six other active defenders have had a similar start to their careers: Drew Doughty, Zach Werenski, Morgan Rielly, Aaron Ekblad, Tyler Myers and Cam Fowler. Hopefully for the Lightning’s sake he follows the path of the first four.

7. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens. There was a lot to like about Kotkaniemi’s rookie season. Not only did he produce at a respectable level for a teenager, but he also posted dominant possession numbers (57 percent Corsi) that were among the league’s best. Was it a sheltered role? Sure it was, he was an 18-year-old rookie. But there is still something to be said for a player that age stepping right into the NHL and holding his own the way he did.

8. Robert Thomas, St. Louis Blues. A first-round pick by the Blues in 2017, Thomas has been a highly anticipated prospect in the Blues organization and, in making the jump from the OHL straight to the NHL, made a strong first impression for the Stanley Cup champions. Great talent and likely to be a core building block for the Blues in the coming seasons.

9. Henri Jokiharju, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres have added a lot of talent to their blue line over the past two years, drafting Rasmus Dahlin No. 1 overall in 2018 and then acquiring Colin Miller and Jokiharju. Jokiharju is definitely the more intriguing out of the latter two because he is still only 20 years old, was a first-round pick just a couple of years ago, and looked really good at times in the first half of the 2018-19 season for the Chicago Blackhawks. He never seemed to get the trust of new coach Jeremy Colliton and was eventually traded this summer for Alex Nylander. If he reaches his potential in Buffalo the Sabres might finally have the start of a playoff caliber defense.

10. Devon Toews, New York Islanders. Toews is an interesting one because he is the oldest player on this list (25) and only has 56 games of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs combined) on his resume. It took him a few years to get his first look with the Islanders, but he absolutely made the most of it and looked more impressive with each game.

Honorable mentionsRyan Donato, Minnesota Wild; Clayton Keller, Arizona Coyotes; Roope Hintz, Dallas Stars; Alexandar Georgiev, New York Rangers; Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche; David Rittich, Calgary Flames; Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers; Filip Zadina, Detroit Red Wings.

MORE: Top regression candidates for 2019-20 NHL season

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.

Rangers, Islanders, Devils all creating buzz in offseason

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The New York Rangers’ rebuild got a big boost with the additions of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko. The New Jersey Devils drafted Jack Hughes with the No. 1 pick and traded for P.K. Subban to improve their defense.

The Islanders are coming off a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and a run to the second round of the playoffs for the second time since 1993. Now, they return the core of their lineup for the second year under Stanley Cup-winning coach Barry Trotz and president/general manager Lou Lamoriello.

With the opening of training camps a little more than two months away, the three New York-area teams – which haven’t made the playoffs in the same year since 2007 – are buzzing with excitement.

”It’s awesome just in this area, even south Jersey with the Flyers, but Islanders, Devils, Rangers have real strong teams,” Devils general manager Ray Shero said. ”It’s an exciting time for all the teams in this area.”

New Jersey had the top pick for the second time in three years. In 2017, the Devils took Nico Hischier at No. 1 and got off to a strong start before earning a wild card. They took a step back last year and missed the playoffs, and then won the draft lottery.

Hughes and Kakko were the consensus top two picks, with the Rangers certain to take whichever player New Jersey passed on.

”They’re both really good players and it’s hard to pick one over the other,” Shero said, ”because Kakko is a great kid, a hell of a player, it’s good for the rivalry.”

The Rangers and Islanders both tried to sign Panarin, the top player available when free agency opened on Monday. The 27-year-old Panarin signed a seven-year, $81.5-million deal, reportedly spurning more money from the Islanders to join a Rangers team that has missed the playoffs two straight years after a seven-year run that included a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

”The rivalry will never change, which is great for the area, great for hockey,” Lamoriello said. ”As far as the ingredients to each team, all I worry about is the New York Islanders and competing against ourselves to be the best we can. I’m not losing any sleep over what anyone else is doing.”

After losing out on Panarin, the Islanders calmed their anxious fan base by re-signing captain Anders Lee and adding goalie Semyon Varlamov to replace Robin Lehner – a favorite in his one season in New York.

Last month, the Islanders inked center Brock Nelson and forward Jordan Eberle to new deals, keeping two players that were instrumental in their run to the postseason.

”We feel very good about our team,” Lamoriello said. ”We feel very good about our core players, having them all back for the most part is very important.”

Getting Panarin was a big move for the Rangers after they went into rebuilding mode at the trade deadline in 2018, dealing veterans for young players and draft picks. They continued that strategy at the trade deadline this year.

However, the Rangers have been busy improving their defense since the end of the season. They signed Adam Fox, acquired the rights to restricted free agent Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg and also signed forward Vitali Kravtsov and goalie Igor Shesterkin – two Russians they drafted in previous years.

”This by no means alters our plan,” Rangers coach David Quinn said of the contract for Panarin. ”He’s part of the rebuild and part of the process that’s been going on over the last year and a half.”

Shero liked the competitive vibe that was injected into the rivalry with the top two picks of the draft, much the way it happened in 2017 with the Flyers, who took Nolan Patrick at No. 2. He believes the division matchups make it more exciting, with the young players going to teams that play each other more often than in the case of other recent top picks that ended up in different conferences.

”It’s great for the area,” Shero said. ”It’s great for the rivalry and whether you play four or five times, we hope to play more against teams like the Islanders and Flyers and Rangers because that means we’re in the playoffs.

”You see all three teams here … it makes for a real good rivalry and a great division.”

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Canucks risk ‘Russian Factor’ with Podkolzin at No. 10

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Hockey fans learned some answers to some interesting questions during the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft on Friday.

  • Big players seemingly were valued more than small, as big center Kirby Dach surpassed his projections to go third overall to the Blackhawks, while spritely sniper Cole Caulfield slipped to the Canadiens at No. 15.
  • Spencer Knight did, indeed, become an increasingly rare first-round goalie when the Panthers snapped him up at 13.
  • The Red Wings answered the question of biggest reach, at least perception-wise, in shocking the crowd by getting Moritz Seider as early as sixth. Biggest steal is a matter of perception, as well, though Caulfield is in the conversation.
  • And, yes, a boatload of Americans – actually, the boat needs to be reasonably big – went in the first round. A record-breaking boat.

One lingering, annual question for draft is: how will “The Russian Factor” influence where a prospect goes. In the case of Vasili Podkolzin, the intriguing Russian forward went to the Vancouver Canucks at 10th overall.

As you can see from the video above, some Canucks fans were thrilled:

Others maybe had mixed feelings:

While plenty adorably chanted “Da,” as in yes, in welcoming Podkolzin.

Some fans might be concerned about “The Russian Factor.” In a nutshell, the concern with drafting some Russian players is that it can sometimes be difficult to control their development process, particularly when it comes to the threat of KHL contracts. It’s not just about the current CBA severely limiting what a player can make on entry-level deals, but that’s a factor when you consider the much stronger chances that a Russian player may eye the KHL.

That’s absolutely relevant with Podkolzin, who’s actually already on a KHL contract, and is expected to honor it for two more seasons.

Canucks GM Jim Benning didn’t seem too worried about that situation in discussing the pick with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman shortly after it was made. Benning explained that, in the 10th spot, the player the Canucks picked would probably need two years of development, anyway.

Maybe that’s not true – NBC’s Pierre McGuire stated that an immediate leap wasn’t that far fetched if there weren’t restrictions – but overall, the Canucks have a point.

And they also have a tantalizing situation, as Podkolzin is often described as an explosive talent, setting the stage for Vancouver to have a dynamic talent base including Podkolzin, Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. That must be exciting for Canucks fans, and fans of exciting hockey as a whole.

Interestingly, though, Podkolzin isn’t just a test case for whether teams should be worried about “The Russian Factor” of struggling to get a prospect to the NHL. This could also be a litmus test regarding scouts seeing big skills and potential, versus those who believe that teams are too quick to overlook the numbers.

In a June 12 column about prospects to avoid, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler voiced some concern about Podkolzin’s spotty production (sub required), at least when it came to him landing in the top 10:

Podkolzin, as I’ve written since my preliminary ranking last fall, is a player who catches your eye because he appears heavily involved in games physically and heavily involved in the offence through the way he attacks with the puck, but doesn’t often enough make plays that result in positive outcomes. There’s a difference between catching your eye and winning hockey games. And instincts can only take you so far. I’m all for players who attempt to make plays but there’s a level of awareness required to become a great player at the next level and I fear that Podkolzin may be limited to an energizing third-line role without a steep development of that skill in the next few seasons.

Now, it’s important to realize that Wheeler still penciled in Podkolzin as being worth picking in the 13-20 range, so even those with some mild misgivings believe in him as a prospect.

Overall, there are enough wrinkles to make the Podkolzin pick very interesting.

Frankly, the Canucks have made a lot of puzzling decisions over the years, from a slew of shaky signings in free agency, to the disconcerting notion of adding Peter Chiarelli to a front office that already seems to march the beat of the wrong drummer. Yet, the one area where they’ve had some big recent successes is the draft. Calling Elias Pettersson at fifth overall a steal might feel weird, but you can bet that the Flyers wish they could have gotten him at second instead of Nolan Patrick. (Sorry Nolan.) Brock Boeser was a heist at 23rd in 2015, and Quinn Hughes sure looks like the right call at seventh overall from last year.

Considering that the Canucks got relatively weak draft lottery luck in landing the 10th pick this year, fans have to be absolutely delighted that Vancouver selected Podkolzin. Especially with some of the peculiar decisions that were made before and after they selected at No. 10.

There are ways this can go wrong, however, making Podkolzin’s development very interesting to watch.

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.

Shero has a Devil of an NHL draft decision: Hughes or Kakko

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero doesn’t mind keeping everyone waiting one more day before revealing whether he will select one of the two top projected prospects – American center Jack Hughes or Finland’s Kaapo Kakko – with the first pick in the NHL draft.

What Shero would concede Thursday was his decision having the potential of spicing up New Jersey’s ever-healthy cross-river and Metropolitan Division rivalry with the New York Rangers, who are picking second when the draft opens in Vancouver on Friday night.

”What we’ve got to do is what’s best for the Devils right now,” Shero said. ”Knowing that the team picking No. 2 in this case is in our division, they’re going to get a great player as well.”

If that places a heavier burden on his shoulders, well, that’s fine with Shero.

”It really doesn’t bother me. Some people say the Rangers and Jeff Gorton are in the best spot,” Shero said, referring to the Rangers GM. ”I mean, I’m picking No. 1, so I’m in the best spot, I think.”

For his part, Gorton doesn’t mind the suspense.

”We’re sitting there and obviously one team’s going to indicate to us exactly how it might go for the rest of the draft. I think we’re in a good spot,” Gorton said. ”We know that we’re going to get a really good player no matter what happens to us.”

In a draft that has the potential of featuring a record number of Americans taken in the first round, Shero’s decision rests on choosing between an under-sized play-making center in Hughes or the heftier Kakko, who is considered a purer goal-scorer.

Shero has met with both players over dinner, including traveling to Helsinki, Finland, to meet with Kakko. And though he has a good idea which player the Devils will select, Shero was waiting until Thursday night to make his recommendation to team owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer.

In many ways, the decision is similar to the one Shero faced three years ago, the last time the Devils had the first pick. In 2017, Shero selected Switzerland center Niko Hischier, while New Jersey’s division-rival Philadelphia Flyers took Nolan Patrick.

At 5-foot-10 and 170, pounds Hughes is NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American prospect. He set a USA Hockey development program record by combining for 228 points (74 goals, 154 assists) over his two-year stint. From Orlando, Florida, he’s in position to become the eighth U.S.-born player selected No. 1 and first since Toronto took Auston Matthews in 2016.

At 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, Kakko is the top-ranked European skater. He completed a season in which he helped his nation complete a gold-medal sweep of international titles by winning the world championship last month along with the world junior and under-18 titles. Kakko’s 22 goals in 45 games were a Finnish Elite League record by a draft-eligible player.

Though he was only formally introduced to Kakko for the first time this weekend, Hughes understands the two will draw comparisons for years to come.

”You saw (Alexander) Ovechkin and (Sidney) Crosby all these years,” Hughes said, referring to the long-time Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins captains. ”I’m not saying we’re going to be Ovechkin and Crosby, but I’m saying it’s going to be pretty cool to be linked with him.”

The top of the draft features a wide mix of talent varying in size and speed. Defenseman Bowen Byram is ranked second among North Americans followed by center Kirby Dach. Then follows a large cluster of Hughes’ USA Hockey teammates, including centers Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras and 5-foot-7 forward Cole Caufield, who set a program record with 72 goals last season.

The NTDP list of potential first-round selections are rounded out by left winger Matthew Boldy, defenseman Cameron York and Spencer Knight, the top-ranked North American goalie.

With Hughes and Kakko expected to be off the board, the real intrigue should begin with Chicago picking third after the Blackhawks bucked the draft lottery odds to jump from the 12th spot in the draft order.

”There seems to be an understanding of how those firsts two picks will go, though you never know until it happens,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said. ”But we’re going to pick one of three players. … We’re not going to be cramming last minute. I think we’re going to be very comfortable with the guy that we pick.”

Colorado follows with the fourth pick, leaving Avalanche amateur scouting director Alan Hepple interested in who the Blackhawks might select.

”I told Joe just to go ask them,” Hepple said, referring to Avalanche GM Joe Sakic. ”We’ve got a few guys targeted. We know what we have.”

NOTES: Knight has the potential of becoming the 10th American-born goalie selected in the first round and first since Dallas chose Jake Oettinger with the 26th pick in 2017. … The record for most American-born players selected in the first round is 12, in 2016. … Center Dylan Cozens, ranked fifth among North Americans, has the chance to become the first player born in Canada’s Yukon Territory selected in the first round.

AP Hockey Writers Stephen Whyno and Larry Lage, and sports writers Tim Booth and Pat Graham contributed to this story.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Are the Flyers reverting to old ways?

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Chuck Fletcher is going at things at a speed more familiar to Philadelphia Flyers fans.

The team’s general manager has been a bit feisty over the past several days, aggressively seeking out additions to his roster, including trading a fifth-round pick for the rights to negotiate early with Kevin Hayes — a move that paid of with a massive contract on Tuesday.

Fletcher also took advantage of a cash-strapped San Jose Sharks team to bring in 32-year-old defenseman Justin Braun and flipped the unpredictable Radko Gudas (well, 70 percent of him) for 32-year-old Matt Niskanen, too.

That ‘win-now’ mentality that has been so prevalent throughout the history of the Flyers is back. But is it a good thing? Historically, speaking, the Flyers have little to show for it.

The Hayes signing improves the Flyers, although the price tag to do business will certainly be debated. Hayes is a big center that many teams would have coveted if he hit the open market on July 1.

But what about the others?

Braun’s play hasn’t exactly been earth-shattering over the last little while. He’s aging and his ability to play the game is as well, at least according to the numbers.

Niskanen’s play has followed the same sort of declining arch, and it’s possible that Gudas is still the better defenseman.

But let’s rewind for a moment.

Ron Hextall’s slow-and-steady approach seemingly cost him his job last November (along with sticking with Dave Hakstol, who didn’t seem to be developing that talent all that well).

When he was hired in 2014, Hextall told reporters that it wasn’t his vision to trade the farm to acquire older players. The late Ed Snider concurred: “I think Ron has established a philosophy that is probably long overdue.”

Build through the draft, a model that’s done wonders for teams like Winnipeg and Tampa Bay, was Hextall’s preferred method of choice.

And his fingerprints are all over the current roster’s crop of youth, including Travis Sanheim, Ivan Provorov, Travis Konecny, Carter Hart and Nolan Patrick.

Fletcher has no such aspirations, it seems.

To get Braun, a veteran of 600-plus NHL games, Fletcher parted ways with two picks, a second and third rounder in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

And Fletcher said over the weekend that he may still be looking to find a top-pairing defenseman for Provorov to play with. Those don’t come cheap, whether through trade (assets) or through free agency (money).

The more Fletcher adds on the backend, the more he likely has to subtract, even if they carry seven defensemen into the season (they currently have eight). And we can only assume that he would then subtract a defenseman that was born and bred through the organization, through the draft — reversing some of the good work Hextall did (or Paul Holmgren, if a guy like Sam Morin or Robert Hagg is moved).

The Flyers have nearly $23 million in cap space to play with but still have to sign restricted free agents in Provorov, Konecny and Sanheim among others. That may not leave them with that much room to maneuver in the end.

Perhaps most worrying though circles back to the beginning of this, with Fletcher’s aggressive approach to acquiring older talent at the cost of assets. While Hextall’s approach may have been flawed, the essence of it has made other teams perennial contenders.

Fletcher’s been busy, certainly. But is his team any better for his efforts?

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.