For the Flyers’ defense, the future is nearly here

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This post is part of Flyers Day on PHT…

The thing about drafting and developing defenseman is that it takes time and patience.

Oh, sure, there are some guys like Aaron Ekblad and Drew Doughty who can step into the NHL right away. But the large majority of them don’t.

Take Duncan Keith. Drafted in 2002, it took him three years until he joined the Blackhawks, and he still had some developing to do once he got there.

P.K. Subban was drafted in 2007. He stayed in junior for two additional years and then spent one season in the AHL before joining the Habs.

Shea Weber, speaking of Subban, took a similar path after being drafted in 2003. Two addition years of junior, then a few games in the AHL before graduating full-time to the Predators.

So it takes time and patience.

And let’s face it, that hasn’t always been the calling card of the Philadelphia Flyers. Under late owner Ed Snider and former general manager Paul Holmgren, Philly was arguably the most impatient team in the league. It was an admirable trait in many ways; the Flyers just really, really wanted to win the Stanley Cup again, and they were willing to flex their financial muscle to accomplish that goal. But at times their impatience cost them, and they learned the hard way that there are no quick fixes in the salary-cap age.

Suffice to say, it’s been a different attitude under GM Ron Hextall. The Flyers have not won a playoff series since he took over from Holmgren in May of 2014, but the fans are excited and optimistic all the same.

With all the young defensemen in the system, how could they not be pumped? Shayne Gostisbehere — a Holmgren-era pick, it should be noted — just finished second in the Calder Trophy voting after his stellar rookie season, and he was only the start. 

Gostisbehere was drafted in 2012. The next year came Samuel Morin and Robert Hagg. In 2014, Hextall added Travis Sanheim to the mix, then in 2015 got perhaps the jewel of the Flyers’ prospect pool when he selected Ivan Provorov seventh overall.

Over four years, it was quite the haul of defensemen.

Of course, it remains to be seen which of them will thrive in the NHL. Chances are, one or two won’t. But the great thing for the Flyers is that not all of them need to pan out. It would be nice if they all did, but there’s wiggle room for a bust or two.

That’s what patience has bought the club. And in 2016-17, the Flyers will continue to be patient.

“[Defense] is a harder position to play [than forward],” Hextall told reporters recently. “We’ve got enough players on our roster to play for the Flyers this year. So we’re not sitting here going Player X, Player Y has to play in the NHL. We’re not going to force one of these kids now. If one of these kids, or two or three comes in and they’re better than the guys we have, that’s competition.”

Now, granted, patience does have it limits. The Flyers have brought their young defensemen along responsibly; they haven’t given in to the temptation to trade them for older, “win now” pieces; and Hextall has remained committed to the long-term plan.

Just don’t mistake this for a team with zero urgency to win now, because there’s actually plenty. Claude Giroux is 28 years old, right in the prime of his career. Wayne Simmonds is 27 and Jakub Voracek is 26. Throw in Sean Couturier, 23, and Brayden Schenn, 24, and the Flyers have assembled a pretty impressive collection of forwards, all under 30 years of age.

The urgency comes from the desire to compete for a Stanley Cup while that forward group is still young and impressive.

And whether that happens will depend a lot on the youngsters on the back end, and how quickly they can start making a real impact.

Related: Flyers sign T.J. Brennan to multi-year deal

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.