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USA Hockey sees youth program climb toward top of the heap

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By Mitch Stacy (AP Sports Writer)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — In the first 20 years of the world junior hockey championship, Team USA managed two podium finishes good for bronze medals in 1986 and 1992. The American youngsters couldn’t keep up with teams from Canada and other nations where hockey is more deeply woven into the sporting culture.

That has changed. U.S. amateur hockey has caught up and then some.

At the annual tournament for the world’s best players 20 and under, the results reflect the development work and higher profile of a sport that usually plays second fiddle to football, baseball, basketball and more: The Americans have won gold medals three times since 2010, including last January when they beat Canada in a riveting final .

The U.S., however, has never successfully defended a title or been able to win juniors at home. That will be the objective when the 10-nation tournament begins Dec. 26 in Buffalo, New York.

Coach Bob Motzko tried to drive that message home with the players – seven from last year’s gold-medal team – who trained in Ohio this month.

”At our meeting, Coach basically said this is probably one of the best times USA Hockey is going through right now, with the strength of the teams we have, the players in the NHL, the strength of colleges nowadays,” said defenseman Andrew Peeke, who is playing college hockey at Notre Dame . ”It’s just an awesome time.”

Peeke, a second-round draft pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2016, is one of two players on the preliminary roster from Florida, a region not exactly known for producing elite hockey prospects. But the growth of the NHL – Miami and Tampa got teams in the early 1990s – and more media exposure has helped youth hockey make inroads in nontraditional markets in the South and West.

”You look at a kid like Auston Matthews coming from Arizona,” said Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski , regarding his former teammate in World Juniors. Both are just 20 and already established NHL stars.

”Kids coming from all over are playing,” said Werenski, who grew up in suburban Detroit. ”The training and what everyone knows now is way more in-depth on what you need to work on at a young age, the skills you need and just how to play at a fast pace.”

The game has seen tremendous growth in the U.S. since the early 1990s, leading to more rinks, kids getting involved earlier, better instruction and more competitive select leagues. The 555,000 registered hockey players in America this year is up from about 195,000 in 1991, according to USA Hockey. Participation is up 21 percent just in the past decade.

All that means there are more elite players to choose from for the national teams.

”A lot of respect for what some other countries have done, but we feel like we’re going on a great path now,” said Jim Johannson, general manager of the U.S. Junior team. ”We have more depth at every level and any championship we show up to, we feel like we can compete with anybody in the tournament.”

Motzko, who coaches at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, said traditional hockey states in the Northeast and Midwest continue to put the bulk of talented youth players on the ice. A third of the players on the 28-man early roster this time are from Minnesota. But there are also a few from Missouri. Peeke and defenseman Quinn Hughes came from Florida. Forward Kailer Yamamoto, who grew up in Spokane, Washington, has already played in nine NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers. California has been well represented in recent years.

”We’re in strong traditional markets that are still producing players, but it’s fun to see this spread out and grow now,” Motzko said.

Team USA routed Belarus 14-0 on Wednesday and had another exhibition game Friday night against Sweden ahead of the tournament’s opening round next week. The U.S. team has Dec. 29 circled and recircled on the calendar – that’s the day the Americans play Canada in the tournament’s first outdoor game, at New Era Field, home of the Buffalo Bills.

No pressure, right?

”There will be a little bit of pressure knowing you’re the defending champ, but I think it’s kind of more a motivation to want to defend rather than the pressure of it,” Peeke said. ”Especially that it’s on home soil. You want to be able to give people the opportunity to see that we can defend it and cherish the opportunity to defend it.”

Dates of note from the 2018-19 NHL schedule

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The 2018-19 NHL schedule has arrived and the 1,271-game journey to the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins Oct. 4 and ends April 6. We’ll have banners being raised, old friends being reacquainted, outdoor games, games in Europe and nearly a full slate on the season’s final day.

Here’s a look at a dozen notable dates on this coming season’s schedule:

Oct. 3, 2018 – Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals

It’s not the Penguins like we all wished, so the Capitals will have to raise their first Stanley Cup banner against the Bruins. They’ll also be playing for a new head coach before traveling to Pittsburgh for a visit with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins the next night.

Also on Opening Night, we’ll get to see the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the Montreal Canadiens, the Calgary Flames visiting the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks playing host to the Anaheim Ducks.

Oct. 4, 2018 — Philadelphia Flyers at Vegas Golden Knights

An historic inaugural season ended in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. But despite the tough defeat, there was plenty for the Golden Knights and their fans to be proud of. When fans return to T-Mobile Arena for their 2018 home opener, there will be a nice celebration with a banner or two going up in the rafters.

Boston Bruins at Buffalo Sabres

Sabres fans get a first glimpse of Rasmus Dahlin in action when they take on the Bruins in the home opener. The expected 2018 No. 1 overall pick brings plenty of hope to Buffalo as the fanbase prays hard that he, Jack Eichel and Casey Mittelstadt can end their years of misery.

Oct. 6, 2018 – Nashville Predators at New York Islanders

Trotz makes his debut as Islanders head coach against one of his old teams. And no matter how free agency goes, this will be an interesting night at Barclays Center. Either John Tavares will be in the Islanders lineup, having committed to the franchise with a long-term extension and thereby garnering a huge ovation, or he’ll be wearing another jersey and the mood in Brooklyn will be quite glum.

This day will also see the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils facing off in the NHL Global Series in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Oct. 10, 2018 – Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals

A rematch of the Stanley Cup Final that saw the Capitals victorious in five games. Maybe by Oct. 10 Alex Ovechkin will have been separated from the Cup.

Oct. 26, 2018 – Ottawa Senators at Colorado Avalanche

Matt Duchene has been a visiting player against the Avs, but that game actually took place in Sweden last season, so he’s yet to return to Pepsi Center as a Senator. Now, given the state of the Senators, we may get to late October and Duchene could be on a different team. But if he’s still with Ottawa, the reception he gets upon coming back to Denver should be interesting considering how his time with the franchise ended.

Dec. 1, 2018 – Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Islanders

As the Islanders prepare to leave Barclays Center in a few years, this game will be the first of 20 this coming season at their former home of Nassau Coliseum, now known as NYCB Live. The team will play games there over the next few seasons as a new arena gets built by Belmont race track in Elmont.

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Nov. 1-2, 2018 – Florida Panthers vs. Winnipeg Jets

In the second set of Global Games, Patrik Laine and Aleksander Barkov head home to Finland as the Jets meet the Panthers in Helsinki.

Jan. 1, 2019 – Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins

Hey, what do you know? An outdoor game featuring the Blackhawks. After taking a year off, the Blackhawks are back outside for the Winter Classic and will take on the Bruins at Notre Dame Stadium. There will be plenty of shots of Touchdown Jesus and lots and lots of stories of Vinnie Hinostroza’s time in South Bend.

Jan. 18, 2019 – New York Islanders at Washington Capitals

Trotz returns to D.C. where he’ll get some very, very long ovations from the crowd and enjoy a tribute video ending with him raising the Stanley Cup.

Jan. 25-26, 2019 – All-Star Weekend, San Jose

A bit of a change this year as the Skills Competition has been moved to Friday night of All-Star Weekend and the 3-on-3 divisional tournament taking place on Saturday.

Feb. 23, 2019 – Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers

The home-and-home Battle of Pennsylvania outdoor series concludes this February when the Penguins visit the Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field for a Stadium Series game. The Penguins were 4-2 victors when the two met in 2017 at Heinz Field. Hopefully the jersey choices are a little better than what they wore in their previous meeting.

April 6, 2019 – Super Saturday

The final day of the 2018-19 regular season will see 30 teams in action, with hopefully some playoff seeds and spots still up for grabs before we get to the postseason.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL salary cap ceiling set at $79.5M for 2018-19 season

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As expected, the NHL and NHLPA announced on Thursday that the salary cap ceiling for the 2018-19 season will increase to $79.5 million. That’s a $4.5 million increase from this past season.

Going back to December, the NHL’s revenues told them that the ceiling would rise by at least $3 million.

“The league has never been healthier,” said Commissioner Gary Bettman said at December’s Board of Governors meeting. “The game has never been healthier. Our franchises have never been healthier.”

Important news for teams like Ottawa and Arizona, the salary cap floor for next season will be $58.8 million, which means it’s time to prepare those Marian Hossa trade proposals!

The ceiling increase is also good news for those teams that regular spend to the limit. Now they have some more breathing room to either bring back some unrestricted or restricted free agents they want to sign or allow them to add a bit more salary under their cap if they want to go shopping this summer.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

A talk with Lou Lamoriello excited Barry Trotz about joining Islanders

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Barry Trotz wasn’t divulging details — such is the life of working for Lou Lamoriello. But the New York Islanders head coach did say he’d already spoken with captain John Tavares within hours of officially being hired.

We’re still to reach a resolution on that front, and as far as Trotz’s resignation after leading the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup two weeks ago, he said it was out of “principle.” The Cup victory meant a clause in his contract activated giving him a two-year extension and a $300,000 raise. He wanted a longer term and a richer deal, but the Capitals weren’t willing to go down that route.

[Islanders hire Barry Trotz as head coach]

“When it came to the business aspect, I was willing to listen,” Trotz said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “From my standpoint, I felt that it wasn’t really sincere what we did together. I decided it was better to just move on.”

Not long after he parted with the Capitals, Trotz’s agent got a call from Lamoriello expressing interest. Trotz flew in and met with the Islanders president and GM earlier this week and talked about a vision for the team. That’s when the head coach got excited about coming on board.

“If you know anything about Lou Lamoriello and his background and what he does, he’ll do what it takes to win,” Trotz said. “That got me excited right away.”

As for a staff, Trotz said Lane Lambert, his longtime assistant in Nashville and Washington, would be his “No. 1 choice” if he chooses to come to New York. Goaltending coach Mitch Korn could also be in the mix to follow Trotz.

With two straight seasons of playoffless hockey, Trotz understands that there’s work to do with the team, even beyond what happens with Tavares. But having coached against the Islanders for years, he knows there are some good pieces on the roster that could help in a turnaround.

“If we can get our structure right and we get our pace right, we’ll be able to score, we’ll be able to defend much better and we’re going to fix up some holes,” he said.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Senators GM on Hoffman trade: ‘Our dressing room was broken’

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Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion met with the media on Thursday afternoon ahead of the 2018 NHL draft, and while he refused to comment on the team’s plans regarding superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson and other players on the roster, he did speak extensively about the recent decision to trade veteran forward Mike Hoffman.

Earlier this week the Senators traded Hoffman, one of the team’s top forwards, to the San Jose Sharks in return for a package of players and picks that included veteran forward Mikkel Boedker.

The trade came less than a week after it was revealed that Hoffman’s fiance, Monika Caryk, was accused of harassing Melinda Karlsson.

[Related: Senators trade Hoffman for underwhelming return]

The first question Dorion faced was a blunt one: Why did you trade Mike Hoffman?

“Trading Mike Hoffman was something we needed to do,” said Dorion (via Sportsnet).

“We talk about — our dressing room was broken,” he continued. “We have to have a dressing room that wants to win together. Key components for us moving forward are, character, leadership, accountability, and we’re very happy with the return we got on Mike Hoffman. We feel Mikkel Boedker is a good player, he had a great second half, he was San Jose’s fifth leading scorer in their two rounds in the playoffs. We know with the culture that we’re aiming to get that he is going ot fit in that dressing room. I did talk to one player, not about his hockey abilities but about him as a person, that played with him, Matt Duchene, and Matt’s words to us were that he’s a great guy, he’s perfect for our room, and the culture we’re trying to build.”

Boedker has two years remaining on his current contract that pays him $4 million per season. He is coming off of a 2017-18 season that saw him score 15 goals and 37 total points for the Sharks.

Shortly after acquiring Hoffman from the Senators, San Jose turned around and flipped him to the Florida Panthers for a collection of draft picks.

Dorion was then asked when he first found out about the harassment that the Karlsson’s were subjected to following the death of their son.

“We heard a rumor at the end of the season,” said Dorion. “If we acted on every rumor we hear, we couldn’t do our job in management as a general manager. No player ever came to us about these things. At the start of every year we address the team. We address the team saying the general manager, our management group, we have an open door policy about anything personal or professional. The only thing we tell our players is don’t come see us about ice time. That is the coaches job.”

He continued: “I think when we address the players this year at the start of the year we are going to make sure in situations like this, they can definitely come to us. I think it’s important. I think in all of this the victim is Melinda Karlsson. If we can do something about it, we wish that this situation could have been prevented.”

This was just one of the many issues the Senators are facing this offseason.

The other serious one involves assistant general manager Randy Lee who is currently suspended indefinitely as he faces second-degree harassment charges for an incident involving a hotel shuttle bus driver in Buffalo during the NHL scouting combine.

Dorion said on Thursday that Lee’s situation will be re-evaluated following the court proceedings.

His next court date is set for July 6.

Along with all of this, it remains to be seen if Karlsson will be back with the Senators next season or if he will be traded (a trade they will have a difficult time winning) as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract.

The Senators also have a big decision to make regarding the No. 4 overall pick and whether or not they keep it (Dorion seems to anticipate they will) or send it to the Colorado Avalanche to complete the Matt Duchene trade (why they should consider it).

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.