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Sabres have renewed hopes with Krueger on board as coach

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — New coach. New hopes. Maybe this is the season in which the Buffalo Sabres’ long-awaited turnaround finally begins.

”Let’s get through Day 1 first,” Kyle Okposo said with a laugh upon reporting for training camp.

It’s not as if Okposo doesn’t welcome the upbeat, motivational vibe new coach Ralph Krueger is introducing to a team the spent the past two years mostly underachieving under Phil Housley. An out-of-the-box hire if there ever was one, the just turned 60-year-old Krueger is highly respected in hockey circles and returns to the bench after spending five years as chairman of soccer’s Southampton FC of the English Premier League.

What gives Okposo reason for pause is how long it will take Krueger’s philosophies to sink in on a team called ”fragile” and ”soft” by players and previous coaches.

”There’s going to be a big buy-in,” said Okposo, who was struck by the message Krueger delivered during the team’s first meeting.

”I talked to five or six guys after. Ralph talked for 15 or 20 minutes, and every single one of them said they wanted to run through a wall after he was done talking,” he said.

The Sabres have been big on talk before in September. The trouble has been a persistent inability to translate what they say into actual success once the regular season begins, which is a big reason why they’re now on their fifth coach in six-plus years.

This is a team in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak – during which Buffalo has finished last in the overall standings three times. And the Sabres are coming off a season in which their maddening tendency to crumble at the first sign of adversity was largely evident.

After briefly sitting first overall in late November following a franchise-record-matching 10-game winning streak, Buffalo proceeded to win just 16 of its final 57 games to finish 27th overall with a 33-39-10 record.

”Yeah, we’ve been through a lot of tough times together in the organization with tough years. It’s been up and down,” captain Jack Eichel said. ”But I think you can use that experience to better yourself.”

Krueger’s vast hockey experience includes coaching the Swiss national team, serving as a consultant to Canada’s gold-medal-winning team at the 2014 Winter Games, and coaching Team Europe to a second-place finish in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He also was an NHL assistant in Edmonton, and spent 2012-13 as the Oilers head coach before being fired following a 19-22-7 finish.

Known for being a hockey innovator, Krueger has introduced a mantra of ”Playing Connected” to Buffalo to build team unity both on and off the ice.

”I just want them to understand that we’re all in this together, and we all need to work together on this,” Krueger said.

WHO’S HERE: Krueger, forwards Marcus Johansson (free agency), Jimmy Vesey (trade with New York Rangers), and rookie first-round pick Dylan Cozens, and defensemen Colin Miller (trade with Vegas) and Henri Jokiharju (trade with Chicago).

WHO’S NOT: Forwards Jason Pominville (unsigned) and Alexander Nylander (traded to Chicago).

KEY PLAYERS: Jeff Skinner must begin showing himself worthy of Buffalo’s commitment in re-signing him to an eight-year, $72 million contract after scoring a career-best 40 goals. Eichel needs to build on a career-best season (28 goals and 82 points). The same goes for defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, a rookie of the year finalist as an 18-year-old last year, in which the Swedish-born player wowed fans with his deft skating and play-making abilities, while struggling at times adapting to the NHL’s smaller ice surface. Can Casey Mittelstadt shrug off his rookie year struggles and fill the team’s much-needed void as a second-line center? Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen‘s future remains in question. He continues to be the focus of trade speculation after spending the offseason suggesting he would prefer to play elsewhere.

OUTLOOK: It’s difficult to assess how good – or bad – the Sabres were the past two seasons under Housley, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman, who showed signs of being overwhelmed as a first-time head coach. On the plus side, GM Jason Botterill enters the third year continuing to add depth and youth to an organization left mostly barren under former GM Tim Murray. He could have a chance to stockpile even more talent by trading Ristolainen, who has an NHL salary-cap friendly three years left on his six-year, $32.4 million contract.

PREDICTION: Though it might be too much to suggest the Sabres ending their playoff drought under Krueger, they have the talent to at the very least stay in contention in the final weeks. Finishing with 90 points – something Buffalo hasn’t done since 2010-11 – would be considered an achievable goal.

NHL, NHLPA agree on protocols to resume season

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The NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed Sunday on protocols to resume the season, a major step toward the return of hockey this summer.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press there was an agreement on protocols for training camps and games and the sides are still negotiating an extension of the collective bargaining agreement, which is crucial to the process.

A person with knowledge of the situation said the return-to-play protocols would only go into effect if each side votes to approve the full package of the CBA extension and return-to-play agreement. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because CBA talks are still ongoing.

To complete a return, two-thirds of the league’s board of governors and majorities of the players’ executive committee and full membership must vote in favor.

If everything is ratified, it will end a pandemic-forced shutdown that began in mid-March. Games would resume in late July or early August with 24 teams taking part in an expanded playoffs, finishing with the Stanley Cup being awarded in October.

The agreement was first reported by TSN.

The 47 pages of protocols outline the health and safety measures the league and players agreed to after several weeks of negotiations. Any player has until 5 p.m. EDT on Tuesday to notify his team if he’s choosing to opt out of participating in training camp and games, with an additional deadline expected after ratification of the agreement.

For those playing, each team is limited to 30 skaters and an unlimited amount of goaltenders for camp and total roster of up to 31 players for games. Each team is limited to 52 personnel in its game city, a group that must include two trainers, a doctor and compliance officer in addition players, coaches and management.

They are expected to be quarantined from the general public during play at least for the qualifying and first two traditional playoff rounds. Family members will be permitted to join when play is moved to one city for the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final.

All team and league employees plus hotel, restaurant and arena staff coming in contact with players will be tested daily in the two ”hub” cities.

One player’s positive coronavirus test result is not expected to shut down play entirely. The league has said it would isolate any player or staff member who tests positive, acknowledging an outbreak would threaten the remainder of the season.

”The players will be pretty well-protected from being exposed,” Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said during a conference call in June. ”It’s going to be a completely different way for you all and us watching hockey and being around a team because players will be really well protected throughout the process.”

The protocols include a provision for Commissioner Gary Bettman in consultation with NHLPA executive director Don Fehr to postpone, delay or cancel games in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Assuming the protocols are approved, teams are expected to open training camps July 13 before traveling to the two hub cities for games. Players have been able to skate and train off-ice in voluntary, small-group workouts since June 8 – nearly three months after hockey was halted March 12 with 189 regular-season games remaining.

Returning for the playoffs is seen as a stirring victory for the NHL, which like other top leagues faced the prospect of losing millions more without the television revenue tied to the postseason. There were deep concerns about canceling the rest of the season and word of positive tests didn’t help: 26 players since June 8, in addition to almost a dozen before that.

Boston defenseman Matt Grzelcyk called the positive test results ”eye-opening” but expected. A few players expressed concerns in recent weeks about the uncertainty surrounding a return.

”We have obviously a unique situation right now,” Montreal goaltender Carey Price said. ”The NHL and the NHLPA are trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. Moving forward I’d like to play, but we have a lot of questions that need to be answered and a lot of scenarios that need to be covered.”

If the protocols and an CBA extension cover those scenarios for enough owners and players, there will be a path forward to hand out the Stanley Cup. Only twice since 1893 has the Cup not been awarded: in 1919, when the final couldn’t be completed because of the Spanish flu pandemic, and 2005 when the season was wiped out by a lockout.

Seven hockey players suspended in Belarus match-fixing case

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ZURICH — Seven ice hockey players have been suspended during an investigation into match-fixing in the Belarus league.

The players — five from Belarus and two from Russia — told a domestic investigation they were paid to help arrange the outcome of a game in November, the International Ice Hockey Federation said on Friday.

“During the investigation, each of the players also admitted that they had agreed to exert an unlawful influence on the outcome of the game in exchange for illegal remuneration,” the governing body said in a statement.

The IIHF said its disciplinary board had taken over the case “for further review and sanctioning.”

The case involves Dynamo Molodechno’ losing to Mogilyov 6-5 in a Belarus Extraliga game.

The players have been suspended from taking part in any competition organized by the IIHF or its member federations.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL vs. viruses; Flat salary cap pain = Avs’ gain?

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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.

Lafreniere, COVID-19 hockey concerns, and how Avs may benefit from a flat salary cap

• Rank Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen among those expressing some misgivings about playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. [TSN]

• Breaking: Alexis Lafreniere is not a defenseman. In all seriousness, a look at some Maple Leafs possibilities … which might be complicated at No. 1 because of that positional point. Maybe? [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Speaking of those Maple Leafs, Buds fans are not pleased about the idea of a possible flat, $81.5M salary cap. There are teams who might take advantage of this situation, though. Here’s why the Avalanche could be one of those teams. [Mile High Hockey]

• A look back at the NHL’s “rivalries” with viruses. Does the history of the NHL’s dealing with such issues — even the Mumps — be a cause for concern amid COVID-19 outbreaks? [Arctic Ice Hockey]

• Earlier this week, PHT selected the best landing spots for Alexis Lafreniere. What about getting even more specific? Andrew Berkshire shared his picks for some of the lines that would benefit most from adding the consensus No. 1 pick to their left side. [Sportsnet]

Other hockey links

• Sean Gentille put together an oral history for the Jean Claude Van Damme masterpiece “Sudden Death.” If you haven’t heard of the candidate for “so-bad-it’s-good” designation, how about the elevator pitch: “Die Hard at a hockey game.” [The Athletic (sub required)]

• On face value, this article focuses most on Rudy Gobert and Novak Djokovic and athletes feeling invulnerable to COVID-19. But it’s a really good read for hockey fans, players, and executives as cautionary tales with a return-to-play picking up steam. [The Score]

• Joe Pelletier of Greatest Hockey Legends wonders why the bar is set so high for goalies to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not an awful point when you consider that they play the most important position in the sport, and all. I wouldn’t mind Ron Hextall making a future cut, to name just one worthy goalie. [Greatest Hockey Legends]

• Five crossovers between hockey and Todd McFarlane. Yes, the “Spawn” guy. [PuckJunk]

• Taking a run at putting together the Sabres’ roster during the upcoming offseason. It gets elaborate, including potential trades. Yes, this scenario includes trading away Rasmus Ristolainen. Don’t they all? [Die by the Blade]

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: NHL, NHLPA nearing agreement; hub cities, Olympics, CBA

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Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Patrick Sharp react to the reports that the NHL and NHLPA are nearing the completion of a massive agreement that would not only cover this year’s Return to Play protocols, but also serve as an extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The guys discuss Edmonton and Toronto emerging as hub city favorites, as well as what it would mean for the NHL to return to the Olympics. Plus, a breakdown of the Qualifying Round series in both conferences.

Start-4:45 Edmonton, Toronto new hub city frontrunners
4:45-8:45 NHL, NHLPA nearing CBA extension, including Olympic participation
8:45-13:00 Other return to play details
14:00-23:00 Eastern Conference Qualifying Round preview
23:50-End Western Conference Qualifying Round preview

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports