Olympians keeping focus on winning gold, not showcasing talents to NHL

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When the NHL announced in April that it wouldn’t be sending players to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, there was still a belief in hockey circles that an agreement would eventually be reached.

But at time went on, it became crystal clear that the NHL wouldn’t be participating in the Games for the first time since 1994. That opened the door for the numerous players who have been playing overseas to have the chance to represent their countries on a grand stage.

While the league will continue playing games while the Olympic tournament goes on, team executives and scouts will certainly be keeping an eye on things as you never know what kind of diamonds might be found or what types of players who once had a taste have improved over time. So while the Olympic experience will be one to cherish for all involved, it’s also an opportunity for these players to showcase their talents.

“That’s always in the back of your head. The NHL is the best league in the world. I would do anything to get back there,” said U.S. defenseman Matt Gilroy, 33, who played 225 NHL games and is now with the KHL’s Jokerit. “But then you have to embrace the opportunity where I am now, the life experience I’ve been able to [have], experiencing playing hockey, playing a game that I’ve played since I was a young kid, which is pretty special.”

“It’s definitely something that’s a possibility,” said Gilroy’s 31-year-old Jokerit teammate, Ryan Zapolski, who will likely be the Americans’ starting goaltender.

Age is certainly a factor, as well. Teams are always looking for youth and speed, and when you’ve spent a number of years on the big ice in Europe, adjusting back to the NHL sheet could be a concern for some general managers. Then you have it from the player’s perspective of having settled into their new surroundings and having found success overseas.

“I’m 35-turning-36. It’s a young man’s game right now in North America,” said U.S. defenseman Noah Welch, who plays for Vaxjo of the Swedish Hockey League and suited up 75 times in the NHL. “I’m comfortable where I’m at in my career and this would be an incredible way for me to go out and win a [Champions Hockey League] championship and then medal in the Olympics and then my team is Sweden has a great chance to win the championship.”

“I think that may be the case for some of the younger guys. I don’t think it is for myself,” said Canadian forward Wojtek Wolski, who has 451 games of NHL experience. “I’m turning 32 this year and I’ve got another year on my contract. Maybe to come back for one or two years in the NHL is a possibility, but I’ve really enjoyed my time in the KHL and playing overseas. I think the only reason to come back to the NHL would be to be close to my family and to be able to spend time with them.”

Unlike Gilroy, Welch and Wolski, Zapolski has never played in the NHL. He knows how much a goaltender’s performance in such a short tournament can do for one’s reputation, just ask Ray LeBlanc. But he’s happy in Finland and signed an extension in December.

“I’m happy here so I’m not really going to rush anything or push anything to get back to North America,” Zapolski said. “Of course, I know it’s the biggest stage, everybody’s going to be watching.”

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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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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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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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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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.