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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


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

Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another 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.

NHL Free Agency: 10 things we learned on a crazy July 1

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As far as free agency signing days go this July 1 turned out to be one of the wilder ones we have seen in years.

The New York Rangers landed a star, the Montreal Canadiens utilized the offer sheet option, there was a blockbuster trade that significantly altered two potential Stanley Cup contenders, and one general manager uttered one of the weirdest quotes you will ever read regarding a signing.

We take a look at all of those storylines and more with 10 things we learned on a crazy free agent signing day.

1. Montreal’s offer sheet did not go far enough

Credit to Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens for exploring every possible option when it comes to trying to make their team better. It has been far too long since a team signed a restricted free agent offer sheet, and when word first surfaced that the Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho there was an immediate sense of excitement that free agency was about to get interesting … right up until the terms of the deal were released.

The five-year offer comes with a salary cap hit of $8.45 million per season and would require the Canadiens to give up a first, second, and third-round pick if the Hurricanes do not match.

It is an offer the Hurricanes seem almost certain to match, especially given the reaction of general manager Don Waddell at his press conference discussing the offer. Waddell said he was surprised the offer was not higher, and that he may take all seven days to decide on whether or not to match it because it may prevent Montreal from signing other players and he may not want to help them out. He also joked that it saved him a lot of time because now he will not have to spend the summer negotiating a new contract. Those are the words of a general manager who is confident and comfortable in what he is doing. He is matching.

The Canadiens capped their offer at $8.45 million per season because going any higher would have increased the compensation to two first-round picks as long as it remained under $10.568 million (anything higher than that would require four first-round draft picks).

The first question here is if you are going to go this direction, why make an offer that can so easily be matched? Given how good Aho is, it’s not like he wouldn’t be worth a $9-10 million contract for the next five or six years, especially since he will be in the prime of his career at his peak level of production. He is a star with the best days of his career directly in front of him.

The second question is why not target a player on a team in a more dire salary cap situation? It was reported on Monday by Pierre LeBrun that the Canadiens had also considered making an offer to Tampa Bay Lightning forward Brayden Point before focussing on Aho.

Had the Canadiens made a similar offer to Point (who also would have been worth it) the Lightning would have almost certainly had to clear salary cap space in another move just to create enough room to match it.

It was a great idea in theory and a bold move. It was simply not bold enough.

2. The New York Rangers are back in business

At least one team that calls Madison Square Garden home was able to finish the deal and lure in a top free agent this summer.

The Rangers paid a significant price for Artemi Panarin, but it continued what has been a potentially franchise-shifting offseason for the team.

One year ago they were telling their fans to prepare for a lengthy and painful rebuild.

This summer they added a bonafide star (Panarin), a potential star (Kaapo Kakko), and a top-four defender in Jacob Trouba.

Is that enough to get back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2019-20? Maybe not, especially in a Metropolitan Division that is setting itself up to be a complete free-for-all, but all of it definitely puts the rebuild on an accelerated path.

Free agency is always a risk and more often than not the long-term contracts signed on July 1 are going to end up as buyouts or trade fodder a couple of years down the line, but Panarin is the rare exception that it is worth it to go all in on. He still has several more years as an elite player, and in his first four years in the league has proven to be one of the best and most productive forwards in the league.

If you are going to hand out a big contract, you better make sure it is a star and an impact player.

The Rangers did that.

3. The Maple Leafs and Avalanche both got what they needed

Congratulations to Tyson Barrie for finally getting his hame removed from the “always on the trading block but never actually traded” list.

He is on the move to Toronto, along with Alexander Kerfoot, in the blockbuster deal that sends Nazem Kadri to the Avalanche.

It continued what was an extremely active day for the Maple Leafs that saw them overturn a significant chunk of their roster for two very big reasons: Clearing salary cap space to secure restricted free agent Mitch Marner, and also improving a defense that was the obvious Achilles heel of the team the past couple of years.

With the departures of Jake Gardiner (well, he is likely to depart) and Ron Hainsey in free agency, as well as the trade of Nikita Zaitsev to Ottawa, there were an awful lot of holes on that Toronto defense.

There had to be another shoe to drop.

The other shoe was Barrie.

He is a massive addition to the Maple Leafs’ defense and gives them a very formidable top-three along with Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. The fact Colorado is picking up half of Barrie’s contract also helps given Toronto’s salary cap situation.

As for Colorado, Kadri gives the Avalanche a great second-line center to play behind Nathan MacKinnon, and along with the free addition of Joonas Donskoi greatly improves their forward depth.

Kadri is an outstanding player due to his shutdown defensive play and 30-goal potential, but his inability to control himself proved costly for the Maple Leafs in consecutive postseasons.

If he can stick to playing hockey without crossing the line and getting himself suspended at the worst possible time he is going to help.

Losing Barrie hurts, but the Avalanche have an exciting crop of young defenders coming through the pipeline that are ready to make an impact in the NHL with Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram all ready to take over.

They also have an absurd amount of salary cap space and could still complete another move to replace Barrie. They are still in business and still building something that could be special.

[Related: Maple Leafs, Avalanche make blockbuster trade involving Kadri, Barrie]

4. The Penguins did not learn their lesson

For the second year in a row the Penguins gave a bottom-of-the-lineup role player a long-term contract that defies pretty much any and all logic given their roster and salary cap situation.

Signing Brandon Tanev for $3.5 million per season is, on its own, probably a defensible signing. The cap hit is not terrible, and probably not far from what someone of his skillset should get on the open market. He will do nothing for your offense, but he is a good defensive player, he can kill penalties, he plays hard, he can help you form a good fourth line. There is nothing wrong with him as a player. But as I argued on Sunday following the Phil Kessel trade, the key for the Penguins was always going to be what they did with their newly acquired salary cap space and how efficiently they could use it.

They failed.

There is no reason to give a fourth-liner a six-year contract, just as there is no reason to give a third-pairing defender a five-year contract, just as there is no reason to acquire another third-pairing defender that makes $4 million per season.

On their own, each of them is a little mistake and a small mis-use of limited salary cap space.

On their own, none of them alters the franchise in a positive or negative direction.

But when you add all of them together all of those little mistakes turn into one big mistake and suddenly a team that is constantly talking about how tight the salary cap is and how little wiggle room they have under has more than $10 million committed to bottom-line, replacement level players.

Despite the general managers insistence they still have holes on defense, especially when it comes to moving the puck, and they are still going too far in their quest to be “tough to play against” and finding “pushback.”

Tom Wilson broke them three years ago and he is still in their heads today.

5. The Canucks are still a rudderless ship

The Canucks have an emerging superstar in Elias Pettersson and another top-line player in Brock Boeser.

That is great.

But then what?

General manager Jim Benning seems to be stuck between trying to orchestrate a rebuild while also still trying to put a winning team on the ice, but hasn’t picked a direction or done a good enough job with either approach to send them toward a set path.

They paid a steep price to get J.T. Miller in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the draft, and while he’s a fine player he doesn’t do anything to move the needle in a meaningful direction.

On Monday, he gave Tyler Myers a huge contract that you might want to say is a buyout waiting to happen, except it is a contract that is loaded with signing bonuses which pretty much makes it buyout proof.

In the end, the Canucks seem destined toward another season where they finish 24th or 25th in the league standings and miss the playoffs by a mile, but are not quite bad enough to get the best lottery odds.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

6. Florida had money to spend and got one of its targets

The Panarin-Sergei Bobrovsky package deal didn’t work out, but the Panthers at least got one of them.

But did they get the right one?

Bobrovsky definitely fills a much bigger need in the short-term as the team’s new No. 1 goalie, but he carries significantly more risk given his age and the position he plays.

He is definitely the more boom-or-bust signing.

As long as Bobrovsky is at his peak and playing at the level he has shown over the past seven years he could be the missing piece to get the Panthers back in the playoffs as soon as this season.

But how long do you trust a soon-to-be 31-year-old goalie to play at such a level?

If he doesn’t, they are on the hook for a massive salary cap hit at one of the most impactful and important positions on the ice.

The other intriguing layer to this is the Panthers just used their first-round pick on … a goalie.

Obviously you are not going to draft for need in the NHL draft because most players are so far away from making an impact and you just want the best player that you think has the best chance to become a star. But goalie is a little different because you only get one of them on the ice at a time, and the Panthers just their first-round pick on a player that, in an ideal world, they will not need to count on and rely on for another five or six years.

Not saying it is wrong. Not saying it is bad. It is just … interesting.

7. Jim Nill makes his yearly big splash

Another year, another offseason championship for Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars.

Every year he finds a way to bring in big-name players, and he pulled it off again with Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry.

Perry is a total wild card but there is almost no commitment to him or risk with that signing. If he turns out to be done, the Stars don’t really lose anything. Maybe they catch lightning in a bottle and can squeeze some value out of him.

Pavelski seems destined to follow the path Patrick Marleau took when he left San Jose by being really good for one more year, just okay for the second year, and then be a potential buyout before year three.

He could still make a major impact this season.

8. Minnesota is still a total mystery

The Wild have made some strange moves over the past year, gutting their roster of veterans in an effort to get younger and cheaper, and then turning around this offseason and trying to acquire more veteran, big-money players.

They tried and failed to get Phil Kessel.

They succeeded in getting Mats Zuccarello on a five-year, $30 million contract, resulting in one of the weirdest comments you will ever read from an NHL general manager.

That is your general manager, Minnesota.

You are in … some kind of hands?

9. The Islanders are stuck in neutral

By re-signing captain Anders Lee they managed to bring back three of their top unrestricted free agent forwards (Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson being the other two), and that is obviously a big deal even if Lee’s contract looks like a potential long-term trap given his age.

Other than that, there isn’t much happening here for this team.

They missed out on Panarin, the circumstances around the departure of Robin Lehner creates more questions than answers, while they replaced him with an older, more injury-prone, and probably lesser goalie in Semyon Varlamov and then committed four years and $20 million to him.

As it stands right now, they are bringing back mostly the same team — one that struggled to score goals — with a different goalie.

This will be a big test on whether the Islanders success in 2018-19 was goalie driven, or if it really was the work of Barry Trotz and his defensive system behind the bench.

10. The Blackhawks are not comfortable with Corey Crawford‘s health

What other conclusion can you jump to after the signing of Robin Lehner?

When healthy Crawford is a top goalie in the league and one of the most impactful players on the Blackhawks roster. He has been the difference between the team winning and losing for the better part of the past two years … when he plays.

The problem is he has not always been available due to injury and they have not had anyone capable of even coming close to replacing him.

Given their other offseason additions (Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, re-acquiring Andrew Shaw) it is pretty clear the Blackhawks are trying to win now and re-open their window for contention with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith. Given that, you don’t sign a potential starting goalie if you are completely comfortable with the status of your current goalie.

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.

New Jersey Devils take Jack Hughes with No. 1 overall pick

VANCOUVER — The New Jersey Devils used the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft to select Jack Hughes from the United States National Team Development Program Friday night at Rogers Arena.

Atop the draft projections and scouting rankings all season long, Hughes is the second No. 1 overall pick by the Devils in the last three seasons following Nico Hischier’s selection in 2017. He’s now the eighth American to be taken first overall and only the second player chosen in that spot since Patrick Kane in 2007.

The 18-year-old Hughes was a prolific scorer during his time with the USNTDP. He broke Clayton Keller’s points record with 228 in 110 career games.  Internationally, he represented the U.S. at two U18 World Championships, winning silver and bronze, and led the tournament in scoring both times while earning MVP honors in 2018. He also helped the Americans to silver at 2019 World Junior Championship and played seven games at the World Championship this spring.

During that experience at the World Championship, Hughes was able to play with Kane, the player who he’s compared to a lot. The Chicago Blackhawks star had nothing but high praise for the young forward.

“I feel like when smaller players come into the League and they have that offensive- type game, it seems to be easy to compare them to a guy like me,” Kane said. “But I think he does a lot of things better than me, to be honest with you. He’s always moving, always skating, and even if he’s not near the puck or the action, he’s still got his speed and he’s coming into the zone or coming into the action with a lot of movement and speed.”

Hughes’ older brother Quinn was chosen seventh overall last year by the Vancouver Canucks. Younger brother Luke will play for the USNTDP next season and is draft eligible in 2021.

MORE: Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

2019 NHL Draft tracker — Round 1

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The 2019 NHL draft kicks off with the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers at the top of the board.

The Devils began the night by selecting Jack Hughes, making him the eighth American-born player to be selected No. 1 overall.

The New York Rangers followed that up by taking Kaapo Kakko with the No. 2 overall pick.

It was a huge night for USA hockey with nine American-born players going in the first round. It was a disappointing night for hockey fans that like trades because there was only one — the Philadelphia Flyers moving from the No. 11 pick to the No. 14 pick in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes.

1. New Jersey Devils — Jack Hughes, forward, U.S. National team

“Elite skating, hockey sense and skill. Hughes has most attributes you look for in a star player. A very agile player with incredible speed. He is also equipped with fast hands and his puck handling along with his skating allows him to regularly beat player one-on-one.” — Elite prospects

For the second time in three years the Devils were the owners of the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and added another potential franchise player to an organization that already has Nico Hischier (the 2017 No. 1 overall pick) and a former NHL MVP in Taylor Hall.

2. NY Rangers — Kaapo Kakko, forward, TPS Turko (Finland)

“A quick-thinking winger, Kakko never seems to be in a rush. He reads the game exceptionally well and finds himself a step ahead while the play is still developing. He is confident with the puck and capable of handling it in small spaces. With his size, Kakko protects the puck well and uses his high hockey IQ to make smart offensive plays. Kakko excels offensively and beats opponents with smarts and skill both on and off the puck.” — Elite prospects

The Rangers were huge winners in the draft lottery in moving up to the No. 2 overall pick, and getting a potential impact player like Kakko could really accelerate their rebuild.

3. Chicago Blackhawks  — Kirby Dach, forward, Saskatoon Blades

“A Ryan Getzlaf-type pivot.” — TSN

It was pretty much a given that Hughes and Kaako were going to be the top-two picks in this year’s class, meaning the real intrigue began here with the Blackhawks, another team that was a big mover in the draft lottery. The Blackhawks still have a strong core of veterans with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith at the top of their lineup and need some cheap, young impact talent to complement them. Perhaps Dach can make that impact as soon as this season. Stan Bowman said on NBCSN immediately after the pick that Dach will have every chance to make the team.

4. Colorado Avalanche (from Ottawa Senators) — Bowen Byram, defender, Vancouver Giants

“An exceptionally gifted defenceman who knows his strengths and plays by them. He possesses elite skating ability and is at his best when playing high energy, up-tempo hockey. He handles the puck well and is able to keep control of it under pressure. He makes calculated decisions that consistently shift momentum in his team’s favor. His creativity in the offensive zone speaks to his confidence in his ability to be a game-changer.” — Elite prospects

The Avalanche received this pick as a result of the 2018 Matt Duchene trade and used it to take the first defender off the board, adding Byram to an already talented young blue line that already features Samuel Girard and Cale Makar. Those two, plus Byram, should be the foundation of the Avalanche’s blue line for the next decade.

5. Los Angeles Kings — Alex Turcotte, forward, USHL

“Exceptional hockey sense, impressive skating and compete-level. There is a lot to like about Turcotte. He is a very gifted playmaker, but also has fine release and goal scoring ability. Can be used in most situations and plays a very complete game.” — Elite prospects

The second American-born player taken in the top-five. The Kings need an organizational overhaul and an infusion of young talent. They hopefully get that with Turcotte to start that rebuild.

6. Detroit Red Wings — Moritz Seider, defender, DEL

“Seider is a mobile and very smart two-way defenseman with few weaknesses. Plays a mature game with strong and consistent defensive decisions. Offensively, his vision allows him to be a very good passer and he is also good at getting his shot through.” — Elite prospects

Steve Yzerman begins his rebuild of the Detroit Red Wings with what can probably be described as an “off the board pick.” Seider has great size and can move the puck and will now be one of the faces of the Red Wings’ rebuild.

7. Buffalo Sabres — Dylan Cozens, forward, Lethbridge Hurricanes

Dubbed “The Whitehorse Workhorse” and a “can’t miss” player by TSN’s Craig Button — TSN

The first of the Buffalo Sabres’ two first-round picks, the Sabres pick a two-way forward that they badly needed after giving away Ryan O'Reilly before the season. Cozens is the first player from the Yukon to ever be selected in the first round.

8. Edmonton Oilers — Philip Broberg, defense, Sweden

“Philip Broberg is a gifted two-way defenseman. His fluid skating ability allows him to punish over-extension immediately with how quickly he can start plays from his own end. On the fly, he pays close attention to where the puck’s going and where it’s been. This allows him to read the play early and make the most of any time and space found. On the downside, his defensive play could be more consistent as well as his decision making. Additional improvement when it comes to his release as well as puck distribution could make him a high-scoring defenseman.” — Elite Prospects

Ken Holland knows his team needs help on the blue line and players that can skate and move the puck. Broberg is a good place for him to start when it comes to reshaping an Oilers team that has holes all over its lineup after Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

9. Anaheim Ducks — Trevor Zegras, forward, USHL

“Zegras is an elite two-way forward that can play both wing and center. His pro-level mobility is the foundation of his game, supplementing an in-transition speed that shifts the pace of play. He knows how to get under the skin of opponents and will actively seek out opportunities to lay the body and create separation, all the while staying attentive to the unfolding play. This unique aspect of his game makes him difficult and frustrating to play against.” — Elite Prospects

The third player from the U.S. National development program in the first round and all went in the top-10. The Ducks lineup needs some creativity and skill and Zegras brings the potential for plenty of both.

10. Vancouver Canucks — Vasili Podkolzin, forward, Russia

“A skilled winger who plays with an edge. Podkolzin combines his fine hockey sense, puck handling and shooting with an aggressive, in-your-face, type of game. He competes hard, is very difficult to play against and has the tools to be a high scoring player.” — Elite Prospects

The first Russian-born player take in 2019 and a potential impact player, but Canucks fans will have to wait for two years for him to play in the NHL. So be patient, Canucks fans.

11. Arizona Coyotes (from Philadelphia Flyers) — Victor Soderstrom, defender, Sweden

“An uber competitive two-way defenceman who thinks the game at the highest level, A gifted skater, his ability to traverse all three zones is best described as smooth and effortless. He never looks disinterested and it’s always apparent just how badly he wants to win. His vision and awareness is great, allowing him to play a responsible yet dynamic brand of hockey. He’s a dangerous puck-carrier with a great shot. Defensively, he makes good decisions quickly and consistently, never looking out of place when pitted up against the other team’s top players. He pressures the opposition and limits options, never getting in the way of his goalie.” — Elite Prospects

Our first trade of the draft saw the Coyotes move up from No. 14 to No. 11 in a deal with the Flyers. The Coyotes moved up to continue the first-round run on defenders.

12. Minnesota Wild — Matthew Boldy, forward, USHL

“Boldy is a highly skilled winger. A finesse player with impressive creativity, a quick release and fine playmaking ability. Not the fastest of skaters, Boldy’s hockey sense and overall skill level still allows him to be reliable offensive threat.” — Elite Prospects

Another big win for the US National Development program as Boldy goes to the Wild at No. 12 to add some skill to the Wild’s farm system. He is ready to play at Boston College next season.

13. Florida Panthers — Spencer Knight, goalie, USHL

Yet another player from the US Development team and the first goalie off the board. The Panthers have some long-term goaltending questions with Roberto Luongo being near the end of his career and James Reimer potentially out the door. It remains to be seen when Knight will make an impact in the NHL, but he is an incredible athlete in net. He is just the third goalie drafted in the first round since 2012, so it is a bit of a gamble pick.

14. Philadelphia Flyers (from Arizona Coyotes) — Cam York, defender, USHL

“A highly skilled defenseman. York has impressive hockey sense and his overall skill level is high. Furthermore, he is very mobile, has a good passing game and a quick release. Defensively he is solid with an active stick and strong positioning.” — Elite Prospects

The SIXTH player from the US National Development team. The Flyers get York, as well as an additional pick in the 2019 draft, by moving down three spots in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes.

15. Montreal Canadiens — Cole Caufield, forward, USHL

“A game-breaking goal scorer that, despite his diminutive frame, thrives under pressure and is difficult to contain. Defensively, he’s uncomfortable having the puck in his own end for long and he’ll make the extra effort to pressure around the blue line and take away cross-ice options. Upon procuring puck possession, he’ll be the first to explode up ice in-transition. The hallmark of his game is his exceptional goal-scoring ability. He has a shot that absolutely leaps off his stick with pinpoint accuracy when he lets loose and a low centre of gravity that facilitates fast and flashy puckhandling at pace.” — Elite Prospects

This could be an absolute steal. The best goal-scorer in the draft and an electrifying talent that probably would have been a top-10, or even top-5 pick if he were just a few inches taller.

16. Colorado Avalanche — Alex Newhook, forward, Victoria Grizzlies 

“Offensively driven player, he handles the puck with finesse and excels when leading a rush.” — Elite Prospects

The second of Colorado’s two first-round picks, Newhook becomes the newest member of the Avalanche organization. After bolstering their defense depth at No. 4, the Avalanche add another skilled center with Newhook with their own pick at No. 16 overall.

17. Vegas Golden Knights — Peyton Krebs, forward, Kootenay Ice 

“Krebs is a potent point-producer and offensive catalyst that rises to the occasion whenever he’s on the ice. He is a smooth, shifty skater that traverses all three zones with ease and closes the gap on the backcheck quickly. Defensively, his understanding of the game communicates itself through his proactive positioning and an active, lane-disrupting stick. Willing to go to the dirty areas and fight for the puck, but isn’t at his best there.” — Elite Prospects

The Golden Knights have traded a lot of prospects and draft picks in recent years, but they now have Krebs and Cody Glass to still drive their prospect pool down the middle at center.

18. Dallas Stars — Thomas Harley, defender, Mississauga Steelheads

“Harley skates well and stands out with his hockey sense, especially when handling the puck. He sees openings many players don’t and is a very good passer. On the downside, there is room for improvement when it comes to his decision making and compete level.” — Elite Prospects

An organization that is already blessed with John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen at the top of its blue line for the next decade gets another gifted playmaker.

19. Ottawa Senators (from Columbus Blue Jackets) — Lassi Thomson, defender, Kelowna Rockets

“Skilled two-way defenseman with above average offensive tools. Thomson is a fluid skater and moves the puck well up the ice. Not a bad passer, but stands out more with his slapper from the blue line.” — Elite Prospects

The Senators had to make a deal at the deadline to get back into the first-round of the 2019 draft, and while it may not have been the top pick they would have wanted for such a down year, they still add another solid defense prospect to the system to go with Thomas Chabot and Erik Brannstrom.

20. Winnipeg Jets (from New York Rangers) — Ville Heinola, defender, Finland

After trading Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers the Jets need to start rebuilding their defense and Heinola is a good place to start. Craig Button said on Friday night he is probably two or three years away and projects as a second-pair defender.

21. Pittsburgh Pittsburgh — Samuel Poulin, forward, Sherbrooke Phoenix 

“Poulin is a very all-round player. He plays a good two-way game and has very few weaknesses to his game. Furthermore, he competes hard, has leadership qualities and is a decent point producer.” — Elite Prospects

This is the Penguins’ first selection in Round 1 since 2014, while their most recent first-round pick on the roster is Sidney Crosby, taken during the 2005 draft. Poulin is still couple of years away from the NHL so do not expect him to be scoring goals in Pittsburgh anytime soon.

22. Los Angeles Kings (from Toronto Maple Leafs) — Tobias Bjornfot, defender, Sweden

“Björnfot is a very capable two-way defenseman with few weaknesses in his game. A strong skater who reads the game well and contributes both offensively and defensively. Also a good leader and he competes hard on every shift. Can be used on the powerplay, but stands out more in his own end with this solid play.” — Elite Prospects

The second Kings pick of the first-round and the result of the trade that sent Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Kings use it to add another defender to the organization.

23. New York Islanders — Simon Holmstrom, forward, Sweden

“An offensively skilled player who competes hard. Holmström is a good skater and stands out with really good hands and impressive puckhandling skills. Quite shifty and a player that can do the unexpected offensively. Has a good wrister and his two-way game is underrated. Great character and team player.” — Elite Prospects

The Islanders were the big surprise team during the 2018-19 season but really lacked impact goal-scorers. Holmstrom could one day help solve the latter part as he has the potential to be a finisher in the NHL.

24. Nashville Predators — Philip Tomasino, forward, Niagara IceDogs

He nearly tripled his offensive production this past season and as a result rapidly climbed draft boards. Speedy forward that can make an impact all over the ice.

25. Washington Capitals — Connor McMichael, forward, London Knights

“A smart center with impressive hockey sense. Reads the game very well and plays well in his own end too. Puckhandling is good and he has a decent nose for the net. Some consistency issues.” — Elite Prospects

Versatile player that can play a number of different roles. Had 72 points in 67 games for the London Knights during the season.

26. Calgary Flames — Jakob Pelletier, forward, Moncton Wildcats

Undersized, but very talented. Just the type of player you want to take a chance on late in the first round. The Flames have had success with a player like that in Johnny Gaudreau. He recorded 89 points in 65 games in the QMJHL this season. Played center and wing in juniors but Craig Button sees him as a winger at the NHL level.

27. Tampa Bay Lightning — Nolan Foote, forward, Kelowna Rockets

Two years after the Lightning selected Cal Foote in the first round, they selected his brother, Nolan. This is Julian Brisebois’ first pick as general manager of the Lightning. He scored 36 goals and finished with 63 total points in 66 games for Kelowna this season.

28. Carolina Hurricanes — Ryan Suzuki, forward, Barrie Colts

“Suzuki is a good skater, excellent passer and is very good at putting himself in scoring positions, where he rarely fails to capitalize. He does not play overly physical, but is very good at avoiding contact while doing so. He has excellent hands and all around vision. On the downside, his effort-level has been questioned.” — Elite prospects

The younger brother of Montreal Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki. The Hurricanes add another playmaker to promising young roster. He started the season as a potential top-10 pick but slid down a little throughout the year.

29. Anaheim Ducks (from San Jose Sharks- from Buffalo Sabres) — Brayden Tracey, forward, Moose Jaw Warriors

Excellent production for Tracey this past season to go with a lot of talent. The Ducks use their second pick of the first round to add some much-needed skill and offense to an organization that just lost Corey Perry (buyout) and Ryan Kesler (injury).

30. Boston Bruins — John Beecher, forward, USHL

The eighth player taken in the first round from the US National Development team. The Bruins have a bunch of excellent centers at the NHL level but they are not going to play forever. Have to restock the cupboards at some point, and Beecher helps do that.

31. Buffalo Sabres (from St. Louis Blues) — Ryan Johnson, defender, USHL

The Sabres need Ryan Johnson to pan out, not only because they need as much help as they can get on the NHL roster, but because this pick, along with the development of Tage Thompson, is the only hope the Sabres have to salvage the Ryan O’Reilly trade.

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.