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Hockey Notes

1-2 punch at the top is a knockout

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 18, 2010

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E.J. McGuire heads up the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, the body in charge of rating the world’s best teenage talent. Based on how he views the top couple of picks in the June draft, Bruins fans are going to like what they see — and he all but guarantees it.

Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall? Take your pick, says McGuire, and then stand back and enjoy.

“Both kids are going to play,’’ said McGuire. “Both kids, without putting pressure either on them or a general manager, are going to play next year. They are in that Stamkos kind of category.’’

Steve Stamkos, the top pick in the 2008 draft, had a somewhat underwhelming 2008-09 rookie season with Tampa but blossomed this year, even on the ever-dysfunctional Bolts team, as one of the game’s brightest young stars.

“The Seguin-Hall combination probably depends on the Oilers’ preference,’’ said McGuire, noting that Edmonton has the first pick, Boston second. “It’s no secret that the Oilers have some high-scoring wingers, and a right-shot centerman [i.e. Seguin] to dish the puck, and to score himself, seems logical.’’

Logic, too, would have the Bruins selecting Hall, touted as a power forward at left wing, in the No. 2 hole. Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli declared Tuesday night, upon learning that his No. 2 draft spot was secure, that he would choose Seguin or Hall.

The Bruins are chock-full of pivots, with Marc Savard, David Krejci, and Patrice Bergeron the anchor tenants in the middle. What they don’t have is legit snap, crackle, and pop off the wing, although they hope to acquire some of that in Jordan Caron, their top pick from last June who will try to make the varsity in this September’s training camp.

Hall, according to McGuire, not only has a nose for the net, but an approach that brings fans out of their seats. The last power forward to do that in the Hub of Hockey was Cam Neely.

Phil Kessel, anything but a power forward, undeniably had a bit of a wow factor, too. But for all his scintillating speed, he also had two coaches in Boston (Dave Lewis and Claude Julien) who felt as much woe as wow when they rolled No. 81 over the boards.

“Fearless to the net, a great skater, exciting, brings fans out of their seats . . . just a wonderful player,’’ said McGuire, ticking off Hall’s myriad assets.

Asked what caused the fans to take notice, he said, “His speed and style. You know, there is a little Jeremy Roenick in him, that flamboyant drive to the net. He can drive right at defensemen or go around them with his speed, take it to the net fearlessly.

“So he is skilled, but he is not a tiptoe-through-the-tulips skills guy. He gets the puck and he’s going — right to the net.’’

A little bit of J.R. would be A-OK in a town bereft of hockey flamboyance since perhaps Rick Middleton put his sublime skills into cold storage.

CSB rates Seguin No. 1, Hall No. 2. According to McGuire, the final ranking came with great deliberation among the nine scouts who rendered the decision.

“Lucky there is nine of us, so when we do a hands vote, there is the odd number,’’ he said. “We voted over the course of a week, and every day the vote was 5-4 — but for a different guy every day. That’s how close these two are.’’

FALLING LEAF

Kessel must shape it up

The Maple Leafs, who missed the playoffs for a fifth straight time in the post-lockout era, packed their bags on Monday. Before all his Leafs blew out of town, coach Ron Wilson made it abundantly clear that the 22-year-old Phil Kessel needs to improve his fitness foundation over the summer in order to increase his production in 2010-11.

Kessel finished his first year in Toronto with 55 points in 70 games, a slight drop from the 60 he put up in exactly the same number of games last year with Boston. Despite a sensational start in Toronto, Kessel acknowledged he never was 100 percent fit this season, in part because of his offseason shoulder surgery.

“He’s got to start working out and get himself in the best shape he’s ever been in his life, be totally committed to it,’’ Wilson told Toronto media members, “so that he doesn’t suffer some of these injuries.’’

Kessel totally fizzled out over the final four games, held without a point and squeezing off but five shots before he packed up and headed back to Wisconsin. Not the kind of punctuation mark the Leafs were looking for when they committed five years and $27 million to the speedy right winger.

He’ll be back in Toronto next season, likely accompanied by at least a couple of new forwards who will represent an overall talent upgrade.

It’s a near-certainty GM Brian Burke, after acquiring Dion Phaneuf from Calgary in a late-season trade, will flip high-scoring defenseman Tomas Kaberle for a top-six winger. The upgrade should pull some defensive coverage away from Kessel and allow him easier passage down the wing, not unlike what he enjoyed in his three-year tenure on Causeway Street.

“He’s got a summer where he can make himself stronger, get himself fitter,’’ noted Wilson, “so when the season starts he’s in the best shape of his life and he can maximize his God-given abilities.’’

Some players come with work ethic as part of their genetic package, as skating and shooting were for Kessel. Others have to acquire it.

ETC.

Fowler gets blue ribbon

Had the Bruins ended up with the No. 3 pick in the lottery, it’s a good bet they would have selected smooth-skating defenseman Cam Fowler. Fowler was rated third overall for much of the year by CSB, but he slipped to No. 5, a notch below Kingston’s Erik Gudbranson, in the final rankings. McGuire is high on both blue liners. Gudbranson, he says, may be 4 inches shorter than Buffalo’s 6-foot-8-inch Tyler Myers (legit Rookie of the Year candidate), but he’s tough. “Mean,’’ said McGuire. “He really fights. A little shorter than Myers and [Zdeno] Chara, but like how Chara fought his way through junior, that’s this kid. Tough.’’ Fowler’s skating and skill package, said McGuire, is reminiscent of Brian Leetch and Paul Coffey. “This is a kid who’ll quarterback your power play for a decade,’’ he said. Florida, Columbus, and the Islanders pick 3-4-5 in the draft. Based on the high-end talents of Gudbranson and Fowler, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli might have to consider getting aggressive with his three first-round picks (one this year and two next year) to make a play for one of them. A power-play QB for a decade? If so, that’s a player worth a surrender of first-round picks, especially given Dennis Wideman’s bad season and the possibility of losing Dennis Seidenberg to free agency.

Wings on the block?
As they made their way to summer vacations, both Jarome Iginla (Calgary) and Martin St. Louis (Tampa) made it clear they would be open to being traded. Iginla, an icon in southern Alberta, made it equally clear that he is not looking to be dealt, that he wants to stay, but only if that’s what Flames management wants, too. “You want to play where you are wanted and have people believe in you,’’ he told the Calgary Herald. Well now, two enticing wingers. Iginla, originally from Edmonton, will turn 33 over the summer. St. Louis will turn 35 just prior to the June draft. From a financial standpoint, St. Louis is far more attractive, with one year left on his deal, paying $4 million. Iginla has $21 million guaranteed over the next three seasons. Boston’s current pay structure would make acquiring even St. Louis a stretch. Iginla would be a huge get for Toronto, a deal that would have to start with Mikhail Grabovski and Tomas Kaberle going west.

Dudley will do right
As speculated in recent months, the long-suffering Thrashers bumped GM Don Waddell to full-time duty as team president, leaving right-hand man Rick Dudley to assume full control of hockey operations as the new GM. Dale Tallon, Dudley’s former boss in Toronto, where “Duds’’ helped shape the now-powerful Blackhawks, noted last week that, “Whatever he has to work with, he’ll get it done.’’ Dudley, 61, helped build the Lightning into a Cup winner and resurrected the moribund Blackhawks. “No one better,’’ said Tallon. Dudley was instrumental in the Thrashers’ hiring of ex-Sabre Maxim Afinogenov for short free agent money in the offseason. For $800K, Afinogenov delivered 24 goals and 61 points, making him perhaps the best buy in the 2009 free agent class.

A bigger cap size
Estimates have the NHL salary cap, which increased by only $100,000 this season to $56.8 million, moving to about $58 million next season. All somewhat of a red herring, of course, given that the players again are expected to lose somewhere around 10 percent of their earnings via final escrow settlement. That makes the real cap number around $50 million.

Loose pucks
Now that the Bolts have fired GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet, a huge management/coaching overhaul is unfolding in the Jeff Vinik ownership era. Some of the names kicking around for the GM spot: Doug Risebrough, ex-BU forward Paul Fenton (years of fine work in the Nashville front office), and ex-Bruins assistant GM Jeff Gorton, who was sent skittering down Causeway Street about a year after Executive Son Charlie Jacobs gave him a public pat on the back and vote of confidence . . . Blues president John Davidson on promising kids David Perron (once rumored to be dealt to Boston), T.J. Oshie, and Patrick Berglund: “It’s time that label [“kids’’] should be disappearing.’’ Well, Paul Kariya’s $6 million now disappears from the Blues’ payroll, along with Keith Tkachuk’s $2.15 million. Should lead to some very interesting shopping in the free agent market this summer for the Blues . . . Brian Burke, who has grown weary of being asked to justify his acquisition of Kessel, said on a TSN broadcast last week that he paid little attention to Tuesday’s lottery that landed Boston the No. 2 pick as part of the deal. “I did not give a rat’s butt about how it came out,’’ said Burke, noting that his attention that night was on the Blue Jays game. “I hope Boston gets a player that plays for a long time.’’ . . . A logical hire for the coaching vacancy in Atlanta would be John Torchetti, now an assistant in Chicago. Torchetti was under Dudley’s employ in both Florida and Tampa. Ex-Sabre pal John Van Boxmeer also could end up on Dudley’s staff . . . Guy Boucher, coach in Hamilton (AHL), will get a look for the Tampa job . . . Dave Nonis, Burke’s right-hand man in Toronto, probably wouldn’t have his hand up for the Tampa job. He’ll be a GM again somewhere soon, which will move ex-Bruin Dave Poulin up a notch in the Leafs’ pecking order. Not hard to envision Poulin running the Leafs in about three years.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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