This year’s hot start should have a better ending for Canadiens

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Entering that game on Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens not only had the best record in the NHL, but were also the only team in the league that did not yet suffer a regulation loss. If that early season storyline sounds like a repeat, it’s probably because you already saw it play out last year when the Canadiens won nine straight games to open the season on their way to a 19-4-3 start.

It would prove to be the high point of the season.

What followed was one of the worst in-season collapses in NHL history as the Canadiens became the first team in league history to miss the playoffs after collecting at least 41 points in their first 26 games. It was in large part due to the injury to starting goaltender Carey Price (among other injuries) and it led to some earth-shattering moves over the summer.

This fast start in 2016-17 should have a better ending for the Canadiens. Let’s take a quick look at a few reasons why it should have a better result.

Carey Price is healthy

Price might be the most impactful player in the league when it comes to whether or not his team wins and loses, and his absence from the lineup for the last five months of the 2015-16 season was absolutely devastating to the Canadiens’ chances. Forget the P.K. Subban for Shea Weber swap. Forget any of the other offseason roster moves. Getting a healthy Price back is the single most game-changing thing that happened to the Canadiens over the past few months. They also seem to have a better Plan B in Al Montoya in the event that Price isn’t in the lineup. He already played extremely well at the start of the season when Price was sidelined with the flu, and if they had received that level of backup goaltending a year ago the entire offseason may have been entirely different.

Alex Galchenyuk is turning into a star

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Galchenyuk has shown steady improvement across the board every year that he has been in the league. With 30 goals a year ago he was probably one of the few bright spots in the Canadiens’ lineup during what would go on to be a lost season.

He looks even better so far in 2016-17. At age 22 he is just now starting to enter the phase of his career where scorers have their most productive years in the NHL. If he can take another step forward this season it would be a total game-changer for the Canadiens’ offense.

Alexander Radulov is just what they needed

In an offseason where the additions of Weber and Andrew Shaw stole all of the headlines because of the way they were going to bring more toughness and snarl to the Canadiens’ lineup, it was the addition of Radulov on a one-year contract that might prove to be the most important addition, simply because he is the exact type of player the Canadiens needed. One that could finish around the net and score some goals. Aside from taking a few too many penalties in the early part of the season, Radulov has been everything the Canadiens could have hoped for offensively so far this season.

The Canadiens aren’t going to keep winning games at their current pace because, well, nobody does, and they do have their flaws. There is still reason to question if Michel Therrien is the right coach long-term when it comes to winning a championship because of the style of play, and they are still a team winning based on percentages (thanks to the Price-Montoya duo, they have a .960 5-on-5 save percentage that is just silly) instead of dominant possession.

Once some of those percentages drop a bit, they will cool off in the standings.

But even when that inevitably does happen, don’t expect things to go anywhere near as poorly as they did a year ago because of the three players mentioned above.

Everything that happens in Montreal (and Nashville) this season will be a referendum on the Subban-for-Weber swap, but when it comes to the Canadiens the most important offseason acquisitions they made were getting their most important player back healthy, and getting a much-needed top-six winger for next to nothing.

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.