Kraken endure rocky path in first half of expansion season

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SEATTLE — If there was a single game that served as a snapshot of how the Seattle Kraken wanted their inaugural season to look, it came on the night of Jan. 23.

The home arena was rocking during a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers, at the time the best team in the NHL. Seattle’s goaltending was superb. Seattle’s five goals came from a mix of core players and younger players who have shown flashes of promise. The night ended with stuffed salmon being flung into the stands in celebration.

“This market is going to be great for a long, long time, because you can just tell people are really, really into hockey here and really grasping it,” Seattle captain Mark Giordano said.

Unfortunately for the Kraken, those nights have been rarities. Seattle’s first season may be a success off the ice with a full arena, merchandise being snatched off store shelves and a popular team dog, appropriately named Davy Jones.

But the on-ice product has failed to match the hope from last summer that Seattle could be a playoff team in Year 1.

From the start, Seattle cautioned it was not going to be like the Vegas Golden Knights and that warning has proved to be correct. Seattle is essentially what expansion teams are supposed to be, not the outlier Vegas proved to be in its first season.

The Kraken are 15-27-4 at the All-Star Break, although they won five of nine going into the break. They’re 15th of 16 teams in the Western Conference. The hopes of the playoffs were waning even before a nine-game losing streak in December and January as Seattle went more than a month between victories and six weeks without a win at home.

No one has questioned how hard the Kraken have played or the challenge in facing them. But the slightest mistake, especially early in the season, usually spelled disaster.

“We feel like our purpose is there on a night-to-night basis. There’s still going to be ups and downs within that … we’ve really had that over the last month whether the results have been there or not,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “For us to win, all the pieces have to be in place. Let’s call it what it is. We own that and we should be excited about that. Everybody in our room has to contribute on a nightly basis.”

From a historical standpoint, Seattle and its 34 points after 46 games is on par with most of the expansion teams that have entered the league since 1991 not named Vegas.

The Golden Knights had a whopping 66 points in their first 46 games in 2017-18. Columbus (34 points), Minnesota (40) and Atlanta (30) all played their first seasons under the current point system and fell in the range of where Seattle is now.

Florida had 49 points in 46 games in its inaugural season in 1993-94 under the NHL’s old points system.

“There’s probably a couple of games or a period or so here where I haven’t been happy with it,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “But I think for the most part we’ve come and we’ve tried to work and do what we can to win hockey games. And unfortunately we haven’t been rewarded as much as I would like and I’m sure as much as the players would like.”

Until a recent turnaround, the inconsistency was among the more frustrating aspects of Seattle’s first couple of months. When the goaltending and defense were superb, the Kraken failed to score goals.

On the nights the Kraken got some goals, their defense and goaltending leaked.

“When we made a mistake, we tended to make a beauty, and gave up a breakaway or two-on-one or some kind of scoring position that was much more difficult for our goaltenders,” Francis said.

Even when their goaltenders haven’t been put in tough spots, the netminders struggled for the better part of three months. Philipp Grubauer is 5-2 with a 2.14 goals-against in his last seven games going into the break, but overall has yet to live up to his $35 million contract. Backup Chris Driedger has been slowed all season by a couple of nagging injuries and a stint in COVID-19 protocol.

“I think going into the season we felt strongly about our goaltending and still feel we’ve got good goaltending,” Francis said. “It just hasn’t gone that way for us or for them to this point.”

The Kraken will be closely watched as the trade deadline approaches in March. Will they offload veterans for younger prospects, draft picks and cap space? Will they try to poach other sellers and teams with cap issues to gather possible core pieces moving forward?

Calle Jarnkrok, Marcus Johansson, Riley Sheahan, Colin Blackwell and Giordano are all in the last year of their current deals before becoming unrestricted free agents. But seemingly anyone on the Seattle roster could be available and Francis sees salary cap space now and in the future as a valuable commodity.

“I think we’re getting a clearer picture of what we have and where we might need to head in,” Francis said. “Certainly that’s something that we look at as we get to the trade deadline, we look at as we get to the amateur draft, we look at as we get to free agency and as we head into next season for sure.”

Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

“I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

“We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

“It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.