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Need for one pro league the new focus for women’s hockey

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By Stephen Whyno and John Wawrow (AP Sports)

Liz Knox didn’t get a chance to rest.

A day after making 24 saves to backstop her team to a road win and then flying home from Boston, the goaltender for the Markham Thunder worked her day job as a carpenter from 6 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, took a 10-minute nap, went for a four-mile run and squeezed in a workout before dinner.

”If we were making a living wage, it’s not a big deal because I can sleep in today and go to the gym when I’m ready and have the facilities there to train,” Knox said. ”If it’s your full-time job, then that’s your full-time job and you can pay for your rent and everything else on top of that.”

For now, playing women’s hockey professionally in North America isn’t lucrative enough to be a full-time job, save for the U.S. and Canadian Olympians who earn money from their national federations. In the aftermath of the U.S. winning gold at the Winter Games, several players have used their platform on a whirlwind victory tour to make the case for one professional league where there are currently two competitors: the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League.

”I don’t play in the CWHL or the NWHL so I have no personal preference,” U.S. shootout hero Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said. ”For women’s hockey to continue its traction is to have one league, whether that’s a merger or an entirely new league that supports both the U.S. and Canada in one league, I think is going to be really important in the next season to somehow make that happen.”

Current and former players have taken to social media to promote the concept of (hash)OneLeague that could pay long-term dividends for the sport. It’s a complicated issue muddled in the uncertainty between the CWHL, NHWL and NHL with, so far, no obvious path forward.

The compelling journey of the U.S. team from its fight for a better contract from USA Hockey to its thrilling victory against Canada at the Olympics brought positive attention to women’s hockey that is now in danger of being cut short.

”After the Olympics, all the conversation was: ‘Why can’t I watch this on a day-to-day basis? Why can’t I watch this every weekend?’ Well, you can’t because the talent is split right now between two leagues,” said Knox, one of the co-chairs of the CWHL Players Association. ”Merging is probably never going to work. There’s just too many differences between the two leagues and that’s been evident from the very beginning.”

The CWHL , now in its 11th season, has seven teams split between the U.S., Canada and China. The NWHL began in 2015 and has four U.S.-based teams.

What also divides the two are salary and bonus structures.

The NWHL has paid its players a salary from its inception: Between $10,000 and $26,000 in its first season to between $5,000 and $7,000 now. The CWHL previously focused on paying staff and player travel costs before committing to paying players starting this past year – anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, with a team salary cap of $100,000.

”Our framework has allowed for us to maintain sustainability and measured growth, and that trend will continue,” said Brenda Andress, commissioner of the nonprofit CWHL, which has partnered with NHL teams in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. Partnerships can include financial assistance, marketing and promotions, ice time and office space.

The NHWL is on better financial footing than it was last season, when the league was forced to cut player salaries in half to avoid the risk of folding. It now has an affiliation with the New Jersey Devils for financial and other support, and Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the Buffalo Beauts to make them the first team not owned and managed by the league.

”Team USA’s thrilling victory over Canada for the gold medal captivated the nation and showed a glimpse of the potential for women’s hockey in our country,” a Pegula Sports & Entertainment spokesman said. ”We believe that women’s hockey has an extremely bright future and are heavily committed to doing our part to continue its advancement.”

Neither league would address any notion of specific merger talks.

”One of the founding principles of the NWHL is to advance women’s hockey,” NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan said. ”If anyone has a formal plan or ever wants to discuss how we can take the business of professional women’s hockey to the next level, the NWHL will always engage with them and do what’s best for the game, the players, our supporters and fans.”

Knox and others would love for the NHL to step in and run a league like the NBA has with the WNBA.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s stance on women’s pro hockey hasn’t changed since the NWHL was established. It’s a position he recently reiterated on Calgary’s 960-Radio by saying the two leagues must first sort out their situations.

”Having two leagues makes it more difficult for us to get involved,” Bettman said. ”If there were no leagues, we’d probably start one under the NHL umbrella, and I’ve told both leagues that. But I have no interest in competing with the existing leagues. I think that would be counterproductive.”

Andress said the CWHL has always believed in the need for one league called it ”where the future of the women’s professional game has always been heading.”

No one’s quite sure what that would look like.

”Your guess is as good as mine,” said U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, who has played in the CWHL and NWHL. ”It would be awesome if we could work together and if they could work together and figure out a way to get everyone playing under the same umbrella.”

U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who is back in the CWHL playing for Les Canadiennes in Montreal after two seasons with the NWHL’s Boston Pride, said whatever it looks like, it’s vital for the growth of the game to have a single league that pays a living wage.

”If I have a child and I’m going to sign them up, if they were to take this seriously, what’s the career path? If they fall in love with the game, what career path are they going to have?” said Knight, who signed with Montreal last week. ”Is there going to be a place for them to play after college if they’re not going to be in the national team program or whatnot?”

Right now, those are unanswered questions. Even though Knox is Canadian, she can’t help but be happy that the Olympic championship won by the Americans has put the one-league conundrum in the spotlight.

”That’s the biggest voice that we have right now in North America,” Knox said. ”The stuff that they’re doing right now and helping to promote the idea that we could all play in one league is really, really important for the growth of women’s hockey here in North America.”

It’s an effort borne out of frustration for players who want nothing more than to play with and against each other in the same league instead of being forced to choose. They know fans also have to split their attention, which isn’t necessarily a sustainable way to build the popularity of women’s hockey.

”A lot of people only discover women’s hockey every four years at the Olympics,” Knight said. ”We’re here every single year, every single day training and there’s places that you can come see us, but we just don’t have those marketing dollars, those resources behind us to really bridge the gap between a product and the consumer. Hopefully combining efforts would help take care of that and we can get some big names on board to help fix that problem.”

Predators land another steal in signing Saros, Rinne’s heir apparent

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Nashville Predators GM David Poile hasn’t lost his knack for signing promising young players to outstanding value contracts.

Monday represents the latest coup, as goalie-of-the-future Juuse Saros signed a dirt-cheap deal: three years, just $4.5 million overall (so a $1.5M cap hit). That’s truly fantastic stuff for a goalie whose career save percentage is a superb .923.

Now, obviously, the sample size is small for the 23-year-old. That save percentage was accrued over 48 games, with all but one of those appearances happening during the last two seasons. Still, his numbers are promising at other levels, so there’s some credence to the notion that he could end up being a strong NHL starter.

Considering some of the money being thrown around at backups this summer, the Predators landed a great deal even if Saros doesn’t reach his considerable ceiling.

One would think that this only solidifies the passing of the torch from Pekka Rinne to Saros, but we’ll see. Rinne’s $7M cap hit expires after 2018-19, and at 35, you have to wonder if a decline is looming.

The beauty of getting three years of Saros’ services at such a cheap price is that the Predators aren’t boxed into a corner, though. If they feel most comfortable with a slower transition from Rinne to Saros, possibly morphing into a platoon, that’s an option (especially if, after fattening his bank account, Rinne signs his next deal for a palatable price). There are also some other scenarios: Saros could give the Predators 2-3 years of starter-level work at a cut rate, or Nashville could pivot to a different paradigm in net altogether.

(Honestly, would it be that shocking if Saros ends up being a better goalie than Connor Hellebuyck, for instance?)

Simply put, most – if not all – of the NHL’s other GMs should be jealous of Nashville’s unusual mixture of potential production and flexibility at the goaltending position. Those other GMs should take notes.

[It’s been a great day for Nashville, who also signed Ryan Hartman for cheap.]

Speaking of masterful GM work, this signing swings back to one of Poile’s greatest strengths: locking up promising players to team-friendly deals either before a breakthrough happens or right as it begins.

Consider some of the beautiful contracts he’s put together, leveraging RFA situations and tax-related perks:

  • Again, that Saros salary is sweet, and Rinne’s $7M goes away when Nashville needs to lock down other pieces.
  • Ryan Ellis is about to end a five-year contract that carried an almost comically low $2.5M cap hit. He’ll get paid on his next deal, and deft moves like these make it more feasible for him to stick with the Predators. Ellis is 27, so Nashville landed some of his peak years.
  • Filip Forsberg is a legit game-breaker. The 23-year-old’s cap hit is just $6M through 2021-22 (he’s three years into a six-year contract).
  • Viktor Arvidsson‘s bargain contract is no secret. He’s a top-line, 25-year-old winger making $4.25M per season through 2023-24(!).
  • Nashville boasts two 28-year-old defensemen also on enviable contracts. Roman Josi‘s ridiculous $4M contract ends after 2019-20, a seven-year deal among the best in recent NHL memory. Mattias Ekholm ($3.875M per year, six seasons, ends after 2021-22) is right there with Josi and Ellis as great blueline bargains.
  • Just about anyone can sign a first-rounder to an entry-level contract, but it’s worth noting that Eeli Tolvanen didn’t burn a year off of his rookie deal. If he can live up to the hype, the Predators would get three seasons of his sniping at a ludicrous price.

It almost feels like cheating, right? Most NHL front offices would pop open some champagne if they nabbed two of those steals, let alone the litany of bargains Poile has landed.

Now, sure, there are some expenditures. P.K. Subban absolutely ranks as elite, but $9M isn’t cheap. (He’s worth it, but that isn’t cheap.) Ryan Johansen‘s a little rich at $8M and $6M for Kyle Turris looked a little shakier when he was something of a non-factor during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even then, it’s not outrageous to picture Johansen and/or Turris delivering at a nice level, especially since those deals will account for less and less of each season’s cap percentage.

Once again, it looks like the Predators knocked one of the park with a signing when it comes to Saros.

For all we know, the conglomeration of smart moves could net the Predators a Stanley Cup, and possibly more than one. That said, a lot can happen, so you never know if all of this promise will come to fruition during the rigors (and thanks to the randomness) of the postseason.

Either way, other GMs could learn a lot from David Poile, as this is a masterwork of team-building.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Henrique’s great fit with Ducks pays off with $29 million extension

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As the New Jersey Devils went through a transition this season, it became clear Adam Henrique’s role had changed, and his production took a hit. A late November trade and a new role with the Anaheim Ducks fueled a turn in the right direction — one that has resulted in a five-year extension for the 28-year-old forward.

The Ducks announced on Monday that Henrique, who still has one year left on his deal, signed on through the 2023-24 NHL season with a total contract value of $29.125 million. The $5.825 million cap hit, per The Athletic’s Josh Cooper, puts him fifth-highest on the team beginning with the 2019-20 season.

(Now that Henrique has signed an extension with the Ducks, per the conditions of the deal New Jersey will receive a 2019 third-round pick from Anaheim.)

In 57 games in Anaheim during the regular season Henrique scored 20 goals and recorded 36 points. He found great chemistry on a line with Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase as the trio put up terrific numbers together. The trade was one that filled needs for both sides and both Henrique and Sami Vatanen, who went to New Jersey, immediately found fits in their new locations.

“With us, it puts him back into a more offensive role, which I think he’s going to love,” said Ducks general manager Bob Murray earlier this season. “He’s not old by any means. Sometimes when teams rebuild or reboot, or have this process, maybe it’s time for people to get a change of scenery. It doesn’t mean they’re bad players.”

The work continues for Murray, who has Henrique’s restricted free agent linemates and Brandon Montour to re-sign this summer. Then there are extensions for Jakob Silfverberg and John Gibson, who both have one year left on their current contracts, to figure out. Add all that to the fact that Murray vowed changes after a disappointing playoff exit, plus Ryan Kesler‘s questionable status for next season and a roster re-shaping could be in the plans.

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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.

Flames make fascinating bet with Elias Lindholm contract

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The Calgary Flames’ pivotal decision to trade Dougie Hamilton to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package including Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin was tough to immediately call. Maybe it makes sense, then, that Lindholm’s contract also seems divisive.

At least the terms of the deal are clear: six years, $29.1 million, which calls for a $4.85M cap hit. That’s official from the Flames, while Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports that Lindholm isn’t receiving any sort of no-trade/no-movement clauses.

Some criticisms

Whether you love or loathe the terms, it’s clear that the Flames are making a big commitment to Lindholm. If the results are middling, one can bet that people will note that Dougie Hamilton’s cap hit ($5.75M, through 2020-21) doesn’t cost a whole lot more than Lindholm’s new mark. Considering that the Flames still need to sign tough-to-gauge Hanifin to a new deal, the bill for this trade could end up being steep.

For what it’s worth, 55-percent of PHT voters believed that the Hurricanes won the trade, at least on the day it was made.

Despite five seasons already in the NHL (although he was limited to 58 games as a rookie in 2013-14), Lindholm hasn’t yet reached the 20-goal plateau. His career-high so far is 17 goals, while his peak for points so far was 45. He’s falling into a price range with some really nice players, such as Nazem Kadri and Sean Couturier. Looking at the simplest stats, Lindholm seems like a gamble.

And, again, people will beat up on the Flames if Hamilton – and to a lesser extent, Micheal Ferland – go on a tear in Carolina.

With another interesting yet even riskier investment in James Neal, the Flames are really rolling the dice this summer. If those gambles end up looking foolish, Calgary could be stuck for a while. That would bring back unpleasant memories of the albatross deals that hampered the Darryl Sutter era.

The good

At 23, some growth is conceivable, although some might remark that Lindholm probably is what he is after logging 374 regular-season games.

Of course, Lindholm could very well put up impressive numbers if he hits the linemate lottery with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. In that scenario, the Flames’ longer commitments would be a blessing rather than a curse, as a shorter deal would have opened up greater risks for Lindholm to excessively inflate his value.

Even a more modest good-cause scenario would be that Lindholm might give the Flames the sort of supporting scoring they’ve desperately needed beyond Gaudreau – Monahan and the possession monster trio of Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Matthew Tkachuk.

Speaking of possession stats, Lindholm checks out in that area, for the most part. (The Hurricanes hog the puck so much that sometimes it’s easy to take a guy like Lindholm for granted.)

At $4.85M, Lindholm is a fair enough value. The Flames are probably crossing their fingers that such a contract looks like a steal in hindsight. Such a scenario is far from outrageous.

***

Overall, it seems like a pricey but reasonable decision. If nothing else, we can’t accuse the Flames of being cheap, as Lindholm + Hanifin are poised to be more expensive (possibly a lot more expensive) than Hamilton + Ferland, although Adam Fox clouds that situation.

Again, that trade is something fans of the Flames and Hurricanes will be chewing on for years, so it only seems right that Lindholm’s value may also fuel some fun/nerdy hockey debates.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Police: Drowning of NHL goalie Ray Emery not suspicious

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HAMILTON, Ontario (AP) — The drowning of former NHL goalie Ray Emery does not appear suspicious, police said.

The 35-year-old player whose career spanned 11 seasons drowned in Hamilton Harbour on Sunday.

He jumped off a boat near the Leander Boat Club to go swimming, and friends called emergency services at about 6 a.m. when he didn’t resurface, police said. Inspector Marty Schulenberg called it a ”case of misadventure.”

Emery’s body was found at about 2:50 p.m. Sunday, about 20 yards from where he went into the water, Schulenberg added. He said first responders were not able to locate Emery right away so they called the dive unit. The search took longer than anticipated because of concerns for the dive team.

”It’s a lengthy process and safety is paramount to our divers,” he said. ”We need to take the time do it safely and that’s what the delay was.”

A post-mortem was to be completed Monday.

”Mr. Emery was taking a swim this morning and the circumstances around that are a part of the investigation,” Schulenberg said. ”Those details remain to be uncovered by our investigators.”

Emery played for Ottawa, Chicago and Philadelphia. He helped the Senators reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 and won it as a backup with the Blackhawks in 2013.

The Blackhawks lauded him as a ”fierce competitor, a good teammate and a Stanley Cup champion.” Flyers President Paul Holmgren cited his ”talent, work ethic and determination,” calling him an ”outstanding teammate and an extremely gifted goaltender.”

Emery battled avascular necrosis, the same serious hip ailment that ended two-sport star Bo Jackson’s career. He and fellow Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford combined to win the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the league’s fewest goals during the lockout-shortened 2013 season and finished seventh in Vezina Trophy voting.

Emery played in 326 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He went 145-86-28 with a 2.70 goals-against average and 16 shutouts.

He faced issues off the ice, including an incident of road rage, assault of a trainer in Russia and behavior that led to his dismissal from Ottawa’s training camp.

”Ray had many highs and lows in his personal life and his career,” longtime agent J.P. Barry said. ”He never let things that would derail most of us stop his forward momentum. He had a big heart and a fun loving personality. He was someone we all rooted for to succeed.”

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas knew Emery from junior hockey and the American Hockey League. He said Emery’s ”smile and intelligence made him a magnetic personality.”

Emery played in a charity hockey game Saturday night organized by Zac Rinaldo of the Nashville Predators. After word of his death spread, condolences poured in.

”I will always remember Ray as a good person first & foremost,” friend and former teammate Dan Carcillo wrote on Twitter. ”I envied his demeanor. He had a contagious personality.”

Former teammates pointed to Emery’s mentorship and leadership, especially in his final professional season in the AHL in 2015-16. Enforcer-turned-analyst Paul Bissonnette, a teammate with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, said Emery would treat other players to dinner almost every night.

”I’d heard nothing but great things before meeting him,” Bissonnette said. ”And it was true.”

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.