John Tortorella misses the hate in ‘hugfest’ NHL

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John Tortorella has always been interesting. Even so, his story has gotten more layered during the Columbus Blue Jackets phase of his turbulent, lengthy head coaching career.

To be more specific, we’ve seen a “dinosaur” (his words) trying to evolve (our words) in a game that’s increasingly dependent upon speed and skill, and less about grit and hitting.

Credit Torts for frequently deploying more progressive tactics, sometimes in contrast with his persona of being anti-analytics. This isn’t the emotionally drained, locker-room-storming Tortorella from his dark days with the Canucks, and Torts is smart enough to realize that the old way that worked so well in New York (and, to an extent, Tampa Bay) doesn’t fly so well these days.

Also, while Torts is an absolute gold mine of great quotes – seriously, can we just get him to an open mic and ask him to riff on his hatred of the Penguins? – his anger feels more like a controlled, homic missile after all those years of being a loose cannon.

With grandfatherly glasses and more gray in his hair, it’s impossible not to feel like Torts has mellowed out a bit.

That doesn’t mean he’s happy about it.

When asked about his team, Tortorella made it clear that he wanted them to play a “harder” game, rather than relying so much upon skill. Really, though, Torts wishes the league would bring back some of that sandpaper.

“It’s a little frustrating, quite honestly,” Tortorella said to Darren Pang during a press conference. “[The] game’s changed, and for some dinosaurs in it, it’s very frustrating … Conversations on the ice amongst opponents on a faceoff, it’s like a big hugfest sometimes. I don’t know if they have so many meetings with this NHLPA and all that stuff that goes on but there’s no hate and I miss that. It frustrates the (expletive) out of me.”

This really might be a personal thing rather than a league-wide thing, though. Deep down, Torts might bristle at how lightly physical his team has been; through nine games, Columbus’ 120 hits easily rank as the least in the NHL. The second-lowest is New Jersey, and the Devils’ 140 hits happened in two fewer games.

Apologies to old-school types and/or dinosaurs, but … that’s not really a bad thing.

(Note: it also looks like they haven’t engaged in a fight this season, based on Hockey Fights’ listings.)

There are situations where hitting can bring about good things on the ice, particularly regarding forechecking. Still, more often than not, if you’re delivering a ton of hits, it’s probably because you don’t have the puck very often. If you ask me, this great Kent Wilson tweet about block shots also applies to racking up too many hits.

There’s ample evidence that the Blue Jackets are doing a good-to-great job of limiting the chances they’re giving up, and possessing the puck more than chasing it, so Tortorella should douse at least some of that fire in his belly (or at least turn the heat to other areas).

And, let’s be honest: the NHL doesn’t change anywhere near as rapidly as many of the other major sports leagues.

People grumble about ticky-tacky roughing the passer calls, policing hits to the head, and the many other ruling obstacles in the way of defense in the NFL, yet plenty of people would argue that the dazzling offense is easily worth it. (Deadspin’s Drew Magary profanely and convincingly argued as much recently.)

Tortorella might cringe at the basketball-AAU-style-chumminess creeping into the NHL, but let’s be honest: it’s pretty much inevitable.

And not just because of the way social media can connect people, allowing different players to giggle over silly memes and Halloween costumes. It’s also not just about having the same agents, or being members of the NHLPA.

Player development and international team play feed into the fostering of friendships. Can hockey people really ask players to suit up for their country right after a season concludes and not expect bonds to be formed? It’s pretty silly to ask players to grimace and growl at each other during an 82-game season, especially since NHL teams never hesitate to trade players to teams they once feuded with.

Here’s a thought that should comfort those who are gritting their teeth at friendliness, even after hearing my argument: speed, elusiveness, and very justifiable concerns for head injuries explain a drop in aggression more than any concerns of “hugfests.”

Just look at Jamie Benn and Jordie Benn, who didn’t hold back even with their Mom in attendance:

There was plenty of grit, hostility, and hitting during “The Dead Puck Era.” We can’t get in a time machine and relive those times, and frankly, I’m glad, because obstruction-era hockey was agonizingly boring.

So, Torts, just roll with it. That’s my friendly suggestion.

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.

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.