Hockey Day in America: Lightning sled hockey program sparks national movement

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Happy Hockey Day in America! Be sure to check out PHT throughout the day as we bring you features and previews of all the events, including a nine-hour NHL block of programming across NBC and NBC Sports Network.

An NHL franchise’s most popular mandate is to win the Stanley Cup, but its impact on the community extends far beyond on-ice performance. Teams have a tremendous opportunity to change lives and, with the help of Travis Leigh, the Tampa Bay Lightning have done just that.

Inspired by his hometown Lightning as a teenager, Leigh wanted to take up the sport of hockey, but cerebral palsy hindered his attempts at skating. Ultimately he decided to stay involved in the sport in other ways and when he learned about sled hockey — where players use specialized sleds to move around the ice instead of skates — he joined a team in Sacramento, where he was going to University.

After two years with the California-based club, Leigh — a broadcasting major — approached the Lightning about a possible internship in 2006. While there, he pitched the idea of putting a sled hockey team in Tampa Bay.

“[Lightning Director of Fan Development] David Cole came up to talk to me and was very positive about it,” Leigh said. “It surprised me because I was so used to people saying no.”

From there, Tampa Bay became the first NHL franchise to sponsor a sled hockey club.

The program has since grown and other teams have followed in the Lightning’s footsteps. The United States has established itself as a leader in the sport with its success at the 2010 Winter Paralympics Games, taking home the gold medal without allowing a goal.

USA Hockey has since established the Hockey Sled Classic, a tournament between NHL affiliated teams. For the first tournament, a total of 46 players participated on teams affiliated with the Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks.

A year later, the Philadelphia Flyers hosted over 100 of the nation’s top sled hockey players for the second annual event.

Thanks to the NHL’s involvement, sled hockey teams have been able to take the game outside. Angie McCoy got to see her 16-year-old son, Daniel, score a hat trick in a sled hockey game as part of the lead up to the 2011 Winter Classic. Sled hockey is also on the agenda for events surrounding the upcoming 2013 Winter Classic in Detroit.

From Leigh’s first meeting with the Lightning to what it is today, sled hockey has flourished in the United States. And given how far the sport has come over these few short years, we could one day look back and see this as the beginning of something even greater.

Cullen signs with Wild, opting against retirement (and Penguins)

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Matt Cullen is going home, but that doesn’t mean that he’s retiring from hockey.

Instead, the Minnesota native decided to sign a one-year, $1 million deal with the Minnesota Wild. It’s unclear why, precisely, Cullen didn’t ink a deal to try to “threepeat” with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Wild note that his deal also includes $700K in potential performance bonuses.

This will be the 40-year-old’s second run with the Wild. His first run came from 2010-11 through 2012-13, where he appeared in 193 regular-season games and five postseason contests for Minnesota.

Cullen managed back-to-back 30+ point seasons with the Penguins while providing useful all-around play as a veteran center. If he can maintain a reasonably high level of play, this gives the Wild quite the solid group down the middle, even with Martin Hanzal gone.

Oilers ink Draisaitl to monster eight-year, $68 million deal

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The Edmonton Oilers have locked up their cornerstone players for the foreseeable future.

They didn’t come cheap.

Just weeks after signing Connor McDavid to a eight-year, $100 million deal, the Oilers signed fellow forward Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68 million deal. The contract carries a $8.5M average annual cap hit and, combined with McDavid’s $12.5M, will now cost the Oilers $21M annually through 2025.

McDavid certainly warranted his payday. The same can be said of Draisaitl.

The 21-year-old just wrapped his three-year, entry-level deal, and couldn’t have done so in finer fashion. Draisaitl enjoyed a terrific season, platooning between the second-line center position and the wing alongside McDavid, and finished with 29 goals and 77 points.

Then, the playoffs happened.

Draisaitl had a terrific postseason, racking up six goals and 16 points in 13 games. At the time of elimination he was sitting second among all scorers — trailing only Evgeni Malkin — and was downright brilliant in Edmonton’s seven-game loss to Anaheim, finishing with 13 points.

More to follow…

 

Report: Vegas among teams in on Pens draftee Byron

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Will Butcher isn’t the only college free agent garnering interest in free agency.

University of Maine senior Blaine Byron, Pittsburgh’s sixth-round pick in ’13, has passed on signing with the club and can now ink with a team of his choosing. Per The Hockey News, the four “lead suitors” for Byron are Vegas, New Jersey, Ottawa and Buffalo.

Byron, 22, is coming off a great year. He racked up 18 goals and 41 points in 36 games, finishing tied for 18th in the country in scoring. It’s unclear where he would’ve fit in the Pittsburgh organization, though, and one has to think the signing of Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese might’ve played a factor in his departure.

In a recent Tribune-Review piece, Byron did make a list of the club’s top-20 prospects, coming in at No. 17.

Yesterday, Butcher — the reigning Hobey Baker winner — announced that he wouldn’t sign with Colorado, the team that drafted him four years ago. Instead, Butcher will parlay a successful senior campaign at Denver University into interest on the open market.

Under Pressure: Barry Trotz

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

When the Capitals hired Barry Trotz three years ago, they said he was “the only coach we coveted,” calling him “an ideal fit to help lead our club.”

And in many ways, Trotz has been an ideal fit. He’s led to the club to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, racking up 156 wins over the course of three seasons. He won the 2016 Jack Adams as coach of the year. Players have performed exceptionally well on his watch: Braden Holtby won his first-ever Vezina, Alex Ovechkin racked up a pair of Rocket Richard trophies and both Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were named All-Stars.

Despite all this, Trotz is now coaching for his job. Essentially.

A string of disheartening playoff failures — each more painful than the last — have put him in an uncomfortable and pressure-packed situation. He’s heading into the the last of his four-year deal with no contract certainty beyond.

Yes, it’s true Caps GM Brian MacLellan didn’t make any changes with Trotz or to his coaching staff following the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh.

But MacLellan didn’t offer an extension, either.

Brian Burke once likened this scenario to being a lame duck. Trotz refused to see it that way, insisting that he wasn’t worried about the spot he was in.

“No,” he told CSN Mid Atlantic in June, when asked if not having a contract changes his approach at all. “It has 0.0 effect on me, actually. Not at all. I think it might have [had] an effect 10, 12 years ago for me. Not now. It has zero effect.

“I’m not worrying about that at all.”

This is pretty much on par with Trotz’s messaging from the moment Washington crashed out of the playoffs. While his players were visibly dejected and downright hurt during locker clean-out day, the 55-year-old was upbeat.

Defiant, almost.

Trotz talked about how the team’s window wasn’t closed, and how it would eventually “break through that barrier.” He suggested “laughing at the past” could “ease us into the future.”

The assembled media took note of this, which contrasted the vibe of his visibly distraught players. So it was asked — why did he seem more upbeat than his players?

From the Washington Post:

“Put it this way — I haven’t slept in two friggin’ days. To say that I don’t feel very distraught, that really sort of angers me, because talk to my family to see if I’m distraught.

“I have to be positive in terms of, ‘do I think we’re going in the right direction?’ Yes, and I’m positive of that. But we haven’t broken through. That’s why I’m probably the way I am. I also said we didn’t get to where we wanted to get to.

“That angers me. When something doesn’t go your way, you can roll up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself. I don’t.”

That Trotz took this approach isn’t surprising. Coaching is a leadership role, and there didn’t seem to be any point to piling onto what was already a fairly miserable day in D.C.

So hey, why not keep that vibe going when it comes to contract uncertainty?

Trotz will likely continue to do so, even in the face of growing pressure. And pressure will continue to grow. Remember, there’s one final and very important dynamic at play — right next to Trotz behind the Washington bench is assistant coach Todd Reirden. The same Todd Reirden who’s thought to be a head-coach-in-waiting, and has been tied to previous openings in Colorado and Florida.

Fun times in Washington. As they always are.