Kane, Toews ready to turn page on playoff-less 2017-18 season

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CHICAGO — After a nine-year run that saw three Stanley Cup titles, the good times streak ended last season for the Chicago Blackhawks. A December injury that caused goaltender Corey Crawford to miss the rest of the season played a big role in their failure, as well as “a lot of little things,” according to captain Jonathan Toews. All that combined saw them deep in a Central Division hole unable to crawl out, ending with a playoff-less spring for the first time since 2008.

Toews and the Blackhawks’ other offensive leader, Patrick Kane, understand that how last season ended will be a theme when training camp opens next week. But they also know it can serve as a reminder of the importance of each night in an 82-game schedule.

“For sure, you can’t forget about it. You can’t just throw it out. You’ve got to change habits. You’ve got to change all those little things that you do on a daily basis for the better,” Toews told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday during the annual NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago. “When it comes to finding that confidence and knowing what we’re capable of this year, we know that we can be a top team in our division and a top team that makes a playoff run.”

Kane saw his offensive totals (27 goals, 76 points) dip for a second straight season, while Toews posted the second-lowest point total of his career (52). For Kane, he’s focused on training camp first and building off the next month.

“There will definitely be some talk about [last season] going into camp, but I think once camp gets started you want to just kind of wipe the slate clean, have a good training camp,” he said. “That’s my goal this year, is to have the best training camp I’ve had as a pro and I’ll hopefully I’ll help the team get off to a good start and just turn the season around, turn the page and realize how bad the feeling was missing the playoffs. That’s not something you want to go through.”

The injury to Crawford, who’s expected to be ready for training camp, can be placed at the top of the list of what went wrong last season. The 33-year-old netminder was an early season Vezina candidate before going down. In his place head coach Joel Quenneville used five other goaltenders, including an accountant off the street, to try and salvage the season. 

“That hurt a little bit, but to be honest with you, I think our goaltenders did pretty well when Corey was out,” said Kane. “Sometimes we left them out to dry a little bit. We were in that playoff position, we were fighting for a spot and then all of a sudden we were out of it and it just kind of snowballed down and all of a sudden there’s 20-25 games left and you realize you’re in a really tough position to try to get into playoffs. It’d be nice to right the ship this year and hopefully turn things around and get ourselves back in.”

Back-to-back first-round exits followed by a complete miss will bring the urgency level up even higher coming into the 2018-19 season for the Blackhawks. It will be a battle for playoff positioning in the Central, arguably the NHL’s toughest division. But there’s still plenty of confidence that a turnaround can occur.

“There’s ownership and leadership amongst our veteran guys in the room that we can all be better as players, myself especially included in that,” said Toews. “I think when you play better you have that confidence in the room to not necessarily focus on others but also give other guys a chance to build their confidence and flourish and make them feel valued and make them feel like what they’re bringing to the table is important. That makes everybody better.”

After the success experienced since 2010, last season was a wakeup call. It was the realization that if you’re not improving you’re going to fall behind, and no team, no matter what they’ve done in the past, can rest on previous accomplishments.

“I think we can all do that on another level this year,” said Toews. “Just setting goals as a team, to hold each other accountable, to compete, to work hard every day and little things that maybe when you’re a little too satisfied and complacent after a while they catch up to you. Our league and our division are getting better and better. A lot of little things that turned out to be big things last year, so we’re going to chip away at that and I’m sure our talent is going to take over.”

MORE PHT BLACKHAWKS COVERAGE:
Under Pressure: Joel Quenneville
Three Questions facing the Blackhawks

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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.

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.