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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.”

Preds see no reason to mess with success in chase for Cup

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Nashville Predators see no reason to make any major changes to a roster that won the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy, not with a group that has been so very close to that elusive Stanley Cup the past two seasons.

”It didn’t work out in the playoffs the way we wanted,” Nashville captain Roman Josi said. ”But we truly believe this team can win a Stanley Cup, and that’s why we want to keep this team together.”

The Predators lost the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games to Pittsburgh and followed that up with the best regular season in team history. But Nashville’s quest for a repeat run to the Final ended in the first Game 7 on home ice in the Western Conference semifinals with a loss to Winnipeg , the team that finished second overall behind the Predators in the regular season.

Defenseman Mattias Ekholm said a Game 7 can go either way. The Predators know the rest of the Western Conference keeps loading up with talent through trades and signings. That makes just reaching the playoffs a challenge in the West, much less repeating either as conference or Central Division champs.

”It’s a privilege we are together still, and we barely had any change on our roster,” Ekholm said. ”I see that as a very positive thing.”

Some other things to know about the Predators this season:

NET QUESTIONS

Pekka Rinne is coming off a Vezina Trophy-winning season, his first in his fourth time as a finalist for the award for the NHL’s top goalie in the regular season. He was at his best carrying the Predators to the Presidents’ Trophy, going 42-13-4 with eight shutouts, a 2.31 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. He also earned his 300th career victory on Feb. 22. Rinne turns 36 in November and is going into the final season of his current contract.

The Predators also signed Rinne’s backup, a fellow Finn in Juuse Saros who was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team for the season. Saros, 23, signed a three-year extension after going 11-5-7 with a 2.44 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.

”There’s more skill on the ice than ever before, the same goes for goalies,” Rinne said. ”You really have to take care of yourself, and I feel like I had a good summer. I’m healthy and energized and feel really good so looking forward to this season.”

ROSTER TWEAKS

Center Mike Fisher retired again, this time for good after coming out of retirement to rejoin the Predators in late February. Veteran forward Scott Hartnell also was let go with his experienced replaced by signing Dan Hamhuis, a defenseman Nashville drafted at No. 12 in the 2001 entry draft. Defenseman Alexei Emelin also was allowed to leave for the KHL.

NASHVILLE KEEPERS

Along with an extension for Saros, general manager David Poile also signed forwards Ryan Hartman and Miikka Salomaki to extensions keeping the restricted free agents around. The biggest deal of the offseason for Nashville easily was signing defenseman Ryan Ellis to an eight-year deal worth $50 million that keeps him under contract through the 2026-27 season. Ellis still had a season remaining, so Poile kept the defenseman’s status from hanging over the Predators. The move also keeps three of Nashville’s top four defensemen – Ellis, P.K. Subban and Ekholm – signed through the 2021-22 season.

YOUNG HOPES

Eeli Tolvanen couldn’t have come to the NHL with much higher expectations after setting a scoring record as an 18-year-old for Jokerit in the Kontinental Hockey League, and he also tied for the second-most points by an under-19 player for Finland at the Winter Olympics with nine points in five games. He played three games down the stretch for Nashville. Rinne said European media were disappointed Tolvanen didn’t have a hat trick in his opener, but the goalie believes the teen made the right move to get acquainted with the Predators last spring.

”I’m expecting big things out of him,” Rinne said.

Ryan Johansen

The Predators sure could use a big step forward in the regular season by the big first-line center. Johansen ranked fourth on the team in points in the regular season with 54 in 79 games. Then Johansen scored better than a point a game with 14 points in 13 games in the postseason, and the center looking a bit more at the net than passing could provide a boost across the top line with Filip Forsberg.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Okposo: Players need to buy in for Sabres fortunes to change

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.

Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.

”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.

”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”

General manager Jason Botterill focused on shaking up an under-achieving roster through a series of trades. Buffalo acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and signed goalie Carter Hutton in free agency.

And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.

Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.

”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.

The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”

DAHLIN ON D

Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.

YOU KNOW JACK

Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.

”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.

FROM THE CO-OWNER

”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.

”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Fantasy Hockey: 2018-19 bounce back candidates

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It happens every year. Fantasy hockey GMs draft a guy and expect a lot from him until he falls flat on his face. Oh the frustration. Well, the good news is that we’re here to tell you which of those players will bounce back in a big way in 2018-19.

Here’s the top bounce back candidates for the upcoming season:

Max Pacioretty – LW – Vegas Golden Knights

Pacioretty went into last season having scored at least 30 goals in each of his previous four seasons. Things went off the rails in a hurry in Montreal last season and it led to Pacioretty being traded to the Golden Knights. The incredible thing about Pacioretty’s production, is that it came without him ever having a top-end center. Paul Stastny isn’t necessarily a high-end center, but he’s better than anyone Pacioretty’s played with before. Don’t be surprised if the newest Golden Knight hits 35 this year.

Jonathan Drouin – C/LW – Montreal Canadiens

Drouin had an incredibly difficult first year with the Montreal Canadiens last season. Not only did he have to get used to a new team and new teammates, he also made the move from the wing to center. This preseason, the Canadiens moved him back to the wing and he looks a lot more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old surpasses the 13 goals and 46 points he put up last year.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ty Rattie – W – Edmonton Oilers

Rattie comes into this season having put up 19 points in 49 career games in the NHL, but he’s getting the opportunity to play with Connor McDavid this preseason. As you’d imagine, things have gone pretty well. He picked up seven points in his first two exhibition games, so if he sticks with McDavid, there could be some serious fantasy value appeal there.

Elias Lindholm – W – Calgary Flames

Lindholm has been pretty consistent over the last four years. He’s put up between 39 and 45 points with the Hurricanes since 2014-15. Now that he’s with the Flames, he’ll have more offensive talent around, which means there should be more opportunities to pick up points as the season progresses.

Brandon Saad – W – Chicago Blackhawks

Saad had an incredibly disappointing first year back in Chicago. The 25-year-old scored just 18 goals and 35 points after hitting at least 52 points during the previous three seasons. Saad could get an extended look with Patrick Kane to open the season, so the upside for him to hit the 30-goal mark, again, is definitely there.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Anthony Beauvillier – W – New York Islanders

Beauvillier ended up finishing last season with a respectable 21 goals and 36 points in 71 games, but he had his share of ups and downs. The Islanders even felt the need to send him back to the minors mid-season. With John Tavares no longer in New York, Mathew Barzal will need someone new to step up. Enter Beauvillier. The 21-year-old could be one of the big surprises of 2018-19.

Kyle Okposo – W – Buffalo Sabres

After reading everything he went through while dealing with a concussion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Okposo and his family. Now that he’s healthy again, the 30-year-old could get back to surpassing the 20-goal and 50-point marks this season. The Sabres are young, but there’s no denying that they have talent.

Justin Schultz – D – Pittsburgh Penguins

Schultz posted a career-high 12 goals and 51 points two years ago, but those numbers dropped 27 points last season. Of course, he also missed 19 games due to injury. Expecting him to score 51 points again might be a little ambitious, but he should be able to improve last year’s numbers.

Carey Price – G – Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens probably won’t be a playoff team, but it’s hard to imagine that Price will be worse than he was last year. The 31-year-old had 16-26-7 record with a 3.11 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. Yeah, it was a brutal year for him. His new eight-year extension that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million kicks in this year, so the pressure will definitely be on. Price should be fine.

Matt Murray – G – Pittsburgh Penguins

Murray’s first year as the undisputed starting netminder in Pittsburgh didn’t go so well. He had a solid 27-16-3 record, but that had more to do with the fact that he was on a good team. He added a 2.92 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. Now that he’s gone through one year without Marc-Andre Fleury, he’ll be better equipped to handle a heavy workload.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Lightning want outdoor game; Ennis’ golden opportunity with Leafs

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• After dealing with a blood-clot scare, Chris Krieder wants to show the Rangers that he’s able to take on a more significant role. (NHL.com)

• The Toronto Maple Leafs have been without William Nylander in training camp because of a hold out. In Nylander’s absence, head coach Mike Babcock has placed Tyler Ennis on Auston Matthews‘ wing. (TSN)

• Japers’ Rink looks at the top 10 goalies in the Metropolitan Division. Who’s the better option between Braden Holtby and Sergei Bobrovsky? (Japers’ Rink)

• The Inquirer got to spend some time with Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol, while he was on his boat with his family. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

• Lightning owner Jeff Vinik told fans at the Lightning fan fest that the team would like to get an outdoor game. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist felt a lot more comfortable in his second preseason game than he did in the first one. “There are a couple things I need to be strong on, and it’s playing deep and making good reads. … It was too much movement, and sometimes you want to do too much, especially early on, when you’re looking for that good feeling. Really, it’s just back to basics.” (New York Post)

• Speaking of the Rangers, there’s no denying that they need a true number one defenseman in the near future. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• Canucks prospect Zack MacEwen’s dad, Craig, made the trip to Vancouver to watch his son play preseason hockey. Canucks Army was able to catch up with Craig to discuss what the road to pro hockey is like for the parent of a player. (Canucks Army)

• Anaheim Calling is starting a new series called 25 Greatest Ducks of All Time”. They started with players 25 through 21. Three current NHLers are on the list. (Anaheim Calling)

• Oilers star Connor McDavid sat down for a Q&A with GQ Magazine. He talked about not being cocky, having a sense of style and more. (GQ)

• The Red Wings have a few young players that are making a case to stick around in the NHL this season. (MLive.com)

• Brian Gionta, who retired on Monday, helped change the perception that small players couldn’t play in the NHL. (Buffalo Hockey Beat)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.