Is there a truly terrible team this season?

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When Ken Hitchcock looks at the NHL, he doesn’t see much separation between the best teams and the worst.

“I don’t think there’s going to be much of a difference between first and last in each division,” the St. Louis Blues’ head coach said today, per NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika.

He may have a point. Unlike the last two seasons, when certain clubs were clearly positioning themselves to draft franchise centers Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Auston Matthews, there is no such jockeying for the bottom this season.

Take the Toronto Maple Leafs, the NHL’s worst team in 2015-16. Head coach Mike Babcock expects his group to be “way better” with young forwards Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner in the lineup, not to mention Frederik Andersen in goal.

The Edmonton Oilers are coming off a 29th-place finish, but McDavid probably won’t get hurt and miss half the season again. The Oilers also improved their defense with the addition of Adam Larsson, and while it cost them Taylor Hall to do it, they signed Milan Lucic and drafted Jesse Puljujarvi to help stem the loss.

The Columbus Blue Jackets were arguably the most disappointing team last season, but if Sergei Bobrovsky can stay healthy, there’s reason to believe they could fare better. The Jackets have a promising young defense that head coach John Tortorella has called his team’s “engine.”

The Arizona Coyotes, Winnipeg Jets, and Calgary Flames finished 24th, 25th, and 26th, respectively, last year. But all three of those teams have a ton of young talent. There is more hope than dread in those markets.

Even the Vancouver Canucks are optimistic. Their general manager, Jim Benning, has said he can’t wait for the season to start in order to prove the doubters wrong. He believes it was injuries that cost his team last year. Vancouver’s goal is to get back into the playoffs, not draft Nolan Patrick.

“There’s that sense there’s something to prove,” said Canucks goalie Ryan Miller. “I hope we can take energy from the different points of motivation and do something really fun, really special.”

Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on Miller’s part. That kind of thinking has been known to happen at this time of the year, before any games have actually been played.

But Hitchcock isn’t counting on any easy games.

“I just think it’s going to be so hard this year to get in the playoffs,” said Hitchcock, whose team plays in arguably the toughest division in the league.

While it would be a surprise if the Blues missed the postseason the year after reaching the conference finals, they did lose David Backes and Troy Brouwer to free agency, and they don’t have Brian Elliott anymore, so you never know.

In today’s NHL, there are no guarantees.

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.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.