How will Schmidt suspension affect Vegas Golden Knights?

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Earlier today, the NHL announced a 20-game suspension for Nate Schmidt, a decision that both the player and team disagreed with.

Schmidt’s strongly worded statement indicates that the sides have already gone through the appeal process, so barring any other twists, it seems like he’ll be suspended through the first 20 games of the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2018-19 season.

The Golden Knights – and everyone else involved – stated that they won’t have any further comments regarding the suspension itself, but what about how the team will deal with the loss of Schmidt? Because, as much as Vegas’ defense succeeded – to some extent – by committee, the former Capitals defenseman topped Vegas in time on ice during both the regular season and playoffs. He is, to put it mildly, very important, and losing him for about a quarter of the campaign hurts.

We might get more insight on how reigning Jack Adams winner Gerard Gallant will handle the loss (and if reigning GM of the Year George McPhee might also react), so stay tuned at PHT. That said, for those who want some early insight into the impact of this loss, let’s consider multiple factors.

Golden Knights lose a go-to guy

Schmidt averaged 22:14 TOI during 76 regular-season games, then saw his ice time climb to 24:25 per night during the playoffs. Again, both of those averages topped all Golden Knights skaters, with the regular season margin being healthy at about two minutes per game (Shea Theodore came in second with a 20:21 average, with Deryk Engelland right behind him at 20:17), a margin that was similar – yet more pronounced – during the postseason (Theodore averaged 21:48, Engelland at 21:40).

So, while Schmidt didn’t average the bonkers ice time of a Ryan Suter during the regular season, he clearly was the No. 1 guy in Gallant’s eyes. With 2:13 shorthanded TOI and 2:25 on the power play during the playoffs and comparable special teams numbers during the regular season, Schmidt was used as an all-situations guy.

(Schmidt’s most common even-strength defensive partner was Brayden McNabb, according to Natural Stat Trick.)

Beyond Schmidt, Theodore and Colin Miller were logging plenty of time on the man advantage, while Engelland and McNabb were steady penalty killers. Schmidt bridged the gap between those two specialists, in a way, so Vegas loses versatility first and foremost.

Who might step up? Should Vegas dip into the market?

Those previous numbers imply that, possibly, Schmidt’s minutes might just be dispersed between Miller, Engelland, Theodore, and McNabb. Gallant might just lean on all four evenly in their specialized roles. That seemed to be the case during four games in early March when Schmidt was out of the lineup; yes, that’s a small sample size, but Schmidt played in 76 of 82 games.

[These bans are rare, but here are three recent histories of such suspensions]

If those four players can mostly match their work from 2017-18, that’s not the most dire scenario. As with sports, you might expect slippage; after all, Engelland’s generally solid work came as a surprise, while Miller and McNabb are now enjoying the security of long-term deals. (Theodore, meanwhile, still needs a deal as an RFA and probably opened a champagne bottle after seeing Noah Hanifin get paid.)

Vegas didn’t see those key guys leave in free agency, but they didn’t exactly break the bank for reinforcements on defense, either. Nick Holden, 31, is the most noteworthy addition, while they got rid of fading veterans Luca Sbisa and Jason Garrison.

Holden stands as a modest upgrade over some of the lowest-end guys, but probably not much more than that.

It makes you wonder if maybe McPhee should consider bringing in some additional depth. No, there aren’t a ton of promising options on the UFA defensemen market, but Cody Franson seems like a low-risk, OK-reward signing, one who could make sense as a bottom-pairing guy or injury insurance even after Schmidt’s suspension ends.

Those 20 games

It doesn’t hurt to glance at Vegas’ opening schedule and try to gauge how difficult life will be. Take a look at the first 20 games of the 2018-19 season (four of which air on NBCSN):

Thu, Oct 4 vs Philadelphia
Sat, Oct 6 @ Minnesota
Mon, Oct 8 @ Buffalo
Wed, Oct 10 @ Washington
Thu, Oct 11 @ Pittsburgh
Sat, Oct 13 @ Philadelphia
Tue, Oct 16 vs Buffalo
Sat, Oct 20 vs Anaheim
Wed, Oct 24 vs Vancouver
Fri, Oct 26 vs Tampa Bay
Sun, Oct 28 vs Ottawa
Tue, Oct 30 @ Nashville
Thu, Nov 1 @ St. Louis
Sat, Nov 3 vs Carolina
Tue, Nov 6 @ Toronto
Thu, Nov 8 @ Ottawa
Sat, Nov 10 @ Montreal
Sun, Nov 11 @ Boston
Wed, Nov 14 vs Anaheim
Fri, Nov 16 vs St. Louis

The Golden Knights may end up missing Schmidt most during that early five-game road trip, along with that stretch of six of seven games away from home spanning Oct. 30 – Nov. 11.

It’s not all bad, though. There are only two back-to-back sets, and while they have fewer home (nine) than road (11) games, it’s not by an enormous margin. Vegas has a decent shot to navigate that quarter-season without its ice time leader from 2017-18.

Contract year uncertainty for Schmidt

Schmidt was already coming into 2018-19 on a cheap deal, as his cap hit is just $2.25 million with a $2.3M salary. Now he’s expected to lose almost $500K (via TSN’s Frank Seravalli), and the biggest cost might be how this situation affects his next contract.

With a nice 36-point output and top pair duty, Schmidt already raised his standing in the NHL, and it seemed like he might join Ryan Ellis and other defensemen cashing in before they hit 2019 free agency. Schmidt loses out on 20 games to cement his status as a top-pairing defenseman, possibly even increasing his standing in the eyes of NHL executives.

Now, who knows? It’s a disappointing situation for the defenseman, to put things mildly.

***

While there have been other 20-game suspensions for performance-enhancing substances, every other instance was a player who wasn’t a significant part of a team (with all apologies to 2015-16 Shawn Horcoff).

The Golden Knights were already facing a serious challenge in showing that their incredible first season in the NHL wasn’t a fluke. Their second season hasn’t even begun and they’ve already lost Schmidt, their leading defenseman from last season, for 20 games.

How will Vegas adjust, and how will Schmidt perform once his suspension is over? Those are fascinating questions, and serious hurdles for the player and team.

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 agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.