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Panthers’ Barkov looks to overtake Bure in final game of the season

When the Florida Panthers step on the ice tonight at BB&T Center, it will be the last time they do so until the fall.

There won’t be a playoff series this season for the third year running but rather a quiet send off and a season that will all soon be forgotten. The postmortems are surely coming. What went wrong, what were the positives and how can a team that appears to have some pretty solid talent figure out its issues in goal will all be discussed in the coming days and weeks.

But before garbage bag day takes place, the Panthers can help one of their stalwarts break a record that’s stood for nearly 20 years.

Aleksander Barkov enters Game 82 of the regular season with 94 points in the bag. His 34 goals and 60 assists are both career highs in what’s been an incredible personal season for the Finn.

And that season can gain an exclamation point beside it if Barkov is to notch a single point in their game against the New Jersey Devils. Barkov sits level with Pavel Bure for most points in a single season. Bure put up 58 goals and 94 points during the 1999-2000 season in his first full ride with the team.

Despite where the team sits heading into the final game, the points record is not lost on Barkov’s teammates.

“I told him that we’ve got to do it early, just get it out of the way,” Panthers forward Jonathan Boudreau said on Saturday morning. “Last game he didn’t get a point, but I feel we’ve got to get him a point and beat Bure. It would be great for him.”

If Barkov can get a point (and the odds are good with 10 points in 14 career games against the Devils), then it will be the second Bure record to fall this season.

On the other side of the continent, Bure’s rookie points record with the Vancouver Canucks was broken by Elias Pettersson last month. Bure had 60 points during his rookie year in 1991-92. Pettersson notched his 61st point on March 18 and has 65 now with a game to go.

It hasn’t been a kind year for the Russian Rocket, at least not in the record books. But it’s been a great season for two young players following in his wake.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: Oskar Lindblom reflects on battling cancer

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Lindblom’s battle, key Wild decisions, and more

• Alex Prewitt shares a detailed, touching account of Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom‘s battle with cancer. [SI]

• USA Hockey announced the cancellation of the 2020 World Junior Summer showcase. The event was originally scheduled for July 24-31, but it makes sense to err on the side of caution. [USA Hockey]

• Ken Campbell believes the Wild took care of the present by dropping the interim tag from head coach Dean Evason, and secured the future by signing Kirill Kaprizov. I’d say the jury is still out on Evason, but getting Kaprizov signed is huge — even if COVID-19 presents more bumps in the road. [The Hockey News]

• How about some more detail on Evason, then? Tony Abbott breaks down why Wild GM Bill Guerin might have been impressed with Evason. In particular, it’s interesting to see that the Wild picked up the pace with Evason after firing Bruce Boudreau. [Zone Coverage]

• A fun one from John Matisz on various skills that hockey players find difficult to master. Some covet Nicklas Lidstrom’s ability to walk the line. Kevin Shattenkirk marvels at the deceptive “hitch” Nikita Kucherov can put on his shot. [The Score]

• Ranking the Detroit Red Wings’ jerseys, from worst to first. That 1928-29 Cougars logo is choice. [Hockey by Design]

NHL training camps, insight on playoff matchups, and free agency

• The Maple Leafs don’t view training camp as merely an opportunity to tune up. Instead, such activities are being framed as competition for playoff roster spots. I imagine players like Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly don’t have to worry too much, though. [Sportsnet]

• Sin Bin Vegas transcribed key Robin Lehner quotes about his free agent future. Over and over again, it seems clear that Lehner craves term in contract offers, making me wonder if a savvy team might be able to bring his AAV down by giving him some stability. Goalies are unpredictable, but you could make worse bets than Lehner, who’s been outstanding since at least 2018-19. [Sin Bin Vegas/TSN 1200 interview]

Really, the biggest story for today’s PHT Morning Skate might be Lehner’s silly leg pads:

 

• Count Brenden Dillon among the pending UFAs who would prefer to stick with their teams. In Dillon’s case, it’s the Capitals, whom he’s still becoming acquainted with. Looking at the Capitals’ cap situation, Dillon returning isn’t out of the question, although that might boil down to what kind of deal the rugged defenseman expects. Also, it may hinge on other decisions, such as what to do with Braden Holtby. [Nova Caps Fans]

• As the Canadiens await, which players are the biggest X-factors for the Penguins? [Pensburgh]

• Being that the Flames and Jets only met in an outdoor game, Paul Maurice doesn’t believe there’s much video to use in preparing for Calgary. He also explains how NHL systems are like battleships. Hopefully the return to play doesn’t flop like that movie. [Winnipeg Free Press]

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’s older coaches debate wearing masks, taking precautions

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After two days behind a mask and off his skates, Rick Bowness returned to his natural habitat on the ice with air inside the rink blowing against his face.

”You get out there and you miss it,” the Dallas Stars coach said. ”You realize how much you enjoy being out there.”

The NHL’s oldest head coach still worries about COVID-19 but not enough to stop doing his job. It’s a risk-reward proposition coaches and executives around sports are weighing, and while Florida assistant Mike Kitchen is the only one to so far opt out of hockey’s return, plenty of others are considering masking up behind the bench and taking other precautions in the middle of a pandemic.

”It’s a different world out there,” Bowness, 65, said. ”I’m going to have to adjust to it, there is no question. I just want to make sure I’m cautious, which we’ve been since this virus started, and I will continue to do that. My health – hey, I’m a grandfather now, my first grandkid. I intend on playing some golf with that kid down the road. I intend on being here a lot longer. So, yeah, am I going to be careful? Absolutely.”

The World Health Organization said the disease can be more severe in people 60 and over, and the NHL has four head coaches and a handful of assistants in that age range. The average age of the 24 head coaches in the playoffs is just under 54, the second-oldest behind the NBA among North America’s four major professional sports leagues.

With that life experience comes meetings like New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz held with his staff this week to talk about whether to don a mask for games and practices.

”I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do,” Trotz said Wednesday on his 58th birthday. ”I’m not too concerned. I’m in pretty good health, but it affects everybody differently if you do get it. I don’t want to get it, so there’s a good chance I could have a mask behind the bench, but I haven’t decided yet. I should say I don’t want to give it to anybody if I have it, but I don’t.”

Coaches are relying on frequent testing at training camp and in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, hoping before going into quarantine that players and their families can avoid contracting the virus that halted the season in March. All team staff are tested every other day for now and will be daily once games start.

”We’re all doing everything we can not to bring it into our locker room,” Bowness said. ”Give our players credit, as well, because this is a big sacrifice for everyone and they’re looking after themselves.”

The NHL reported 43 players tested positive during voluntary workouts from June 8-July 12. At least three of those cases came from the Tampa Bay Lightning and one from the Boston Bruins, though the league took over reporting statistics in the name of privacy and anonymity.

Outside practice facilities, coaches’ comfort levels might vary from a hotspot such as Texas to the Canadian province of Manitoba, where there have been zero reported cases in 13 of the past 14 days.

”It was possibly easier for me, because of the fact that I was pretty darn safe right from the start,” 53-year-old Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said. ”I’m really confident in what goes on in our building, tested every second day, I don’t feel particularly exposed.”

The only coach taking part in the NHL’s return older than Bowness is 67-year-old Pittsburgh assistant Jacques Martin, who was on the ice for camp practices this week like normal. Columbus’ John Tortorella, 62, Florida’s Joel Quenneville, 61, and Montreal’s Claude Julien, 60, also all felt comfortable enough to get back to work.

Tortorella, who along with Philadelphia’s 59-year-old Alain Vigneault and Boston’s 55-year-old Bruce Cassidy is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, brushed aside a question about himself and said, ”Safety is the priority” for all involved.

Kitchen made what he called ”a difficult decision to say the least, but the right decision for me and my family” in opting out, and Quenneville said he wished his longtime right-hand man nothing but the best.

Much like players, only a handful of whom decided not to play, coaches had to make their own determinations.

”I think this is going to be an individual thing,” Bowness said. ”We’re all going to deal with it in our own way. … We’re all going to have to make that call.”

Day 3 of NHL training camps sees Kaprizov talk, Fleury absent again

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Day 3 of Return to Play training camps is another day closer to the puck being dropped for real. Teams are still trying to get back into game rhythm and rekindle the chemistry that was put on pause in mid-March.

The popular phrase “unfit to play” wasn’t uttered as much as it was on Monday and Tuesday. But given the “new normal” of injury reporting in the NHL now, we’ve certainly not heard the last of teams not expanding on why a player wasn’t on the ice.

Let’s take a quick skate around Wednesday’s happenings.

No panic over another Fleury absence

Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was not on the ice for the third straight day. The team stressed his absence was not COVID-19-related. Head coach Peter DeBoer said it’s just maintenance and he expects him to join the team before the weekend.

“He’s feeling good,” DeBoer said. “We’ve got a long runway here before we start. He really practiced hard. He doesn’t have anything significant. The plan is he will be on the ice before the weekend.”

Kaprizov signed, sealed, but yet to be delivered

Three head coaches and four general managers later, Kirill Kaprizov is finally a Wild player. The 2015 draft pick held a Zoom call with reporters and was virtually presented with his No. 97 jersey by GM Bill Guerin.

Wild TV

While Kaprizov is able to burn the first year of his two-year entry-level contract, he won’t be able to play in the Return to Play program. He will be able to practice with the Wild, pending he’s able to join the team before they head to Edmonton. The team is still working on visas for the 23-year-old forward. There’s also the issue of international quarantine once he arrives from Russia.

“He knows everybody’s waiting for him, and he can’t wait to put on the jersey himself, as well,” Kaprizov said through interpreter Alex Buzi. “He hopes that’s going to happen sometime as soon as next week, and he’s really eager and excited to join the team.”

What might Patrik Laine do during his down time in the bubble?

Maple Leafs getting into game mode early

There are roster spots up for grabs for the Maple Leafs, so what better way to help the selection process than a good old fashioned tournament.

That’s what head coach Sheldon Keefe did on Wednesday, splitting the squad up into two teams — Team Auston and Team Freddie — in a best-of-five series featuring officials.

“I think it was great. You’ve got to get used to where the refs are out there again. Coming into the zone, just setting up in the zone, it’s a little different when they’re not there,” said William Nylander said. “They take up some space so running our power play without would leave some extra space that we wouldn’t be used to once the games start. I think that was a great aspect to have included.”

The NHL has stepped in, however, and said no to officials in the future. The risk of exposure for both sides is too great of a risk.

Keeping up with the Kovalchuks

Ilya Kovalchuk played only seven games with the Capitals following the February trade from Montreal. After a forgettable time with the Kings, he was rejuvenated with the Canadiens, and there’s plenty of excitement to see him in that Washington lineup on an extended basis.

The 37-year-old was busy during the break with training and being occupied with his four kids.

“I gotta keep them busy and I want to lead by example, so we’re doing something every day,” he said. “No days off for our family.”

Even the training sessions became a family affair:

Vatanan healthy for Hurricanes

When the Hurricanes play the Rangers, Sami Vatanen will make his long-awaited debut for his new team. The defenseman has been out since suffering a leg injury Feb. 1. He was dealt from the Devils later that month but did not play for Carolina before the pause. Five months later, he’s good to go.

“Health-wise, I feel 100 percent,” Vatanen said. “I have no worries about that. Of course, it takes a little time to get to game speed, but we have a long time still until we start to play, so I will be ready.”

The Hurricanes’ blue line will be bolstered for their series with New York. Not only will they get Vatanen back, Dougie Hamilton will also make a return from injury. He fractured his left fibula in January.

“Dougie’s back, and now we’ve got to find somewhere else to put [Vatanen],” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “He’s a talented player. You’re talking power play. That’s what he does. He’s good at it, but there’s a learning curve, and we can’t wait five games to see if it will work with him.”

MORE: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule

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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.

‘Luck in disguise’: Layoff helps Blue Jackets get healthy

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Considering they are about to resume the season amid a pandemic, the Columbus Blue Jackets are healthier than they’ve been in a long while.

When the NHL halted play in mid-March because of the coronavirus, injuries to top players had piled up, and coach John Tortorella had started to fret that the youngsters he plugged into the lineup wouldn’t have the steam to carry the Blue Jackets to the playoffs.

All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and top goal-scorer Oliver Bjorkstrand were out with broken ankles. A long list of others had missed games with various injuries, including the two top goalies.

“When Oliver goes out — and he was our best player at that point in time — when Jonesy goes down, we were swimming upstream big time,” Tortorella said after opening practice this week ahead of a five-game playoff qualifying series against Toronto set to begin Aug. 2.

“I’m not sure where we go without those two for another 12 games we had to play,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to say we weren’t going to get in, but it was a struggle.”

Jones and Bjorkstrand are healed and back at full speed. So is veteran Cam Atkinson, who had struggled with a high ankle sprain. Goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, both of whom excelled at different times this season, are healthy and will compete to start in the net against Toronto.

Jones, who had surgery Feb. 11, called the forced layoff “luck in disguise.”

“It’s so nice to see the guys healthy, especially the big-minute players on our team that have been such as asset to us,” captain Nick Foligno said. “I think we felt really strongly about our group even with all the injuries we had, but to add those players it’s an instant boost to your team and your morale. We’re getting back our leaders.”

The season was unusual for the Blue Jackets even before the coronavirus. The team was struggling in early December before a winning streak helped it climb into contention in the Metropolitan Division.

As regulars went down to injuries, Tortorella summoned players who had started the season at the team’s top minor league club in Cleveland. The Blue Jackets stayed in it, and when the season was paused on March 12, they were above the wildcard line in the Eastern Division. When the league decided to go straight to a 24-team postseason upon resumption, Columbus was seeded ninth in the East based on points percentage and drew a matchup with the eighth-seeded Maple Leafs in the play-in round.

Some of those young players, including forwards Emil Bemstrom, Liam Foudy and Eric Robinson are expected to contribute even with the team back to near full strength.

Columbus will face a potent Maple Leaf attack led by stars Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares. Toronto’s 237 goals were second in the league to Tampa Bay’s 243 when the season was suspended.

“Essentially, we’re all starting from zero, right?” Atkinson said. “So it doesn’t matter what happened during the regular season, what teams were hot, the injuries and what not. We’re just all healed up and ready to go.”

Tortorella said safety is the priority as the team travels to Toronto to enter the “playoff bubble.”

“We’re going to go through all the precautions and do it the right way,” said Tortorella, who on Wednesday was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for the league’s top coach. “There is a point — and I talked to the team — I don’t want this to be a bunch of drama, either, talking about the virus every day. We’re going to protect the players, the league is going to protect the players, we need to get ready to play hockey also.”

Matthews, Toronto’s star center, said Monday he tested positive for COVID-19 last month in his home state of Arizona but was largely asymptomatic and has fully recovered. Columbus has reported no cases.