Calder Cup is back: AHL staging first playoffs since 2019

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A year after the pandemic shut down the season, spring of 2021 arrived in places like Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Utica, New York, without the playoff hockey that usually followed.

The American Hockey League put on a shortened season to get through the pandemic, but the NHL’s top developmental league didn’t crown a champion for a second consecutive year.

After getting through another rough winter, the first full AHL postseason since 2019 is underway, with the Calder Cup set to be awarded in June — a major accomplishment and the start of what the league hopes will be a climb back toward pre-pandemic success.

“I’m really looking forward to handing that trophy out,” AHL president and CEO Scott Howson said. “I’m most excited for our players, who had it taken away from them when it hit in March in ’20 and then last year we were disappointed we couldn’t find a way to do it. Really excited for our players and our fans to get that excitement.”

It took adding six days to the schedule, but all 1,118 regular-season games were played after 78 virus-related postponements. The playoffs that began Monday and roll into their first full weekend feature 23 teams vying for the Calder Cup, which was awarded every year from 1937 until 2020.

There are nameplates for the previous 20 winning teams on the trophy, and with no offense to the 2000 Hartford WolfPack, it will be a welcome step to replace them with a new league champion.

It was no surprise when the rest of the season was called off two years ago. Unlike the NHL and other major professional sports leagues that could power through without crowds thanks to television rights deals and other financial advantages, the AHL couldn’t overcome the U.S.-Canada border closure and a tricky economic picture to bring all its divisions together for a proper postseason last year.

Instead, it got in 466 regular-season games between February and May 2021. NHL teams got to see prospects develop, but it felt empty without a trophy to play for.

“The reason why we play this game is because we want to win championships —- in every league — and when you don’t have that end game, sometimes you’re thinking, ‘Well, why are we playing?’” said Hershey Bears VP of hockey operations Bryan Helmer, an AHL Hall of Fame defenseman who won the Calder Cup three times. “Everyone’s going to be a professional and you’re going to play and talking with some of the players, it was like you’re basically playing for a paycheck.”

Now, Helmer’s Bears are playing to add to their league-record 11 championships. Kevin Dineen, who has coached the Utica Comets into the playoffs looking for their first title, remembers how big a deal it was when dad Bill won the Calder Cup twice in the 1980s. He sees more than just developmental value in the AHL playoffs.

“You talk to any coach and they might be fibbing to you when playoffs roll around and say your only focus is on development because I think we’re all competitive by nature and look forward to winning,” Dineen said. “Having that trophy and having that end goal is certainly a real carrot for players, management and organizations in general.”

The AHL playoffs have been a showcase for future NHL stars. Montreal goaltender Carey Price was playoff MVP when he backstopped the Hamilton Bulldogs to the title in 2007; Columbus defenseman Zach Werenski helped the Lake Erie Monsters win it all in 2016; and Stanley Cup champions Washington and Tampa Bay can trace several contributors back to Calder Cup runs.

Helmer compares the first round of the AHL playoffs to the regular season in the NHL and thinks players in the minors get a taste of what the NHL postseason is like by the time they reach the final. That kind of experience is hard to replicate.

“To develop your younger players, you want them to play in big, important games,” Helmer said. “You just look at the players that come through the American Hockey League going on to the NHL, there’s a lot of incredible players and staff and that sort of stuff. To accomplish your goal and what you wanted to achieve at the end of the season, to lift that Cup up, there’s no better feeling.”

The worst feelings this season at the league office came from U.S. Thanksgiving through mid-January when teams reported multiple COVID-19 cases. Despite that stretch, which included some games being played in empty arenas and an near-total loss of group ticket sales, Howson said revenue is down only 10-12% from normal times.

“Everything’s pretty good,” Howson said. “We’re on solid footing right now.”

The AHL was on pace to set financial records when Howson was chosen to succeed longtime president and CEO David Andrews in February 2020 before the pandemic hit, and with expansion to 32 teams on the horizon a return to that level is possible.

“It gives us a chance now to start building on what we were doing before,” Howson said. “It looks like we can start getting back on that track now.”

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    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.”

    Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

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    ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

    General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

    Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

    The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

    Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.