Four key position battles for ’14 Winter Olympics

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With news of a working understanding that NHL players will participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics, we thought it’d be a good time to start looking at the fight for jobs in 2014.

Why four? Because the games are every four years, and I couldn’t come up with a fifth.

Who’ll be Canada’s  starting netminder?

While the state of Canadian goaltending is hardly in flux, the current choices for No. 1 do come with question marks…

— Roberto Luongo, who led the country to gold in Vancouver, was resigned to a backup role with the Canucks.

— Carey Price struggled mightily for Montreal down the stretch and into the playoffs.

— Cam Ward suffered a season-ending knee injury in March.

— Marc-Andre Fleury has been benched in favor of Tomas Vokoun.

— Martin Brodeur will be closing in on his 42nd birthday.

Other candidates — Mike Smith, Corey Crawford, Brian Elliott — have been mentioned, but they’re considered peripheral contenders at best.

Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun is pushing Braden Holtby for consideration, but that seems like a longshot.

Who’ll be Finland’s starting netminder?

Almost the polar opposite situation from Canada’s — it could be argued Finland has the best goaltending depth in the world right now:

— Tuukka Rask, who just posted arguably the finest regular season of his career.

— Antti Niemi, who just received his first-ever Vezina nomiation.

— Pekka Rinne, who finished third in last year’s Vezina voting.

— Niklas Backstrom, who tied for the NHL lead in wins (24) this year.

— Kari Lehtonen, who posted back-to-back 3o-win seasons from 2010-12.

No shortage of quality candidates to choose from, and this list doesn’t even include Miikka Kiprusoff.

Who’ll be Team USA’s head coach?

The smart money is on Pittsburgh’s Dan Byslma who, since taking the Pens gig in 2009, has:

— Posted a 201-92-25 regular-season record (.671 winning percentage).

— Qualified for the playoffs every year, won Stanley Cup in 2009.

— Captured Jack Adams in 2011.

Despite that resume, Bylsma will have challengers for the gig.

New York’s John Tortorella and Philadelphia’s Peter Laviolette will likely be in the mix, as both have coached at the national team level in previous years.

Jack Capuano, coming off a highly-successful campaign with the Islanders, will also garner some consideration, as will Jackets bench boss Todd Richards after orchestrating a tremendous playoff push in Columbus.

Who’ll play defense for the Russians?

According to NHL.com, there were just nine Russian defensemen in the league this year — Andrei Markov, Sergei Gonchar, Slava Voynov, Fedor Tyutin, Alexei Emelin, Dmitry Kulikov, Nikita Nikitin, Anton Volchenkov and Dmitry Orlov.

It’s an odd group, age-wise:

— Gonchar (39) and Markov (35 in December) are old.

— Orlov (22), Kulikov (23) and Voynov (23) are young.

— The guys in the middle are…nothing to write home about.

There were signs of trouble on the Russian blueline during the ‘1o winter games, when the roster included three KHL defensemen (and a fourth, Edmonton’s Denis Grebeshkov, who would soon join them.)

Team Russia proceeded to allow 13 goals over four games, including seven in a quarterfinal loss to Canada.

Habs president Molson pens glowing farewell letter to Markov

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Another bold move by GM Marc Bergevin, another statement from Montreal Canadiens president/CEO Geoff Molson.

However Molson actually feels about the franchise’s decision to let Andrei Markov leave for the KHL, he provided quite the goodbye letter regarding the 38-year-old defenseman. One can’t help but wonder how Molson feels about Montreal’s overall makeover, whether you believe Mark Streit is really “replacing” Markov or not.

Anyway, that will need to wait. In the meantime, here’s the very kind statement from Molson to Markov:

“On behalf of the entire organization, I would like to thank Andrei for his great contributions during his 16 seasons as a proud member of the Montreal Canadiens. Arguably one of the best defensemen in franchise history, Andrei was a model of dedication to the great game of hockey. A respected figure around the league and among his teammates, Andrei demonstrated leadership both on and off the ice. Andrei’s commitment to our franchise was second to none, proven by his overcoming three serious and potentially career-ending injuries. I would like to wish Andrei the best of luck in the next step of his career, and happiness with his family.”

Speaking of Canadiens all-timers, Larry Robinson had plenty of nice things to say about Markov, too.

Related

Markov, Habs officially part ways.

Markov is headed to the KHL.

Sabres re-sign Eichel’s buddy Rodrigues for two years

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The Buffalo Sabres might have signed Evan Rodrigues back in 2015 in part because he enjoyed so much success as a college linemate with Jack Eichel at Boston University, but the undrafted forward seems like he’s making a case that he’ll be a part of their future in his own right.

The Sabres handed Rodrigues a two-year deal that is two-way in 2017-18 and one-way in 2018-19. Whenever he’s at the NHL level, it’s worth $650K per season.

Rodrigues debuted in 2015-16, scoring a goal and an assist in two games. He managed to play in 30 regular-season contests for the Sabres last season, collecting six points.

He’s shown quite a bit of improvement at the AHL level, in particular. After collecting 30 points in 72 games for the Rochester Americans in 2015-16, he scored 30 again in 2016-17, although he only needed 48 contests to do so. Rodrigues isn’t quite Matt Moulson to Eihel’s John Tavares just yet, but it’s possible that he might at least development into a regular NHL player.

Buffalo’s work isn’t done for the summer just yet, as RFAs Zemgus Girgensons and Nathan Beaulieu still need deals.

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

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Andrei Markov wanted to play his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens. With that option officially off the table, Markov announced that he’s headed for Russia and the KHL.

“I didn’t see myself with any other NHL team,” Markov said during a conference call wrapping up his lengthy stay with the Habs. “I didn’t see myself wearing another jersey.”

(At least not the jersey of another NHL team.)

The 38-year-old also noted that he hasn’t closed the door to a return to Montreal. That makes sense since it seems like it was largely the Canadiens’ decision to part ways with Markov, essentially replacing him with Mark Streit at a heavily discounted rate.

Beyond the comforts of home, Markov was almost certainly motivated to play in the KHL because of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The veteran blueliner did not mention which KHL team he’ll end up playing for. There were some rumblings that Markov might sign with the Florida Panthers, but that turned out to not be true.

If it’s a one-year deal, a return to the Habs is at least feasible in 2018-19. Considering his age, it sure seems like this is the end of Markov’s lengthy run with the Canadiens, though.

After making NHL debut, Jones re-ups with Isles

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One of the Isles’ feel-good stories from last season wrote a new chapter on Thursday.

Connor Jones, the undrafted 26-year-old that made his NHL debut in April, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced.

Jones certainly earned his way to the show. He spent four years at Quinnipiac before catching on with the Oilers, spending time with both their AHL and ECHL affiliates before jumping to the Isles organization in 2015.

Though he’s not an offensive producer — just 19 points in 58 games with Bridgeport last season — Jones emerged as a good energy guy that proved an effective penalty killer.

With AHL Bridgeport, he also played alongside his twin brother, Kellen, who was in attendance as Connor made his NHL debut in April.

Connor would go on to play four games for the Isles, averaging just under 12 minutes per night.