Bickell upbeat after first post-injury practice

Not that the Chicago Blackhawks are hurting for forwards right now, but they might get one back soon anyways.

Bryan Bickell skated on Friday for the first time since suffering what’s believed to be a knee injury.

“I feel great,” Bickell told the Chicago Tribune.

The 27-year-old forward doesn’t have a timetable for his return, but Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville suggested that Bickell might be available following Chicago’s upcoming stretch of three games in four nights. Their first contest after that will be on Dec. 20 against the Vancouver Canucks.

Chicago has scored at least six goals in each of their last three games and leads the league with an average of 3.68 goals per game. Bickell has played a relatively small part in his team’s offensive production with five goals and six points in 22 games.

Expectations were high for him after he broke out during the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs with 17 points in 23 contests. However, he was averaging 15:22 minutes per contest in the postseason compared to 12:54 in 2013-14.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.

Bolts re-sign Sustr — one year, $1.95 million

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Tampa Bay shored up some blueline depth on Monday, agreeing to terms with Andrej Sustr on a one-year, $1.95 million extension.

Sustr, 26, appeared in 80 games for the Bolts last season, matching Braydon Coburn for most played among defensemen. Prior to the campaign, he represented the Czechs at the World Cup of Hockey.

A restricted free agent, Sustr gets a pay bump from the $1.45 million he made annually on his last deal. There’s a good chance he’ll see an increased role next year, especially after the Lightning lost Jason Garrison to Vegas at the expansion draft. It also remains to be seen if GM Steve Yzerman will bring back depth blueliner Luke Witkowski, an unrestricted free agent.

That said, Sustr could still be pushed for minutes.

The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder might face a challenge from the likes of Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek and Mikhail Sergachev, the prized youngster acquired from Montreal in the Jonathan Drouin trade.