Jeff Skinner has been just what Sabres needed

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The Buffalo Sabres seem to be finally — finally! — taking some sort of a significant step toward regaining relevance in the NHL.

Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, they were able to pick up their 10th win and improve to 10-6-2 on the young season.

This, of course, is major progress in Buffalo.

For one, this is tied for the Sabres’ best start (22 points) through their first 18 games since the 2009-10 season when they were 12-5-1 at this point.

(They also had 22 through 18 games during the 2011-12 season.)

Second, the Sabres did not win their 10th game of the season a year ago until Dec. 29. They didn’t get it until Dec. 6 in 2016-17. Even more, this is only the third time since 2009-10 that they have won their 10th game of the season before the calendar rolled over to December. All of that is insane, and just shows how much this organization has struggled over the past seven seasons.

There are a lot of reasons for their newfound early success.

[Related: Top Pick Dahlin has been strong for Sabres]

At the top of that list is the fact that Jack Eichel is healthy and, once again, playing like a superstar.

The other is that some of their offseason acquisitions are really paying off in the early going. Conor Sheary, thought to be a salary dump by the Pittsburgh Penguins, has six goals and 10 points in 18 games and been a nice complement to their forwards. Carter Hutton has been solid in net. They have another emerging star in top pick Rasmus Dahlin whose progress seems to be ahead of schedule for an 18-year-old defender.

But perhaps the biggest improvement from outside the organization has been the addition of Jeff Skinner.

The Sabres desperately needed a top-line winger that could complement Eichel, something he had not had over the first three years of his career. Skinner has given them exactly what they needed, and perhaps even more. It should not be a surprise.

Skinner, still only 26 years old even though it seems like he’s been around forever, has been one of the most productive goal-scorers in the league in recent years. Entering this season he was 15th in the league in goals over the previous five years and still in the middle of what should be his peak years of production in the league is on pace for what could be a career year.

He opened the scoring for the Sabres on Tuesday night with what is already his 13th goal of the season. Only Boston’s David Pastrnak has scored more as of this posting.

He and Eichel have been especially dominant together. When the Sabres have had the two of them on the ice this season they are outscoring teams by a 14-7 margin at even-strength and completely dictating the pace of the play from a shot attempt and scoring chance perspective.

They are not only steamrolling opposing defenses, they have given each exactly what the other needed and had been lacking for most of their careers.

Skinner has been an exceptional goal-scorer throughout his career despite the fact he has never had a center like Eichel setting him up.

Eichel has been great since the Sabres drafted him with the No. 2 overall pick four years ago even though he has never really had a finisher like Skinner on his wing.

Put them together and it has been close to perfection for the Sabres.

The two big questions for the Sabres now: Can the duo keep this rolling and do the Sabres have enough in the lineup beyond them to maintain this early pace, and will they be able to keep Skinner beyond this season. Skinner remains unsigned after this season and is no doubt playing his way into a huge contract given the combination of his age (again, still only 26) and continued production.

For right now this should be something that Sabres fans are enjoying, because they have not seen much of it over the better part of the past decade.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Day 1 of NHL training camps: Uncertainty about Blackhawks’ Crawford, and more

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Monday, July 13 represented a big day in the NHL return-to-play plan, as formal training camps began — naturally there was plenty of news.

To little surprise, such training camp news also brought uncertainty. This post won’t hit on all 24 NHL teams involved in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but let’s take a look at some of the rumblings from around the league:

Blackhawks’ Crawford, other absences lead to speculation

At the moment, the NHL elects not to name players or teams while announcing positive COVID-19 tests.

The bright side of that is that players gain at least a modicum of privacy. The downside is that fans and others are left to speculate about the nature of absences. To some extent, this follows the NHL’s clear-as-mud transparency when it comes to injury updates already, only turned up to 11.

Rank Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford as one of the players people are speculating about during this first day of NHL training camps. If you’re looking for more from the Blackhawks on Crawford, you were largely out of luck.

“For now, he’s just unfit to play,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “I think the NHL has been pretty clear that’s going to be the policy going forward as far as how we’ll announce all injuries. So, that’s all I have for you.”

Blackhawks fans are probably used to uncertainty regarding Crawford, being that his career was threatened by concussion issues. Such issues, and Chicago’s mediocre overall play, might have pushed Crawford’s strong work under the radar. During the last three months of the truncated season, Crawford’s save percentage didn’t sink below a splendid .927. For a team as porous defensively as the Blackhawks, they must hope that Crawford will eventually be fit to play — particularly after trading Robin Lehner.

It would be a sad way for Crawford to end his Blackhawks career, too, as he’s a pending UFA.

Now, other goalies sat out day one of NHL training camps, too. Marc-Andre Fleury joined Crawford with that distinction. But while the Blackhawks shared few Crawford details, the Golden Knights deemed MAF’s absence a maintenance day.

Though not a comprehensive list, here are a few other notable absences from day one of NHL training camps:

Noteworthy names attending NHL training camps on day one

Going over every single player who participated would be a fool’s errand. Consider a few names that stood out, though.

Assorted bits, including Gritty

Now, for some quick random bits.

Matt Niskanen said it right:

“The world is pretty bonkers right now,” Niskanen said, via Sam Carchidi of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Nothing is normal … But as hockey players, we just want that (Cup) chance.”

Actually, (Niskanen’s … Flyers’ colleague?) Gritty also got it right:

The first one to the rink? Well, the name Gritty makes sense then, I guess.

If you’re looking for the best gesture of them all, it’s probably the Oilers’ tribute to Colby Cave.

Although, the Maple Leafs also made quite a statement by wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts as a group:

If news and other bits from day one of NHL training camps are any indication, there will be a lot of stories to sort through. At least some of them will involve Gritty, too, so that’s nice.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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: 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 since Phase 2 (June 8)

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The NHL announced that 43 players tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2, which began on June 8. Phase 3 (formal training camps) began on Monday (July 13).

The NHL explained how those positive COVID-19 test results broke down since June 3.

  • 30 NHL players participating in Phase 2 (limited skating at team facilities with small groups of teammates) tested positive for COVID-19. The league noted that more than 600 NHL players participated in Phase 2 activities.
  • The NHL noted that they’re aware of 13 positive COVID-19 cases among players who stayed outside of Phase 2 protocol. (It’s unclear if that number could climb if more players still need to be tested.)

In sharing this announcement, the NHL allowed a look into its daunting process. The league conducted almost 5,000 COVID-19 tests, with the 600-plus players involved. (That’s certainly thorough. On the other hand, one can only speculate about the vast quantity of COVID-19 tests required for the entire NHL playoff process. Some will argue that it’s simply not worth it.)

Check out the full NHL release about 43 players testing positive for COVID-19 here:

Travis Hamonic, Mike Green, and Roman Polak rank among the players who’ve opted out of an NHL return to play for various reasons. Other NHL players face a Monday 5 p.m. ET deadline to opt out. (Although there could be special circumstances, such as the Canadiens and Max Domi waiting to make a decision.)

More on positive COVID-19 results, and the process the NHL is undergoing

The NHL states that players who tested positive are following CDC and Health Canada protocols, such as self-isolating. It also noted that the league will not identify players or teams involving positive COVID-19 tests.

Of course, that won’t stop speculation, whether players or teams are named officially or not.

Earlier on Monday, word surfaced that the Penguins “voluntarily sidelined” nine players who may have had “secondary exposure” to a person who tested positive for COVID-19. As of this writing, players haven’t been named, leaving people to speculate.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews confirmed that he contracted COVID-19, backing up a June report by the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. Matthews noted that he was still able to train despite the positive COVID-19 test.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” Matthews said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Most importantly, Matthews said he’s feeling good and healthy after self-isolating.

Either way, Matthews’ name surfacing caused controversy. It remains to be seen if reporters and others unearth other names as the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers approach, and you can bet people will try to guess if the league and its teams decide not to be particularly forthcoming.

Plenty of challenges ahead for the NHL

Read the full list of critical dates here, but consider these points of interest as the NHL aims to award the 2020 Stanley Cup amid the COVID-19 pandemic:

July 13: Training camps open (Phase 3) and 5 p.m. ET deadline for players to opt out.
July 26: Teams report to their hub city. Eastern Conference teams go to Toronto, while West teams head to Edmonton.
July 28-30: Exhibition games.
Aug 1: 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin (Phase 4).
Aug 11: First Round begins.
Aug 25: Second Round begins.
Sept. 8: Conference Finals begin.
Sept. 22: Stanley Cup Final begins.
Oct 4: Last possible date for Stanley Cup to be awarded.

The NHL set expectations for regular updates regarding positive COVID-19 tests. Can the league navigate all of those bumps in the road to October, mid-November training camps, and a 2020-21 season that may start as early as Dec. 1?

We’ll have to wait and see.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension, COVID-19:

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.

Wild sign Kaprizov, Canadiens ink Romanov; Both can’t play in NHL until 2020-21

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The NHL opened a window for teams to sign certain prospects from Monday to Wednesday (at 5 p.m. ET), and some teams wasted little time in making signings official. The Wild finally signing Kirill Kaprizov ranks as the biggest headliner, while the  Canadiens also finalizing terms with defenseman Alexander Romanov is big, too. Those aren’t the only signings, though, and other news should trickle in early in the week.

It’s crucial to note that Kaprizov and Romanov won’t be able to appear in games for the Wild or Canadiens respectively in 2019-20. The same goes for other prospects signing in similar situations.

It does, however, appear that Kaprizov can participate in Wild training camp, and the Canadiens confirmed that Romanov will be doing the same.

Via the Habs, here is the process for Romanov:

  • Romanov is not eligible to participate in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
  • He can, however, get acquainted with teammates. Not only can Romanov take part in training camp, but he’ll also be permitted to travel with the team to Toronto (the Eastern Conference hub city).
  • Of course, this assumes that all is clear. The Canadiens announced that Romanov will undergo a seven-day quarantine before he can participate in training camp.

Again, expect more news to trickle in between Monday and Wednesday (at 5 p.m. ET).

For instance, the Blues signed Alex Perunovich to a two-year contract as well on Monday.

Update: The Islanders signed goalie Ilya Sorokin. Interestingly, it’s really just a formality, as it would only cover 2019-20 (which he can’t compete in).

Some details on contracts for Kaprizov (Wild) and Romanov (Canadiens)

As a reminder, these signings burn the 2019-20 season off of these prospects’ contracts, even though they aren’t suiting up during actual 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

In the case of Perunovich and Kaprizov, two-year contracts are really one-year auditions before second, presumably much richer contracts. Romanov’s is a three-year deal, thus covering him through 2021-22 (instead of just 2020-21 for Kaprizov).

The Athletic’s Michael Russo went into quite a bit of detail on the structure of Kaprizov’s contract (sub required). CBA quirks limit Kaprizov’s ability to earn typical signing bonuses; ultimately, Kaprizov’s cap hit is expected to be $925K. Russo reports that Kaprizov would not be able to receive offer sheets during the 2021 NHL Free Agency summer, either.

For Kaprizov, the upside is clear. He can race through one season at a low rate, then cash in on his second contract. Even with less leverage than other potential RFAs, the 23-year-old could still rake it in if he lives up to the hype. Russo notes that Kaprizov is eligible to become a UFA as early as the summer of 2024, so while the Wild earn short-term gains, Kaprizov could set himself up for a lucrative stretch in the not-too-distant future.

(Maybe most importantly for the Wild, they lock down Kaprizov, rather than risking him staying in the KHL for 2020-21, and possibly even beyond that.)

The Canadiens spelled out the contract for Romanov, 20, in their release. His cap hit will be just under $900K through 2021-22, with an AAV of $1.17M. You can bet he won’t want to fall to the AHL, as his salary plummets to $70K at that level.

A quick look at what Kaprizov, Romanov may bring to their teams

Kaprizov signing with the Wild ranks as the biggest news. It might be a bigger deal that the team removing the “interim” tag for head coach Dean Evason.

The glowing reports on Kaprizov can flirt with hyperbole — or maybe he’s just that good. Scouts raved to The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy that Kaprizov has Artemi Panarin‘s “mind” and the sturdy body of a Vladimir Tarasenko.

Patrick Kane says this all the time: ‘Yes, the game is faster, but you still have to be able to slow it down,’” TSN’s Craig Button told Kennedy. “The only way you can slow it down is by having a fast brain. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s what Kaprizov does. He’s got a magnificent, magnificent hockey mind.”

While Romanov produces more mixed reviews about his true potential — some see him as top pairing, others in more of a supporting role — teams like the Wild and Canadiens would love to have these prospects in the lineup now, not later. It made sense for the NHL to worry about a bumpy process regarding getting these players overseas (or north of the border), but with Kaprizov allowed to practice with the Wild and Romanov the same with the Canadiens, it seems a bit baffling that they can’t take that extra step. But oh well.

To reiterate, there are likely to be other signings, both on Monday and through Wednesday. Sorokin could very well have a big impact on the Islanders once he’s actually allowed to play, for example.

Even so, these are already big steps. The Wild and their fans have been waiting for this moment for years. Sure, it would be better if Kaprizov could jump right in — as he would during normal years — but it’s better than wondering if things would fall apart.

More on NHL return to play, CBA extension:

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.

Auston Matthews confirms he had COVID-19

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Auston Matthews confirmed Monday that he had previously tested positive for COVID-19 during the NHL pause, but now feels healthy. As the Maple Leafs opened training camp, the forward said that he was asymptomatic and felt good during his two weeks of quarantine.

“I think everybody’s experience will probably be different than my own as far as COVID goes, with [various] symptoms and stuff like that,” Matthews said on a Zoom call with reporters. “And sometimes it’s hard to kind of pinpoint a norm because it’s different for everybody.”

A Toronto Sun report in June said that Matthews contracted the virus, but his representatives and the team did not comment. The NHL announced Monday that 43 players had tested positive for COVID-19 during Phase 2 (beginning June 8) of the Return to Play plan.

Matthews, who spent most of the pause at home in Arizona, said he was still able to train at home without issue. The positive test forced him to delay returning to Canada and miss the Phase 2 voluntary workouts.

“Obviously wasn’t able to leave or anything,” he said. “I think that’s really the only thing that kind of took a hit for me. I was skating beforehand and having to take two and a half, three weeks off obviously kind of catches up to you.”

Having gone through the experience, Matthews got a first-hand look at how the league is trying to make the Return to Play as safe as possible for all involved.

“To be honest, I don’t know where I got it,” he said. “I think the NHL and everyone has tried their best with the information they have to make it as safe of an environment as possible.”

The Maple Leafs take on the Blue Jackets in their best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifier beginning Aug. 2.

MORE:
Full schedule for 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Hockey is back: NHL, NHLPA ratify CBA, return to play agreement
Salary cap to stay flat at $81.5 million

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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.