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IIHF president still hopeful Bettman will change mind on Olympics

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PARIS (AP) The NHL still has a couple more months to reverse its decision and opt to participate in next year’s Olympics in South Korea.

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel said Tuesday his organization was in contact with the National Hockey League Players’ Association two or three times per week, hoping to work out a solution that will bring the sport’s biggest stars to Pyeongchang.

“I would say the latest we can do is end of June, beginning of July, for calendars, schedules, arenas,” Fasel said at a news conference during the hockey worlds. “We will see.”

Fasel, who is Swiss, also said he plans to call NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, but he didn’t seem too enthusiastic about his chances.

“I have a very good relation with Gary. But what can I say? I have nothing to give him,” Fasel said. “I can say `Hello, how are you? Great playoffs.’ Just social talk. Maybe I come to New York, we have a steak and go back. This is the way it is.

“The puck is for sure on the stick of the NHL Players’ Association and we will see.”

Last month, the NHL announced that it will not stop its season to allow players to compete at the Feb. 9-25 Olympics for the first time in 20 years.

“I’m a very positive person so I never give up, and there is still some time where maybe we can convince Gary Bettman to change his opinion,” Fasel said.

The NHL has not decided whether to allow teams to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. It was not immediately clear how the United States, Canada and other countries will fill Olympic rosters, though national federations have already begun planning.

“We played before without the NHL, we will have anyway a great tournament. But it would be so much better with the best players in the world,” Fasel said. “The players want to go, so I really don’t understand.

“But if Gary decides not to go to the Olympics, the fans will not be happy, the players will not be happy, I hope (the) media won’t be happy. The whole world will not be happy.”

Skipping the Olympics in Pyeongchang would be a huge mistake, Fasel said, in terms of growing hockey in Asia.

“There is a unique opportunity for our sport to show up there, a unique opportunity for the NHL to be there,” said Fasel, who is also a long-standing IOC member. “We are in discussion with the IOC. We have internally our discussion and we try and make a snowball, a package that maybe we can go to Gary (with) and say `Listen, Gary: Yes or no?’

“There is nothing bigger and more important. We don’t have a better platform for our sport than the Olympic Winter Games. Three billion people watching.”

Read more: Bettman wants the sponsor treatment from IOC

NHL stars like Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist have all spoken out strongly in favor of taking part.

The NHL’s stance, if unchanged, would put Russia in a dominant position.

Russia is home to the Kontinental Hockey League, widely regarded as the strongest outside North America. Taking a schedule break for the Olympics is easier for the KHL, which already shapes its season to accommodate the world championships and national-team warmups.

“What we will do for sure if the NHL isn’t coming is that we will work in China, in the KHL,” Fasel said. “That will give the space to the Russian and the non-Russian clubs to be present in Asia.”

Bruins anthem singer Rene Rancourt and his fist pumps to retire after this season

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For over 40 years, the Boston Bruins have featured Rene Rancourt as their anthem singer. On Wednesday, the team announced that the colorful crooner will be hanging up his microphone after this season.

The 78-year-old Rancourt, a trained opera singer, actually began his anthem singing career performing before Boston Red Sox games. He was brought on board by the Bruins after a performance prior to Game 6 of the 1975 World Series — The Carlton Fisk Homerun Game — when he subbed in for Kate Smith.

“I knew practically nothing about hockey,” Rancourt told Joshua Kloke of Vice Sports in 2016. “I didn’t even know where the Boston Garden was.”

Quite the character, Rancourt quickly became a staple before games and over time became known for his fist pumps, which energize crowds nightly, and his salute. The fist pumps were inspired by former Bruin Randy Burridge’s “stump pump” celebration after goals.

If you were lucky, the wedding or other event you were attending would be interrupted by Rancourt’s appearance to belt out a couple of tunes. It was also an annual tradition to see him sing Christmas carols during Bruins games every December.

Rancourt will be honored during the Bruins’ final regular season game on April 8. It will be interesting to see how many fist pumps his pulls off during his last appearance at TD Garden, whenever that may happen this spring.

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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.

Six NHL rookies that are flying under the radar this season

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The NHL’s rookie class for the 2017-18 season is an impressive one with what is sure to be a tightly contested Calder Trophy race at the top.

Forwards Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), and Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), as well as defensemen Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) are all making tremendous impacts for their teams this season and are clearly the cream of the crop when it comes to first-year players around the league.

One of them (most likely Barzal or Boeser) is going to take home the Calder Trophy this season.

But they are not the only rookies that are standing out this season.

Let’s take a look at five more whose performances have slid under the radar. None of these players will end up winning the rookie of the year award this season, but they have been key contributors to their teams so far and deserve some credit for it.

Danton Heinen, Boston Bruins

The Bruins are a really intriguing team in the East. They have three of the best forwards in the league at the top of their lineup, a goalie that is capable of carrying the team when he gets hot, and they have rebuilt their defense over the past couple of years. They are also getting a ton of contributions from rookies. McAvoy has already blossomed into a top-pairing defenseman, and Jake DeBrusk, a 2015 first-round pick, is currently on a 20-goal pace.

They also have Heinen, a 22-year-old forward that is getting his first full-time look in the NHL.

Currently he is fourth among all NHL rookies in scoring with 38 points, while his 0.82 point per game average is third behind only Barzal and Boeser.

He has been especially good on a line with veteran forward David Backes. When Backes and Heinen are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the Bruins are controlling 60 percent of the shot attempts and outscoring teams by a 14-10 margin (via NaturalStatTrick).

Alexander Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche

After choosing to not sign with the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Devils, Kerfoot became an unrestricted free agent this past summer and ended up landing an opportunity with the Colorado Avalanche. It has paid off immediately for everyone.

The Avalanche are in surprising contention for a playoff spot this season, even after trading Matt Duchene, thanks in large part to the breakout year from Nathan MacKinnon.

Another key contributor this season has been the 23-year-old Kerfoot.

In his debut season he’s already recorded 30 points in 40 games and has been one of the team’s top point producers.

The Avalanche have been a disaster on the ice in recent seasons, but they are exceeding expectations this season and their top-four scorers (MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Kerfoot) are all age 25 or younger. Landeskog is the only one of that quartet that is over the age 23. And they also still have 19-year-old Tyson Jost.

There is still a pretty good young core here to build around.

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are looking absolutely terrifying this season — and for future seasons given their contract situations — with a bunch of superstars at the top of the lineup and a bunch of young, talented, cheap players sprinkled around them. We mentioned Sergachev up above as one of the Calder Trophy leaders, and they also have second-year forward Brayden Point lighting up the scoreboard (Point, by the way, is the third-leading scorer on the team).

Then there’s Yanni Gourde.

Gourde barely makes the rookie cut this season because he turned 26 in December and had played in 20 games a season ago, but by NHL rules he does still qualify as a rookie.

The Lightning have excelled in recent seasons by building around talented, undersized forwards that are capable of putting the puck in the net and Gourde is just the latest example. Listed at only 5-9, 172 pounds, Gourde is one of the smallest players in the league. Before getting his first real shot in the NHL he had been a productive player at pretty much every level of hockey that he played at.

He earned a regular spot with the Lightning this season and has proven to be a valuable addition. Along with his offensive production (14 goals, 16 assists in 44 games) he has also been a key contributor to their penalty kill.

Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins weren’t expecting to need Jarry this season, but when the Antti Niemi experiment proved to be a failure their plans had to change a little. So far, he has been excellent as Matt Murray‘s backup and has filled in admirably for him while Murray has been away from the team dealing with a personal family matter. With Murray again away from the team following his father’s passing this week Jarry is going to get even more opportunities to play in the immediate future.

So far this season Jarry is 9-3-2 in his 15 appearances and has a .923 save percentage that is tops among rookie goaltenders (minimum 15 games played).

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets have become one of the NHL’s most dynamic offenses with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers are all shining at the top of the lineup.

They also have 2015 first-round pick Kyle Connor starting to make an impact.

Connor is currently third among all rookie forwards in goals scored, but is second only to Boeser when it comes to goals per game.

He is currently on what would be a 30-goal pace over 82 games.

The Jets’ rebuild has been slow — painfully slow, and probably slower than it needed to be — but their patience and desire to build almost entirely from within is finally starting to be rewarded with this group of forwards.

If they can keep getting solid goaltending they are going to be a tough team to knock out of the playoffs.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils

The Devils are another team that is getting significant contributions from rookies this season.

Currently the Devils are in a playoff position in the Metropolitan Division and are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011-12. Leading the way is a trio of rookies that are all among the team’s top-four scorers. Included in that group are No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier and free agent signing Will Butcher.

It should not be much of a surprise that Hischier has played well and made an immediate impact. That is what you hope — and expect — from a No. 1 overall pick. Butcher has been outstanding and is currently the team’s top possession player.

The biggest surprise out of the group, though, might be 19-year-old Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick by the Devils in 2016.

Through the Devils’ first 42 games, Bratt is second on the team in scoring, is seventh among all rookies, and is playing close to two minutes on the penalty kill per night … as a 19-year-old rookie.

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.

Banged up Blue Jackets add Jussi Jokinen off waivers

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are dealing with a number of injuries up front with Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson and rookie Sonny Milano all currently sidelined for at least a few more weeks due to injury.

Atkinson is on long-term injured reserve due to a foot injury, while Dubinsky is out due to an orbital bone fracture.

The team also announced on Wednesday that Milano will now be sidelined for 4-to-6 weeks due to an oblique tear.

All of that has put a pretty significant dent in their depth and no doubt played a role in their recent slump that has seen them go 3-6-0 over their past nine games, a stretch that has seen them score just 18 goals (only two per game).

They attempted to address that in some way on Wednesday when they announced that they have claimed veteran forward Jussi Jokinen off waivers from the Los Angeles Kings.

“Jussi Jokinen is a player we know very well. He can line up at center or either wing, is good in the faceoff circle and can play on the power play and kill penalties,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement released by the team.

“He has been a very good player in the National Hockey League for many years and we believe he will add great experience and versatility to our lineup.”

It’s been a difficult season for Jokinen as he now joins his third team of the season. He started the season with the Edmonton Oilers after signing a one-year, $1.1 million contract in free agency. But after just 14 games and zero goals with the team he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Mike Cammalleri. He played 18 games with the Kings, scoring one goal and adding four assists, before being placed on waivers.

Jokinen has been an underrated player for much of his career and had always been good for around 15 goals and 50 points over 82 games. Now that he is in his age 34 season that production has obviously declined.

But with the injury situation up front with Atkinson, Dubinsky and now Milano all sidelined the Blue Jackets were in desperate need of adding some additional depth. Given the low cost it is worth a shot to see if Jokinen can still provide something.

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.

 

Matt Murray to miss ‘indefinite period of time’ following passing of his father

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Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray has missed the past two games and was briefly away from the team due to what was described as a personal matter. The team would not go into any details and asked everyone to respect his privacy.

On Wednesday, the Penguins announced that Murray’s father, James Murray, passed away on Tuesday in Ontario.

Murray had briefly returned to the Penguins over the weekend and even accompanied the team on its current west coast road trip but his status remained listed as “day-to-day.”

The Penguins announced that Murray will be traveling back from the west coast to return to Ontario.

He will miss an indefinite period of time according to the team..

In his absence the Penguins will turn to rookies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith in net. Jarry has played well in his opportunities this season posting a .923 save percentage and a 9-2-3 record. He has won each of his past four decisions.

The Penguins are in Anaheim on Wednesday before traveling to Los Angeles on Thursday to play the Kings and then going to San Jose on Saturday night.

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.