Jeff Vinik giving the St Pete Times Forum a facelift for next season

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When Jeff Vinik bought the Tampa Bay Lightning from Len Barrie and Oren Koules, there was a serious need for an owner who would pour time, money, and energy into getting the franchise back on the path towards respectability. A great new general manager, a hotshot young coach, a few good moves, and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals later and the Lightning are regarded as one of the better teams in the East. What a difference 16 months can make. Now that Vinik’s team has made his mark on the league, he’s using his money to make a mark on the building his team plays in. Literally.

In February, the team announced a $35 million renovation project to give the St Pete Times Forum a much needed facelift. The 15-year-old building was ready for a little touching up; but instead ownership is going all out and giving the building a complete makeover. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. From the St. Petersburg Times, Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke shows exactly where the priorities for the renovated building lie as they tore out eight luxury suits to open up the concourse for fans:

“That was a very challenging decision because ultimately, for our long-term viability, we’ve got to make sure we draw more revenue. But we felt the building in some ways needed a soul.”

(snip)

Re: new seats in arena: “It was the more expensive option, but at the end of the day it really underscored for all of us how serious this guy [owner Jeff Vinik] was in serving our fans. It was a six-figure decision, and he was right. I think it was a moment many of us will remember for a long time, his jumping from seat to seat and saying, ‘This is more comfortable. This is the right thing to do.’ “

These are the kinds of things that will endear a billionaire owner to his team’s fanbase. The renovation project is something that is needed to maintain the building as a world-class venue, but it’s not something that Vinik needs to do to keep the Forum as an acceptable place to house the Lightning. Just look at Nassau Coliseum.

From all accounts he’s doing it the right way—rethinking the entire arena to make it a more distinctive place for the Lightning to call home. More importantly, he’s making the fan experience better for the 21,500 people who show up for a home game. The team is ripping out over 500 seats to install a huge pipe organ with a bar that will be one of the arena’s new distinguishing features. As said before, they tore out eight luxury suits so the concourse is opened up for a better fan experience. There will be new, more comfortable seats all over the arena and the sightlines will be reconfigured. The list goes on and on.

On top of the $35 million, Vinik is having one of the entrances rebuilt/reconfigured (West Plaza entrance) to give the arena a “grand entry” point to serve as the face of the building. Again, the new entrance will be fully funded by Vinik in order to make the arena the best possibly location for his team and their fans. A new entrance won’t translate to any more wins on the ice, it probably won’t help lure any free agents, and it certainly won’t help the ratings on television. It just makes the Forum a more appealing place for the Lightning fans.

The moves show that ownership is behind this team for the long-haul. In an environment where the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg, the Coyotes are in a state of flux, and a segment of NHL fans are calling complaining about just about every sunbelt team, the move is symbolic gesture of permanence. The financial commitment says, “feel free to devote yourself to being a fan, because we aren’t going anywhere.” If you don’t think that’s important, ask a Phoenix Coyotes fans what it’s like rooting for a team when they’re never sure about the future. The Atlanta Thrashers could have used a move like this—but it’s a move that the Atlanta Spirit group never would have made.

Sixteen months ago, who would have ever uttered these words: “Lightning fans are lucky to have the owner they do.”

Drouin or Galchenyuk at center? Habs may choose neither

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It’s been a weird season for the Montreal Canadiens, and Tuesday presented a new wrinkle.

With Phillip Danault sidelined (but resting at home) with a concussion after taking that scary Zdeno Chara shot, the Canadiens are dealing with some injuries at center. One would think that might inspire management to keep Drouin in the middle, or – dare we wonder – even give Galchenyuk another shot at center.

Instead, the plan for at least one day is to mark “none of the above,” with Galchenyuk at left wing and Drouin on the right on a line with Jacob De La Rose. This seems like a good time to break out that blinking gif, eh?

To review, Bergevin explained about a week ago that Drouin was better suited to play at wing “in an ideal world.” It was startling to hear Bergevin say that much after dismissing Galchenyuk as a center – to some controversy – back in September.

Maybe this ends up being a short-term experiment; maybe this is what Bergevin and/or Julien wanted along along. But yes, it’s a little odd.

Now, not a lot has changed since PHT did this study of how Drouin was doing heading into a reunion in Tampa Bay.

Despite being 60.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, Drouin’s been a poor possession player. He’s also regressed from an already weak place on faceoffs, winning a pitiful 40.4 percent of his draws this season. With just six goals and 21 points in 39 games, Drouin hasn’t been explosive enough to excuse his other failings. (Numbers via Hockey Reference.)

To that extent, it’s almost surprising the Canadiens waited so long, but it’s still frustrating for many to see them so easily dismiss Galchenyuk’s acumen while seemingly letting Drouin’s shortcomings slide.

Much of that frustration comes from the feeling that they’re essentially mirror images: offensive players who can thrive in the right situations, but can also frustrate their coaches. During Drouin’s Lightning days, Jon Cooper essentially said the same things about his two-way struggles as the Habs have about Galchenyuk. Remember that “two nets” comment?

So, yes, on many levels it’s baffling that the Canadiens are rolling Paul Byron out at center and putting De La Rose in the middle rather than allowing Galchenyuk to get another shot.

The real key might be about a different kind of opportunity: if this is how they get the best players on the ice more often, it may all be worth the headaches and snickers. Because when you line up with Drouin, there’s a solid chance you’ll be getting more reps.

Just look at Alex Galchenyuk’s split stats. It’s a small sample size, but so far in January, his average time on ice is 18:37, a mark that towers over his season average of 15:25. The way Julien sees it, De La Rose can do the heavy lifting while those two (ideally) light up the scoreboard.

“At the end of the day, you have a center who might be a little more defensive when you’re in your own end and I want them to play in the other end. The quicker you can kill the play, the better,” Julien said, via PHT’s Joey Alfieri. “Let those two other guys use their offense to their advantage.”

There are quite a few hockey people who envision a future in which you rarely look at the five skaters on the ice as five different positions, instead letting the situation dictate and transition flow organically. Such a way of thinking would probably be the most positive way to look at this situation. At least beyond the previously stated very-bright-side of getting Galchenyuk on the ice more often, without being to Drouin’s detriment.

If nothing else, Drouin and Galchenyuk are finding some chemistry and rhythm together, and that could end up being a beautiful pairing to watch.

It’s so zany it might just work.

That doesn’t keep it from being zany, though.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Flyers look to push winning streak to five games against Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the New York Rangers host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

The Flyers aren’t currently in a playoff spot, but things have been going pretty well for them of late. They’ll head into tonight’s game riding a four-game winning streak. In each of those victories, they’ve managed to score at least four goals.

Captain Claude Giroux has continued to light it up offensively during the winning streak. Not only has he racked up eight points during his team’s winning streak, he’s also registered at least one point in 11 of his last 12 contests, which is pretty impressive.

But Giroux isn’t the only one producing. Linemates Jakub Voracek (seven points in four games) and Sean Couturier (nine points in four games) have also helped the Flyers catch fire of late.

Another reason the Flyers have been filling the net is because of their red-hot power play that is now 7-for-14 in their last four outings.

As for the Rangers, they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum right now. They’re currently one point ahead of the Flyers in the Eastern Conference standings, but Philadelphia has a game in hand. The fact that New York has dropped three games in a row certainly won’t help their chances of playing hockey in the spring.

Their most recent loss may have been their ugliest one in a while, as they were badly out played by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday night.

Star netminder Henrik Lundqvist was particularly vocal after the disaster that took place on the weekend (they lost 7-2 to the Islanders on Saturday and 5-2 to the Penguins on Sunday).

“You have to face it, too. The last 15-20 games, we’re a team that’s going to battle hard to get in,” Lundqvist said, per the New York Post. “We score about two goals a game, so obviously we have to limit our mistakes to stay in games. That’s a fact, and that’s something we have to realize. I’m going to start with myself, work as hard as I can and try to help the team.

“And we need everyone doing that to see if we can turn it around.”

On a positive note, Ryan McDonagh, who’s missed the last game with an undisclosed injury, was back on the ice this morning. McDonagh could return to the lineup tonight.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Top 2018 draft prospect Dahlin makes Sweden Olympic roster

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STOCKHOLM (AP) — Projected No. 1 NHL draft pick Rasmus Dahlin has made Sweden’s Olympic hockey roster and could be the youngest player in the tournament.

Dahlin, 17, played at the recent world junior championship when Sweden earned the silver medal. Dahlin joins several former NHL players, including goaltenders Jhonas Enroth and Viktor Fasth and forwards Viktor Stalberg, Linus Omark and Joakim Lindstrom.

Sweden announced its 25-man roster Tuesday, less than a month before the Olympic tournament without NHL players begins in South Korea. Although 2006 gold-medal-winning goaltender Henrik Lundqvist won’t be there, his twin brother is on the team. Joel Lundqvist is a forward who played three seasons with the Dallas Stars.

Enroth is the only player back from the 2014 Sochi Olympic team that lost in the final to Canada and wound up with silver.

Matt Gilroy eager to embrace Olympic opportunity for the U.S.

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The promise was a simple one: Wherever his athletic career took him, Matt Gilroy would wear No. 97 to honor his brother Timmy. That’s what a 9-year-old Gilroy told his mother after Timmy, who was 8, died following a bicycle accident.

The No. 97 for Timmy and Gilroy’s No. 98 was the result of a compromise after both brothers wanted to wear Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99 while playing youth hockey.

Since Timmy’s death in August 1993, that promise has seen No. 97 worn at Boston University, where Gilroy won the Hobey Baker Award and captained the Terriers to a national championship in 2009. It was on his back during a 225-game NHL career that took him from New York to Ottawa to Florida. It’s been there since he signed to play in the KHL beginning with the 2014-15 season, and it will be there when he represents the United States at the Winter Olympics next month.

“It’s the first thing I do when I go into locker rooms,” Gilroy told Pro Hockey Talk this week. “I always look at the number and my name and it just reminds me of Timmy and how special he was. Now to see it on an Olympic jersey on the Olympic ice will be pretty crazy.”

PyeongChang won’t be the first time Gilroy, who plays in Finland with Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League, has represented the U.S. He played at the 2010 World Championship and the 2015 and 2017 Deutschland Cups. Now he’ll get to live out an Olympic dream that he didn’t think was possible until last spring.

“It’s still very exciting,” he said. “I really just can’t wait to get over there and start playing.”

[USA Hockey announces 2018 Olympic men’s roster]

In the two weeks since the U.S. Olympic roster was announced, Gilroy’s phone hasn’t been blowing up like you’d think with well-wishers. It’s been his family who have received most of the congratulations from people in and around their North Bellmore, N.Y. home. He has a theory why that’s been.

“People don’t realize that my phone works over here,” he joked.

Gilroy began talking to USA Hockey in May after the NHL announced it wouldn’t be sending its players to the Olympics for the first time since 1994. While he believes NHL players should be in PyeongChang, he’s embracing the chance to wear the red, white and blue.

“I think everyone who plays hockey, all the guys in the NHL, love where they come from and everyone wants to represent their country at the Olympics,” he said. “I think they should have been allowed to go. Unfortunately, they [aren’t], but fortunately for me I’ve got the opportunity.”

Gilroy will be joined by two Jokerit teammates — Ryan Zapolski and Brian O’Neill — as well as John McCarthy, who is currently playing for the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda. The two have been best friends since rooming together during their freshman year at BU. Their final collegiate season was 2008-09 when they co-captained the team to a national title. Reunited on the U.S. roster will make the Olympic experience even more special for the two.

Right now, the U.S. team has moved from an email chain to a WhatsApp text message thread to keep in touch. Everyone on the roster has some connection to at least one other player, so it won’t be like 25 strangers coming together with a couple of days of practice before game their first game on Feb. 14 against Slovenia.

Ten months ago, none of the players on the U.S. squad were thinking about PyeongChang, but thanks to the NHL, the door swung open for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s also a chance for many of them, Gilroy included, to showcase their talents for an even bigger opportunity in the future — an NHL return.

“That’s always in the back of your head,” said Gilroy. “The NHL is the best league in the world. I would do anything to get back there. But then you have to embrace the opportunity of where I am now, the life experience I’ve been able to [have], experiencing playing hockey, playing a game that I’ve played since I was a young kid, which is pretty special.

“The biggest experience is definitely going to the Olympics. If we can put our stamp on the Games as a team and come away with a medal, that would be pretty special for all of us.”

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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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.