Nik Antropov

Atlanta owner says if things don’t improve, Thrashers could be on the move

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You would think with the Thrashers being a playoff contending team this season that attention and ticket sales would improve in Atlanta. They play an entertaining brand of hockey with a pair of electric personalities in Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane and most of all they’ve been able to win more often than not.

Instead, the Thrashers have the third worst attendance in the league filling up just 70.4% of Phillips Arena to the tune of an average crowd of 13,056. Atlanta isn’t always known as a great sports town and support for teams like the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks have always been mercurial. Thrashers owner Michael Gearon understands this and is trying to be pro-active about lighting a fire under the fans and inspiring them to come out to games and get more local corporate support behind the team.

Problem is, he’s opted to go about doing so in a the threatening, doom and gloom kind of way rather than a positive spin as Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shared today.

Atlanta Spirit co-owner Michael Gearon said there is now a “sense of urgency” to find additional investors or a buyer willing to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta. If the ownership group does not get additional financial help in the near future the franchise could be sold and moved to another city.

“If we are faced with that as the only alternative, that’s what’s going to happen,” Gearon told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Tuesday. “I don’t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in losses. We just can’t do it.

“The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors, or a primary investor.”

An owner pleading with the locals to help him out so he doesn’t suffer more multi-million dollar losses. It’s a situation we’ve gotten to be too familiar with thanks to the ongoing saga in Phoenix with the Coyotes and former owner Jerry Moyes. This stuff with Atlanta has been bubbling for a while as the Atlanta Spirit group continues to drown in litigation with former ownership partner Steve Belkin.

Atlanta Spirit has been trying to sell the Thrashers for six years, starting almost immediately after purchasing the team, according to the Jan. 21 lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court against Atlanta law firm King & Spalding.

The group filed a $200 million malpractice lawsuit against the firm saying a “fatally flawed” and “botched” contract written to buy out former partner Steve Belkin prevented a Thrashers sale in the nearly five years it took to settle that suit in December.

Before the current litigation, the Atlanta Spirit stated publicly for the past two years that it was looking for investors for the Thrashers, Hawks or both franchises. According to the lawsuit, ownership reported more than $130 million in operating losses since 2005. The Thrashers value also has dropped by more than $50 million, the document says.

With that sort of mess on their hands, Gearon coming out and saying that if things don’t improve soon, things will be dire for the team and their future in Atlanta will be in peril.  It’s the sort of thing we’ve gotten used to hearing from owners looking for financial help to get their way. Moyes tried it in Phoenix and Mario Lemieux did something similar when negotiating for a new arena in Pittsburgh. In Mario’s case he won out and CONSOL Energy Center was built. For Moyes, he had his team bought from him by the NHL rather than getting to escape by selling the team to Jim Balsillie.

For Atlanta, circumstances are a bit different as their ownership situation is a mess with the ongoing court stuff and the seeming overall disinterest from the people in Atlanta on the whole. Atlanta does have a sect of very loyal and loving fans, but branching out beyond those few thousands has been the struggle all along in such a hot-and-cold sports town like Atlanta.

Of course, when you come out all guns blazing to call attention to something you find to be a problem, you’re going to get noticed. This afternoon, Gearon was on local Atlanta radio with John Kincade to talk about his comments and hit the gas to backpedal away from a lot of his initial thoughts.

Apparently Gearon didn’t realize that all of Canada is eager to get a struggling American NHL team back in their own hands. Gearon spun things a bit more level-headed-like on the air today as Laura Astorian of SBN Atlanta summed up.

Most pointedly, Kincade asked Gearon if he could guarantee that the team wouldn’t be moving, and the response was a stock answer about dedication to the team. The best quality quote, though, is this one:

“I’m not hitting a panic button here and I apologize if it came out that way. I want to set the record straight and get the fans and community on board with us.”

Less doom and gloom, more rah-rah stuff. You can’t help but think that Gearon got a phone call from the league office in Manhattan asking him to be a bit more careful talking about a team that’s already got attendance issues and is in the midst of a playoff race. The last thing the NHL wants to deal with is financial fires on both sides of the country and while the situation in Atlanta is bad, they’re nearly out of the woods with Phoenix so having this come up now is wildly inconvenient both in how the league wants to handle things and how the perception of the league is amongst the masses.

It would be the NHLs luck though to have things get close to finished with one problem team only to have another rise up and grab all the attention. Here’s to hoping things don’t get that ugly in Atlanta.

Fischer to become seventh Coyotes prospect to make NHL debut this season

SUNRISE, FL - JUNE 27:  Christian Fischer smiles after being selected 32nd overall by the Arizona Coyotes during the 2015 NHL Draft at BB&T Center on June 27, 2015 in Sunrise, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Arizona Coyotes are in the middle of a full-scale rebuild under first-year general manager John Chayka, and that means plenty of new faces and young players making their way into the lineup over the course of the season.

Entering play on Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Coyotes have already used nine players this season age 21 or younger, with six of them making their NHL debuts.

That list includes Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse, Jakob Chychrun, Brandon Perlini, Anthony DeAngelo, and Christian Dvorak.

On Saturday night against the Lightning, they will be adding yet another name to that list when Christian Fischer, the team’s second-round pick (No. 32 overall) in 2015, makes his NHL debut.

He talked about his debut on Saturday before the game, via Sarah McLellan of the Arizona Republic.

“It’s obviously a dream come true,” Fischer said. “I think that’s what everyone says, but this is what you’ve been working for ever since you were a little kid. It’s honestly just a dream. That’s pretty cool to make it a reality today. Just gotta make the most of it but for sure going to enjoy it. It’s been a long time coming, a lot of hard work. I couldn’t be more excited.”

According to the team he is going to begin on the third line alongside Jamie McGinn and Alexander Burmistrov.

Before Saturday Fischer has spent the entire season playing for Tuscon Roadrunners in the American Hockey League where he was averaging more than a point per game (32 points in 31 games) and was second on the team in scoring even though he is still only 19 years old and playing in his first year of pro hockey. That performance so far has earned him an opportunity with the big club.

With such a young roster there have been some major growing pains for the Coyotes this season, entering Saturday’s game with the second worst record in the NHL and at times being overmatched. But given how much talent has been added to the organization over the past couple of years, specifically as it relates to Max Domi, Strome, Dvorak and Chychrun, there is a ton of potential on this roster and some real hope for the future.

Goalie nods: Bishop looks to continue strong play for Lightning

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 06:  Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning tends goal against the Chicago Blackhawks during Game Two of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 6, 2015 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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After finishing as the runner up for the Vezina Trophy a year ago as the NHL’s top goalie it has been a tough year for Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.

A slow start combined with an injury that sidelined him for nearly a month have all contributed to a disappointing season for the Lightning that has them in their current spot on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But since returning from that injury earlier this month, Bishop has started to resemble the goalie we saw the past couple of years when he helped backstop the Lightning to the NHL’s final four in 2015 and 2016.

In his past three starts since returning the Lightning have recorded five out of a possible six points with Bishop in the lineup, while he has posted a .936 save percentage by stopping 74 of the 79 shots he has faced.

The timing could not be better for the Lightning.

Given their spot in the standings (five points behind Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division and three points behind Toronto for the second wild card spot, with Toronto still having four games in hand) they are going to need a massive second half run to get back in the playoffs. A healthy Bishop playing up to his potential would be a good way to help achieve that.

Bishop is expected to be in the lineup again on Saturday night against Mike Smith and the Arizona Coyotes.

Elsewhere…

— The St. Louis Blues turned to Pheonix Copley on Saturday afternoon with Jake Allen struggling. He went against Ondrej Pavelec for the Winnipeg Jets.

Sergei Bobrovsky goes for the Columbus Blue Jackets as they look to maintain their lead in the Metropolitan Division. After giving up seven goals on Friday night against Pittsburgh the Hurricanes might give Cam Ward the night off, but have made no official announcement yet.

— The Philadelphia Flyers return from their bye week on Saturday night by taking on the New Jersey Devils. They are going with Michal Neuvirth in net. Look for Cory Schneider to go for the Devils.

Thomas Greiss gets the night off for the New York Islanders as Jean-Francois Berube gets the start against the Los Angeles King. Peter Budaj makes yet another start for the Kings as he continues to be the team’s starter in Jonathan Quick‘s absence.

Carey Price get another chance to break out of his month-long slump when he goes against the Buffalo Sabres. Price has managed only an .881 save percentage in January and has been playing at a sub-.900 level since the start of December. Look for Robin Lehner to get the start for Buffalo after Anders Nilsson played on Friday in its win over the Detroit Red Wings.

— The battle of Ontario will feature Frederik Andersen going for the Toronto Maple Leafs while Mike Condon goes for the Ottawa Senators.

— Phillip Grubauer goes for the Washington Capitals when they visit the Dallas Stars. He will oppose Kari Lehtonen at the other end of the ice.

— The Minnesota Wild have earned at least a point in 19 of Devan Dubnyk‘s past 21 starts (including 17 wins) and they look to continue that hot streak on Saturday night against the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks counter with John Gibson.

— After starting 43 of the Edmonton Oilers’ first 48 games Cam Talbot gets a much-needed night off against the Calgary Flames on Saturday night. It will be Laurent Brossoit going against Chad Johnson.

— Spencer Martin will be making his NHL debut for the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night when he goes against the defending Western Conference Champion San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are starting Martin Jones.

Bruins coach Claude Julien: ‘I’m not quitting on anybody’

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 08: Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins works the bench against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on January 8, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. The Bruins defeated the Devils 4-1.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Following his team’s third consecutive loss on Friday night, Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien was in no mood to address the speculation that his job is in jeopardy.

He was more willing to address it on Saturday afternoon following practice.

In a lengthy answer, Julien said he is not worried about his situation because his job as a hockey coach is to fix things, not worry about his job status.

Here is more of Julien’s response, via Stephen Harris of the Boston Herald

“My job is to do everything I can. And if I become one of the reasons that we’re not doing well, then management has to make that decision. It’s not my decision.

“I’m not quitting on the team. I’m not quitting on management. I’m not quitting on anybody. I’m willing to go through the hard times. If it’s deemed my fault, then I shouldn’t be here. That’s all I can say. But that’s not my decision to make.

“We’re going with what we said we’d go with – that there would be some growing pains along the way. So be it. Did we put ourselves in a position earlier in the season to maybe (be) a team that all of sudden we believed was a playoff team? Absolutely. I still think we’re a playoff team, whether we can do it or not. My job is to everything I can to get us into the playoffs. That’s what I’m going to do.

“So, as far as rumors are concerned, I know they’re out there. But I don’t get concerned about the. Because worrying is wasting a lot of my time – and my time is about trying to fix things here.”

After narrowly missing the playoffs the past two seasons, and seemingly putting Julien on the hot seat after each one, the Bruins enter the weekend occupying the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division even though they are currently on pace for fewer points than they accumulated the past two seasons.

Overall, this has been a bizarre season for the Bruins.

The front office did none of what it promised to do over the summer and left Julien with a flawed roster in some key areas (especially on defense). Despite that the team has still had the look of a playoff team but hasn’t quite had the results go their way. After finishing the 2015-16 season as one of the highest scoring teams in the league, the offense has dropped off a bit this season even though they are one of the best teams in the league when it comes to generating shots and chances.

Just about the only thing that has worked out for the Bruins this season is Tuukka Rask bouncing back from a down year and returning to be one of the best goalies in the league (and helping to mask some of the flaws on the defense) and the division itself being a little worse.

With Allen struggling, Blues turn to Pheonix Copley on Saturday

ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 9: Jake Allen #34 of the St. Louis Blues makes a save against the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scottrade Center on May 9, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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The recent struggles of St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen have been well documented at this point.

In his past 11 appearances he has managed only an .867 save percentage, his coach believes he is “locked up mentally,” and he did not even make the the trip with the team to Winnipeg for their game on Saturday afternoon against the Jets after giving up four goals on 10 shots against the Washington Capitals.

With Allen at home getting a chance to “reset,” the Blues will be turning to recent call-up Pheonix Copley on Saturday afternoon as he makes his first career start.

Copley was called up from the Blues’ AHL team in Chicago following the Blues’ recent loss to Washington. In 18 appearances with the Chicago Wolves this season Copley has a .920 save percentage and an 11-4-1 record.

The 25-year-old Copley, who was acquired by the Blues two years ago as part of the T.J. Oshie for Troy Brouwer trade, has appeared in only one NHL game in his career. That was a relief appearance during the 2015-16 season when he took over for Allen in a 5-0 loss to the Nashville Predators. Copley stopped five of the six shots he faced that night.

The Blues enter Saturday’s game having lost four of their past six games and are on the playoff bubble with 51 points in 46 games. The point total ties them with Nashville for third place in the Central Division (St. Louis has the tiebreaker at the moment because it has more regulation and overtime wins) while both teams are just one point ahead of the Vancouver Canucks.