Can Avalanche, Sabres get back on track in second half?


The Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres are having a nearly identical experience on the roller coaster ride that is their 2018-19 season.

It all started with what was probably considered a pleasant surprise and a lot of excitement, and has quickly devolved into a season that could end with bitter disappointment if things don’t start to turn around quickly. While both teams opened the season with their share of flaws on their respective rosters, they both stormed out of the gate and found themselves sitting with the exact same record (37 points) through their first 27 games.

For any team, in any season, that is not only an outstanding start it is usually the jumping off point for what could be a special year. It is playing at would be a 112-point pace for more than a quarter of the season, something that is not easy to do. That usually puts teams among the top four or five in the NHL and is usually the sign of a team that not only has a great shot to make the playoffs, but even a shot to go on a serious playoff run.

During the 10-year stretch between 2008-09 and 2017-18 there were 45 teams that recorded at least 37 points through their first 27 games in a season, with 42 of them (93.3 percent) going on to make the playoffs. Banking those early season points matters and usually gives teams enough of a cushion for any sort of slump that will happen over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Given the flaws both teams had (scoring depth and defensive, specifically) it seemed inevitable that neither one would continue that early season pace, but they still seemed to have put themselves in a great position, one that would have been extremely difficult to squander the rest of the way.

For the Avalanche, it looked to be a big stepping stone after last year’s stunning turnaround that saw them go from being one of the worst teams in the NHL over the past decade, all the way to a playoff berth in just one season.

For the Sabres, it looked as if this season was finally going to be a real sign of progress after seven consecutive non-playoff seasons and a massive rebuild that has resulted in nothing but losing. With a 17-7-3 start out of the gate, including a 10-game winning streak, the postseason finally seemed to be in reach again.

Despite all of that, both teams prepare to enter the second half of the season in danger of completely missing the playoffs due to nearly identical slides over the past two months.

Buffalo has dropped out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture entirely and finds itself four points back of the second Wild Card spot. Given how far ahead the rest of the pack in the Atlantic Division is (the Sabres are seven points back of the third-place Montreal Canadiens) the wild card is probably the Sabres’ only path to a playoff spot right now. All they have to do at the moment is overtake the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins, both of which have far more talented rosters.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, are one of the many teams in Western Conference race that are all separated by just a handful of points. With 52 points on the season the Avalanche are clinging to the second wild card spot based on points percentage at the moment, but are also just three points back of a top-three spot in the Central Division.

The similarities between both teams and how their seasons have progressed are striking.

Both teams had the first half of their seasons defined by one hot streak that skyrocketed them up the standings. For the Sabres, it was the aforementioned 10-game winning streak that was powered by a stunning run of good fortune that saw them win almost every game not only by a single goal, but also (usually) in overtime or a shootout.

Eventually that luck ran out. Around that same time, the Avalanche went on an 11-game point streak (9-0-2).

Both teams have also been powered almost exclusively by just a single, dominant line at the top of their lineup.

In Buffalo, it has been the Jack EichelJeff Skinner duo that has paced them. In Colorado, the Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog trio has done all of the heavy lifting.

Just look at the numbers (goals, shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances, all via Natural Stat Trick) for both teams when their top lines are on the ice versus when any of the the other three lines have to play.

Each one plays at a Stanley Cup level with its top line on the ice, and then sees a massive slide down to a lottery team level as soon as it leaves the ice.

The Avalanche at least hold up decently well when it comes to scoring chances when their big line is off the ice, but it has not yet translated into anything meaningful on the scoreboard.

The Sabres, however, are totally dependent on the Eichel-Skinner duo to keep them afloat.

This, along with the way they are in danger of squandering such a great start in the standings, has to be especially frustrating for both teams because they have the most difficult pieces to find. They not only have top-line, All-Star level talent on their rosters, they have multiple players at that level and all of them are not only reaching expectations, there is an argument to be made they are exceeding them. But these two teams are showing — along with the Dallas Stars and Edmonton Oilers — that it takes more than one line, no matter how great or dominant it is, to win in the NHL on a consistent basis. For as good as these groupings are together they are still only playing a third of the game (at most) on any given night. That leaves the majority of the game up to the rest of the team, and if the rest of the team isn’t close to that same level, or good enough to outplay the other team’s second, third, and fourth lines none of it is going to matter.

The Avalanche are probably the team sitting in the best position right now, even though they are competing with more teams for a playoff spot.

For one, they have shown some sign that their other lines can at least create some chances. They are not totally lost without the MacKinnon-Rantanen-Landeskog trio on the ice. They also have not been as dependent as the Sabres when it comes to overtime and one-goal games. Even when the Avalanche went on their 11-game point streak only three of their nines wins were by a single goal, and they were only 2-2 in games decided by one goal during that stretch. They have shown they can blow teams out control games to the point where it does not all come down to one call, or shot, or play going in their favor.

If anything, they’ve been a little unlucky in one-goal games this seasons with only a 4-8-7 mark as of Sunday.

The Sabres, on the other hand, have shown absolutely nothing this season without the Eichel and Skinner on the ice and have been almost entirely dependent on one-goal games with a 13-5-6 mark. That is not the sign of a good team that knows how to win close games. That is the sign of a team that has been terribly lucky.

It is also a concerning sign for the rest of the season.

Both teams put themselves in a great position in the first quarter of the season, and both teams allowed themselves to fall down to the bubble in the second quarter.

They now have less than 35 games to figure it out and get back on track to avoid what would be a stunning collapse based on recent NHL history.

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

Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

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MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.

Vegas Golden Knights come back to beat Florida Panthers in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

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LAS VEGAS – Back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in five years and trailing the Florida Panthers less than 10 minutes into Game 1, the Vegas Golden Knights sent a very clear message.

“We were ready,” Jonathan Marchessault said.

Ready and dominant. Vegas rallied from an early deficit, got the go-ahead goal from Zach Whitecloud with just over 13 minutes left and arguably the best save of the playoffs from Adin Hill and beat Florida 5-2 Saturday night to take the lead in the best-of-seven series.

“We kept out composure, and it was good,” said Marchessault, one of six original Knights players left from the start of the franchise in 2017 who scored the tying goal in the first period. “We just wanted to play the right way and be disciplined, and tonight we were able to be the better team.”

Whitecloud put Vegas ahead, a crucial penalty kill followed and captain Mark Stone scored an insurance goal that was reviewed for a high stick and confirmed. Reilly Smith sealed it with an empty-netter to make the score look more lopsided than the game.

The combination of that offense and Hill’s 33 saves put Vegas up after a feisty opener between Sun Belt teams who wasted little time getting acquainted with big hits during play and plenty of post-whistle pushing and shoving.

“It’s exactly what we expected,” said Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore, who scored his first goal of the playoffs and ended a 27-game drought dating to March 7. “That’s how they wanted to play. We were just trying not to play into it.”

That stuff is just beginning. Game 2 is Monday in Las Vegas.

Before the Panthers even get a chance to respond, they ratcheted up the physical play late after falling behind by two. A handful of penalties resulting from a fracas with 4:24 remaining left the Florida bench well short.

The outcome was determined long before that.

After falling behind on a short-handed goal by Eric Staal that sucked the life out of the crowd of 18,432, the Golden Knights rallied for their ninth comeback win this playoffs. Marchessault – known since arriving in Las Vegas for scoring big goals – answered before the end of the first period.

Early in the second, Hill made a desperation stick save to rob Nick Cousins of what would have been a sure goal. The save was reminiscent of the one Washington’s Braden Holtby made against Vegas – in the same crease – five years ago.

“That’s an unreal save – it’s a game-changer,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “You need those saves at key moments.”

Giving up a tying goal to Anthony Duclair with 10.2 seconds left in the second did not slow the Golden Knights’ momentum much. Whitecloud’s goal, with two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky screened and unable to see, fired up fans once again.

Bobrovsky, in the final for the first time, downplayed any reason for concern after stopping 29 of 34 shots and losing for just the second time in 12 games this postseason.

“I played a good game,” Bobrovsky said. “I played a solid game. They created some good chances other than goals. They had lots of good scoring chances, and that was fun.”

Part of the fun came when play was stopped.

Less than 10 minutes in, Hill was none too happy about Nick Cousins crashing into his crease and gave the agitating Panthers winger a jab that incited a handful of scrums. During the second period, Matthew Tkachuk let Vegas’ Nic Hague know he wasn’t thrilled about a hit in the corner on Cousins and a collision with Brandon Montour after the whistle.

“If guys are going to come in my crease and try to push me around, I’m going to stand my own ground,” Hill said. “I’m not going to do anything too crazy or get too wild, but, yeah, I’ve got to stand up for myself.”

Florida coach Paul Maurice, back in the final for the first time since 2001, displayed a similarly calm demeanor as he did all the way back in the first round, when his team fell behind 1-0 then 3-1 to NHL-best Boston before winning in seven.

“It’s going to be tight,” Maurice said. “Everybody breathe.”

The Golden Knights are in the final for the second time in six years of existence, five years after making it in their inaugural season. Vegas won the opener in 2018 and lost the series to Washington in five games.

The Panthers are back playing for the Cup for the first time since 1996. Florida got swept by Colorado in that final 27 years ago, 18 months before Tkachuk, the team’s leading scorer this playoffs, was born.

It’s the 66th different matchup of teams in the Cup final in NHL history and the 46th since the expansion era began in 1967-68. This is the first time since Washington-Vegas and just the third time since the turn of the century in which the final features two teams who have never won the league’s championship.

Penguins name former Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas as director of hockey operations

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Kyle Dubas wanted to take a breath and take a break after being fired as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then the Pittsburgh Penguins called.

The break ended shortly thereafter.

Dubas joined the Penguins as the team’s president of hockey operations, less than two weeks after a somewhat ugly exit from Toronto following a second-round playoff loss to Florida.

The 37-year-old Dubas goes from one type of hockey crucible to another. In Toronto, he was tasked with helping the Maple Leafs emerge from two decades of postseason futility. In Pittsburgh, his mission will be to prop open the Stanley Cup window for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a little longer.

All three are 35 or older and haven’t won a playoff series since 2018. Yet Dubas believes strongly the issue isn’t the age of the franchise’s core but deficiencies elsewhere on the roster. Dubas replaces Brian Burke, who was fired along with general manager Ron Hextall in April after the Penguins failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.

“I heard a lot of people that were highly skeptical of the team’s ability to contend here and the way I view it, if the people want to bet against (Crosby, Letang and Malkin) they can go ahead and do so,” Dubas said. “But I’m going to bet on them and go with them here. I think it is a group that’s capable of contending to win a championship.”

Crosby and Malkin were excellent for much of last season and Letang showed remarkable resiliency while dealing with multiple setbacks, including a stroke and the death of his father. Yet save for a 14-2-2 stretch in November and December, the Penguins struggled to find consistency and ultimately stumbled down the stretch to snap the longest active playoff streak in major North American Sports.

While the Penguins do have $20 million in cap space and the 14th overall pick in this month’s NHL draft, significant changes or upgrades could be difficult in the short term.

Dubas inherits a team that was the oldest in the NHL last season and is littered with question marks, particularly in goal and the forward group outside of Crosby, Malkin and Jake Guentzel.

Two-time All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry will become a free agent this summer and was beset by injuries over the second half of the season. Forward Jason Zucker, who served as the emotional sparkplug for long stretches, is also scheduled to hit the open market and may have priced himself out of town.

Pittsburgh also has several aging players with full or partial no-movement clauses, including 38-year-old forward Jeff Carter, 30-year-old Bryan Rust and 35-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry.

“I think that those are obviously very real situations, everyone knows that they exist,” Dubas said. “To me the effect on it … is what we can add in terms of depth pieces? What we can add in terms of younger players? That’ll be the real key.”

Dubas does plan to hire a general manager to fill the vacancy created when Hextall was let go after a short but largely unfruitful tenure. Dubas will serve as the GM on an interim basis until early July.

Dubas comes to Pittsburgh after nine seasons with the Maple Leafs, including the last five as general manager. Toronto won a postseason series for the first time since 2004 this spring before falling to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games.

Shortly after the Maple Leafs’ playoff exit, Dubas said that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to remain in Toronto. His contract was set to expire on June 30, but team president Kyle Shanahan opted to pre-emptively fire Dubas instead. Toronto hired former Calgary Flames general manager Brad Treliving as Dubas’ replacement.

Dubas helped build the Maple Leafs into a regular-season power during his tenure. Toronto set single-season records for wins and points, and went 221-109-42 in his tenure. Dubas also didn’t shy away from big moves – he fired Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Babcock in November 2019 and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe – but struggled to find the right mix in the playoffs until this spring.

In the end, advancing beyond the first round for the first time since 2004 wasn’t enough for Dubas to remain in Toronto.

He joked he was maybe a little “too honest” during his season-ending press conference with the Maple Leafs when he expressed reservations about returning. Shanahan’s abrupt decision to move on came as a bit of a surprise, and Dubas planned to take some time to hit the reset button before looking for another job.

Yet the Penguins – who’d already been given clearance by the Maple Leafs to interview Dubas – provided a compelling reason to speed up the timetable. Dubas’ due diligence included speaking to Crosby and longtime coach Mike Sullivan to take the pulse of a leadership group that remains firmly in place.

Dubas called them “some of the best competitors” in hockey. Competitors that have – for one reason or another – been unable to recapture the magic of their runs to back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017.

Time is running out for Crosby to put his name on the Cup for a fourth time in a career that will almost certainly end in the Hall of Fame. Dubas knows he’ll be judged in part on whether he can make that happen. After taking more than six weeks of searching before landing on Dubas, Fenway Sports Group Chairman Tom Werner believes Dubas is up to the challenge.

“Our philosophy is giving Kyle and his associates the best possible resources to win,” Werner said. “Kyle’s been very articulate today about his path to success … we’re very confident that Kyle will execute the plan he’s articulated to us.”

Seattle Kraken sign GM Ron Francis to 3-year extension through 2026-27 season

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SEATTLE — Ron Francis was initially approached about extending his stay as the general manager of the Seattle Kraken back in the winter, but putting finality to the decision took longer than expected.

The Kraken kept winning and pushed what was mostly a formality to a secondary need until after Seattle’s unexpected playoff run finally ended.

“At that point it was kind of verbally done, just kind of a few little small details. And then we get into the playoffs and busy and it kind of got put on the back burner and I didn’t want it to be a distraction with the team and where they were at,” Francis said.

That finality came when the Kraken announced Francis had signed a three-year extension through the 2026-27 season. Francis originally signed a five-year deal when he became the first GM in franchise history back in 2019 and the new contract will kick in starting with the 2024-25 season.

“I’ll never forget the day that he said, ‘Yes, I’m ready to do this,’” Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said. “But today is another great day for our fans because not only did he come and build, he is going to stay here and continue to build this franchise.”

Seattle reached the second round of the NHL playoffs in its second year of existence, following a challenging first year where it underachieved and was among the worst teams in the league.

But Francis navigated through that difficult first season and helped land the pieces that turned Seattle into a playoff team in the second year without mortgaging future opportunities or putting the Kraken into challenging salary cap situations.

“He has been the leader that’s gotten us to where we are today. And he is the leader to take us to the next level,” Seattle co-owner Samantha Holloway said.

Seattle is the second stop for Francis as an executive after spending seven seasons in the front office of the Carolina Hurricanes. Francis started as director of hockey operations before becoming the general manager in 2014. Francis was let go by the Hurricanes after the 2018 season.

Seattle jumped at the chance to bring the Hall of Fame player in to lead the front office. Seattle’s expansion season was a major underachievement with the Kraken going 27-49-6 and finishing last in the Pacific Division with 60 points. But Francis was able to move veteran players to stockpile draft picks and left enough salary cap room to make some key moves entering the second season.

Seattle signed free agent forward Andre Burakovksy, traded for winger Oliver Bjorkstrand and inserted rookie Matty Beniers into the lineup on Seattle’s top line from the first day of the season. The results on the ice couldn’t be argued. Seattle went 46-28-8 and reached 100 points, knocked off defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado in the first round of the playoffs before falling to Dallas in seven games in the conference semifinals.

“It’s been a real team effort. I’m sitting up here today and they’re saying good things about me, but it’s a much bigger picture than just me,” Francis said. “I’m excited to be here for a few more years and hopefully everybody’s opinion doesn’t change, but we’re going to stick to the plan and continue building it the right way so we can be a great franchise for multiple years.”

Francis also stuck with coach Dave Hakstol after that difficult first season. He may be the next in line for a contract extension from the team after a season where he was recognized as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for top coach in the league.