Thrashers owners tell fans they’re sorry it didn’t work out in Atlanta

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While the Thrashers are officially being sold to True North Sports and Entertainment and moved to Winnipeg next season, there’s the other side of the story that’s out there. That part of the story comes from the Thrashers owners in the Atlanta Spirit Group, Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon.

While the press conference was going on in Winnipeg to euphoric cries of joy, Atlanta Spirit was quietly expressing their own version of sadness and dismay at the financial mess they put themselves in and forced their hand into selling to True North.

Levenson and Gearon posted a letter to fans in Atlanta on their website to express what they’re feeling as they sweat out their final days before the NHL Board of Governors meet on June 21st to officially approve the sale. Pardon us if we’re not feeling the sincerity they’re trying to push on the fans.

As many of you know, for some time we have been seeking a buyer for the team or a partner willing to join with us in continuing to fund the team. We hired an investment banking firm to seek out potential investors with the expressed goal of finding someone who would keep the team here in Atlanta. In recent months, we openly indicated a growing urgency to secure assistance in off-setting our operating losses in hopes that our public plea would produce investors who, to that point, had eluded us.

After extensive effort, nobody has come forward. As a result, we had no choice but to explore the investment option presented to us by the NHL in the form of True North Sports and Entertainment.

Their push to find local owners only became public in the last few months and saw the likes of baseball star Tom Glavine and former NHLer Anson Carter come out with hopes of assembling investors together to buy the team. Those plans didn’t work out for any number of reasons be it a lack of suitors willing to part with their money or Atlanta Spirit Group unwilling to see things out.

Levenson and Gearon made this mess and did little if anything to clean it up. Their efforts to help make the Thrashers look as unappealing to other potential buyers in the seven years they owned the team worked out well enough so that they could cut a sweet deal with True North. Everything works out nicely for them, meanwhile the fans get screwed and the city of Atlanta loses their second NHL team in 31 years, a truly unbelievable accomplishment of failure.

Atlanta Spirit Group should be embarrassed with how they handled the Thrashers and for treating the team as a side thought. Instead, they’ll take the money and run while Canada can celebrate the return of a franchise to within their borders. We’re happy for Winnipeg here, don’t get us wrong, but seeing Thrashers fans get shown the door in such a way is low. Perhaps not as low as the Baltimore Colts in the NFL, but this ranks up with one of the uglier ownership fiascoes of modern times.

Gritty’s grand entrance highlights Stadium Series pregame

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PHILADELPHIA — Right after some current and retired Philadelphia sports stars and legends — Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Clarke, Boban Marjanović — were introduced to the Lincoln Financial Field crowd, the real star of the city took center stage.

All week long, Gritty had been teasing some sort of big stunt before Saturday’s Stadium Series game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.

Sure enough, just before the players entered the field, there was Gritty standing on top of the stadium wearing an lit up LED suit. Braving the elements, Gritty then jumped off and flew via zipline to the field as the teams began to walk out.

We knew Gritty was comical, but we didn’t know it had a bit of daredevil inside.

While the crowd went nuts, Gritty’s grand entrance didn’t sit too well with one NHL mascot.

Gritty’s mainstream popularity is big enough that some serious mascot-on-mascot chirping might become a regular thing. We’re all for it.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Stars land Zuccarello; Rangers get what could be great picks

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The New York Rangers sent Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars in a fascinating trade on Saturday, and the conditions of that deal will mean that Rangers fans will have incentive to cheer Zuccarello on — even beyond simply liking the guy.

(And that shouldn’t be difficult, because Rangers fans really – justifiably – love the undersized winger.)

Conditional draft picks are becoming more and more in vogue heading into the 2019 trade deadline, but this situation is especially interesting.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that trade details work out this way. (Note: please keep in mind that the exact specifics haven’t been confirmed by the teams, although McKenzie’s TSN colleague Darren Dreger confirmed that Zuccarello is indeed Dallas- bound.)

Stars receive: Mats Zuccarello.

Rangers’ rather complicated but interesting side: For one thing, the Rangers retain 30-percent of Zuccarello’s salary.

Conditional pick 1: Begins as a 2019 second-round pick.

That 2019 second-rounder gets bumped up to a first-rounder if the Stars win at least two playoff rounds during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Conditional pick 2: Begins as a 2020 third-round pick.

That 2020 third-rounder turns into a 2020 first-rounder if the Stars re-sign Zuccarello.

So, at worst, the Rangers receive second and third-rounders for Zuccarello, but could end up with one or even two first-rounders depending upon how this works out. Wow.

A bit more on those picks

As of this writing, the Stars are ranked as the West’s first wild-card team. They’re unlikely to catch the Blues for the third Central spot, and face some competition in even staying in the full playoff picture.

But if they maintain their current spot, things get interesting.

The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators came into 2018-19 as the West’s most popular picks (along with the Sharks, probably?) for a deep run, but both teams have been experiencing some struggles here and there. The Stars would still be beating odds if they made a deep enough run to win two playoff rounds, but it’s not impossible, especially if they add even more after landing Zuccarello and Ben Lovejoy.

(Frankly, the Lovejoy trade is … underwhelming.)

There’s a decent-enough chance that the Stars might want to re-sign Zuccarello, too. As you can see from this post, Dallas is in a position to have a lot of cap space to work with in 2019-20, so maybe they’d keep the splendidly talented winger around with an extension?

More to come.

Trade: Blue Jackets load up with Dzingel; Senators load up on picks

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are eliminating any doubts that they’re going all-in this season. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Senators are going all-out … as in, trading everyone out.

One day after the Blue Jackets sent a bunch of assets to Ottawa for Matt Duchene, the two teams made another significant swap on Saturday. The Blue Jackets landed another Senators center in Ryan Dzingel, while picks are the biggest takeaways for the Senators.

The Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch and Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman are among those who report these full trade terms:

Blue Jackets receive: Ryan Dzingel, Calgary Flames’ 2019 seventh-round pick.

Senators get: Anthony Duclair, 2020 second-rounder, 2021 second-rounder.

This post will be updated with more analysis soon.

Carolina, Columbus wins highlight Stadium Series’ importance for Pens

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s Stadium Series matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers from Lincoln Financial Field. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Saturday night won’t feel like any other night for the Penguins and Flyers. It’s just human nature.

How can you not be distracted by the pageantry of an outdoor game and all of the hoopla that comes with it? From dealing with those unique environs to wondering if such an environment will even allow for competitive hockey (thanks a lot, rain), there’s just a lot going on.

That’s something to consider for any such contest, yet when it happens this late into February, the teams involved really need to find a way to focus. With the Flyers virtually out of the race, the onus is then on the Penguins to make sure they win Saturday’s game. After all, if the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs began at this very moment, the Penguins would be out of the mix.

[Penguins say the right things]

As you can see in the post linked above, the Penguins were already emphasizing that they’re focused on getting this win coming into the weekend, but recent events really cement that this isn’t just a fun event for the Pens.

Blue Jackets move up, and make a big move

Earlier this week, the Penguins moved ahead of the Blue Jackets, but that margin was smaller than it seemed because Columbus had two games in hand.

The Blue Jackets won both of those games, impressively beating the Senators on Friday and Sharks on Saturday by a combined score of 7-0. This leaves the Penguins two full points behind Columbus heading into the 2019 Stadium Series that’s moments away.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBC]

Blue Jackets (third place in Metro): 35-23-3, 73 points, 35 regulation/overtime wins, 61 games played
Penguins (ninth place in East): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

The good news for the Penguins is that they have quite a bit of control of their own fate against Columbus. They place against the Blue Jackets three more times this season, with those head-to-head matches all coming by March 9.

The bad news is that they’ll be facing a more loaded version of this Blue Jackets team, if Columbus decides to keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for the rest of the season, as trading for Matt Duchene makes a good team far scarier to face.

So … finishing ahead of the Blue Jackets won’t be easy.

Hurricanes storm past Pittsburgh, too

The Hurricanes also shut out their opponents on Saturday, as Carolina beat the Dallas Stars 3-0. That win gives the Hurricanes a small lead for the East’s second wild-card spot, at least for now:

Hurricanes (second WC): 33-23-6, 72 points, 32 ROW, 62 GP
Penguins (ninth place): 32-22-7, 71 points, 31 ROW, 61 GP

While Columbus has a decent (though far from insurmountable) edge on Pittsburgh, the gap between the Hurricanes and Penguins is tiny. Carolina and Pittsburgh also face each other two more times in 2018-19, so far all we know, the East’s bubble races could come down to those games.

(The Blue Jackets and Hurricanes meet one more time in the regular season: a March 15 contest in Carolina.)

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The last 24 hours or so haven’t been kind to the Penguins’ playoff hopes, yet the fierce challenges from Columbus and Carolina should at least keep Pittsburgh alert. Of course, if any team would love to spoil things for the Penguins, wouldn’t it be the Flyers?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.