Will Lightning be forced to go from a (Ben) Bishop to a rook(ie)?

Andrei Vasilevskiy (left) and Braydon Coburn  (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

TAMPA – Going into Game 2 of the Stanley Cup, all the chatter about the untested rookies surrounded Teuvo Teravainen and Jonathan Drouin. After a stunning turn of events, that narrative may shift directly to Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The 20-year-old is clearly Tampa’s goaltender of the future. But, depending upon the status of starter Ben Bishop for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final Monday night, that future might come upon us a lot sooner than anyone thought. The cone of silence surrounding injuries in the playoffs was quickly enforced by the Lightning after the game, but it sure looks as though Bishop is dealing with a groin issue.

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NHL draft combine: the question mark kids

Team USA's Jeremy Bracco (Photo courtesy of Tom Sorensen/USHL)

BUFFALO – For Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the draft combine is a mere formality. Sure, they want to make a good impression – McDavid even said his goal was “not to embarrass” himself (spoiler alert: he didn’t) in the physical testing – but at the end of the day they’re going 1-2 in Florida later this month.

But the combine can be very important for some of the other prospects; players who aren’t blessed with franchise-altering skills. The interview process, which most of the combine week is dedicated to, gives kids with question marks in their games a chance to tell their side of the story one more time. And since two of last year’s most controversial players – Anthony DeAngelo and Josh Ho-Sang – ended up going in the first round – setting the record straight can clearly pay off.

“That’s why you have the interviews,” said Arizona Coyotes GM Don Maloney. “If there are rumblings, rumors, teammates, on-ice situations, off-ice, usage, sitting out, coaching – it will all come out in the interviews. Just to get clarity.”

Portland’s Paul Bittner, for example, has been knocked for inconsistency and heard a lot about it during his interviews. Playing on a Winterhawks super-line with Winnipeg prospect Nic Petan and Columbus pick, the affable power forward admitted that some nights he felt like he didn’t need to do much in order for his team to win, but now sees that at the pro level that won’t fly.

Another WHLer, Regina’s Jesse Gabrielle, likes to play the game with an edge. And while that’s all well and good, some scouts believe he’s too focused on the rough stuff. Hence the importance of this week.

“There were concerns about my personality and character,” Gabrielle said. “I wanted to show them that I am a character guy off the ice. The way that I play kinda brings up questions, maybe some discipline problems and a concern that how I play on ice reflects off-ice. But I made sure to re-assure them that’s not the case whatsoever.”

Gabrielle interviewed with six teams in Buffalo, so interest in him at this point is niche. It only takes one team to believe in him, however, and there is definitely the possibility that another franchise that chose not to speak with him at the combine will step up at the actual draft.

“I think there’s more player there, but you don’t know if there’s more player there right now,” said another GM. “We’ve got time for him, it’s just a question of where. He’s a gritty guy and you love those other things, but at the end of the day, you still have to be able to play the game.”

Gifted winger Jeremy Bracco of the U.S. National Team Development Program is another interesting case. A little undersized, his stock dipped this season even after setting an NTDP record for assists. Scouts I talked to didn’t like the way Bracco reacted to being cut from Team USA’s world junior squad and the Boston College commit ended up hearing about it in his combine interviews.

“I obviously thought I should have been on that team,” Bracco said. “I thought I brought intangibles that others on the roster didn’t have. It was definitely disappointing, but I learned a lot. A lot of teams brought it up. For the first four or five games after I didn’t play as well as I should have; I was really focused on it. So I kinda hurt my team that way, but it was a learning experience and I have to deal with adversity better.”

Luckily for Bracco, there’s no question about the offensive arsenal he would bring to a team. And the fact that these kids are just at beginnings of their careers tends to get them some slack for minor missteps.

“You have to remember, these are 17-year-old kids,” said the anonymous GM. “For us, it’s for sure something to pay attention to, but you have to put it in the proper context. As they grow and mature, is that part of their DNA in regards to adversity? Is it ‘I’ll show you,’ or head down, ‘woe is me?’ ”

These are the questions franchises must answer for themselves as the draft nears at the end of the month. Because once those players are picked up or passed on, history has been made for better or worse.


Jack Eichel and Noah Hanifin: friends to foes and back again

Noah Hanifin (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

BUFFALO – Because Jack Eichel went the college route and Connor McDavid played major junior, the rivalry between the top two prospects in the 2015 draft has been a little abstract this season. Sure, the pair met once at the world juniors, but that was it.

Eichel and Noah Hanifin, on the other hand, have a much richer history together – sometimes as teammates and sometimes as arch-rivals.

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Can Ron Wilson lead Team USA to world junior gold in Helsinki?

Coach Ron Wilson (Photo by Robert Beck /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

Judging Team USA on its recent finishes at the world juniors is a tricky thing. Sure, the Americans have landed fifth in the past two outings, but in both cases they fell to the rival Russians in the quarterfinal; they also could have won it all had fate bounced their way.

That is the challenge now accepted by former NHL coach Ron Wilson. Last seen behind the bench with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012, Wilson has been announced as Team USA’s coach for the 2016 world juniors in Finland and despite his professional hiatus, I can see him being very successful in the role.

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Which two players will decide the fate of the 2015 Stanley Cup?

Jonathan Toews (left) and Tyler Johnson (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Full disclosure: your trusty correspondent is in a playoff hockey pool and currently sits in first place. Take that, haters. My remaining players are Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane for the Chicago Blackhawks. I’m nine points ahead of a guy who has Hedman, Stamkos and Ryan Callahan of the Lightning and Sharp, Kane and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks. I’m 10 points ahead of another guy who has Hedman and Stamkos from the Lightning and Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith from the Blackhawks.

So, the way I see it, the only thing standing between me and lining my jean shorts with some bills is Toews having a monster Stanley Cup final and Johnson doing virtually nothing. And let’s face it, if that happens, the chances of the Blackhawks winning their third Stanley Cup in six seasons and becoming a kind of, sort of dynasty will go from very good to a virtual certainty.

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Memorial Cup: Leon Draisaitl finally part of a winner

Leon Draisaitl (Melissa Baecker/Getty Images)

QUEBEC CITY – There has never been a German prospect as highly touted as Leon Draisaitl and it was no surprise that he was snapped up with the third overall pick by Edmonton in the 2014 NHL draft. But throughout all the points and all the minutes he logged since coming over to North America in 2012-13, the big center had never experienced team success – until now.

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OT hero Nikita Kucherov proved himself early in North America

Nikita Kucherov (middle) celebrates his OT winner (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

As part of Tampa Bay’s deadly “Triplets” line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, right winger Nikita Kucherov has enjoyed a breakout season. But some pretty impressive perseverance went into making the young Russian the player he is today, one capable of fooling Henrik Lundqvist on this game-winning shot:

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Prospect Hot List: Swede future for Isles in net?

Linus Soderstrom (photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)

The CHL playoffs are getting intense already, with Cape Breton pushing the Memorial host Quebec Remparts to a seventh game in the first round, thanks to an overtime victory in Game 6. Some fantastic individual performances have already been logged and with the Frozen Four this week and the world under-18s on the horizon, things will only get crazier. So let’s take a look at some of the prospects we’re excited to see in the NHL one day.

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