Habs’ defense ranks as big wild card

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When the Montreal Canadiens have been at their best lately, it’s been thanks to timely offense, great goaltending and a suffocating defense. With all apologies to Francis Bouillon “Cube,” they haven’t added much to their blueline, yet their group could be impressive if enough toss-ups go their way.

1. Can Andrei Markov get healthy?

The Canadiens took a leap of faith when they handed Andrei Markov a three-year contract in the 2011 off-season. That gamble went splat as he went from seven games played in 2010-11 to 13 in 2011-12. By that pattern (just 20 games in the last two seasons), one would say Markov’s knee is done.

There is one pattern that’s a bit more heartening, though. All 13 of his games last season came after March 10, so maybe he’s turned the corner? If so, the Habs would get one of the better power play weapons in the NHL (not to mention a solid minute-eater) back on their blueline.

2. Will P.K. Subban progress?

Despite receiving two more minutes per game and playing in four extra contests, Subban scored half as many goals (14 to 7) and two fewer points (38 to 36) last season compared to his impressive first full campaign. He also drew attention for bickering with teammates and coaches – whether that was overblown or not.

That being said, he faced a much greater burden last season and also had inferior luck (his shooting percentage went from 7.1 to 3.4). It’s reasonable to expect more promise – and some extra positive bounces – from Subban, especially if Markov takes some of the heat off of him.

3. Can Tomas Kaberle regain his game?

Few defensemen have seen their stock plummet quite like the former perennial Toronto Maple Leafs trade rumor magnet. Still, his numbers looked a bit like the old Kaberle once he landed in Montreal; he scored 22 points in 43 games, almost exactly a point every two contests. Perhaps this fresh start will pay off, as he could make sweet PP music with Markov and/or Subban if things go well.

The rest

This could be a very deep defense if Markov stays healthy and Kaberle proves semi-useful. Raphael Diaz showed signs of promise while Josh Gorges is a popular shutdown man (or at least was with the old regime). The rest of the guys range from intriguing up-and-comers to respectable depth guys.

If this group responds well to Michel Therrien, it would certainly lighten the load for an iffy offense and an encumbered Carey Price.

Related

Offseason Report: Montreal Canadiens

Roundup: Habs re-up with Geoffrion, Pens sign Strait

It’s Montreal Canadiens day on PHT

What can the Habs expect from Michel Therrien?

Carey Price faces greatest pressure yet next season

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.