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NHL stars admit skipping Olympics will be ‘weird’

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The NHL became entwined with the Olympics before young stars like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel or Auston Matthews even pulled on a pair of skates.

Nagano in 1998 started a string of five consecutive Olympics featuring NHL players, a tradition that became so routine that young players around the world added dreams of winning a gold medal to their hopes of someday lifting the Stanley Cup.

“I’ve always been alive in the days where the NHL teams allow their players to go to the Olympics,” Eichel said. “I’ve had a lot of good memories watching the Olympics and seeing a lot of great players play, so it’s something you’ve always looked up to.”

There’s nothing to look forward to this time: Instead of going to South Korea this winter to play for their home countries, NHL players face an 82-game season that will keep right on going on during the Olympics. The Games will instead include a mix of players from the minors, colleges and Europe.

“It’s going to be weird for everybody,” said Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, who was hoping to make Canada’s Olympic team. “It won’t feel right watching other guys wear that maple leaf and they’re good players, but they’re not the best players in the world at that tournament. Whoever wins it, hopefully Canada wins it. That’d be awesome. But it just won’t feel the same. They’re not world champions, technically, because they’re not the best players.”

Almost six months since the league announced it would skip the Pyeongchang Olympics, most of the NHL’s best players are resigned to their missed opportunity. That Canada won’t have Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews to go for the three-peat, that McDavid, Matthews and Eichel won’t make their Olympic debuts quite yet.

Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin, who was vocal about saying he’d go no matter what, said last month that he and other players have never had to choose between their NHL teams and the Olympics, and “should not have to be in position to make this choice.” Washington Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov said after not making the team for Sochi that he thought about signing in the Kontinental Hockey League so he could play in Korea, while countryman Vladimir Tarasenko simply expressed frustration that a lifelong dream and a chance at Russia’s first Olympic gold with NHL players was snatched away.

“It’s very disappointing you’re not going to have the chance to be there when we have as short of careers as we do,” Swedish defenseman and Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson said. “It’s going to be some guys’ only opportunity to go and they’re not going to be able to since it’s not our decision to not attend.”

That decision belonged to NHL owners, who saw no tangible benefit from stopping the season for over two weeks to let players take part in the Olympics.

“The fact of the matter is, we find the Olympics incredibly disruptive with no positive benefit, no opportunity to promote our presence or anything else of the Olympic experience,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We have enough experience to understand what the Olympics represents. The people who suggest that somehow this is an opportunity to grow the game, it didn’t grow the game in Japan, it didn’t grow the game in Italy.”

The league believes playing exhibition games in China and regular-season games in Sweden does more to grow the game than the Olympics. But NBC Sports, which has the league’s national television rights, will instead be showing the Olympics this February with no NHL games scheduled on its networks between Feb. 8 and Feb. 25, the day of the gold-medal game, and the trade deadline set for Feb. 26.

During that time, New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh expects teammates to root for their countries. Considering the 13-hour difference from the Eastern time zone (noon ET is 1 a.m. the following day in Pyeongchang), it may be difficult for players to watch, but many will try.

“Like any fan of sport I like to watch the Olympics, so I’ll definitely be paying attention to it,” McDavid said.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Patrick Kane said he will be interested to see which players are chosen.

A lot of players have friends or former teammates in the running to make a national team, which adds a silver lining to the bitter disappointment.

“There’s going to be a couple guys that I know who are going who maybe would not have had an opportunity to play in the Olympics ever,” Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “I’ll be pulling for them, but it’s almost going to be like a world juniors situation where you’re rooting for your team and you’re rooting for your country, but you wish you were there to participate. It’s going to be cool to see them in that light, but I wish I was there with them.”

The possibility certainly exists that the NHL returns to Olympic competition in 2022 in Beijing and goes again in 2026, especially if the Games are in North America. That’s a concern for another year, and McDonagh expects the importance of this season and playoff races will be ample distraction come February.

“It might be a little bit of a unique situation,” McDonagh said. “As soon as you get into that game-day routine and stuff, your focus will kind of take over and take care of itself and you’ll understand the importance of what’s in front of you here and not wishful thinking of what could be.”

‘A wave of nerves’ — Brian Boyle returns to practice following leukemia diagnosis

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Brian Boyle was back on the ice with his New Jersey Devils teammates on Sunday after getting all cleared to participate in practice following his Chronic Myeloid Leukemia diagnosis last month.

“I got the news yesterday … and a wave of nerves came over me,” Boyle told reporters following the skate. “But it’s exciting to get back on a routine and work towards a goal. I’ve got a lot of work to do, as evidence by that practice.

“Parts of it were not too bad. I was a lot better than I thought in some areas. Some of the battles. Just like hands and feet working together that are a little fatigued. The speed of it. Even just the practice — I’ve been kind of by myself for a month. It was an adjustment. Even throughout the practice I felt better, but still a bit of a ways to go.”

The Devils signed Boyle to a two-year, $5.5 million contract this summer. Despite the diagnosis, Boyle was determined to try not to miss any games in the upcoming season.  New Jersey is eight games into its season and has been one of the big surprises early on with a 6-2 record and 31 goals already scored.

Boyle, 32, has yet to play a game for his new team, and it remains to be seen exactly when he’ll get into the lineup, with the club announcing there is no timetable yet for his return. The Devils last played on Friday against the San Jose Sharks and are in the midst of a week-long break in their schedule.

Their next game is this Friday against Ottawa, which should give Boyle a few days of practice — opportunities to continue to improve on his conditioning — before the Devils play two games in two nights next weekend.

Meanwhile, the Devils placed goalie Cory Schneider on injured reserve two days ago, after he was hurt the previous night.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

Report: Golden Knights’ Subban ‘probably out weeks’ after injury versus Blues

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The Golden Knights won again on Saturday, but lost goalie Malcolm Subban to an injury in the third period.

Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant, as is often the case immediately following a game in which an injury occurs, didn’t have an update on Subban’s condition. He called it a lower-body injury, and said he would know more by Sunday.

However, John Shannon of Sportsnet, citing a team source, reported that Subban will undergo an MRI on Sunday and is “probably out weeks.”

That isn’t good news at all for a Vegas team already without Marc-Andre Fleury, who is still on injured reserve after suffering a concussion.

The 23-year-old Subban, who was picked off waivers by Vegas following his training camp with the Bruins, had a promising start to the season since joining the Golden Knights. Since the injury to Fleury, Subban has played in three games, winning two of those and allowing six goals on 94 shots against. He allowed only one goal on 38 shots last night before leaving the game.

Oscar Dansk came off the bench last night when Subban was hurt, and stopped 10 of 11 shots faced as the Golden Knights picked up the overtime victory, despite getting outshot 49-22.

But any lengthy injury to Subban would really test the depth of the Golden Knights goaltending. Fleury has already been out for just over week. The 23-year-old Dansk made his NHL debut last night, and Vegas doesn’t have Calvin Pickard anymore, after he was traded to Toronto a few weeks ago. Maxime Lagace is still down with the AHL Chicago Wolves.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

 

Connor McDavid is great, but he can’t do it all for the Oilers

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At the start of the 2017-18 season the Edmonton Oilers had the second best odds to win the Stanley Cup. Even with the NHL’s reigning MVP and scoring champion and even after a wildly successful season that saw them come within a single game of the Western Conference Finals it still seemed to be a little too much, a little too fast.

First, for as good as the Oilers were last season a lot of it was dependent on Connor McDavid putting the team on his back and carrying them as far as he could. They also played Cam Talbot a ridiculous number of games and still don’t have anybody behind him that can be counted on to give him any kind of a consistent break. Add those two factors to a team that still doesn’t have a lot of depth and there are some reasons to maybe want to pump the brakes on the Stanley Cup talk.

It is still early in the season, but so far we are starting to see that play out on the ice.

After their loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday the Oilers are now just 2-5-0 on the season and have the second-worst record in the Western Conference.

McDavid is doing what McDavid always does.

He is in year three of his career and is still a human highlight reel every single time he touches the ice. His speed is unmatched. His creativity is off the charts. He is, at times, an unstoppable force and is once again the single biggest factor driving the Oilers offense.

Right now he is the only factor driving the Oilers’ offense.

With eight points so far this season that means he has either scored or assisted on more than 57 percent of the team’s goals.

He has been on the ice for nine of them, which is more than 65 percent.

Through the first seven games of the season the Oilers have scored only five goals this season when McDavid has not been on the ice. That is not a trend that can continue if the Oilers are going to have any hopes of getting out of this early season slump, let alone competing for a Stanley Cup. There is no one single player in the NHL that can make that much of a consistent impact without some secondary help.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup runs were not just about superstars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. They were also about the complementary players and secondary scoring options that could step up and fill the back of the net when the top tier guys had their inevitable stretches where they would get shut down (and there always comes a time when the top players get shut down for a stretch. Sometimes in the playoffs, too).

Right now the Oilers do not have those secondary options, and if the offense is not coming from Connor McDavid, it is not coming from anybody.

To be fair, they have only had Leon Draisaitl, their second-most important offensive player, for only three games this season. But even a return from him is not a guarantee to be enough based on the makeup of the rest of the roster.

Over the summer the Oilers traded their third-leading scorer (Jordan Eberle) straight up for Ryan Strome, a player that has never had the single-season output that Eberle had a year ago in what was widely considered a down year for him. Strome has two points in seven games.

A year ago the Oilers had big — and mostly unexpected — seasons from players like Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu as they combined to score 43 goals, each of them setting new career highs. Together, they had a combined shooting percentage of 14.5 percent, a nearly five percent increase over their career averages. That increase in shooting percentage was probably worth an additional 10-12 goals between the two.

There is no guarantee they can duplicate that success.

The Oilers are probably not as bad as their early season record indicates, especially when Draisaitl is back. Even so, McDavid is still going to need more help than he is getting from his teammates if the Oilers are going to do anything close to what was expected from them at the start of the season. Whether or not they have the roster around him to do that remains to be seen.

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.

The Buzzer: Kopitar keeps Kings rolling; O’Reilly gives Sabres OT win

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Player of the night: Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings. The Los Angeles Kings continued their impressive start on Saturday night with a 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, improving their record to a league-best 6-0-1 through their first seven games.

Anze Kopitar was the star of the night as he finished with two goals, an assist, three shots on goal, a plus-five rating while also winning 68 percent of his faceoffs.

His second goal of the game, which came with less than three minutes to play in regulation, proved to be the game-winner for the Kings.

Dustin Brown added an empty net goal (he finished with four points in the win) a minute later.

Kopitar is coming off of a down year offensively in 2016-17 but already has 11 points (six goals, five assists) so far this season for a Kings team that looks to be vastly improved under new coach John Stevens.

Highlight of the night. 

For most of Saturday night it looked like the Buffalo Sabres were on their way to another ugly loss, continuing what has been a miserable start to the season. At one point in the second period they found themselves trailing by a 4-1 margin. But they slowly started to chip away then after Evander Kane scored a late third period goal to tie the game, Ryan O'Reilly ended up winning it in overtime on this beauty of a play to give the Sabres their second win of the season.

Factoid of the Night.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have two superstars at forward. They are playing like it. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are the first pair of teammates in more than 15 years to start a season with matching nine-game point streaks. [NHL]

Misc.

— Three more assists for Erik Karlsson on Saturday night giving him six on the season. He has played in two games. After major ankle surgery. He is not human.

Clayton Keller added to his rookie leading goal total with his sixth of the season. He is the one bright spot for the Arizona Coyotes this season as they remain winless after their 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

— With the first two-goal game of his NHL career Tyler Pitlick was the difference for the Dallas Stars in their 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both off to tremendous starts for the Boston Bruins. Both players scored a pair of goals for the Bruins on Saturday night in their 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Both players already have six goals on the season.

James Reimer was great for the Florida Panthers, stopping 41 shots in their 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. With Roberto Luongo on injured reserve the Panthers are going to need a couple of big games from Reimer over the next week.

Mikhail Sergachev looks fantastic for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He is now up to eight points on the season.

Wayne Simmonds was the hero for the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday with a late goal to help lift them to a 2-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. He is now up to six goals on the season. Claude Giroux scored his fifth goal in the win.

Logan Couture‘s hat trick was not enough to help the San Jose Sharks in New York on Saturday night against the Islanders. John Tavares had a goal, two assists in the win.

Scores and recaps

New York Rangers 4, Nashville Predators 2

Philadelphia Flyers 2, Edmonton Oilers 1

Buffalo Sabres 5, Boston Bruins 4

Tampa Bay Lightning 7, Pittsburgh Penguins 1

Ottawa Senators 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 3

New York Islanders 5, San Jose Sharks 3

Los Angeles Kings 6, Columbus Blue Jackest 4

Florida Panthers 4, Washington Capitals 1

Dallas Stars 4, Carolina Hurricanes 3

Chicago Blackhawks 4, Arizona Coyotes 2

Minnesota Wild 4, Calgary Flames 2

Vegas Golden Knights 3, St. Louis Blues 2

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.