Ducks hope to rebuild on fly, return to playoff contention

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — After the Anaheim Ducks’ six-year playoff run ended with a resounding thud last spring, they added almost no significant outside talent to their roster.

If the Ducks hope to return to their usual heights this season, they’ll probably have to do it from within. That migration starts behind the bench, where coach Dallas Eakins is moving up from their AHL affiliate in San Diego to the big leagues.

The former Edmonton coach proved his acumen over the last four years while guiding many young players who will get prominent roles this season in Anaheim. Even after last season’s faceplant, the Ducks’ organizational depth is enviable, and they’re counting on new blood to refresh the veteran core of this longtime Stanley Cup contender.

”You can already see it and feel it around the room that guys are ready to go, and guys are ready to turn that page,” said forward Adam Henrique, a rare offensive bright spot last season. ”(Eakins) is great. It’s a lot of fun coming to the rink. He’s here to work.”

So are the youngsters gunning for major roles in Anaheim: Forwards Sam Steel, Max Jones, Troy Terry and Max Comtois are all 21 or younger. The Ducks need scoring after finishing last in the league in goals, and Eakins believes he has already coached the players who can help.

”This has always been an organization that’s hard to score against, and we don’t want to lose that,” Eakins said. ”We want that to be our identity. But if we don’t score, we can’t win, either. I’m a big believer that you can teach people how to score. It’s all about possession. We were near the bottom on shots last year, but telling players, ‘Hey, we need to shoot the puck more,’ is probably not a good plan. You’ve got to have the puck first.”

Anaheim is moving into the future after a bittersweet severing of its past. An era ended last June when the Ducks bought out Corey Perry‘s contract, ending his 14-year tenure alongside captain Ryan Getzlaf in parallel careers that started when the Ducks were still Mighty.

Perry scored just six goals in 31 games last year, but he was far from the only problem. Ryan Kesler will miss the upcoming season after struggling to return from major hip problems, and his career could be over even though he’s only halfway through his six-year, $41.5 million contract.

What’s more, a blue line that was once flush with elite homegrown talent is hoping for strong seasons from recently acquired defensemen Brendan Guhle, Michael Del Zotto or Chris Wideman.

But optimism currently runs high for the Ducks, who moved into a gorgeous new training complex in Irvine during the offseason.

Anaheim also has no problems in net. John Gibson is coming off another outstanding season despite his team’s woes, proving the Ducks were wise to lock him into a long-term contract, while they persuaded 39-year-old Ryan Miller to return as Gibson’s backup.

WHO’S HERE: Eakins, D Chris Wideman, D Michael Del Zotto, LW Nicolas Deslauriers.

WHO’S NOT: Perry, D Jaycob Megna, D Andy Welinski, C Ben Street, D Jake Dotchin.

KEY PLAYERS: Getzlaf’s connection with Eakins will be a key, and the captain appears to be completely on board. The Ducks badly need a bounce-back season from Rickard Rakell, who slipped from 67 goals over the previous two seasons to just 18 last year. Daniel Sprong, 22, is a candidate for a breakthrough after showing ample promise while scoring 14 goals last year. And with trade rumors finally dying down around Ondrej Kase, the Czech forward is positioned to build on the tantalizing promise he showed in 2017-18 before injuries largely ruined last season.

OUTLOOK: Anaheim has plenty of intriguing talent at all ages and experience levels. Eakins was considered a can’t-miss future star behind the bench when he took over the Oilers in 2013. If he proves to be a true difference-maker in his second shot at the NHL, the results should show up immediately.

PREDICTION: The Ducks are coming off their longest offseason since 2012 after going 35-37-10, and they’ve made no significant additions except behind the bench. Eakins will attempt to get improved results out of largely the same players – but the Ducks have more talent than they showed in their 5-21-4 collapse midway through last season, when they quit on Randy Carlyle. While it’s easy to categorize this as a rebuilding year, Anaheim hasn’t missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2002. These written-off Ducks can muster a top-four finish in the Pacific Division, and maybe more.

Killorn, Lightning jet ski their way to NHL return in ‘Bolts are Back’

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During some of the dog days of the pandemic pause, Alex Killorn gathered Lightning teammates for some tremendous-cheesy “Dock Talk” videos. It only makes sense, then, that he gathered the gang (“the boys?”) for the best segment yet to celebrate the NHL’s return to play. Yes, the “Bolts are back,” indeed.*

* – In small groups

Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and other Lightning teammates celebrated this announcement — on jet skis, with humor — to the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are back in town.”

(Warning: that song will probably get in your head if you watch the video above. Maybe it already is?)

Enjoy some of the best moments of Killorn’s great “Bolts are back” video.

Splashy highlights of Killorn, Stamkos, other Lightning players in “Bolts are back”

Killorn makes his “directorial debut” with an honestly very nice overhead pool shot. The video starts strong with Stamkos and Killorn being goofy on their jet skis.

Stamkos "Bolts are Back"
What, Stamkos didn’t spring for fancy airpods? (via Killorn)

In a moment of poor sportsmanship/skismanship, an unnamed Bruin (or, most likely, someone wearing a Bruins shirt?) gets splashed. Figure this one out, Internet. I believe this is the same person who gets dumped in the water (while wearing a Maple Leafs shirt?) later on?

Bruins guy in "Bolts are Back"
Well, that’s rude. (via Killorn)

While there’s plenty of room for debate, I’d argue that Andrei Vasilevskiy (aka “Big Cat”) earns the nod for best cameo. We catch him lifting weights, and grunting something — maybe “you’re the man?” — before spotting his Lightning pals.

Vasilevskiy Big Cat "Bolts are Back"
Do goalies need to be that ripped? Asking for Dominik Hasek. (via Killorn)

Like many great filmmakers, Killorn tackles class when he features Lightning teammate Anthony Cirelli in one of the more memorable sequences of “Bolts are Back.” Notice that Cirelli (“Rocco”) is waiting tables before being summoned. You see, Cirelli is on an entry-level contract. Is his artificially deflated contract being referenced by Killorn?

Clearly.

Judging by Cirelli abandoning his duties, it’s not only good that the Bolts are back, and so seemingly is the NHL. It’s also promising that Cirelli’s due a raise as a pending RFA.

Other cast members

Not every appearance was as strong as a grunting big cat. Then again, maybe it boils down to repeat viewings, because Mikhail Sergachev‘s fanny pack and cat moved up the power rankings over time:

Sergachev cat
Almost a dog-like pose? Not complaining. (via Killorn)

Clearly, Braydon Coburn and/or Killorn are well-schooled on action movie tropes. At least, that’s my headcanon for Coburn being interrupted while cutting wood. Doesn’t that happen in every thriller involving a reluctantly returning hero? Anyway, Coburn joining the group with an open shirt earns one of the bigger laughs:

Braydon Coburn cameo
Alrighty then, “Kobayashi.” (via Killorn)

Killorn isn’t yet at that “obsessive auteur director” level just yet, as I imagine a control freak would have been maddened by the imperfect skiing V:

imperfect V "Bolts are back"
Maddening. (via Killorn)

(Seriously, who is the straggler? Could Cirelli’s jet ski not keep up? Class rears its ugly head again.)

Killorn ties it all together with another great joke: “The Bolts are back” — in small groups.

"Bolts are Back" -- in small groups
(via Killorn)

Killorn actually might be right about the whole “breakout influencer of the year” thing, honestly.

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.

Puck Treasures: The Mario Lemieux candy bun

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Puck Treasures is all about showcasing unique pieces of hockey memorabilia. Have an interesting item? Send us an email at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

You know you’ve made it when you get something named after you. It could be a street, a school, a beer… maybe even a candy bar.

We know the famous “Reggie” bar named after baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson in the late 1970s.

Those “Reggie” bars were produced by Standard Brands’ Curtiss Candy Company. After several ownership changes, the D.L. Clark Company, based in Pittsburgh, decided in 1992 to honor the captain of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

Behold, the Mario Lemieux Bun!

Worthpoint.com

Each bun, which featured chocolate, peanuts and caramel, contained one Lemieux hockey card. Select packages included cards autographed by Le Manifique. Check out Sal Barry’s review of the three-card set.

According to the Post-Gazette, Lemieux became the first Pittsburgh athlete with his own candy since the Bubby Bar, named after Steelers quarterback Bubby Brister. It was also the first time an NHL player was featured on an internationally marketed candy bar.

There are still some Mario Buns available on eBay, if you’re interested in collectibles or eating 27-year-old candy.

Too bad they couldn’t have teamed up with Jaromir Jagr peanut butter a few years later for a mega-powers bar.

PREVIOUS PUCK TREASURES:
The 170-year-old hockey stick valued at $3.5 million

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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.

Criticism doesn’t alter Sabres GM’s plan to build with youth

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jason Botterill is very much aware of the criticism he’s attracted overseeing a Buffalo Sabres team that extended its playoff drought to nine years by failing to even qualify for the NHL’s expanded 24-team format.

That doesn’t mean the general manager is going to his alter his vision in continuing to build the organizational depth and developing young talent.

“There’s always urgency in this position, and I’m not surprised that our passionate fans want to see a winner on the ice,” Botterill said during a Zoom conference call Wednesday, a day after the Sabres were officially eliminated following the league’s decision to forego the remainder of the regular season.

“When we talk about development, it also equates to trying to find a winning environment here,” he added. “We want our young players to step in and put them in positions where they can succeed, where they can help out our core players right away.”

Though Botterill saw glimpses of his team being competitive under first-year coach Ralph Krueger, there wasn’t enough consistency to extend the Sabres’ 50th anniversary year after games were placed on pause due to the pandemic in March.

With a 30-31-8 record, Buffalo finished 13th in the Eastern Conference standings with a .493 points per game percentage. The Sabres were edged out from securing the final spot in the expanded format by Montreal (.500).

Buffalo’s playoff drought is the NHL’s longest active streak, and one short of matching the league record shared by Florida (2001-11) and Edmonton (2007-16).

For now, Botterill has ownership’s backing after Kim Pegula this week told The Associated Press the GM’s job is secure for a fourth year.

Buffalo’s season featured a series of peaks and valleys. Following a 9-2-1 start, the Sabres proceeded to go 2-8-3 over their next 13 games. And after a 7-3-1 run put the Sabres in striking distance of the playoff race in February, the wheels fell off with a six-game skid.

“We had too many poor streaks to combat the good streaks,” veteran forward Kyle Okposo said. “One of the keys to making the playoffs and playing well season is to manage those skids. We need to find a way to do better at that.”

Okposo is preaching patience by saying he sees promise in the Sabres developing players, and the simplified structure introduced by Krueger.

“I know people are mad, and they want to win. And we want to win, too,” Okposo said. “But we are going in the right direction, and I think that’s the message I have for fans.”

BRIGHT SPOTS

Captain Jack Eichel scored a career-best and team-leading 36 goals, including nine game-winners. Forward Victor Olofsson finished with 20 goals and had been leading NHL rookies in scoring before missing 15 games with a lower-body injury. Second-year defenseman Rasmus Dahlin finished fourth on the team with 40 points (four goals, 36 assists) in 59 games.

LOW POINTS

Forward Jeff Skinner finished with 14 goals and 23 points, a year after scoring a career-best 40 goals, which led to him signing an eight-year, $72 million contract. Defenseman Zach Bogosian had his contract terminated after refusing to report to the minors. Goalie Carter Hutton won his first six starts before going 0-8-4 in 13 appearances, and finished the season 12-14-4.

BUSY OFFSEASON

The Sabres were estimated to have more than $35 million available under the salary cap this offseason, though that projection will change with the cap expected to remain flat or potential constrict due to lost revenue.

Buffalo’s cap space stands to be eaten up with Olofsson, forward Sam Reinhart, defenseman Brandon Montour and goalie Linus Ullmark the most notable players eligible to become restricted free agents.

Buffalo’s unrestricted free agents include forwards Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larrson and late-season addition Wayne Simmonds.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Though Botterill hasn’t ruled out adding experienced talent through trades or free agency, he also expects several youngsters to compete for jobs next season. The candidates includes former first-round draft picks Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt, who spent last season developing in the minors. Then there’s 2019 first-round pick, center Dylan Cozens, who has completed his Canadian junior eligibility.

DOWN DAHLIN

Missing the playoffs doesn’t sit well with Dahlin.

“It’s tough to be here in Sweden with all my Swedish buddies going back and playing, and I’m staying here at home,” Dahlin said via a Zoom call. “It (ticks) me off a little bit.”

NHL monitoring situation before choosing where to play games

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Concerns about Canadian coronavirus restrictions could push hockey south of the 49th parallel into the U.S. this summer.

Seven of the 10 locations the NHL has zeroed in on to hold playoff games if it resumes are American cities not restricted by Canada’s 14-day mandatory quarantine upon arrival. As 24 teams figure out how to squeeze an expanded roster and limited personnel into one of two ”hub” cities, the Vancouver Canucks are even considering relocating training camp to the U.S. if the situation doesn’t change in the coming weeks.

”It’s something that we’re thinking about, but also too we just want to give it a few more days just to see if something is going to change,” Vancouver general manager Jim Benning said Wednesday. ”The perfect scenario we’d like to use our facilities. We’re probably going to have 30, 32 guys here and we have great facilities for our players, so we would like to do that first and foremost. But we’ve talked about moving it off site.”

The Canucks are in the same boat as the NHL, which is in no rush to choose among the 10 finalists: Las Vegas, Columbus, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton. It will in the next few weeks select two or three to host Eastern and Western Conference brackets and then the Stanley Cup Final by factoring in government regulations, the frequency of COVID-19 in the community and availability of testing.

”We want to just be in a position to, in real time, have lots of options once we understand what the state of play is at the time we need to make the decision,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”We could pick one or two locations, but that might, if we made the decision today, not turn out to be as good a decision as one that we make three, four weeks from now because things are continuing to evolve in all of the places that we play.”

The league told GMs on Tuesday to plan for a roster of 28 skaters and unlimited goaltenders for training camps that won’t begin before early July and games without fans several weeks later. Each team will have a personnel cap of 50 in the city where games are played, though the Montreal Canadiens could be without one of their top players.

Montreal GM Marc Bergevin said forward Max Domi, who is high risk because he has Type 1 diabetes, will not play if doctors deem it to be unsafe.

Before the NHL commits to where games could be held, officials are planning for multiple scenarios. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly is engaged in regular dialogue with the U.S. and Canadian governments and medical experts to determine what the health and safety landscape might look like this summer.

”That doesn’t mean we get to look for any type of exception or any type of favoritism,” said Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares, who’s on the Return to Play committee. ”I think we just want to continue to follow the guidelines that are set out for us and do the best that we can. Hopefully things improve to a point where those things could be possibly loosened up, not just for us but for all of society.”

Because testing is lagging in Ontario and British Columbia’s government isn’t expected to make exceptions for the NHL, Edmonton could be Canada’s best hope. Oilers GM Ken Holland said with an attached practice rink and hotel and nearby restaurants, ”Edmonton checks off in my opinion all the boxes.”

Except that Daly said Canada’s 14-day quarantine would be a nonstarter. The NHL is already facing what Winnipeg forward Andrew Copp called a ”time crunch” to fit in effectively five rounds of playoffs, and if the focus shifts solely on U.S. locations, Las Vegas and Columbus appear to be the front-runners.

Beyond the abundance of hotels and sparkling new rink the Las Vegas Strip can offer, the arena district in Columbus could serve as an effective bubble for the NHL.

”Whether it’s from the building or the facilities surrounding the building to accommodate hotel rooms, meals — whatever it needs to be, we’ve covered it,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. ”Also the state of Ohio is in pretty good shape as far as flattening the curve and providing a safe environment that way. The transportation is easy if needed between facilities in Columbus, and we have a lot of rink facilities that we can use for the amount of teams that would be in the tournament.”

There wouldn’t be much of a home-ice advantage without fans, and the league is considering moving the ”home” team to the other city. But that isn’t stopping NHL executives from pitching the ability to host playoff games.

”We have a state of the art facility in Cranberry, the Lemieux Center, and the medical center attached and we have plenty of hotels and everything like that,” Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said. ”We meet the criteria but we understand there’s other cities that do, also.”

The two biggest surprises on the NHL’s list were Chicago and Los Angeles. The Blackhawks and Kings each said they were honored to be considered.

But not being a coronavirus hotspot and having a surplus of testing are key elements to the decision. Bettman said the league won’t interfere with an area’s medical needs or take up tests from the general public, and those in hockey hoping to land games know that.

”None of us would agree to a situation where we are taking away testing from people that need it,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said. ”Several weeks from now, we would really have to be in a position where the health care community and the government community of whatever country we’re in, whatever city we’re in are in agreement that this can be done and it can be done in a respectful, conscientious way.”