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NHL has wild days ahead

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist

NHL Noise We are in the most active period of business in the NHL calendar – the days leading up to the NHL Entry Draft, which will take place on June 28-29 in Nashville, and the opening of free agency on July 1st. The Vancouver Canucks bought out underperforming defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The move creates some desperately needed cap space, and OEL becomes a free agent, but the Canucks will be penalized for the buyout for a whopping eight years. This is a risky move, and it will be interesting to see what else they pull off in the coming days. The Montreal Canadiens took care of one of their unrestricted free agents before his current contract expired, extending Sean Monahan for one year. The Habs are hoping Monahan can stay healthy and bring the level of production they saw in the 25 games he played last season. On Thursday, news broke out of Calgary that rookie GM Craig Conroy was approaching players with one year remaining on their contracts to check their intentions with regard to a long term future with the Flames. According to reports, Noah Hanifin, Mikael Backlund, and Tyler Toffoli have all indicated they will not sign in Calgary and Conroy will be exploring trade options. Elias Lindholm is reportedly undecided, but unlikely to return. If there was any doubt the past year in Calgary was ugly, it’s gone now. On a brighter note, a whole new crew of prospects will have their dreams come true this week. A look at the entry draft itself is in order. The Chicago Blackhawks have the first overall pick, and there is no mystery here – phenom Connor Bedard will be selected. The next four picks hold a little more intrigue, and they are of particular interest to Habs fans. The Canadiens currently have the fifth overall pick, barring a trade, and how things shake out from two to four will determine their fate. Adam Fantilli, Will Smith and Leo Carlsson – three skilled centremen – are all believed to be top five picks, but there is another. Russian prospect Matvei Michkov is believed to be among that top five group. Based on talent alone, some have him ranked only behind Bedard, and most have him no lower than number five. But he is in a three-year contract in Russia, there has been little access for teams to truly assess him, and the geopolitical situation in Russia is tangly. Will the Habs take Michkov if he’s still on the board when they pick, and the other centres are gone? If not Michkov, the Habs are believed to be considering three players. Ryan Leonard is an NCAA winger they compared to the Tkachuk brothers, Dalibor Dvorsky is a Slovakian centremen who is the safer and less flashy choice, and Austrian David Reinbacher is the top defender in the draft and would fill an organizational need for a right shot blue liner. GM Kent Hughes plays his cards close to his vest, so we won’t likely know until he calls a name. The Vancouver Canucks are the next Canadian team to pick at number 11. In my view, there are two prospects they should keep on their radar in that spot – the big NCCA winger Matthew Wood and the skilled Swedish defender Axel Sandin Pellikka. Two teams in turmoil with players getting out of dodge are Calgary and Winnipeg, and they pick at 16th and 18th overall. Both will be looking at the same range of players, and Brayden Yager and Nate Danielson, from Moose Jaw and Brandon respectively, are solid options. The big Russian defender Dmitri Simashev is probably also appealing. The Toronto Maple Leafs pick 28th and the Habs are back up at 31st. Some players that will be on their radar at that point of the first round include Oliver Bonk, a defender out of the London Knights organization, and goal-scoring wingers Ethan Gauthier (Drummondville) and Bradly Nadeau (Penticton). The Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers do not have a first round pick unless they make a trade, which is a possibility for the Sens with Alex DeBrincat on the trade block. The next few days are going to be wild.

Raptors Racket The NBA Draft took place on Thursday night, June 22. With the 13th overall pick the Toronto Raptors selected Gradey Dick. The six-foot-eight point guard joins the Raptors from the University of Kansas. Dick fills a hole for the Raptors, who struggled from three-point range this past season. In his one season in Kansas, he shot 40.3 per cent from three-point territory. This was the only pick of the draft for the Raptors, who traded their second rounder to acquire Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline. They will have to rely on trades and free agency to make further improvements to the roster.

Blue Jays Babble The runway is getting shorter for the Toronto Blue Jays to get their season on the right track. The Blue Jays were in Miami for three games against the Marlins last week. In the first game on Monday, June 19, Jose Berrios allowed five runs in four innings and the bats could not get going in an 11-0 loss. On Tuesday, the bats were not exactly potent, but Yusei Kikuchi and the bullpen were solid in a 2-0 win. In the rubber match on Wednesday, Kevin Gausman had a solid outing and Matt Chapman had a homerun and a double in a 6-3 win. Toronto has not been on the winning end of enough series this summer, and they left Miami with a record of 41 wins and 35 losses with the wild card just out of reach. The Jays entered the season hoping to contend for the American League East title, and they’re simply not close. Two issues account for their struggles. Pitching was always going to be a bit of a question mark. They needed a bounce back season from Kikuchi, a little more consistency from Jose Berrios, and for Chris Bassitt to fill the hole left by losing Ross Stripling to free agency. They hoped the rotation would hold until Hyun-jin Ryu returned from Tommy John surgery, and they could assess their pitching needs in advance of the trade deadline. Ironically, none of those guys were the issue. Alek Manoah, alongside Kevin Gausman, were expected to be the Jays’ aces on the mound. Gausman has delivered, while Manoah is in Florida trying to get himself sorted after an awful start. In the meanwhile, the Jays are running a bullpen day at every fifth stop in the pitching rotation, and it’s been less than brilliant. The other issue is a familiar one. The Baby Blue leads the big leagues in stranding men on base, and that’s not a category you want to win. Their inability to get their bats going at strategic moments to drive runs in is costing them games, and it’s a longstanding problem they’ve struggled to resolve. The Jays were due to welcome the Oakland Athletics for a three-game weekend series.

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