Murky offseason awaits Bylsma, Penguins

60 Comments

PITTSBURGH – If tonight’s Game 7 loss by the Pittsburgh Penguins was the the final game for some in the organization, it’s one that will ultimately be capitalized by frustration.

The Penguins fell to the New York Rangers 2-1 to end their season at the hands of a lower-seeded team. In the five seasons since they won the Stanley Cup, they’ve lost to a team in the playoffs they were supposed to beat.

After five straight disappointing performances, coach Dan Bylsma may find his job in jeopardy. The same could also be said of Penguins General Manager Ray Shero. With the lack of a deft touch with the lineup both behind the bench and in the front office, owner Mario Lemieux may be forced to change things up.

“Our goal, our ultimate goal, is to win the Stanley Cup and we haven’t done that in five seasons,” Bylsma said. “I’m 20 minutes post battling for a Game 7 and right to the bitter end. I haven’t contemplated the price that it’s going to be or anything towards the future yet.”

The Penguins might be able to avoid thinking about the future tonight, but with the offseason suddenly upon the organization, change may be on the way.

“I think there’s always questions,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “When the expectations are high and you don’t win I think that’s normal. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of questions.”

The reason why the Penguins have to face so many questions right away was Henrik Lundqvist.

All throughout the seven-game series, King Henrik was at his best as he put up a .940 save percentage and allowed three total goals in the final three games against the Penguins.

“Tonight was one of our better games,” Crosby said. “We worked hard and generated some good chances.”

POLL: Should the Penguins fire Dan Bylsma?

The chances were there, but Lundqvist saved some of his best for the end of the game making 13 saves in the third period en route to 35 saves overall.

“He made some big saves,” Crosby said. “We were pressing late and for a good five minutes late in the third, we had some great chances. It’s a game, but we put ourselves in that position.”

While Lundqvist was the road block this year, the continued disappointment of the offense is what has hurt Pittsburgh the most. Last season, Tuukka Rask and the Boston Bruins stifled the Penguins holding them to two goals in a four-game sweep.

“When you lose a game and you’re not able to generate enough to score, it’s always going to be the case [for why we lost],” Bylsma said. “We had enough to go up 3-1 in the series and win three games in a row. We weren’t able to get enough in [Games] 5, 6 and we weren’t able to get enough tonight to win the game in terms of getting goals.

“They’re tough to come by, it’s tougher around the cage – we saw that. We weren’t able to get the goals we needed to win the game.”

Finding a way to break through tough defense and all-world goaltending is the job of a coach and to drive that through to the players. After being stifled by Lundqvist, Rask, Jaroslav Halak and Dwayne Roloson in the past, Penguins brass may find their solution lies with new personnel on and off the ice.

Is South Korea now a hockey nation? Challenge is next step

Getty Images
Leave a comment

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — The Korean women’s hockey team, thrown together in a historic combination of players from both North and South, will forever be a milestone that had ramifications beyond the Olympics.

Now only South Korea can decide if hockey truly takes root and the nation becomes a regular on the international stage – the women, sure, but also the South Korean men’s team, which also made a somewhat quieter Olympic debut.

Men’s assistant coach Richard Park believes hockey is poised for growth in South Korea and around Asia, which will host the next Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

”I don’t know if you’re at any particular stage where you can put a term on it like ‘the sleeping giant,”’ Park said. ”There’s obviously an opportunity for growth. Hopefully the Olympics, we’ll be able to use it as a springboard, or some sort of platform, and really accelerate the growth of the sport here.”

South Korea built its men’s and women’s teams by tapping players with ties to the country and the Justice Ministry was asked to fast-track the naturalization of imported players. Two hockey arenas and two practice rinks also were built to handle all the games and practices in Gangneung.

Putting the men’s team together took four exhaustive years of work by Park and head coach Jim Paek among many, a steep climb in a nation that in 2014 had little more than 100 registered male hockey players.

Building from here will mean more money and other resources and it also means offering the sport at the youth level and establishing strong junior leagues. Having a place to play for a country’s top players also is a priority.

Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said China is working hard with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League and two other teams playing in Russia. Kunlun Red Star, featuring Finnish goalie Noora Raty, is an expansion team in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

”To be sustainable we need a strong league, a domestic league,” Fasel said. ”We are actually working in China with that. We will also try to get the Koreans on the same path.”

Lee Hee-beom, president of the Pyeongchang Olympic organizing committee, noted South Korea has a junior women’s hockey team.

”When they grow up, this will be much stronger than this lady ice hockey team,” said Lee, who added that there are discussions about building a professional women’s team after the Olympics.

Defenseman Lee Don Ku, who plays on an Asian league team in South Korea, said he sees some interest at the junior level but there are no official leagues.

”But I hope that can change in the future,” Lee said.

Only time will tell if fans who turned out to cheer, chant and sing in support of the Korean hockey teams keep watching.

Playing better hockey certainly can help drive interest.

The men’s team lost all four games at the Olympics by a combined score of 19-3, with a 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic in the opener proving to be their closest game.

The women lost all five games, but proved to be quick learners. They were routed 8-0 in the opener by Switzerland and beaten by the same score in their second game. After that, though, came a rugged 4-1 loss to Japan that saw the team’s first goal (Randi Heesoo Griffin got the honor) and then a taut 2-0 loss to the Swiss. The 6-1 loss to Sweden in the final game seemed less important than the cheering fans who stayed to watch the players raise their sticks in farewell.

Watching the world’s best up close also helped.

”We saw what we should learn from them and we’ve actually learned some,” said Eom Suyeon, just 17. ”So I think these will be helpful.”

Her coach, Sarah Murray, has already agreed to stay on a couple more years to help grow the sport, and she said there are plans to begin an under-18 program to develop talent.

A combined women’s team also may resurface in 2022 with both Fasel and Lee supporting the idea.

”I think that would be good to do it in 2022, to go to the Beijing Olympics, to keep the North and South Korean team,” Fasel said. ”It is a message of peace and we hope to continue that. We will try.”

If the survival and thriving of hockey comes down to work ethic, Park said he believes the game will thrive.

”They have this uncanny ability to not be outworked, and that’s something that’s reflected in our team,” Park said. ”You go outside the ice rink and you see it in the people of Korea. They work extremely hard and they’re very passionate in what they do. So you bring those qualities to an ice rink, there’s no reason not to be able to have some success.”

NOTES: In Tuesday’s other game, Evelina Raselli’s goal just 3:19 into the game led Switzerland past Japan 1-0 for fifth place at the tournament. Florence Schelling made 20 saves for the Swiss, who went 4-2 at the Olympics. Japan went 2-3.

Associated Press writers Stephen Whyno and Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this story.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Seattle season ticket drive to begin on March 1

Getty
1 Comment

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Seattle is getting ready to take the next step in the process to landing an NHL team.

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced on Tuesday that a season ticket drive will begin on March 1 at 10 a.m. PT.

Deposits will cost $500.

They can be purchased through nhlseattle.com.

The Oak View Group, which hopes to land the NHL team and is led by billionaire David Bonderman and filmmaker Jerry Bruckheimer, submitted the expansion application with the National Hockey League exactly one week ago.

How well this season ticket drive goes will be a key factor in whether or not Seattle is awarded the NHL’s 32nd team at some point in the future.

When Vegas began its season ticket drive in February, 2015, it set a goal of 10,000 deposits and ended up selling all 16,000 deposits that were available within a year.

The Golden Knights began play this season and currently have one of the best records in the NHL.

The new Seattle team hopes to begin play in 2020.

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Simmonds to miss 2-3 weeks as Flyers’ injury woes continue

Getty
7 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The Philadelphia Flyers are winning a lot of hockey games right now but the injury bug has taken a pretty big bite out of them over the past couple of weeks.

After running out of veteran goalies (Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth both sidelined for 4-6 weeks) and needing to trade for Petr Mrazek on Monday night, the team announced on Tuesday that forward Wayne Simmonds will be sidelined for the next two-to-three weeks due to an upper body injury.

Simmonds’ absence will be a big blow to the Flyers’ power play where he has become one of the best net-front players in the league. He leads the team with 10 power play goals this season.

[Related: Flyers acquire Mrazek from Red Wings]

He played 14 minutes in the Flyers’ 7-4 win over the New York Rangers on Sunday and got into a fight with Anthony DeAngelo early in the first period.

In 59 games this season he has scored 20 goals. It is the fifth consecutive season, and sixth time in seven years, he has topped the 20-goal mark. The only time during that stretch he did not reach 20 goals was the lockout shortened 2012-13 season when he scored 15 goals in 45 games.

————

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canucks don’t trade Erik Gudbranson, instead hand him 3-year extension

Getty Images
4 Comments

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The wondering can now stop as the Vancouver Canucks have extended defenseman Erik Gudbranson for three more years.

The extension is worth $12 million and Gudbranson’s deal will carry a $4 million cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 NHL season.

“Erik is an important part of our team and provides a physical element to our blueline,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning in a statement. “His leadership qualities help us as we continue to integrate younger players in our lineup. He is a quality person, a great teammate, outstanding in the community and we are excited to have him as part of our team moving forward.”

It was two years ago that Benning, who inked an extension with the Canucks last week, traded Jared McCann and a pair of 2016 draft picks to the Florida Panthers for the defenseman. With the direction that the team is currently moving, and with the Boston Bruins coughing up a third-round pick for Nick Holden of the New York Rangers on Tuesday, couldn’t Benning have flipped Gudbranson for something similar before moving on to a Thomas Vanek trade before Monday’s trade deadline?

The Canucks are currently a weird mix of youth and veterans with big contracts, especially at forward — contracts that last beyond next season. They have all but one of their picks in the next three drafts at the moment, and should at least recoup one with a Vanek trade.

This extension is Benning digging his feet in and standing by a bad deal from two years ago. As Dimitri Filipovic of Sportsnet pointed out last week, flipping Gudbranson, whose minutes and possession numbers have dipped in Year 2 in Vancouver, would be the GM waiving the white towel and saying he lost the trade. Now he gets to stand by it and throw platitudes at the defenseman to convince himself that this was the correct way to go.

The one beneficial part of the Gudbranson deal for the Canucks? The lack of a no-trade clause, as per TSN’s Bob McKenzie. NHL GMs love themselves big defensemen and at 6-foot-6, 220 lbs., the 26-year-old checks that box. So there is a chance to pass this contract onto another team looking to add size to their blue line. But for now, that’s clearly not the plan for the Canucks.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.