Top women’s hockey players resolute in fight for new league

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PITTSBURGH — Hilary Knight has a gold medal. What she would like is a full-time job. Not just for her. For the other 200-plus members of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association too. One that pays all of them well enough to simply go play instead of forcing most to find side gigs just to get by. One that provides adequate medical insurance. One that provides something resembling stability.

At the moment, the forward who scored the first goal for Team USA in the 2018 Olympic gold medal game victory over Canada doesn’t believe such a job exists. It’s why Knight and the rest of the PWHPA announced in May they would not play in North America during the 2019-2020 season, a decision that meant the 30-year-old would be sacrificing at least one winter – if not more – of her prime in the pursuit of something resembling equality.

Six months into a self-imposed sabbatical, Knight is equal parts anxious and resolute. Asked how long the PWHPA can hold out and she’s politely blunt.

”I don’t think there’s a set answer to that,” she said. ”Obviously, as players, we want to compete. We want to play in a league right now. However, we don’t have a league right now to play in so my answer would be, ‘Yesterday is too long.’ But at the same time, it’s as long as it takes for us to fulfill our needs of finding a sustainable, viable solution.”

At least Knight is keeping busy. She knows that makes her one of the lucky ones.

While the majority of the PWHPA either plays internationally or not at all waiting for a league – preferably one backed by the NHL – to materialize, Knight and the rest of Team USA and Team Canada began preparations for the 2019-2020 Rivalry Series by working out last week at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ practice facility. In a way, the training camp, which included a pair of sold-out exhibitions was a sign the movement the PWHPA started is gaining support. The two superpowers decided to get together after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over salary and working conditions.

The PWHPA members believe there is palpable momentum for change, pointing to the support they received during the first three stops of ”The Dream Gap Tour ” earlier this fall. The three-day showcases in Toronto, New Hampshire and Chicago included intrasquad games between members of the PWPHA as well as clinics that allowed them to work alongside the girls they know will one day benefit from the stand the association is making now.

”I don’t think we knew what to expect after that news that happened in May,” Canadian star Marie Philip Poulin said. ”It was a great start and hopefully it’s going to keep going.”

The tour will likely continue in 2020, though the details have yet to be ironed out. Between that and the Rivalry Series – which officially begins in Hartford, Connecticut, on Dec. 14 – the top Canadian and American players are keeping plenty busy. At least in the short term. What happens after the 2020 World Championships wrap up in April is uncertain.

”Hockey wise, we’ve been getting what we need to to be ready in the long run (for international play),” said Team Canada forward Melodie Daoust. ”But we’re not where we want to be, being treated like professional or having more hockey games. But the answer to all of that is we’re waiting for the NHL to step in.”

A step the NHL remains reluctant to take with the National Women’s Hockey League still in play. While the Canadian Women’s Hockey League closed after 12 years of operation last spring – due in part to competition with the NWHL for talent – the five-team NWHL is in the midst of its fifth season , soldiering on without the same star power.

”It’s a glorified beer league to me,” said Knight, who won a scoring title with the NWHL’s Boston Pride before moving on to the CHWL. ”It’s serving a purpose but it’s not elite talented players that are playing at a high level.”

Asked if the PWHPA can create a league that meets its needs without the NHL’s support, American Kendall Coyne Schofield offers a qualified yes.

”If the NHL’s not going to step in, we could but I think we all have the understanding that the NHL would provide the resources that we would want to see in a true professional league,” Coyne Schofield said. ”We have not seen a legitimate professional league to date and we know that the infrastructure that the NHL has, the resources it has, the buildings they have, the staff that they have is something that this game needs. We need to wait and see what they do.”

And they intend to wait however long is necessary.

”In terms of the sacrifice players are making, I think you can ask anyone, it’s 100% worth it knowing that we’re fighting for something that’s going to last forever,” the 27-year-old Schofield said. ”And for me, my clock is ticking, but if I can leave this game better than it was, that’s what’s most important.”

Even if it leads to some potentially messy politics down the road. Though current WNHL players are not ”scabs,” – the NWHL does have its own players’ association – there is a chance one day that the women playing in the NWHL now could one day be competing with members of the PWHPA for roster spots if another league comes to fruition.

”If they’re vibing with what we’re trying to do and our mission, they’re more than welcome to hop into the PWHPA and join just as any member has joined,” Knight said. ”We’ve got a really talented group and we’re trying to carve out a better future. Not having health care and getting paid pennies to go play and call yourself professional, that’s not something any of us are interested in. So when people wake up and see the bigger picture, come and join us.”

The PWHPA remains adamant there is an appetite for professional women’s sports. The NBA-backed WNBA recently completed its 23rd season. The National Women’s Soccer League received a significant boost last summer while piggybacking off the Women’s World Cup, which led to expanded television coverage. Coyne Schofield said the WNBA in particular gives her optimism.

For now, the best players are scattered all over the world, either playing professionally overseas or strictly for their national teams or not playing at all, which in a way has added a new wrinkle to the white-hot tug of war between the Americans and the Canadians. Yes, when they pull on their respective sweaters, it’s the same as it ever was. Off the ice, however, there’s a sense of detente for the greater good.

”We’re all fighting for the same cause,” Philip Poulin said. ”We’re in it together. It’s so much bigger than the country we’re playing for right now. We’re together. We’re going to keep going. We’re going to go at it and we’re going to work together until it works.”

Colorado Avalanche: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Colorado Avalanche.

Pavel Francouz the surprising star in net

If you were to look at the Avalanche roster at the start of the season and had to pick out an area of concern, goaltending might have been the easy choice.

Philipp Grubauer is a solid starter, but is he a championship-caliber goalie? After him, their top backup was the relatively unproven Francouz who entered the season with just two appearances in the NHL and only one season of professional hockey in North American. Given his age (29) and lack of an NHL resume, there had to be at least a little bit of a question mark regarding their goaltending depth.

Francouz has, instead, turned out to be one of the single biggest surprises on this year’s roster.

In 34 appearances he owns a 21-7-4 record with a .923 save percentage and was outstanding as the starter when Grubauer was sidelined due to injury. His overall play has been so good that the Avalanche already signed him to a two-year contract extension. He and Grubauer have turned out to be an outstanding duo and the underrated star of this year’s team.

Injuries have been a major disappointment

When it comes to performance it is really difficult to find a disappointment on this year’s team. The stars have been great, the scoring depth was addressed in a meaningful way over the summer with some great additions, the goaltending has been better than expected, and the young defensemen have excelled and are already blossoming into stars.

Instead of anything relating to performance, the biggest disappointment this season has been the bad injury luck.

Obviously that is not anyone’s fault, but it has kept us from really getting a sense of just how good this team can be when it is at full strength.

The injury list this season includes…

  • Andre Burakovsky for 12 games
  • Cale Makar for 13 games
  • Mikko Rantanen for 28 games
  • Gabriel Landeskog for 16 games
  • Nazem Kadri for 19 games
  • Erik Johnson for 11 games
  • Matt Calvert for 20 games
  • Grubauer did not start a game since the middle of February

That is not only a lot of games, it is a lot of games for significant players.

Even with all of that the Avalanche have still been one of the league’s best teams and certainly builds some excitement for what their ceiling is when everyone is in the lineup.

Tyson Jost has not really taken a big step forward

If you did want to reach for a performance related disappointment Jost might be the player to look at. It is tough to say that because on one hand he is still only 21 years old and has a ton of talent. So the potential is absolutely there. On the other hand, he has also already played 200 NHL games and has not really shown significant improvement. After that many games it might be time to start wondering if this is the player that he is — a 10-goal, 20-point depth forward. Not saying he can not be more than that, and players do develop at different paces, but we are no longer talking about a small sampling of games here.

He was mentioned in trade rumors leading up to the deadline and it definitely seems reasonable to conclude that he could be moved at some point in the future.

Ryan Graves has been a great complement for Makar

The Avalanche have the potential for an outstanding long-term defense with Makar (the current Calder Trophy front-runner as the league’s Rookie of the Year), Samuel Girard, and 2019 No. 4 overall pick Bowen Byram. That trio, their talent, upside, and contract situations help make them one of the most important parts of the team’s core moving forward and will be the foundation of a potential championship team in the very near future.

There is another player that has emerged as part of that defense this season, and that is the 24-year-old Graves.

He has spent a significant portion of his season playing alongside Makar to help form an outstanding pair.

In close to 500 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this season the Avalanche have completely dominated the shot attempt and scoring-chance metrics and have outscored teams by a 31-17 margin with them on the ice. While it is easy to conclude that a lot of that is due to Makar carrying the duo, Graves has also excelled when playing next to Ian Cole.

Basically, no matter who he plays next to, it works.

For the season, Graves has nine goals and 26 total points and is a league-leading plus-40 while playing close to 19 minutes per game.

He may not be the impact player or star that Makar is, but his play has been an outstanding development this season.

More:
• Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche

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

NHL Power Rankings: Best 2019-20 free agent signings

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus back to the summer of 2019 and the free agent signings that have ended up working out the best so far.

Free agency is always a risky proposition for teams because it forces them into a bidding war for players that have most likely played their best hockey for somebody else. Most long-term contracts signed during the free agency signing period have a tendency to end in trades or buyouts. Not even one full season in and there are already a handful of contracts that are off to slow starts (Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida, Matt Duchene in Nashville, Joe Pavelski in Dallas).

Some of them, however, have worked out as planned. Those are the contracts we are focussing on here today.

When it comes to identifying the “best” contracts at this point we are trying to take into account overall performance and the value of the contract. Sometimes it is a long-term deal that looks good, other times it is a short-term “prove it” deal where everyone ended up getting exactly what they wanted.

Which free agents make the cut?

To the rankings!

1. Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers. While most long-term free agent contracts end up failing to meet expectations, this is one that looks like it is going to work. Panarin is having one of the best individual seasons in the history of the Rangers’ franchise and is playing at an MVP level. Maybe he will not play at a superstar level for the entire seven-year term of the contract, but there is little reason to believe he will not be an impact player in New York for several years. One of the league’s best offensive players.

2. Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning. This was one of those “prove it” contracts. After having his previous deal with the Rangers bought out, Shattenkirk found himself back on the open market this past summer and landed in Tampa Bay on a one-year, $1.75 million contract. It has worked out tremendously for the Lightning. Shattenkirk has bounced back across the board with an improved offensive performance and dominant possession numbers. He may not be a No. 1 defender, but as a No. 2 or 3 on a contender he can still make an impact.

3. Robin Lehner, Chicago Blackhawks (traded to Vegas). After being a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago, the Islanders allowed Lehner to walk and become an unrestricted free agent. He ended up getting a one-year, $5 million contract with the Blackhawks and was one of the biggest reasons they were able to at least somewhat stay in playoff contention instead of dropping down toward the bottom of the league. They ended up trading him to Vegas at the trade deadline, and even though that return was underwhelming it was still a strong signing.

4. Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche entered the offseason armed with one of the league’s best young cores and the most salary cap space to play with. While they did not get the big ticket free agents, they did make some really smart moves. Donskoi’s four-year deal is right at the top of that list. He has been an outstanding depth addition and provided some much-needed secondary scoring.

5. Gustav Nyquist, Columbus Blue Jackets. He is not a superstar by any means, but Nyquist has given the Blue Jackets exactly what they thought he would: 15-20 goals, a 50-point pace, and all around solid top-six play. He has also been one of the few Blue Jackets players that has not missed significant time to injury this season. His $5.5 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons (after this one) is a more than fair price tag for what he provides.

6. Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders. All things being equal he is probably a downgrade from what they lost in Lehner, but he has stayed healthy and been very good for the Islanders. The four-year contract seemed like a risk (and still is) but he has been productive so far.

7. Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche. Nichushkin’s 2018-19 season was the dullest individual season in NHL history. I do not mean that as a knock. It legitimately was given that he played 57 games and did not score a single goal or record a single penalty minute (the first time any player ever did that). That resulted in him signing a one-year, $850,000 contract with Colorado. In 65 games he already has 13 goals, 27 total points, and has been another outstanding depth addition.

8. Tyler Ennis, Ottawa Senators (traded to Edmonton). Another one-year bargain. Ennis was one of the few bright spots in Ottawa this season before he was flipped to the Oilers at the trade deadline. Before this season his production had fallen off a cliff as he bounced from Buffalo, to Minnesota, to Toronto, and then to Ottawa. This was a nice bounce-back year for him.

9. Noel Acciari, Florida Panthers. Before this season Acciari scored 18 goals in 180 career games. In his first 66 games with the Panthers he has already scored 20 goals. He makes just a little more than $1 million per season. Is this goal scoring output a short-term fluke? Maybe. Does that make me overrate him right now? Probably. But finding a 20-goal scorer for just over a million against the cap is a steal no matter how you look at it.

10. Tyler Myers, Vancouver Canucks. I hated this contract at the time and thought it signaled more bumbling from a directionless Vancouver front office that was just trying to sneak into the playoffs to save face. Maybe that’s what it still is. But once I get beyond my initial criticism I have to admit that Myers has been a pretty solid addition to the Canucks’ defense. Maybe it won’t look that way in two or three years, but for now he has helped.

Honorable mentions

  • Brandon Tanev, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Myers, I hated the length of this deal at the time, but he has been a great addition to their bottom-six and helped defensively.
  • Brett Connolly, Florida Panthers. The Bobrovsky contract might not work, but the additions of Acciari and Connolly were solid moves to add offense.
  • Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild. My biggest complaint here is Zuccarello added another player on the wrong side of 30 to a team that already has a lot of them making big money. Overall, though, he has been good.
  • Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs. By no means is he a top player anymore, but as a veteran third-or fourth-line center he is great for that salary cap hit.

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

Petry family opens restaurant tabs for Montreal hospital workers

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Montreal Canadiens defenseman Jeff Petry and his wife Julie are putting smiles on the faces of hospital workers in the Montreal area. Over the weekend, the family decided to open up $2,500 tabs at a pair of restaurants in the city.

Starting yesterday, front-line hospital workers were able to place their orders at either restaurant and have a meal on the Petry family tab.

“Julie and I are constantly thinking of all those on the front lines helping take care of others during this unthinkable time all over the world, but especially back in Montreal,” the veteran defenseman said in an Instagram post. “They have taken such good care of us and our kids over the years we can’t help but have those doctors, nurses and staff members on our hearts during this unfathomable time! The around the clock hours they are working to help fight this crazy virus is nothing short of heroic. I’m sure they would say “I’m just doing my job”, but to us it’s more than that. These selfless individuals are not only putting themselves at risk, but are also dealing with the same stresses that come along with these circumstances when they go home. We want them to know we are thinking of them & supporting them.

“The Petrys just want to say thank you! But even “thank you” doesn’t seem like enough. A small way we can show our support is by offering a meal from a couple of our favorite local restaurants.”

On Sunday, Petry had a follow-up post thanking those who went out and picked up their meals.

That’s a really classy move by Jeff and Julie.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Looking at the 2019-20 Colorado Avalanche

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Colorado Avalanche.

Colorado Avalanche

Record: 42-20-8 (70 games), second in the Central Division
Leading Scorer: Nathan MacKinnon 93 points (35 goals and 58 assists)

In-season Roster Moves:

• Acquired Michael Hutchinson from the Toronto Maple Leafs for Calle Rosen.
• Traded a 2021 fourth-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for Vladislav Namestnikov.

Season Overview: 

Last season, the Avs were a young team that did some damage in the playoffs when they upset the number one seed, the Calgary Flames, in the opening round of the postseason.This year, there were higher expectations for them.

Despite having to deal with a number of different key injuries, the Avalanche have found a way to stay in the mix for the Central Division crown. That’s impressive when you consider the fact that Gabriel Landeskog missed more than month with a lower-body injury. Also, Mikko Rantanen missed two long stretches (he was on injured reserve at the time of the pause). Nazem Kadri missed 19 games of his own and the list goes on and on.

Of course, most of the heavy lifting offensively was done by MacKinnon, who had accumulated 93 points in just 69 games. His impressive combination of skill and speed are tough to beat. There’s no doubt that he’s in the mix for the Hart Trophy this year.

The emergence of rookie defender Cale Makar has also helped take the Avs to another level this year. The 21-year-old is averaging a shade over 21 minutes of ice time per game and he’s picked up 12 goals and 50 points in 57 contests. Rookie of the year? He was definitely one of the two main contenders for the award.

General manager Joe Sakic also found a way to surround his stars with some solid depth players. Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi, Valeri Nichushkin, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare have all been nice fits on their new team. The Kadri acquisition also helped solidify things down the middle.

The biggest question mark heading into the season was goaltending. But the duo of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz have held up.

Grubauer, who was expected to be the starter heading into the year, has missed significant time due to injury. In his absence, Francouz has done a really good job, as he owns a 21-7-4 record with a 2.41 goals-against-average and a .923 save percentage.

Whether we see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season or not is almost irrelevant for the Avs. They’re not one of those teams that will fade next season. This is a group with a young nucleus that should compete for quite a while.

Highlight of the Season: 

There were a lot of positive moments for the Avs, but Jan. 2, 2020 has to be right up there with the best of them.

Not only did the Avs beat the defending champion St. Louis Blues, they made a statement. Colorado built up a 3-0 lead, but the score was 3-2 heading into the third frame. That’s when they turned on the afterburners and left the Blues in the dust.

They scored three more times in the third frame and beat St. Louis, 7-3. MacKinnon had four points.

They went on to beat the Blues again less than a month later.

More:
Colorado Avalanche biggest surprises and disappointments so far this season

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.