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Without NHL players, Olympic tournament is ‘wide open’

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When Willie Desjardins coached Canada’s 2010 world junior team stacked with future NHL players Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and goaltenders Jake Allen and Martin Jones, it took a wild final game with John Carlson scoring in overtime to win the gold medal for the United States.

Just like Canada was the most talented team back then, Russia is likely to have that role at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Desjardins isn’t concerned about that.

”In this tournament, anybody can win,” Desjardins said.

Goodbye, NHL players. Hello, unpredictability.

No NHL participation for the first time since 1994 threatens to upset the traditional world hockey order after Canada has won the past three best-on-best tournaments: the 2016 World Cup, 2014 Sochi Olympics and 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Russia is considered the favorite because it has former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov, though Finland could make gold its sixth medal in the past five Games or Sweden could win for the first time since 2006.

Coach Tony Granato’s American team was put together with players from European professional leagues, the NCAA and American Hockey League.

”This Olympics is wide open for a lot of reasons,” Granato said. ”Russia’s got the most talented players in the world. They’re going to have the team that steps on the ice with the most talented players. Does that make them the best team for two weeks? No. We all know that. We all know how sports works. All you’re looking for is an opportunity to make the most and be the best that you can be for that period of time.”

Because it’s such a short tournament with three pool-play games, a qualifying round and then quarterfinals, it could come down to which team gels first after limited preparation time. Or maybe another goaltender will pull off what Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis almost did when making 55 saves to give Canada a scare in the quarterfinals in Sochi.

”The goaltending matters, too, in an event like this,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. ”It always matters, but I think in this one, the underdog – if you have an elite goalie – can really do some damage.”

Who’s the underdog? It’s fair to say host South Korea, in its first Olympics in men’s hockey, fits that bill, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany and Norway.

Yet being in a group with Slovenia, Slovakia and Russia is no easy task for the U.S., which boasts 38-year-old semi-retired captain Brian Gionta as its most experienced player. Granato said the U.S. ”has lots of pieces that other teams and countries don’t know about” and wonders if his team will be overlooked.

Mistake-prone play seems likely, though Gionta doesn’t think there will be any lack of sizzle.

”I know there’s been some talk that not having the NHL guys in, you don’t have your high-skilled guys,” Gionta said. ”I think that’s a bad representation of the people that are going over there and competing in these games. There’s a lot of great hockey players.”

ALL EYES ON DAHLIN

One of the most dynamic and offensively talented players is also the youngest: Sweden defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who’s projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft in June. Dahlin has 11 points in 29 games playing against grown men in the Swedish Hockey League and had six points in seven games at the world juniors. He’s just 17.

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?

When the NHL announced it was out of these Olympics, executives from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada were quick to say every team would have 25 great stories. There are players on almost every team who are familiar because they played in the NHL at one point. Most of the rosters are made up of journeymen plying their trade in pro leagues in Europe, such as Czech Republic captain Martin Erat, Germany’s Christian Ehrhoff and Canada’s Ben Scrivens. Americans Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway, Ryan Donato and Will Borgen are currently playing college hockey.

”The tournament in general is going to be built with teams with lots of guys that this is the greatest event for them and they didn’t necessarily think they were going to get this opportunity,” Canada GM Sean Burke said.

BIG ICE

If the Sochi Games proved anything, it was that the international-sized ice that’s 15 feet wider than NHL rinks doesn’t create more offense. The U.S. and Canada built rosters with the bigger ice in mind, prioritizing skating and mobility and playing a more European style. That doesn’t mean European teams won’t have an advantage, but it won’t be such a stark change as when North American NHL players need a few games to get used to it.

OAR PRESSURE

The Olympic Athletes from Russia team is a favorite to win gold, which would be the first since the Unified Team in 1992. But Russia hasn’t medaled since 2002, including a disappointing showing on home ice four years ago. The chance to draw all its players from the Kontinental Hockey League should benefit Russia, which has won four of the past 10 world hockey championships. But something about this stage has made Russia play like less than the sum of its parts before, which makes even a star-studded team beatable.

Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

Gaudreau buys stake in his former USHL team in Dubuque, Iowa

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”Johnny Hockey” is getting an additional title: part owner.

Calgary Flames star forward Johnny Gaudreau is a member of an NHL-laden ownership group that purchased an equity stake in the U.S. Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints on Thursday. The group includes Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons, former Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, and Florida Panthers executive chairman Peter Luukko.

Gaudreau and Girgensons were teammates on the Dubuque team that won the USHL championship in 2011. Luukko’s son Nick was also on the team. Their ownership group is titled Saints4Life Acquisitions.

”The first day I stepped into Dubuque, I knew it was a special place,” Gaudreau said in a statement issued by the league. ”I have a lot of special memories in Dubuque, including winning it all in 2011. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Gaudreau was the USHL’s rookie of the year in 2011, when he was also drafted by Calgary. He eventually went on to win college hockey’s Hobey Baker Award at Boston College.

Girgensons described being part of the ownership group as a way to pay back the team for playing a key role in his development. A year after moving to North America from his native Latvia, Girgensons spent two seasons with the Fighting Saints and was preparing to play college hockey at Vermont before being selected by Buffalo in the first round of the 2012 draft.

”It’s a team that really got me to where I am today,” Girgensons told The Associated Press by phone.

Never envisioning the opportunity to be an owner, Girgensons joked he might need to contact Sabres owner Terry Pegula for a few pointers.

Edmonton Oilers president and general manager Peter Chiarelli will remain a part owner of the team. Philip Falcone, who previously was a part owner of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, is departing as the Fighting Saints’ principal owner.

The Fighting Saints have won two championships since returning to the USHL in 2010 following a nine-year absence.

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

PHT Morning Skate: 8 big questions heading into draft; First buyout of 2018

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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.

• Sportsnet tackles the eight biggest questions heading into tonight’s NHL Entry Draft. What will the Habs do with the third overall pick? Will anything happen with Columbus’ Artemi Panarin? (Sportsnet)

• Former NHL defenseman Nick Boynton has decided to join the NHL concussion lawsuit. He’ll also be donating his brain to science. Boynton has been battling substance abuse and depression. (TSN)

• There’s no denying that Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds could be on the move in the next hours/days, but will the team actually pull the trigger on a deal involving their talented forward? (Philly.com)

• The Canadiens will have an early selection in tonight’s draft, but will they hit a home run or swing-and-miss again? The Montreal Gazette looks at the Habs’ inability to develop their first-rounders over the last 33 years. (Montreal Gazette)

• Over the course of their history, the Sabres have done pretty well when they’ve selected defensemen in the first round. That run of success should continue on Friday night with Rasmus Dahlin. (WGR550)

• Stars GM Jim Nill confirmed that he expects to sign forward Valeri Nichushkin on July 1st. He’s been in the KHL for the last two years. (NHL.com/Stars)

• Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty has been one of the best bargains in the NHL over the last few years (he’s been making $4.5 million per year). Now that he’s in the final year of his contract, expect him not to leave any money on the table even if it means changing addresses. (Sportsnet)

• You can now check out each PHWA voter’s ballot from this year’s NHL Awards. There’s some head-scratchers on there. (PHWA)

• Speaking of ballots, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Matthew DeFranks explains why he voted for Sean Couturier as his Selke winner instead of Aleksander Barkov. (Sun-Sentinel)

• And we have our first buyout of 2018, as the Edmonton Oilers decided to put an end to their relationship with Eric Gryba. That means that the Oilers will be carrying almost $2 million in dead money next season. (Edmonton Sun)

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.

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.