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‘More than I can imagine’ – Peter Budaj on his unlikely season with Kings

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Peter Budaj is the most popular guy in the Los Angeles Kings’ dressing room this season, and it’s not just because the veteran goalie has been the unlikely savior of their season after Jonathan Quick‘s opening-night injury.

Budaj’s career revival is immensely gratifying to his teammates, who genuinely love to see a good guy getting a break.

“He seized this opportunity and took control of it,” Kings forward Dustin Brown said. “You hate to see a guy like (Quick) get hurt, but (Budaj) has done a great job when he got the chance. … Everybody just feels happy for him. It’s pretty great.”

Budaj has been one of the NHL’s top goalies this season for the Kings, who open a four-game road trip in Philadelphia on Saturday. Los Angeles (26-21-4) is still in playoff contention despite the season-long absence of Quick, the two-time Stanley Cup winner who has been the Kings’ workhorse in net since 2009.

Budaj is 24-14-3 while appearing in 44 of the Kings’ 51 games. He ranks among the NHL leaders with his 2.01 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and six shutouts, which are tied with All-Star Braden Holtby for the most in the league.

Not bad for a 34-year-old Slovak goalie who spent the past two seasons in the AHL and fully expected to be back in the minors again this year while his hockey career wound down. Budaj is nicknamed “Ned Flanders” for his similarities to the Simpsons character with the faith-based, permanently optimistic outlook on life.

“Just playing up here this year, it’s more than I could imagine,” Budaj said after blanking Colorado 5-0 earlier this week for his NHL-leading sixth shutout of the season. “I’m just very thankful to be here. The team is playing great in front of me. We have a great group of guys who work tremendously hard to keep going.”

Budaj was a backup more often than a starter during his nine seasons with Colorado and Montreal. Three years later in Los Angeles, he already has his first 20-victory NHL season since 2008-09 with the Avalanche.

“It was such a long shot for me, I don’t even know if you could call it a long shot,” Budaj told NBC Sports after beating the Avalanche. “I think that what’s happening here right now, I can’t even put it into words. I’m so excited to play here right now, to play the way I’m playing.”

After three years in Montreal as Carey Price‘s backup, Budaj spent the 2014-15 season with the Winnipeg Jets’ woeful AHL team in St. John’s, and he couldn’t find an NHL contract the following summer.

Budaj joined the Kings on a pro tryout contract largely because they needed an extra veteran goalie for training camp. He still played well enough to earn another season in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ affiliate just 40 miles east of Staples Center.

Ontario only had a spot open after the departures of two goaltending prospects, but Budaj was grateful to fill in – and he won 42 AHL games.

He was resigned to the prospect of a third straight season in the minors before Quick, who had played a whopping 140 games in the previous two seasons, badly injured his groin during the first period of LA’s season opener.

Quick’s backup was expected to be Jeff Zatkoff, who had only 35 games of NHL experience when the Kings signed him from Pittsburgh. When Zatkoff then injured his own groin during a morning skate days later, the Kings turned to Budaj out of necessity.

Budaj isn’t doing it all himself: The Kings’ commitment to team defense is built into every part of coach Darryl Sutter’s approach. Selke Trophy winner Anze Kopitar and All-Star defenseman Drew Doughty both sacrifice potential offensive numbers to focus on their two-way games.

After nearly four months on the shelf, Quick is making progress toward a return. He participated in the Kings’ practice in El Segundo on Thursday, and he faced shots again in Pennsylvania on Friday.

There’s no doubt Quick will return to the crease when healthy, given his 10-year, $58 million contract through 2023. But Budaj has rescued a career that might have been permanently stalled, and his teammates are cheering him on.

“He makes the same kind of big saves that Quickie has made around here for years,” Brown said. “We’re used to it, but it’s still amazing to see him step right in.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Greg Beacham on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/gregbeacham

Cullen signs with Wild, opting against retirement (and Penguins)

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Matt Cullen is going home, but that doesn’t mean that he’s retiring from hockey.

Instead, the Minnesota native decided to sign a one-year, $1 million deal with the Minnesota Wild. It’s unclear why, precisely, Cullen didn’t ink a deal to try to “threepeat” with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Wild note that his deal also includes $700K in potential performance bonuses.

This will be the 40-year-old’s second run with the Wild. His first run came from 2010-11 through 2012-13, where he appeared in 193 regular-season games and five postseason contests for Minnesota.

Cullen managed back-to-back 30+ point seasons with the Penguins while providing useful all-around play as a veteran center. If he can maintain a reasonably high level of play, this gives the Wild quite the solid group down the middle, even with Martin Hanzal gone.

Oilers ink Draisaitl to monster eight-year, $68 million deal

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The Edmonton Oilers have locked up their cornerstone players for the foreseeable future.

They didn’t come cheap.

Just weeks after signing Connor McDavid to a eight-year, $100 million deal, the Oilers signed fellow forward Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year, $68 million deal. The contract carries a $8.5M average annual cap hit and, combined with McDavid’s $12.5M, will now cost the Oilers $21M annually through 2025.

McDavid certainly warranted his payday. The same can be said of Draisaitl.

The 21-year-old just wrapped his three-year, entry-level deal, and couldn’t have done so in finer fashion. Draisaitl enjoyed a terrific season, platooning between the second-line center position and the wing alongside McDavid, and finished with 29 goals and 77 points.

Then, the playoffs happened.

Draisaitl had a terrific postseason, racking up six goals and 16 points in 13 games. At the time of elimination he was sitting second among all scorers — trailing only Evgeni Malkin — and was downright brilliant in Edmonton’s seven-game loss to Anaheim, finishing with 13 points.

More to follow…

 

Report: Vegas among teams in on Pens draftee Byron

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Will Butcher isn’t the only college free agent garnering interest in free agency.

University of Maine senior Blaine Byron, Pittsburgh’s sixth-round pick in ’13, has passed on signing with the club and can now ink with a team of his choosing. Per The Hockey News, the four “lead suitors” for Byron are Vegas, New Jersey, Ottawa and Buffalo.

Byron, 22, is coming off a great year. He racked up 18 goals and 41 points in 36 games, finishing tied for 18th in the country in scoring. It’s unclear where he would’ve fit in the Pittsburgh organization, though, and one has to think the signing of Northeastern’s Zach Aston-Reese might’ve played a factor in his departure.

In a recent Tribune-Review piece, Byron did make a list of the club’s top-20 prospects, coming in at No. 17.

Yesterday, Butcher — the reigning Hobey Baker winner — announced that he wouldn’t sign with Colorado, the team that drafted him four years ago. Instead, Butcher will parlay a successful senior campaign at Denver University into interest on the open market.

Under Pressure: Barry Trotz

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This post is part of Capitals Day on PHT…

When the Capitals hired Barry Trotz three years ago, they said he was “the only coach we coveted,” calling him “an ideal fit to help lead our club.”

And in many ways, Trotz has been an ideal fit. He’s led to the club to consecutive Presidents’ Trophies, racking up 156 wins over the course of three seasons. He won the 2016 Jack Adams as coach of the year. Players have performed exceptionally well on his watch: Braden Holtby won his first-ever Vezina, Alex Ovechkin racked up a pair of Rocket Richard trophies and both Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov were named All-Stars.

Despite all this, Trotz is now coaching for his job. Essentially.

A string of disheartening playoff failures — each more painful than the last — have put him in an uncomfortable and pressure-packed situation. He’s heading into the the last of his four-year deal with no contract certainty beyond.

Yes, it’s true Caps GM Brian MacLellan didn’t make any changes with Trotz or to his coaching staff following the Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh.

But MacLellan didn’t offer an extension, either.

Brian Burke once likened this scenario to being a lame duck. Trotz refused to see it that way, insisting that he wasn’t worried about the spot he was in.

“No,” he told CSN Mid Atlantic in June, when asked if not having a contract changes his approach at all. “It has 0.0 effect on me, actually. Not at all. I think it might have [had] an effect 10, 12 years ago for me. Not now. It has zero effect.

“I’m not worrying about that at all.”

This is pretty much on par with Trotz’s messaging from the moment Washington crashed out of the playoffs. While his players were visibly dejected and downright hurt during locker clean-out day, the 55-year-old was upbeat.

Defiant, almost.

Trotz talked about how the team’s window wasn’t closed, and how it would eventually “break through that barrier.” He suggested “laughing at the past” could “ease us into the future.”

The assembled media took note of this, which contrasted the vibe of his visibly distraught players. So it was asked — why did he seem more upbeat than his players?

From the Washington Post:

“Put it this way — I haven’t slept in two friggin’ days. To say that I don’t feel very distraught, that really sort of angers me, because talk to my family to see if I’m distraught.

“I have to be positive in terms of, ‘do I think we’re going in the right direction?’ Yes, and I’m positive of that. But we haven’t broken through. That’s why I’m probably the way I am. I also said we didn’t get to where we wanted to get to.

“That angers me. When something doesn’t go your way, you can roll up in a ball and feel sorry for yourself. I don’t.”

That Trotz took this approach isn’t surprising. Coaching is a leadership role, and there didn’t seem to be any point to piling onto what was already a fairly miserable day in D.C.

So hey, why not keep that vibe going when it comes to contract uncertainty?

Trotz will likely continue to do so, even in the face of growing pressure. And pressure will continue to grow. Remember, there’s one final and very important dynamic at play — right next to Trotz behind the Washington bench is assistant coach Todd Reirden. The same Todd Reirden who’s thought to be a head-coach-in-waiting, and has been tied to previous openings in Colorado and Florida.

Fun times in Washington. As they always are.