Maple Leafs sign Carl Gunnarsson to two-year, $2.6M contract extension

Despite maintaining the troubling “zero playoff berths since the lockout” label, the Toronto Maple Leafs showed significant glimpses of promise late in the 2010-11 season. A big part of that surge came from rookie goalie James Reimer, who recently signed a three-year contract extension with the Leafs.

GM Brian Burke often gravitates toward big stars, but he also understands the importance of cultivating young talent. The Leafs took the next step in wrapping up their young pending free agents by handing defenseman Carl Gunnarsson a two-year contract extension worth $2.6 million.

Gunnarsson has been a pleasant surprise for the Maple Leafs, who drafted him in the seventh round (194th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He managed to play a solid chunk of the last two seasons, appearing in 43 games in 2009-10 (15 points, 21:26 time on ice per game) and 68 (20 points, 18:15 time on ice per game) in 10-11.

Michael Traikos explains that Gunnarsson really seemed to blossom once he received more offensive opportunities after Tomas Kaberle was traded to the Boston Bruins.

“We’re very happy with his development,” said general manager Brian Burke, “and what he needs to do is come up with an 82-game season. He had a real good second-half each of the last two years. But he’s got to start better than he has.”

Indeed, Gunnarsson had one goal and three assists in the first three months of the 2010-11 season. But then seemed to benefit from extra ice time when Tomas Kaberle was traded, scoring three goal and 13 assists in the final four months of the schedule.

Re-signing Gunnarsson takes one more problem off the table for Burke, who faces some tough decisions this off-season. Beyond getting into a likely bidding war for the services of Brad Richards, Burke also must make some choices regarding pending free agents.

While there are plenty of other names they must decide to keep or part ways with, the biggest negotiations will take place between the Leafs and three free agents: Clarke MacArthur, Luke Schenn and Tyler Bozak. Here’s what Burke said about the major negotiations with those players.

Now that Gunnarsson is signed, expect the team to now focus on locking up restricted free agent Luke Schenn. The 21-year-old was arguably Toronto’s most valuable defenceman last season, scoring a career-best five goals and 22 points in 82 games.

The Leafs are also expected to try and re-sign Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak and Tim Brent this summer.

“It’s not time-sensitive, for either player,” Burke said of negotiations. “We’ve told Clarke if he wants to file for arbitration he can go ahead and file for arbitration. That’s part of the process. That’s part of the collective bargaining agreement. But we anticipate that he’s going to be under contract and play for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fall.”

Much like many other teams – from contenders to hopefuls – the Maple Leafs look like they have an interesting off-season in front of them. At least they won’t have to worry about keeping Reimer or Gunnarsson at a reasonable price, though.

Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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PROJECTED LINEUPS

Pittsburgh Penguins

Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

Ducks

Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

Starting goalie: John Gibson