Jeff Vinik giving the St Pete Times Forum a facelift for next season

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When Jeff Vinik bought the Tampa Bay Lightning from Len Barrie and Oren Koules, there was a serious need for an owner who would pour time, money, and energy into getting the franchise back on the path towards respectability. A great new general manager, a hotshot young coach, a few good moves, and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals later and the Lightning are regarded as one of the better teams in the East. What a difference 16 months can make. Now that Vinik’s team has made his mark on the league, he’s using his money to make a mark on the building his team plays in. Literally.

In February, the team announced a $35 million renovation project to give the St Pete Times Forum a much needed facelift. The 15-year-old building was ready for a little touching up; but instead ownership is going all out and giving the building a complete makeover. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. From the St. Petersburg Times, Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke shows exactly where the priorities for the renovated building lie as they tore out eight luxury suits to open up the concourse for fans:

“That was a very challenging decision because ultimately, for our long-term viability, we’ve got to make sure we draw more revenue. But we felt the building in some ways needed a soul.”

(snip)

Re: new seats in arena: “It was the more expensive option, but at the end of the day it really underscored for all of us how serious this guy [owner Jeff Vinik] was in serving our fans. It was a six-figure decision, and he was right. I think it was a moment many of us will remember for a long time, his jumping from seat to seat and saying, ‘This is more comfortable. This is the right thing to do.’ “

These are the kinds of things that will endear a billionaire owner to his team’s fanbase. The renovation project is something that is needed to maintain the building as a world-class venue, but it’s not something that Vinik needs to do to keep the Forum as an acceptable place to house the Lightning. Just look at Nassau Coliseum.

From all accounts he’s doing it the right way—rethinking the entire arena to make it a more distinctive place for the Lightning to call home. More importantly, he’s making the fan experience better for the 21,500 people who show up for a home game. The team is ripping out over 500 seats to install a huge pipe organ with a bar that will be one of the arena’s new distinguishing features. As said before, they tore out eight luxury suits so the concourse is opened up for a better fan experience. There will be new, more comfortable seats all over the arena and the sightlines will be reconfigured. The list goes on and on.

On top of the $35 million, Vinik is having one of the entrances rebuilt/reconfigured (West Plaza entrance) to give the arena a “grand entry” point to serve as the face of the building. Again, the new entrance will be fully funded by Vinik in order to make the arena the best possibly location for his team and their fans. A new entrance won’t translate to any more wins on the ice, it probably won’t help lure any free agents, and it certainly won’t help the ratings on television. It just makes the Forum a more appealing place for the Lightning fans.

The moves show that ownership is behind this team for the long-haul. In an environment where the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg, the Coyotes are in a state of flux, and a segment of NHL fans are calling complaining about just about every sunbelt team, the move is symbolic gesture of permanence. The financial commitment says, “feel free to devote yourself to being a fan, because we aren’t going anywhere.” If you don’t think that’s important, ask a Phoenix Coyotes fans what it’s like rooting for a team when they’re never sure about the future. The Atlanta Thrashers could have used a move like this—but it’s a move that the Atlanta Spirit group never would have made.

Sixteen months ago, who would have ever uttered these words: “Lightning fans are lucky to have the owner they do.”

Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

“Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

“Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

“Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

“Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

“We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

“They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

Ilya Mikheyev
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports
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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.