There’s plenty to be thankful for in hockey in 2020

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It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. and there is no hockey to enjoy tonight. That leaves plenty of time for turkey, sides and lots and lots of dessert.

With it being a day to give thanks, some of the NHL on NBC Sports team wanted to share what we’re thankful for in 2020.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content:

Steven Stamkos. It took the Lightning captain a long time to win his first Stanley Cup. Make no mistake – this was not Ray Bourque circa 2001 – but the way Stamkos returned from injury (and as we learned later, personal tragedy) to lift his team in Game 3 of the Cup Final was inspirational and reminded us all of how committed hockey players are to this sport and their teammates.

NHL players at the Olympics…soon. Kudos to the NHL and NHLPA for finding a way to work an Olympics return into the recent CBA extension. The men’s hockey tournament is normally a highlight of the Games, but the 2018 version sans NHLers was sorely lacking. Not only will the on-ice product be vastly improved, but the game benefits when its best players can get exposure to a massive audience on the world stage. Eichel, Kane, and Matthews for the Americans. Crosby, McDavid, and MacKinnon for Canada. Panarin, Ovechkin, and Kucherov for Team Russia. Is it 2022 yet?

The Seattle Kraken. The league’s 32nd team is still a year away (well, slightly less…hopefully) from playing real hockey, but that first game can’t come soon enough.  From the commitment to diversity across the organization, to the innovative arena design, to the meticulous mascot-selection process, the Kraken have done an outstanding job of creating a model franchise from scratch. Now all they need is a coach and some players.

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James O’Brien, NHL writer: Look, this is the most obvious answer, but I can’t ignore the elephant/oversized turkey in the room. At least it’s one we don’t want to ignore, really: the NHL actually did it. When I take a step back, handing out the 2020 Stanley Cup remains mind-blowing. Especially since, instead of abbreviating the postseason, boiling down 24 teams to the typical 16 basically made it a five-round tournament, rather than a four-round one. (You know, depending upon how the NHL does or does not qualify this or that as “playoffs.” Not thankful for the needlessly complex ways that the NHL labels things, though.)

But maybe just as obvious, yet even more importantly, the NHL pulled off this ambitious playoff bubble without a single reported COVID-19 infection. That almost feels like a miracle.

(Here’s hoping that the 2021 thank yous include “Being thankful that pulling that off didn’t make the NHL too bold for the 2020-21 season.”) One step at a time, though.

If all of that is too broad: I’m also thankful that the hockey was really good, and a truly great Lightning team won it all. No fretting about asterisks, in my opinion.

Considering the circumstances, hockey fans and observers should be pretty grateful. Even if we don’t want a repeat of life as a whole from 2020 in 2021.

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Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I have to agree with the guys that I am thankful for the NHL completing the 2019-20 playoffs, even though it started in August and finally ended at the end of September. I remember when the full force of the pandemic hit me in March. It was when the city of San Jose was talking about not having any one in the stands due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. I was thinking that it was an awfully big step to be taking when not that many people were sick yet but in hindsight…well you know. I like the fact that the NHL took its time deciding what to do and then changed from Las Vegas being a bubble city to Toronto and Edmonton ending up as the cities to play in. The NHL and the players did a fabulous job staying in the bubble and not having one case of the coronavirus once the bubble took effect. Kudos to all who were instrumental in the NHL awarding the Stanley Cup and everyone staying safe.

The NHL and the NHLPA have to be applauded for putting together a new CBA, well before the September 15, 2022 deadline and adding an extra four years to their labor peace. While things are a bit tense at this time, the work of Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr have to be commended as both sides would have had plenty to lose if they went on strike (or had a lockout) once again. They did what was best for hockey and it eventually should work out great for the fans.

I am also thankful for players like Mathew Dumba, Evander Kane and all the others (Akim Aliu, Wayne Simmonds, Trevor Daley, Chris Stewart and Joel Ward) who are so vital in the Hockey Diversity Alliance. It is so important that we eliminate racism and intolerance in hockey and the NHL could not have better leadership than having these seven players and former players to lead the way.

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Sean Leahy, NHL writer: It was a nice surprise to see the NHL and NHLPA work together and complete the 2019-20 season without a hitch. I doubted they’d finish the postseason, but we got a great playoffs and plenty of memories like, as Jake mentioned, Steven Stamkos and his famous goal.

I’m also thankful that we were able to see Oskar Lindblom make his return to the ice after battling Ewing sarcoma.

Speaking of returns from cancer, Charlie Capalbo back on the ice after his own battle was inspiring.

NHL All-Star Weekend was its usual brand of fun, and it was great to see 2019 Stanley Cup playoff MVP Laila Anderson introduce the Blues All-Stars in emphatic fashion.

 

Finally, thank you to Ryan Getzlaf and his chicken coop for giving us something to smile about shortly after the NHL took its pause in March.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer:

The obvious answer here is that the NHL successfully pulled off the bubble to allow us to complete the 2019-20 season. It seemed like a daunting challenge at the beginning — and maybe it was! — but they still managed to successfully pull it off far better than anyone could have expected.

Along with that, am thankful that the NHL and NHLPA were able to come to terms on a new CBA far ahead of schedule. There are still some things to work out to get this next season underway, but I am optimistic that can get worked out. The bottom line is, they managed to get the big deal done. That was a pleasant surprise.

Am thankful that the Tampa Bay Lightning finally had everything go their way at the same time in the playoffs so we can stop wondering what the NHL’s most successful team over the past six years is doing wrong. Now we can tip our collective caps to them and recognize them for what they are. An amazing team and franchise that no longer has that “yeah, but…” following them around.

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    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.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”