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These are tough times for the Lightning, from Yzerman right on down

This is not where the Bolts expected to be 29 games into the season.

Buoyed by this summer’s extension of captain Steve Stamkos — and the long-term contract for cornerstone d-man Victor Hedman — the Lightning were picked by many as a Stanley Cup favorite.

But after Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Penguins, a game in which they led 3-1, the Bolts found themselves with a mediocre 14-13-2 record, sitting fourth in the Atlantic Division.

“This is probably one of our worst [stretches] if not our worst in the last couple of years,” head coach Jon Cooper told the Times of a seven-game stint in which the Bolts went 1-5-1. “You go through the resume the last three or four of years of the all the ups and downs this team had.

“This is just a different one.”

A quick rundown of the issues plaguing Tampa Bay:

• Stamkos suffered a major knee injury in November and, following surgery, will be out four-to-six months. A huge blow, to say the least. Health problems have also plagued forward Ryan Callahan, who’s still recovering from offseason hip surgery.

• After a terrific ’15-16 campaign that culminated with a Vezina nomination, Ben Bishop has struggled. He’s said he’s trying not to let his contract situation become a distraction — he’s a UFA on July 1 — but one has to think that, after an offseason filled with trade speculation, Bishop might be sidetracked by his uncertain future. He could also be somewhat rattled by the impressive play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, long considered to be the club’s goalie of the future.

• GM Steve Yzerman might like to make a move, but is hamstrung by the club’s financial picture (the Bolts are pressed right up against the salary cap ceiling). That could part of his growing frustration, illustrated here in a piece from longtime Bolts beat writer Erik Erlendsson:

In speaking to a few people around the building, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was visibly upset during Thursday’s loss to Vancouver and left his spot in the press box by the end of the second period and headed straight for the locker room area, presumably for the coach’s office (he rarely spends any amount of time in the players’ areas).

• Speaking of the coach, Cooper had some telling remarks about his group following that aforementioned Vancouver loss. In particular, the club’s inability to rally after a setback.

“I thought we came out, we were outstanding and they come down, one shot, it’s in the net (and) it seemed that was it,” Cooper said, per Lightning Insider. “The little bit of adversity hits, which I didn’t think was any at all. There’s 55 minutes left and I thought we were playing hard. Guys were doing some good things and then we just kind of stopped.”

• In his latest 30 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman had this:

Always wonder about teams with good goal differentials that are outside a playoff position. Tampa Bay is there now, plus-5 and one point out in the East.

“They get pushed around a lot,” one opposing coach said.

• The angst isn’t solely reserved for coaching and management. Slater Koekkoek, the 10th overall pick in 2012 who looked as though he’d finally secured a spot on the club’s defense, was sent to the minors recently… and wasn’t happy about it.

“Koekkoek was upset at his latest demotion to AHL Syracuse Friday, and it’s hard to blame him,” wrote the Times’ Joe Smith. “You can argue the former first-round pick deserves more of a chance to stick in the NHL.”

Needless to say, it’s a dicey situation in Tampa Bay right now.

It’ll be curious to see how the club responds this week, in a three-game Western Canada road swing through Calgary (on Wednesday), Vancouver (on Friday) and Edmonton (on Saturday).

NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”

 

Report: Up to eight teams have recently expressed interest in Duchene

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Another day, another development in the ongoing, lengthy Matt Duchene trade saga.

“Many teams are interested and many teams have been talking with (general manager) Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche. Up to as many as eight teams over the last stretch of days,” said TSN’s Darren Dreger during Insider Trading.

“But the reality is none of these teams think they’re getting him. If you look at the Ottawa Senators, Pierre Dorion has been among the more aggressive and you look at the need he has with Clarke MacArthur out and Colin White out. But I’m pretty sure Ottawa doesn’t think they’re getting Matt Duchene. And the same applies to Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, the Los Angeles Kings, the Nashville Predators and the Columbus Blue Jackets.”

Yesterday, it was reported in the Ottawa Sun that the Senators were making quite an aggressive push to try to land Duchene, the Avalanche center who has been for months the focus of trade speculation following yet another disastrous season for Colorado’s NHL team. That said, the same report added that the two sides aren’t close.

Duchene has two years remaining on his current contract — five years, $6 million annual cap hit — before he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency.

The Senators are dealing with a list of injuries up front right now, including the aforementioned MacArthur and White, the prospect center who got only a small sample of NHL playing time this past spring after his college season ended and he turned pro. The former did not pass his physical at the beginning of camp and the latter was announced as being out six to eight weeks with a wrist injury.

Last week, Duchene reported for training camp and gave a brief statement to reporters but didn’t take questions. He has since spoken to Mike Chambers of The Denver Post, calling his future with the Avalanche “day to day.”

“I’m not going to predict the future on my longevity here,” Duchene told The Denver Post. “I’m day by day. I’m just enjoying playing hockey. A lot got blown out of proportion. I said what I wanted to say then. Nothing’s changed since Thursday. I’m here to get better, I’m here for those reasons — that I said on Thursday.”

Trocheck’s upper-body injury not believed to be ‘anything serious’

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Vincent Trocheck scored a goal during Tuesday’s exhibition game versus Nashville, however the 24-year-old forward had his night limited by an upper-body injury.

Trocheck recorded 6:49 of ice time — the vast majority of that taking place on the power play — in the first period and missed the second and third periods.

Per reports, Trocheck was to have the injury re-evaluated today.

“He had an upper-body injury, I don’t think it’s anything serious,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner told 560 WQAM Sports Radio on Wednesday. “I expect him back for practice in the next couple days.”

Originally a third-round selection in the 2011 NHL Draft, Trocheck enjoyed a breakout season in 2015-16 with 25 goals and 53 points, emerging as one of Florida’s promising young forwards.

He followed that up with 23 goals and 54 points last season. That point total led the Panthers, a team that was decimated by injuries to a number of key players, particularly Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau.

After ‘a tough recovery and a long road,’ Tyler Myers is feeling healthy again

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The 2016-17 season wasn’t an easy one for Jets defenseman Tyler Myers.

The 27-year-old was limited to just 11 games because of a nagging groin injury that just didn’t want to go away. It was the first time in his NHL career that he was forced to sit out that long.

The good news, is that he appears to be fully healthy heading into this season.

“It was a tough recovery and a long road, but we got through it. I’m feeling good now and it’s exciting for me to be back on the ice with the guys,” said Myers, per the Winnipeg Sun. “You just have to put last year behind you and I don’t feel like it’s going to take too long to get back into the swing of things.”

On top of going through his own physical ailments, the Myers family was dealt another blow when their son, Tristan, was born five weeks prematurely and suffered a stroke.

Thankfully, Tristan’s now doing well, according to his father, and things are looking up for the entire family.

“There were so many things going on last year. I was getting treatment and then the personal stuff came up. It was a very strange year, but it was never in my mind that I wasn’t going to get back. I always knew I’d get back to this point. It just took a little bit longer, given what was going on.”

The Jets didn’t make the playoffs last season, but they have one of the deepest blue lines in the league heading into this season.

Myers is part of a group that includes Dustin Byfulgien, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Dmitry Kulikov, who signed with Winnipeg in free agency.

If the Jets miss the postseason again, it won’t be because of their blue line.

Getting back to Myers, it sounds like he’ll be making his preseason debut tonight against the Oilers: