Observations on Team USA World Junior camp in Lake Placid

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The World Junior Championships aren’t until late December, but teams got their preparations underway with development camps both in Edmonton for Team Canada and in Lake Placid, NY for Team Finland, Team Sweden, and Team USA. I spent Thursday in Lake Placid to check out Team USA’s game against Team Finland to see how the team was looking. Team USA wraps up their camp today with a game against Sweden.

Team USA is bringing back a lot of talent from last year’s team and those more experienced players played strong against Finland. Panthers prospects Nick Bjugstad and Rocco Grimaldi looked good. Grimaldi’s speed and tenacity allows him to keep up with anyone and his ability to move with the puck is unparalleled. Bjugstad is a big kid and can be imposing when lining up at center. Team USA coach Dean Blais has moved him from center to wing and back to see where they can get him going in camp, but he looked good against Finland.

Another forward who looked good was 2011 New York Rangers first round pick J.T. Miller. Miller had a thunderous first period controlling play, forcing the issue offensively and pressuring Finnish defenders on the forecheck. While Miller did pick up a pair of penalties, one that Blais described as a “momentum killer” his abilities as one of the new guys on the team will help make Team USA a better squad in Edmonton at this year’s championships.

source: Getty ImagesMinnesota wild prospects Charlie Coyle (obtained in the Devin Setoguchi-Brent Burns trade) and Jason Zucker had solid games as well. Zucker was able to make up for a poor early penalty against Finland by setting up Bjugstad for a goal. Zucker’s abilities last year in the World Junior Championships showed he has loads of talent but perhaps some bad luck as he hit a lot of posts. The same happened against Finland, but his abilities on the ice are special and he’s set to be one of the big time leaders of this year’s team.

Team USA’s strengths over the years in the WJCs has come from their defense and goaltending and that’s no different this time around. Team USA is able to roll out there with a host of guys that can play different roles on the blue line. Hurricanes prospect Justin Faulk is a smooth puck handler and an offensive threat, especially on the power play. With guys like Jarred Tinordi and Stephen Johns, the U.S. can handle things physically and defend strong as well.

The guy to keep an eye on for the next few years, however, is Seth Jones. At 6’3″ 198 pounds and just 16 years-old, Jones is going to be a hotly watched prospect when he’s eligible for the NHL Draft in 2013. Seeing Jones get to play against Finland he’s raw, but there’s huge promise there. Blais says that Jones has some work to do yet though.

“He makes mistakes too but he makes them out of trying to do something, ” Blais says. “He’s got to communicate a little bit more. He’s so young that he doesn’t want to talk too much but he has to. He’s got to communicate when he’s open and get the puck. But certainly he’s pretty reliable and pretty impressive so far in the tryouts.”

While Jones may not make the final cut for this year’s WJC team, he’s showing that he’ll be a guy worth watching develop over the next few years.

source: Getty ImagesWhen it comes to goaltending, the U.S. has a wealth of riches. Dallas Stars 2010 first round pick Jack Campbell is set to be the man in goal again but 2011 Ducks second round pick John Gibson and 2012 draft eligible Cornell sophomore Andy Iles are there waiting in the wings. Iles plays a very aggressive style and Blais loves the way he plays goal.

“Andy’s been real good. Andy’s going to push Jack Campbell a lot,” says Blais. “I don’t know how his tean’s [Cornell] going to be if he’s the goalie or not, I’m not sure but for us he’s certainly impressed us. He’s going to challenge, in my mind, Jack.”

With a seeming wealth of riches in goal, Team USA would seem likely to not have too many problems finding a way to win even if Campbell struggles. Having more than one goalie to bank on worked great for Blais when he coached the 2010 Team USA WJC team that won gold as he had both Jack Campbell and Mike Lee to rotate in and out of goal as needed.

As for Finland, there was one player to take note of in Buffalo Sabres 2011 first round pick Joel Armia. Armia scored a beautiful goal in the first period to get Finland ahead early after capitalizing on a Justin Faulk blue line turnover. Good thing for Armia that he played well in an otherwise tepid game for the Finns as Sabres top brass spent the week in Lake Placid watching him including head coach Lindy Ruff and owner Terry Pegula.

Usually when you think of an NHL owner, you think of a guy in a suit and being rather super executive like. Not Terry Pegula as he was there looking like just another fan checking out the action in shorts, sneakers, and a Sabres fleece. Yes, owners are real people too.

Team USA’s chances to win gold at this year’s World Junior Championships are strong again and while Canada is by far the favorite, it’ll be up to the United States to find that motivation and extra gear to be able to win it all. Playing it this year in Edmonton and Calgary will make the atmosphere even more intense to deal with, but that didn’t stop Blais and Team USA in 2010 from winning it all in Canada, and they’ll hope to find that magic once again.

For Penguins’ defense, it’s been a group effort to replace Letang

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The handful of men who carry out the most thankless of tasks for the Pittsburgh Penguins are a rag-tag group thrown together by circumstance and a touch of foresight by general manager Jim Rutherford.

They are largely anonymous and blissfully so, only too happy to work in the considerable shadows created by the stars who play in front of them and their unquestioned leader, the one forced to watch the franchise’s run to a second straight Stanley Cup Final in immaculately tailored suits from the press box while he recovers from neck surgery.

When defenseman Kris Letang‘s star-crossed season ended for good in early April when he abandoned any hope of a comeback from the injuries that limited him to just 40 games this season, the chances of the Penguins becoming the first team to win back-to-back titles was supposed to vanish along with him.

Yet here they are hosting Nashville in Game 1 on Monday night, four wins away from a repeat that seemed improbable seven weeks ago. And they’ve done it with a group of blue liners who lack Letang’s unique talents or the undeniable dynamic charisma of the defensemen like P.K. Subban who have helped power the Predators’ dominant sprint to the final.

“That’s fine with us,” said Brian Dumoulin, who leads the Penguins in ice time during the postseason. “They’re great players and stuff like that. No chip on our shoulder. We know who we are as a D core.”

They might be one of the few. A quick introduction.

There’s well-traveled Ron Hainsey, the 36-year-old who needed to wait a record 907 games before reaching the postseason for the first time in his 14-year career.

There’s Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, the battle-tested veteran and the baby-faced kid from Finland, both of whom spent significant chunks of time on the injured reserve this season only to develop an unquantifiable chemistry during the playoffs.

There’s Dumoulin, who has become Pittsburgh’s new iron man with Letang out. There’s Ian Cole, the thoughtful well-bearded conscience who revels in the more physical aspects of his job.

There’s 39-year-old Mark Streit, who like Hainsey was brought in as insurance at the trade deadline then spent six weeks as a healthy scratch only to fill in capably when another spate of injuries struck in the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa.

Mostly, however, there’s Justin Schultz. Considered a disappointment during three-plus underwhelming seasons in Edmonton, Schultz has spent 15 months in Pittsburgh remodeling his game.

It’s Schultz who has taken over as the quarterback on the Penguins’ potent power play. It’s Schultz who has found a knack for the big moment. He delivered the winning goal in Game 4 of the second round against Washington. He put the Penguins ahead in the third period of Game 7 against Ottawa and ended up with the secondary assist on Chris Kunitz‘s knuckler that finally put away the Senators in double overtime.

Schultz is reluctant to talk about his transformation or the upper-body injury that sidelined him for four games during the Ottawa series. He returned for the decider to play more than 24 minutes, gritting his teeth all the way through.

When asked if the injury limited his ability to get off the shot that became his third goal of the postseason, Schultz responded with typical modesty.

“Not full but like I said, those guys did such a good job screening … it didn’t have to be the hardest shot to get through,” said Schultz, who set a career -high with 51 points during the regular season and has added another 10 in the playoffs.

Schultz, however, could always shoot. That’s never been the problem. It’s at the other end of the ice where he’s truly matured and likely made him one of the most coveted free agents to be in the process.

The defenseman who never had any trouble jumping into the play has not become adept at thwarting them too.

“He’s always had ability to excel on the offensive side,” said Penguins assistant Jacques Martin, who coaches the defense. “He’s got tremendous vision. He’s been able to replace Kris on the power play. The area (of growth) that’s most noticeable has been his defensive side … his positioning. He’s improved his compete level, his use of his stick, his position. All areas he’s grown in over the season.”

The Penguins have needed every last ounce of it as they have from the rest of their defensemen who has spent the last four months trying to replace the seemingly irreplaceable Letang.

It’s been a group effort. More than once Pittsburgh has been forced to go long stretches in games with only five defensemen because one of them went down. When Shultz left Game 2 against the Senators, Dumoulin played 26 minutes, Hainsey nearly 25 and Maatta 22. The Penguins survived 1-0 to even the series.

“If you look at last year in playoffs it was Kris Letang and then the rest of us,” Dumoulin said. “That’s not the case right now. Obviously whatever role that you’re asked to do, whatever opportunity is there, you’re going to do it. We’re not going to be the offensive guy Kris Letang was. Nobody is going to be in that aspect.”

The object is to make sure it doesn’t matter. So far, it hasn’t.

“I think we have a group back there that cares about each other, that are really playing within their limitations,” Martin said. “I think that’s the key.”

Related: Penguins’ run to Stanley Cup Final filled with challenges

 

Bobby Ryan doesn’t seem too concerned about being taken in the expansion draft

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The Ottawa Senators had their final meeting with the media for the 2016-17 season on Saturday following their disappointing Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals.

One of the more entertaining moments came during Bobby Ryan‘s scrum when he was asked if he has given any thought to potentially being taken in the expansion draft by the Vegas Golden Knights.

Ryan quickly responded by saying “No,” before laughing and saying “are they going to take $7 million?” He continued to laugh, saying, “I think I’m good.”

The $7 million comment is obviously in reference to his contract that still has five years remaining on it and carries a cap hit of $7.25 million the rest of the way.

The thing is, though, Vegas would almost certainly take a $7 million player if they felt they were going to get $7 million worth of production along with it. Especially since the team has an obligation to take on a certain amount of money in the expansion draft and reach the NHL’s salary floor. Ryan had a down year for the Senators, recording only 25 points in 62 games during the regular season, by far the worst offensive season of his career. He did salvage the year in the playoffs, however, by bouncing back with 15 points in the Senators’ 19 playoff games during their run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Three of his six goals in the playoffs were game-winners, including an overtime goal in Game 1 of the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That said, Ryan is probably correct that Vegas will not be taking him, if for no other reason than his age (he turns 31 next March) and the fact his contract has so many years remaining on it.

The expansion draft will take place on Wednesday, June 21, and every team in the league will lose one player to the NHL’s newest team.

Wild GM is hopeful prized prospect Kirill Kaprizov will join Minny for 2018-19 season

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With rumors on social media suggesting prized Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov has agreed to terms on a long-term deal in the KHL, Minnesota’s general manager Chuck Fletcher has decided to clear the air.

The Wild selected Kaprizov, a five-foot-nine-inch tall forward, in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft.

He had 42 points in 49 regular season games in the KHL this year — promising, if not impressive numbers for the now 20-year-old Kaprizov. He also lit up the 2017 world juniors, with nine goals and 12 points in seven games.

He was recently traded to CSKA Moscow. Despite reports of this long-term deal to stay in Russia, Fletcher, speaking to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, seemed confident the Wild will be able to bring Kaprizov into their lineup for the 2018-19 season.

From the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“We’ve been in contact with his agent over the last couple weeks and we haven’t been made aware of anything like you’re communicating to me,” Fletcher said. “We’re operating under the assumption he’s got a year left. He’s going to play for CSKA, and then he’s interested in coming over and playing for the Wild for the 18-19 season. He’s a heckuva player. I think he’ll be ready to step in and be a good hockey player for us a year from now. That’s our expectation and our hope. We haven’t been notified of anything to the contrary.

“There was a rumor a few weeks ago of something to this effect, too, and his agent shot it down and said it wasn’t true. It’s just been communicated to us that he’s going to play for CSKA another year, and our hope he’s going to suit up for the Wild in 18-19.”

There has also been a recent report that it’s expected former Sabres general manager Tim Murray will join the Wild.

Fletcher also shot down that report for right now, saying it wasn’t “accurate,” although his full comments didn’t completely shut the door on the possibility of such a scenario happening further along down the road.

“We’ll see what the future brings, but right now, that’s not true at all. There’d be a lot of hoops and hurdles there, and it’s not even a good thing to speculate on because there’s nothing true to that at all right now. That’s not true at all.”

Related: Wild owner confirms Fletcher safe as GM

AP sources: Capitals to host Maple Leafs in outdoor game at Naval Academy

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Two people with knowledge of the situation say the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs will play an outdoor game at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, next season.

The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Saturday because the NHL had not announced the event. The game is scheduled to be played March 3 at the 34,000-seat Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium that hosts Navy football games.

It will be the first NHL outdoor game at a U.S. service academy, though quite possibly not the last. The league has explored doing games at the Army’s home at West Point and at the Air Force Academy.

It’s the third outdoor game for the Capitals and Maple Leafs and the first in the Washington area since the 2015 Winter Classic downtown at Nationals Park.

Capitals-Maple Leafs at the Naval Academy will be one of at least three outdoor games next season. The Ottawa Senators will host the Montreal Canadiens in the Heritage Classic on Dec. 19, and the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres will play in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 at Citi Field in New York.

NHL Network revealed on air that the league would announce a game at Navy on Monday.