Gillis pleads his case: ‘We are enduring a challenging period’

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The following is a letter sent from Canucks GM Mike Gillis to ticket holders, in the wake of last week’s Roberto Luongo trade and Ryan Kesler non-trade:

Our mission remains the same: to win the Stanley Cup. Last summer we said we had to make some changes to our team. We need to get younger, faster and stronger to succeed. That process is happening now, as we look to retool by surrounding our veteran stars with new, young talent. You can look at Anaheim as a recent example of a team that has retooled successfully.

Trading Roberto was not an easy decision. We are grateful for his tremendous contribution to our team and city, and we wish him much success. But the moves we’ve made go beyond goaltending. We are now younger and we are getting deeper. We’ve added a big, strong 6’4″ centre in Shawn Matthias, who is excited to be here and will help this team now. And we believe in our talented group of prospects, including Bo Horvat, Nicklas Jensen, Frank Corrado, Dane Fox, Brendan Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk, who will be part of our short and long-term success. We are also well positioned financially, having created over $5 million in cap room to make the right deals for this team. That’s in addition to the $7 million we expect the salary cap to increase next season.

We approached the deadline with long-term success in mind. We were prepared to make a hockey deal on trade deadline day, not a short-term fix. The players offered at the deadline did not fit our vision of where we want our team to go. We need to get younger and more balanced to be more competitive, and we didn’t see the right players to accomplish that goal. We are not willing to compromise our long-term vision for the sake of change.

We are committed to putting a winning team on the ice for you. Our ownership is supportive and will invest whatever it takes to bring the Cup to Vancouver. As we move towards this goal we will continue to invest in your arena and Canucks fan experience.

Thank you again for your continued support. We are enduring a challenging period, but your passion makes it possible for us to put our team in a position to compete. Our organization is committed to doing whatever it takes to win, and we want you to be here with us when we achieve our goal.

The letter comes with Gillis under heavy fire and his job security coming into question. The former player agent hasn’t had much success since winning GM of the Year in 2011, and is facing public backlash among Canuck fans. What’s more, rumors surfaced following the trade deadline that trading Kesler was nixed by Canucks ownership, suggesting Gillis had lost some (if not all) of his decision-making ability — a claim the GM refuted.

Vancouver currently sits 10th in the Western Conference, four points back of Dallas for the final wild card spot. The Canucks haven’t missed the playoffs in six years.

Related: Bieksa doesn’t think ‘the ship is actually going down’ in Vancouver

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.