BUFFALO — Technically, the NHL Draft was held in Buffalo. But with Toronto and Winnipeg picking first and second, and Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary in the top six, and Montreal and Ottawa in the first 11 picks, this was Canada’s weekend.
It was a chance for the Canadian teams, who all missed the playoffs for the first time since 1970, to significantly get better and speed up their rebuilds.
According to scouts, the teams did not disappoint.
From Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine to Jesse Puljujarvi, Olli Juolevi and Matthew Tkachuk, the best prospects ended up in Canada in what could be a watershed moment for hockey in this country.
“If you’re a Canadian team, you’re leaving the draft happy,” said Craig Button, TSN’s director of scouting. “They all put stakes in the ground in terms of getting franchise players.”
Postmedia News spoke with three independent scouts on how the Canadian teams fared:
Calgary Flames | Grade: A
Calgary got a bit lucky when Matthew Tkachuk was still on the board at the No. 6 spot. But for a team that had the league’s worst save percentage, the biggest pickup of the weekend might have been acquiring goaltender Brian Elliott for a second-rounder in a trade with the Blues.
While Elliott should provide stability in net, Tkachuk provides a mix of skill (he scored 107 points with the Memorial Cup-winning London Knights) and what team president Brian Burke likes to define as “truculence.”
“They’re going to cowboy-up in that conference,” said Shane Malloy, co-host of Hockey Prospect Radio.
With nine picks, Calgary was not afraid to swing for the fences. One player who could end up becoming a home run is 5-foot-6 and 140-pound Matthew Phillips (166th overall), who was the WHL’s rookie of the year but dropped to the sixth round.
“They’ve had some success with Johnny Gaudreau, so who knows,” Button said. “He’s elusive and dynamic.”
Edmonton Oilers | Grade: B
Most declared it a huge win when Jesse Puljujarvi fell into the Edmonton’s lap with the fourth-overall pick. But unless the two-way winger changes positions, the Oilers once again failed to address their most pressing need: a No. 1 defenceman.
“Another weekend with a lot of picks,” said Mark Seidel, chief scout with North American Central Scouting. “But still no potential top-pairing defenceman or significant increase in their prospect pool.”
Would the Oilers have been better off choosing a defenceman or outright trading the pick? Maybe. But in past years, the first round has never really been the issue — it’s rest of the draft.
This year might change that. Scrappy forward Tyler Benson (32nd overall) would have been a high first-round pick had he not been injured for most of the season, while 6-foot-5 defenceman Markus Niemelainen (63rd overall) was a late first-rounder on some scouts’ lists.
“There’s nothing that makes you go ‘wow,’” Button said, “but I see real potential of guys who can play on the third or fourth lines.”
Montreal Canadiens | Grade: B+
The Canadiens did not part ways with P.K. Subban — phew! — but they still made a big splash in trading Lars Eller to the Capitals for two second-rounders, and then acquiring uber-pest Andrew Shaw from the Blackhawks for two second-rounders.
Montreal then used its No. 9 pick on Russian-born Mikhail Sergachev, who spent this year in Windsor and who many considered the best defenceman in the draft.
“I think this kid will be part of the Norris Trophy conversation in the future,” Button said. “He has the full arsenal. I really think he can be the top defenceman in this draft.”
With only five more picks, the Canadiens had to be smart with their later selections. And while 5-foot-10 centre third-rounder William Bitten does not address the Canadiens’ need for more size up front, Seidel said he “plays with character, heart, emotion and some skill” — and scored 65 points in 67 games, no small feat considering the daily drama that surrounded Flint and its management problems during the year.
Ottawa Senators | Grade: B+
The Senators were the last Canadian team to pick in the first round, but they helped their cause a little bit by trading up one spot and taking 6-foot-6 Logan Brown (11th overall), a pass-first centre who led Windsor with 53 assists this year.
“I’ve watched him ever since he was a midget in Indiana. I think he’s got a game like Joe Thornton,” Button said. “Is he a player that’s going to thunder over you? No, but when he’s got the puck good luck getting it off of him.”
Ottawa stayed with the bloodlines angle — Logan is the son of former NHL defenceman Jeff Brown — by selecting Ulf Dahlen’s son Jonathan (42nd overall), who might not be as big as his dad but is rated as a better skater and scorer.
“They reached a bit in the middle rounds,” Seidel said, “but got a good pick in the sixth round with (6-foot-4 Finnish winger) Markus Nurmi, who plays hard, competes and has a big frame that will give him a chance.”
Toronto Maple Leafs | Grade: A
The Leafs’ rebuild, which included selecting Mitch Marner and William Nylander in the last two drafts, was sped up considerably with No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews. The 6-foot-2 forward is the centrepiece the team has desperately searching for since Mats Sundin left Toronto eight years ago.
“When you start the draft off with the best player in the draft, it has to be a successful weekend,” Seidel said, “but then (head scout) Mark Hunter and his crew went to work to shore up their size deficiency and organizational needs on the back end.”
Matthews was the easy pick. And in some ways, the Leafs continued that trend throughout the draft by taking four over-aged players with their 11 picks, including the Russian winger Yegor Korshkov (31st overall), who had been passed up in two previous drafts.
“Maybe they could have gotten him later,” Malloy said, “but I’m of the belief if you like a player then you go get him. He’s got some work to do, but he can play.”
Vancouver Canucks | Grade: B
With the fifth-overall pick, the Canucks selected Olli Juolevi over his London teammate Matthew Tkachuk, who actually might have been rated higher. But when you go 11 years without taking a defenceman in the first round, sometimes position trumps potential.
“He was the first defenceman on my board,” Malloy said. “Fans might be concerned about the succession plan of the Sedins moving forward, but at the end of the day, look at how difficult it is to trade for a top D-man or the price you have to pay in free agency.”
The Canucks were without second- and fourth-round picks, but the team found value in American-born William Lockwood (64th overall), who more than one scout described as a “Jannik Hansen-type forward” and Jakob Stukel (154th), whose season coincidentally took off after getting traded from Vancouver to Calgary in the WHL.
“They only had two picks in the first 139,” so it’s not surprising they couldn’t make a big impact,” Seidel said, “but they passed on some guys that represented a higher ceiling in the future.”
Winnipeg Jets | Grade: A+
Winnipeg is considered the gold standard when it comes to the draft, as evidenced by a cupboard that is overflowing with NHL-ready prospects. This year was no different.
Patrik Laine, who was the MVP at the world championship, is considered the best pure goal-scorer since Alex Ovechkin and is expected to jump right into the Jets lineup. But watch out for Logan Stanley (18th overall), a 6-foot-7 defenceman who had scouts imagining what he might look like playing alongside 6-foot-8 Tyler Myers.
“If they held hands (and) put their sticks out, they can touch each board,” Malloy joked. “So how are you going to get around them?”
The Jets, who had one of the biggest rosters in the NHL this season, stayed with the size theme by selecting 6-foot-3 defenceman Jacob Cederholm (97th) and took a flier on Russian goalie Mikhail Berdin (157th) with their final pick.
“I say this year in and year out, the Winnipeg Jets do a fantastic job,” Button said. “They don’t make missteps in the areas where you can’t afford to make missteps.”
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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