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Monday 25th Sep 2017

Each year in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a player comes out of nowhere and elevates his offensive totals, usually a third or fourth line player, much like former New Jersey Devil Jay Pandolfo did for the Devils in their 2003 Stanley Cup victory. That year, Pandolfo potted six goals and added six assists, whereas in his entire career, he never scored more than 14 goals in the complete regular season. New Jersey was a defensive juggernaut in the late 90’s and early years of the century, and a 12-point breakout from a career shut-down forward was awe inspiring for his Devils teammates.

Last year, I wrote about the Pittsburgh Penguins' Nick Bonino and his excellent play in the 2016 playoffs, and how that play made his line mates even harder to handle while taking pressure off superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, who could have easily won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP over net minder Matt Murray, benefited directly from Bonino’s caliber of play.

The Penguins' Jake Guentzel is most definitely in the Pandolfo Zone this postseason, and has fully benefited from skating with either Malkin or Crosby in these playoffs. Pittsburgh Penguins occupy the top four spots in the playoff scoring race, where Guentzel is third with 20 points, trailing Malkin (26) and Crosby (24).  Jake’s 13 goals in 23 playoff games is the most in this year’s playoffs, after scoring 16 in 40 regular season games with 33 points. 

The University of Nebraska-Omaha hockey product is scoring in every aspect of the game. He has more even strength goals with eleven than anyone else has total goals. With just one on the Pens lethal power-play, but one short-handed, and five game-winners, in laymen’s terms, he is everywhere and making a huge impact. His blistering shooting percentage is at 27.7% and leads all active players on just 47 shots, which is currently good for fifth in the NHL Playoffs. Everyone else in the top-30 is no longer in the playoffs, Nashville’s Ryan Johansen is 30th at 20%, but injury has claimed his playoff run, and he is no longer available to help the Predators break through the defending champions.

Along with feeling the Pandolfo Effect, Guentzel is doing exactly what teammate Conor Sheary did last year in his freshman campaign with the Penguins, but with much more success. The rookie upstart earned his keep in the playoffs and never looked back. Last season, Sheary played 44 regular season games with seven goals and ten points, but then thrust into the playoff mix, he scored the same regular season total of ten points in just 23 playoff games skating alongside Sidney Crosby. Who you skate with makes all the difference in the world.

While the cupboards are depleted on the defensive end of the Penguins ice, the forward unit keeps springing to life young offensive-minded players who are making a huge difference in the playoffs. Along with all of his offensive contributions, Jake is laying his body out each night with his physical play with 29 hits and 13 blocked shots, which has become the norm in the NHL playoffs, all this while averaging only 17.35 minutes of ice time.

Guentzel was never really a prolific scorer at any point of his developmental process, yet he is continually showing up in the crunch minutes for Pittsburgh, and I’m sure he has never skated with anyone in that same process that was half as skilled as Evgeni Malkin.

You can always reach me @PolkaPat to talk hockey or anything fantasy.

Last week I covered some of the potential top five picks in the NHL’s upcoming Entry Draft, which takes place in Chicago on June 23. The entire first round will be drafted on the evening of the 23rd, while the second through seventh rounds will all be drafted on June 24. There are plenty of players in this year’s draft that will have the staying power to succeed in the NHL for quite awhile, so let’s cover a few more of the first round gems. 

Gabe Vilardi (C, Windsor Spitfires - Ontario Hockey League): Ranked number three by the International Scouting Service (ISS), Vilardi will be a top five pick come Friday, June 23. If Dallas keeps the third pick or swaps out remains to be seen, but Vilardi will be there for any team wanting to add a skilled center to their roster and organization. Vilardi led the Spitfires in scoring even after missing 19 games at the beginning of the season with a knee injury just before Ivan Hlinka’s U-18 tournament. That along with an emergency appendectomy in November, which cost him more time. Back and healthy, Vilardi is leading the Memorial Cup host Spitfires at the best time of the year, the CHL Memorial Cup. Skating is the area in which he needs the most improvement, but with the coaching these days and training regiments, Vilardi will cure that ill in his immediate game. 

Cody Glass (C, Portland Winterhawks - Western Hockey League): Jumping from 27 points in his first season in Portland to 94 points in his second year brought Glass to the forefront, and getting cut from the Ivan Hlinka U-18 tournament was the fuel that fed Glass and his drive to prove his worth. Ranked #10 by The Hockey News and sixth overall by the ISS, Glass will be taken ahead of some other higher profile names come draft day. Often drawing comparisons to Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, Glass is still not a finished product, which is scary based on how well he reacted to negative press. Cody scored 32 goals and 62 assists this past season and may be back in Portland for a third season, but I think the team that drafts him will either start him up for the eight-game try-out with the big club or move him to the AHL for seasoning with grown men instead of kids. That’s how well of a game IQ presence he has been reported to have from numerous NHL scouts. 

Owen Tippett (RW, Mississauga Steelheads - Ontario Hockey League): Ranked number seven by THN, and fourth in the ISS ranking, Tippett will be a top six pick for sure come draft day. It amazes me how much training goes into these kids' future when at 18 they already are built like men. Tippett is 6’2” and 205 pounds right now and will probably add 10-15 pounds once he joins the NHL. Owen will also need to play better in the middle ice. Many scouts salivate at his play within 15 feet of each net, but the area in between needs improvement. Other scouts question his work ethic and hockey sense, but a good team will place a rookie with a responsible team leader to show him the way. Tippett’s shot is great, he possesses a scorer’s mentality and is drawing Kyle Okposo comparisons. Any team drafting him is praying that projection comes true in their top-ten pick.

Miro Heiskanen (D, HIFK - Finnish Elite League): Much like Cale Makar, Miro jumped up through the projection rankings based on a world stage. Heiskanen did his impressing at the World Juniors over the Christmas break. On a Finnish team that was almost bounced after winning it all the year prior, Heiskanen's performance was better than his Finnish teammate and last year's Canucks first-rounder Olli Juolevi. Drawing early comparisons to Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, Heiskanen impressed this season in the Finnish Elite League against men. With a pre-draft ranking of sixth in The Hockey News and fifth by the International Scouting Service, Miro will need time to season in the AHL or remain in the Finnish Elite League, as most young defensemen are not NHL ready heading into their first season. 

A few more names to keep a close eye on include Russian Klim Kostin. He has dominated at each level he has played and is NHL body ready at 6’3” and 196 pounds. I hope Detroit drafts Kostin at #9. Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren was projected as the overall number two player before the season began. Due to a so-so season, he has dropped out of the top ten, but will be taken in the lottery regardless. One more name is Nick Suzuki, who put together a 94-point season for Owen Sound in the Ontario Hockey League.

You can always reach me @PolkaPat to talk hockey, and read more of my fantasy thoughts at Fighting Chance Sports.

Last week I covered some of the bigger fish in the free agent pond, and the next day Ben Bishop signed a six-year deal with Dallas. If the Stars can play at a 2016 level instead of the 2017 disaster, the Bishop-fueled team may get back into the playoffs.

There are a few more Unrestricted Free-Agents I wanted to mention, and some of the more intriguing Restricted Free-Agents as well. And, I’m not even going to speculate on wheter these players are retained or cut loose in the upcoming Expansion Draft: we can try to make sense of that after the pieces land

Patrick Marleau (Center, Unrestricted Free Agent): "Will this lifelong Shark be back come July 1st?" is the question. With a previous cap hit of $6.6 million per year, the Sharks may be able to keep the band together with close to $15 million in current cap space with Marleau and Joe Thornton UFAs. I don't see the Sharks paying two 37-year old players much more than four or five million tops, unless it’s a one-year deal at maybe $6 million for one more push at the Cup. I'll be keeping all ears to the pavement, waiting to hear what the Sharks are thinking.

Karl Alzner (Defenseman, UFA): Washington has to change something after being bounced in the second round for a third straight year. Do the Caps shoot their load on Kevin Shattenkirk, since this is his best chance at winning a Cup? Alzner’s previous cap hit was only $2.8 million, and he won’t be commanding the Shattenkirk numbers come contract time. As the fifth overall selection in the 2007 draft, Alzner is now just into his defensive prime. As I mentioned last week, the Caps have T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Alzner as UFA’s, and Evgeny Kuznetsov is Restricted and will get a hefty pay raise. I see the Caps offering Karl a decent contract, but nothing more than $4 million a year, but as a lock defenseman many other teams will be looking to add that ability to propel their Cup aspirations.

Thomas Vanek (LW/RW, UFA): Vanek put together a very nice season after being bought out in Minnesota the year prior. And, his stock as a secondary scoring threat has put him on the map of relevance again. Many teams will be vying for Vanek's services come July 1st, though the Left Wing has said he would like to remain in Detroi. As a Detroit fan, I see Vanek drawing plenty of interest, so I hope he returns. If not, Buffalo is a good fit.

Kris Russell (Defenseman, UFA): Russell signed late when Edmonton took a chance and the defenseman played very well in Alberta as a lock-down, second-pair defenseman. I think Russell will take a team friendly contract to remain in Edmonton after the great playoff run the Oilers poured on this year, and wanting to be a part of something special will be the reason he stays on. With only a $3.1 million dollar cap hit on his one year deal, I expect a marginal raise for Russell, but it will be enough to keep him in Alberta. Like I said, there is something special happening in Edmonton with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Who would leave that chance of many playoff runs? The answer is "nobody," and I would expect the Oilers to make a run at Shattenkirk as well.

Don't forget to follow me @polkapat.

Ferris State in the house! Way to go Chris Kunitz! I still want Pittsburgh to lose for my own selfish reasons, being that the 1997-98 Red Wings are the last team to go back-to-back, and I want to keep it that way. So Nashville, think about it.

Now to the NHL Entry Draft, where on June 23rd some of the names the fantasy world will need to know in August and early September fantasy drafts will be announced. While this year’s draft will not have the generational talent of a Connor McDavid or last season’s top pick Austin Matthews, there is a long list of players that will be impactful when they reach the NHL level.

Nolan Patrick (C, Brandon Wheat Kings – WHL): Pretty much the consensus number one choice the entire past two seasons, after he scorched the CHL in the 2015-16 season with 41 goals, 61 assists, and 102 points. Patrick missed a good chunk of this past season due to sports hernia surgery and a completely unrelated abdominal injury. He has nothing left to prove, and New Jersey would be wise to add such a talent to a team that really lacked that scoring punch even after the Devils acquired Taylor Hall from Edmonton. New Jersey needs a guy who can jump right on the ice and contribute and Patrick gives them this option with his body already NHL size at 6’3” and a solid 200 pounds. Nolan will be drafted in all fantasy leagues, but don’t go skipping over quality NHL players that have already contributed in favor of Patrick just yet.

Nico Hischier (C, Halifax Mooseheads – QMJHL): Here is one player whose stock has been on the rise all season after coming to Halifax from Switzerland in the CHL Import Draft. Hischier punched his own ticket in the World Juniors where he almost single handedly dismantled the eventual champion United States squad. In 57 games in the Q for Halifax, Nico potted 38 goals and 48 helpers, and many NHL scouts claim that Hischier has the elite hockey IQ needed to mentally succeed in the big league. At an even six feet tall and only 174 pounds, Hischier will need to gain some muscle if Philadelphia does indeed draft him at the number two spot. I read in The Hockey News Draft Preview that Hischier’s best case scenario is Joe Pavelski. Philadelphia should take that to the bank should Nico not get snagged by the division rival Devils at one.

Casey Mittelstadt (C, Eden Prairie HS/ Green Bay, USHL): Another talented center in this year’s draft comes from the high school ranks up in Minnesota. Casey may be finishing up his senior season in high school, but at 6’1” and 201 pounds, he has a man’s body that should be ready for the rigors of an 82-game NHL schedule. Instead of jumping right into the NCAA at the University of Minnesota, Casey wanted one more crack at the coveted Minnesota State championship, then he jumped to the USHL after his high school lost in the quarterfinals, but ended the season with 64 points in 25 games. Once in Green Bay, he put up 13 goals and 30 points in 24 games and didn’t skip a beat. The third pick belongs to Dallas and the fourth to Colorado, and with Dallas in win now mode, they may trade out of the three hole, while Colorado needs all the help they can get. Mittelstadt may spend a season on the Avalanche AHL affiliate, as Colorado GM Joe Sakic wouldn’t rush him and hurt his development.

Cale Makar (D, Brooks – Junior A): At the beginning of the season, Makar wasn’t the top defenseman on the board. That honor belonged to Swedish Elite League defenseman Timothy Liljegren, who has fallen to 15 in the Hockey News pre-draft rankings. International Scouting Services has Liljegren listed at number eight overall still, but this is about Makar now.  Should Cale get drafted where he is ranked, (#5, The Hockey News, and ISS at #11), Cale would become the highest drafted player out of the American Junior Hockey League since Joe Colborne in 2008. The team drafting this ultra-competitive defenseman will have to wait since he committed to play at UMass this fall. His smallish frame isn’t textbook NHL, but the current playing style in the NHL is speed, and Makar brings that and a dynamic scoring touch from the point. Makar led his Brooks Bandits defense with 24 goals and 75 points in just 54 games this past season, and he reminds me of former Windsor Spitfire defenseman Ryan Ellis, who is now playing in his first Stanley Cup final.

 There are many more players to discuss as we get closer to the draft, and be sure to check in here weekly for more names you will need to know come our fantasy draft days.

 You can reach me @PolkaPat anytime to talk pucks and read more of my work at Fighting Chance Sports.

With the conference finals beginning soon, and the huge elephant in the Capitals dressing room finally leaving, it’s time to start planning for next season. There is a slew of Unrestricted Free Agents and some stud Restricted Free Agents as well, while the restricted free agent list is way more intriguing than the unrestricted. I’ll cover the UFA’s now and mention the rest in later articles, so let’s break down what’s on the shopping list for July 1.

Kevin Shattenkirk (Defenseman, UFA): Shatt was traded at the deadline to Washington to be the player to get them over the hump. It failed. For the third year in a row, the Caps were unable to solve the puzzle of Penguins. Rumors galore have him landing in New York to play for the Rangers or even playing in the KHL. Fact is, nobody knows where he will end up signing, and every team is an option. I honestly think Dallas will be offering big dollars his way along with the Rangers, Capitals and Leafs. Wherever Kevin signs, it will be at a raise over what he has been making, but not as much as it could have been if Stanley Cup Champion was added to his business card.

Ben Bishop (Goalie, UFA): Big Ben was just traded to the Dallas Stars this week, but the million-dollar question is will he sign in Dallas? I mentioned in the fall that Dallas should have made an offer for him, but I was wrong. After a sub-par season by Bishop standards, Dallas only had to forfeit a fourth-round pick in this trade, which was a steal if Ben stays in Dallas. The Stars goaltending tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi were horrid, a gas can and lit matches every night out for a Dallas team who historically underachieved this season. While not on the wrong side of his prime years, Bishop is a huge improvement over those two turds. Dallas, Winnipeg and Calgary could all use a netminder like Big Ben.

T.J. Oshie (Center/Wing, UFA): Before the season, Oshie was in line for a nice contract this summer, but after putting up a career high in goals and points, a heftier pay raise is due. Of course, it would have been much higher had Stanley Cup Champion been added to his business card as well. I read one article that had Oshie signing in New Jersey, and I can see that. They need help everywhere and Oshie playing with Taylor Hall would be fun to watch.

Joe Thornton (Center, UFA): Playing the end of the regular season and the playoffs with a torn ACL and MCL put Jumbo in my bad-ass stratosphere. He is long in the tooth and coming back from those injuries and the successful surgery he has already had is a long road back, but Joe says he’ll be ready. One year removed from an 82-point season, Thornton is a beast who will contribute second or third line minutes as he enters his 20th professional season. With only seven goals and 50 points this past year, Jumbo will get at least five million dollars per year for a two or three year contract this summer.

Alexander Radulov (C/W, UFA): Coming back to the NHL after playing in the KHL-Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, Radulov signed a one-year, $5 million deal, and earned every penny of it. I see him staying in Montreal on whatever contract they offer him. He was well received by his teammates and the city loved his work ethic. Alexander will get more than a one-year tender this time, and he will help Shea Weber and Carey Price in their Stanley Cup quest.

Be sure to tune in next week when I cover more UFA’s and that tempting list of restricted free agents.

You can reach me @PolkaPat and read more of my rantings at Fighting Chance Sports.

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