Dan Bylsma

Dan Bylsma says the Penguins will be better this season

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Last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins did some amazing work being able to fight through injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and finish fourth in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins were one point away from winning the Atlantic Division and coach Dan Bylsma was rewarded for his work in keeping the team together by winning the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

Despite those accolades, the Penguins still bowed out of the playoffs in the first round, losing in seven games to Tampa Bay despite taking an initial 3-1 series lead. Obviously not having Crosby and Malkin made a big difference there offensively, but after a summer that sees both of them doing their best to get back into game shape and adding Steve Sullivan to the mix, Dan Bylsma is feeling good about the upcoming season.

Bylsma tells Sam Kasan of the Penguins website that he thinks they’ll be even better next season.

“I think we’re a better team now than we were at the start of the last hockey season. That’s a pretty exciting thing to think about,” said the 2011 NHL Coach of the Year. “We have to get to work and that starts in September. There is still a little bit of a waiting game. I’m looking forward cranking it up and get ready for training camp and the rest of the season.”

The Penguins have added several players at forward and defense, like Steve Sullivan, Jason Williams, Alexandre Picard and Boris Valabik, to an already impressive depth pool within the organization.

“We’ve added a lot of depth to our team with defensemen and forwards that can have an impact on our team,” Bylsma said. “As last year was an indication, injuries always play a part, and we’re going to need these players to play a role on our team.

The Penguins additions in the offseason aren’t name-grabbing types of guys, but getting healthy Crosby and Malkin will be all the additions they’ll need to be even better. With the torrid start to the year the Penguins had last year, losing Crosby in January to a concussion and then Malkin to a knee injury later proved to be offensive killers. The team’s dedication to toughness and defense helped keep them rolling along.

Should that same dedication to defense couple with the comeback of the Penguins’ offense as well as top flight goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins will again be major contenders out of the Eastern Conference. Of course, everyone will feel better off once Crosby is participating in full on-ice activities and Malkin gets cleared to practice in full when he gets back to Pittsburgh, but there’s every reason in the world for Penguins fans to be excited and Pittsburgh haters to be nervous about the upcoming season.

Colorado’s core is under heavy scrutiny, yet again

BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 25: (l-r) Joe Sakic and Alan Hepple of the Colorado Avalanche attend the 2016 NHL Draft on June 25, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Prior to Thursday’s loss to Columbus, Colorado GM Joe Sakic was asked how his core players have performed during an ugly 9-12-1 start to the year — “inconsistent,” he said — and was then asked he had any intention of breaking the core up.

“Not right now, no,” Sakic said, per the Denver Post. “It’s early in the year.

“I have faith in them, but to me, the start is not a core thing — it’s a team thing.”

Not long after Sakic said that, the Avs lost their fourth straight game, putting them on 19 points — tied with Arizona for the fewest in the NHL.

And then, in his first real bit of message-sending, head coach Jared Bednar took the core to task.

“I’m going to say this,” Bednar said in his postgame media availability. “Tonight, I thought our supporting cast did a real good job up front. I didn’t love some of our top guys tonight. Not that they didn’t work hard, but I didn’t love their game as a whole.”

The controversy surrounding Colorado’s core guys dates back to the Patrick Roy era. After missing the playoffs for a second straight year — which he called “unacceptable” — Roy unloaded on his top players in an April radio interview, saying “the core needs to show more leadership.”

“It was like this when I played for Montreal, it was like this when I played for the Avs,” Roy continued. “The core are the ones that have to carry the team. They’re the ones where, when you lose a game, it has to hurt from the inside. You should want more.”

At this point, it’s probably prudent to identify exactly who comprises the Avs’ core. The Post says it’s “generally considered to be six players, now all tied up to long-term contracts.” Six of the longest-term contracts on Colorado’s books belong to Nathan MacKinnon (signed through 2023), Erik Johnson (2023), Gabriel Landeskog (2021), Tyson Barrie (2020), Matt Duchene (2019) and Semyon Varlamov (2019).

Carl Soderberg, signed through 2020, could be seen as the potential seventh member.

Roy clearly wanted to move on from at least some of these guys, and the fact Sakic didn’t was a major reason why Roy abruptly resigned in August. But it wasn’t that Sakic just keep the core intact — he actually strengthened his commitment to it by giving Barrie a four-year extension this summer, at a time when many figured the puck-moving blueliner would be dealt.

In light of that, it’s not really surprising that Sakic came out yesterday and publicly defended his core guys.

He’s sticking to his guns.

For now, anyway.

Like the Blackhawks, the Ducks have a youth movement of their own

Anaheim Ducks' Ondrej Kase, center, of the Czech Republic, celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks with Ryan Getzlaf, left, Nick Ritchie, front right, and Cam Fowler, back, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Vancouver, British Columba. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The Anaheim Ducks, after a fairly unimpressive start under new/old coach Randy Carlyle, are slowly but surely beginning to find their game. The Ducks dominated the Canucks last night in Vancouver, a 3-1 triumph that came after consecutive victories in San Jose and at home to Montreal.

Last night’s game-winning goal was scored by Ondrej Kase, a 21-year-old rookie forward from the Czech Republic who was playing only his eighth NHL game.

That’s worth mentioning, because the Ducks have been forced to introduce a number of young forwards into their lineup, after losing the likes of David Perron, Chris Stewart, and Jamie McGinn to free agency, and while Nate Thompson remains sidelined with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Carlyle was asked if his lineup needed some fresh blood anyway, after last season’s disappointing first-round playoff exit.

“Well, if we did or didn’t, it was budget,” he said. “Simple as that. So that’s the way the hockey world works. You can’t maintain the level of player and the pay scale when you have talent in your lineup that grows. So you always have to have a fresh supplement of talent, and they have to be entry-level people.”

The Ducks, of course, had to give significant raises to a couple of their young stars, Rickard Rakell and Hampus Lindholm.

     Read more: With Lindholm signed, Ducks GM hopes to keep team together

Kase, a seventh-round draft pick in 2014, is just one of the rookie forwards who’ve played for the Ducks this season. Joseph Cramarossa is another. Nick Ritchie isn’t a rookie, but he’s still on his entry-level deal.

“We’re still very much so a work in progress from the standpoint that we haven’t found a niche for every player,” said Carlyle. “You know, big Ritchie’s been a good player for us. … Cramarossa basically coming in and earning a spot in training camp. Kase. Those are decent entries into our lineup and we don’t have to play them too high. And that really helps when you don’t have to put them into your top-six forward grouping.”

That’s because the Ducks still have veterans like Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Corey PerryJakob SilfverbergAndrew Cogliano, and Antoine Vermette.

The Ducks, in that way, are a lot like the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve been forced to an even larger extent to insert fresh blood into their lineup. It’s been a work in progress for Chicago as well. Though the ‘Hawks have been winning a lot of games, they’ve been heavily reliant on their veterans for goals. Whether they can become a consistent three- or four-line threat by springtime remains to be seen.

In fact, for both teams, that question may very well determine how far they go in the playoffs.

Because like Carlyle said, for teams to remain successful in today’s NHL, there has to be that constant supply of young talent. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with their contributions from all the Baby Pens, proved that again last season.

When that supply runs out, well, did you see the team the Ducks played last night? There’s a reason the Canucks are no longer among the league’s elite. Their supply ran out for a few years, and it’s only starting now to be replenished.

Abdelkader out 2-4 weeks as another — yes, another — injury hits Detroit

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 15: Justin Abdelkader #8 of the Detroit Red Wings skates against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 15, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Flyers defeated the Red Wings 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Injuries are a part of the game. But in Detroit, they’re becoming a fabric of the team.

On Friday, the Red Wings announced that burly power forward Justin Abdelkader would miss the next 2-4 weeks with a MCL sprain (per the Free Press), suffered in last night’s OT loss to Florida.

Abdelkader — who has four goals and eight points through 22 games this season — was averaging 16:26 TOI per night prior to getting hurt. He’d also been heating up lately after a slow start to the year, with four points in his last six contests.

As mentioned in the headline, this is just the latest in a series of injuries to hit the Wings:

Andreas Athanasiou has been out since Nov. 11 with a knee injury.

Darren Helm has been out since Nov. 17 with a shoulder issue.

Jimmy Howard hasn’t played since Nov. 25 due to a groin strain.

Alexey Marchenko was placed on IR last week with a shoulder problem of his own.

Brendan Smith is out four weeks with a knee injury.

Tyler Bertuzzi is out 3-5 weeks with a high ankle sprain.

The club is expected to make another recall from AHL Grand Rapids to fill the Abdelkader void. Leaning on the Griffins has been a common trend this year — in last night’s game against the Panthers, both Anthony Mantha and Ryan Sproul saw significant playing time.

Gudbranson threatened Martin in a ‘fit of rage,’ didn’t really mean what he said

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Erik Gudbranson didn’t really mean it. He doesn’t actually intend to kill Matt Martin.

“That was kind of a spur of the moment,” Gudbranson said Thursday. “I was walking to the dressing room. I was just frustrated. That was a tough night. Do I mean anything I said? Absolutely not. That’s outrageous. That’s just kind of a fit of rage. Unfortunately, it got blown up to that proportion.”

Gudbranson, of course, was heard saying, “Matt Martin’s dead,” after his Vancouver Canucks got thumped, 6-3, in Toronto on Nov. 5. Martin, the big Maple Leafs forward, had gone after Canuck rookie Troy Stecher in the boisterous affair, which had also featured a controversial Nazem Kadri hit on Daniel Sedin, among a few other things.

The Canucks have a rematch with the Leafs Saturday in Vancouver.

Gudbranson was asked if he’d heard anything from the league ahead of the game. He hadn’t, personally, but his general manager, Jim Benning, was contacted, and then Benning relayed the message to Gudbranson.

The message is obviously that the league will be watching closely.

The Canucks, currently missing their two best defenseman, had one of their worst performances of the season Thursday, falling 3-1 to the Ducks at Rogers Arena. So they should be doubly motivated to play well Saturday against the visitors from Toronto.

“That’s a good hockey team that spanked us in their own building,” Gudbranson said of the Leafs. “Our main focus, and especially mine, is coming out and getting two points. That’s the best way to hurt them. We need to be ready for a big tilt.”