Report: Defenseman Willie Mitchell cleared to play, seeks suitors

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williemitchell1.jpgWord comes today from the Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo that free agent defenseman Willie Mitchell has been cleared to play after suffering a concussion at the hands of Penguins star Evgeni Malkin last season. While that’s important news to teams looking for veteran defensive help (The Sharks, Red Wings and Capitals have been rumored to have interest) there’s even more important news for any team interested that might be operating with limited funds on the salary cap. Russo explains for us.

The former Wild defenseman, I’m told, actually could sign a contract with performance bonuses because he spent 100 days on injured reserve last year — including the playoffs. The CBA doesn’t spell out whether the 100 days is only during the regular season, so it appears after inquiries from Mitchell and the player interested teams, the league will allow this type of contract. I bet it’ll be for a base of $1 or $1.5 million on a one-year deal plus bonuses.

This is a highly important caveat for teams like Detroit and San Jose who might be looking to save a few bucks to get other players signed down the road. While the bonuses could eventually be a pain (just think of what happened to the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs this off-season) the bonus issue might only turn out to be an eventual problem for either the Canucks (who are also still interested) and the Red Wings. Teams like San Jose or Washington still have enough breathing room under the cap to not have to sweat performance bonuses.

What Mitchell can provide on the blue line is a guy with a strong defensive mind and tough character to provide a little bit of snarl, something that would go over very well with any of the teams that are rumored to be interested in him.

Okposo: Players need to buy in for Sabres fortunes to change

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.

Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.

”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.

”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”

General manager Jason Botterill focused on shaking up an under-achieving roster through a series of trades. Buffalo acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and signed goalie Carter Hutton in free agency.

And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.

Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.

”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.

The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”

DAHLIN ON D

Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.

YOU KNOW JACK

Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.

”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.

FROM THE CO-OWNER

”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.

”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Fantasy Hockey: 2018-19 bounce back candidates

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It happens every year. Fantasy hockey GMs draft a guy and expect a lot from him until he falls flat on his face. Oh the frustration. Well, the good news is that we’re here to tell you which of those players will bounce back in a big way in 2018-19.

Here’s the top bounce back candidates for the upcoming season:

Max Pacioretty – LW – Vegas Golden Knights

Pacioretty went into last season having scored at least 30 goals in each of his previous four seasons. Things went off the rails in a hurry in Montreal last season and it led to Pacioretty being traded to the Golden Knights. The incredible thing about Pacioretty’s production, is that it came without him ever having a top-end center. Paul Stastny isn’t necessarily a high-end center, but he’s better than anyone Pacioretty’s played with before. Don’t be surprised if the newest Golden Knight hits 35 this year.

Jonathan Drouin – C/LW – Montreal Canadiens

Drouin had an incredibly difficult first year with the Montreal Canadiens last season. Not only did he have to get used to a new team and new teammates, he also made the move from the wing to center. This preseason, the Canadiens moved him back to the wing and he looks a lot more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old surpasses the 13 goals and 46 points he put up last year.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ty Rattie – W – Edmonton Oilers

Rattie comes into this season having put up 19 points in 49 career games in the NHL, but he’s getting the opportunity to play with Connor McDavid this preseason. As you’d imagine, things have gone pretty well. He picked up seven points in his first two exhibition games, so if he sticks with McDavid, there could be some serious fantasy value appeal there.

Elias Lindholm – W – Calgary Flames

Lindholm has been pretty consistent over the last four years. He’s put up between 39 and 45 points with the Hurricanes since 2014-15. Now that he’s with the Flames, he’ll have more offensive talent around, which means there should be more opportunities to pick up points as the season progresses.

Brandon Saad – W – Chicago Blackhawks

Saad had an incredibly disappointing first year back in Chicago. The 25-year-old scored just 18 goals and 35 points after hitting at least 52 points during the previous three seasons. Saad could get an extended look with Patrick Kane to open the season, so the upside for him to hit the 30-goal mark, again, is definitely there.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Anthony Beauvillier – W – New York Islanders

Beauvillier ended up finishing last season with a respectable 21 goals and 36 points in 71 games, but he had his share of ups and downs. The Islanders even felt the need to send him back to the minors mid-season. With John Tavares no longer in New York, Mathew Barzal will need someone new to step up. Enter Beauvillier. The 21-year-old could be one of the big surprises of 2018-19.

Kyle Okposo – W – Buffalo Sabres

After reading everything he went through while dealing with a concussion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Okposo and his family. Now that he’s healthy again, the 30-year-old could get back to surpassing the 20-goal and 50-point marks this season. The Sabres are young, but there’s no denying that they have talent.

Justin Schultz – D – Pittsburgh Penguins

Schultz posted a career-high 12 goals and 51 points two years ago, but those numbers dropped 27 points last season. Of course, he also missed 19 games due to injury. Expecting him to score 51 points again might be a little ambitious, but he should be able to improve last year’s numbers.

Carey Price – G – Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens probably won’t be a playoff team, but it’s hard to imagine that Price will be worse than he was last year. The 31-year-old had 16-26-7 record with a 3.11 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. Yeah, it was a brutal year for him. His new eight-year extension that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million kicks in this year, so the pressure will definitely be on. Price should be fine.

Matt Murray – G – Pittsburgh Penguins

Murray’s first year as the undisputed starting netminder in Pittsburgh didn’t go so well. He had a solid 27-16-3 record, but that had more to do with the fact that he was on a good team. He added a 2.92 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. Now that he’s gone through one year without Marc-Andre Fleury, he’ll be better equipped to handle a heavy workload.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Lightning want outdoor game; Ennis’ golden opportunity with Leafs

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• After dealing with a blood-clot scare, Chris Krieder wants to show the Rangers that he’s able to take on a more significant role. (NHL.com)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs have been without William Nylander in training camp because of a hold out. In Nylander’s absence, head coach Mike Babcock has placed Tyler Ennis on Auston Matthews‘ wing. (TSN)

• Japers’ Rink looks at the top 10 goalies in the Metropolitan Division. Who’s the better option between Braden Holtby and Sergei Bobrovsky? (Japers’ Rink)

• The Inquirer got to spend some time with Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol, while he was on his boat with his family. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

• Lightning owner Jeff Vinik told fans at the Lightning fan fest that the team would like to get an outdoor game. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist felt a lot more comfortable in his second preseason game than he did in the first one. “There are a couple things I need to be strong on, and it’s playing deep and making good reads. … It was too much movement, and sometimes you want to do too much, especially early on, when you’re looking for that good feeling. Really, it’s just back to basics.” (New York Post)

• Speaking of the Rangers, there’s no denying that they need a true number one defenseman in the near future. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• Canucks prospect Zack MacEwen’s dad, Craig, made the trip to Vancouver to watch his son play preseason hockey. Canucks Army was able to catch up with Craig to discuss what the road to pro hockey is like for the parent of a player. (Canucks Army)

• Anaheim Calling is starting a new series called 25 Greatest Ducks of All Time”. They started with players 25 through 21. Three current NHLers are on the list. (Anaheim Calling)

• Oilers star Connor McDavid sat down for a Q&A with GQ Magazine. He talked about not being cocky, having a sense of style and more. (GQ)

• The Red Wings have a few young players that are making a case to stick around in the NHL this season. (MLive.com)

• Brian Gionta, who retired on Monday, helped change the perception that small players couldn’t play in the NHL. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Theodore, Golden Knights agree to 7-year, $36.4M extension

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Defenseman Shea Theodore ended his holdout Monday night, agreeing to a seven-year contract with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Theodore’s deal runs through the 2024-25 season and has an average annual value of $5.2 million.

”We’re happy to have everybody done now, sometimes it takes a little bit longer than anticipated,” Vegas general manager George McPhee said. ”He’s a good young player and we got some unrestricted years and now he can just play.”

McPhee said the main issue between the team and Theodore’s camp was the Golden Knights were asking him to sign long-term, while the fourth-year pro was looking for a two-year deal. McPhee also said the long-term deal was about managing the salary cap properly, and leaving enough space over the next few years, giving the Golden Knights a better chance to continue as a Western Conference contender.

”I think when it was laid out and explained to the player why we were doing that … he bought in,” McPhee said. ”You just have to get the numbers right on those deals. We thought if we paid a little more now … and we have cost certainty in the future, it allows us to manage the cap better, and plan better.

”We got to a place today where they had a couple of options – a six-year deal, a seven-year deal – we thought we were pretty close, and got it done just after the first period.”

Theodore had 29 points (6 goals, 23 assists) in 61 games during the 2017-18 regular season. The 23-year-old appeared in all 20 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including the Stanley Cup Final, recording 10 points (3 goals and 7 assists).

”We were pretty confident, based on the way he played last year and what he did at his age last year, to really play that well, and play that well in the playoffs for four rounds, we’re pretty confident about what we’re gonna have now, and in the future,” McPhee said. ”So, we were prepared to go longer.”

Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said Theodore will join the team Tuesday, during a two-day retreat in Montana. He added that he is not concerned about the time he’s missed during training camp.

”He’s been working out, he’ll be fine,” Gallant said.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule