Toronto Maple Leafs v Philadelphia Flyers

Pronger’s health represents other big question for Flyers’ D

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This summer has been an eventful one for the Philadelphia Flyers’ defense – and the biggest story must still be settled by Nashville Predators’ GM David Poile. Still, whether the Shea Weber offer sheet gamble pays off or not, the Flyers’ blueline will look different. The biggest non-Weber blueline question is: will Chris Pronger patrol it next season?

Flyers GM Paul Holmgren acknowledged Pronger’s “struggles” and that he’s still experiencing headaches, yet Holmgren denied rumors that the hulking defenseman is on the verge of retirement. (If the 35+ rule carries over into the next CBA, the Flyers would eat his $4.92 million cap hit until the end of his contract even if he retires.)

Beyond Holmgren’s denials, there hasn’t been much optimism regarding a possible return for Pronger, who last played a game on Nov. 19, 2011.

Pronger played just under 26 minutes per game for the Flyers during his first (and by far most healthy) season with the team in 2009-10. Departed free agent Matt Carle was the team’s ice time leader last season, so if Pronger remains sidelined and Weber stays in Nashville, the top guys would likely be Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen.

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After suffering ‘a bruise on his backside’ on Friday, Dmitry Kulikov misses practice

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Even though it’s just the preseason, the Sabres had a night to forget on Friday.

Not only did they get clobbered 8-1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they also lost Dmitry Kulikov to injury.

Kulikov left the game in considerable pain after being hit by Colin Greening in the third period. As the Sabres defenseman went into the boards, the door to the Leafs bench opened.

Here’s how it looked:

After the game, head coach Dan Bylsma downplayed the injury.

“He’s got a bruise on his backside, but at this point in time it’s not more than a bruise,” Bylsma said, per the Buffalo News.

According to beat reporter John Vogl, Kulikov wasn’t on the ice for his team’s practice this morning.

It’s still unclear how long he’ll be out exactly. It’s good to know that the Sabres don’t appear to be overly worried about this injury though.

It’s an important year for 25-year-old. He’s entering his first year with the Sabres, but he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Patrick Kane, Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban to make preseason debuts on Saturday

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 15:  Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates after scoring a goal in the third period against the Tampa Bay Lightning during Game Six of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center  on June 15, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The deeper we get into the preseason, the more we’ll see star players being integrated into their team’s lineups.

On Saturday, three big names will make their 2016-17 debuts with their respective teams.

After a stint at the World Cup with Team USA, Patrick Kane will be in Chicago’s lineup for their game against the St. Louis Blues.

Kane and the Americans had a disappointing tournament, as he failed to score a goal and the team failed to win a round-robin game.

Erik Karlsson, who was at the World Cup with Team Sweden, will also play his first exhibition of the season, as the Senators take on the Canadiens this afternoon.

Sens head coach Guy Boucher wasn’t planning on playing his captain this early, but Karlsson changed his mind.

“I was thinking of maybe giving him a break and then taking him on the trip (to Winnipeg and Saskatoon) next week,” Boucher told the Ottawa Citizen. “He had two hard practices. I was impressed by his leadership. He wanted to be playing in front of our fans.”

Finally, P.K. Subban will make his Preds debut against the Lightning.

Subban was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens for Shea Weber this off-season, but he was held out of games because of general soreness.

It sounds like Subban will play on a pairing with Mattias Ekholm.

“It’s great having a partner like that,” Subban said, per the Tennessean. “I’ve had some great partners in the past, but he’s definitely right up there with the best that I’ve played with. I’m not sure exactly what the partners are going to be come the regular season. Those things can switch, but I’m happy to be playing with him.”

Blackhawks’ Rozsival doesn’t know ‘what my role is’ this season

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 20: Michal Rozsival #32 of the Chicago Blackhawks passes against the San Jose Sharks at the United Center on December 20, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Sharks 4-3 in overtime.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival has overcome a lot in his NHL career, but even he isn’t sure where he fits in Chicago’s plans this season.

After suffering a serious ankle injury in the 2015 playoffs, Rozsival returned to the ice last season where he skated in 51 games with the ‘Hawks.

The 38-year-old dressed for the first four games of his team’s opening round playoff series against St. Louis before being a healthy scratch in the final three games.

During the off-season, he signed a one-year, $600,000 contract to remain with the club.

“After last season I had no indications or expectations that I would be back or not,” Rozsival said, per the Chicago Tribune. “So I’m happy to be back.

“Right now, I still don’t know what my role is. It might be determined by the way I play. The last four years I’ve played 20 games, I’ve played 30 games and I’ve played 50 games. I’m ready for anything and for any kind of role. Obviously, I would love to be playing. I’m always trying to fight for my ice time.”

Getting into the lineup won’t be easy. The ‘Hawks already have standouts Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson and they added free agent Brian Campbell during the summer. Add Trevor van Riemsdyk (he’s on a one-way deal) and European free agent Michal Kempny and it looks like finding minutes for Rozsival won’t be easy.

They also have younger options like Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg looking to make an impact at the NHL level.

“I think Michal played great hockey last year,” GM Stan Bowman said. “If anything, we probably played him too much. Michal is at the top of his game when we can give him some time to re-cooperate between games. He still has a lot of hockey left in him.”

Penguins face a difficult road in their quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champs

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates by hoisting the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After the Penguins paraded the Stanley Cup through the streets of Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby took it to his hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Evgeni Malkin to Moscow and Phil Kessel to a children’s hospital in Toronto as part of the summer-long celebration.

If there’s one thing champions in the NHL have learned, it is to savor those moments because history says they won’t happen back-to-back. No team has repeated as Cup champion since the salary-cap era began in 2005, and the last back-to-back winners were the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

Sorry, Penguins. And sorry to the San Jose Sharks, as no team in the past eight seasons has lost in the final and gotten back the next year.

The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings are rested from an unusually short spring, the Tampa Bay Lightning boast the deepest team in the league and the Washington Capitals are virtually unchanged after dominating the regular season. All those things, plus playing into June, stack the odds against the Penguins raising the Cup again in 2017.

“You’re coming off such a high, it’s going to be tough to get to that (level) right away,” Pittsburg defenseman Trevor Daley said. “How you become a great team in this league is you have the hunger every night. Teams that are proven winners are usually the great teams, the L.A.s and Chicagos. Pittsburgh is right up there now in that conversation. We’re hungry to do it again.”

Because they have two top goalies in Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are perhaps the best positioned team to repeat in recent history. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

Online sportsbook Bovada set the Penguins and Blackhawks as co-Cup favorites with the Capitals, Lightning, Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Sharks not far behind. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of those teams make it through a World Cup of Hockey-condensed regular season and a grueling division playoff format and get to celebrate in June.

“The parity in the league allows for a lot of teams to have the same goal and actually legitimately have a chance at it,” said Washington winger Justin Williams, who won the Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and 2014. “There’s a handful of teams that have those aspirations and they’re real.”

Rather than parity, commissioner Gary Bettman prefers the term “competitive balance,” which speaks not only to the lack of repeat champions and the death of NHL dynasties but the variance in playoff teams. Of the 30 teams, 24 have made the playoffs at least once over the past three seasons.

“Unless you’re (cheering for) the team in the dynasty market, you could care less,” Bettman said. “All you care about is that your team is competitive.”

Competition isn’t the problem. It’s so high that playoff teams can’t miss a beat or fear they’ll drop out. The Florida Panthers look like a team just beginning a run of playoff appearances with young stars like Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov, but president of hockey operations Dale Tallon knows it’ll come down to breaks and injuries because “it’s going to be a battle to return to the playoffs.”

It’s a battle because the top teams haven’t lost much.

The Penguins made a few tweaks and will be without Cup-winner Murray to start the season, but they can turn to 2009 winner Fleury and still lean heavily on Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang. Elsewhere in the East, the Lightning re-signed Steven Stamkos, the Capitals are primed for another run with Alex Ovechkin and Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, and the Montreal Canadiens should be back in contention with all-world goalie Carey Price healthy after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

Chicago has cycled pieces in and out while winning the Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, but the core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith is as strong as ever. The Blackhawks would have liked to go deeper in last year’s playoffs, but not doing so could pay dividends this season as it has in the past.

“It might be good for the guys to have a longer offseason and come back hungry for the start of the season,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said.

Trading off years with the Boston Bruins’ 2011 championship mixed in, the Blackhawks and Kings know all too well about the Cup hangover that the Penguins will try to avoid. Peaking at playoff time and maintaining that level amid injuries and bounces takes a lot, plus the system is skewed against back-to-back champions.

“It’s more hard than before when teams were really dominating and could spend so much on salaries and they can buy different players,” said Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa, who lost in the final in 2008 with Pittsburgh and 2009 with Detroit before winning three times with Chicago. “In this modern day, it’s extremely hard. … It’s really, really hard to repeat.”