NHL All-Star Game returns to thriving Tampa Bay market

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By Fred Goodall – AP Sports Writer

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The NHL All-Star game is being played in Tampa Bay for the first time since Wayne Gretzky made his last appearance in the showcase and many still questioned whether the league could prosper in a non-traditional market better known for sunshine and beaches than winning hockey.

Nearly two decades later, the answer is a resounding yes.

Not only has the league flourished in Tampa and other Sun Belt locations where the game continues to grow, the hometown Lightning have evolved into what generally is regarded as a model franchise – not merely for hockey, but all of pro sports.

Now a community that’s hosted four Super Bowls, the World Series, two Stanley Cup finals and last year’s college football national championship game welcomes the spotlight for its first NHL All-Star game since 1999.

Gretzky made the last of his 18 All-Star appearances that year and had a goal and two assists to capture MVP honors.

”It’s very special to be named to an All-Star game, regardless of where it’s played. But when it’s in your home city, it’s that much more special,” said Lightning star Steven Stamkos, a five-time selection.

”I know the amount of work that’s gone into preparing for it,” Stamkos, one of four Tampa Bay players in this weekend’s game, said. ”It’s going to be a great showcase of a hockey city. … I’m sure we’ll put on a great show.”

Downtown Tampa, along with 19,000-seat Amalie Arena, has been transformed into a colorful tribute to the league’s biggest stars.

Festivities began Friday with a free outdoor concert headlined by Fitz and the Tantrums and the opening of All-Star PreGame, a three-day fun fest open to the general public as well as fans fortunate enough to land game tickets.

Media Day and the All-Star Skills Competition are Saturday, followed by Sunday’s main event featuring teams from the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific divisions playing a three-game tournament in a popular three-on-three format adopted in 2016.

And if the game’s brightest stars coming to town isn’t a big enough reason to celebrate, All-Star weekend is being held in conjunction with Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Pirate Invasion, an annual event that attracts about 200,000 people for a parade along the city’s downtown waterfront.

”It’s a big block party. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a season ticket member or somebody who just enjoys catching an occasional Lightning game on TV,” former Lightning general manager Jay Feaster, now the club’s executive director of community hockey development, said.

Feaster assembled the team that won Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup title in 2004, however the Lightning never fully reaped the benefits of the championship run because a labor strife wiped out the next season.

A growing fan base ready to embrace the club’s success suddenly didn’t have a defending champion to cheer.

Feaster is excited about a resurgence led by owner Jeff Vinik, coach Jon Cooper and Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who as the current general manager has composed a talented young roster built for long-term success.

The Lightning, celebrating their 25th season, reached the All-Star break with the league’s best record and have re-emerged as a championship contender after narrowly missing the playoffs a year ago.

The Lightning dropped the Stanley Cup final to Chicago in six games three years ago, then came within one victory of returning to the NHL’s biggest stage the following season.

”What Steve Yzerman has done I think is just masterful, the way he’s assembled this team,” Feaster said.

”He’s assembled it (to be) not just one and done. We won one Stanley Cup when I was general manager,” Feaster added. ”We got back to the playoffs after the lockout a couple of times, but never got close to an Eastern Conference final or a Stanley Cup final again.”

The Lightning will be represented by a league-leading four players in Sunday’s game – Stamkos, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and forwards Nikita Kucherov and Bryden Point, a replacement for injured Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman.

Feaster, who worked for the Lightning from 1998 to 2008, returned to Tampa in 2014 to lead the club’s youth and high school outreach efforts after a stint as GM of the Calgary Flames.

While he always felt the region had the potential to thrive as a hockey market, Feaster said the growth of the sport locally in the years since the community-minded Vinik took control of the team in 2010 has far exceeded his expectations.

In the two seasons following the Lightning’s latest appearance in the Stanley Cup final, the number of youth hockey players in the Tampa Bay area increased by 747 kids, up from a base of about 1,000.

”Jeff has done such a tremendous job of growing the brand, and the hockey team has helped, too,” Feaster said.

”As you know, if you’re not winning, the mustard isn’t yellow enough in the building,” Feaster added. ”It’s the team. It’s what Jeff puts into the community. … It truly is exponential growth.”

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

Trade: Penguins reportedly land Derick Brassard

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Last year, Derick Brassard was battling the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Game 7 overtime with a trip to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final on the line. Now he’ll hope to join them in a bid for an extremely rare threepeat.

The Penguins went big to land Brassard, sending a package that includes a first round pick to the Ottawa Senators, who maybe quieted the Erik Karlsson trade talk … for a millisecond.

The Trade: Penguins receive Derick Brassard; Senators get a first-round pick, Ian Cole, and intriguing goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson, via TSN’s Darren Dreger.

Note: substantial aspects of this trade could change. For instance, the Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reports that a third team might be involved in some way to alleviate cap concerns. This post will be updated to reflect changes once final confirmation surfaces.

Update: There may be some twists and turns before this all gets approved. Stay tuned.

Why the Penguins made the trade: It’s been no secret that the Penguins have been looking for center help since losing Matt Cullen and Nick Bonino. Brassard fits that bill, and honestly, stands as a nice upgrade.

At 30, Brassard is still at or near his prime. The Penguins get Brassard for two playoff runs, as his $5 million cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Brassard’s quietly enjoyed a strong season in Ottawa, as he has 18 goals and 38 points in 58 games. He’s just one point shy of tying his 2016-17 total, even though that came in 81 contests. The former Rangers forward is battle-tested in the postseason, too.

No doubt about it, this is a contending team being aggressive to try to win a third straight Stanley Cup. Brassard makes an already-impressive offense that much deeper.

The inclusion of Cole helps make the money work for the Penguins, even if it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh still has some questions on defense.

Why the Senators made the trade: The Senators are in liquidation mode, and to start, this trade helps Ottawa get a first-rounder back after giving one up in the Matt Duchene trade. Granted, the Penguins’ first-rounder could be very low – they’d love it to be the 31st selection – but it’s a key return for the rebuilding Sens.

Gustavsson, 19, isn’t just a throw-in, either. He was a second-round pick (55th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft. With Craig Anderson already 36, the Senators need to look to the future, and Gustavsson has a chance to be a part of the picture in net.

You can argue that Ottawa’s returns aren’t fully documented yet, as they might move Cole for even more futures:

Who won the trade?

Senators fans are unlikely to be happy with the team cleaning house, particularly with players who helped them make a deep playoff run remarkably recently. Still, they’re diving in with a reset, if not a rebuild, and this is a decent return. Getting a bit more for Cole could help, and Gustavsson’s development will play a significant role in how this move is viewed in hindsight.

The Penguins are going for it, as they have been for some time. Brassard fills a serious need, and while defense is an issue for Pittsburgh, Cole found himself as a healthy scratch and obviously on the way out at times.

This is all about the present for Pittsburgh, and it’s easy to justify such a thought process. Let’s not forget that Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel are 30 while Evgeni Malkin is 31. You never know when the championship window might slam shut.

Your excitement regarding the Penguins’ side hinges on how much you like Brassard. Not everyone is blown away by what he brings to the table.

This is an obvious case of two teams going in different directions, and thus looking for very different returns. Which team got the best value out of the deal, though?

Finally, enjoy this timely Getty photo:

(Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

There are “can’t beat them, join them” jokes made about Brassard, but that feeling sort of goes both ways.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trades fantasy hockey owners should root for

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Trades can really liven things up for a sport, so here’s hoping that the intriguing Michael Grabner to Devils move is the catalyst for a memorable stretch of swaps.

While there’s always the risk that a player will struggle to get acclimated to a new city and new teammates, trades can also provide a boost in fantasy hockey. As we wait for more deals to trickle in, it might be fun to picture changes of scenery. Here are some moves fantasy owners should root for.

[More on the Grabner trade.]

Elephants trotting around the room

Look, asking the Senators to trade Erik Karlsson is asking a lot.

It could be quite a late-season boon for owners who’ve been burned a bit by a season that’s not up to his honestly ridiculous standards. Complaining about a defenseman generating 42 points in 55 games is silly, but considering that Karlsson often goes in the first or second round, and fantasy sports are kind of silly by nature, well …

Anyway, a move to a contender could really help him. Maybe he’d enjoy short-term puck luck (his shooting percentage this season is 3.4 percent, half of his career average of 6.8). Considering his puck dispersal skills, setting up teammates who are likely more skilled and more motivated at this point in the season could really be electric.

Max Pacioretty also stands as interesting.

With a 7.7 shooting percentage, “Patches” is also lacking when it comes to lucky bounces. More than that, it has to be a drain on him to lose so often, particularly in a hockey-obsessed market like Montreal. Being “one of the guys” on a contender could really do him good.

Also, it’s been noted, yet it must be said: Pacioretty’s really never played with a great center. Imagine what he could accomplish with a legitimate No. 1? With his contract expiring after 2018-19, the motivation should be there, too.

Some others worth noting in this category:

  • Evander Kane has dealt with injuries and the frustrating knowledge that he’s never suited up in a playoff game in his career. With an expiring contract at age 26, you could argue that Kane has the most on the line of just about any of the most realistic trade targets in the NHL.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, yet with comparable sniping skills, you have Rick Nash. Much like Pacioretty, Nash is getting his goals now after a prolonged slump. While Kane has never tasted playoff play, Nash surely would like to show that he’s more “clutch” than his critics believe.
  • Mike Green got roasted a bit in this PHT roundtable, but that’s based on real-life play. From a fantasy perspective, Green could be fascinating. That said, he plays a huge role in Detroit, and might actually see a downgrade if traded. So maybe he’s a coin flip?
  • Ryan McDonagh and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are both defensemen who will likely be affected by what happens with Karlsson, as they do too see contracts expire after 2018-19. McDonagh seems more likely to move than OEL, yet both could really thrive on better/more driven teams down the stretch.

[Dion Phaneuf: better in fantasy than reality.]

Lightning round

OK, now onto a handful of names that might not come up much/at all, but would be a lot of fun.

  • Goalies with more fuel in the tank: Sorry, Antti Niemi, but there are better options out there for goalie rentals, even with Petr Mrazek off the market. The Coyotes might want to keep Antti Raanta around, but it would be intriguing to see what he could do for, say, the Hurricanes. Raanta’s save percentage is up to .922 this season. Since 2014-15, Raanta is tied with Carey Price and Corey Crawford for the NHL’s best save percentage at .923.

Raanta would be the gem in my eyes. Still, there are some other interesting considerations. Would the Sabres trade sneaky-good Robin Lehner? Could Jaroslav Halak help someone if the Islanders decided they’ve had enough?

  • I’ve stated that the Coyotes would likely lose if they traded Max Domi. Domi’s fantasy owners and new team could enjoy modest-to-significant gains, however.
  • This is more tangential: Jeff Carter might be nearing a return. With that in mind, the Kings might actually be a more beneficial landing pad for a player than maybe they’d seem. It sounds like they’re happy to get Tobias Rieder, though.
  • As always, root for the Oilers to trade skilled players (note: they’re saying they are leaning toward tweaks this time, for what it’s worth). You may very well see that player burn them for making such a move, possibly right away.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canadian defenseman sorry for removing medal during ceremony

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Canadian defenseman Jocelyne Larocque apologized Friday for taking off her silver medal almost immediately after it was placed around her neck at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Larocque, a two-time Olympian, then held onto the medal during the medal ceremony following the United States’ 3-2 shootout victory over Canada on Thursday. Canada had won the previous four gold medals in women’s hockey.

She issued a statement through Team Canada apologizing to the IOC, International Ice Hockey Federation, the Pyeongchang Olympic Organizing Committee, the Canadian Olympic Committee, Hockey Canada and her teammates and fans. She says she meant no disrespect but her emotions took over.

”Please understand this was a moment in time that I truly wish I could take back,” Larocque said. ”I take seriously being a role model to young girls and representing our country. My actions did not demonstrate the values our team, myself and my family live and for that I am truly sorry.”

Melody Davidson, general manager of Canada’s national team programs, said she talked to Larocque, who did not mean to be disrespectful.

”She is very remorseful and takes responsibility for her error,” Davidson said. ”Emotions run high at the Olympic Games, and never more so than in a gold-medal game, but at all times we expect our program to act professionally and demonstrate sound sportsmanship. I would like to congratulate the United States on their victory.”

Josh Bailey uses career season to cash in with $30 million extension

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The New York Islanders announced on Friday that they’ve extended one of their most productive forwards.

No, not John Tavares, but rather one of his wingers, Josh Bailey, who inked a six-year deal to stay with the only NHL organization he’s known.

“Josh has become one of the core members of the New York Islanders,” said Islanders president and general manager Garth Snow in a statement. “He has developed within our system for several years and it’s exciting to see him mature into the player we always had confidence he would become. To come into the past few seasons and see Josh set new career highs each year, has been impressive and we’re excited to see him continue to do that with the organization as we move forward.”

Per TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Bailey’s deal is worth $30 million, meaning he’ll carry a $5 million cap hit through the 2023-24 season.

Bailey, 28, in the middle of career year, is third on the Islanders in scoring with 62 points and is second on the team in assists with 47. He does lead them in power play points with 28. A first-round pick in 2008, he probably could have earned a bit more on the open market if he went to unrestricted free agency this summer, but he was clearly willing to take less to stay on Long Island with his family.

This deal could have an affect on what Tavares, who can become a UFA on July 1, decides over the next few months. Bailey has been a regular linemate for the Islanders captain for the last several years and now knowing that he’s locked up until at least 2024 should be good news in the sense of some familiarity going forward. (It must also be nice for Tavares to see one of his wingers being kept after watching Matt Moulson, Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo leave through trades/free agency.)

There are a couple of other pending UFA and restricted free agents for Snow to deal with this summer like Brock Nelson, Calvin de Haan and Ryan Pulock, but obviously Tavares is of primary concern. This deal could go a long way to keeping the captain with the organization.

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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.