2019 NHL Draft

Kuznetsov ban could open door for Caps’ top pick McMichael

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) — Connor McMichael in his NHL exhibition debut made a no-look pass to set up a goal that junior coach Dale Hunter knows was no accident.

”He knew that guy had an empty net backdoor,” Hunter said. ”You can’t teach that. That’s a feeling of the game.”

McMichael’s feel for the game made him the Washington Capitals’ first-round draft pick in June. Combine that with Evgeny Kunzetsov’s suspension and the door could be wide open for the youngest player in training camp to earn a spot on the opening night roster.

Kuznetsov will miss the first three games of the regular season and the Capitals will need to fill a void in the middle of the ice behind Nicklas Backstrom and Lars Eller. McMichael, just 18, is in the running.

”There’s nothing out of the question,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”He made some really good plays in the scrimmage the other day, and he’s got the ability and our scouts speak very highly of him. We just want to put the best players on the ice we can that give us a chance to win.”

McMichael was the 25th overall pick in the draft. Aside from the top picks, very few players go right from the draft to the NHL.

Getting sent back to Hunter’s London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League was always the most likely outcome for McMichael, who is from suburban Toronto. But Capitals brass told him and other centers in camp that a potential suspension of Kuznetsov could change the outlook, and McMichael wants to seize his opportunity.

”You come into camp competing for a spot all the time,” McMichael said. ”When another thing opens up, obviously you want to be better, and I’m excited for that opportunity.”

McMichael is competing with established NHL players Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd for the cameo appearance as a top-nine forward. Boyd or Dowd sliding up the lineup in Kuznetsov’s absence would be the safest play for the Capitals, though McMichael has already made his presence known in the competition.

”I liked him a lot (in Sunday’s) inter-squad game, made a couple really good plays,” Reirden said. ”For him, it’s about the maturity and whether the right decision is for him to continue to stay here or (keep) going with his junior career and continue to build on what he did last year. All those type of things go into the equation of when to let those guys go back and play or continue to keep them here and an opportunity to stay here.”

McMichael was a point-a-game player last season in juniors and should be a big piece of the Capitals’ future, especially after Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are gone. With that in mind, this preseason is a mix of long-range planning and a short-term reward.

Hunter, who led the Capitals to the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as their captain and coached them for much of the 2011-12 season, told McMichael to give it his all at camp because no one knows what will happen.

”He’s got to get his body a little stronger, but you can see his potential,” Hunter said Tuesday. ”The top end is untapped yet. He’ll get better and better.”

Hunter thinks McMichael will shoot the puck harder as he gets stronger, which will make an already unpredictable release even more difficult to stop. McMichael seems to understand what the Capitals want to see out of him and the elements of his game beyond offense that he needs to improve.

”Obviously I’m one of the young guys here, so they want to see me develop more and just get stronger and harder on the puck,” McMichael said. ”They like my game overall, so just keep playing how I’ve been playing and I should be fine.”

McMichael is already impressing older teammates. Forward Chandler Stephenson said McMichael shares some characteristics with Backstrom, who is going into his 12th season.

”He just sees the game and sees plays before they happen,” Stephenson said of McMichael. ”It just seems like he has a really good hockey IQ for an 18-year-old. He sees the ice really well.”

McMichael knows he isn’t there yet. He was nervous about his first scrimmage and first exhibition game, and understands it’s a significant leap to pro hockey.

”Just the strength, the speed,” McMichael said. ”Everyone’s smarter, they’re quicker. You’ve just got to get used to it.”

Lundqvist hoping Rangers can take ‘one big step’ forward

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The second half of the 2018-19 NHL season took a toll on New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. As the losses piled up, which saw the team finish the season with only five wins in their final 20 games, the 37-year-old netminder had a difficult time dealing with the lack of success.

Two seasons without playoff hockey can wear on a player, especially one like Lundqvist, who has two years remaining on his contract and knows the opportunities to win a Stanley Cup are dwindling. So after the season the netminder took a month off to reflect and think about the good and the bad of the previous seven months.

“I remember last year the first two, three months I felt as good as I’ve felt in a few years,” Lundqvist told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last week. “I played at a level where I feel like I was making a difference, but then the second half was a lot tougher and we traded a couple of guys and the last couple of months was a battle, for sure, mentally. It was probably the toughest stretch of my career to try to deal with that. But you learn a lot about yourself. You try to look at the big picture, as well.”

The big picture included the youth in the Rangers’ system, which is highlighted by the likes of Vitali Kravtsov, Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, and was boosted by the offseason additions of Adam Fox and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. That bright future was mixed with the present day and general manager Jeff Gorton’s summer where he reeled in the biggest fish in free agency, Artemi Panarin, and acquired and signed defenseman Jacob Trouba. Suddenly, some sun began to squeak through the clouds.

“It was an important summer also for the organization,” Lundqvist said. “To see the signings, the draft picks, I think we’re all pretty exciting going into this year. I feel like we’re taking a big step in the right direction. I look forward to camp and seeing what we can do.”

[MORE: Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?]

The topic of Lundqvist pulling a Ray Bourque and seeking a trade out of New York to pursue a Stanley Cup has been out there for some time, but his love for the organization and the city, and, of course, his no-move clause makes that a tough avenue to go down unless both the player and team are willing to sit down and discuss that option.

“It’s so hard to picture myself anywhere else,” Lundqvist said. “I know things can change so fast, the way the organization feels and how I feel. But so far it’s been hard for me to picture that. Even now coming back after the summer, coming back to New York and preparing for another season, go to practice rink, go to the Garden again, I don’t know if I would ever give that up. I take a lot of pride in being part of that organization. Again, some things you can’t control, it’s not in my control all the time either.”

Lundqvist will be 39 when his contract ends in 2021 and he said his body still feels good and his excitement level, when you factor in the Rangers’ offseason and the budding young stars on the roster, is higher than it’s been for a few seasons. For now he’s taking things year-by-year and his passion for the game remains strong.

After tasting the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, Lundqvist’s goal and motivation is to get back there and ultimately see another championship banner raised to the Garden rafters. He wants to be a Ranger “forever” and he wants that winning feeling to return as he’s witnessed how great of an atmosphere in New York City can be when its sports teams are doing well.

“But I think now during camp you have to sit down and talk about as a group what are our expectations now, what’s realistic for this team,” Lundqvist said.

And what’s realistic?

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I think that’s something we have to discuss. I hope that we can take at least one big step in the right direction. We should. For the young guys to improve and develop you need to raise the bar. I think with the additions we have with the team we should definitely raise it. The question is, how high.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Subban ready for Devils to ‘take over the town’ after busy summer

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The closest P.K. Subban ever came to being a devil before this past June was during his junior hockey days in Belleville when he wore No. 6, creating the 6-6-6 across the back of his jersey.

The NHL draft weekend deal that sent him from Nashville to the New Jersey Devils was expected by the 30-year-old Subban. He had a feeling that he would move on from the Predators in either of the last two offseason, knowing that his time in Music City would be a short one after the shocking trade three years ago from the Montreal Canadiens.

Subban enters a Devils team that is trending upward. Following a playoff-less 2018-19 season, general manager Ray Shero was ready to be aggressive in the summer after winning the draft lottery and selecting Jack Hughes with the first overall pick. Along with Hughes and Subban, Wayne Simmonds was added up front on a one-year deal with the hope that he can bounce back offensively, and Nikita Gusev, the talented KHL scorer, was acquired and signed from the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Summer of Ray has put the Devils in “sleeper team” status and it’s not just media and fans thinking that. A number of NHLers at the Player Media Tour last week in Chicago pegged New Jersey as a team that can surprise in 2019-20.  

Subban has one question for those players.

“I’d ask those same players why do you pick us as a sleeper?,” he told NBC Sports. “I think that players are just making something aware that they already know what’s coming, you know? That’s not a shocker to me. You can call us a sleeper, you can call us a contender, you can call us whatever you want. But I can tell you one thing, we’re a team that competes, I know that. 

“Playing in the East for a couple of years, watching this team, New Jersey’s always been a team, no matter where they are in the standings, whether top or bottom, you knew that you were going to have a frustrating game against them. You knew that they were going to compete on everything, you knew you were going to have to work to earn those two points and I don’t think that’s changing any time soon.”

After beginning his NHL career in Montreal and playing in heated rivalry games against the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, Subban is eager to enter similar environments when the Devils play their Metropolitan Division enemies.

“Playing in the [Western Conference] was great, playing in Nashville was awesome. What was the most exciting thing about Nashville was when I went there people asked, “How is he going to deal with the fact that he’s not playing in front of the Montreal Canadiens fans?” I’ll tell you, those Nashville fans delivered a lot of support. 

“I would expect the same in New Jersey and I would expect the same now that I’m in these [Eastern Conference] rivalries. That’s energy that I feed off of. I think I’m going to really enjoy it.”

The Devils have missed the playoffs in six out of the last seven seasons. That followed a 14-season run where they missed only once and reached the Stanley Cup Final three times, winning twice. Shero is following his plan to bring those winning days back, and Subban is excited for what success can do for the franchise.

“To think of being in that type of market and being the only sports team [bearing New Jersey’s name], that’s pretty amazing, actually,” Subban said. “That’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for the team to really take over the town and own it.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Kaapo Kakko gives Rangers fans glimpse of future with great OT goal

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New York Rangers fans got their first glimpse of Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NHL draft, wearing the team’s sweater on Monday when he made his debut at the annual NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich.

He did not disappoint.

He had a hand in all four of the Rangers’ goals in the 4-3 win over the Minnesota Wild prospects, assisting on the first three and then scoring a highlight reel goal in overtime to win the game. It was an incredible goal that featured him literally skating circles around the Wild’s defense before effortlessly scoring on a wraparound.

Have a look.

When asked about the play after the game, he responded by saying “I remember my old coach like two years ago told me, ‘In overtime, don’t pass.’ So I didn’t.”

On one hand, you can not make too big of a deal about what you see in prospect tournaments because a lot of the players taking place aren’t going to make it in the NHL or have any sort of a future in the league. The level of competition isn’t the same as what he is going to see starting this week when training camp begins, and especially once the regular season begins.

But it’s also hard to not get excited if you’re the Rangers or a fan because this is the type of player your organization needs to succeed.

The Rangers’ rebuild got a huge boost when they moved up to the No. 2 pick in the draft lottery and won the right to select Kakko. When combined with 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravstov the Rangers now have two elite prospects on the right side ready to arrive on the scene as soon as this season. For as good of a prospect as Kravstov is, Kakko is the real gem and the player that could completely swing the rebuild.

Remember, it’s not just one game in a prospects tournament that is going to feed the hype.

He also excelled at the IIHF World Championship earlier this summer with six goals in 10 games, and was a top-line player in the top Finnish league as a 17-year-old, finishing with 38 points in 45 games (then adding four goals and an assist in five playoff games). For context, there were 19 other players in the Finnish league that were age 17 or younger this past season. As a group, they finished with only 69 points in 245 man-games. None of them had more than 19 points on their own. Kakko was on a level all his own.

Given what the Rangers’ lineup looks like on the right side you have to figure he is going to get an opportunity to make an immediate impact. The Rangers’ right wingers at the moment include Pavel Buchnevich, Kakko, Kratsov, and Jesper Fast. Buchnevich will probably start the season on the top-line which would leave Kakko and Kratsov (assuming both make the roster) on the second-and third-lines. Given how Kappo has consistently excelled at every level no matter the competition across from him, it would not be a shock to see him eventually play his way into that top-line spot this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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 Power Rankings: Biggest stories of the offseason

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With NHL training camps set to begin and the 2019-20 season just around the corner, this week’s NHL Power Rankings will be taking a look back at the biggest storylines of the offseason.

Offer sheets, restricted free agents, a Metropolitan Division arms race, the general manager and coaching carousel in full swing, and even a few oddities.

What were the biggest stories of the summer? To the rankings!

The big stories

1. The rise and fall of Paul Fenton. Simply the most stunning story of the offseason. After one mostly disastrous season in charge of the Minnesota Wild, Fenton was fired this offseason and replaced by Bill Guerin. It’s not just that he was fired after a year, but that the Wild waited until after the draft and free agency to make the move.

2. Sebastian Aho‘s offer sheet. It had been six years since a restricted free agent signed an offer sheet with another team, and it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen again. Then Aho and the Montreal Canadiens actually went through with the process. Only problem was the Canadiens made it a contract that was ridiculously easy for the Carolina Hurricanes to match.

3. Unsigned RFAs. With the start of training camp just days away almost all of the top RFAs remain unsigned. Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Kyle Connor, Charlie McAvoy, Ivan Provorov, Brock Boeser. It is unprecedented to have this many top-tier RFAs still unsigned this late in the summer. Many of these negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the preseason, but how many will spill over to the regular season?

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s IIHF suspension. Three months after a social media video surfaced of Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov in a room with white powder on a table, he was handed a four-year suspension by the IIHF due to a positive cocaine test in May. Kuznetsov voluntarily sought help through the NHL’s education and counseling program and is expected to meet with commissioner Gary Bettman before training camp.

5. Metropolitan Division madness. The Devils and Rangers re-ignited their rivalry with big offseasons that saw them land the top two picks in the draft and acquire some big name veterans, the Flyers overhauled their defense and gave Kevin Hayes a ton of money, the Blue Jackets lost several key players, the Penguins traded Phil Kessel and Olli Maatta, and the Hurricanes added to an already outstanding defense.

6. Florida goes all in Bob. The worst kept secret at the start of the summer was Sergei Bobrovsky going to the Florida Panthers. He fills their biggest need and could be the piece they need to get back in the playoffs, especially after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach in April.

7. The GM and coaching carousel. Decades after he revived the Red Wings as a player, Steve Yzerman returns to Detroit to try and do the same as the general manager. That paved the way for Ken Holland to leave Detroit to try and rebuild the charred remains of the Peter Chiarelli era in Edmonton. Behind the benches, six teams will have new coaches as Quenneville (Florida), Alain Vigneault (Philadelphia), Todd McLellan (Los Angeles), Ralph Krueger (Buffalo), D.J. Smith (Ottawa), Dave Tippett (Edmonton), and Dallas Eakins (Anaheim) get their chances. For many, it is a second (or third) chance behind an NHL bench.

8. Nashville’s big change. The Predators needed another game-breaking forward to help fix a dreadful power play that failed them all year. They hope to have found that in Matt Duchene. To make room for him they had to deal from their depth on defense and dump P.K. Subban‘s salary. Are they a better team with Duchene over Subban? David Poile is taking a big gamble that they are.

9. Ron Francis takes over Seattle. This is going to be a tough job, not only because he is starting an organization from scratch, but because expectations will be almost unreachable given what happened with the Vegas Golden Knights.

10. New rules. Video review is being expanded to cover major and match penalties, as well as goals scored as the result of a hand pass, high stick on the puck, or pucks that should have been whistled for being out of play. There are also some new player safety rules in place. Read all about them here.

The oddities

11. Robin Lehner‘s New York “Rangers” Masterton Trophy. Lehner won the 2018-19 Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player that shows perseverance and dedication to hockey, and gave an inspiring speech at the awards ceremony. When he actually received the physical trophy it had him playing for the New York Rangers. He played the 2018-19 season for the New York Islanders. Fans of those teams do not like being confused for the other.

12. NJ Devil goes through the glass. What was the mascot trying to accomplish? No one knows, but it spoiled a child’s birthday party by running through a giant glass window.

13. Connor McDavid‘s skate lace belt. Not really sure what else to say here, other than when you are the best in the world you can dress however you want.

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14. Phil Kessel’s one-room theatre. After putting his Pittsburgh home on the market, the Internet pounced on a random photo of what looked to be the loneliest movie theatre room in the world … a single desk chair in front of a big screen TV. Kessel said he never actually used the room, it had been empty, and his realtor thought they should put a chair in it to give the feel of a theatre. It was still fun while it lasted.

15. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s reaction to Keenan Thompson’s Lightning joke. He did not find it amusing (Victor Hedman, however, cracked a smile).

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.