After Wilson flap, rougher, tougher Rangers set for 2021-22

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No one player or executive had a greater influence on how the New York Rangers will look in 2021-22 than Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals.

A game after the Rangers had been eliminated from playoff contention last season, the Caps’ enforcer gave the Blueshirts a black eye.

In a span of seconds, Wilson punched a prone Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head in a goal-mouth scramble and later rag-dolled star forward Artemi Panarin to the ice, ending his season.

Over the next few days, the league fined Wilson $5,000. The Rangers ripped the NHL and they were fined $250,000. Team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton were fired after the team owner disagreed with their approach, and Chris Drury took over for them. Coach David Quinn also was fired.

In the offseason, the Rangers decided to revamp the lineup to give it a more physical presence. They acquired enforcer Ryan Reaves from Vegas, signed the gritty Barclay Goodrow as a free agent, and traded Buchnevich to St. Louis for Sammy Blais, another physical player. No-nonsense coach Gerard Gallant was hired.

The days of the Rangers playing four skill lines are over. No one is going to push them around anymore.

“I think if you look at the teams in the past that have won, you have the hard-nosed players that produce offense, but they’re tough to play against,” Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “They kind of set a tone to a game, set an edge. They’re just guys that are not fun to play against. We’ve played against them in the past and they’re guys that you’d rather have on your team.”

The Rangers certainly have enough skill players with Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. There also is a corps of young talent that includes Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil. The defense is led by Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, Trouba, and K’Andre Miller. The goaltending is solid if Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev stay healthy.

Wilson downplayed his role in the transformation, saying it was a perfect storm that led to the changes.

“They obviously wanted to play tougher. They wanted to bring in some grit,” Wilson said. “I mean, in the first place it shouldn’t be a guy like Panarin that’s jumping on my back. That whole situation — I won’t speak to it too much — but he shouldn’t feel like he ever should have had to do that.”

Wilson called Panarin one of his favorite players in the league, adding he’s a great player with a great personality.

“So I’m glad that’s in the rearview a little and obviously they’ve made some moves that they think’s going to make their team better,” Wilson said. “I mean, maybe it does a little bit have to do with the toughness of the division, but I wouldn’t credit that to me.”

Here’s what to watch in a season the Rangers will highlight in January with the retirement of the No. 30 jersey worn by star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. He retired in the offseason after missing last season with a cardiac issue.

NEW BOSSES

Drury and Gallant are running the show at the Garden after the team missed the playoffs with a 27-23-6 record.

Gallant is best known for leading Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final in their expansion season in 2017-18. This will be the fourth team the 58-year-old has handled, including tours with the Panthers and Blue Jackets.

On the ice, Gallant was a scorer who didn’t mind playing a physical game. He expects his players to play two-way hockey and take care of teammates.

A former Rangers’ captain, Drury was in demand around the league. He was in the right spot at the right time when owner James Dolan got fed up waiting for his team to succeed.

FOX RISES

Adam Fox has come a long way since being acquired in a trade with Carolina in April 2019. He had eight goals and 34 assists in 70 games as a rookie. The 23-year-old had five goals and 42 assists and was a plus-19 en route to winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. He averaged almost 25 minutes in 55 games.

If the progression continues, the Rangers will have a shot at the postseason.

YOUNG KIDS

The Rangers know they are going to get goals from Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider and Ryan Strome. They lost 20 goals trading Buchnevich.

Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, and Kakko, No. 2 the year before, need to pick it up this season along with Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov. The four combined for 31 goals last season.

POST LUNDQVIST

Shesterkin gave the Rangers what they wanted in the year after Lundqvist was not re-signed. Shesterkin went 16-14-3 with a 2.62 goals-against average and got four-year contract in August.

Georgiev was a roughly .500 goalie as the backup. Keith Kinkaid flashed some old form, going 3-2-1 with a 2.59 GAA after injuries got him in the lineup.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Rangers were good on special teams last season but could be better.

They finished No. 14 on the power play, scoring 37 goals and converting on 20.7% of their chances. The penalty kill was even better. They were No. 10, killing of 82.3% while scoring eight short-handed goals.

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.