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Bolt from the blueline: Avs rookie Makar off to flying start

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DENVER — Cale Makar is on the move these days – into his own place and into hallowed hockey territory. He’s just getting settled in, too.

The Colorado Avalanche rookie became only the fourth defenseman in NHL history to record 18 points through his first 18 career regular-season games. His teammates maintain that’s due to his ability to see the ice with a veteran’s vision and rarely making the same mistake twice.

His own appraisal is much more subdued.

”I still feel like a rookie,” said Makar, who moved out of teammate Matt Calvert‘s house this year to achieve another level of independence. ”I still have lots to learn.”

Those are precisely the words fellow defenseman Ian Cole wants to hear from the 21-year-old who was drafted with the fourth overall pick in 2017 and received his first taste of NHL action last spring in the playoffs.

”But what’s he going to say? ‘Man, am I good!”’ Cole cracked.

The numbers and early accolades do tend to suggest that, though. Makar was named the third star by the league for the week ending Nov. 10.

On Tuesday night, he scored his fifth goal of the season in a 4-0 win at Winnipeg. It was a game in which goaltender Adam Werner stepped in after starter Pavel Francouz was hurt after 31 seconds. All Werner did was turn in a 40-save shutout in his unexpected NHL debut.

It could be another injury for the Avalanche to weather in what’s already been a banged-up season. They’re currently without captain Gabriel Landeskog, forward Mikko Rantanen, goaltender Philipp Grubauer, forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and defenseman Nikita Zadorov.

”It’s tough,” said Makar, who has 13 assists this season. ”At the end of the day, we have so much depth.”

Makar has given Colorado a big scoring boost.

A notable stat: The last rookie defenseman with more points than Makar through their first 18 regular-season games was Hall of Famer Larry Murphy, who had 19 for Los Angeles in 1980-81. The two other NHL blueliners with more points through 18 games were Hall of Famers Hap Day (21 points with the Toronto St. Patricks in 1924-25) and Harry Cameron (20 with the Toronto Arenas in 1917-18), according to research from NHL Stats.

Another noteworthy stat: Makar’s nine assists in October set an Avalanche record for a rookie defenseman in a month.

And another: His five straight games with at least a point to kick off the season matched the Avalanche record (since 1995-96) for the longest stretch to begin a career.

”He’s a guy that’s just so naturally talented,” Cole said. ”His maturity level is well beyond his years. He’s very analytical in the sense that when he sees something, we can talk through something and you can almost see him learning. He can catalog that.

”If I’m right in that assessment, he’s going to be very, very good very quickly and for a very long time.”

Last April, Makar signed an entry contract with Colorado after his Frozen Four run with UMass came to an end (he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s top NCAA hockey player).

His first contest in an Avs sweater was Game 3 against the Western Conference’s top seed, Calgary. He made an immediate impact by becoming the first defenseman in league history to score a goal while making his NHL debut in the playoffs. Makar ended up with one goal and five assists in the postseason.

That jumpstarted his career. But it doesn’t lessen his learning curve, he maintained, through his first regular season.

”It’s just adjusting – whether it’s to the lifestyle or just the game schedule. Everything is different here,” said Makar, whose new place is within walking distance of most of his teammates. ”You have a lot more free time. It’s filling those times with useful stuff that’s going to help you. … It’s your job to worry about this.”

A little bit ago, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar sat down with his young defenseman after not seeing quite the same version of Makar he saw in the playoffs. They went over a few things – using his skating to work his way out of tough situations inside the ”D” zone and taking off if he sees openings in the neutral zone.

No need to tell him twice.

”He’s really implemented it in his game, and really bounced back in a hurry,” Bednar said. ”I feel really comfortable with where his game’s at.”

Roberto Luongo back with Panthers as special adviser

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Roberto Luongo retired from the Florida Panthers. He just never left.

And now the goaltender is officially part of the franchise again.

Florida’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts has agreed to become a special adviser to general manager Dale Tallon, a move that has been in the works for some time and was formally announced Wednesday.

His hiring was no surprise: Luongo has been a regular fixture at games with the Florida front-office brain trust this season, only now wearing suits instead of skates and having conversations in press boxes instead of locker rooms.

”I’ve had the honor and privilege to work with Roberto during his time playing for the Panthers and am proud to welcome him to our franchise’s hockey operations staff,” said Tallon, who is both Florida’s GM and president of hockey operations.

The 40-year-old Luongo retired this past summer after 19 seasons in the NHL, 11 of them with Florida, and indicated then that he would be interested in staying with the Panthers in some capacity. His plan was to take some time and figure out in what role, and how quickly.

Turns out, the five-time NHL All-Star didn’t need that long to think.

Luongo and his family are remaining as residents of Parkland, Florida – the city where he lived at the end of his playing career – and since he’s sticking around, it was always assumed that he was going to be with Tallon again before long.

”Roberto always approached every game with an unmatched work ethic and we are confident he will take to this new role with the same passion,” Tallon said. ”A cornerstone player in our franchise’s history, we are thrilled that Lu will be a part of shaping our franchise’s future.”

Luongo joins Panthers senior vice president Shawn Thornton, director of player personnel Bryan McCabe and assistant coach Derek MacKenzie as former Florida players who have remained with the team after retirement in various key roles.

The Panthers are retiring Luongo’s No. 1 jersey on March 7, before a game against Montreal, his hometown team.

Luongo was the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft by the New York Islanders, with whom he made his NHL debut on Nov. 28, 1999. Luongo then spent five years with Florida, the next eight with Vancouver and returned to the Panthers on March 14, 2014. His last game was April 6, two days after his 40th birthday.

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

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Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

Kings bench Kovalchuk, GM refuses to say for how long

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LOS ANGELES — Left wing Ilya Kovalchuk was a healthy scratch for the Los Angeles Kings in their 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, and the team wouldn’t say how long he will be out of the lineup.

Sportsnet Canada reported before the game that the Kings informed Kovalchuk he is being benched for an extended period. General manager Rob Blake and coach Todd McLellan refused to say whether it was for one game only or longer.

The 36-year-old Russian had two goals and four assists in Los Angeles’ first four games but has only one goal and two assists in the past 13.

“He was a healthy scratch, but tomorrow is a new day,” McLellan said after the game. “He is on board and has opportunities to go back in.”

McLellan said he is treating Kovalchuk the same way he would other players who are struggling. The coach cited right wing Tyler Toffoli being a healthy scratch for a game two weeks ago and left wing Adrian Kempe also being scratched on Tuesday. Those two players, though, don’t have the star power or $18.75 million, three-year contract Kovalchuk does.

“If they had to come out and watch one, then so does he. We treat them the same,” McLellan said.

The Kings are tied with Minnesota and Ottawa for the fewest points in the NHL with 13 and are 2-6-1 in their last nine games.

Blake said he met with Kovalchuk before the game, but the decision to bench him was made by McLellan.

“We’re in last place, right? We changed a lot of lineups,” Blake said. “We’re trying to find combinations that work, try to score some goals.”

This is the second straight year that Kovalchuk has found himself in and out of the lineup, which team captain Anze Kopitar said was not what anyone envisioned.

“It’s not a great situation,” Kopitar said. “Kovy is a good guy. There’s nothing wrong with the attitude or anything. For whatever reason, it is not working on the ice.”

Coyotes sign GM Chayka to long-term extension

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — John Chayka arrived in the desert with an analytics background and made a big splash when, at 26, he became the youngest general manager in North American sports history.

As Chayka started to rebuild the Arizona Coyotes into playoff contenders, the recognition grew.

On Monday, the Coyotes rewarded Chayka, signing him to a long-term contract extension.

”I think the key thing is we’re on the right track. We’ve had a solid process and that’s always the main thing,” Chayka said. ”Obviously, you’re never satisfied until you reach your goals. We want to win a championship here, but it starts with making the playoffs and getting your foot in the door.”

Chayka was hired in 2015 as assistant general manager, analytics after co-founding the hockey analytics firm Stathletes.

Chayka was elevated to GM when Don Maloney was fired in 2016. He began rebuilding Arizona’s roster in hopes of revitalizing a franchise that was among the NHL’s worst in both attendance and wins.

The Coyotes struggled with injuries early in Chayka’s tenure, but were in postseason contention a year ago, finishing four points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot. With an added scoring boost to go with its staunch defense, Arizona has opened this season 9-6-2, right in the thick of the Western Conference race.

”John is one of the brightest and hardest-working general managers in the entire NHL and over the past four seasons, he has done an excellent job of rebuilding our franchise and transforming the Coyotes into a contender,” Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo said in a statement. ”I am fully confident that John is the right person to lead us moving forward and help us bring the Stanley Cup to Arizona.”

Chayka has been praised for revamping a team that had been one of the NHL’s best defensively and worst offensively.

Through trades and free agency, Chayka has brought in players like Nick Schmaltz, Derek Stepan, Carl Soderberg, Antti Raanta, Darcy Kuemper and Michael Grabner. Arizona also drafted Clayton Keller, Jakob Chychrun and Barrett Hayton under Chayka.

The Coyotes made the big splash of the 2019 offseason, acquiring productive winger Phil Kessel in a trade with Pittsburgh.

All-Star defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keller, Schmaltz, Chychrun and forward Christian Dvorak are all under long-term extensions, putting Arizona not only in position for success this season, but for many to come.

”We’ve got a good young group and we’ve got a lot of good veterans that have helped along the way and are helping develop these guys and are good players themselves, which is tough to find those types of quality people and quality players that can come in and help support the youth,” Chayka said. ”It’s one of those things where until you achieve your goals it’s tough to be too reflective on things, but ultimately we feel like we’re in a good place, we’re on the right track and still lots to go in terms of achieving our goals.”