Blackhawks Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito dies at 78

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CHICAGO — Tony Esposito made an immediate mark on the Chicago Blackhawks and a lasting impression on the NHL.

Esposito, the pioneering Hall of Famer who spent almost his entire 16-year career with the Blackhawks, died following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, the team announced Tuesday. He was 78.

Esposito debuted with Montreal during the 1968-69 season and appeared in 13 games. He was then left unprotected with the Canadiens deep in goalies and taken by the Blackhawks in an intraleague draft for $25,000, an investment that paid immediate dividends for a team that was coming off a last-place finish in its division.

Esposito helped lead the Blackhawks to first place, showcasing his butterfly style to post a 2.17 goals-against average and 15 shutouts, still a modern record for an NHL goalie. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year as well as the Vezina Trophy given to the top goaltender. He also won the Vezina in 1972 and 1974.

“Tony was one of the most important and popular figures in the history of the franchise as we near its 100th anniversary,” Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz said. “Four generations of our family — my grandfather Arthur, my father Bill, my son Danny and I — were blessed by his work ethic as a Hall of Fame goalie, but more importantly, by his mere presence and spirit.”

The Esposito family called him a “Hall of Fame husband, father, and grandfather.”

“Chicago felt like home from the time Tony first arrived in 1969, thanks to the Wirtz family and those 18,000 Blackhawks fans who treated him like family every night at the Stadium, win or lose or tie,” the family said in a statement.

Esposito was from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, just across the St. Mary’s River from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and he helped Michigan Tech to an NCAA championship in 1965. His older brother, Phil, was a star in his own right, a Hall of Fame center who played 18 seasons in the NHL.

The younger Esposito’s first NHL start was Dec. 5, 1968, against Boston — and his brother. Phil Esposito scored twice on his younger brother, but Tony made 33 saves and the game ended 2-2.

Commissioner Gary Bettman called him “a beloved member of the hockey family.”

“It was Esposito’s style, charisma and heart that endeared him most to hockey fans not only in Chicago but across the NHL,” Bettman said. “The hockey world will miss him greatly.”

Esposito helped lead Chicago to the playoffs in 14 seasons. The Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 and 1973, losing each time to his former team, Montreal.

He is Chicago’s career leader with 418 wins and 74 shutouts. His overall record of 423-306-151 ranks 10th in league history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, joining his brother. And in 2017, he was selected by the league as one of the “100 Greatest Players in NHL History.”

The Blackhawks retired Esposito’s No. 35 on Nov. 20, 1988, and paid tribute to him again on March 19, 2008. He was named a team ambassador in a pregame ceremony attended by franchise icons and former teammates Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard as well as his brother.

“It’s a great feeling to be on this ice again. really miss it, I’ll tell you that,” Esposito said as the crowd chanted “Tony! Tony!” “It’s a pleasure and an honor to be back with the ’Hawks.”

Esposito also served as general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and as chief scout in Tampa Bay, where he was hired by his brother. Phil is 79 and does radio work for the Lightning, a team he helped found.

“Tony was a founding, cornerstone member of the Lightning family who was a fixture at games and, along with his brother Phil, played in integral role in laying the groundwork for a successful franchise in the Sunshine State when many thought it was impossible,” the Lightning said in a statement. “His role cannot be understated. Tony was a true legend on the ice and off of it.”

Former Blackhawks defenseman Doug Wilson called the news about his friend and mentor “heartbreaking.”

“He exuded leadership and class, while being one of the most dominant players ever seen at his position,” Wilson, the San Jose Sharks’ general manager, said.

Esposito is survived by his wife Marilyn, sons Mark and Jason, Mark’s wife Kim and their children Lauren and Kamryn

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.