Mike Halford

SPORTS SABRES

Sabres captain Gionta laments ‘really disappointing’ road trip

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In the four games prior to their current Western Canadian road swing, the Sabres went 3-0-1 and appeared to be on a high.

Now?

Bit of a low.

Buffalo has opened with back-to-back losses in Edmonton and Vancouver, surrendering nine goals in the process. That’s put extra significance on Thursday’s trip finale in Calgary — if the Sabres want to avoid getting swept, they’ll need to produce a result.

“It’s really tough, really disappointing,” Sabres captain Brian Gionta said, per the Buffalo News. “We want better within this room and we know we’re capable of that.

“That’s why it’s so disappointing.”

It’s easy to see why Gionta and company are frustrated.

The Edmonton loss came against one of the Western Conference’s worst teams — granted, the Oilers are now on a three-game winning streak — and one playing without its entire second line of Connor McDavid, Nail Yakupov and Benoit Pouliot.

The loss to Vancouver wasn’t much better.

The Canucks limped in on a five-game losing streak, which included one of their most disappointing defeats of the year — Saturday’s 4-0 stinker at home against Boston, one head coach Willie Desjardins called a “must” game.

Like they did in Edmonton, the Sabres scored first against the Canucks. Then they struggled.

The Canucks scored four unanswered goals after Gionta opened, and went long stretches of dominating puck possession and offensive zone time.

While it’s too early to call this make-or-break time for Buffalo’s season, this is certainly a tenuous moment.

Back on Nov. 12, the team had just scored impressive back-to-back victories in Tampa Bay and Florida to move to 8-8-0 on the year, and felt like a team on the rise.

Since then?

Buffalo’s gone 3-6-2.

NCAA star Vesey addresses Leafs rumors, says he has ‘great relationship’ with Preds

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There’s no question the Nashville Predators are high on Harvard sniper Jimmy Vesey, whom they took 66th overall at the 2012 draft.

And — at least publicly — Vesey says he’s high on the Predators too.

“I still have a great relationship with the team,” Vesey explained, per The Tennessean. “Development coach Scott Nichol and the Nashville scouts have been at my games and getting my game tapes and sending me feedback.

“I still have a great relationship with them.”

Vesey, who led the NCAA with 32 goals last year, was asked about his allegiance to Nashville largely because his father, Jim Sr., works as an amateur scout for the Maple Leafs.

The Leafs also drafted the youngest Vesey — Nolan, currently in his sophomore campaign at the University of Maine — in the sixth round of the ’14 draft.

(TSN’s Bob McKenzie wrote at length about the Vesey-Toronto connection, which includes an anecdote about team president Brendan Shanahan.)

The Preds, meanwhile, have steadfastly maintained there’s a NHL spot ready for Vesey whenever he’s done at Harvard and ready to sign an entry-level contract.

GM David Poile even went to far as to say the club would’ve put Vesey in the lineup in last year’s playoffs had he made the decision to leave school.

When the 22-year-old opted to return for his senior season, Poile fully supported the move. He said the club spoke repeatedly to Vesey’s family about the decision, adding “we would never tell a player to leave school.”

Looking ahead, one date looms large for Nashville and Vesey: Aug. 15, 2016.

If he doesn’t sign a contract by then, Vesey becomes an unrestricted free agent and can choose whatever team he wants.

Bettman: No timetable for vote on expansion

Gary Bettman
AP

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (AP) NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday there is no timetable for the league to decide on pending expansion applications from Las Vegas and Quebec City.

Bettman spoke after the league’s executive committee reviewed presentations from the two cities in a three-hour meeting, and then presented that information to the Board of Governors at the annual December meeting.

“The board will meet to vote when we decide there’s something to be put to a vote,” Bettman said. “That will really be after the executive committee begins and finishes deliberations and are prepared to make a recommendation.”

Bettman said no decisions have been made on whether to add one, two or no teams at all.

Despite no action being taken at the meeting, Bettman said it does not mean the process has slowed down since Bill Foley’s Black Knight Sports & Entertainment and Montreal-based communications giant Quebecor were chosen earlier this year from 16 expansion applicants.

“When I say there’s no timeline, I know the steps we have to go through to get there,” he said. “Could they be done in time for 17-18 start? Yes. Will they be? Maybe, maybe not.”

Bettman said the league has “virtually” all the information it needs from the two cities and discussions now are about if the league wants to expand, if these are the right cities and how the process would go in terms of the expansion and entry drafts.

Bettman also shot down reports that the league will open the expansion process to other cities, saying Las Vegas and Quebec City are the only options at this moment.

“We will go through this process and complete this process one way or another and that’s where we’ll be,” he said. “If we decide at another point in time to reopen expansion, I’m not saying we would, that’s a subsequent decision. This process is this process with these two applicants, period.”

Bettman also gave the board a preliminary projection for next season’s salary cap, saying it would likely be somewhere between where it is this season at $71.4 million and an increase of about $3 million despite the fall in value of the Canadian dollar.

“It’s not set in stone or concrete so you have to tread carefully,” New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero said. “Again, it’s good news for the league when it goes up, good news for the players.”

The board also discussed player safety and the game on the ice and Bettman said the league is pleased with the new 3-on-3 overtime and coaches challenge system. He said there was no talk about taking steps to increase scoring, adding that the general managers must first decide whether it is a problem before the league looks into possible solutions like increasing the size of the goal, changing the posts or reducing goalie pads.

“None of that is really on the table until we have a discussion about whether or not we need more goal scoring,” he said. “Based on all the data available and fan research that’s been done I don’t know there’s anything wrong with this game.”

The board is expected to discuss the executive and coach compensation policy among other issues on Tuesday. Under the current compensation system for coaches and executives implemented last January, teams can receive a second- or third-round draft pick as compensation for losing a coach or executive to another franchise. That even can happen if the coach or executive had been fired but was still under contract.

Matthews, Werenski highlight Team USA World Junior preliminary roster

Pavel Zacha, Auston Matthews
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USA Hockey has selected the 29 players for its preliminary World Junior Hockey Championships training camp.

Auston Matthews, the consensus No. 1 overall pick for the ’16 draft that’s currently playing pro in Switzerland, headlines the list of invitees, along with Columbus prospect Zach Werenski, the highest draftee (eighth overall) of any player set to attend.

Werenski is joined by fellow ’15 first-rounders Brock Boeser (Vancouver) and Colin White (Ottawa).

Also invited were ’14 first-rounders Sonny Milano (Columbus) and Nick Schmaltz (Chicago).

CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL CAMP ROSTER

You’ll probably recognize a couple surnames: Ryan MacInnis (son of Hockey Hall of Famer Al MacInnis), Kiefer Bellows (son of ex-Minnesota North Star Brian Bellows) and Matthew Tkachuk (son of longtime NHL power forward Keith Tkachuk). There’s also Casey Fitzgerald, the son of Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald.

Among the notable omissions? Minnesota prospect Alex Tuch, taken 18th overall at the ’15 draft, and two Winnipeg prospects: Jack Roslovic (25th overall, ’15) and Kyle Connor (17th overall, ’15).

USA Hockey will bring its group of 29 to training camp at Boston University from Dec. 14-18, followed by a second camp in Finland from Dec. 19-24. It’s expected that, at the culmination of the Finnish-based camp, the U.S. roster will be trimmed to 23.

The 2016 World Juniors go from Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Helsinki.

Goalie nods: Dubnyk (groin) out, so Kuemper starts for Wild

Darcy Kuemper

Minnesota’s goaltending depth chart will have a decidedly different look tonight against Colorado — with Devan Dubnyk out with a minor groin strain, it’s Darcy Kuemper ascending to the No. 1 job while Niklas Backstrom dresses as the Wild’s backup netminder for the first time this season.

Kuemper, who came on in relief of Dubnyk in Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Avs — stopping all nine shots to preserve the shutout — has always fared well against Colorado. He’s a perfect 3-0-0 in his career, with a .949 save percentage and 1.30 GAA.

For the Avs, Semyon Varlamov gets the call in goal.

Elsewhere…

— Looks to be a battle of the backups in Boston: Nashville has confirmed that Carter Hutton will give Pekka Rinne the night off, while the Bruins look as though they’re going with Jonas Gustavsson.

Ryan Miller will face his former team as the Sabres make their way into Vancouver. Buffalo played last night in Edmonton and Chad Johnson was in goal, so it’s likely Linus Ullmark will go against the Canucks.