World Cup of Hockey provides glimpse of Finland’s rising star power

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Look, Finland might not fare that well at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

Bovada gave them middle-of-the-pack odds, and even with the wave of injury ask-outs in mind, there are some issues with that team.

(As there are with any squad that isn’t Canada, really.)

Still, the tournament looms as yet another showcase for the rising power that is Finland.

Established names like Mikko Koivu, Tuukka Rask and Sami Vatanen make it so Finland isn’t just a different-flavor under-23 team, but it’s those futures that makes this group so exciting.

Aleksander Barkov is a rising star. More than a few people entertained the notion that Patrik Laine might not be that far behind Auston Matthews. Rasmus Ristolainen is already racking up points at the NHL level.

So, yeah, that will be exciting.

You can also view Finland’s rise merely by glancing at the upper ranks of the 2016 NHL Draft. Laine went second overall, people were stunned that Jesse Puljujarvi “dropped” to fourth and then Olli Juolevi went fifth. Finland churned out three of that year’s top five picks, and the likes of Barkov mean that it wasn’t just a one-year wonder.

Watch Laine light up scoreboards and dislodge Gatorade bottles is more fun than considering how a nation takes the next step … but the story of Finland’s rise is still pretty fascinating.

Seriously though, Laine should be fun to watch. He’ll also be fun to listen to.

“In my opinion I’m funny, but I don’t know what everybody else says—maybe sometimes funny,” Laine said to Sportsnet in a Q & A. “And the kind of guy who if he decides to do something, he will do it. And the kind of person who wants to win and who never quits. That’s me.”

From baby steps to leaps

For some time, Finland felt like a solid, grinding machine that also happened to pump out goalies with disproportionate success.

As the Hockey News’ Matt Larkin found out, the nation began to generate more high-end types in part thanks to a summit cited by Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting.

“They changed the way of training, so now the Finnish players, the coaches, are trying to teach the young Finnish players more individual skills than before,” Stubb said. “And of course, that was exactly what Sweden did 10 years ago. They are delivering the most players from European countries nowadays, so it’s kind of a Swedish model that the Finns have taken.”

(Gasp, Finns following a Swedish model?)

Twenty-eight full-time skills coaches really helped propel that growth, too, according to this interesting Canadian Press article. It makes you wonder if other struggling hockey nations would be wise to spring for similar “summits.”

Then again, the rise might have a lot to do with what makes Finland tick.

Ken Campbell details how Finland generates rather inane Olympic medals per capita in this Hockey News article, but you can’t really top this specific paragraph:

There’s a lot we know about Finland. It has the highest child literacy rate in the world. It’s the only country that fully repaid its debt from World War II and it did so in an incredible seven years. It is home to the greatest number of off-the-grid world championships in the world – including global tournaments in wife carrying (where the winner gets his wife’s weight in beer), mobile phone throwing, mosquito catching, swamp soccer, sauna and air guitar. It was the first country in the world to make internet access a legal right and it is a global leader in recycling, which explains why Teemu Selanne kept making all those comebacks.

Everyone, prepare for the reign of our swamp soccer-loving, air-guitaring overlords.

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.