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It’s Montreal Canadiens day at PHT

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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 Montreal Canadiens.

2017-18:

29-40-13, 71 pts. (6th Atlantic Division; 14th Eastern Conference)

IN:

Max Domi
Joel Armia
Matthew Peca
Michael Chaput
Tomas Plekanec
Xavier Ouellet

OUT:

Alex Galchenyuk
Daniel Carr
Ales Hemsky

RE-SIGNED

Phillip Danault
Antti Niemi
Jacob De La Rose
Rinat Valiev

After getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs in 2017, the Canadiens put together a horribly disappointing season last year. None of their core players played well, which obviously didn’t help. Max Pacioretty didn’t score as often, Shea Weber suffered a serious injury and Carey Price wasn’t himself.

For the first time in five years, Pacioretty failed to hit the 30-goal mark. Now, he’s entering the final year of contract, and it sounds like a divorce between he and and the team is imminent. If the Habs ship their captain to another team, who will score goals for this team? They traded Alex Galchenyuk for a playmaker like Max Domi, so they don’t have any natural scorers left on the roster.

[Canadiens Day: Breakthrough | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

As for Weber, he’s fallen on hard times injury-wise. He got off to a great start (16 points in 26 games), but he eventually missed a good chunk of the season with a foot injury. The 33-year-old will also be out until at least Christmas because of knee surgery. Not having Weber will be tough overcome.

The biggest question surrounding the Canadiens upcoming season is whether or not Price can bounce back from the dismal season he had in 2017-18. He missed an extended period of time with lower-body injury and then a concussion. The team is light on talent, but if they can get Price back to where he was a few years ago, they’ll have a chance in every game they play. If he can’t get back to form, the next eight years will be incredibly long (they owe him $84 million).

This is a big year for GM Marc Bergevin. If botches a potentially Pacioretty trade, or if the team crumbles again, he might be looking for a new job. No matter what happens, it should be an interesting year in Habs land.

Prospect Pool:

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, C, 18, Assat Pori – 2018 first-round pick

The Canadiens have been searching for a number one center for years, and Kotkaniemi might finally be that guy. He’s a big body with good offensive instincts. Kotkaniemi is also capable of playing a strong all-around game. He has the ability to develop into a top-line player, but he might just need a bit more time to develop. The young Finn racked up 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games in the SM-Liiga

• Ryan Poehling, C, 19, St. Cloud State – 2017 first-round pick

Poehling made some huge strides in his second year at St. Cloud. He went from being a 13-point player in his first year to producing 31 points in 36 games last season. Like Kotkaniemi, Poehling is also big (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), but the American forward isn’t as gifted offensively. The biggest question around his game is whether or not his offensive abilities are good enough to make him a second-line center. Poehling is heading back to St. Cloud State for another year, but he could join the Canadiens next season.

Noah Juulsen, D, 21, Laval Rocket – 2015 first-round pick

Juulsen got his first taste of NHL experience during Montreal’s “lost” season last year and he certainly didn’t look out of place. He’s a good skater that can move the puck efficiently. He might not develop into a top pairing defenseman, but he’s certainly capable of being a top-four blueliner for years to come. Even though the Canadiens have several defensemen on one-way contracts, Juulsen has a pretty good shot at making the team out of camp.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

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.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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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.