20th anniversary may be rough for the Ottawa Senators

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Milestone anniversaries are supposed to be joyous occasions of reflection and celebration. Unlike the Montreal Canadiens, this will be a single year affair where the team honors the awful first team since the franchise was reborn in 1992-93. They’ll unveil new alternative jerseys with a retro-type feel and they’ll host the NHL All-Star Game on January 29. By all accounts, it should be a special year for the fans in Ottawa with all of the special events the organization has planned. If nothing else, the season will start off with a bang when Dany Heatley makes his triumphant return to Ottawa with his new team, the Minnesota Wild.

From the team’s official website:

“This will be a special season for Senators fans,” said Senators president Cyril Leeder. “From the all-star game to a new heritage jersey and special promotions and tributes, we look to recognize the great moments from the last 20 years, while embracing why hockey makes us such big Senators fans.”

“Canada is the home of hockey and our city is proud to have the Senators as such an important part of our community,” said Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. “The Sens’ 20th anniversary season will be a celebration of a great partnership between the people of Ottawa and the team.”

Let’s be honest: another great way for the Sens to celebrate the occasion and honor the fans would be to win a few more games than they did last year. Unfortunately, Mike Brophy of Rogers SportsNet has a harsh dose of reality for any fans expecting greatness this season:

“While many teams will kick off the year hoping to win the Stanley Cup, the Senators’ realistic goal will be to simply make the playoffs. Coming off a season in which they finished 26th overall, the Senators are a heck of a lot closer to that 1992-93 team that finished with a 10-70-4 record than they are to the team that made it to the Stanley Cup final in 2006-07, losing to the Anaheim Ducks in five games.”

That’s rough. But hey, at least they have some good videos to get the fans pumped for the anniversary next season!

There’s no question the rebuilding effort started in earnest in the middle of last season. When it became apparent to GM Bryan Murray that the team was not competitive in the Eastern Conference, he started a fire sale that laid the groundwork for the future. Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu, Alexei Kovalev, and Chris Campoli were all sent out of town for a collection of draft picks. The void created by the jettisoned Senators gave guys like Zack Smith, Colin Greening, Bobby Butler, and Erik Condra an opportunity to prove they could hang in the NHL. And they did. Oh, and the draft picks? When all of Murray’s wheeling and dealing was done, he ended up with three 1st round selections in this year’s entry draft that turned into Mika Zibanejad, Stefan Noesen, and Matt Puempel.

With the plethora of moves, Murray has the Senators in a position they haven’t experienced in a while: hope for the future. He’s done an enviable job of acquiring draft picks and assembling an AHL affiliate in Binghamton that won the Calder Cup last season. They may not have the most formidable NHL roster this season, but fans can take solace in the idea that help is on the way.

As far as this season goes, the Senators are going to need career years from some of their best players if they want to compete. Jason Spezza will have to continue to be a #1 center and feed youngsters like Bobby Butler and Colin Greening. Captain Daniel Alfredsson will have to fully recover from back surgery and channel his inner-2007 Alfredsson on the ice. Sergei Gonchar will have to recapture the magic that made him an elite defenseman and Erik Karlsson will have to continue his march towards the same elite status. But most importantly, goaltender Craig Anderson will have to show everyone why the Senators signed him to a 4-year contract extension after acquiring him in February from Colorado. He’ll have to play like the guy who almost single-handedly carried the Avalanche to a playoff spot in 2009-10. In short, he’ll have to steal more than a few games.

Even if the team struggles next year in the Northeast Division against the likes of the Boston Bruins and new-look Buffalo Sabres, at least they have a few young prospects in the pipeline to make for a brighter future. Now, if people are comparing the team to the original Senators in five years, then there will be some serious cause for concern.

Eriksson looks to bounce back after ‘tough start’ with Canucks

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The Canucks signed Loui Eriksson last summer, with the hopes he’d help give them a boost in scoring.

It didn’t quite turn out that way — at least not during Eriksson’s first year of a lucrative six-year, $36 million contract with the Canucks.

He scored only 11 times with 24 points in 65 games. The previous season in Boston, he scored 30 goals and 63 points in 82 games, so, yeah, it was a drastic drop in production in one year for the veteran winger, who started the year with a 13-game scoring drought.

“It was a tough start,” said Eriksson, per The Canadian Press. “I had to work uphill through the whole season.”

Read more: Under pressure: Loui Eriksson

That’s a difficult start for any player, but especially for one at the beginning of an expensive new deal in a new market.

“I’m anxious to see Loui. I’m confident that he’ll have a good season. We’ve talked about that … about the transition from Boston to Vancouver,” coach Travis Green said at the start of training camp. “He knows he has to have a better year than he had last year. I think he’s more than capable of it.”

The Canucks were active this summer, too, signing a number of free agents. Again, the hope is the additions they made heading into the new season — Sam GagnerThomas Vanek and Michael Del Zotto among them — could help give them a spark offensively, particularly on the power play.

Eriksson’s season ended in early March because of a lower-body injury. Now he’ll look to rebound from a disappointing season at the age of 32.

Panarin trying to ‘find chemistry’ with new teammates in Columbus

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Artemi Panarin faced his old team, the Chicago Blackhawks, on Tuesday.

It was only preseason and Panarin didn’t register a point in just over 22 minutes of ice time, and 8:17 on the power play.

But there was an interesting nugget to come from his media availability following the game — Panarin’s first against his old team following this summer’s blockbuster trade between the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets.

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Panarin was loose and comfortable, occasionally chatting in English and frequently devolving into giggle fits with teammates Vitaly Abramov and Matiss Kivlenieks, who tried in vain to interpret for him. In fact, Panarin said he was ‘‘glad’’ to be with the Blue Jackets, where he’ll have more creative control on the ice. As dynamic as he and Patrick Kane were as linemates, Kane is basically a center playing wing, dominating the puck.

With the Blue Jackets, Panarin can be that guy.

‘‘I can play a little bit more with the puck,’’ Panarin said through the interpreters. ‘‘Just kind of express myself on the ice a little bit more.’’

In two NHL seasons, both with Chicago, Panarin has been a scoring threat, reaching the 30-goal mark twice. Now with Columbus, Panarin is on a two-year contract worth a total of $12 million and will be eligible for unrestricted free agency when this deal concludes, per CapFriendly.

With the Blackhawks, Panarin spent plenty of time alongside Kane and it appears there has been suggestions that his offensive production was inflated as the result of playing on a line with Kane.

That suggestion has annoyed Panarin. Still, he joins a Blue Jackets team already equipped with a strong nucleus of young players that made considerable progress with a franchise-setting regular season in 2016-17.

“We’ll see how the season will go,” Panarin told the Chicago Tribune. “Beginning of the season maybe I’ll need to make some adjustments, but I just try to find chemistry with my new partners. It’s still in progress.”

NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”

 

Report: Up to eight teams have recently expressed interest in Duchene

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Another day, another development in the ongoing, lengthy Matt Duchene trade saga.

“Many teams are interested and many teams have been talking with (general manager) Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche. Up to as many as eight teams over the last stretch of days,” said TSN’s Darren Dreger during Insider Trading.

“But the reality is none of these teams think they’re getting him. If you look at the Ottawa Senators, Pierre Dorion has been among the more aggressive and you look at the need he has with Clarke MacArthur out and Colin White out. But I’m pretty sure Ottawa doesn’t think they’re getting Matt Duchene. And the same applies to Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, the Los Angeles Kings, the Nashville Predators and the Columbus Blue Jackets.”

Yesterday, it was reported in the Ottawa Sun that the Senators were making quite an aggressive push to try to land Duchene, the Avalanche center who has been for months the focus of trade speculation following yet another disastrous season for Colorado’s NHL team. That said, the same report added that the two sides aren’t close.

Duchene has two years remaining on his current contract — five years, $6 million annual cap hit — before he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency.

The Senators are dealing with a list of injuries up front right now, including the aforementioned MacArthur and White, the prospect center who got only a small sample of NHL playing time this past spring after his college season ended and he turned pro. The former did not pass his physical at the beginning of camp and the latter was announced as being out six to eight weeks with a wrist injury.

Last week, Duchene reported for training camp and gave a brief statement to reporters but didn’t take questions. He has since spoken to Mike Chambers of The Denver Post, calling his future with the Avalanche “day to day.”

“I’m not going to predict the future on my longevity here,” Duchene told The Denver Post. “I’m day by day. I’m just enjoying playing hockey. A lot got blown out of proportion. I said what I wanted to say then. Nothing’s changed since Thursday. I’m here to get better, I’m here for those reasons — that I said on Thursday.”