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Three questions facing the Buffalo Sabres

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future.

Today we look at the Buffalo Sabres.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]

1. Will all the turnover on the roster amount to a turnaround on the ice?

There’s been a lot of change in Buffalo this summer.

A quick recap:

IN: Jeff Skinner, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Tage Thompson, Carter Hutton, Conor Sheary, Matt Hunwick, Scott Wedgewood

OUT: Ryan O'Reilly, Robin Lehner, Chad Johnson, Josh Gorges, Benoit Pouliot

Change can be good, and for the Sabres, any amount of change likely betters than compared to last season. But there’s not much of a guessing game here. Names like Skinner, Berglund and Sheary already mean good things for Buffalo, as does a certain Rasmus Dahlin.

It might be shaky at the start. There’s going to be a feeling out process for all these new guys. But there’s a good shell in Buffalo now that should equate to more wins, providing Hutton can handle the load of a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.

Buffalo has done enough to pencil its name into the playoff conversation.

2. Can Kyle Okposo rekindle his form from the New York Islanders years?

Two concussions in less than a year, and while they’re all scary, his first one was a nightmare.

That’s what Okposo has had to deal with, along with watching his production fall off from where it was on Long Island.

It’s been a tough couple of seasons with the Sabres. Playing on a lesser team, Okposo, concussions and all, hasn’t been able to reach the near point-per-game pace he found in his final three seasons with the Islanders.

It’s likely that Okposo will play on the right side of Casey Mittelstadt next season. Hopefully, a summer of healing from his latest concussion in March will turn into a bounce-back year from Okposo.

3. Speaking of Mittelstadt, can he turn a solid college season and an impressive debut with the Sabres into a productive season as a second-line center? 

Buffalo’s depth at center may be it’s strongest attribute, even after losing Ryan O’Reilly to a trade this offseason.

There’s a lot of guys who can play the position, be it full-time or in a pinch, including Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, both who were part of the return for O’Reilly from the St. Louis Blues.

Options are good.

Mittelstadt had five points in six games to close out the season with the Sabres after his season at the University of Minnesota ended. He showed he can perform at the college level and found success early in the NHL.

If he can hold down the fort on the second line, it allows the Sabres far more flexibility with how they handle their other lines. Having Berglund center the third line, for instance, spreads the wealth of talent down further and the team wouldn’t have to consider moving Sam Reinhart off the wing where he put up a career-year last season, and place him at center.

Mittelstadt showed a brief glimpse of his worth at the end of last season. It will be interesting to watch what he can do to start the next one.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Davidson takes reins of Rangers’ rare rebuilding project

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NEW YORK (AP) — Behind the microphone for the last New York Rangers championship in 1994, John Davidson is now front and center to try to parade the Stanley Cup down Broadway again.

Davidson recalled 1994 as one of the best times of his life, and after moving from broadcasting to the front office with St. Louis and Columbus has returned home to oversee the Rangers’ rebuilding process. The proud, big-spending Original Six franchise is in the midst of a rare youth movement, attempting step back to make the leap from annual playoff team to perennial title contender.

General manager Jeff Gorton began that at the 2018 trade deadline and will remain in control of day-to-day operations. Davidson is now his boss as team president and wants to be the soul of the organization by charting the right course to return New York to prominence, which for now means keeping it going in this direction.

”There’s a lot of work to be done here,” Davidson said Wednesday when he was introduced as the 11th team president in franchise history. ”There’s no shortcuts. It’s nothing but hard work, and it takes patience and resolve, and I really want to make sure that I use the word ‘patience’ and I use the word ‘resolve,’ because we’re going to be in a battle here to get this club to be better. But you have to be patient when you go through a build like this.”

Patience generally isn’t part of the fabric of New York sports or the Rangers’ MO. But Davidson said he is on the same page with owner James Dolan, president-turned-adviser Glen Sather, Gorton, and coach David Quinn on doing this right.

It helps that Davidson knows the Rangers inside out from parts of eight seasons as a goaltender and two decades as a broadcaster. This is a different challenge than the ones he undertook with the Blues and Blue Jackets, which seemed daunting at those times.

In some ways it’s easier because Gorton already took the first few steps and Quinn established a standard for players as a good starting point.

”I like that the entire organization stated that they were going to rebuild,” Davidson said. ”There’s no secrets to it. There’s no, ‘Well, we’re going to do this, but don’t tell anybody.’ This is something that has been very transparent and that’s a good way to go. There’s a game plan in place. The foundation is being built.”

Based on his success in building the foundation in St. Louis that has now become the basis for a Stanley Cup finalist, and ushering in an era of success in Columbus, Davidson looks like the perfect person to run the Rangers’ ship. Dolan said Davidson’s ”knowledge of the game, experience and passion for the Rangers made him the ideal choice.”

Davidson isn’t as ”green” as he was when he took over the Blues in 2006, and the lessons he learned from his first two front-office jobs should only help guide Gorton.

”I think it’s going to be a huge benefit,” Gorton said. ”He’s gone through it in two organizations. He’s done everything in hockey. His experiences, just his even-keel way about him, it’s going to be a great asset for us as we go through this process, there’s no question about that.”

The Rangers missed the playoffs the past two seasons and likely will again in 2019-20. But with the No. 2 draft pick and one of two potential stars – Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko – on the way and youth, and competitive balance so prominent in the NHL, Davidson isn’t acting like this is a long-range rebuild.

”It can be done because of the youth that plays in this league now,” Davidson said. ”Obviously the sooner you win the better and that’s the goal, but you have to do it the right way to get there.”

Hockey Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, a key piece of that 1994 Rangers Stanley Cup team, believes Davidson has accumulated the right credentials in his previous two jobs to deliver another championship to New York.

”He’s made the transition each step along the way,” Leetch said. ”He’s admitted that each one wasn’t seamless: You had to learn, you had to ask others for help. And each one he’s made that transition and risen to the top at each level. To expect anything different would be wrong. I just think all those things together, and then the strong feelings that he has for New York City and the Rangers organization, just makes him the perfect fit at the right time.”

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins scrimmage a ‘unique’ opportunity; It’s different this time for Blues

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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.

• Team scrimmage a unique opportunity for the Boston Bruins. (Bruins Daily)

• A look at Patrick Roy’s candidacy for head coach of the Ottawa Senators. (TSN)

• Holland starting to clean house in Edmonton. (Sportsnet)

• Long-suffering Blues fans feel it’s different this time around. (ESPN)

• Blues heroics have wiped away decades of disappointment. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Why the status of Zdeno Chara doesn’t mean what it used to. (WEEI)

• Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy likens the Blues to Boston’s twin. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Berube’s Blues built on toughness. (TSN)

Alex Ovechkin will get a much-needed break, once the World Hockey Championships are over, that is. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Petr Budaj is heading to college… as a coach. (ABC Fox Montana)

• Adam Fox was worth the two picks the New York Rangers Rangers sent the Carolina Hurricanes. (EP Rinkside)

• Rangers offseason looking bright (NHL.com)

• Did what Washington accomplished last season have any bearing on the Bruins, Blues path to the Cup Final? (NovaCaps)

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Magical playoff ride ends in more disappointment for Sharks

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Magical comebacks, dramatic wins and the most talented roster in San Jose Sharks history weren’t enough to deliver the franchise its first Stanley Cup title.

A team depleted by several key injuries ended its season with a 5-1 loss in Game 6 of the Western Conference final Tuesday night, turning the drama of Game 7 wins in the first two rounds into footnotes on a season that was ultimately a disappointment.

”We didn’t make it easy for ourselves the whole playoffs,” defenseman Brent Burns said. ”We always battled back. We got through a lot as a team. A lot of guys just battled. Just to get this far a lot of things have to go right. We battled together but came up short. It’s crushing to come this far and not get the job done.”

The goal for the Sharks was clear ever since they acquired two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson from Ottawa just before the start of the season. Coach Peter DeBoer told his team the ingredients were in place for that elusive first championship in San Jose. It appeared like that could be the case after the Sharks rallied from three goals down in the third period of Game 7 in the opening round to beat Vegas in overtime and followed that up with another Game 7 win against Colorado in round two.

But with Karlsson unable to play the final four periods of the postseason because of a groin injury that slowed him since January, and captain Joe Pavelski and two-way center Tomas Hertl also out after taking high hits, the Sharks didn’t have enough to handle the Blues.

This season ended like so many others for the Sharks, who have won more games than any other team and the second-most playoff series the past 15 seasons but still are seeking a first championship.

”They all hurt,” said center Logan Couture, who tied a franchise record with 14 goals in the playoffs. ”It doesn’t matter what the roster is. When you get this far in the playoffs or you make the playoffs it hurts. You get in the playoffs you believe you can win.”

Here are some other takeaways from the season:

JUMBO JOE: One motivating factor for the Sharks this postseason was delivering a title for beloved leader Joe Thornton. The greatest player in franchise history turns 40 in July and has not decided whether he wants to come back for another season. Thornton dealt with injuries early in the season, then had a strong stretch as a third-line center late before struggling a bit the final two rounds outside of a two-goal performance in Game 3 at St. Louis.

”He’s the face, he’s the heartbeat of the organization,” DeBoer said. ”I think like all the players in that room, as coaches we’re disappointed for not helping him get there. Because he gives you everything he’s got and should be there.”

CAPTAIN PAVELSKI: No player personified the Sharks’ grueling journey this spring more than Pavelski. His postseason started with a puck that deflected off his face for a goal. The injuries only got worse when his helmet violently crashed to the ice, leading to a bloody concussion in Game 7 against Vegas. That led to the epic comeback with four goals on one disputed major penalty that will go down as the greatest moment in franchise history until the team wins a Cup. Pavelski made a triumphant return in Game 7 of the second round but got hurt again in Game 5 against the Blues. Pavelski turns 35 and heads into an uncertain summer of free agency following a 38-goal season.

KARLSSON’S FUTURE: It was a somewhat disappointing first season in San Jose for Karlsson and now the question is whether it will be his only one. He took about two months to find his groove and then played at an elite level for about six weeks. He hurt his groin in January and was never the same. He missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games and was never completely healed in the playoffs. He heads into free agency in July and his decision will impact what the Sharks will be able to do with Pavelski and other key pieces.

STEPPING UP: The biggest positive for San Jose this season was the emergence of Hertl and Timo Meier as building blocks for the future. The 25-year-old Hertl was the top-scoring forward for the Sharks with 74 points and showed the capability of manning a top line as a center. The 22-year-old Meier had 30 goals and looks like a long-time fixture as a top-six forward.

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Martin Jones was one of the worst starting goalies in the league during the regular season in his first year of a $34.5 million, six-year contract. He had a career-low .896 save percentage in the regular season and was pulled early in two of his first four postseason starts. He rebounded and was a key part of the first-round win over Vegas but finished the playoffs with an .898 save percentage.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

A bet on a whim could net Blues fan $100K, another $50K

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If you’re in Las Vegas next year around January and there’s a team in last place, perhaps put a few dollars down on them winning the 2020 Stanley Cup. You never know.

That’s what St. Louis Blues fan Scott Berry did on a business trip at the beginning of the year.

Speaking to The Action Network’s Darren Rovell, Berry bet the $400 he was planning on gambling away on the Blues — at that time a 150-to-1 longshot to win the Cup.

The hotel he was staying at — Paris Las Vegas Hotel — had the Blues at 250-to-1. Telling Rovell it seemed high, he strolled over to the Bellagio and found them at only 150-to-1.

“So I sprinted back to the Paris and put down everything I had planned on spending on gambling — $400,” Berry said. “To win $100,000 sounded really good.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

With the Blues beating the San Jose Sharks in six games with a 5-1 win on Tuesday night, Berry is now on the cusp of turning his January bet into a June haul if the Blues win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Berry wasn’t the only one to throw down some cash, either.

Brendan Chapel, who plays with Berry in a rec hockey league, saw the odds after a message from the latter and dropped $200 of his own hard-earned cash on the Blues. He stands to win $50,000 if the Blues can overcome the Boston Bruins, a series that begins next Monday at TD Garden in Boston.

That’s $600 that could turn into $150,000.

MORE: Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck