NHL contenders hope late-signing prospects are playoff ready

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The ink was barely dry on his contract when Ryan Donato played his first professional game.

Three days after his junior season at Harvard ended, Donato joined the Boston Bruins’ lineup in the middle of a playoff chase in a top-six role with a spot on the power play.

No pressure, kid.

”I definitely had to learn quickly,” Donato said. ”Every game is important, so it had to click right away. I really didn’t have a choice.”

Such is the task for Donato and a handful of other young prospects joining contenders in the eleventh hour of the NHL season. It has become common for teams with no postseason hopes to sign players out of school and play them late in the regular season like Vancouver did with Brock Boeser and Arizona with Clayton Keller a year ago.

This season, some top teams are taking the chance, too.

Just as the Bruins added Donato, Minnesota signed Jordan Greenway after his season at Boston University, Anaheim signed Troy Terry after the University of Denver was out of the NCAA Tournament and Nashville brought over Eeli Tolvanen from Europe after a full year in the Kontinental Hockey League – young talent added for the playoffs without the teams giving up anything, though coaches must now integrate a new player late in the season.

”It’s tough if the kids aren’t good,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. ”With our team right now in the midst of this race, every little defensive situation has got to be done right.”

Every shift is magnified this time of year, adding to the burden of trying to learn a team’s system. Donato, Greenway and Terry went right from college to the NHL, and Tolvanen had to adjust on the fly from the wider, European ice as Nashville tries to shore up home ice throughout the playoffs.

”It’s kind of tough to come in the middle of the season and just jump in and you don’t know all the guys,” Tolvanen said. ”You have to do it at some point, so I think it’s a pretty good spot that I came a couple games before the playoffs.”

Tolvanen benefited from two rounds of KHL playoffs with Jokerit and carried that intensity across the pond, while Terry and Greenway got a taste of playoff action in the NCAA Tournament. Donato’s season playing for his dad and former NHL forward Ted ended, and he suddenly had to ramp things up to carry a big load for Boston amid injuries to Rick Nash and others.

Donato knew he couldn’t take a shift or a game off and has stepped up with seven points in his first nine games. Coach Bruce Cassidy wasn’t worried about getting the soon-to-be 22-year-old up to speed as much as seeing if Donato could handle the size, speed and pace of the NHL.

”Most of these kids that come in are offensive-minded guys, so are they going to be able to make their plays and handle a man’s game?” Cassidy said. ”And he’s shown he’s able to do that.”

Donato certainly had a body of work coming in, including leading the United States and tying for the tournament lead with five goals at the Olympics without NHL players. The other three young, late-season additions – all of whom also stood out at the Olympics – are being eased in.

”We didn’t really do anything at the trade deadline because we knew that we were going to get Jordan Greenway,” Boudreau said. ”He’s gone through the Olympics and the world juniors all in the last year, so he knows what a little bit of pressure is all about. Playing at BU, he’s always (on) one of the better teams playing in important games. We pretty well thought he could handle all this.”

Nashville is betting Tolvanen can handle it, too. The impressive Finnish winger set a KHL record with 36 points as an 18-year-old and looked increasingly more comfortable in his first three games for the Predators, who have their sights set on a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

”It’s important for him to see ice time before the playoffs,” coach Peter Laviolette said. ”The playoffs are a long haul. I think we learned that last year that you need a lot of people and a lot of parts and it’s important to get him involved in the game, with the team, in the systems.”

Predators general manager David Poile recalled making one trade too many at a previous deadline and messing with his team’s chemistry.

”You have to be careful on both sides because you don’t want to put a young player in a position to fail,” Poile said. ”You want to put him in a position to succeed. You also are very respectful of the players that have been with you all season long. It’s also OK to have depth but you don’t want to move everybody’s cheese too much.”

In Boston, it helps that Donato is filling a spot vacated by injuries and showing immediately he belongs. In Nashville, Tolvanen’s reputation preceded him for anyone who saw what he did as one of the leading scorers at the Olympics.

”It’s a special situation when somebody comes in this late and joins the team and under different circumstances, but it’s been great,” starting goaltender and fellow Finn Pekka Rinne said. ”Certainly it adds a new, special element to our team. I think it’s going to be beneficial down the road.”

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

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

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.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.