Jake’s Back: Pause opens door for Pens’ All-Star Guentzel

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PITTSBURGH — Jake Guentzel‘s roller-coaster season is about to take another unlikely turn: postseason participant.

The Penguins All-Star forward has joined a handful of teammates on the ice as part of Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play program and figures to be ready when Pittsburgh faces Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs sometime this summer.

Guentzel’s breakout year appeared to be over when he took an awkward spill on Dec. 30 following his 20th goal of the season. He crashed into the end boards a split-second after collecting his 200th career point when he accidentally tripped over the stick of Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot.

The 25-year-old – whose play during the opening months kept Pittsburgh afloat amid myriad injuries to high-profile players – clutched his side as he skated to the bench and underwent surgery the following day. With his rehab expected to last until late April or early May, Guentzel feared he might not be back until 2020-21.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the NHL to pause its season in mid-March and giving Guentzel an unexpected window to return.

”Not sure what would have happened if the season would have played out,” Guentzel said Wednesday.

Under normal conditions, Guentzel would have needed the Penguins to advance at least one round and maybe two in the playoffs if he wanted to have a shot at rejoining the club. This season, however, has been anything but normal.

His availability gives Pittsburgh another proven postseason performer. His innate hockey sense and instant rapport with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby helped Guentzel score 13 goals during the 2017 playoffs as Pittsburgh captured its second straight Stanley Cup.

The team Guentzel returns to could look a bit like the one that defeated Nashville in six games in the finals three years ago. During Guentzel’s absence, the team brought back winger Conor Sheary, who played on the ”Sid and the Kids” line in the 2016-17 season.

”We feed off each other, we know each other,” Guentzel said. ”If we have that opportunity, hopefully we have time to get that chemistry back.”

There’s still a long way to go to get to that point. Then again, the fact that it’s even on the table for Guentzel is promising. The joy of being named to the All-Star team on Dec. 30 for the first time was replaced hours later by pain and doubt as he skated to the bench clutching his right shoulder after smacking into the boards.

”You’re not really sure what the severity of the injury is,” Guentzel said. ”Just tried to get off the ice and get back to the locker room as fast as I can, because I knew something wasn’t good. In my head it was a blur. It was hard to go through something like that.”

He is still reticent to get into specifics surrounding the nature of the injury, saying only ”from what I heard, it was pretty significant” while remaining thankful he was able to get his head and neck out of harm’s way before the crash.

While listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, Guentzel is comfortable putting his body in harm’s way against bigger defenders. He is not sure if he’ll be hesitant to mix it up whenever contact is allowed.

”It might be there, it’s just hard to think about right now and hard to process,” Guentzel said.

It’s hardly the only thing Guentzel is having trouble wrapping his mind around. He grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs. The death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers last month – and the ensuing wave of protests and call for change in the aftermath – has been eye-opening for a player who is typically economical with his words, preferring his actions to do the talking for him.

Not so much anymore. He called the manner of Floyd’s death ”disturbing.”

”My eyes have definitely been open and I’m definitely committed to educating myself and making a difference out there,” Guentzel said.

It’s not the only area in which Guentzel and the rest of the NHL are getting an education. The league is trying to be pragmatic about its health protocols as it attempts to resume the season. Still, there are several issues that need to be settled. And for players whose mental and physical health rely so heavily on routine, there remains a sense of wariness about what lies ahead.

”It’s hard for us to not know what is going on with all this unknown of this COVID,” Guentzel said. ”I think we’re all a little on edge as to what is going to happen.”

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.