Sakic credits late Lacroix for assist in GM success with Avs

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DENVER — Joe Sakic learned early on the secret behind building a contending Stanley Cup team — keep everything secret.

For that particular insight, the Colorado Avalanche Hall of Fame forward turned general manager credits his mentor, the late Pierre Lacroix.

The team will hold a ceremony and moment of silence before the season opener Wednesday night against St. Louis to honor Lacroix, who died last month at 72. Lacroix was a savvy GM known for acquiring talent under the cloak of secrecy that allowed Colorado to claim two Stanley Cup titles.

As an Avalanche forward, Sakic marveled at the teams Lacroix was able to assemble. As their current GM, Sakic is following his lead.

“I would say the one thing everybody knew about Pierre, is you never knew what he was doing. He kept things close to the vest,” said Sakic, whose players will wear “PL” decals on their helmets. “That’s the one thing we here try and take — not let too many people in on what we’re trying to do.”

This isn’t a well-guarded secret — the Avs are one of the favorites to hoist the Cup in a late-starting season. With the additions of forward Brandon Saad and defenseman Devon Toews — along with a strong nucleus that includes Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar — it’s a Cup-or-bust mentality for the Avalanche.

“That’s what you want as a player, you want to know you have the ability to try and win the Cup,” Sakic said. “Pierre did that for years, time in and time out — always find a move to help the team and get us over the top.”

Lacroix was a huge driving force behind turning the Avalanche into a perennial power after the team relocated from Quebec to Denver for the 1995-96 season. The Avalanche hoisted the ’96 Stanley Cup Trophy in their first season in the Mile High City and again in 2001.

To help capture the first title, Lacroix struck a deal with Montreal to acquire Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. Years later, Lacroix traded for Hall of Fame defensemen Ray Bourque and Rob Blake, who were instrumental in winning the second Cup.

“He was such a special person,” Sakic said of Lacroix, who will be honored again sometime when fans are allowed to return to the arena. “Special to our organization.”

Sakic is paying homage to Lacroix the best way he can: By assembling a high-caliber team. The Avs are embracing the high expectations.

“It is quite clear that for us our goal is to win a Stanley Cup,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “Anything short of that is a disappointment.”

One of the unknowns could be in net, where both Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz dealt with injuries during the playoff run a season ago. It led to Colorado using a third-string goaltender in a Game 7 overtime loss to Dallas in the second round.

Back in Sakic’s playing days, the Avalanche had the luxury of Roy in goal.

“We were spoiled,” Sakic said. “We really believe we have two real good goalies that put up great numbers (last season). We expect the same thing from them. … We have a lot of faith in both goaltenders.”

Sakic’s squad was recently selected to play in an outdoor game in Lake Tahoe on Feb. 20 against Vegas. The temporary rink will be set up on the 18th hole at Edgewood, site of the annual American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament and where Sakic, an avid golfer, has played.

“The setting is going to be beautiful,” he said.

Sometimes, the 51-year-old Sakic watches the lightning-quick Avalanche that he’s rebuilt into a contender and almost wishes he could join them. He had 625 goals and 1,016 assists before retiring after the 2008-09 season.

“When I do get on the ice, I realize it’s a good thing I left when I did,” Sakic said. “The brain still wants to do it, but the body won’t let you do it.

“The game has never been better. It’s great to be on my side and watch these young skilled players play at another level — at a higher level than we ever did.”

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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.