<span class="vcard">Jason Brough</span>

Vladimir Putin

Putin spends his birthday playing hockey with NHL stars

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin spent his 63rd birthday on the ice Wednesday, playing hockey with NHL stars against Russian officials and tycoons.

Putin scored seven goals as his star-studded team, which included NHL legends Vyacheslav Fetisov and Pavel Bure, won the game 15-10. The opposing team included Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as well as Putin’s close friends – tycoons Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg. Both were slapped with Western sanctions last year for their ties to Putin in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Putin was given a trophy for his team’s win at the end of the game and a medal for his contribution to hockey in Russia.

Earlier in the afternoon, Putin was briefed by Shoigu about the Russian air force operation in Syria. As the Russian television began to broadcast dramatic footages of Russian cruise missiles fired from a warship in the Caspian Sea, lighting up the night sky, Putin stepped on the ice of the Shayba arena in Sochi for the game that was broadcase live on Russian television.

Last year, Putin reportedly spent his birthday holed up in the Siberian wilderness far away from populated areas.

In Moscow, Putin’s social media fan club held an exhibition of portraits of Putin as various real and fictional characters, including Che Guevara, Father Christmas, Jupiter and Buddha.

In Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, officials were hosting a soccer game featuring Italian veterans to celebrate Putin’s birthday. The organizers unfurled a banner covering the entire football pitch that read:

“The best president. Happy birthday!”

Bettman to players: Don’t screw up ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ with drugs

Gary Bettman
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The NHL wants to take an educational approach — not a punitive one — to deter its players from using illicit drugs like cocaine.

“My interest is not to go around punishing people,” Bettman told Sportsnet today.

“My interest is getting players to understand the consequences of doing something that could jeopardize this great, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that they’ve been given, to play in the NHL.”

While some players have expressed surprise at hearing that cocaine use is growing, the anecdotal evidence of substance abuse has been very much in the news, from Jarret Stoll‘s arrest to Mike Richards’ arrest to, more recently, Zack Kassian‘s placement in the NHL/NHLPA’s treatment program.

“We don’t have the unilateral right to do things here. We need the consent of the Players’ Association,” Bettman said. “It’s not about punishment. It’s about making sure we get it to stop.”

Related: Cocaine in the NHL: A concern, but not a crisis?

Here’s hoping 3-on-3 doesn’t degenerate into a boring ‘game of keep-away’

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Are coaches going to ruin 3-on-3 overtime?

It’s been the one, big worry since the NHL decided to change from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3 as a way to reduce the number of shootouts.

Via TSN’s Bob McKenzie, here’s a quote from an anonymous coach (talking about 3-on-3 strategy) that won’t exactly quell that worry:

“Really, it’s a game of keep-away, that’s what it is and the longer you can keep it away from the other team, the more likely they’ll break down. So I say let’s slow it down and hold onto that puck for as long as we can.”

Now take that a step further and imagine there’s a team that’s really good at shootouts. If you were coaching that team, might you tell your players to rag the puck for as long as possible to try and get to the skills competition?

Granted, five minutes is a long time to rag the puck. Not sure any team could play “keep-away” that long. Plus, there will always be teams that aren’t very good at the shootout; theoretically, those teams should be more willing to take their chances in 3-on-3.

But just remember that more time and space doesn’t always lead to more goals. Look at international hockey, which is played on a bigger ice surface. Canada won gold in Sochi by beating Latvia, 2-1, the United States, 1-0, and Sweden, 3-0. It was hardly firewagon hockey.

While nobody’s quite ready to suggest that 3-on-3 will actually lead to more shootouts, it will be interesting to see how things evolve, and if there are any unintended consequences.

“I don’t know if anyone’s figured it out completely yet,” Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said Saturday after losing in 3-on-3 overtime to Vancouver.

“The big thing is, you want to control the puck as much as you can. It’s 3-on-3, so there’s lots of room and space out there. You don’t need to give it away. I think it’s smart to just wait, take your time, and wait for a good opportunity.”

Brandon Sutter didn’t have the greatest preseason

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When Brandon Sutter was acquired by the Vancouver Canucks, GM Jim Benning called the 26-year-old a “foundation piece for our group going forward.”

Sutter was quickly signed to a five-year extension worth almost $22 million, more evidence of how highly management thought of the player.

Fast forward to yesterday, when Benning was asked the following question:

“What does it say that you made the trade for Sutter, you called him a ‘foundation’ player, and it took him until the final night of the preseason to find a spot (with the Sedins) on the wing, which isn’t his natural position?”

Here was Benning’s response:

“Well, [head coach Willie Desjardins] wants to try that out, he thinks that’s going to be a good fit. At various times, the Sedins played with wingers with speed, with [Ryan Kesler], who could get in on the forecheck and had a good shot. Sutter brings some of those qualities, too.”

While all that may be true, Sutter was not signed to play the wing; he was brought in to play center, specifically on the second line. He finished the preseason with zero points in five games. And as mentioned, he’ll start the season on the wing, not his natural position.

Meanwhile, youngsters Bo Horvat, 20, and Jared McCann, 19, had outstanding camps and are expected to start the regular season (tonight in Calgary) centering the second and third lines, respectively.

Though Sutter did finish the preseason with 12 shots on goal, up there with the most on the Canucks, it’s fair to say he did not look like a “foundation” player.

“I haven’t seen him play his best,” Desjardins said last week. “I see a guy who’s big and a good skater and who understands the game real well, but just hasn’t got that involved.”

Now, we are only talking about the preseason here. New players often take time to get comfortable. Perhaps playing with the Sedins can provide Sutter with some confidence.

“I know he’ll be there and I totally believe that,” said Desjardins.

But it hasn’t been the best start, and if it wasn’t for the encouraging play of the youngsters, it would be a far bigger story in Vancouver.

Related: Canucks roll the dice on rookies, waive Vey and Corrado

NHL key dates for the 2015-16 season

Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares
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Nov. 10 —  NHL General Managers Meeting (Toronto)

At last year’s November meetings, the GMs decided to kill the dry scrape. But these meetings usually serve as a table-setter for the rest of the season. It’s the more in-depth meetings in March where the majority of things get decided.

Nov. 27 — NHL Thanksgiving Showdown: Rangers at Bruins

The first of 12 “NHL on NBC” games in 2015-16. Click here for the full list, including the games on NBCSN.

Dec. 7-8 — NHL Board of Governors Meeting (Pebble Beach)

This is where we could find out about expansion. Will both Las Vegas and Quebec City get the nod? Only one of them? Neither of them?

Jan. 1 — Winter Classic: Canadiens at Bruins

From Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Please don’t make any “deflated pucks” jokes. You’re better than that.

Jan. 28-Feb. 1 — All-Star Break

This year’s festivities are being held in Nashville, which is a pretty fun town we hear. Skills competition on Saturday the 30th, game on Sunday the 31st. Over/under has been set at 25 goals and 60 percent effort.

Feb. 29 — NHL trade deadline

Leap day! Click here for a list of pending unrestricted free agents, a.k.a. potential rentals.

Mar. 14-16 — NHL General Managers Meeting (Boca Raton)

As mentioned, these are the more in-depth meetings where any recommendations are typically made. Last season, the GMs recommended 3-on-3 overtime and a coach’s challenge.

Apr. 9 — Last day of the regular season

All 30 teams in action on this Saturday. Playoffs begin four days later on Wednesday. Also, the draft lottery’s date is still to be determined, but should be held sometime around here.

June 18 — Last possible day for the Stanley Cup Final

Click here for PHT’s Cup picks.

June 24-25 — NHL draft

In Buffalo this year. Click here for Central Scouting’s “players to watch” list, led by Auston Matthews.

July 1 — Free agency begins

And then it’s summer.