Mike Halford

SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 12:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates by kissing the Stanley Cup after their 3-1 victory to win the Stanley Cup against the San Jose Sharks in Game Six of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 12, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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After avoiding surgery, Malkin says elbow is ‘pretty strong right now’

Breathe easy, Penguins fans — the elbow injury that plagued Evgeni Malkin throughout the final four months of last season is a thing of the past.

“Everything’s good,” Malkin said over the weekend, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It’s pretty strong right now. I worked all summer. There’s nothing wrong, no pain. I feel good.”

Malkin, who turned 30 this summer, was initially hurt back in early March on a check from Columbus d-man Dalton Prout. That sidelined the big Russian for the final 15 games of the regular season — and Pittsburgh’s first playoff game — though Malkin did return to help the Pens capture their first Stanley Cup since 2009.

But it wasn’t easy.

Malkin was clearly in discomfort throughout the playoff run. Pens GM Jim Rutherford classified the elbow ailment as a “real serious injury” and praised Malkin, because he “played before most guys would  have played.”

Statistically, Malkin was strong (18 points in 23 games), but there were signs he was limited. His TOI dropped to 17:31 — down from 19:22 in the regular season — and, during the final series against San Jose, head coach Mike Sullivan acknowledged there was “another level” Malkin could reach after going pointless through the first three games.

Malkin had an MRI following the season and, shortly thereafter, the decision was made to avoid surgery and undergo rehab.

Is Jordan Staal primed to be Carolina’s next captain?

Jordan Staal
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Though it won’t be Eric, the ‘Canes could still have a Staal serving as team captain.

Jordan Staal — Eric’s younger brother, who remains in Carolina after his brother departed at the trade deadline and since signed in Minnesota — recently told 99.9 The Fan it would be a “great honor” to inherit the role his brother held for six seasons.

“It’s a big deal. To be a captain of an NHL team is huge,” Staal said, per WRAL Sports Fan. “When you grow up, you dream of just playing in the NHL never mind being the leader of a group.

“There’s no question it would be a great honor for anyone on this team to accept that responsibility.”

Though it might seem odd to give Jordan the “C” after Eric’s departure — he said there’s still a strange feeling about not having his brother in Carolina — the move would made sense on a number of fronts.

Consider:

— Jordan is one of Carolina’s longest-tenured players, having appeared in nearly 300 games over the last four seasons.

— He’s served as an alternate captain since 2012.

— He’s actually coming off a nice campaign. Jordan hit the 20-goal plateau for the first time as a ‘Cane, after hitting that mark four times as a Penguin, and finished with 48 points in 82 games, receiving a handful of Selke votes.

One also has to consider that, at 28, Staal is a virtual graybeard. Carolina projects to be an extremely young team next season and while it does have some older guys in Ron Hainsey, Cam Ward, Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell, it’s tough to see any of them (outside of maybe Hainsey) playing as integral a role as Staal.

‘Canes GM Ron Francis said he and head coach Bill Peters have discussed who will serve as the team’s next captain, but aren’t locked into the idea of starting the season with one.

“We’ll be very patient going into the season (and) see how things play out,” Francis said back in July, per the News & Observer. “If we’re comfortable putting the ‘C’ on somebody we’ll do that.

“If we want to take the route of multiple assistant captains we’ll look at that as well.”

Luc Robitaille and Pat LaFontaine are going to the Vatican

2012 NHL Stanley Cup Final – Game Six
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Hockey Hall of Famers Luc Robitaille and Pat LaFontaine will be part of some elite company this fall, when they attend the “Sport at the Service of Humanity” event at the Vatican, hosted by Pope Francis.

More, from the Kings:

[Robitaille and LaFontaine] will represent the NHL at the three-day event which will also feature additional sports legends such as Pele, Roger Federer and Yao Ming.

“This is an incredible honor for myself, the NHL, the LA Kings and AEG,” said Robitaille. “This will be a historic global conference with the goal to discuss how faith and sport can work together to promote positive values, inspire youth and better serve humanity. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

The event will be held October 5-7 and includes an opening ceremony with the pope, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.

This is the organization’s first conference, having previously participated in a two-day working session last September to formalize plans for this year’s event.

Johnny Gaudreau, $8 million man?

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 7: Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames skates against the Vancouver Canucks in the season opener at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 7, 2015 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Here’s the latest on the Johnny Gaudreau-Calgary Flames contract impasse, from Eric Francis:

The Calgary Sun has learned the chasm between what the Flames are offering their franchise player and what Gaudreau’s camp is looking for is $1.5 million annually.

Sources say Gaudreau’s agent, Lewis Gross, is asking for a payday in the $8-million range while the Flames are pushing to pay between what Sean Monahan signed for ($6.375 million annual average value) and what captain Mark Giordano makes (a team-high $6.75 million AAV).

Gaudreau, a restricted free agent, finds himself in a unique situation. He hasn’t played enough games for arbitration rights and he’s also ineligible to sign an offer sheet with another club.

Translation: Calgary wields a pretty big stick in negotiations.

Still, that hasn’t (reportedly) stopped Gross from gunning for a massive payday. The AAV would make Gaudreau one of the highest-paid forwards in the game, putting him alongside Phil Kessel, Jakub Voracek, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux, Steve Stamkos, Corey Perry, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the $8 million-or-more-per-season club.

Gaudreau is still only 23 years old, so the pricetag could be seen as an investment for a future star. And it’s important to remember he did finish sixth in the NHL in points last season, with 78.

Still, one has to wonder if the Flames will buckle and make Gaudreau their highest-paid player. Giordano is the clubhouse leader and captain, and Monahan is regarded as one of the best young centers in the game.

One also has to wonder how much Gross is willing to come off that $8 million ask.

Chiarelli once traded Versteeg, now he’s ‘close’ to getting him back (Update)

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 22:  Kris Versteeg #10 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates his goal to tie the score 3-3 against the San Jose Sharks during the second period of Game Five of the Western Conference First Round in the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Staples Center on April 22, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Looks like there could be a Kris Versteeg-Peter Chiarelli reunion in Edmonton.

Per TSN’s Darren Dreger, Versteeg is “close” to agreeing to a training camp PTO with the Oilers, this after insurance complications prevented him from cementing a deal with Swiss club SC Bern.

The Chiarelli-Versteeg relationship dates back 10 years. Versteeg, originally picked by Boston at the ’04 draft, was flipped to Chicago for Brandon Bochenski in 2007 — considered to be one of Chiarelli’s worst moves during his time as Boston’s GM.

Chiarelli was familiar with Bochenski as the two spent time together in the Ottawa organization, but that familiarity failed to translate to success with the Bruins. Bochenski appeared in just 51 games for the B’s over two seasons, and had a stint in AHL Providence.

Versteeg, meanwhile, put up two 20-goal seasons in Chicago, was named a Calder finalist and helped the ‘Hawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010.

Bringing Versteeg into camp makes sense for Edmonton on a number of fronts. One, it’s a low-risk move for a guy that had a productive campaign last year — 15 goals and 38 points in 77 games split between Carolina and L.A.

Two, it gives them another natural right winger. Based on the club’s website, the depth chart currently has Jordan Eberle on the top line, followed by Nail Yakupov, Zack Kassian and Iiro Pakarinen.

Of course, this year’s first-round pick, Jesse Puljujarvi, is also a right winger and expected to play in the NHL right away.

Update: The Oilers have made it official announced the signing of Versteeg to a tryout contract.