Predators aren’t really rebuilding or contending

A troubling thought was truly cemented with the Mattias Ekholm contract extension: the Nashville Predators are in rebuild denial.

No, they’re not unique in that regard. There are other teams with older, borderline-lifetime GMs who remain stubborn to accepting short-term pain for long-term gains.

Unfortunately, the Predators join the Sharks as teams uncomfortably likely to experience a lot of pain both now, and later.

To some extent, the damage has already been done. That said, the Predators can get their rebuild back on course. They just have to make some difficult choices — and one of those might involve removing that borderline-lifetime GM.

Troubling lack of vision for Predators in recent months

Break down three phases of recent Predators’ decisions, and you’ll wonder whether the team should give David Poile the old Glen Sather “promotion” out of the GM position.

Balking at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline

Heading into the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, many wondered if the Predators would trade Ekholm.

In retrospect, they at least should have considered trading Ryan Ellis and/or Viktor Arvidsson around that time. After all, they traded both for very meager returns during the offseason. Were there better offers during the trade deadline? Such thoughts should give Predators fans serious pause.

Either way, the Predators didn’t accelerate their rebuild during the trade deadline. This Poile quote sure makes it feel like the Predators’ process would change with moods, a streak, or maybe a gust of wind.

“[My philosophy on the deadline] certainly changed game by game,” Poile said, via the Predators’ website.

What did the Predators leave on the table because Poile went with his heart, not his head, at that trade deadline?

Either way, the dominoes kept falling, making a shaky situation mostly look worse.

Selling low

Early in the offseason, the Predators made gestures toward a rebuild. Unfortunately, they stumbled instead of leaping forward.

A package of Cody Glass, Philippe Myers, a second-rounder, and a third-rounder might be OK for one of Ryan Ellis or Viktor Arvidsson. For both? That’s painful.

In the grand scheme of things, moving on from Ellis, in particular, made sense for a would-be rebuilder. But selling low on both Ellis and Arvidsson after they dealt with injuries that might not repeat in 2021-22? That hurts.

And then a few gusts of wind dampened even those modest returns.

Digging in

If there’s a move that captures the spirit of how lost the Predators feel, it might be re-signing Mikael Granlund.

Don’t get it twisted; Granlund can play. It’s just that the 29-year-old’s not at the point where he’s likely to move the needle. After all, the Predators stalled out with Ellis and Arvidsson; why hand out such term for diminishing returns?

Between Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, and Granlund, the Predators devote $21M in cap space for four seasons (plus one more with Duchene). They’re all 29-or-older, and it’s hard to imagine the ceiling going much higher.

[Preview for 2021-22 Predators season]

Once Ekholm’s extension kicks in, the Predators will invest about $15.3M in Ekholm and Roman Josi. In 2022-23, that could be a steal. Unfortunately, both Josi and Ekholm are 31, and carry serious term (Josi’s $9.059M cap hit runs through 2027-28).

If the Predators’ long-term commitments fall victim to Father Time, a bad situation could get downright dire.

Still some hope for a Predators rebuild

To some extent, the damage has already been done.

It’s hard to imagine the Predators trading away the twin $8M nightmares of Ryan Johansen (2024-25) and Matt Duchene (2025-26). Most likely, they’re stuck with them. Frankly, if there’s a deal out there, it might not be worth bribing a team with precious draft picks.

A stomach for short-term pain, long-term gains

But the Predators could still make waves with a rebuild. Doing so might require a brave soul, though, and waving goodbye to favorites.

  • Filip Forsberg, 27, is in a contract year on a $6M cap hit. Don’t pull an Ekholm and extend Forsberg. Instead, think big picture. He’s a very good player, but the timeline isn’t right for him to be that guy for the Predators.
  • Saros, 26, is a gem. In the grand scheme of things, his greatest potential value might come from a future trade. A Predators team with a clear vision is penciling in Yarsolav Askarov, 19, for the top spot eventually anyway … right? Hopefully?
  • Whenever the Predators get a reality check, few things should be sacred. That means being open-minded about trading almost anyone, including Roman Josi and Mattias Ekholm.

Head over heart

To aim higher than the middle of the road, the Predators might indeed need to move on from Poile as GM.

Simply put, Poile might be too close to what he’s built with the Predators. A more objective set of eyes would see a mess. But, for the person who made those choices, it may simply be too difficult to acknowledge defeat.

It’s crucial to strike while the iron is hot, and that’s where there’s a concern with Poile running a potential (partial?) Predators rebuild. The Predators seemingly missed the ideal window to trade the likes of Arvidsson and Ellis. Will we see the same with Forsberg?

[PHT’s Central Division predictions]

Again, some damage is already done. But there’s a lane to go from middle-of-the-road to having a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.

Elite Prospects ranks the Predators’ prospect pool as 10th-best. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman places them 16th.

From Askarov to Philip Tomasino, the Predators boast some solid pieces. They just need more of them, even if it means suffering more now for better things later.

The Predators might prefer living in the playoff bubble, while hinting at a rebuild. The way things are going, though, they might not have much of a choice. The Predators might as well embrace the rebuild now.

They certainly haven’t been doing so lately.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Top NHL picks stay in school, including No. 1 overall pick

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — Owen Power stood in a sea of maize-clad fans pumping pompoms and cheering on Michigan’s football team in a win over Washington this fall.

Power is 6-foot-5 and has some notoriety as the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, but he blended right in with his fellow students among the 108,345 fans under the lights on an electric night at the Big House.

That’s just the way the 18-year-old Canadian wanted it.

Power passed on a chance to make millions this season with the Buffalo Sabres, who selected the defenseman No. 1 overall in July. He decided to stay in school and return for his sophomore season with the Wolverines, ranked No. 3 in the preseason.

“I just thought there’s no need to rush into it,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native is the first player drafted No. 1 overall not to go straight to the NHL since St. Louis selected Erik Johnson in 2006 and he went to play at Minnesota for a season. He is only the fourth NCAA player to be drafted No. 1 overall, joining Michigan State’s Joe Murphy (1986), Boston University’s Rick DiPietro (2000) and Johnson.

Power spent last year walking around a largely empty and eerie campus in Ann Arbor and played his freshman season without fans in the stands because of COVID-19 restrictions. Without a doubt, the pandemic played a part in Power’s decision to stay.

“He wants a normal year,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “He came to college for a reason, came to the University of Michigan for a reason: To go to class, to be a college student, to hang out with kids, to go to a football game on a Saturday and enjoy that experience.”

A majority of the 2021 NHL draft class elected to spend one more season developing before making the jump to the world’s top hockey league, and many of them are Power’s teammates. Including Tyler Boucher (Ottawa, No. 10 pick), who’s committed to play at Boston University, five of the top 10 draft choices playing college hockey the season after they were chosen matches the total for the previous four drafts combined.

Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, who came up as a scout and director of player development, believes the pandemic-shortened season last year played a role in this anomaly of so many top picks going back to school.]

“I think the disruption of the season last year probably comes into play,” Nill said. “If they played a full season, would’ve got 50 games in and gone to a national championship, played more hockey, developed more, maybe a different story.”

Michigan had to withdraw from the NCAA Tournament because of a virus outbreak, but the Wolverines are loaded this season: Four of the top five NHL draft picks and five of the top 24 are wearing maize and blue this season to take a shot at winning it all.

The expansion Seattle Kraken took Matt Beniers No. 2 overall; New Jersey drafted Luke Hughes two picks later to eventually pair him with his brother, Jack, drafted first overall in 2019; Columbus took Kent Johnson No. 5 overall; and Florida selected Mackie Samoskevich No. 24.

“It’s safe to say that they’ve turned down a considerable amount of money and investment,” said Michigan associate head coach Bill Muckalt, who played in the NHL for five seasons after winning two national titles with the Wolverines. “They still feel that they can get better and improve here, and we feel the same way.”

Michigan has seven first-round picks — the most in NCAA history — and 13 players on the roster have had their names called in the NHL draft.

“Everyone expects Michigan to probably win the national championship,” said Jack Hughes, entering his third season with the Devils. “It’s like almost like a Duke basketball or Kansas basketball-type thing, having four of the top five kids drafted. That’s unheard of, and I don’t know if that will ever happen again.”

During a recent practice, Power was on a power play with Beniers, Hughes, Johnson and 2020 first-round pick Brendan Brisson. They made tape-to-tape passes as if they had played together for years and peppered the goaltender with shots.

“When we were playing a little scrimmage, I was like, ‘Wow, this is really fun hockey to play,’” Johnson said.

The talented Wolverines are not the only ones choosing college over pro hockey this season.

Three other first-round picks this year — Harvard’s Matthew Coronato, Minnesota’s Chaz Lucius and Wisconsin’s Corson Ceulemans — also chose to stay in college for at least another season. Jake Sanderson, drafted No. 5 overall by Ottawa in 2020, is back at North Dakota for his sophomore season.

Sanderson and Power are the latest defensemen taken high in the draft to stay in college.

Colorado took Cale Makar No. 4 in 2017 and he spent two years at UMass. Vancouver selected Quinn Hughes, brother of Jack and Luke, No. 7 overall in 2018 and he returned to Michigan for another season. Columbus took Zach Werenski No. 8 in 2015 and he, too, came back to play another year for the Wolverines.

“In my years of college hockey, I never saw a player regret taking another year,” said Seth Appert, who coaches the Sabres’ AHL team. “I saw a lot of players regret leaving a early because you need to be ready, and it’s not just as a hockey player.

“Once you come to this level, it’s your job, you’re a professional. And if you’re a high pick, there’s going to be cameras in front of you and there’s pressure to perform both from within your circle and within the organization and the fans and the media.”

NHL 2021-22 critical dates: Trade deadline, postseason start

The NHL has finalized its calendar for the 2021-22 season, which will begin with a doubleheader on Tuesday, Oct. 12 featuring the Penguins vs. Lightning and Kraken vs. Golden Knights in the first ever game for Seattle.

It will be a full 82-game schedule as the league goes back to its usual divisional alignment. The only changes in the divisional setup is that the expansion Kraken will play out of the Pacific Division and the Coyotes will move to the Central Division.

Here’s what to know for the upcoming season, including the 2022 trade deadline and the first day of the postseason:

Critical Dates for 2021-22 Season

February 3-22  – Olympic break
Monday, March 21
 – Trade Deadline (3 p.m. ET)
Friday, April 29 – Last Day of Regular Season
Monday, May 2 – Stanley Cup Playoffs Begin
Thursday, June 30 – Last Possible Day of Stanley Cup Final
Thursday, July 7 – Round 1 of 2022 NHL Draft
Friday, July 8 – Rounds 2-7 of 2022 NHL Draft
Wednesday, July 13 – RFA/UFA Signing Period Begins (12 p.m. ET)

Other events for this season include the Winter Classic (Blues vs. Wild – Jan. 1, 2022), Stadium Series (Predators vs. Lightning – Feb. 26, 2022) and Heritage Classic (Maple Leafs vs. Sabres – March 13, 2022), as well as NHL All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas Feb. 4-5.

Transition rules for 2021-22

Along with the calendar, the NHL also announced transition rules for the season.

In normal years, standard player contracts would expire June 30 with free agency beginning July 1. Since Free Agent Frenzy will not take place until July 13, 2022 this season, player contracts will expire on July 12, 2022.

The first buyout period will begin July 1, 2022; qualifying offers will be due July 11, 2022; and salary arbitration hearings will take place between July 27, 2022 and August 11, 2022.

Any restricted free agents — hello, Quinn Hughes, Elias Pettersson, Brady Tkachuk — must sign by Dec. 1 to be eligible to play this season. Remember that a William Nylander and the Maple Leafs took it close to the deadline in 2018 before agreeing to an extension.

Finally, as the COVID-19 global pandemic continues on, the NHL may see a return of taxi squads this season. If conditions arise where they are needed, the rules from 2020-21 would be used. That would see 4-6 extra players per roster, including at least one goaltender. Those players can practice and travel with the team is a recall is needed on short notice.

————

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.

New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Rangers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 27-23-6 (60 points); fifth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Brennan Othmann with the 16th pick.
• Offensive leader: Artemi Panarin (42 games, 17 goals, 41 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Barclay Goodrow (trade from Lightning), Ryan Reaves (trade from Golden Knights), Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais (trade from Blues), Jarred Tinordi.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (trade to Blues), Tony DeAngelo (buyout), Colin Blackwell (Kraken expansion draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (Canucks), Brendan Smith (Hurricanes), Brett Howden (trade to Golden Knights).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Did they lose their wits chasing grit?

Did the Rangers abruptly fire Jeff Gorton and make other key front office changes because of the Tom Wilson – Artemi Panarin incident? Was countering Wilson the guiding light during Chris Drury’s first offseason as Rangers GM?

Ryan Reaves said that he wasn’t acquired because of Tom Wilson — at least not directly. Even Tom Wilson himself insisted it wasn’t all about him.

Sometimes people want to ignore the elephant in the room. Sometimes they’re stubborn, or in denial, about obvious truths. Especially when one person seems to leave you wildly flustered, and possibly overreacting.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Wilson-related or not, the Rangers sacrificed skill for grit before the 2021-22 season. Maybe losing Pavel Buchnevich will make sense in the long run. But next season? It sure feels like a painful subtraction, and maybe even an unforced error.

When the Lightning traded for Barclay Goodrow, it was part of a series of moves to go over the top. That was already a stacked team, one that forged a historic regular season. The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t truly made the playoffs since 2016-17.

(No, you should not count getting squashed like a bug during the 2019-20 Qualifying Round.)

So, was this team already skilled enough to focus so much on sandpaper? It seems dubious. Then again, Gerard Gallant worked wonders in Vegas, and sometimes that team got a bit fixated on ferocity.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Even during a genuine rebuild, the Rangers weren’t shy to spend big money on big names. They’re still the Rangers, after all.

Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba combine for about $19.6M in cap hits through 2025-26. Maybe the Rangers should have traded Chris Kreider. Instead, they kept him on a deal that could get scary ($6.5M AAV through 2026-27). Igor Shesterkin could end up being better than a $5.67M goalie. With just 47 games of NHL experience, Shesterkin still counts as a leap of faith.

That’s already a lot of money for a team that hasn’t delivered yet. And things could get even more expensive for the Rangers after the 2021-22 season. (Or there could be some agonizing losses.)

Ryan Strome ($4.5M) and most importantly, Mika Zibanejad ($5.35M) are both 28-year-old centers entering contract years. Two different players, sure, but both present the Rangers with riddles to solve.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Adam Fox was already surging toward a big payday. He’s 23, a right-handed defenseman, and just won a Norris Trophy. Mix in a sometimes-outrageous offseason of spending on defensemen, and ominous music plays for the Rangers’ salary cap. Fox merely being an RFA gives the Rangers a key advantage, but Cale Makar‘s $9M seems like a reasonable placeholder. If maybe an optimistic one.

Fox isn’t the only young player the Rangers need to leave room for.

Kaapo Kakko enters a contract year, while Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his rookie contract.

Overall, the Rangers need to get the balance right. If they sign both assuming too much growth, they could get burned. If they wait too long, Kakko and Lafreniere could drive up their value. There are worse problems to have, but these are challenges nonetheless.

The Rangers approach the tougher stages of a rebuild. Will they turn young prospects into stars, ideally on team-friendly contracts? Can they support that young talent with savvy additions? Chris Drury has his work cut out for him.

Breakout Candidate

• Kakko/Lafreniere

All but the most patient observers would admit that there have been some disappointments with both prospects so far.

In the cases of both Kakko and Lafreniere, they were hyped as very NHL-ready prospects. Instead, each player has struggled with immediate jumps to the big time.

Those stumbles aren’t the end of the world. Thanks to having two seasons in the NHL, Kakko serves as the best reminder to be patient.

Consider his Evolving Hockey Player Card from 2019-20, which was concerning even with caveats for young players:

Kakko Evo Player Card 2019-20 New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes, right? Then, in 2020-21, Kakko looked like a player who could really gain steam.

Kakko player card Evo New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Frankly, if I were running the Rangers, I’d be tempted to extent Kakko before he surges to another level. (If he’d listen to offers right now, of course.)

With some prospects, people picture too much growth. They assume a 25-year-old player has more runway than maybe they actually do. But Kakko (20) and Lafreniere (19) are both indeed in the age ranges where players can take big leaps.

Don’t be surprised if both do so. Maybe the Rangers are assuming too much, but betting in young players is better than hoping aging veterans can hold on.

Bonus points if other young players come through for the Rangers in 2021-22, too. Ideally, Vitali Kravstov isn’t just learning from Ryan Reaves …

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

Gallant represents a huge coaching upgrade. Panarin – Zibanejad tear it up, and stay healthy. Their defense improves, and Shesterkin cleans up the rest. Kakko, Lafreniere, and others flourish. The Rangers become dangerous, and in a hurry.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

That fixation on feistiness leaves the Rangers with more fights and hits, but the same middling standings results. Kakko and Lafreniere stagnate. Gallant’s system can’t overcome limitations on defense beyond Fox and a few others. Things fall apart, and management takes all the wrong lessons from that collapse.

PointsbetNew York Rangers’ Stanley Cup odds

+2200 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Los Angeles Kings: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Los Angeles Kings.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 21-28-7 (49 points); sixth place in West Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs, drafted Brandt Clarke with eighth pick of 2021 NHL Draft.
• Offensive leader: Anze Kopitar (56 games, 13 goals, 37 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Philip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson (trade from Predators), Alexander Edler.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Kurtis MacDermid (Kraken expansion draft), Matt Luff (Predators).

Kings’ biggest question

• Too much too soon?

No, the Kings didn’t totally mortgage their future this offseason. They didn’t spend a massive amount of money and/or draft capital to add a huge contract, like the Blackhawks did with Seth Jones. Their bolder moves aren’t so big that they’d necessarily sink their rebuild.

Even so, the Kings made the sort of moves that signaled they’re heeding Drew Doughty‘s advice about being more competitive in 2021-22.

The aging curve indicates that both Viktor Arvidsson and Philip Danault are exiting their peak years, both at age 28. No, that doesn’t mean that they’ll turn into pumpkins in a year. A heady player like Danault, in particular, might age gracefully.

The best bet is that they’ll deliver their best results in the next year or two, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the Kings are really in a good position to reap such opportunities in 2021-22 (or even 2022-23?).

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Danault and Arvidsson are worthy upgrades, but if the Kings truly make a leap in 2021-22, it will be thanks to growth from younger players. If the 2021-22 Kings seek more dramatic growth, they’ll need Quinton Byfield, and maybe some others (Gabriel Vilardi? Alex Turcotte? All of them?) to take big steps. Frankly, that might also hinge on someone like Lias Andersson seizing the opportunity.

(Truly, it could be a training camp to watch.)

Would those additions really just translate to a Kings team that’s too good to get one more great pick, but too bad to really make an impact in 2021-22? There are genuine concerns that Los Angeles jumped the gun. Maybe they should’ve just waited for the 2022 offseason’s versions of Arvidsson and Danault, instead?

What’s the salary cap situation?

It’s sobering that the Kings are allotting the same amount of cap space ($21 million, per Cap Friendly) for Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar that the Oilers are paying for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

If you haven’t checked up on Doughty and Kopitar in the last, oh, three years … well, let’s just say there’s a gap. Actually, a gulf might be a more appropriate word for it. Chasm?

At least some of the Kings’ tougher contracts are expiring somewhat soon. It’s a bit surprising that Jonathan Quick‘s $5.8 million remains on the books, but that dissolves after the 2022-23 season. Kopitar’s $10 million ends one year later, after the 2023-24 campaign. Relief is staggered, as this is the final year of Dustin Brown costing $5.875 million per season.

With Doughty, the Kings merely must hope that he’s worth closer to his bloated $11 million cap hit. For two straight seasons, Doughty’s contract ranked as the absolute worst in the NHL, according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s metrics (sub. required).

You can debate if it’s actually the worst, but if you’re in that discussion, you’re a problem for your team either way. The 31-year-old’s $11 million cap hit runs through 2026-27. With a no-movement clause, Doughty’s contract is scary, especially for a team that hopes to move this rebuild along.

(Frankly, there’s an argument the Kings should’ve ignored Doughty’s calls for improvement, and instead tried to nudge him out the door. There were also arguments about whether they should’ve signed him to another contract — even before his decline became so profound.)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Beyond that lingering Doughty headache, the Kings’ slate is fairly clean for a team that gave key Stanley Cup-era players big contracts.

Ultimately, the key will be to time second contracts right. First and foremost, the Kings need to develop prospects like Byfield, Brandt Clarke, and Arthur Kaliyev properly. Saving money even beyond those gimme rookie contracts could really give them a competitive advantage. (When the Kings won their first Stanley Cup, Jonathan Quick carried a $1.8 million cap hit, Kopitar cost $6.8 million per year, and Doughty’s AAV was merely $7 million.)

The slate would’ve been even cleaner without Danault, Arvidsson, Matt Roy, and Sean Walker on the books, but maybe various windows will line up in a way that makes it all worth it for Los Angeles?

Breakout Candidate

• Quinton Byfield

By most accounts, it was a bumpy 2020-21 season for the second overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. Being limited to a single assist in six NHL games tells just part of Byfield’s story.

Really, the Kings should be careful here. The smarter long-term play might not be to rush him.

Even so, there’s that undeniable, siren-like temptation of watching Byfield blossom up close. Few players his size can move so well, and bring such skill to the table. At times, a lack of polish can show. The sky sure seems like the limit for a towering center who barely turned 19. Considering the developmental obstacles of this COVID era, it might also just be wise to keep such an important prospect closer.

If Byfield doesn’t break through, there are plenty of other candidates. For the most part, it seems like Vilardi put injuries behind him. Kaliyev’s mix of scoring and inexperience could be enticing, but it might also make for a short leash. It’s unclear if the Kings will see the benefits as soon as 2021-22, but their much-hyped prospect pool is shimmering with depth and potential.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Kings

During stretches of even these troubled times, the Kings have occasionally been subtly competent. Not always, but often enough to plant a seed of hope. If the Kings see huge growth from younger players, show courage in letting Cal Petersen being their go-to goalie, and Arvidsson returns to a first-line level, they could make some noise in a paltry Pacific Division. As great as it is to pile up prospects, you have to get to winning at some point. The best version of the 2021-22 Kings could make the playoffs, and then possibly pull off an upset or two.

Threading the needle between being competent and also winning the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery would be neat, too.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Kings

That “too much, too soon” question still lingers. The worst-case scenario would involve the Kings having a fairly miserable season, but keeping their heads above water enough not to get that one extra blue-chip draft prospect. If they linger in the playoff bubble, they might flinch at chasing a few extra wins. If there are teams that would cough up something for Brown and Quick at the deadline, the Kings should do it, even if it ruffles a few feathers. Meandering in the middle would translate to missing both birds with that one stone.

PointsbetLos Angeles Kings Stanley Cup odds

+10000 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Montreal to host 2022 NHL Draft in July at Bell Centre

The 2022 NHL Draft will be held at Bell Centre in Montreal with Round 1 taking place Thursday July 7 and Rounds 2-7 held on Friday, July 8.

Montreal was scheduled to host the 2020 NHL Draft but the event was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021 NHL Draft this past July featured a similar format.

The league expects the 2022 edition to return to normal with fans, media, and team personnel in attendance.

“NHL club executives, scouts and coaches will be present on the NHL Draft floor while thousands of fans and hundreds of print, television and radio media are expected to attend,” the league’s release says.

Shane Wright, Matthew Savoie, Brad Lambert, Ivan Miroshnichenko, and Šimon Nemec are among the top prospects who will likely hear their names called early in the first round.

As of now, the only 2022 NHL Draft Round 1 order changes are the Canadiens taking the Hurricanes’ pick as compensation for not matching the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet and the Coyotes getting the Avalanche’s pick as part of the deal that sent Darcy Kuemper to Colorado. More opening round changes could happen depending on the result of conditions placed on a number of trades made this offseason.

————

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.

Chicago Blackhawks: 2021-22 NHL season preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Chicago Blackhawks.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 24-25-7 (55 points); sixth place in Central Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs
• Offensive leader: Patrick Kane (56 games, 15 goals, 51 assists, 66 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Seth Jones (trade from Blue Jackets), Marc-Andre Fleury (trade from Golden Knights), Tyler Johnson (trade from Lightning), Caleb Jones (trade from Oilers), Jake McCabe, Jujhar Khaira.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Adam Boqvist (trade to Blue Jackets), Pius Suter (Red Wings), Duncan Keith (trade to Oilers), Brent Seabrook‘s contract (trade to Lightning), Nikita Zadorov (trade to Flames), John Quenneville (Kraken expansion draft).

Biggest Question Facing the Blackhawks

• What if the Blackhawks are wrong about Seth Jones?

Frankly, it’s reasonable to wonder if Stan Bowman should have even remained as Blackhawks GM this offseason. Considering shaky job performance, and most importantly some profoundly ugly allegations, perhaps someone else should have been making these calls.

But, right or wrong, Bowman kept his job as Blackhawks GM. And he didn’t exactly play it safe.

In what ended up being an offseason where NHL teams kind of lost their minds about the value of defensemen, the Blackhawks set a defiant tone by gambling on Seth Jones.

The quality of picks and prospects was staggering, alone. Then add that eight-year extension (with a $9.5M cap hit), and the Blackhawks are betting the farm on Seth Jones. While the Blackhawks made several other significant/medium-sized moves, they’ll really pay if the chickens come home to roost with this bet on Seth Jones.

What’s the salary cap situation?

There’s some dark irony to the path the Blackhawks could have taken this offseason. While the salary cap has been a huge concern for basically Bowman’s entire run, the team presented a relatively clean slate.

Blame Bowman being desperate to keep his job, or merely deciding to make a radical makeover, but now things are quite a bit messier.

  • Again, they didn’t just add Seth Jones for his contract year. They’re now committed to him for nine seasons. Following the 2021-22 season ($5.4M), Jones will carry that $9.5M cap hit through 2029-30.
  • For better or worse, Bowman made other significant investments in defense. Between signing Jake McCabe and extending Connor Murphy, most of Chicago’s term goes to the blueline.
  • They spent the wiggle room from trading Duncan Keith’s contract — and then some.
  • Apply that to moving Brent Seabrook’s deal off the books. We could look back at the Tyler Johnson trade as the Blackhawks doing the Lightning muliple favors with one swap.

Time will tell if the Blackhawks’ defense got a lot better, or merely took baby steps.

Either way, it’s fascinating how open-ended their roster is, otherwise.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Both Marc-Andre Fleury and Kevin Lankinen enter contract years, so the future is cloudy for goaltending. Tyler Johnson and Brandon Hagel lead the forwards group term-wise, and that’s just with three-year deals apiece.

So big decisions loom. Jonathan Toews‘ and Patrick Kane’s matching $10.5M cap hits expire after the 2022-23 season. Alex DeBrincat also is only on the books for two more seasons, and should expect a big bump from his bargain $6.4M cap hit.

Looking at Cap Friendly, the Blackhawks are squeezing to the salary cap ceiling in 2021-22. They’re projected to have almost $23M in cap space next offseason, and then $57.5M after the 2023-24 campaign.

With that in mind, they could make big changes even if the Seth Jones experiment is a failure. That said, the Blackhawks aren’t exactly a cheap gamble in 2021-22, either.

Breakout Candidate

Kirby Dach

If it weren’t for a wrist injury, maybe last season would’ve served as Kirby Dach’s breakthrough year.

Despite being limited to 18 games played, Dach received a healthy 18:34 TOI per game. On average alone, that’s a healthy bit more than prominent forwards such as Dylan Strome and Pius Suter. Not bad for a big forward who’s just 20 years old.

After the Blackhawks somewhat surprisingly allowed Suter to leave for nothing in free agency, the door’s open that much more for Dach to excel.

By scoring 23 points in 64 games as a rookie in 2019-20, and 10 points in 18 games last season, Dach has already proven he can produce at the NHL level.

Line combinations can change, and often. Still, it’s promising that Dach is penciled in on the top line with DeBrincat and Kane, at least by Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times. Understatement: such assignments tend to boost your numbers.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Blackhawks

Seth Jones makes no mistake about his status as an elite defenseman. Aging or not, Marc-Andre Fleury backs up his first Vezina win with another stellar campaign. Players like Dach erupt, while Jonathan Toews returns without missing a beat. Jeremy Colliton proves he can put together a strong system if you give him the needed personnel. With that, the Blackhawks don’t just make the playoffs; they even flirt with former glories.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Blackhawks

All of those red flags about Seth Jones weren’t just red herrings. Their defense remains a disaster, and a 36-year-old Fleury simply can’t clean up those mistakes. Out in Columbus, Adam Boqvist makes a big leap, and rapidly gains on Jones as the best player in that trade. Then again, maybe the picks the Blackhawks gave up in the Jones trade would end up yielding the best player involved? More ugly information surfaces from the lawsuit, shining an unflattering light on the decision to keep Bowman around as GM. The Blackhawks end up being a disaster both on and off the ice.

PointsbetChicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup odds

+4000 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.