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Fleury on likely Pittsburgh exit: ‘Matt’s the guy here’

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Marc-Andre Fleury knew this day was coming, though the winningest goaltender in Pittsburgh Penguins history did his best to push the idea of his inevitable departure to the back of his mind. No need to become a distraction with a shot at history on the line.

It was only in the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s second straight Stanley Cup championship that he helped author by playing brilliantly at times during playoff series wins over Columbus and Washington that Fleury let the finality set in.

His eyes moistened as he spoke on Thursday while he and the rest of his teammates packed up for the summer following a giddy downtown parade a day earlier. When the Penguins return to work in September, they’ll try to become the first team in more than 30 years to “threepeat.” Fleury will almost certainly have to watch from afar, probably in Las Vegas as a member of the expansion Golden Knights, as heir apparent Matt Murray minds the net.

“Obviously Matt’s the guy here and he’ll be for many years,” Fleury said.

Just as Fleury was for well over a decade, helping the Penguins to three of their five Cups while collecting more wins (375), saves (17.744) and shutouts (44) than any other goaltender in the franchise’s five decades of existence. Fleury understands he makes too much money ($5.75 million) to be a backup. Besides, he wants to be on the ice every night. That’s not possible in Pittsburgh, where the 23-year-old Murray has the No. 1 job.

“I love to play,” Fleury said. “I love to be in there and compete, the challenge of it. I love everything about it.”

Fleury will just have to love it somewhere else and others are also likely to be here when the Penguins raise another banner to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena in October.

“It’s something I don’t even like having to talk about it,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “Playing with someone that long, going through what we did, it’s pretty special.”

So too is the chance at becoming a true dynasty. No team has raised the Cup three straight years since the New York Islanders did it four years running from 1980-83, long before the salary cap came around to make any sort of sustained excellence difficult and fleeting.

That doesn’t mean the Penguins aren’t embracing the challenge. Coach Mike Sullivan issued a challenge during the team’s raucous victory parade. Sullivan wasn’t getting caught up in the euphoria of the moment so much as sending a message to Crosby, Murray, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel that there’s no reason the party can’t continue.

“It was an opportunity to throw out a challenge to our core players right away,” Sullivan said with a grin. “That will be our goal, be our expectation.”

A quick look at what should be a short summer in Pittsburgh.

DECISION TIME

The list of Pittsburgh unrestricted free agents include forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen and defenseman Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit. The 40-year-old Cullen is considering retirement. Both Kunitz and Daley could be faced with a choice: make more money elsewhere or make another Cup run in Pittsburgh. General manager Jim Rutherford has encouraged all the pending free agents to check the market then get back to him to see if something can be worked out.

PAY THE MAN

Justin Schultz arrived in Pittsburgh 16 months ago as a reclamation project of sorts. Now the defenseman is primed for a significant raise after putting together the finest season of his career. He will become a restricted free agent and is confident the math will work out that will keep him in Pittsburgh next season.

OFFICE SHUFFLE: The raid on Pittsburgh’s brain trust that helped put together two Cup winners has already started. The Buffalo Sabres lured away Jason Botterill to be their general manager. The trickle-down effect led to the team naming assistant GM Bill Guerin will take over as general manager of the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

A SECOND ACT

A year ago, Jake Guentzel watched the Penguins win the Cup on TV after finishing his first few months as pro. Now he’ll have to find a way to top a remarkable rookie season that included 21 playoff points, tied for the most-ever in a single postseason by a rookie. The 22-year-old plans on getting stronger during the brief offseason, at least when he’s not taking the Cup back to his native Minnesota.

HARDLY DONE

Crosby will turn 30 in August but he’s hardly feeling “old.” If anything, the chance to make history next year has invigorated him.

“It’s been so long since teams were able to go back to back, to be able to (three-peat) in this era would be pretty tough to beat,” he said. “It’d be cool to shoot for that.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Stars give Lindell two-year extension

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More news out of Dallas, where the Stars have signed defenseman Esa Lindell to a two-year, $4.4-million contract extension.

From the release:

Lindell, 23, posted 18 points (6-12=18) in 73 games played for Dallas during the 2016-17 regular season, his first full season in the NHL. He finished second on the team by averaging 21:52 of time on ice per game and his +8 plus/minus rating finished third. Additionally, he finished second on the team with 119 blocked shots and tied for fifth with 93 hits.

The Stars still have a couple of restricted free agents on the back end. Both Patrik Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are arbitration-eligible. Lindell was not.

Earlier today, it was reported that the Stars were buying out goalie Antti Niemi.

Dallas also signed forward Mark McNeill to a one-year, two-way contract extension. The 24-year-old was acquired from Chicago in the Johnny Oduya trade on Feb. 28.

Lightning extend Gourde — two years, $2 million

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Yanni Gourde has cashed in on an impressive 20-game cameo with Tampa Bay this season.

Gourde signed a two-year, $2 million extension on Monday, the Bolts announced. The deal came after the 25-year-old scored six goals and eight points in 20 games, while averaging 15:22 TOI per night.

Undrafted out of the Quebec League, Gourde has been a terrific AHL player since catching on with the Tampa Bay organization a few years ago.

He was instrumental in Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup final this year — scoring 27 points in 22 games — and, given his new deal is of the one-way variety, seems primed to spend next year with the Lightning.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to sign that kind of a deal knowing where I’ve come from,” Gourde said, per NHL.com. “It’s the organization that trusted me very early in my career, and I thank them for that.”

Carolina’s strategy of flipping picks for players ‘just didn’t pan out’

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In late May, the ‘Canes looked like a team primed to trade some draft picks.

GM Ron Francis kicked off proceedings by sending one of his 11 picks — a third-rounder — to Chicago for goalie Scott Darling. Shortly thereafter, Francis said his club had “the open for business sign out there,”suggesting he was ready to wheel and deal.

But said wheeling and dealing never occurred.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to take a few less picks,” Francis said after he selected nine players at the draft, per ‘Canes Country. “We’d had a lot of discussions about trying to move picks for players, but it just didn’t pan out the way we had hoped.”

Prior to landing in Chicago, it was obvious the goal for Francis and head coach Bill Peters was to add pieces that’d help get the ‘Canes back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. The team has shown steady improvement over the last three years — going from 30 to 35 to 36 wins — and had a nice late push before ultimately falling short this season.

“I think we have specific needs, very specific needs,” Peters said at Carolina’s end-of-year media availability. “So as a coach I’m going to give very specific names.”

As many clubs experienced at the draft, trades weren’t easy to orchestrate. It was a stark contrast to the flurry of action that proceeded the event — Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, Jordan Eberle to the Islanders, huge shakeups in both Arizona and Chicago.

The perceived weakness of said draft could’ve played a role in the lack of movement. It’s also worth noting that Francis did use one of his picks, a fifth-rounder, for Vegas to select Connor Brickley at the expansion draft.

And, to be clear, this doesn’t mean Carolina still can’t add players. Free agency opens on Saturday. But draft weekend certainly feels like an opportunity missed, given this year’s UFA market doesn’t project to be very strong.

Report: Stars to buy out Antti Niemi

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The Antti Niemi era in Dallas is mercifully over.

Per Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News, the Stars will place Niemi on waivers for the purposes of buying out the final year of his contract. The buyout will result in a $1.5 million cap hit in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Niemi, 33, joined the Stars in 2015 with the hope he’d form an effective tandem with Kari Lehtonen.

But the experiment was a dismal failure. In 85 games over two seasons, Niemi registered a .900 save percentage, and the Stars responded last month by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year contract worth almost $30 million.

GM Jim Nill had hoped that one of Niemi or Lehtonen could be traded in the wake of the Bishop signing.

Lehtonen, 33, is still under contract for another year at a cap hit of $5.9 million. He had a .902 save percentage last season, higher than Niemi’s .892.