Sidney Crosby

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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.

Pressure is on Rutherford, Sullivan after Kessel trade

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The Phil Kessel era in Pittsburgh reached its inevitable conclusion on Saturday evening when the Penguins shipped the star winger to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph. It finally ended months of rumors, speculation, and even some drama that constantly swirled around an inconsistent regular season and disappointing postseason that seemed to give management and the coaching staff an unquenchable thirst for change.

Whenever that change was discussed, everything that was talked about always made Kessel the most likely candidate to be on the move.

General manager Jim Rutherford repeatedly talked about too many players on the team becoming too comfortable and complacent.

There was talk about commitment and “playing the right way.”

There were salary cap concerns as the Penguins were once again pressed firmly against the ceiling and having little flexibility to make the changes they wanted to make.

Then there was the seemingly tumultuous relationship between Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan as the two did not always see eye-to-eye.

After trying to send Kessel to the Minnesota Wild earlier this summer, only to have Kessel utilize his no-trade clause and block the deal, Rutherford finally found a match with the Coyotes, reuniting Kessel and Rick Tocchet, his former assistant coach in Pittsburgh.

Kessel and Rutherford seemed to disagree over the nature of the departure, with Rutherford saying on Saturday that Kessel had requested a trade during the season, and Kessel simply saying that is not how it happened. Who is telling the truth is anyone’s guess, but now that the trade is completed the how and why is mostly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the Penguins’ roster now looks like and what they do in the coming weeks and months (and years) to make it better.

In the short-term it is almost impossible to argue that the roster is better from a talent standpoint.

[Related: Penguins send Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk]

That puts a ton of pressure on Rutherford and Sullivan because they now have some big tests ahead of them, and they are going to need to be right every step of the way.

The popular sentiment coming out of Pittsburgh in the immediate aftermath is the Penguins probably did better than expected given how little leverage they had in trying to make a Kessel trade. It was obvious the Penguins were motivated to move him and he had significant control over where he went, reportedly loading his approved trade list with teams he knew the Penguins would not trade him to. If I were a betting man, I would wager that list included a lot of Metropolitan Division teams, as well as maybe Boston and Toronto, Kessel’s two previous stops in the NHL. That certainly put them in a corner.

Getting a good NHL player and promising prospect in that context probably is a pretty decent haul if you were hellbent on trading him.

But you don’t win championships or give yourself a chance to win championships by simply doing better than everyone expected you to do when trading an elite offensive player.

You win championships by having better players than everybody else. That is now the short-term problem for the Penguins.

At this point there are not any secrets when it comes to Galchenyuk and what he is as a player. He possesses a lot of the same flaws that Kessel does defensively and away from the puck, but does not provide the strength of being a world-class offensive player. You may not like Kessel’s defensive play, but there are only a very short list of players in the world that are better than him when it comes to producing offense. You at least have that going for you when you have him on your roster. If you are going to be a one-trick pony, that is a pretty damn good trick to have at your disposal.

I do not know that Kessel’s style of play, approach, or attitude changed all that much over the past few years. He is what he is as a player and he is who he is as a person. What changed is the Penguins stopped winning Stanley Cups. You tolerate the quirky, all-offense, no-defense winger when he is helping to hang banners and taking part in parades.

When all of that stuff stops, it is no longer something most hockey men want to put up with.

Now the Penguins have one less elite offensive player, and unless Galchenyuk somehow puts it all together and scores 30 goals for the first time in three years — a season that is now looking more and more like the outlier in his career — they downgraded their roster in the short-term.

Arguing against that as we sit today is arguing against facts and logic.

Because of that, the entire trade, as well as the direction of the Penguins after the trade, hinges almost completely on the development of Joseph, what the Penguins do with the new salary cap space they now have, and whether or not they were right about needing to change the culture of the team … and if that even matters.

This is where the challenge for Rutherford and Sullivan comes in.

Joseph is an intriguing add because despite the claims of Rutherford earlier this offseason when he said this is the best defense he has ever had in Pittsburgh, his defense is actually quite a mess once you get beyond Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. They also didn’t have anyone in the prospect pool that looked to be even worthy of a mention as a top prospect.

Joseph, almost by default, immediately becomes the team’s best defense prospect and actually plays a style that would seem to suit the Penguins when they are at their best. That is good. The key is going to be developing him into something useful at the NHL level. The problem is the Penguins really haven’t done a good job of developing young players over the past few years. They have to get it right with Joseph, not only to justify this move, but because they NEED someone like him to be good. But that is probably a year or two away from becoming a factor, not only because of where Joseph in his development (he has never played above the QMJHL) but because of the logjam the Penguins still have on their blue line.

The more immediate issue is the newfound salary cap space.

When it comes to this offseason, the Kessel-for-Galchenyuk swap doesn’t really do anything to remedy the team’s short-term cap issues as it only saves them about $1.9 million. That gives them, via CapFriendly, around $5 million in salary cap space.

Given their own RFA’s they have to re-sign, probably wanting to keep a little wiggle room under the cap at the start of the season, and the cost of any new UFA signing it doesn’t really give the Penguins much added flexibility under the cap without making another move to ship out more salary. Rutherford hinted he may now be able to add someone on Monday at the start of free agency, but unless someone takes a huge discount to go to Pittsburgh, or he makes another trade, he will only be adding a fringe player around the edge.

They do not see any real salary cap savings until next summer (and the summer after that), and that is assuming they do NOT re-sign Galchenyuk. If they do, he probably costs at least $5-6 million and pretty much erases that newfound cap space they got by trading Kessel. At that point they would be betting that Galchenyuk would be a better use of that cap space than Kessel would. Even taking into account a decline from Kessel, that seems like a tough bet to make.

The bigger issue, though, is that if Rutherford is going to make a move in free agency he has to do a better job than he has the past few years where he has not only slowly shifted the Penguins away from what made them a success, but has also made some objectively bad moves.

The Penguins are not in a salary cap crunch because they are paying their stars. It is because they have made some bad investments with their second-and third-tier players. How much better would their salary cap situation look this summer if they did not commit more than $7 million to the duo of Jack Johnson or Erik Gudbranson? Or the more than $5 million per year (for another five years) they have going to an aging and apparently rapidly declining Patric Hornqvist?

Just look at what the Penguins have done in free agency the past two offseasons.

  • In July 2017 they signed Antti Niemi to be their new backup goalie behind Matt Murray. Niemi didn’t last two months with the team before being waived.
  • That same summer they signed Matt Hunwick to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. It was a fit that was so bad from the start the Penguins had to trade Conor Sheary along with Hunwick just to dump salary one year ago to create cap space.
  • They used that new cap space to sign Jack Johnson to a five-year, $17 million contract exactly one year ago, a contract that has already become an albatross on their cap.

That is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the revolving door of other roster moves that have led to a decline in success.

Salary cap space is only as good as what you do with it. The Penguins have not maximized what little space they have had in recent years. That trend can not continue.

Then we get to Sullivan and the pressure that is now on him.

Whether it is the reality of the situation or not, the optics from the outside are that he won out over Kessel in what can probably only be loosely described as a power struggle. The player that didn’t conform to the way he wanted to play is gone. The culture changes and maybe the team begins to play the “right way” (in their view) as a result.

But all of it better work out for his sake because there can be no denying his seat is white hot after the way the team fizzled out in the playoffs. Sullivan is entering a season where he is a lame-duck coach, and the general manager does not seem to have much urgency when it comes to signing him to a contract extension.

Adding to the fire is that the Penguins just hired Mike Vellucci, the reigning Calder Cup winning coach in the American Hockey League, to be the new head coach of their top farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. That came after Vellucci mutually agreed to part ways with the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Why would he resign from an organization he has been a part of for so long, where he has had recent success, to take a lateral job in another organization?

In his words, it was because he was “presented with an exciting opportunity that makes sense for my future.”

Allow me to translate that: He thinks he has a faster path to an NHL head coaching job in Pittsburgh than he did in Carolina, and that would not be an incorrect assumption. He and Rutherford have a connection from their Carolina days, and he would seem to be the obvious in-house replacement if the team with the lame-duck coach stumbles out of the gate.

If you want to argue that the Penguins had to trade Kessel, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they did. Maybe change was necessary. Maybe he was the significant core player on the roster that made sense to move. Maybe he wanted to move.

They still have a lot of work to do to get better as a result of it, no matter the reason, and they are not anywhere near getting there.

Unless something changes drastically in how they evaluate players, what they value in players, and how they utilize their salary cap space none of what took place over the past 24 hours will matter as they run the risk of their remaining championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era closing even sooner than it needs to.

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.

Trade: Penguins deal Kessel to Coyotes for Galchenyuk

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The Phil Kessel drama in Pittsburgh has finally come to an end.

Kessel is moving on to the Arizona Coyotes as part of a deal that was consummated Saturday between the two teams. The 31-year-old forward is reunited with former Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre-Olivier Joseph. The Coyotes also receive a 2021 fourth-round pick and defenseman Dane Birks.

“First of all, I’ll say that he was a terrific player for us and played a huge part in those two Cups. And I can’t say enough good things about him. And I like him personally,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “I just think it was time to make a change with him.”

Kessel has three years remaining on a contract that carried a salary cap hit of $6.8 million. Galchenyuk will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 NHL season. His deal brings a cap hit of $4.9 million.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Rutherford tried to trade Kessel, who had 27 goals and 82 points in 82 games this season, once this off-season, but a deal with the Minnesota Wild fell through after the forward refused to waive his no-move clause. Kessel’s clause allows the Penguins to deal him to eight pre-approved teams. If Kessel was going to be leaving Pittsburgh, he would be controlling the situation, which, according to an article in The Athletic this week, was becoming an issue for some inside the Penguins’ organization.

Despite the rumors that swirled around Kessel, he produced on the ice. He’s one of 18 players to record at least 300 points since the 2015-16 season and over that same period of time he scored 110 goals for the Penguins. He’s also a durable player having not missed a game since the 2009-10 season and owns the third-longest active consecutive games streak (774) and is eighth all-time.

“We felt the ability to add a scorer was the primary need for our group,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said during a Saturday night conference call. “Phil has been one of the best offensive producers in the league for a long time and we think he’s going to come in motivated and ready to go.”

“I’m just coming in to do what I do best and try to help the team win as many games as possible,” Kessel said. “I think they’re an up-and-coming team, they’ve got a lot of pieces in place and I want to help them along.”

The 25-year-old Galchenyuk played one season with the Coyotes following a trade from the Montreal Canadiens last summer. He scored 19 goals and recorded 41 points in 72 games. Those numbers could be in for a bit of a boost if head coach Mike Sullivan puts him on the wing next to either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Rutherford said there was going to be change to the roster following their first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders. He now has a little over $5 million in cap space, per Cap Friendly, to continue tweaking the roster. There are no real major re-signings to be done other than decisions on UFAs Matt Cullen and Garrett Wilson, as well as restricted free agents Zach-Aston Reese, Marcus Pettersson and Teddy Blueger. It’s not the greatest of free agent classes to go shopping on the cheap, so more trades could be on the way for the Penguins.

Kessel and the Coyotes make their visit to Pittsburgh on Friday, Dec. 6.

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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.

 

2019 NHL Draft primer: Hughes vs. Kakko; draft bloodlines

VANCOUVER — The Stanley Cup Final is over, the NHL Awards have been handed out, so it’s now time to look toward the future as the NHL Draft arrives this Friday and Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Here’s the rundown of some of the biggest topics heading into the weekend.

When is the 2019 NHL Draft?

Round 1 is Friday night, June 21 beginning at 8 p.m. ET (livestream). (Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.) Rounds 2-7 will be held Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch full coverage on NBCSN and on the NBC Sports app.

Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will host coverage alongside Pierre McGuire and NHL Insiders Bob McKenzie, Craig Button and Darren Dreger.

The last time Vancouver hosted the draft was 2006 when Erik Johnson went first overall to the St. Louis Blues.

Who’s going No. 1 and No. 2?

It’ll be Jack Hughes to the New Jersey Devils with the first pick, followed by Kaapo Kakko to the New York Rangers at second overall. These two have been the consensus top picks all season long and despite a late push by the Finnish forward with a very strong performance at the World Championship, Ray Shero will be announcing the American forward’s name Friday night, two years after he chose Nico Hischier with the top pick.

If the top two picks are decided, what about No. 3?

This is where the draft really starts and the fun begins. The Chicago Blackhawks hold the third pick. It’s only the second time the franchise has had a top 10 pick since 2007 when they took Patrick Kane No. 1 overall. GM Stan Bowman selected defenseman Adam Boqvist with the eighth pick last year and he could go that route again with Bowen Byram (Vancouver, WHL). But after taking defensemen in the last two drafts and adding Olli Maatta this week via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins, they may leaning toward a forward. Alex Turcotte (U.S. National Team Development Program, USHL) is a local kid; Kirby Dach (Saskatoon, WHL) was nearly a point-per-game player in junior and has size at 6-foot-4, 198 lbs.; Then you have Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge, WHL), and the U.S. National Team Development Program trio of Matthew Boldy, Trevor Zegras, and Cole Caufield to choose from.

[MORE: Rotoworld’s 2019 Mock Draft]

What’s going to happen with Vasili Podkolzin?

The talented forward has two years remaining on his contract with SKA St. Petersburg and he plans on honoring it. The No. 2 ranked international skater on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, Podkolzin is hoping teams will show patience and wait the two years before he’s able to come over. That extra development could bode well for a team if they pick him as many scouts and draft analysts don’t see many players in this class jumping into the NHL next season outside of Hughes and Kakko. 

Will Spencer Knight join an exclusive goalie club?

Among the numerous USNTDP players likely to go in Round 1 Friday night, Knight, the top-ranked North American goaltender by NHL Central Scouting, is likely to hear his name called. If selected, Knight would become only the seventh netminder to be picked in the first round since 2009. Only 19 goalies have been taken in Round 1 since 2003.

It’s going to be a good year for USA Hockey

Nineteen players from the USNTDP Under-18 team were included on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings for North American players (17 skaters, 2 goalies). That includes the No. 1 spot for skaters (Hughes) and goaltenders (Knight), along with half the top 10 for skaters and half the top four for goaltenders.

What kind of family ties and NHL bloodlines are we looking at in 2019?

Among the bloodlines in the 2019 draft… Jack Hughes’ brother, Quinn, plays for the Vancouver Canucks. Nick Robertson’s brother, Jason, was picked by the Dallas Stars in 2017. Ryan Suzuki’s brother, Nick, went 13th overall to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017. Jonathan Williams’ cousin is Ben Bishop. Julius Honka‘s brother, Anttoni, is eligible to be drafted this year. Max Paddock’s uncle John was a longtime NHL coach. John Farinacci’s uncle is Ted Donato, making Ryan Donato his cousin. Nolan Foote is looking to join his dad, Adam, and brother, Callan, as NHL players. Alex Vlasic is cousins with Marc-Edouard. Alexander Lundqvist’s uncle is Nicklas Lidstrom. Mason Primeau’s dad is Wayne and his uncle is Keith. Nathan Staios’ dad, Steve, played 1,001 NHL games.

Who needs to hit a homerun in the draft?

If you’re the Los Angeles Kings and you’re in the middle of trying to get younger, you need to strengthen the prospect cupboard during this transition phase. It might be two years before they’re playoff contenders again, which would align with bringing along a Kirby Dach, Bowen Byram, Dylan Cozens, Cole Caufield, or Trevor Zegras. Ken Holland’s scouting staff in Detroit helped the team build a good prospect collection and help turn them into NHL players. Now in Edmonton, and holding the No. 8 pick, he’ll need that kind of draft success in order to turn the Oilers around.

Is it going to be a quiet or loud weekend on the trade front?

Well, that depends. After news this week that the NHL and NHLPA are still finalizing the salary cap range for the 2019-20 season, and we won’t get an answer until likely Saturday, that could put a pause on any trades this weekend. Teams will want to know what limits they’re working with before they go pursue any big fish in the pond. The cap ceiling may not increase higher than $82M for next season, which would be lower than the $83M projection general managers were given in December.

If there are trades, who’s most likely to be dealt?

Third time might be the charm for Jason Zucker and the Minnesota Wild. After failing to send him to the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline, and then having their hopes of a swap with the Pittsburgh Penguins fall short because Phil Kessel shut that down, GM Paul Fenton will have to look elsewhere to ship the 27-year-old forward. Jesse Puljujarvi‘s time in Edmonton seems up and a “change of scenery” deal is coming for him. With the way Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher has been active of late, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make another move as he reshapes the team. Could Shayne Gostisbehere be the odd-man out on a crowded blue following the additions of Justin Braun and Radko Gudas?

Are the Penguins going to finally draft in Round 1?

The Penguins have made only one pick since 2012 in the first round when they took Kasperi Kapanen 22nd overall in 2014. GM Jim Rutherford, and Ray Shero before him, have used their top pick in trades as they contended and won two Stanley Cups in the last seven years. Following a disappointing playoff exit and the trade rumors that have swirled around the team since, it would be wise yet again to use that first pick as trade bait if they can acquire a player to help them contend again in 2019-20. Sidney Crosby is turning 32 this summer and Evgeni Malkin‘s 33rd birthday is next month. The two superstars are still playing at an elite level, so why wait two-plus years for a late-round prospect to develop when you can potentially add an impact player now?

SLAP SHOTS:
• Jack Hughes will join Brian Lawton (1983: North Stars), Mike Modano (1988: North Stars), Bryan Berard (1995: OTT), Rick DiPietro (2000: NYI), Erik Johnson (2006: STL), Patrick Kane (2007: CHI), and Auston Matthews (2016: TOR) as the only Americans to be selected with the first overall pick.

• The Avalanche, Kings, Sabres, and Ducks are the only teams with multiple picks in Round 1.

• The Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs, Sharks, and Blues are the only teams without a first round pick.

• The Devils, Kings, Red Wings, Canadiens, Hurricanes have the most picks in the draft with 10, while the Blue Jackets (Round 3 and Round 7) have the fewest with two.

The full Round 1 draft order:
1. New Jersey
2. NY Rangers
3. Chicago
4. Colorado (from OTT)
5. Los Angeles
6. Detroit
7. Buffalo
8. Edmonton
9. Anaheim
10. Vancouver
11. Philadelphia
12. Minnesota
13. Florida
14. Arizona
15. Montreal
16. Colorado
17. Vegas
18. Dallas
19. Ottawa (from CBJ)
20. Winnipeg (from NYR)
21. Pittsburgh
22. Los Angeles (from TOR)
23. NY Islanders
24. Nashville
25. Washington
26. Calgary
27. Tampa Bay
28. Carolina
29. Anaheim (from SJS-BUF)
30. Boston
31. Buffalo (from STL)

MORE 2019 NHL DRAFT COVERAGE:
Jack Hughes and the impact of USA Hockey
Dylan Cozens eager to make Yukon hockey history
Kakko ready to make NHL leap next season
NHL draft in 2020 awarded to Montreal

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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.