For Staal, joining Rangers was ‘an opportunity I needed to take’

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NEW YORK (AP) For Eric Staal, it wasn’t that he wanted to leave the Carolina Hurricanes.

He just knew his time with the team had run its course and he wanted another opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup.

“As much as I think they’re doing the right thing with the young players – there’s some great pieces there for the future – I think deep, deep in my gut this was an opportunity I needed to take,” Staal said Monday, hours before his debut with the Rangers against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

New York acquired Staal from the Hurricanes in exchange for second-round picks this year and 2017 and prospect center Aleksi Saarela.

The 31-year-old Staal joins his younger brother, Marc, who is a defenseman with the Rangers. He said it would be the first time he and Marc play on the same team at the same time, and he said he was grateful to Hurricanes executives for working things out so he could play alongside his brother.

The second overall pick in the 2003 draft, Staal is second on the Hurricanes’ all-time list in goals (322), assists (453) and points (775). He was the leading scorer in the regular season and the playoffs on Carolina’s 2005-06 Stanley Cup-winning team.

But Carolina has not qualified for the playoffs since 2008-09. And at 28-26-10, the Hurricanes are seventh in the Metropolitan Division and trail Pittsburgh by four points for the last Eastern Conference wild card slot.

“When you miss the playoffs for six years and you’re the leader, the captain, it’s tough,” Staal said. “There was a lot of trying times. For a lot of different reasons it didn’t happen the way you envisioned. For me it was time for this opportunity and this chance.”

While a no-move clause allowed Staal to control where he was going to go, Carolina retained half of Staal’s pro-rated $8.25 million contract for the remainder of the season. Staal can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

“Right now, I’m focused on fitting in with this group, this team, and playing out these 20 games and hopefully having a big playoffs,” Staal said. “That’s why I wanted to come here. I wanted to help this group moving forward. That kind of stuff we’ll worry about later.”

The first order of business was determining where Staal will fit in with a Rangers team that entered the day second in the Metropolitan.

New York coach Alain Vigneault said he views Staal as a center, even though he alternated between center and left wing in Carolina this season. Vigneault did add he thought Staal’s flexibility between center and the wing would be a benefit to the Rangers.

“I do envision him playing in the middle. But the fact that he can play the middle and the left side, play both those positions well, are a good thing for a team; being versatile is a bonus,” Vigneault said. “It gives me more options and we’re definitely going to use those options going forward.”

Vigneault said the addition of Staal showed the organization believes the team is capable of competing for the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup and first since 1994.

“I think with what’s happened in the league – Chicago, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera – I think it was important to send a message to our group that we believe in them and that we have faith in them,” Vigneault said. “I think that’s the message management and the coaching staff has sent. The fact that he can play in the middle, play on the left side, has won a Cup, has won a World Championship, has won an Olympic medal, you’re talking about an elite player that’s been captain of his team, (and he) is going to bring that leadership to our group. He’s going to fit in real well.”

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.