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Okposo: Players need to buy in for Sabres fortunes to change

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — An offseason of soul-searching led forward Kyle Okposo to realize a roster overhaul alone wasn’t going to improve the Buffalo Sabres’ fortunes.

Okposo figured out that he and other team leaders would also have to change their approach. They had to buy in mentally and physically if Buffalo stood a chance of climbing out of a rut after finishing last in for the third time in five years.

”Everybody talks about change and change and change. You hear it 100 times. But until you do, you haven’t,” Okposo said. ”You have to put the work in. You can’t just show up next year and say, ‘Oh, I think it’s going to be different,’ because that’s the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

With Buffalo mired in a franchise-worst seven-year playoff drought, it’s now on the players and second-year coach Phil Housley to show they’re not the same dysfunctional team, whose season was summed up by now-traded center Ryan O'Reilly‘s claim of a losing culture having crept into the locker room.

”I’ve used those words a few time,” Okposo said, when asked if he was cautiously optimistic. ”It’s more of a fresh start, like a baptism almost.”

General manager Jason Botterill focused on shaking up an under-achieving roster through a series of trades. Buffalo acquired forwards Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Tage Thompson, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka, and signed goalie Carter Hutton in free agency.

And that was after Buffalo drafted 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.

Housley took aim at addressing the team’s culture. He opened a dialogue by allowing his leaders to air differences and raise concerns through a series of frank discussions in what became an offseason-long cleansing session.

”I give them all credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism they might not have liked to hear,” Housley said, including himself and staff in that equation. ”But I think if you are going to make a difference, and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.

The challenge now is seeing how the Sabres respond once they open the season hosting Boston on Oct. 4.

”There’s just a really good vibe right now,” Housley said. ”But when we face adversity, it’s going to be interesting how we handle that. And I have the trust and confidence in our group.”

DAHLIN ON D

Dahlin has already created a buzz with his smooth-skating and heads-up play-making abilities. Fans packed the Sabres practice facility to watch Dahlin take part in the team’s rookie camp in June and a prospects tournament in September. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told The Associated Press Dahlin has the potential to become the best defenseman in franchise history.

YOU KNOW JACK

Center Jack Eichel has changed his number, from 15 to 9, and acknowledged a need to have a more even-keeled approach by openly showing fewer signs of frustration on the ice and in the locker room. The second player selected in the 2015 draft also enters the first season of an eight-year, $80 million contract, and eager to show he’s maturing into a leader.

”The losing the last few years, I’ve never dealt with that in my life. You have to learn from it and figure out what you can do to change it,” Eichel said.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Hutton is pegged to share the goaltending duties with Linus Ullmark, who makes the jump to the NHL on a full-time basis after spending most the past three seasons developing in the minors. They replace the tandem of Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, who departed in free agency. Hutton enters his sixth season after spending the past two in St. Louis, where he went 30-15-5 in 62 appearances.

FROM THE CO-OWNER

”Listen, it can’t get any worse. I mean 31st is pretty much the bottom,” Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula said with a laugh. But she and her husband, Terry, remain patient.

”Consistency and growth is really where we are from an ownership standpoint, as opposed to the fan,” she said. ”We need to temper our kneejerk on that.”

THE SCHEDULE

The Sabres open with a four-game homestand before playing 12 of 17 on the road, including a western swing that has them playing five games in nine days.

For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Blackhawks dealt another blow with Crawford’s concussion

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By Jay Cohen (AP Sports Writer)

CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks added another difficult question to their long list of problems when Corey Crawford suffered another concussion.

Suddenly, their goaltending situation is completely up in the air.

There was no update on Crawford’s status a day after he was placed on injured reserve. The two-time All-Star got hurt in the first period of Sunday’s 7-3 loss to San Jose when the back of his head struck the right post during a scary goalmouth pileup.

”He just needs time to get better,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said Tuesday. ”Obviously you feel for him and want him, first of all as a person, just get back to 100 percent as quick as he can. Until then we’ll keep battling.”

Crawford, who helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015, also missed most of last year and the start of this season because of a concussion. The pair of head injuries in a relatively short time period raises questions about whether he might play again.

”It looks rough, how he hit his head on the post,” defenseman Connor Murphy said, ”especially a guy like that who battled so hard to come back and was such a big part of our team. To me, he was our best player. … Hopefully he’s back soon.”

Collin Delia was recalled from Rockford of the American Hockey League on an emergency basis when Crawford went on IR. Cam Ward was set to start Tuesday night against Nashville.

The 24-year-old Delia began last season in the East Coast Hockey League before being promoted to Rockford and then making his NHL debut in March. He went 1-1 in two starts with Chicago.

”Just the adversity that I went through last season, starting in the ECHL and kind of working my way up, it’s a huge character-building moment for me,” Delia said. ”I had to see where my game was at, see if this was something that I could take to the next level. I think I kind of proved to myself and teammates, coaches, staff that I had the capabilities.”

Crawford’s concussion is another tough blow for last-place Chicago, which missed the playoffs last season for the first time in a decade. Longtime coach Joel Quenneville was fired on Nov. 6, but the Blackhawks went 4-13-3 in their first 20 games under Colliton.

”We played two of our best games of the year against Pittsburgh and Winnipeg and then the last game (against the Sharks), that’s not where we want to be,” Colliton said. ”But let’s bounce back. The sky isn’t falling because we lose a game after we played well for a couple nights.”

The Blackhawks also will be without one of their top defensemen for a while after they decided to loan Henri Jokiharju to Finland for the upcoming world junior championship. The 19-year-old Jokiharju has no goals and 11 assists in 32 games in his first NHL season. The international competition runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

”It’s a great opportunity, we think, for him, but also for our team,” Colliton said. ”We’re thinking about what kind of player he’s going to be months down the road and in years down the road. It’s a chance for him to go there and be one of, if not the top player, one of the top players and help lead them to success.”

While Crawford and Jokiharju are away from the team, forward Artem Anisimov and defenseman Gustav Forsling could return against Nashville after being activated from injured reserve. Anisimov had been sidelined by a concussion, and Forsling was out with a shoulder injury.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Trading Jeff Carter would be difficult for Kings

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From our seats – whether those seats are in cubicles or basements or penthouses – making a trade feels as simple as doing so in “NHL 19” or fantasy hockey.

Of course, there are a lot of elements that make it tougher to do so in reality. Maybe the GM you’d normally trade to has been burnt before, or is scared to make a trade after being roasted so many times over social media. Perhaps you’re one of those GMs who just won’t trade Player A to another team in your division, or conference.

Beyond that, there are the human elements. An executive might feel especially loyal to a player who won his team a Stanley Cup or two, and a player may simply not want to leave a market where they’ve put down roots.

Threat of retirement

That’s one thing to consider for the Kings and Jeff Carter, as he told The Athletic’s Lisa Dillman (sub required) when asked about a potential trade.

“It’s the first time in my career I’ve had a family and kids, so it changes it,” Carter said. “Like I said, I can’t really control much of that. When you’re not winning games, that’s how it goes.

“I’ve been on teams like that before. We’ll see.”

Now, some of you in the audience might blurt out “tough,” but the Kings would have bottom-line reasons to take pause. During a recent edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, Bob McKenzie noted that Carter could just decide to retire if a trade didn’t work for him, which would mean that hypothetical team wouldn’t get an expected return, while the Kings would eat a significant cap recapture penalty.

“He doesn’t have no-trade protection, he loves it in L.A. and would love to stay. If he does get traded somewhere he doesn’t want to go, retirement could be an option for him,” McKenzie said, via TSN’s transcription. “That’s why he signed that back-diving contract ­– he’s only leaving $7 million on the table. If he did retire, there is a cap recapture penalty that would hit the LA Kings at $3.75 million in each of the next three years.”

So, in a lot of ways, Carter’s contract carries a self-imposed no-trade clause, or at least allows him to name a team he’d accept a move to.

A budget-friendly contract

It’s interesting, really, because Carter’s contract is so friendly to a budget team. Consider the remaining years of an 11-year deal, which carries a $5.273M (rounded up) cap hit, yet costs much less in salary dollars, via Cap Friendly:

2018-19: $5.273M cap hit, $5M salary
2019-20: $5.273M cap hit, $3M salary
2020-21: $5.273M cap hit, $2M salary
2021-22: $5.273M cap hit, $2M salary

So, really, that might be the silver lining for the Kings. Carter could very well be useful for getting to the cap floor in the future, if this rebuild ends up being long and painful. Considering how lousy the Kings look, how hard Father Time could hit their core, and how limited their prospect base is, a prolonged period of pain is not out of the question.

The other silver lining is that the Kings have other contracts they can move with greater ease.

For quite some time, the Kings have been lampooned for bragging about Jonathan Quick‘s extension, which carries a $5.8M cap hit through 2022-23:

As poorly as those Tweets aged, the Quick deal doesn’t include a no-trade clause. The Kings also have two defensemen who are very appealing and lack such clauses in Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez (though Martinez needs to heal up), while Tyler Toffoli is the other prominent tradable forward who lacks an NMC or NTC.

Yet, there’s another factor that would make it tougher to trade Carter and/or Toffoli:

Selling low

In that Dillman piece, there’s an especially dour moment where Toffoli notes that Carter (or “Carts”) insisted that Toffoli would score again some day, as the winger is on a lengthy goal-less streak.

It brings to mind a recommendation: if the Kings can convince Carter to accept a trade (or eventually make one of those seemingly-phony trips to LTIR if things didn’t work out), they might want to wait a while to actually make a move.

Serious slump

Because, as it stands, Carter’s value couldn’t get a lot colder.

Perhaps Carter needs more time to recover from various ailments, including a recent ankle surgery. He’s 33, so there’s a delicate balance there, but more time might allow Carter to get more spring in his step.

Yet, from a more black-and-white standpoint, Carter’s numbers could use a boost.

Through 34 games, Carter has just six goals and 15 points. He can’t blame being stuck to the bench (like Ilya Kovalchuk was before he got hurt), either, as Carter’s averaging 18:39 TOI per game, his highest average since 2013-14 (when he logged 18:57 per night).

Line him up with Kopitar?

So, that’s not great, but there are some reasons for hope, and perhaps some sneaky ways to pull a “pump-and-dump.”

For one thing, Carter should enjoy at least slightly better bounces going forward. His shooting percentage is at just 6.5 this season, tying a career-low from way back in 2006-07, and way down from a career average of 11.5. Last season, he scored on 15.3 percent of his SOG, so there’s an argument that this revolves around bad luck more than the aging curve. His on-ice shooting percentage (7.4) is lower than usual, too, so multiple indicators point to at least some improvement.

Allow a somewhat audacious suggestion, then: what if the Kings lined up Carter with Anze Kopitar?

With Kovalchuk on the shelf and often in Willie Desjardins’ doghouse, Kopitar’s having to lug Dustin Brown and Alex Iafallo around at even-strength. Why not give Kopitar a more creative linemate? From the looks of their lines at Left Wing Lock, Adrian Kempe‘s currently on Carter’s wing, so it’s not as though Desjardins is totally against experimenting a bit with placing pivots on the wing. What if Carter enjoyed a Claude Giroux-like renaissance on the wing?

It’s not really something the Kings tried, either. According to Natural Stat Trick, Kopitar and Carter have been on the ice together for a measly eight even-strength minutes.

What do the Kings really have to lose? Kempe can slide back to center on a second line, Carter might enjoy more open ice, and Kopitar might enjoy … life again? OK, that’s too much, but he may enjoy hockey more if he had a little extra help.

Perhaps some teams would see this as a shameless way to inflate Carter’s value, but teams often find ways to romanticize a player who could solve [x] ills.

I mean, if the Kings are happy with the miserable status quo, then forget I said anything.

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As you can see, this isn’t the easiest situation. Trading Carter is tricky in different ways than it would be to trade Quick, Muzzin, Martinez, or Toffoli (and those would be uncomfortable moves as well).

The Kings are already in a tough spot, but they’ll only pile up more challenges if they don’t explore every avenue to improve their situation, even if it means leaving their comfort zone — and finding out how Carter might react to being traded out of his.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Flyers’ Carter Hart to make historic NHL debut vs. Red Wings

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The Philadelphia Flyers remain in a state of change, so why not make a little history while they’re at it?

When prized goalie prospect Carter Hart plays Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the Flyers will become the first team in NHL history to start six netminders in the opening 35 games of a season. They will also be the 14th team ever and first since the 2013-14 Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers to start six over the course of a season.

Considering the situation in the Flyers’ crease, who knows how long Hart, 20, will stay up with the NHL club, but this will be a peek into the future as he is expected to be the eventual solution in net. But with Brian Elliott, Michal Neuvirth, Anthony Stolarz, and Alex Lyon in the mix, the short-term answer might be more seasoning in the AHL once there are fewer goaltenders in the trainer’s room.

After a bumpy start to his professional career in AHL Lehigh Valley this season, Hart has settled down and helped the Phantoms win four of his last five starts with a 1.81 goals against average and .938 save percentage.

What helped to make things finally starting to click for him?

“Trusting my game, not trying to overthink plays,” he said on Monday. “Earlier in the year, making the transition from junior to the pro level I was over-analyzing everything. I had talks with the coaches down there and my goalie coaches back home, and I just have to trust my game, got to play to my strengths. When it’s game time it’s just time to play. You can’t think, you’ve got to play.”

Hart, who found out about his call up during the Lehigh Valley Christmas party on Sunday night, will be helped by the familiarity of having his AHL coach, Scott Gordon, a former goalie, acting as the Flyers’ interim bench boss. It’s not the easiest situation to be thrown into, but the franchise has faith in the young goaltender.

“Probably not the ideal time to give Carter a game but Carter’s playing really well,” said Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher. “He’s a professional hockey player, strong kid mentally. He’ll go in and give his best. I have no worries about Carter Hart long term. He’s going to be a really good goalie for this franchise.”

MORE: Stumbling Flyers fire head coach Dave Hakstol

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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.

NHL on NBCSN: Age not getting in the way of Pekka Rinne

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks with coverage beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

There was once a time when thoughts were that the emergence of Juuse Saros would spell an end to Pekka Rinne’s days in Nashville. The young Finn would take the torch from the elder Finn and continue backstopping the Predators to success.

Well, like a fine wine Rinne’s only improved with age, and last season’s Vezina Trophy winner isn’t slowing down at age 36.

No goaltender in the NHL this season with at least 20 starts has a better even strength save percentage (.943) or a allowed fewer 5-on-5 goals (28). It’s the continuance of a trend for Rinne that’s seen him improve as he gets later into his 30s. Last month, he signed a two-year, $10M extension on his birthday. Hours after the signing became official he went out and stopped all 26 shots he faced during a 1-0 shutout of the Boston Bruins.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“I don’t know how he does it. He’s getting older and you wouldn’t know it,” said Predators head coach Peter Laviolette recently. “It doesn’t seem to affect him.’

It’s quite a run when you consider that Rinne told Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt that when he signed his seven-year, $49M extension in 2011, he envisioned the 2018-19 season being his final one before retirement.

“I remember seeing guys who were 36 and thinking, ‘Okay, that’s pretty much the age I’m aiming for,'” he said. “And now that I’m there, I’ve been having so much fun. I feel much better than ever.”

As the Predators once again eye a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, they will be led by the winningest Finnish goalie in NHL history, who is also looking to become the first over-35 netminder in league history to win back-to-back Vezina Trophies. This season could have been his swan song. Instead, Rinne is showing that he has a number of good years left in him.

NOTES:

• Following Monday night’s loss to Ottawa, the Predators have now lost seven straight on the road (0-5-2) after starting the season 8-0-0 away from Bridgestone Arena. Tuesday’s meeting with the Blackhawks is at United Center.

• When they won the Presidents’ Trophy last season with 117 points, Nashville also had exactly 46 points through December 17 (21-7-4 record).

• Despite getting pulled last night after allowing three goals on 11 shots in the first period, Rinne has been largely stellar this season with a 14-5-1 record, .926 SV% and 2.07 GAA.

• Chicago was 6-6-3 when they fired Joel Quenneville, but are now 4-13-3 under Jeremy Colliton.

• When they do score the 1st goal of the game, Chicago is 8-2-4. When they allow the first goal of the game, they are 2-17-2.

• Chicago has just 12 power play goals all season, tied with Philadelphia for the fewest in the league. Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine leads the league with 10 power play goals on his own.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.