Jason Brough

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No NHLers would leave Olympic tourney with familiar, old look

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If the NHL doesn’t send its players to the 2018 Winter Olympics, the hockey tournament in Pyeongchang will look familiar.

It will look a lot like the Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, Albertville in 1992 and Calgary in 1988.

Maybe even a little like 1980 in Lake Placid, site of the “Miracle On Ice.”

With a year before the opening ceremony, the league, players union, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee still don’t have an agreement to send NHL players to their sixth consecutive Olympics. There is still time — an agreement last time around came in July before the 2014 Games in Sochi — but everyone is forming a Plan B just in case.

Read more: IOC chief calls it a priority for NHLers to be at Olympics

Russia might have Alex Ovechkin if he makes good on his intention to go no matter what. But the United States, Canada and other countries are preparing for life without the best players in the world.

If the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jack Eichel and Ryan Suter aren’t available, USA Hockey will look mostly to the college ranks. If Hockey Canada can’t take Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty or Carey Price, it will try to defend the gold medal with a mix of European-based professionals, North American minor leaguers and players from the Canadian junior leagues and NCAA.

“It’s a big world, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to go,” Hockey Canada president Tom Renney said. “Should the NHL choose not to go, we’ll make sure we’re ready, willing and able a year from now.”

The U.S. has a fresh set of heroes after shootout star Troy Terry, defenseman Charlie McAvoy and goaltender Tyler Parsons won world junior gold last month. Mix them with top college players like Notre Dame’s Anders Bjork and Wisconsin’s Trent Frederic and ex-NHLers Keith Aucoin and Nathan Gerbe who are playing in Europe, and the Americans will have plenty of youth and experience.

Dave Starman, a former coach in the minors and now an analyst for CBS Sports, said USA Hockey’s priority should be scoring, scoring and more scoring.

“You can’t win unless you can score,” Starman said. “It’s got to have a ton of speed, it’s got to have a really high skill level, it’s got to have defensemen who can get in the play. You need a little bit of dog on bone in your lineup, but I don’t think you can sacrifice skill guys for toughness.”

No problem there for Canada, which has plenty of big, tough skill players and hasn’t waited for the IIHF to set any 2018 parameters as it prepares its contingency plan. Canada’s team for the December Spengler Cup in Switzerland could serve as a blueprint: minor leaguers Cory Conacher and Zach Fucale and European recent NHL players Daniel Paille and Nick Spaling.

While IIHF President Rene Fasel would like a final decision sooner than later to plan for South Korea, Renney said Hockey Canada could put a team together quickly. Like USA Hockey, Canada can pull from its national junior team but has more veteran talent in Europe and the American Hockey League to choose from. Former NHL goaltender Ben Scrivens in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey league is an option, for example, as is journeyman Michael Leighton, who is in the Carolina Hurricanes’ system.

Though Leighton firmly believes NHL players will go, the 35-year-old said he would “train as hard as I possibly can to get that job” if they don’t. AHL president and CEO David Andrews expects his league to be open to allowing players to go to the Olympics as long as NHL teams give individual minor leaguers permission.

“I think it’ll be an interesting question, though, for a lot of general managers because the player that is going to be asked for is going to be probably their No. 1 player outside the NHL club,” Andrews said. “They kind of face that question of, `Do we want our No. 1 call-up to be in South Korea for two or three weeks?”‘

Some NHL owners might even give their elite players permission to go, and Ted Leonsis of the Washington Capitals has said repeatedly he’d let Ovechkin, Swede Nicklas Backstrom and Canadian Braden Holtby represent their countries, though Holtby said he would never leave the Capitals midseason. The IIHF might set roster parameters to prevent NHL players from participating, too.

“We want to have that opportunity,” two-time U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk said. “If that’s taken from us and we don’t have that right anymore, at least it gives other guys an opportunity.”

Hall of Fame defenseman Mark Howe would be fine with that. After winning a silver medal playing for the U.S. in 1972, he supports amateurs because he feels the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” victory over the Soviet Union had a greater impact on the sport than professionals playing in the Olympics.

“Probably the greatest victory I think I’ve ever seen in hockey was when the 1980 team beat the Russians,” Howe said. “There was some guys on that team that never had a chance to play in the NHL or impact the NHL. That was their two weeks of fame. A guy like Mike Eruzione, Jimmy Craig – they’re phenomenal stories.”

True, but 1998 and 2002 U.S. Olympian John LeClair is worried about a talent discrepancy next winter if Russia put Ovechkin and dominant KHL players Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk against American college kids.

“You get different variations of who’s playing and who’s not,” LeClair said. “You’re getting back to what it used to be where Russia had all their pros. You want everybody on an even (playing) field.”

Related: Bettman points finger at IOC

With trade deadline looming, Jim Nill facing reality in Dallas

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Jim Nill is realistic about the Dallas Stars’ chances of making the playoffs.

They aren’t good.

“You have to go on a run here eventually,” the Stars’ general manager told SiriusXM NHL radio this morning. “We’ve been win one, lose one, win two, lose one — eventually, you gotta go on a run where you win three, four, five games in a row if you’re going to get back in it.”

In the wake of last night’s painful loss to Nashville, it’s estimated the Stars will need to go around 16-6-3 in their final 25 games in order to make the playoffs. That’s a tall order for a team that’s been plagued by injuries, poor defensive play, and substandard goaltending.

“We’ve been decimated by injuries again,” said Nill. “We haven’t had our full team all year. So it’s been tough to get a handle on things. But in the end, the excuses don’t matter. You’ve still got to find ways to win games.”

The Stars have three games before they get their bye week, and then it’s only three more games until the March 1 trade deadline.

“I’m going to know in the next week or 10 days where we’re at,” said Nill. “We’ll have to make decisions moving forward after that bye week.”

Expect forwards Patrick Eaves and Patrick Sharp, both pending unrestricted free agents, to garner interest should the Stars start selling. Depending on his health, defenseman Johnny Oduya could be in play as well.

The real challenge for Nill will come this offseason, when the goaltending situation can be ignored no longer. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi are each signed through next season, but at least one of them will have to be bought out or traded. Whether the answer is Marc-Andre Fleury, Ben Bishop or some other goalie, the fan base is justifiably clamoring for change between the pipes.

A decision will also need to be made about the head coach, as Lindy Ruff’s contract expires at the end of the season.

But first things first — tomorrow in Winnipeg, the Stars take on the equally desperate Jets.

“We’re living game by game here, we know that,” said Nill.

And the number of games is quickly running out.

Lehner rips Sabres after loss to Canucks

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Robin Lehner, true to form, had some strong words for his Buffalo Sabres teammates following Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Canucks at KeyBank Center.

“It’s not even disappointing anymore, it’s starting to get … I’m starting to get angry,” Lehner said, per the Sabres’ website. “This is all talk. We’ve got to look ourselves in the mirror here.”

It was an eventful game for Lehner, who allowed four goals on 31 shots and got into an altercation with Vancouver’s Alex Burrows.

“I was kind of backing up in a defensive position, asking what he was doing,” Burrows explained afterwards. “He looked pretty angry; he’s a big man.”

Anger has been kind of a common theme for Lehner, who refuses to apologize for his fiery disposition. With a .923 save percentage, he certainly doesn’t need to apologize for his play.

The Sabres as a team, on the other hand, have been woefully inconsistent. In the last week alone, they’ve followed a great comeback victory over the Sharks with a dismal effort against the Ducks. Then, after going into Toronto and getting a big win over the Maple Leafs, they laid an egg against the Canucks.

Lehner called the Sabres’ performance “disrespectful” to the game plan that head coach Dan Bylsma has put together.

“The good teams out there, they do the same thing over and over again, and when things happen… they fall back on the structure,” said Lehner. “The structure bails them out. And we have a structure, but we don’t play it.”

The Sabres are in Ottawa to take on the Senators tomorrow.

You can watch Lehner’s entire post-game tongue-lashing below:

Related: Major roster holes remain in Buffalo

Pre-game reading: On Peter Budaj, who’s been a great story for the Kings

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— Up top, Eric Staal reflects on his first year in Minnesota, which has gone rather well we’d say. The Wild committed just $10.5 million over three years to Staal. Quite the bargain for GM Chuck Fletcher.

— An excellent read on Peter Budaj, the 34-year-old netminder with the $600,000 contract who’s been so good for the Kings in the wake of Jonathan Quick‘s injury. “When you look at where I was at the beginning of the year, or maybe two years ago, not many people would give me this kind of a chance to become anybody. Nobody, I think, in the hockey world would believe that I’d be here. Not even me.”  (Sports Illustrated)

— The Winnipeg Jets have an interesting decision to make about Bryan Little. The 29-year-old center is eligible to sign a contract extension this summer, and he’d apparently love to do just that. But GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will have to be careful not to overpay. Though Little is an under-rated player, he’s already got 646 NHL games under his belt, and he’s getting to the point in his career where many players start to decline. (TSN)

— With all we’re learning about the long-term effects of concussions, it can be pretty darn scary to get one these days. Take it from Devils defenseman John Moore, who had to be stretchered off the ice on New Year’s Eve after getting hit from behind by Washington’s Tom Wilson. “For about a week, I really wasn’t myself at all,” Moore said. “I couldn’t remember things, I was angry all the time, and anxious. I know I wasn’t easy to be around, just not myself. It was scary, really scary.” The good news? Moore is hoping to return to New Jersey’s lineup soon, possibly even Sunday against San Jose. (Yahoo Sports)

Frederik Andersen plays a lot of games for the Maple Leafs, and he faces a lot of shots. In fact, as noted by Jonas Siegel of the Canadian Press: “The 27-year-old is on pace to face 2,173 shots in his first season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, in what would be the 15th highest total ever. Only 31 times in league history has a goaltender faced even 2,100 shots in a single season — Pekka Rinne and Cam Ward the last to do so five years ago.” Andersen stopped 38 of 40 shots in Thursday’s 2-1 OT loss to St. Louis. Though he didn’t get the win, it was a solid performance after four straight tough outings. (Canadian Press)

— Speaking of busy goalies, here’s an interview with Bruins starter Tuukka Rask, who had the following to say about the new, slimmer pants that all NHL netminders must wear now: “The way they feel, it will increase scoring, for sure.” Not all goalies feel the same way, but Rask believes the pants are “so much slimmer from your hips and thighs that some pucks that would normally hit your pants will go right through.” (ESPN)

Enjoy the games!

Detroit’s Ericsson to have season-ending wrist surgery

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Jonathan Ericsson‘s season is over. The Red Wings defenseman will have surgery next week to fix his fractured wrist. The recovery time will be 12 weeks, GM Ken Holland told MLive’s Brendan Savage.

Ericsson suffered the injury last night when he was hit into the boards by Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom.

The Wings and Capitals were tied 1-1 when Ericsson went down near the end of the first period. With Backstrom in the penalty box for boarding, Detroit scored on the power play, but ended up losing, 6-3.

Ericsson, obviously, did not return to the game.

“You’re missing Jonathan Ericsson,” head coach Jeff Blashill said afterwards, per the Detroit Free Press. “People don’t have enough respect for what 6-foot-5, and good skating, or 6-foot-6, whatever he is, and good skating can do for you. When you are playing against big, physical men, you need guys that can go against them and handle them as he can.”

A shutdown defenseman, Ericsson will finish his year with one goal and eight assists in 51 games. The 32-year-old is signed for three more seasons at a cap hit of $4.25 million.