It’s official: Atlanta Thrashers to be sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, moved to Winnipeg

17 Comments

After 15 years without the NHL, what was once thought of as a lost hope for fans in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada is finally becoming a reality.

True North Sports and Entertainment has called a joint press conference with the NHL for noon Eastern time to announce the agreement between True North and the Atlanta Spirit Group to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers and relocate the team to Winnipeg. True North is spearheaded by Mark Chipman and David Thomson giving the franchise a pair of very wealthy and very financially stable owners, something the Thrashers haven’t had in at least four years.

While this is just an agreement between the two sides, the final approval must be given by the NHL Board of Governors on June 21 when they gather to meet. It’s expected that the sale will be approved quickly and officially putting the moving trucks on their way to central Canada.

Relocation is something we haven’t seen happen in the NHL since the Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina so you’ll have to forgive everyone if this move opens up a lot of old wounds. The Thrashers move to Winnipeg will likely mean the team won’t be called the “Jets.” There’s much speculation roaming around that the team will continue to carry the moniker of the AHL team that’s been in Winnipeg for the last few years and go by the name Manitoba Moose. We’ll likely find more out about that today. We’ll also be criticizing True North for that should it come to pass.

The team is also likely to stay in the Southeast Division this year and for one season, teams in the Eastern Conference are going to be hazed with at least two trips to Winnipeg. The divisional rivals of the Thrashers will get to experience the joys of mid-winter Winnipeg three times during the year. This also means that Winnipeg will be hitting the road a lot and none of those trips will be like the relatively short one they can look forward to in two seasons that would see them travel six hours south to St. Paul, Minnesota. Instead, Winnipeg will by flying south and east a lot. Perhaps they should name the team the Jets just for irony’s sake.

Then there’s the whole part of this that centers around NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Bettman pledged countless promises to help keep the Coyotes in Arizona, even making sure the NHL protected the team by buying it out of bankruptcy from Jerry Moyes. The Thrashers have been dealing with an ownership boondoggle for the last few years without so much as a pat on the back to support them in their efforts.

After all, Bettman went and found Jeff Vinnik to purchase the Lightning away from the nightmare pair of Len Barrie and Oren Koules as they were busy turning Tampa Bay into a nightmare scenario. He also stuck up for Nashville when Jim Balsillie was trying to work his money magic there and Boots Del Biaggio was scamming his way into a minority ownership with the team as well. As far as we know, none of that kind of help came along for Atlanta and their horrible ownership by Atlanta Spirit Group. For all that Bettman’s done to try and expand the NHL’s grip into new, non-traditional hockey markets his failing in doing something to ensure a team stays in Atlanta will be criticized. Seeing the Thrashers be the team that moves out of the south and into Winnipeg just makes the situation all the more twisted.

How things will differ in Winnipeg from Atlanta, the answer is simple. Fans in Winnipeg have been bottled up for years since seeing the Jets flee town and the support they’ll give to their new team will be unlike anything the Thrashers ever saw in Atlanta. That’s a good thing for them and for the players who have been playing in front of quiet arenas most of their careers in the south. They’re also going to sell a lot of tickets at the MTS Centre. While the building will be the smallest in the league, they’re likely going to sell out everything – something they couldn’t do in Atlanta.

It’s a sad day for any team that relocates because it means there are fans being left behind that loved a team that won’t have it anymore. While we’re happy for those fans in Winnipeg that had their hearts ripped out 15 years ago, we’re sad for those in Atlanta who did love the team and the game. Those fans are the ones getting royally boned over because now they’ll see their former team move somewhere else with a new, rich owner who’ll lavish them with the attention they wished they would’ve gotten in the first place in Atlanta.

Chris Neil retires an Ottawa Senators lifer

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Chris Neil announced his retirement from the NHL on Thursday after 1,206 games, all with the Ottawa Senators franchise.

“Chris Neil exemplifies the best qualities of both our city and the Senators franchise,” said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. “His career personified grit, drive and resilience; there was never a day that he was not there for his teammates. Chris earned everything he achieved in the league through his hard work and dedication to the game and he will go down in history as one of the great character players to ever wear the Senators jersey.”

It won’t be long before the 38-year-old Neil, a 1998 sixth-round pick, gets to put on a Senators jersey again. He’ll participate in this weekend’s Senators alumni game as the city celebrates the NHL 100 Classic at Lansdowne Park against the Montreal Canadiens.

While Neil had his offensive moments — he finished with 112 career goals and reached double digits in that category five times — he was known as an agitator and one not afraid to drop the gloves. HockeyFights.com has him at over 150 career regular season fights and he leaves the game as the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes with 2,522.

Neil’s role diminished last season under Guy Boucher and the Senators decided against re-signing him over the summer. After seeking a new gig and turning down a reported PTO offer from the Montreal Canadiens, he chose to hang them up.

“I miss playing the games. Those are the fun times and that’s what you put all the hard work in for,” Neil said. “For me, I don’t miss the grind of the day-to-day that goes on behind the scenes, but I truly do miss being there with the guys. That’s the fun part. That’s something I’ll always have to look back on.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Prior’s knack with goalies put to test in Vegas

Getty Images
1 Comment

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Dave Prior has a knack for fast-tracking goalies to the NHL.

The analytical and strategic mind that helped draft and develop 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby in Washington was brought to Vegas with hopes he would not only work with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury but also develop the fledgling franchise’s younger netminders.

Little did Prior know his expertise would be so thoroughly put to the test during the first two months of the season.

After Fleury went down with a concussion Oct. 13 and missed the next 25 games, the expansion Golden Knights have enjoyed a historic start thanks in part to four goalies who had seen action in two combined NHL games before this season.

Malcolm Subban, Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk saw most of the action, while Dylan Ferguson spent just over nine minutes between the pipes.

And though Fleury lost in his 696th career start Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes in his long-anticipated return, Vegas is still in second place in the Pacific Division with 40 points, three behind the Los Angeles Kings.

”It’s been a fascinating story for me as a coach because I haven’t been challenged in this way before,” Prior said. ”I don’t think I’ve approached it any different than I have tasks in the past. You’re not usually confronted with replacing one guy after another after another. I had a lot of input into the goaltenders that we signed here and took in the expansion draft.

”The goalies didn’t let me down. I steered them in the direction, but they’ve done all the work.”

The five goalies have a combined .905 save percentage, led by Subban, whose .924 save percentage ranks eighth among all goaltenders with a minimum 10 games played. Among goalies who have played at least four games, Dansk leads the league with a .946 save percentage and Fleury is ninth at .930.

Prior said the development of his goaltending prospects began with a philosophical approach in training camp. He knew the chemistry was far from what he wanted, but he was also pleased they had bought into the system and that he had earned their trust.

”When these opportunities came, it sort of was an opportunity to accelerate the process,” Prior said. ”You don’t usually get to train guys in this environment that are in the minors. I believed they had the upside to become NHL goaltenders. I was just hoping the step they were going to be good enough to make it to No. 1 in the American (Hockey) League first, let alone be thrown into being the guy who had to play in the NHL. They worked really hard and bought in and we managed to survive the loss of Marc-Andre.”

Without Fleury, the Golden Knights were 16-8-1, including a stellar 7-1-0 against Pacific Division opponents.

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said he’s left the goaltenders alone, avoiding interfering with what Prior instilled during training camp.

”I don’t know how he does it. He spends a lot of time in video with these guys, more than I’ve seen in the past,” Gallant said. ”He’s just focused on them doing the right things and playing the right way. … He wants to get the best from every goaltender and he gets the best confidence of every goaltender.”

Prior acknowledged Gallant’s hands-off approach and said it’s made it easier to work with Fleury, develop Subban and teach the younger players.

”I still have always gone about my job with the fact that I am the person sort of establishing how we’re going to play,” Prior said. ”When you’re having someone second-guess your approach, it makes it more difficult. I appreciate his hands off. I think if we were failing he may be a little more involved, but the goaltenders have done a good job.”

PHT Morning Skate: Melnyk denies Senators sale; Kopitar has Hart

Getty Images
7 Comments

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Eugene Melnyk denied rumors that he was selling the Ottawa Senators. “Let me set the record straight. I have no idea how a reporter fabricated a fiction about my selling the team. These stories pop up out of nowhere probably from someone ‘hearing something’.” [Ottawa Sun]

• A fascinating oral history of the inaugural season of these Senators. [Sportsnet]

• The KHL initially announced they would be allowing its players to participate in the PyeongChang Olympics, then retracted it. So for now, we still wait to see what will happen. [NBC Olympics]

• Will the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” hockey team wear new jerseys? That’s still a question that lingers. “There’s a discussion around the [Russia] uniform,” said Roman Rotenberg, the Russian federation’s senior vice president. “It’s been produced already and there are certain technical questions.” [NBC Olympics]

Anze Kopitar, now healthy, is playing his way into the Hart Trophy discussion. [FanRag Sports]

Marc-Andre Fleury on facing his old team tonight: “The Cup champs, it’s a good challenge for our team. I’d like to do my part to beat them.” [Post-Gazette]

• The board game that NHL players love to play on the road? Risk, just like Kramer and Newman. Ukraine not weak! [Sports Illustrated]

• Read this important story on former NHLer Matt Johnson, who is now homeless and missing. [TSN]

• How a young girl from Barbados became a huge Florida Panthers fan. [Miami Herald]

• A really cool graphical look at the history of Indianapolis hockey jerseys. [The Sin Bin]

• How the PyeongChang Olympics will affect NCAA hockey. [College Hockey News]

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Senators win, Subban from center, Lehtonen notches 300th win

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Players of the Night: 

Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators: It’s been a struggle for Ryan this season. He came into the game with just as single goal in 21 games but left with two in 22 while also adding an assist to help the Senators avoid a six-game losing streak.

Tyler Pitlick, Dallas Stars: Pitlick scored twice, bookending Dallas’s five goals in a 5-2 win against the New York Islanders.

P.K. Subban, Nashville Predators: If you continue reading (and you should) you will see Subban’s goal that came from quite a distance. The defenseman notched two in a ___ win against the Vancouver Canucks, powering the Preds to their ninth win in their past 12 games.

Highlights of the Night: 

Brad Marchand fought off Mike Green, and then did this to win in overtime:

Dylan Larkin. Breakway. Shorthanded. Backhand.

Blunder of the Night: 

Yikes, Anders Nilsson. Bravo, P.K.

Factoids of the Night: 

Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen killed two birds with one stone on Wednesday:

Filip Forsberg accomplished an impressive feat for the second time in his career.

MISC: 

Scores: 

Senators 3, Rangers 2

Stars 5, Islanders 2

Bruins 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)

Predators 7, Canucks 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck