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NHL draft picks could help revive Battle of Alberta

From left, Edmonton Oilers' Leon Draisaitl, Florida Panthers' Aaron Ekblad and Buffalo Sabres' Sam Reinhart pose for photographs during the first round of the NHL hockey draft, Friday, June 27, 2014, in Philadelphia.

Matt Slocum/AP

In the era of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk, the Battle of Alberta once mattered in the NHL. It was a rivalry that resonated around the league, and even Sports Illustrated occasionally paid attention.

Unhappily, for most of the past decade, it had become little more than a regional curiosity, with the Edmonton Oilers missing the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, the Calgary Flames five.

But now, in the aftermath of the 2014 NHL entry draft, when the Oilers took Prince Albert Raiders centre Leon Draisaitl with the third overall pick, and the Flames quickly followed with the Kingston Frontenacs' Sam Bennett at No. 4, the Alberta arms race is back on.

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Draisaitl has the size and strength to complement Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, which in time should give the Oilers the sort of centre-ice duo needed to compete in the Pacific Division.

Last year, in Sean Monahan, the Flames drafted their first decent centre with size since Nieuwendyk was traded away in the mid-1990s in a contract dispute.

Bennett is most commonly compared to Gilmour, his Kingston coach – and if he can eventually bring all the same qualities to Calgary that Gilmour once did, then the Flames will, once and for all, have some centre-ice depth to complement their collection of emerging young defencemen.

Los Angeles Kings' super scout Michael Futa had high praise for Bennett, calling him "my favourite player in the draft.

"This kid has something really special. There were nights when he could bring you out of your seats in so many different ways. He's a dynamic skater. He gets under your skin.

" I like the Gilmour comparison. There's a little bit of dirt bag to him. He's a prototypical throwback, loves-the-game competitor, but he's got a tremendous skill level to him. I told [new Flames general manager] Brad Treliving I thought he got the best player in the draft."

In keeping with their get-bigger, get-tougher philosophy, the Flames also acquired left winger Brandon Bollig from the Chicago Blackhawks for a third-round draft choice they acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the trading-deadline deal for Lee Stempniak.

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The Oilers went into the draft with an impressive shopping list, but apart from signing Nikita Nikitin to a contract last week, came away empty in their desire to add a couple more NHL-ready players to the lineup.

They'll next turn to free agency, where puck-moving defencemen will be at a premium, though Christian Ehrhoff is scheduled to join that available group after the Buffalo Sabres started the process of issuing him a compliance buyout.

New general manager Terry Murray previously also bought out Ville Leino, another player they threw big money at in an ill-advised attempt to fast-track the building process in the summer of 2011.

Under new general manager Jim Benning, the Canucks added an intriguing prospect in Linden Vey, a Kings prospect who couldn't crack the lineup because of their depth down the middle.

Vey played 18 games in L.A. last season and, along with Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, was considered one of their most NHL-ready prospects.

But he would have had to go on waivers next October if he couldn't crack the Kings' lineup, so the Kings moved him in exchange for a second-round pick.

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Vey and Nick Bonino, acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in Friday's Ryan Kesler deal, will likely be two of the Canucks' starting four centres next season.

Bonino happened to mention in a conference call with reporters that the Ducks were also in the hunt for Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza.

According to Senators general manager Bryan Murray, he had a deal in place to trade Spezza to the Nashville Predators, but Spezza vetoed the chance to join his former Ottawa teammate Mike Fisher in Music City, which left both him and the team in limbo.

NHL free agency figures to be a different animal this year, mostly because teams now have the right to negotiate with candidates in advance of the July 1 deadline without fear of tampering.

It means some of the biggest names in the hopper – from the Montreal Canadiens' Thomas Vanek and the Colorado Avalanche's Paul Stastny to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Niskanen and the Boston Bruins' Jarome Iginla – could be scooped up quickly.

The Bruins have been having a difficult time fitting Iginla into their salary-cap structure without moving additional players, so he may hit the market.

All eyes will be on the Blackhawks on July 1 to see if they can get the details worked out on contract extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who are expected to sign identical deals for potentially record numbers.

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