Pending free agents confront injury risk in NHL playoffs

Alex Pietrangelo and his wife had ongoing discussions about whether he should return to the ice when the NHL season resumes.

In addition to wanting to keep the couple’s infant triplets safe during the pandemic, the 30-year-old captain of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues is heading into free agency while in his prime. He decided to play.

”The focus right now is just kind of getting through this healthy and playing and we’ll see where things end up,” Pietrangelo said.

Staying healthy has added importance for Pietrangelo, Boston’s Torey Krug, Arizona’s Taylor Hall, Washington’s Braden Holtby and more than 100 other pending unrestricted free agents taking part in the 24-team playoffs. Instead of cashing in July 1 had this been a normal year, they face the risk of injury after several months off that could put big paydays in jeopardy.

”Being a free agent that goes into this situation, it’s definitely risky,” Krug said. ”I’d be lying to you if I said it’s not. Having three or four months off, and then going right into the most intense hockey you could possibly play at any level, there’s always risk for injury no matter when you play. But certainly in this moment you don’t have the normal training that you do, the preparation, all the work to make sure your body feels good and you can go in without any worries.”

The worries weren’t severe enough for most to opt out. Calgary’s Travis Hamonic and Edmonton’s Mike Green are pending free agents who decided not to play, but they cited family health concerns as the reason.

The thought of not playing never crossed Holtby’s mind. Two years removed from backstopping the Capitals to their first title, the 30-year-old goaltender is more focused on trying to win the Cup again than endangering his future earnings by doing so.

”My job right now is to win a championship with the Caps,” Holtby said. ”Everything else after that is completely irrelevant. I don’t think I’ve ever worried about injuries or anything like that. Any game that you get to play, you are pretty fortunate to get to play in this league.”

Florida teammates Evgenii Dadonov and Mark Pysyk are on that same page, too. Pysyk said he gave little to no thought about opting out, figuring this was no different from competing in the playoffs any other season. Dadonov said he’s ”not scared” about risking injury.

Washington defenseman Brenden Dillon doesn’t think he has it worse as a pending free agent than others around the league.

”There’s always a risk when you have a big layoff like this,” Dillon said. ”I think it just goes to the preparation for us as players in general, whether you are (a free agent) or a guy on a six-year deal.”

Nicklas Backstrom signed a new five-year deal with the Capitals in January, and had more than a few people tell him he’s lucky for getting that done. Under the collective bargaining extension the league and players’ union agreed to, the salary cap will remain flat at the current $81.5 million for at least next season and possibly beyond because of revenue lost during the pandemic.

That economic reality could mean Pietrangelo doesn’t get the kind of monster contract other elite defensemen such as Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson and Roman Josi signed. Holtby might have to settle for something less than the $70 million, seven-year deal fellow Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky got from the Panthers last summer.

They might have to choose between taking less money from a championship contender or more from a rebuilding team. But they insist that will be a worry for after the season when free agency opens in October.

”I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Krug said. ”I’m just trying to take it day by day and worry about the playoffs right now and then I’ll probably prepare for free agency and see what happens from there.”

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    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

    Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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    TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

    “This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

    Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

    Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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    TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

    The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

    “Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

    The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

    Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

    Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

    The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

    “They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

    Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

    Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

    Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

    “I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

    The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

    There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

    “We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

    The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

    COMINGS AND GOINGS

    The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

    MORE POWER

    The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

    “It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

    BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

    Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

    “Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

    UP FRONT

    With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

    ON THE SLATE

    This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.