Red Wings rebuilding while recalling franchise’s famed past

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DETROIT (AP) — A Detroit Red Wings home game looks and sounds a little like a memorial these days.

The lights are dimmed as images of the franchise’s glorious past flash digitally onto the ice before the puck drops, reminding the relative few fans in the stands how good things used to be. And, they were good. Really good.

Detroit’s 11 Stanley Cup banners are lowered from the rafters where retired jerseys are also displayed, rekindling memories of the four titles from 1997 to 2008 and the seven championships from 1936-55. The most successful U.S.-based NHL franchise has had some of the game’s all-time greats wear its sweater, adorned with a winged well, from Gordie Howe to Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom.

The good times fade during the lights-and-sounds pregame show as the pace of the music picks up and a video montage shows the current team, mostly a mix of role-playing veterans and not-ready prospects. When the lights are turned up closer to game time, more seats appear to be empty than occupied on some nights.

Detroit is among the worst teams in the league this season – as expected and by design. The Red Wings hope a painfully poor season will help get them on the fast track to retool with difference-making players in the draft along with some help from veterans in free agency.

”I knew it was coming and I was prepared for it,” said Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano, who is in his 37th season with the team and his 52nd in the NHL. ”I don’t like it. It upsets me, but not to the point that I’m going to go off the deep end.”

The Red Wings appear destined to miss the playoffs for a third straight year after a remarkable run of 25 consecutive postseason appearances. Other than the current players and coaches, who are trying to win every game, losing is seen as a necessary evil. Some fans, though, appear to be so fed up they don’t even sit in seats they paid for to attend games.

In an effort to make the sparsely filled sections at Little Caesars Arena stand out less in person and on TV, the backs of red seats have been temporarily covered in black. They will eventually be replaced by black chairs at a considerable cost in a 1-year-old arena that is the centerpiece of a $1.2 billion project.

Detroit got off to the worst start in franchise history by opening with seven losses and winning only one of its first 10 games. The Red Wings have bounced back with four wins in their last five.

”I wouldn’t say it takes the sting out of the slow start, but it’s something to build off of for sure,” forward Justin Abdelkader said during the recent surge.

Winning could prove to be counterproductive for the Motor City’s hockey team this season.

Part of what has held the Red Wings’ rebuilding effort back is the fact they haven’t had a No. 1 overall pick in the draft in recent years to get a generational player. If they lose enough this season and have some luck in the NHL draft lottery to get the top pick, Jack Hughes would give the franchise and its followers a desperately needed boost. Hughes is a playmaking center for USA Hockey’s 18-under team, which trains and plays in suburban Detroit. His skill would help the team on the ice, though perhaps not right away, and his presence would provide a boost in interest for a team struggling to regain its standing as one of the most popular in a sports-crazed state.

The Red Wings have also hurt their chances of continuing the success they had for two-plus decades by drafting players, particularly on the blue line, that didn’t pan out. And while Detroit is close to the bottom in the NHL standings, its payroll is larger than about 20 teams in the league.

The team has invested in its 2014 first-round pick, 22-year-old center Dylan Larkin , by giving him a $30.5 million, six-year contract last summer. It is trying to surround him with players to push the franchise back toward the playoffs and eventually championship contention.

”We’ve got to rebuild by drafting, developing and being patient,” general manager Ken Holland said early in his 22nd season in charge and 36th with the franchise. ”I believe we’re headed in the right direction with a lot of young kids we think are ready to come of age.”

Chris Ilitch, the most powerful person in the organization, seems to agree with him. The president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, which owns the team and the arena, gave Holland a two-year contract earlier this year to continue guiding a long-term rebuilding project that is counting on 30-plus draft picks from 2017-19.

”Kenny Holland has done a marvelous job at accumulating picks, which are so important to executing a successful rebuild,” Ilitch said. ”I think you’re starting to see the fruits of the labor.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The defending champion Washington Capitals host Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, the first meeting between the teams since the Penguins won their season opener. Pittsburgh has lost a season-high four straight games after a strong start, while Washington has dropped three of five.

LEADERS

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 12; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 19; Points: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 24; Wins: Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay) and Frederik Andersen (Toronto), 8; Goals-against average: Jaroslav Halak (Boston), 1.45; Save percentage: Jaroslav Halak (Boston), .952.

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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.”