NWHL OKs plan to expand to Canada after CWHL folds

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The National Women’s Hockey League is moving swiftly to expand to Toronto and Montreal following the demise of its Canadian-based rival.

NWHL Commissioner Dani Rylan told The Associated Press on Tuesday the league’s board had approved an investment plan to establish teams in Canada’s two largest cities for the start of next season. Rylan also said her league has received a commitment from the NHL that will make it one of the NWHLs biggest financial sponsors.

The decision by the U.S.-based NWHL to cross the border and expand from five teams to seven comes on just two days after the Canadian Women’s Hockey League abruptly announced it will cease operations by May 1 due to financial issues. The CWHL had four teams in Canada, one in suburban Boston and a sixth in China, and its decision after 12 seasons was seen as a major blow to the sport.

”The news definitely came as a shock to us on Sunday morning, but it was obvious that we needed to do what we could to provide for those players to have a place to play this fall,” Rylan said by phone. ”The focus of ours was to figure out a solution for Canada first, and we’re fortunate we were able to do that pretty quickly here.”

Rylan said the expansion decision and NHL’s increased backing weren’t exactly connected. She instead views the NHL’s increased financial support as ”an endorsement of our business and the brands that we’re growing.”

Rylan did not reveal how much additional money the NWHL will receive above the NHL’s $50,000 previous annual commitment. The NHL also contributed $50,000 to support the CWHL.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed the league has increased its financial support. Daly, however, cautioned the additional support doesn’t change the NHL’s position in fully backing a women’s pro sports league.

Daly referred to what he wrote on Sunday in response to the CWHL’s collapse.

”We recognize the importance of women having options to play the game at the professional level. If those options were to become unavailable in the future, we would certainly consider doing what’s necessary to fill that void,” Daly wrote. ”But that’s not the case currently.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman previously told The AP he was hesitant about the league assuming control of the CWHL or NWHL or both because, as he put it, ”we don’t believe in their models.” At the time, he emphasized the importance of starting with a clean slate.

The CWHL operated liked Major League Soccer by owning each of its teams, except for the one based in Shenzhen, China. Starting in 2017-18, it began paying player salaries ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 out of a total budget of $3.7 million. The NWHL has relied on private investors and was the first to pay players a salary.

The shifting fortunes for pro women’s hockey in its hotbed of North America has come with most of the world’s top players in Finland for the world championships, which open on Thursday. Many players tweeted their disappointment on Sunday and Canada’s national team issued a statement Tuesday.

”We are disappointed and shocked to learn of the CWHL’s plan to shut down league operations,” the team said. ”There are many unanswered questions about the future, but we will continue to create dialogue with our teammates, fellow players and leagues. Our priority as players is to move forward and advance the game at all levels, and to ensure female hockey players have a viable league for the future.”

Rylan previously had merger discussions with CWHL officials in a bid to form one North American league rather than have two leagues competing for the same pool of sponsorship money and investor backing.

With the CWHL ceasing operations, Rylan said she can now work to fulfilling the vision she had when establishing the NWHL in 2015.

”A lot of stakeholders and brands have been hesitant to invest in women’s hockey because there was a decision to make before, the CWHL or NWHL,” Rylan said.

”And now there’s no decision,” she added. ”We are the league to do business with and we are continuing conversations and exploring conversation, and eager to accept that business this offseason.”

Without going into detail, Rylan didn’t rule out the possibility of adding more expansion teams before the start of next season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.