Tanks for nothing: Some NHL teams can’t win for losing

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Jack Eichel has difficulty accepting the sorry state of the Buffalo Sabres, who haven’t had a sniff at the playoffs in the three years since his celebrated arrival.

”When I got drafted, if you would’ve said we’d be in this position, I probably would’ve told you to give your head a shake,” Eichel told The Associated Press.

Instead, it’s the 21-year-old shaking his head in disbelief over a franchise that’s finished no better than 14th in the Eastern Conference since 2012-13 and in jeopardy of finishing last in the overall standings for the third time in five years.

This isn’t what anyone – from since-fired GM Tim Murray to Sabres fans encouraging the team to tank – were anticipating during the 2014-15 season. That’s when Buffalo was in a race to the bottom for the right to draft one of the two touted, generational prospects: Eichel and Connor McDavid, who was selected first overall by Edmonton.

What’s worse for Eichel is seeing other teams jumping ahead of Buffalo in the rebuilding process.

”You look at Colorado and some of these teams, New Jersey, that make a quick turnaround and all of a sudden they’re in the playoff hunt,” he said.

If misery likes company, the Sabres aren’t the only ones stuck in a rut.

Whatever watershed moment the 2015 draft was supposed to represent by infusing game-changing talent to the NHL’s neediest teams, it has yet to make more than a ripple in the standings.

Eichel hasn’t made a dent in the Sabres’ fortunes despite averaging nearly a point a game. For all of McDavid’s offensive exploits and earning NHL MVP honors last season, the Oilers will miss the playoffs for the second time in his three years.

Instead, the 2015 draft serves as a cautionary example of how bottoming out doesn’t guarantee instant turnarounds.

With the exception of Toronto, three of the teams, including Arizona, with top-five selections in 2015 have already been eliminated from this year’s playoffs, and a fourth, Carolina, could join them soon.

So much for the tanking tenet held by several NHL executives, who thought the best way to build a champion was to start by losing big.

Pittsburgh did that in building its three most recent Stanley Cup champion teams with two No. 1 draft picks (Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury) and a No. 2 (Evgeni Malkin). Chicago’s three most recent Cup winners followed the Blackhawks selecting Jonathan Toews with the No. 3 pick in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 the following year.

And yet, there are exceptions.

Detroit won four titles from 1997 to 2008 despite not drafting higher than No. 19 from 1992 to 2013.

Boston has had a top-10 pick just twice in 10 years.

Just look at the NHL expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who have clinched a playoff berth and are leading the Pacific Division with a team cobbled together from scratch.

”A lot of teams have a lot of good hockey players, but there’s not many Malkins and Crosbys in the NHL. No, we don’t have them,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. ”It’s all about being a team. And we’ve been a team since Day 1.”

This year, Nashville is leading the NHL with a roster featuring one top-five draft pick, forward Ryan Johansen, who was acquired in a trade with Columbus, and no other player selected in the top 10.

”You don’t always have to be real bad for a few years to win,” Predators veteran forward Mike Fisher told The AP.

Goalie Pekka Rinne credits Predators management for assembling the team through trades and identifying talent in the later rounds of the draft. The Predators feature six players Nashville selected in the fourth round or lower, including Rinne, an eighth-rounder in 2004.

”We’ve never had to rebuild,” Rinne said. ”And for a guy like myself being here for a long time, it’s nice to have that. You don’t have to waste any years.”

Having a wealth of high picks is no guarantee.

Florida has made the playoffs twice since 2001-02 despite having a top-10 pick 10 times over that span.

The Oilers have made the playoffs once since 2010 despite selecting first four times.

The New York Islanders will miss the playoffs for a sixth time since selecting John Tavares with the No. 1 pick in 2009.

After 2015, there are even fewer benefits to finishing last after the NHL altered its draft lottery formula. Now, the last-place team is assured of nothing more than the No. 4 pick, as opposed to No. 2.

Coyotes forward Brad Richardson questioned whether teams adopting a strategy to lose had lasting effects.

”I don’t want to say tanking, but when you do tank, I think it sets a precedent in your organization that it’s OK to lose, and you’re showing the young guys that losing’s acceptable,” Richardson told The AP.

HOLLAND’S FUTURE

Red Wings GM Ken Holland told The AP he has received no assurances from the team he’ll return for a 21st year, despite reports indicating he will be back.

MLive.com on Tuesday cited an unnamed person in reporting Holland will be back ”with or without a contract.” The Detroit Free Press quoted a person familiar with the situation saying ”he’s going to be back as the GM,” but reported it’s unclear how Holland’s contract will be structured.

Holland, in a text to The AP, declined to discuss whether he’d return without a contract, saying: ”I’ll talk when the final decision has been made.”

LEADERS (Through games Monday)

Points: McDavid, 99. Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 45. Game-winning goals: Sean Monahan (Calgary) and Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado), 11. Rookie points: Mathew Barzal (Islanders), 78. Goals-against average (minimum 40 games): Fleury (Vegas), 2.12.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Top spot in the overall standings could be on the line Sunday, when the Western Conference-leading Predators travel to play East-leading Tampa Bay.

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

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    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.