Jason Brough

Pre-game reading: Analyzing the Minnesota Wild ahead of the expansion draft


— Up top, the “Road to the NHL Outdoor Classics” looks at the St. Louis Blues, who will host the Blackhawks Jan. 2 at Busch Stadium. The Blues have never won the Stanley Cup, but they’re again one of the contenders this season.

— Pierre LeBrun takes a look at the Minnesota Wild ahead of the expansion draft. It will certainly be interesting to see if GM Chuck Fletcher moves one of his defenseman before Vegas gets its chance to pick. Don’t be surprised if the Edmonton Oilers, who’d still like to improve their back end, come calling on a guy like Matt Dumba. The Wild have to protect Ryan Suter, who has a no-movement clause, and they’ll likely choose to protect Jared Spurgeon. That may only leave them with one additional d-man to put a wall around. (ESPN)

— Speaking of Vegas, here’s Golden Knights GM George McPhee on the challenge of preparing for the expansion draft: “Things change. There is going to be a redistribution of players a few weeks before the deadline and there will be some trades as well so we have to know everyone in an organization. … You have to walk away with a good understanding of who those players are and what they can do on the ice because it’s going to matter in six months.” (NHL.com)

— Which coaches are on the hot seat coming out of the Christmas break? Yahoo Sports has come up with a list, and it starts with Dan Bylsma in Buffalo. We wrote about the Sabres today, and how they’ve failed to live up to their own expectations. Injuries have hurt them, but more and more people are wondering if Bylsma is the right man for the job. (Yahoo Sports)

Zack Kassian doesn’t drink anymore, and that more than anything has helped save his career. “When (Oilers GM) Peter Chiarelli made the move to pick me up, I knew it was going to be a long haul to get back to the NHL and to earn Peter’s trust back and to earn everyone’s trust back. I knew it was nothing but uphill. I just took it a day at a time. If you look at it now, a year later, I think things are slowly trying to turn around. Peter, I think, has gained a little more trust in me. And I think that’s all I could really ask for.” (Edmonton Sun)

— The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur, on the pressure the Canadians have to shoulder every year at the World Juniors: “This is Canada’s tournament, but let’s be clear what we mean when we say that. Nobody loves the world junior hockey championships like we do. It has become tradition. The young men lucky or unlucky enough to play know the pressure, know the glory, know the crushing disappointment. They, like so many of us, have watched it all happen on TV.” (Toronto Star)

Enjoy the games!

Canucks lose Hansen for 4-6 weeks with knee injury

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Jannik Hansen will be sidelined 4-6 weeks with a knee injury that was suffered on a controversial play Thursday against Winnipeg.

It was in the second period when the Vancouver winger was kneed by Jets forward Mathieu Perreault. The Canucks felt the play deserved an additional look from the league, but Perreault escaped with a two-minute minor for kneeing.

Hansen was just six games into his return from a previous injury that had cost him 16 games. His new injury is just the latest blow for the Canucks, who have also been without their two top defensemen, Chris Tanev and Alex Edler, for extended periods this season.

Tanev is back, but Edler is still recovering from a broken finger. There is no timetable for his return, though he has been practicing with teammates.

It will be interesting to see how Hansen’s injury may affect the roster. Anton Rodin has been given the first chance to fill in. But if Rodin can’t produce, the Canucks could potentially look at recalling Jake Virtanen from the AHL.

Vancouver entered the Christmas break on a down note, getting badly outplayed in Calgary while losing 4-1 to the Flames on Friday. The Canucks were outshot, 37-14, and didn’t look anything like a team that might challenge for a playoff spot in the second half of the season.

The Canucks host the Kings Wednesday. Vancouver is currently seven points back of Calgary for the second wild-card spot in the West.


Top draft prospect Hischier plays the hero for Switzerland

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If you don’t know it already, remember the name Nico Hischier. The 17-year-old forward played the hero today for Switzerland at the World Juniors, scoring the overtime winner on a breakaway in a 4-3 triumph over the Czech Republic. The dynamic center also picked up two assists during regulation.

Hischier is expected to be a top pick at the 2017 NHL draft. It’s possible he could even go first overall, though Nolan Patrick remains the favorite for that.

“What’s special about him is attention to detail, especially defensively,” said Hischier’s coach in Halifax, Andre Tourigny, per The Hockey News. “He takes so much pride in his defense. It’s unreal.”

Hischier’s pretty good offensively, too. He has 48 points (23G, 25A) in just 31 games for the QMJHL’s Mooseheads this season.

The Swiss are still underdogs relative to international hockey powers like Canada and the United States, but they have a real chance to make an impact at this year’s tourney.

“Last year, we went to the relegation games, but we had a good team,” Hischier told the Chronicle Herald. “This year, we have a good team, too, so if we do the little things right and grow as a team, we can make the quarter-finals. That’s our main goal. After that, everything is possible.”

Ingram to start for Canada tonight, after Hart’s shaky performance against Russia


Connor Ingram will be in Canada’s net tonight against Slovakia at the World Juniors tournament in Toronto.

Ingram, a 19-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, will replace Flyers prospect Carter Hart, who started Monday’s opener against Russia, a 5-3 Canadian victory, and allowed three goals on just 17 shots.

Hart’s somewhat shaky performance put the 18-year-old squarely under the microscope in Canada. The third goal he allowed, off a long wrist shot by Yegor Rykov, was particularly questionable.

“We won, that’s all that matters,” said Hart, per the Toronto Star.

But if Ingram plays well tonight, it will be interesting to see who gets the nod going forward. Canada plays Latvia Thursday before its New Years Eve clash with the United States on Saturday.

Both goalies brought good numbers into the tournament. Ingram is 14-9-0 with a .935 save percentage for the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers, while Hart is 16-3-0 with a .928 save percentage for the Everett Silvertips, who also compete in the WHL.

Sabres fans are still suffering, and that’s not acceptable anymore


The Buffalo Sabres have been a better team with Jack Eichel in the lineup.

But not by as much as they’d hoped.

When Eichel was hurt to start the season, they went 7-9-5. Since he’s been back, they’ve gone 5-4-3 — a decidedly “meh” improvement.

The Sabres entered the Christmas break with no wins in their last four. They got embarrassed, 5-1, by the Islanders on Dec. 23. And to make matters worse, now they’ll be without Ryan O'Reilly (appendectomy) indefinitely.

“We have to figure out what kind of team we want to be,” captain Brian Gionta said after the debacle in Brooklyn. “We have to be a simple team, creating offense, passing and executing.”

It has to be frustrating for Terry Pegula, whose other Buffalo team isn’t doing so well either. Pegula became the Sabres owner in 2011, with much fanfare and optimism.

“Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup,” he famously said at the time.

But the team hasn’t come close yet. It has missed the playoffs the last five seasons, and barring a heck of a comeback in 2016-17, it will miss them again.

To be sure, there are the makings of a better team. Eichel is still only 20; Sam Reinhart is 21, and Rasmus Ristolainen 22. Alexander Nylander, the eighth overall draft pick in 2016, has yet to make his NHL debut; he’s only 18.

Still, the Sabres had higher hopes for 2016-17. They’d signed Kyle Okposo and traded for Dmitry Kulikov. GM Tim Murray said the goal was “to make the playoffs, and we actually do expect that we can do that.”

And yet, they will enter tonight’s game in Detroit in last place in the Atlantic Division, eight points back of third-place Boston. Their offense ranks 28th; their goals-against 11th.

For Murray, major questions abound. Why can’t this team score at five-on-five? Is it time to move on from Evander Kane? How can the blue line be bolstered? Is Dan Bylsma the right head coach?

It has been a long time since the Sabres were Stanley Cup contenders. They went to the Eastern Conference Final in 2007, but haven’t won a postseason series since.

While the fan base largely accepted the “suffering” that went with a tear-it-down rebuild, it will not, and should not, accept much more losing.