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Predators may have NHL’s best goalie combo on, off ice

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Pekka Rinne is off to an even better start than last season when he finally won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie, and backup Juuse Saros ranks among the league’s top 10 for victories.

With both goalies now signed to contract extensions, the Nashville Predators may have the best goalie situation both on and off the ice.

”There’s tandems that are much better than others, Nashville has one of them,” said Martin Biron, a former NHL goalie and now Buffalo broadcaster. ”And I think if you’re Peter Laviolette, if you’re the goalie coach and the staff, your job and your challenge is to keep them at the highest of levels for the whole season.”

So far, the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners are doing just that.

The Predators went into Tuesday night’s game in San Jose atop the league standings while also first in the NHL both in goals allowed (37) and 2.12 goals-against per game with Rinne and Saros (7-2-0) splitting the first 18 games. Rinne has been ”ImPekkable” with a 6-1-1 record, leading all goalies with at least eight starts with a 1.47 goals-against average and .951 save percentage.

”Every day he is and continues to be the backbone of this organization and team and has probably had the biggest impact on this organization,” Laviolette said.

Rinne is 3-0-1 with a .740 goals-against average and .976 save percentage and a shutout, stopping 121 of 124 shots faced since returning from injured reserve on Oct. 31. The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension taking him through 2020-21 on Nov. 3, and the goalie celebrated both the contract and his birthday with his second shutout of the season.

Biron said Tuesday that he doesn’t see a big competition for the starting job in Nashville.

”It’s Pekka’s job, and Nashville giving him that two-year deal I think is basically saying that ‘We want Pekka, and it’s going to be like that,”’ Biron said.

Rinne has been a Vezina finalist four of the past eight years, making the seven-year, $49 million contract he signed on an earlier birthday in 2011 worth every penny. That deal ties him for the fourth-priciest contract among goalies with Marc-Andre Fleury (33) of Vegas and Boston’s Tuukka Rask (31). Fleury is under contract through 2021-22, and Rask hits free agency after the 2020-21 season.

The Predators signed Rinne to a two-year extension worth $10 million on Nov. 3. General manager David Poile also signed Saros, 23, to a three-year extension in July worth $4.5 million. That means Nashville is projected to drop from seventh with $8.5 million of its salary cap invested in goaltenders to ninth next season with a $6.5 million average annual value, according to Sportrac.com.

Rinne could’ve pushed for more money. Montreal’s Carey Price, 31, is getting $10.5 million a year, while Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is being paid $8.5 million a year through 2020-21.

Biron calls Rinne one of the hardest-working goalies he’s ever seen who’s in unbelievable shape. He also sees Rinne simplifying his game as he got older, like Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Eddie Belfour. Rinne still can scramble and react, which Biron thinks will keep Rinne playing at a high level for possibly four more years like Lundqvist.

”Pekka can play at least through this next contract, and then after that we’ll see,” Biron said.

It’s up to Nashville to make that extra cap space pay off after losing the 2017 Stanley Cup Final in six games and then in seven games in the second round last May. Poile persuaded defenseman Ryan Ellis to take a bit less money with an eight-year deal for $50 million in August, and his next task will be trying to get captain Roman Josi to agree to an extension next summer before the final year on the defenseman’s current deal.

”Hopefully this helps in a way that makes this team stay together moving forward,” Rinne said. ”I think we have an opportunity to keep this same team. And I think that’s David’s goal and obviously I like the sound of it. I love this group, and I really think we have a chance this year and years to come.”

EARLY RETURNS

Tom Wilson of the Capitals returned to the lineup Tuesday night at Minnesota after arbitrator Shyam Das reduced the forward’s suspension by six games to 14 for his illegal check to the head of St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist at the end of the preseason.

He made an immediate impact, scoring a first-period goal in a 5-2 victory.

Nashville forward Austin Watson is eligible to return to the ice Thursday night when the Predators wrap up a road trip in Arizona after Das cut his suspension from 27 games to 18 after he pleaded no contest in July to a domestic assault charge.

Das is the same neutral arbitrator fired by Major League Baseball in 2012 after he overturned Ryan Braun’s drug suspension. The NHL fired arbitrator James Oldham in 2016 after his decision to reduce Dennis Wideman’s 20-game suspension to 10 for striking and injuring an official, and either the NHL or NHLPA can fire the neutral arbitrator after each season.

NWHL ALL-STAR GAME

The Predators, who hosted the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, will be hosting the 2019 NWHL All-Star Weekend capped by an NHL-NWHL doubleheader on Feb. 10. This is the third straight year the NWHL has held its All-Star Weekend in an NHL market, starting with Pittsburgh in 2017 and Minnesota in 2018.

Nashville will host St. Louis with a morning faceoff, and fans will be invited to stick around for the NWHL All-Star Game starting soon after the NHL matinee. The All-Star game will feature a pair of 25-minute halves with Shannon Szabados, goalie for the Buffalo Beauts and a three-time Olympian with Canada, captain of one team and Minnesota defender Lee Stecklein, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in February, captain of the other team.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Patrick Marleau and the Toronto Maple Leafs visit his old team in San Jose on Thursday night with Erik Karlsson still settling in with the Sharks.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: David Pastrnak (Boston), 16; Assists: Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), 20; Points: Mikko Rantanen, (Colorado), and Connor McDavid, (Edmonton), 26; Wins: Frederik Andersen (Toronto), 10; Goals-against average: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), 1.47; Save percentage: Pekka Rinne (Nashville), .951.

AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.

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    Ducks give discouraging update on Eaves, Kesler

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    Back in 2016-17 Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler was wrapping up the first year of a six-year, $41.2 million contract extension and still looking like one of the league’s best shutdown centers.

    He finished with 22 goals and 58 points for a Ducks team that reached the Western Conference Final, and was also the runner-up for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward.

    The two years that have followed, including the 2018-19 season, have not been kind to him.

    After appearing in only 44 games a season ago due to injury, the 34-year-old Kesler has been limited to just 60 games this season and has missed each of the past seven due to a hip injury. In the two years he has combined for just 13 goals and 22 points, and it sounds like the Ducks do not expect to see him on the ice again this season, while there should be some serious doubt as to what his future might hold.

    “We’re going to meet with the doctors tonight, [Kesler] and I,” general manager and interim head coach Bob Murray said on Friday, via the Ducks’ website. “[Kesler] has to get everything in his life in order as to what he has to do in order to play. It’s not exactly good for his body, the things he puts himself through. We need to take full inventory of where he is in his life and go forward from there. The agent and I have talked a bunch.”

    Kesler still has three years remaining on his contract after this one at a salary cap hit of $6.875 million per season. Between him, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry the Ducks have more than $23 million per season tied up in three players all age 33 or older over the next two full seasons (plus a third season for Kesler).

    With the Ducks badly struggling on the ice this season with one of the league’s worst records it does not leave them in an ideal situation. 

    Kesler’s status is not the only troubling one that Murray addressed on Friday.

    He also mentioned that forward Patrick Eaves is dealing with a lot of the same issues that he dealt with a year ago when a post-viral syndrome limited him to just two games.

    He has only appeared in seven NHL games this season.

    “He’s had a setback,” said Murray. “Texted with him yesterday. There is no new diagnosis or anything. This is a very troubling situation, and everybody is doing the best they can with it. There is no diagnosis, and he’s just struggling again with everything. Like [Kesler], we hope he gets better so he can have a normal life. I don’t want to speak for him, but he’s just struggling. It’s more like what he had last year. He’s experiencing some of the same issues as last year. Let’s just leave it at that.”

    Eaves joined the Ducks in the middle of the 2016-17 NHL season and has scored 132 goals in 633 career games with the Ducks, Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators.

    Related: After year away, Eaves had a blast in return to NHL

    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.

    Truck driver involved in Humboldt Broncos bus crash sentenced to eight years

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    MELFORT, Saskatchewan — The driver whose transport truck crashed into a hockey team bus in Canada, killing 16 people, has been sentenced to eight years in prison.

    Thirteen others were injured when Jaskirat Singh Sidhu’s semitrailer loaded with peat moss collided with the Humboldt Broncos’ bus in rural Saskatchewan. Sidhu had pleaded guilty earlier this year to 29 counts of dangerous driving

    The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

    Judge Inez Cardinal said Friday that Sidhu’s remorse and guilty plea were mitigating factors, but added she had to consider the number of people who died or were severely injured and face lifelong challenges.

    Sidhu’s truck ran through a stop sign and into the path of the junior hockey team’s bus at an intersection last April.

    Cardinal said the collision was avoidable.

    “Mr. Sidhu had ample time to react … had he been paying attention,” she said. “Somehow we must stop this carnage on our highways.”

    The prosecution wanted the 30-year-old Sidhu to be sent to prison for 10 years, while his lawyers said other cases suggested a range of 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years.

    Cardinal began her decision by reading aloud each victim’s name. She said the nearly 100 victim impact statements from families were staggering.

    The judge said the hockey players who died were gifted athletes, while others on the bus were dreaming about families or had already started them.

    “Families have been torn apart because of the loss,” Cardinal said. “They are prone to depression, anxiety or outbursts.”

    She also spoke of the survivors, who she suggested “are putting on a brave face in an attempt to be strong.”

    Sidhu’s lawyers had said he was remorseful and is likely to face deportation to his home country of India after he serves time.

    At a sentencing hearing in January, it was made known that Sidhu was going between 86 and 96 kph (53 and 60 mph) when he passed four signs warning him about the upcoming intersection and approached an oversized stop sign with a flashing light.

    Prosecutor Thomas Healey said Sidhu should have seen the busy highway in front of him or a car that was stopped across the road and waiting for the Broncos’ bus to pass.

    Healey described the semitrailer as a rocket that barreled into the intersection, which gave the bus driver no time to avoid the crash.

    Defense lawyer Mark Brayford said Sidhu was hired by a small Calgary trucking company three weeks earlier. He had spent two weeks with another truck driver before heading out on his own for the first time.

    Brayford suggested Sidhu was distracted by a flapping tarp on the back of his load of peat moss.

    Oilers’ Rieder responds to CEO criticism: ‘It’s disappointing’

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    Edmonton Oilers forward Tobias Rieder had the same reaction everyone should have had when he first read the comments from team CEO Bob Nicholson on Thursday, essentially blaming him for the Oilers’ struggles this season and missing the playoffs for what will be the second year in a row (and 12th time in the past 13 years).

    “You look at it and kind of can’t believe it,” said Rieder on Friday, just less than 24 hours he was thrown under the bus by the team’s CEO.

    Speaking at an event with season ticket holders, Nicholson did not hold back in his criticism of Rieder, saying that he went to Edmonton as a free agent hoping to play with one of the team’s two superstars (Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl), score 15 or 16 goals, and turn that performance into a larger contract.

    Nicholson then criticized Rieder, who has not scored a goal in 60 games this season, for missing “so many breakaways” and then capping it all off with the remark that if Rieder had scored 10 or 12 goals this season the team might be in the playoffs.

    “I feel like it’s disappointing, and I’m offended by it,” said Rieder, via AM 630 in Edmonton. “I’m the first one to admit I’m not having a good year. It has not been an easy season for me, it’s been hard. But I’m still going out there and giving 100 percent every time I am on the ice, every game, trying to help the team win. It was tough to read for somebody to get singled out like that and kind of thrown under the bus. It is what it is now. I’m not proud of the season I’m having. Like I said, I’m the first one to admit I’m not playing to my capabilities. I think it went a little too far, and I think Bob knows that too.”

    [Related: Oilers’ CEO apologizes for comments about Tobias Rieder]

    Even after their win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, the Oilers are still five points out of a playoff spot in what has been a historically weak playoff race in the Western Conference and still have five teams ahead of them for the second Wild Card spot. Their goal differential of minus-35 is 24th in the NHL and they are the 20th in the league in goals per game despite having two of the top-five scorers in the NHL (McDavid and Draisaitl), both of whom are likely to top 100 points this season.

    An additional 10 or 12 goals from Rieder, or anyone else for that matter, would still give them a minus-23 goal differential (which would still only be 23rd in the league) and only improve them to 18th in the league in goals per game. Unless those “10 or 12 goals” all happened at the exact right time and only occurred in one-goal losses, it is an outrageous statement to make, and perhaps the most outrageous any team executive has made this season (not an easy accomplishment).

    When asked what bothered him the most about the criticism, Rieder said it was a combination of the timing and the way it came across.

    “Thought the timing was a bit weird,” Rieder said. “We are still in the race for the playoffs. Still going to go out there and play my heart out, and play for the guys and my friends in the locker room and do my best to help the team win.

    “We are talking all year going through adversity, and the guys in the room we have to stick together. I just don’t think it’s right to single somebody out in a team sport. I get where he’s coming from, like I said, I’m not having my best year, and I just don’t think it’s the right place to single somebody out and throw them under the bus.”

    Rieder said he first got word of the comments when Nicholson phoned him to apologize. He was not fully aware of what was happening as he had been taking his pre-game nap in preparation for Thursday’s game, and then his phone began blowing up.

    While Rieder was clearly not happy with the criticism and being singled out, he said he still accepted Nicholson’s apology.

    “Yeah I did,” said Rieder. “I think that’s the grown up thing to do, you don’t want to get it dragging on forever. It is what it is. Whatever happened, happened, and that’s how it is in this business, you got to get over it.”

    Rieder signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the team in free agency this past season. He has 11 assists in 60 games while playing just a little more than 12 minutes per night.

    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.

    Holtby won’t go with Capitals to White House

    ARLINGTON, Va. — Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said Friday he will not join his teammates next week for a White House celebration of their Stanley Cup championship.

    Holtby is the second player on the Capitals’ active roster to decline, joining fellow Canadian Brett Connolly.

    ”It’s one of those things that we have to think about, but with me, I’ve got to stay true to my values, and I’m going respectfully decline the offer,” Holtby said. ”For me, it’s just a personal thing. I believe in what I believe in, and in order to stick to those values, I think I have to do what I feel is right, but that doesn’t make a difference on everyone else’s decision.”

    President Donald Trump has occasionally been at odds with pro athletes, from NFL players protesting racial injustices during the national anthem to NBA players including LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

    The defending Stanley Cup champions will hold a private tour of the White House and meet Trump on Monday . The event will not include a public ceremony.

    Russian captain Alex Ovechkin, Americans John Carlson and T.J. Oshie and coach Todd Reirden have said they will attend.