Jason Brough

AP

Tonight’s gold-medal game will be one for Coyotes fans to watch

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The Arizona Coyotes may be enduring another tough season, but their bright future will be on full display tonight in Montreal when the United States and Canada play for gold at the World Juniors.

The Coyotes have a key player on each team. For USA, it’s center Clayton Keller, the seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft. For Canada, it’s center Dylan Strome, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft.

Both players are among the tournament leaders in scoring, each with three goals and seven assists in six games.

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In the last few years, the Coyotes have also drafted the likes of Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, and Jakob Chychrun, while adding a number of youngsters via trade in Tobias Rieder, Anthony Duclair, Anthony DeAngelo, and Lawson Crouse.

“In my opinion, the organization has never had this level of talent before at this level, so the future is certainly bright,” GM John Chayka said this past summer, via the Coyotes’ website.

Of course, there is still the matter of translating all that talent into success at the NHL level. The Coyotes aren’t the only team with a bumper crop of prospects. For the years of losing to be worthwhile, it will all have to come together in the next couple of seasons. And let’s face it, that’s the toughest part of any rebuild. The first part — tearing it down and being intentionally bad — is relatively easy.

But with centers like Strome, Keller and Dvorak in the organization, the Coyotes have a great chance to be successful. At the very least, they have a promising succession plan for Martin Hanzal, who’s likely to be traded before the deadline.

As for the back end, that very much remains a work in progress. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is only locked up through 2018-19, and you can bet he’ll want to see the team make progress before he considers re-signing.

But the Coyotes did draft Chychrun 16th overall in June, and the fact he’s been able to play in the NHL as an 18-year-old is encouraging. DeAngelo, the 19th overall pick in 2014, was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay, and though he needs to start acting with more discipline, he’s produced a decent amount of offense for a 21-year-old d-man, with three goals and six assists in 20 games this season.

The Coyotes may still need to upgrade their defense further, and that’s never easy or cheap. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers.

The goaltending has also been inconsistent, and Mike Smith turns 35 in March. That’s another problem for Chayka to solve.

But Coyotes fans should enjoy tonight’s big game in Montreal. One of Keller or Strome is guaranteed to win gold, and silver for the other isn’t too shabby either.

Related: Coyotes prospect Strome to captain Canada at World Juniors

Blue Jackets just going about their business, as winning streak approaches NHL record

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Coach John Tortorella hates talking about it, but the Blue Jackets’ improbable 16-game winning streak has Columbus and the NHL buzzing.

A win on Thursday night in Washington will tie Columbus with the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr for the longest streak in league history. The team’s surprising success and the streak have given long-suffering Blue Jackets fans much to cheer about lately. Just don’t ask Torts about it.

“I just want us to keep our heads down, and I just want us to play,” he said after Tuesday night’s 3-1 win over Edmonton. “You know what we are? We’re a group of businessmen, as far as I’m concerned.”

Columbus hasn’t lost since a 2-1 setback at Florida on Nov. 26. The Blue Jackets won all 14 games in December and their 27-5-4 record is the NHL’s best. Boasting the league’s best power-play unit, they sit atop the rugged Metropolitan Division with reigning NHL champs Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers trailing.

“As soon as our game was over (Tuesday) night, guys were checking to see if they won or not. We had it on,” said Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik, who will try to slow down the surging Blue Jackets on Thursday. “If anyone says they weren’t (paying attention) they’re lying because we had it on in the change room.”

What’s even more astounding is that Blue Jackets were among the league’s dregs last season, finishing 34-40-8. Without any blockbuster trades or big name free-agent signings in the offseason, expectations for the 2016-17 bunch were fairly low.

But a mixture of experience and youth – outstanding first-line defenders Zach Werenski and Seth Jones are 19 and 22, respectively – along with terrific goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has lifted the Blue Jackets to unprecedented heights and has them eyeing the Stanley Cup playoffs for just the third time in the 16-year history of the franchise.

Tortorella preaches never getting too up or too down about anything that happens. Captain Nick Foligno said there hasn’t been much talk about the streak in the Blue Jackets locker room.

“As you get closer, I think that’s when you start to taste it a little bit more, understand it a little bit more,” he said. “But for us, it’s just knowing how we’re going to go about our business. That’s what I’m so proud of. It’s easy to get your eye off the goal when you’re going through something like this. But for us the goal isn’t the streak, it’s what’s coming ahead and what’s coming down the road.”

Cam Atkinson leads the team with 18 goals and 38 points through 36 games and scored the opening tally against Edmonton on Tuesday.

“I think we’re just rolling,” he said. “I personally don’t think about (the streak), other guys might. Obviously, it’s really cool if you think about it, but right now we’re just focusing on trying to get (another) two points.”

Read more: ‘Going to be a fun moment’ ending Columbus’ streak, says Burakovsky

But a lot of other people are talking about it, including Scotty Bowman, who was coach of the 1992-93 Pittsburgh team that won 17 straight. Bowman, now a senior adviser to the Chicago Blackhawks, said the Blue Jackets’ string of wins is “unbelievable” considering the parity in today’s game.

“They’ve got a lot of things going for them, a heck of a power play, and they’ve got a goaltender that’s helped,” Bowman said.

The 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers own a record 35-game unbeaten streak that will almost certainly never be matched because they played when overtime didn’t exist in the regular season. The Flyers won 25 games and tied 10 more from Oct. 16, 1979, until Jan. 6, 1980.

For now, the Blue Jackets are just looking ahead to the Capitals. And after Tuesday’s win in front a vocal near-sellout crowd, even the irascible Tortorella was in a decent mood.

“Everything feels good right now,” he said.

Related: The young Blue Jackets, with a ‘new culture,’ are the NHL’s biggest surprise

Sakic has major challenge in trying to turn around Avalanche

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There was a theory heading into the 2016-17 season that there wouldn’t be a truly terrible team in the NHL.

It was a reasonable theory, given there wasn’t a draft-eligible player like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews to be intentionally bad for.

But that theory’s been blown out of the water by the Colorado Avalanche, who could end up being the worst team of the salary-cap era.

The Avs lost their fifth straight last night, falling 4-1 to the Flames while getting outshot 37-18. They’re now 12-25-1, for a points percentage of just .329.

Here are the 10 worst teams of the salary-cap era, based on points percentage:

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You’ll also see this year’s Arizona Coyotes on the list. They’re pretty bad themselves.

But the Avs are worse, and this is not a team that’s trying to be bad.

The 2013-14 Sabres, on the other hand, had officially entered their tear-it-down rebuild. They traded Thomas Vanek to the Islanders in October, receiving Matt Moulson, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick in return. They’d already dealt away Jason Pominville in a similar kind of trade.

“I understand our fan base and I would like to think that people will give up some suffering in order to win a Stanley Cup,” said then-GM Darcy Regier.

The Avalanche don’t have the same excuse. In 2013-14, they looked like a team on the rise, winning the Central Division to everyone’s surprise. But then they lost center Paul Stastny to free agency, watching him walk away for nothing to the St. Louis Blues. Not too long after, they traded away another top center, sending a disgruntled Ryan O'Reilly to Buffalo for Nikita Zadorov, Mikhail Grigorenko and J.T. Compher.

Zadorov, Grigorenko, and Compher are all still young, but as of right now, that is not looking like a good trade for Colorado.

Frankly, nothing is looking too good for the Avs these days.

“We made stupid mistakes again,” said forward Joe Colborne after last night’s loss in Calgary. “We keep talking about it and we don’t execute.”

The story of their season.

Now, to be fair, the Avs do have some reason for optimism. Mikko Rantanen, the 10th overall pick in 2015, is only 20 and he should be a good player. Tyson Jost, the 10th overall pick in 2016, is only 18, and he too has great potential. Heck, Nathan MacKinnon is still just 21.

But in terms of blue-chip prospects, there isn’t a whole lot after the three forwards: Rantanen, Jost and Compher. And it’s the blue line that most badly needs an upgrade, which is why it’s being reported that GM Joe Sakic may be willing to trade Matt Duchene or Gabriel Landeskog for a young d-man.

It’s a heck of a challenge for Sakic, who doesn’t want to make a panic move and risk making things even worse. The Avs have so far to go before they’re competitive again. They can perhaps take solace in the turnaround we’ve seen in Columbus, but the Blue Jackets’ “engine” is their young, talented back end, and in Colorado, that’s the biggest weakness.

It’s a weakness for a reason. The Avs have not drafted a d-man in the first round since 2011, when they took Duncan Siemens 11th overall. And unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he’s going to pan out. Before Siemens, the last d-man they took in the first round was Kevin Shattenkirk, all the way back in 2007.

And so, when Erik Johnson was lost to injury a month ago, the Avs were in serious, serious trouble. Their six defensemen last night were Fedor Tyutin, Tyson Barrie, Francois Beauchemin, Cody Goloubef, Patrick Wiercioch, and Zadorov.

Bottom line: that is not even close to a serviceable defense in today’s NHL.

How Sakic goes about fixing it remains to be seen.

It is a bad situation in Colorado, and there are no quick fixes in this league.

Related: Avalanche claim Nieto, who’s ‘definitely an NHL player’

Avalanche claim Nieto, who’s ‘definitely an NHL player’

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The worst team in the NHL has a new player. The Colorado Avalanche have claimed forward Matt Nieto off waivers from the San Jose Sharks.

Nieto, 24, has no goals and two assists in 16 games this season. He’s a pending restricted free agent with a cap hit of $735,000.

It’s a risk-free addition for the Avs, who will likely be sellers leading up to the trade deadline.

As for the Sharks, they just didn’t have a spot for Nieto anymore, thanks to the emergence of Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc.

“I think he’s definitely an NHL player, he’s a great kid,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said of Nieto, per the Mercury News. “He was real serviceable for us here. That’s what the waiver process is for. Guys in that situation, where he’s on a deep team behind some people. This gives him a chance to go somewhere and prove himself.”

Nieto has 28 goals and 42 assists in in 221 career NHL games. He can kill penalties, too.

Going for gold! USA knocks off Russia in thrilling World Juniors semifinal

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After getting eliminated three straight years by Russia, Team USA got its revenge at the World Juniors.

The Americans knocked off the Russians, 4-3, in a shootout today in Montreal. USA will now meet either Canada or Sweden in Thursday’s gold-medal game, while the Russians will have to settle for a chance to play for bronze.

It was a thrilling semifinal, one either side could’ve won. Each team had multiple chances to score in the 10 minutes of four-on-four overtime, but neither could finish.

The shootout went seven rounds and ended, finally, on a goal by Troy Terry, his third of the breakaway contest.

The 60 minutes of regulation were just as nerve-wracking.

Midway through the second, the Americans tied it at two on a pretty passing play between Wild prospects Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin, the latter of whom drove the net and tipped the puck past Russian netminder Ilya Samsonov. Later in the period, Boston College’s Colin White scored his second of the game, and sixth of the tournament, to give the Americans a 3-2 lead.

Early in the third, Samsonov stopped USA’s Clayton Keller on a penalty shot. Shortly thereafter, Stars draft pick Denis Gurianov notched his second of the game, beating Tyler Parsons on a breakaway to make it 3-3.

Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov had opened the scoring in the first with his tournament-leading eighth goal.

Read more: All four Wild prospects showing well at the World Juniors

The Americans have not won gold at the World Juniors since 2013 in Ufa, Russia, where Johnny Gaudreau led them in scoring.