Edmonton Oilers v Philadelphia Flyers

Pronger still about 3 weeks away from serious training

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Chris Pronger spoke to TSN Radio on Wednesday and revealed that he’s still about three weeks away from cranking up his off-season workouts. The 37-year-old had three surgeries last season, missed the beginning of the season, the end of the season, time in the playoffs, and may miss the beginning of training camp in September. He only scored 4 goals and 21 points in 50 games last season. Statistically, it was the worst season Pronger has experienced since he was breaking in with the Hartford Whalers in the mid-1990s.

The good news for fans is that Pronger had played all 82 games in both of the two preceding seasons. Regardless, when a physical defenseman gets into his late 30’s and starts having injury problems, people are going to start asking questions. Was the 2010-11 season an aberration or a sign of things to come?

Here’s a sampling of what Pronger said to the guys at TSN:

“I’m still probably three, three and a half weeks away from being able to train hard. I’m still walking on the treadmill, light bike riding. The back doctor wanted 12 weeks for me not doing a whole lot to allow that back area to scar up and then fully heal up before I start torquing and pushing on it hard,” said Pronger, who needed to remove a herniated disc that caused him back and leg problems.

(snip)

“You want to win, you want to get back to the top and hold the Stanley Cup and go through that year of blood, sweat and tears with your teammates, and accomplishing something that very few people have an opportunity to do. Hopefully the rest of the summer goes well, and I continue to get healthy and things go in the right direction for me there,” he said. “We got off to a good start after a long grind of the playoffs from the previous year. Whether we hit a wall or whatever halfway through the year after Christmas, we just didn’t seem to get any better. We didn’t continue to push ourselves for whatever reason. It was almost like our development got stunted and we almost got worse.”

It’s no secret that the Flyers need a healthy Chris Pronger if they want to achieve the goals they set each season. This isn’t a team that is looking to make the playoffs or win a series—this is a team that wants to get back to the Stanley Cup Final and finish what they started the spring of 2010. Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn, Matt Carle, and Andrej Meszaros are all nice pieces, but without Chris Pronger anchoring the defense for 28 minutes per game in the playoffs, there’s an enormous void on the blueline that changes the entire complexion of the team. It doesn’t matter if they have a new star goaltender or not—they’ll still need to have Pronger shutting down opponents like he’s been doing for almost two decades.

The hint of panic around the Flyers is the fear that Pronger will never be the same player that he was when he was first acquired from the Ducks. His salary cap hit is almost $5 million and since he signed the contract after he turned 35, the contract will remain on the books whether he continues to play or retires before his contract ends in 2017. Sure, GM Paul Holmgren has proven he can magically make almost any salary work, but things could be a little different if they’re paying $5 million over multiple years for a player who has retired.

Of course, no one is saying Pronger is going to retire due to his current back injury. But with his body starting to break down and six more years left on his contract, will he really finish out the contract? One day down the road, we may see the ugly side of some of these long-term contract rear its ugly head for Philadelphia. That is, unless Pronger chooses to play as his body breaks down when the Flyers are only paying him the league minimum.

Kulikov returns to increasingly healthy Sabres lineup

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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No one’s going to confuse Dmitry Kulikov with Jack Eichel, but the Buffalo Sabres are likely happy to have him back after a long absence, too.

The Sabres have been on an upward trend lately (5-2-2 in their last nine games), and now they get a key defenseman back against the Washington Capitals on Friday night.

Kulikov last played on Nov. 9 and hasn’t recorded a point in 12 games, making for a tough start to his stint with the Sabres. Maybe he’ll begin to get a little more traction with his new team tonight?

He’s far from the only returning Buffalo player, either, as Josh Gorges and Nicolas Deslauriers are also back in the mix. Kulikov is slated to be on the Sabres’ second pairing with Cody Franson.

Buffalo sent Brendan Guhle to the AHL to make room for these tweaks.

With Foligno out sick, Columbus gives Bjorkstrand another shot

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 13:  Oliver Bjorkstrand #28 of the Columbus Blue Jackets lines up for a face-off during the game against the Boston Bruins on October 13, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets will be without captain Nick Foligno because of an illness on Friday, opening up an opportunity for interesting prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand.

The team tweeted out his linemates as Matt Calvert and Lukas Sedlak as a solid fourth line facing the Detroit Red Wings.

He failed to generate much (zero points, two shots on goal) in three games so far with Columbus this season, receiving about 25 minutes of ice time over that span.

With eight goals and 12 points in 19 AHL games so far in 2016-17, there’s the thought that he could eventually make the next step to becoming a decent contributor for the Blue Jackets.

Perhaps this will constitute his first real step in that direction?

Apparently this is a pretty abrupt situation for the 21-year-old:

Gretzky defends McDavid’s outburst after Manning incident

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - OCTOBER 23: Wayne Gretzky (L) and Dale Hawerchuk drop the puck in a ceremonial face-off between Blake Wheeler #26 and Connor McDavid #97 during the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic hockey game on October 23, 2016 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Fred Greenslade /Getty Images)
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PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) As the primary target of opponents over his Hall of Fame career, Wayne Gretzky can certainly empathize with the frustration of Oilers star Connor McDavid.

McDavid and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning jostled all evening long in a 6-5 Edmonton loss. McDavid denounced the tactics of his opponent after the game, claiming Manning intentionally injured him last season; McDavid missed 37 games with a broken collarbone.

“I guess we can put the whole ‘if he did it’ thing to rest because what he said out there kind of confirmed that,” said McDavid, who taunted Manning after scoring the second goal in the Oilers’ loss.

“I think anybody who knows me or who has played with or against me along the road here, knows that I am not that kind of player,” Manning said, according to a statement released by the Flyers. “I am not out there intentionally trying to hurt people. I’m a guy who plays the game hard and I take pride in that.”

Gretzky didn’t mind seeing that fire in McDavid, saying competitiveness is part of what makes the great ones great. And he said the targeting comes with the territory of being a superstar. It was something he and Mario Lemieux dealt with, too.

“And Connor, he’s going to get tested every night, but this is not new for him,” Gretzky said Friday at the NHL board of governors meetings. “He’s been tested since he was a kid and then playing junior hockey and now in the NHL and he’s always responded and done his part.”

Related: McDavid accuses ‘classless’ Manning of injuring him on purpose

Bishop trying not to let contract situation affect his play

TAMPA, FL - JUNE 06: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning looks on 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 Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)
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Ben Bishop was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, and that makes it particularly striking to see his numbers a quarter of the way through 2016-17.

After 18 starts, Bishop is 8-10-1 with a .906 save percentage. He got the hook after two periods last night at Amalie Arena, where he surrendered four goals to the Vancouver Canucks in a 5-1 loss.

Last night marked the third time in his last five starts that he’d surrendered at least four goals, and one of the goals he allowed looked like this:

So, do things feel different this season?

“I feel fine,” Bishop said today, per Lightning Insider. “We go back and watch the games and technically it’s all there. There is really no difference from the way I’ve played the last couple of years to now. I don’t like saying this, but it’s been a strange season with goofy goals on tips and bounces, goals off your own players. So I think if you took some of those away, the numbers would be pretty similar to years past. I would like to get the wins a little higher.”

Bishop, of course, is a pending unrestricted free agent who is unlikely to re-sign with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy appears to be the goalie of the future in Tampa Bay. On July 1, the 22-year-old re-signed through 2019-20.

Vasilevskiy is also 6-2-1 with a .929 save percentage.

So in that regard, it’s a bit like the situation we’re seeing in New York, where Henrik Lundqvist is struggling and Antti Raanta is thriving.

The difference is Lundqvist isn’t going to be looking for a new team anytime soon. Remember that Bishop “was close” to being traded to Calgary in the offseason. He could still end up there in free agency, depending if Brian Elliott bounces back.

Bishop says he’s trying not to let his contract situation affect his state of mind; however, he admits he’d “be lying if I said I never thought about it.”

“It’s definitely there in the back of your head,” he said.

The Lightning host the Penguins on Saturday.

Expect Vasilevskiy to start that one.