Stalberg activated off IR, will make Preds debut vs. Isles

Nashville estimated Vitkor Stalberg would miss 3-4 weeks after injuring his shoulder in the preseason.

Turns out he’ll only miss 18 days.

On Saturday, Stalberg was activated from injured reserve and announced he’d make his regular season debut against the Islanders, his first game since getting hurt during a Sept. 24 exhibition game against Tampa Bay.

“Yes, I’m in tonight,” Stalberg told Sun Belt Hockey following the morning skate. “I wouldn’t be in if I wasn’t 100 percent sure [my shoulder] wasn’t 100 percent functional.”

Stalberg, 27, signed a four-year, $12 million deal with the Preds this summer after winning a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. Despite his team’s success in the 2013 playoffs, the Swedish speedster struggled individually, scoring no goals and just three assists in 19 games.

With scoring-challenged Nashville, he was hoping for a top-six role.

It remains to be see where Preds head coach Barry Trotz puts Stalberg tonight, though reports from the morning skate said Stalberg was working with fellow Swede Filip Forsberg.

Nashville could certainly use Stalberg back in the lineup. The club is 1-3-0 to start the year and has scored just six goals over its first four games.

Kunitz, Cullen know this might be their last kick at the can

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PITTSBURGH — Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz are the oldest forwards on the Penguins roster. Both are without contracts for next season.

Those facts are not lost on either guy.

“I’m 40 here, and I understand where the world of hockey is at,” Cullen said Sunday at Stanley Cup media day. “I know very well that this could be my last chance.”

Talking of savoring the moment isn’t new for Cullen. He did this exact same dance last year, explaining that he knew his future was uncertain, but also how he wanted to focus on the present.

For Kunitz, though, this was new.

The 37-year-old is in the last of a three-year deal, set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He, too, trotted out the usual cliches on media day — take it one game at a time, focus on the present, embrace the opportunity at hand — but there was more.

Kunitz, who’s been a Penguin since 2008, acknowledged the special bond developed with his teammates over the last nine years, and how it could soon be over.

“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.

“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”

This was a down year for Kunitz. He finished the regular season with just nine goals — one of the lowest totals of his career — and went a staggering 35 games without finding the back of the net before his Game 7 heroics against Ottawa.

It was a huge moment against the Sens, to be sure. The first double-OT winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final since 1994. It’s one of the biggest goals in Penguins franchise history.

“[Kunitz] played his best game of the playoffs when it matters the most,” Carl Hagelin said following the game. “That’s the type of guy he is and that’s the reason he has three Stanley Cup rings already. He’s just one of those guys you love having on your team.”

Though he can still contribute and remains a good depth forward, it’s unclear if this is the end of Kunitz’s time in Pittsburgh. His role has decreased significantly over the last few seasons, and the club has enjoyed good success implementing younger, speedier forwards like Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary.

But like Cullen, maybe Kunitz and the Pens can find a way.

Cullen went nearly all of last summer without a contract, eventually agreeing on a one-year, $1 million extension to come back to Pittsburgh. It was a relatively modest pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made the season prior — but befitting for a guy that had 16 goals and 32 points in the regular season, and another seven in 19 games to help the Pens win it all.

As mentioned above, this may be it for Cullen. Especially if he wins another Cup. The allure of going out on top is strong, and he says he really can’t envision himself playing anywhere other than Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been through this enough that I know I need to give it some time,” he said. “It’s a decision for me that means a lot, and carries a lot of weight.

“Pittsburgh has just been a perfect fit, in all regards. The community’s been awesome and, for me, the hockey has been unbelievable and couldn’t have gone any better. When you’re sitting here and it’s your second Stanley Cup Final in two years, obviously it’s been a dream.”

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