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Offseason cleansing puts Sabres, Eichel in upbeat mood

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jack Eichel was in such an upbeat mood upon reporting for the start of training camp Thursday, the Buffalo Sabres star center felt comfortable enough to engage in some humorous banter with reporters.

Asked if the numerous offseason additions management made to upgrade an underachieving roster eliminated any excuses for the Sabres from showing marked improvement this year, Eichel winked and said: ”There’s always going to be excuses. We’re professional complainers.”

The room then erupted in laughter when Eichel was playfully asked when he began developing a sense of humor.

”Ho, ho,” the second player selected in the 2015 draft responded with a smile. ”I’ve had it. I just don’t have one with you guys.”

Whatever cloud of negativity darkened Eichel and many of his teammates’ demeanors in finishing last in the standings for the third time in five years appears to have been lifted.

In its place is what Eichel and others contend is a belief things might finally be looking up for a team in the midst of a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought.

For Eichel, it took a long summer of self-reflection and open lines of communication between players and coaches to settle whatever differences there might have been in a bid to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

”Last year, we want to put that behind us at this point,” Eichel said. ”There’s a lot of new people in here. I think there’s a new mindset. There’s a new standard and I think you’ll see different group of guys with the way we conduct ourselves, the way we handle ourselves.”

He credited coach Phil Housley for nurturing the discussions, and being open to input.

”He’s done a lot of communicating with us in terms of seeing our side of things and trying to figure out what management can do, coaches can do to make our relationship mend better,” Eichel said. ”Obviously, you’re not going to agree on everything, but as I said, we’re taking a lot of right steps.”

Housley in turn credited his leadership group in engaging in frank discussions, including being open to criticism.

”We talked about change at the end of last year, right? There’s a lot of people in that locker room, a lot of players that needed to change, and this is myself included,” Housley said entering his second season. ”If you are going to make a difference and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.”

Time will only tell whether this offseason-long cleansing takes hold.

That said, something needed to change in Buffalo after last season ended with now-former Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly suggesting he had at times lost his passion for playing, and that a losing culture crept into the locker room.

This was a team with a high-priced lineup that wilted in the face of adversity. Buffalo endured losing streaks of four or more games seven times in going 25-45-12 and becoming the NHL’s first team to finish 31st following the addition of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.

O’Reilly was traded to St. Louis in July, in one of many moves general manager Jason Botterill made to change the team’s makeup. He also acquired two-time Stanley Cup winner Conor Sheary in a deal with Pittsburgh and playmaking forward Jeff Skinner in trade with Carolina.

And that doesn’t include an expected influx of youngsters, headed by 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin , the first player selected in the 2018 draft.

”I can only speak from this day that there’s a different vibe going on in that room,” Housley said. ”There’s an excitement. Obviously, we haven’t been tested, and we have a lot of work to do. There’s going to be adversity. It’s going to be really interesting to see how we handle that.”

UNSIGNED: Forward Sam Reinhart, a restricted free agent, is the only Sabres player not signed. Botterill on Monday said both sides continue to talk, and he’s hopeful a deal will be reached. Reinhart spent much of the past two weeks skating with his teammates in Buffalo.

CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN: Housley says he’s going to spend the next month evaluating whether he’ll name a captain this season. The Sabres have not had a captain since Brian Gionta was not re-signed after the 2016-17 season.

IMPORTANT DATES: The Sabres open their preseason at Columbus on Monday, before returning home to host Pittsburgh the following day. Buffalo opens the regular season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

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Caps give Trotz, coaching staff classy tribute in return to Washington

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They helped build a team that would eventually win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup last June, so when Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn returned to Washington to face their former team on Friday, it was only fitting that the Capitals made sure to give the trio a classy salute.

And classy it was.

A 1:35-long video played on the jumbotron at Capital One Arena, while a packed house stood and showed their admiration for the coaching staff that led the Capitals to four consecutive 100-point seasons, 205 wins, a .677 points percentage and back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies.

Trotz was named the winner of the Jack Adams Award for the best coach in 2016 and, of course, led the Capitals past the Vegas Golden Knights in five games last season to capture hockey’s greatest prize.

Here’s the video tribute:

Trotz is now the head coach with the New York Islanders, with Korn and Lambert also by his side once again, and they have already put their stamp on that team, helping them get past the loss of John Tavares over the summer and still be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.

That’s just the Trotz way.

You can read more about Trotz, his return, why he left and what he’s done on Long Island in this story from PHT’s Sean Leahy.


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

Matt Dumba’s ‘anger’ led to indefinite stint on sidelines

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Chalk one up for those who are staunch supporters of their star players not engaging in fisticuffs.

Fans of the Minnesota Wild would have wished that Matt Dumba wouldn’t have thrown a “wild punch” at Matthew Tkachuk in a game against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 15.

The fight happened just 40 seconds into the first period. The result? A torn pectoral muscle, surgery, and an indefinite timeline for return.

Dumba, who led the NHL in defenseman scoring prior to the injury, told the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan that he was “angry.”

“I was angry and threw a wild punch that didn’t connect,” Dumba said Friday. “I had a bunch of stitches in my face and I think he rubbed those, had hit those a couple times, and it made me pretty angry.”

Dumba, wearing a brace around his right arm, told reporters that he didn’t feel the pain of the injury until he had a chance to calm down in the penalty box.

Dumba’s surgery came on Dec. 26 and along with it, a three-month timetable to return. On Friday, Dumba didn’t have a firm return date.

“It’s pretty slow to start here,” he told NHL.com. “Everything is just letting it heal, letting it get the rest that it needs. That’s our focus right now. I’ve been doing that and making sure this repairs the right way.”

Dumba will be stuck in that brace for a few more weeks before he can start rehabilitating the injury.

The Wild could sure use their best defenseman in the fight for a playoff spot. They could use that scoring — the Wild are 25th in goals-for this season. It appears that if he’s to play again this season, it might not be until the playoffs begin in early April.


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

Plunging Panthers get a break: Trocheck is back

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About two months since fracturing his ankle in a frightening on-ice accident, Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck is back. He’s suiting up against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner makes it sound like Trocheck essentially kicked down the door to get back in the lineup, as Jameson Olive of the team website reports.

“He came in pounding the table. You know Troch, he wants to be back in so bad,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “The doctors reaffirmed he’s back to 100 percent, so now it’s just our decision … we’ll see.”

Getting the 25-year-old back is a big deal, so it’s not surprising to see the Panthers celebrate this positive development.

You can firmly plant this under the heading “hockey players are tough.” It was perfectly reasonable to expect Trocheck to miss the remainder of the season. Instead, Friday’s game against Toronto is merely the Panthers’ 46th game of 2018-19.

Uncomfortably enough, it’s fair to wonder if Trocheck’s return will still be a matter of “too little, too late.”

The Panthers are carrying a bruising seven-game losing streak into Friday’s action, and it’s not as though the Toronto Maple Leafs will make things particularly easy on them.

Just about all the prognostications look dour. Money Puck gives them a 3.05-percent chance to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, less than their odds for the Los Angeles Kings. Corsica’s projections put Florida at 2.6-percent, this time tying the lowly Kings, but lower than the Devils and Flyers. Woof.

Now, let there be no doubt that the Panthers could be a highly formidable opponent if Trocheck returns at anywhere near “100 percent.”

Even the Trocheck boost likely won’t be enough for Florida to earn just its third postseason trip since 1999-2000, yet with plenty of questions swirling about Boughner’s job security, perhaps a more fully-formed effort could earn the current Panthers regime another swing in 2019-20? However you feel about Boughner and GM Dale Tallon, this franchise’s history is littered with more reboots than “The Fantastic Four” and “Spiderman” movies combined (and with box office receipts that lean more toward The Invisible Woman than webslingers). A little stability could be good for the Panthers.

The worst-case scenario is scary, mind you. What if the Panthers end up hitting the reset button and it’s shown that Trocheck rushed back from injury too soon, possibly aggravating issues?

Such worries hover in the background, but regardless, it’s impressive that Trocheck has been able to return so soon.

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.

Johansen suspended two games for high-sticking Scheifele

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Nashville Predators center Ryan Johansen received a two-game suspension for high-sticking Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets.

Johansen was whistled for a two-minute minor during the game itself, which ended with the Jets beating the Predators 5-1 on Thursday.

The NHL demands that players be in control of their sticks at all times, and in this case, the Department of Player Safety asserts “that this is not a case where a player is so off balance or otherwise out of control of his stick, that a play can be sufficiently penalized by the on-ice officials.” Ultimately, the league determined that Johansen handled his stick in a “reckless and irresponsible manner,” prompting the two-game suspension:

As the above video notes, Johansen doesn’t have a prior history of supplemental discipline. There’s no mention of a (lack of) injury factor for Scheifele, who was able to continue playing on Thursday.

The Predators face the Panthers in Nashville on Saturday and the Avalanche in Colorado on Monday, Jan. 21. Johansen is eligible to return to Nashville’s final game before the All-Star break (Jan. 23 at the Vegas Golden Knights).

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.