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Refurbished, loaded St. Louis Blues hoping it’s their year

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — One talented Russian winger. Deep lines and pairings. Years of playoff heartache.

Months after Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals won the first Stanley Cup title in franchise history, the St. Louis Blues are looking to follow in their footsteps.

”They don’t give up after a lot of tough years,” star winger Vladimir Tarasenko said. ”They work on their game, play hard and finally reach their goal, so this is a really good example for us. I think that’s what we need to try to do.”

St. Louis also is looking for the franchise’s first championship. The Blues missed the playoffs last year after six consecutive appearances, falling one point shy of continuing the streak when they lost 5-2 at Colorado on the final day of the regular season.

General manager Doug Armstrong could have taken the franchise in a different direction after the disappointing finish, but he decided to strengthen the roster instead. The Blues signed center Tyler Bozak, wingers David Perron and Patrick Maroon, and backup goaltender Chad Johnson in free agency, and traded for center Ryan O'Reilly in a blockbuster deal with Buffalo.

The veteran holdovers, including Tarasenko, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and goaltender Jake Allen, enjoyed the view during Armstrong’s active offseason.

”It’s obviously huge,” said Brayden Schenn, who set career highs with 28 goals and 42 assists in his first year with St. Louis. ”You look at our division, how tight it’s going to be, how tight the West is going to be, you’ve got to have the pieces to compete and we feel like we have that in this locker room.”

With Schenn, O’Reilly and Bozak, the Blues have one of the league’s strongest groups of centers. Perron collected a career-high 50 assists last season while helping expansion Vegas make it to the Stanley Cup Final, and the rugged Maroon had 17 goals and 26 assists in 74 games with Edmonton and New Jersey.

The Blues are hoping the new additions will help them get back to their usual lofty spot in the rough-and-tumble Central Division – and then make some playoff history.

”We need to learn from last year,” Tarasenko said. ”It’s not enough to play up and down all year and then fighting for one point, I don’t think that’s the spot where we want to be. I think our goal is to make the playoff without questions and just win the Cup, so that’s what we need to do and play more consistent during the season.”

WATCHING FABBRI

Robby Fabbri missed all of last season after re-tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He was activated off injured reserve before the start of training camp, but he has been slowed by a groin strain. The 22-year-old Fabbri was selected by St. Louis in the first round of the 2014 draft. He had 29 goals and 37 assists in 123 games before the run of injuries, and could add to the Blues’ forward depth if he can find a way to stay healthy.

”He can do everything,” Tarasenko said. ”He’s smart and can score, can pass the puck, like play the game well. You know when we was playing together, it was fun. I like spending time on the ice with him.”

POWER-PLAY WOES

St. Louis finished 30th in the 31-team NHL with a 15.4 percent success rate on the power play last season, just ahead of Edmonton at 14.8 percent. The Blues had just 38 power-play goals.

WORTH WATCHING

The 26-year-old Tarasenko remains one of the NHL’s most gifted scorers. He had 33 goals and 33 assists in 80 games last season. But Tarasenko had left shoulder surgery on April 11 after he got hurt in a collision with Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog in the regular-season finale.

WORTH WATCHING II

Allen missed the start of training camp due to back spasms. The 28-year-old Allen had a 2.75 goals-against average and .906 save percentage while splitting time with Carter Hutton last season, and his play is a big key for the Blues this year.

AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

2019-20 Lady Byng finalists: MacKinnon, Matthews, O’Reilly

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The NHL announced Nathan MacKinnon (Avalanche), Auston Matthews (Maple Leafs), and Ryan O'Reilly (Blues) as the three finalists for the 2019-20 Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. The Lady Byng is awarded to the player “player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

As usual, the Professional Hockey Writers Association votes on the award.

Panthers center Aleksander Barkov won the Lady Byng in 2018-19. O’Reilly finished among the finalists that season.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule, now with start times]

The Lady Byng Trophy cases for finalists MacKinnon, Matthews, O’Reilly

Quick case for Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon, 24, managed another great season (93 points, Ted Lindsay Award finalist) while posting a career-low 12 PIM in 2019-20. Considering his significant ice time (21:13 TOI average), it’s impressive that the speedy scorer kept his PIM totals so low. This is his first Lady Byng nomination.

Matthews becomes Lady Byng finalist after tumultuous offseason

No doubt, Auston Matthews finishing as Lady Byng finalist will create controversy. Honestly, it’s easy to understand such critiques.

While Matthews’ disorderly conduct was dismissed in November, plenty will wonder why he finished among the top three. Would Teuvo Teravainen (63 points, eight PIM) served as a better choice, for example? Maybe Ryan Suter (12 PIM despite workhorse duties) instead?

From an on-ice perspective, Matthews makes a case as a Lady Byng finalist. Matthews produced 47 goals and shouldered a substantial ice time burden while only being whistled for eight PIM.

Ryan O’Reilly aims for another Lady Byng Trophy

As great as it’s been to see “ROR” get recognition as a Selke winner, O’Reilly has been a Lady Byng fixture for years. In fact, the dominant two-way forward won the Lady Byng in 2013-14. This marks O’Reilly’s third season in a row among Lady Byng finalists.

Remarkably, this marks the sixth of O’Reilly’s 11 seasons where he finished with 10 PIM or less. O’Reilly scored 61 points, excelled as a two-way player as usual, and kept his PIM to a neat 10 in 2019-20.

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik
Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault
• Masterton Trophy: Stephen Johns, Oskar Lindblom, Bobby Ryan

• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

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.

Johns, Lindblom, Ryan are 2019-20 Masterton Trophy finalists

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Stephen Johns of the Stars, Oskar Lindblom of the Flyers, and Bobby Ryan of the Senators are the three finalists for the 2019-20 Masterton Trophy. The award, which is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association, is given “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

Robin Lehner was last season’s winner.

Each local chapter submits one nominee and the full PHWA membership votes at the conclusion of the regular season. You can find the full list of nominees here.

[2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule]

Stephen Johns’ story: The Stars defenseman missed 22 months due to post-traumatic headaches. He made his NHL return in January and played over 18 minutes that night against the Wild. He would play 17 games this season and scored his first goal at Madison Square Garden in a win over the Rangers. “Throughout this whole process, it wasn’t just me going through hell,” he told the Dallas Morning News in June. “As parents, they want to help and for them to be here and see that, I probably know my dad was for sure crying. I’m pretty excited to go see them and give them both a big hug.”

Oskar Lindblom’s story: It was in December that the Flyers forward was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. At that time he was tied for the team lead in goals scorer (11) through 30 games. After months of treatment, the 23-year-old got to ring the bell at Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia earlier this month as his treatments came to an end. He won’t play in the postseason, but there is hope he can rejoin the team for next season.

Bobby Ryan’s story: Ryan left the Senators in late November to enter the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program to deal with an alcohol problem. He returned in February and recorded a hat trick in his first game back in Ottawa. That led to emotional standing ovations and Ryan being name the game’s No. 1 star. He hopes to continue to tell his story to help others. “Because I’ve been open and candid about that, I think people have looked at me and said, ‘There’s a very relatable person,'” Ryan told the Ottawa Sun. “Through my family stuff and now with alcohol issues, I’ve never hid from it and I’ve always said, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do it in the public eye and I’m going to have to be candid with it.”

The winner will be announced during the conference finals.

The trophy was presented by the NHL Writers’ Association in 1968 to commemorate the late Bill Masterton, a player with the Minnesota North Stars who exhibited to a high degree the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and who died on Jan. 15, 1968.

A $2,500 grant from the PHWA is awarded annually to the Bill Masterton Scholarship Fund, based in Bloomington, Minn., in the name of the Masterton Trophy winner.

NHL AWARD FINALISTS ANNOUNCEMENT DATES
Ted Lindsay Award: Leon Draisaitl, Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin
Calder Trophy: Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar, Dominik Kubalik
Jack Adams Award: Bruce Cassidy, John Tortorella, Alain Vigneault
• Lady Byng Trophy: Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly

• Friday, July 17: Willie O’Ree Award, Vezina Trophy
• Monday, July 20: Norris Trophy, Selke Trophy
• Tuesday, July 21: Hart Trophy

————

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Oskar Lindblom reflects on battling cancer

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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.

Lindblom’s battle, key Wild decisions, and more

• Alex Prewitt shares a detailed, touching account of Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom‘s battle with cancer. [SI]

• USA Hockey announced the cancellation of the 2020 World Junior Summer showcase. The event was originally scheduled for July 24-31, but it makes sense to err on the side of caution. [USA Hockey]

• Ken Campbell believes the Wild took care of the present by dropping the interim tag from head coach Dean Evason, and secured the future by signing Kirill Kaprizov. I’d say the jury is still out on Evason, but getting Kaprizov signed is huge — even if COVID-19 presents more bumps in the road. [The Hockey News]

• How about some more detail on Evason, then? Tony Abbott breaks down why Wild GM Bill Guerin might have been impressed with Evason. In particular, it’s interesting to see that the Wild picked up the pace with Evason after firing Bruce Boudreau. [Zone Coverage]

• A fun one from John Matisz on various skills that hockey players find difficult to master. Some covet Nicklas Lidstrom’s ability to walk the line. Kevin Shattenkirk marvels at the deceptive “hitch” Nikita Kucherov can put on his shot. [The Score]

• Ranking the Detroit Red Wings’ jerseys, from worst to first. That 1928-29 Cougars logo is choice. [Hockey by Design]

NHL training camps, insight on playoff matchups, and free agency

• The Maple Leafs don’t view training camp as merely an opportunity to tune up. Instead, such activities are being framed as competition for playoff roster spots. I imagine players like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly don’t have to worry too much, though. [Sportsnet]

• Sin Bin Vegas transcribed key Robin Lehner quotes about his free agent future. Over and over again, it seems clear that Lehner craves term in contract offers, making me wonder if a savvy team might be able to bring his AAV down by giving him some stability. Goalies are unpredictable, but you could make worse bets than Lehner, who’s been outstanding since at least 2018-19. [Sin Bin Vegas/TSN 1200 interview]

Really, the biggest story for today’s PHT Morning Skate might be Lehner’s silly leg pads:

 

• Count Brenden Dillon among the pending UFAs who would prefer to stick with their teams. In Dillon’s case, it’s the Capitals, whom he’s still becoming acquainted with. Looking at the Capitals’ cap situation, Dillon returning isn’t out of the question, although that might boil down to what kind of deal the rugged defenseman expects. Also, it may hinge on other decisions, such as what to do with Braden Holtby. [Nova Caps Fans]

• As the Canadiens await, which players are the biggest X-factors for the Penguins? [Pensburgh]

• Being that the Flames and Jets only met in an outdoor game, Paul Maurice doesn’t believe there’s much video to use in preparing for Calgary. He also explains how NHL systems are like battleships. Hopefully the return to play doesn’t flop like that movie. [Winnipeg Free Press]

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.

NHL’s older coaches debate wearing masks, taking precautions

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After two days behind a mask and off his skates, Rick Bowness returned to his natural habitat on the ice with air inside the rink blowing against his face.

”You get out there and you miss it,” the Dallas Stars coach said. ”You realize how much you enjoy being out there.”

The NHL’s oldest head coach still worries about COVID-19 but not enough to stop doing his job. It’s a risk-reward proposition coaches and executives around sports are weighing, and while Florida assistant Mike Kitchen is the only one to so far opt out of hockey’s return, plenty of others are considering masking up behind the bench and taking other precautions in the middle of a pandemic.

”It’s a different world out there,” Bowness, 65, said. ”I’m going to have to adjust to it, there is no question. I just want to make sure I’m cautious, which we’ve been since this virus started, and I will continue to do that. My health – hey, I’m a grandfather now, my first grandkid. I intend on playing some golf with that kid down the road. I intend on being here a lot longer. So, yeah, am I going to be careful? Absolutely.”

The World Health Organization said the disease can be more severe in people 60 and over, and the NHL has four head coaches and a handful of assistants in that age range. The average age of the 24 head coaches in the playoffs is just under 54, the second-oldest behind the NBA among North America’s four major professional sports leagues.

With that life experience comes meetings like New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz held with his staff this week to talk about whether to don a mask for games and practices.

”I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do,” Trotz said Wednesday on his 58th birthday. ”I’m not too concerned. I’m in pretty good health, but it affects everybody differently if you do get it. I don’t want to get it, so there’s a good chance I could have a mask behind the bench, but I haven’t decided yet. I should say I don’t want to give it to anybody if I have it, but I don’t.”

Coaches are relying on frequent testing at training camp and in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, hoping before going into quarantine that players and their families can avoid contracting the virus that halted the season in March. All team staff are tested every other day for now and will be daily once games start.

”We’re all doing everything we can not to bring it into our locker room,” Bowness said. ”Give our players credit, as well, because this is a big sacrifice for everyone and they’re looking after themselves.”

The NHL reported 43 players tested positive during voluntary workouts from June 8-July 12. At least three of those cases came from the Tampa Bay Lightning and one from the Boston Bruins, though the league took over reporting statistics in the name of privacy and anonymity.

Outside practice facilities, coaches’ comfort levels might vary from a hotspot such as Texas to the Canadian province of Manitoba, where there have been zero reported cases in 13 of the past 14 days.

”It was possibly easier for me, because of the fact that I was pretty darn safe right from the start,” 53-year-old Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”I’m really confident in what goes on in our building, tested every second day, I don’t feel particularly exposed.”

The only coach taking part in the NHL’s return older than Bowness is 67-year-old Pittsburgh assistant Jacques Martin, who was on the ice for camp practices this week like normal. Columbus’ John Tortorella, 62, Florida’s Joel Quenneville, 61, and Montreal’s Claude Julien, 60, also all felt comfortable enough to get back to work.

Tortorella, who along with Philadelphia’s 59-year-old Alain Vigneault and Boston’s 55-year-old Bruce Cassidy is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, brushed aside a question about himself and said, ”Safety is the priority” for all involved.

Kitchen made what he called ”a difficult decision to say the least, but the right decision for me and my family” in opting out, and Quenneville said he wished his longtime right-hand man nothing but the best.

Much like players, only a handful of whom decided not to play, coaches had to make their own determinations.

”I think this is going to be an individual thing,” Bowness said. ”We’re all going to deal with it in our own way. … We’re all going to have to make that call.”