NHL All-Star Media Day notebook: McDavid on doubters; Karlsson, Matthews talk contracts

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SAN JOSE — You were out of luck if you were hoping to get a comment out of Connor McDavid regarding the Edmonton Oilers’ firing of general manager Peter Chiarelli this week.

“We’re here for the All-Star Game. I want to enjoy that as much as I can,” he said.

As the Oilers sit three points out of a Western Conference wild card spot, McDavid said he’s ready to push the negativity surrounding the franchise to the side and help the team make a playoff push.

“What I look forward to coming back from the break is trying our best to prove everyone wrong,” he said. “We have an opportunity here where things seem pretty down on us. There’s a sense of negativity with the media, with everyone around the team, and we get to prove people wrong. We get to decide how we’re going to finish the second half.”

Despite some talk (and hope in some cities) that McDavid was sick of the constant failures of the Oilers and would look to find a way out of Edmonton, he shot that idea down quickly.

“That’s just not the case at all,” he said. “I’m here to be a part of the solution, and that’s all I’ll say.”

The Oilers are a team that needed the All-Star break as a chance to get away and clear their heads. They’ve banked enough points, despite their issues, that the hole they’re currently in isn’t too deep. The captain is keeping the faith that the final 32 games of the season will be looked at in a positive light.

“You’ve got to believe,” McDavid said. “You have to believe that we’re going to turn it around and, like I said the other day, if you don’t, you don’t have to be here.

“Obviously, losing isn’t fun. It’s not fun for anybody. I’m no different. You want to win and you want to build something special and something that you’re proud to be a part of, and we’ve got to still build it.”

Matthews, Karlsson talk contracts

One’s set to become a restricted free agent, while the other can hit unrestricted status. Both will see rather large increases in their salary next season, it’s just matter of what the term and dollars look like.

“The sides are talking and making progress and that’s great,” said Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, who can become an RFA on July 1.

“I mean, I wouldn’t say [it’d be a] relief. I would say it’s just a step,” he said. “For me, it’s not something I think about much. When it gets done it gets done. Until then, I’m not worrying about it. I’ll let my agent handle it with [Leafs GM] Kyle [Dubas] and his management team. They’ll talk. When my agent calls and says I’m ready to sign, then I’ll sign. Until then I’m focusing on the Toronto Maple Leafs and just live every day.”

[NHL players express mixed feelings about player and puck tracking]

“We have no timetable on anything,” said San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson, who cannot sign an eight-year extension until after the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline. He has been eligible to ink a seven-year deal since Jan. 1. “Whatever goes on is going to be handled privately. [Sharks GM] Doug Wilson has been great with us ever since we got here. He’s been very respectful. I appreciate that a lot, both me and my wife do. When the time comes for a decision to be made, whenever that is, I think they’ve done everything they possibly can to give us the most information we need to make the right decision.  

“We came in here with an open mind, and I think we’re going to do everything we can to make the best possible decision for everyone, and especially ourselves with the information that we have at the time. They provided more than enough.”

Giroux on Flyers’ changes, Gritty

He’s the goalie of the future but may also end up as the goalie of the now depending on how the Flyers play out the rest of the season. Goaltender Carter Hart was reassigned back down to AHL Lehigh Valley this week but showed glimpses in 12 starts this season why the franchise thinks so highly of him.

“You don’t see a lot of goalies that are 20 years old and they come in this fast,” said Flyers captain Claude Giroux. “For him to get called up and do the things that he’s doing right now, it’s obviously not a circumstance that we wanted to happen. We had a few injuries for our goaltenders, but for him to come in, play the way he is right now, it’s pretty amazing.”

Hart’s NHL arrival was one of a number of changes for the team this season. Gone are GM Ron Hextall and head coach Dave Hakstol. Replacing them are Chuck Fletcher and, on an interim basis, Scott Gordon. Those changes acted as a wakeup call that Giroux believe the team needed.

“Yeah, when you see a coach or GM get fired, as a player you take it personally,” he said. “You’re responsible for it. You could have done something else to not let that happen. New GM, new coach, a lot of things are happening right now, but we’re going in the right direction.”

On the positive side, this has been the year of Gritty, the jovial mascot who is also trying to get Giroux to become its best friend.

“He is a big deal. I remember the first preseason game, he got booed and I think it was a big motivation for him to do better,” Giroux said. “He’s been shining still.”

Landeskog enjoying All-Star Weekend

The Colorado Avalanche’s top line of Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog are all in San Jose this weekend after a first half that put them in the conversation of who employs the best line in the NHL. The 26-year-old Landeskog is tied for third in goals scored (29) this season and despite his success didn’t expect to see himself taking part in the festivities.

“To be honest, I never really see myself as an All-Star. I think this popped out of nowhere. It’s the result of a good line and a team that’s been doing pretty good in the first half of the season,” he said. “An All-Star Game is always something that you keep an eye on and you always know who’s an All-Star in the league. But to say that I was expecting this, I’d be lying if I said that.”

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ONE-TIMERS

“It’s hard to not choose Connor McDavid. Just the way he skates, he’s faster than everybody else. His hands kind of follow his feet. He makes plays that not a lot of players can make.” – Giroux on who he thinks is the NHL’s best player.

“When you just come here, you’re just taking everything in, you’re not doing anything out of the ordinary, you’re just going with the flow. I think that’s what I did my first year. This year, I’m more comfortable knowing what to expect coming in and that’s important.” – Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones on taking part in his third straight All-Star Weekend.

“I like this layout…  The 3-on-3 format is nice because you can’t really hide. When you play 5-on-5 sometimes you get a little lazy. When it’s 3-on-3, you’ve gotta skate. If you don’t, you’ll get embarrassed, especially the talent that’s here. It forces you to play intense and I think that’s what the fans want to see.” – Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues on the 3-on-3 format.

“I wouldn’t say there’s anything that really jumps off the page. As you get closer, the little details start to come out a little bit more. In terms of that, there hasn’t even been any bargaining, any real discussions over what either side wants. It’s a little bit premature to have those talks.” – Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler on important facets of the next CBA from the players’ side.

“Every single day he’s the hardest worker on the ice, in the gym. First person at the rink, last person at the rink. He’s the ultimate captain. The success he’s having this year doesn’t surprise me one bit. He’s just a great leader and a great hockey player. I could talk about Gio for 10 straight minutes everything he does for our team, what he does for the community. It’s just awesome to be able to play for him and play with him and learn from him as a captain.” – Johnny Gaudreau on Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

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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.

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    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.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

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    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”