Maple Leafs are best bet to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought

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John Tavares didn’t just follow his heart home to Toronto.

In his head, he envisioned the Maple Leafs as a perennial contender.

”I came here believing that we can win a Stanley Cup year in, year out,” Tavares said.

In Year One of the Tavares era with young stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner riding shotgun, the Maple Leafs are expected to make the playoffs and go on a run next spring. And even after the Winnipeg Jets reached the Western Conference finals, Toronto appears to have the best chance to end Canada’s Stanley Cup drought that dates back a quarter-century to 1993.

”The big picture is obviously to always win the Stanley Cup and to not take any year for granted and always to believe every year, especially with the team we have that that’s where we want to get to,” Tavares said. ”First and foremost you’ve got to take the small steps and look at the small goals, the small building blocks to get there. I think you’ve got to enjoy that process, enjoy that journey.”

Toronto has 13 championships but none since 1967, when the NHL was a six-team league. Signing Tavares to a $77 million, seven-year contract has raised optimism the drought will end soon – another big move following the hiring of coach Mike Babcock in 2015 and picking Matthews first overall in 2016.

”You add him, and we have a good core,” Matthews said. ”We want to definitely keep that core together obviously because we want to see ourselves in a position to win every year for the next 10 years.”

To get there, the Maple Leafs have to get through a competitive Eastern Conference that includes the defending champion Capitals, back-to-back 2016 and 2017 champion Penguins and the well-established Lightning and Bruins. The Leafs are coming off back-to-back first-round exits and hope to get reliable goaltending from Frederik Andersen and solid defense to avoid a similar result.

SOARING JETS

The path to the Cup Final isn’t any easier for Winnipeg, which was one of the final two teams alive in the West last season before losing to Vegas. The Jets lost deadline pickup Paul Stastny in free agency but otherwise bring back the same group and the same big expectations to play games into June.

”We’re really close,” center Mark Scheifele said. ”We have a bunch of young guys that are still coming into their own, that are still learning about the league. That run that we had last year is so crucial in terms of experience that you were able to gain that experience, gain that hunger for what could be coming.”

Scheifele, captain Blake Wheeler, center Bryan Little, winger Nikolai Ehlers and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck are all signed long term, and Finnish phenom Patrik Laine is coming off a 43-goal season. Winnipeg will again have to deal with Central Division-rival Nashville but is as well positioned as anyone to come out of the West.

FLAMING IN

Missing the playoffs brought changes in Calgary. The Flames fired coach Glen Gulutzan and replaced him with Bill Peters, traded Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland to Carolina for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm, and signed James Neal.

”I think Noah is just scratching the surface,” general manager Brad Treliving said. ”We’ve got some guys on the blue line who can produce. We also want guys who want to be in Calgary. … Elias and Noah, they’re excited to get out there.”

Lindholm and Hanifin should be excited to join a team with forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan and defensemen Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. The Flames could be scary good this season in a Pacific Division that got weaker with a long-term injury to Anaheim’s Corey Perry.

WELL-OILED MCDAVID

Connor McDavid led the NHL with 108 points last season and was voted the most outstanding player by his peers. His Edmonton Oilers finished 17 points out of the final playoff spot in the West. That doesn’t compute except Edmonton’s goaltenders had the fifth-worst save percentage in the league and the rest of the Oilers couldn’t keep up with McDavid’s production. He’d like to score more goals this season but learned from last year that it’s not about him.

”It doesn’t matter what one player does at all,” McDavid said. ”It’s all about the team, and if one guy’s having success, it doesn’t mean that the team’s having success and you’ve got to find a way to win games and that’s not one guy.”

One guy who needs to be better is goalie Cam Talbot. And it wouldn’t hurt if Edmonton’s defensemen all took a step up.

NO MAN’S LAND

Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary appear to be in good shape for years to come and the Oilers have McDavid to build around. The rest of Canada’s teams are in trouble.

The Ottawa Senators traded two-time Norris Trophy winning defenseman Erik Karlsson and winger Mike Hoffman and can’t even look forward to a silver lining if they bottom out: the Colorado Avalanche own their first-round pick.

”We’re looking to have a competitive, good hockey team this year and we’re aiming to be the best we can be and we can be a very good team with the roster we have,” said center Matt Duchene, who was acquired in the trade that cost the Senators that 2019 first-round pick.

Ottawa is expected to be among the worst teams in the NHL, but at least that’s clarity compared to the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks. Both appear stuck between rebuilding and trying to stay afloat.

”Obviously it’s in transition with Hank and Danny (Sedin) being gone and having that void to fill,” Vancouver forward Bo Horvat said. ”We know where we’re at as a team, we know what we have to do and we know that we got young guys coming up that are going to have to try to prove themselves as everyday NHLers.”

Montreal has a potential star in third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi and can always dream big because of goaltender Carey Price.

”He’s the best goalie in the world,” forward Max Domi said. ”It’s going to be awesome to have him back there.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

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BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

“Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

“This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

“This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

“We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

TRIBUTE

The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

“It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

FOR THE RECORD

Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

UP NEXT

Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”