NHL suspends Capitals’ McIlrath, Senators’ Greig

The NHL handed out two suspensions related to preseason games on Monday.

  • The biggest punishment went to Capitals defenseman Dylan McIlrath. McIlrath was suspended four games (two in the preseason, two in the regular season) for an illegal hit to the head on Bruins forward Steven Fogarty.

You can watch McIlrath’s hit on Fogarty in the video above, which also includes the NHL’s explanation for the four-game suspension. During the preseason game itself, McIlrath received a match penalty for that hit on Fogarty.

  • Senators forward Ridly Greig received a two-game suspension (one preseason, one regular season) for cross-checking Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois.

Here’s the explanation video for Greig’s suspension:

Sportsnet notes that Dubois needed 15 stitches from that Greig cross-check. Even so, Dubois understood why it happened.

“I don’t think he did it on purpose,” Dubois said. “I think he just got scared, threw his stick up. He saw me coming and threw his stick up to defend himself, which is obviously against the rules for an obvious reason. It is what it is.”

Luckily, Dubois was able to return to the Jets’ preseason game against the Senators.

It’s worth noting that the NHL hopes to address cross-checking during the 2021-22 season, and that include an increase in related suspensions. For more details on how that may change, check out this deep dive by Scouting the Refs.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Can Armstrong keep Blues’ Stanley Cup window open?

For ages, the St. Louis Blues have been all about stability.

From their inception in 1967-68 through a long playoff run that ended in 2003-04, the Blues only missed the playoffs three times.

Have they always been a serious contender during those runs? Not necessarily, but few sports franchises would dream of the Blues’ remarkable consistency.

In most ways, Doug Armstrong’s carried over that legacy as Blues GM. For all of the highs of that Stanley Cup win, there have also been a lot of smaller and medium-sized victories.

It’s not that surprising, then, that the franchise rewarded him with a contract extension on Sunday. He’s been one of the NHL’s best GMs, especially considering that the Blues aren’t merely built off of draft lottery luck.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Armstrong found ways to keep the Blues competitive for most of his latest extension (again, through 2025-26). But is Armstrong right in believing that the Blues’ Stanley Cup window is still open?

Let’s look at the situation in front of them.

Solid (but unspectacular) outlook for the Blues in 2021-22

In short order, PHT will delve deep with a preview of the Blues 2021-22 season. (On Monday, PHT covered the Rangers.)

The short version: it’s not that difficult to picture the Blues making the playoffs. If they get hot again, they could go on a solid run — as long as they avoid the best of the West.

It’s not just that the Blues got swept by the Avalance; it’s that most of those games weren’t even close. The Blues have to hope that they’re closer to that championship team than the 2020-21 version.

Maybe things will break better this season. Consider some of their even-strength stats from Natural Stat Trick,and you’ll realize that things definitely need to be different.

  • They were in the bottom-half of the NHL in volume stats like Corsi For (48.23-percent, 10th-worst) and scoring chances for (48.73-percent, 13th-worst).
  • It’s not something you can explain away as quality over quantity. Their expected goals for percentage was 46.01-percent, seventh-worst in the NHL. Only the leaky Blackhawks’ control of high-danger chances (43.04-percent) dipped below the Blues’ 43.88-percent.

Will the Blues age well, or fall off the map?

Yes, the Blues aren’t that far removed from that Stanley Cup run. Life can come at you fast in sports, though, and it’s possible this is their new reality.

If you want to scare Blues fans and management, merely utter the phrase: “Look at the Sharks.”

Like the Blues, the Sharks consistently ranked among the NHL’s better teams with unusual consistency. While risky, you could talk yourself into Doug Wilson investing in older players, culminating with the Erik Karlsson contract.

Even Wilson likely expected things to eventually sour — but just about no one expected the Sharks’ downfall to be so immediate, and chilling. Now the Sharks’ front office only ranks ahead of the Sabres in fan confidence. Few teams feel more “stuck” than the Sharks.

So, the fear is that the Blues will get stuck much like the Sharks — with things falling apart in a sudden and shocking way.

[2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

The sheer number of long-term contracts, and ones that look dubious, should be troubling for the Blues. Consider $6.5M the magic/poison number.

  • Brayden Schenn, 30, carries that cap hit through 2027-28.
  • Justin Faulk, 29, and Torey Krug, 30, both cost that much through 2026-27.
  • Colton Parayko, 28, costs $5.5M in 2021-22. Parayko ranks among the biggest risks, as his extension (again, $6.5M) expires after the 2029-30 season.

Look, it’s great to have a plan. When you zoom out on how the Blues are built, is it possible that Armstrong sometimes jumps the gun?

The entire Justin Faulk situation revolved around preparing for Alex Pietrangelo‘s likely departure. In the long run, though, the Blues doubled the risks of aging defensemen (Faulk and Krug), are paying $13M combined for the two, and took a step back on defense.

Schenn’s fine, but considering his rugged style, that contract might age poorly. Jordan Binnington costs slightly less ($6M), but is 28, and who knows what kind of value he’ll bring through 2026-27?

For every player the Blues wisely walked away from (David Backes, Kevin Shattenkirk), they’ve made risky investments in solid-but-unspectacular players. Each of these moves add more risks to the Blues roster, and makes them less flexible.

Which makes two upcoming decisions all the more important.

Two keys: ROR and Tarasenko

Ryan O’Reilly, 30, seems headed for a raise from that $7.5M after 2022-23. Meanwhile, it seems like a matter of time before Vladimir Tarasenko, 29, gets traded.

Theoretically, the Blues could picture Pavel Buchnevich (26, $5.8M through 2025-26) as a Tarasenko replacement. (By that logic, Brandon Saad slots into Jaden Schwartz‘s spot.) In some scenarios, ROR simply gets a small raise, and the puzzle pieces fit.

It’s key for the Blues to be flexible here, though.

In a lot of ways, they’ve boxed themselves into committing to O’Reilly. After all, this is an aging roster, and ROR is their most obviously great player.

Again, though, he’s already 30. If the Blues sink like the Sharks, would they be honest enough to acknowledge their situation?

Will Armstrong & Co. be willing to admit they’ve made mistakes, and switch gears? Or will they dig in, and make matters worse if things go south?

Can they innovate if needed?

And, really, are they equipped to rebuild/reload if their window truly closed? The makeup of their front office makes that seem dubious.

The rise of Peter Chiarelli doesn’t inspire maximum confidence.

Granted, you could joke that the Blues don’t even have Tyler Seguin/Taylor Hall-type players to trade away for pennies on the dollar. Elite Prospects ranked the Blues’ pool at 26th, while The Athletic’s Corey Pronman placed them 24th.

But it’s still unsettling if Chiarelli hasn’t learned from mistakes. It’s not just about the meme-generating blockbuster gaffes, either.

Chiarelli consistently made groan-inducing value judgments. Forking over two first-round picks for Griffin Reinhart? Rough. Seeing one of them pan out to be Mathew Barzal? Almost art.

(The parting gift of Mikko Koskinen‘s brutal contract seems like trolling as much as anything else. Are we sure that wasn’t what he was doing?)

[PHT’s Power Rankings]

All ribbing aside, Chiarelli brings a wealth of experience. Ideally, the Blues form a sage-like front office with Chiarelli, Armstrong, and Ken Hitchcock.

Is that really a group that would be agile enough to change course if the Blues underwhelm, though? Chiarelli and Armstrong are both 57, and Hitchock turns 70 in December.

From the look of their front office, there isn’t much interest in analytics, either. At least publicly.

In a way, the Blues’ front office echoes their roster. You can find good in both, but each group could also age very poorly. Every sports team battles Father Time. The Blues, though? They’re hiding Father Time’s newspaper, and stealing his slippers. The backlash could be severe.

None of this means the Blues are doomed, mind you. Doug Armstrong just might need to pull off his best work yet.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

Kraken released: Seattle opens preseason topping Vancouver

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The concourses of the Spokane Arena were jammed. The merchandise lines snaked through the crowds, causing bottlenecks as fans filed in for their first glimpse of the Seattle Kraken.

There seems to be little doubt about the popularity and reach of the NHL’s newest franchise, even when playing 300 miles away from home.

“It was unbelievable to be honest. I mean, I’m from the East Coast so I’ve never been out here. It just goes to show how exciting hockey is, how much it’s growing,” Seattle’s Ryan Donato said. “Coming in here and seeing all the Kraken jerseys and how everything’s growing so fast, it’s truly awesome to be a part of.”

Seattle made its debut on Sunday night with a 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks in the preseason opener for both teams. With Seattle’s home arena putting the finishing touches on its construction, the Kraken have taken their first preseason on the road to three junior hockey venues in the state.

Spokane was first up, and the 10,208 fans were treated to the Kraken rallying from a 2-0 deficit thanks to three goals in the second period and Morgan Geekie’s two goals in the third period.

Riley Sheahan scored the first preseason goal in Kraken history at 2:32 of the second period off an assist from Nathan Bastian. Jared McCann and Donato added power-play goals in the second period for Seattle.

It wasn’t quite like the preseason debut Vegas had in 2017, when it scored nine goals against Vancouver. But the “home” fans went home happy.

“It’s great to be back in a full building,” Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said. “We’ve all missed that for a long time. To be able to do it here was great.”

There was necessity related to Seattle’s decision to trek across the state for its first game. The home arena for the Kraken — Climate Pledge Arena — is still a couple of weeks from completion and Seattle’s first home game is Oct. 23 against the Canucks.

But there was also a specific outreach behind the decision to play in Spokane rather than keeping all their preseason games in the Puget Sound region. The Kraken envision themselves a brand for the entire Pacific Northwest and their regional broadcasts will have games being shown throughout Washington, but also into slivers of Northern Idaho and Western Montana.

Playing in Spokane was a way to acknowledge that segment of the fan base, and a way to help establish a connection with the area.

“Tonight is validation that our market isn’t just the Seattle DMA. The amount of people wearing Kraken merchandise, the sincere enthusiasm, there couldn’t be a better place to start,” Kraken CEO Tod Leiweke said shortly before puck drop. “This is just magnificent. It’s heartwarming. It’s stirring and I feel emotional just walking that concourse.”

While the Kraken will play their final two home preseason games in the Puget Sound area, there could be opportunities in the future for Seattle to take its product on the road in the preseason. Alaska has been a market the Kraken have specifically focused on — including promoting donations to help reinstate the men’s hockey program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Kraken games will be broadcast throughout Alaska and landing that territory as part of their broadcasting rights was a big win for the franchise.

“We hope that through these three games that our partners and us raise, targeting the half a million dollars, that’s how you build relationships. Going up to Alaska and supporting the effort to save the Seahawks hockey program that’s how you build support,” Leiweke said. “Easiest way to do it is winning but there’s other things that are also fundamental to the mission.”

For the first night, the focus was on Spokane and giving a jolt to a normally sleepy Sunday night in the Lilac City. At Lord Stanley’s, a recently opened hockey bar downtown, fans packed every table of the restaurant several hours before the game. While there were NFL games on the TVs and a handful of fans in Seahawks jerseys, Kraken logos and gear dominated — with the exception of two fans in Red Wings jerseys. And even in the midst of a Sunday afternoon filled with NFL games, TVs were also tuned to the Boston-Washington NHL preseason game.

“Just kind of crazy seeing people for the first time again,” McCann said. “Some of us haven’t seen them in a long time. So it’s great.”

NHL says it will have ‘tighter standard of enforcement’ for cross-checking this season

The NHL has had a cross-checking problem for some time now. Not just the fact that it happens on a consistent basis and can result in injury, but that it has not been consistently enforced by the league’s on-ice officials. Especially when it comes to battles for positioning in front of the net.

The league claims it is looking to change that this season.

As the 2021-22 season approaches, the NHL has said there will be a tighter standard for the enforcement of rule 59 (the cross-checking rule) in the hopes of calling more penalties and giving offensive players a better opportunity to shine.

On Friday, the league sent out a video highlighting some of the plays that will be penalized this season.

By the wording of the rule, all of them should have been penalized in previous years.

The NHL has seemingly always operated under the assumption that cross-checking is just one of those things that happens around the net. While it does get called fairly regularly, there are probably even more infractions that go uncalled over the course of any random game.

In previous years the NHL has tried to crack down on other infractions and call them more frequently, including interference and most recently slashing.

There is no doubt that early in the season we will see an increase in cross-checking calls and more power plays.

They key is going to be how long that continues.

Sharks open training camp without Evander Kane

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The San Jose Sharks opened training camp with a big void at forward with Evander Kane not participating and little idea of when or if he will come back.

The Sharks took the ice for the first time this season Thursday, a day after Kane was cleared by the NHL of gambling allegations. But with the league still looking into allegations of physical and sexual abuse made by his estranged wife, Kane and the Sharks decided he will not take part in practice until further notice.

“It’s not ideal, but there is an ongoing investigation from the NHL,” general manager Doug Wilson said. “The focus has to be on our group here, the guys that are here today and the things that we can control, but also respect the process of dealing with some very serious allegations and some things that need to be addressed with the right process.”

The Kane saga has been hanging over the Sharks for weeks after Anna Kane alleged in an Instagram post this summer that Kane bet on NHL games and was “obviously throwing games to win money.”

That launched a probe by the league and the NHL said Wednesday there was no evidence to back up those charges and that the investigation “raises doubts about the veracity of the allegations.”

But Anna Kane also made additional allegations this week of sexual and physical abuse in a restraining order application filed in Santa Clara County Family Court.

Kane’s attorney denied those charges but the team said it came to an agreement with Kane that he won’t participate in camp until further notice while the league looks into those charges.

None of the players made available to the media would comment on the specifics.

“No one knew about anything and no one still knows about anything,” defenseman Erik Karlsson said. “We’re here to focus on the things that we can control and everything other than that is out of our hands.”

There was also a report this offseason from The Athletic that there was a rift between Kane and his teammates, many of whom don’t want him back on the team.

Kane’s teammates said any issues would be dealt with privately in the dressing room and they were happy with the mindset of the group who was on hand for the start of camp.

“I thought today was a real good day,” captain Logan Couture said. “When you get to the rink, you show up, you play hockey, you work hard. You play for the guy next to you. Everyone that’s here is proud to be a San Jose Shark and we want to win for this organization.”

Kane’s absence will be felt on the ice as he was the team’s most consistent forward last season, when he led the Sharks with 22 goals and 49 points.

If Kane can’t play, they will have a hard time reversing the dramatic fall the team has taken the past two seasons after making it to the Western Conference Final in 2019.

“We all just play,” defenseman Brent Burns said. “It’s no different than anything else. At the end of the day, we just make coffee in the morning, come to the rink, get ready to play and you do it. I don’t think it’s any different than guys getting hurt, not being there for lineup. We don’t worry about that stuff. We can’t. There’s too much other stuff.”

The Sharks finished last in the Western Conference in 2019-20 when coach Peter DeBoer was fired in December and took only small steps forward last season when they finished near the bottom of the West Division with 49 points in the first full season under Boughner.

They made few big moves in the offseason outside of buying out ineffective goalie Martin Jones and acquiring Adin Hill from Arizona in a trade and signing James Reimer for a second stint with the organization. The Sharks’ .891 save percentage over the past three seasons is the lowest in the NHL.

They also added some depth forwards in Nick Bonino and Andrew Cogliano but there will still be questions about whether there’s enough firepower on the top two lines, which will only be a greater concern if Kane doesn’t play.

Time to get Kraken: Seattle opens first NHL training camp

SEATTLE (AP) — It didn’t take long for Mark Giordano to get years of seeing red out of his system. The former longtime Calgary Flames defenseman didn’t even flinch Thursday while pulling on the jersey of a different team for the first time in his career.

Give an assist to his wife for making sure Seattle Kraken blue has been the dominant color for him ever since Giordano was selected by the NHL’s newest franchise in the league’s expansion draft over the summer.

“My wife’s done a good job of surrounding my family with Kraken T-shirts and now we can get some jerseys that they’re for sale,” Giordano said.

Giordano and the rest of the Kraken’s roster hit the ice for the first time as a team with the start of training camp Thursday. It was the first step toward Seattle’s debut on Oct. 12 at Vegas and came exactly a month before the Kraken open their home arena against Vancouver.

While Seattle’s roster is a mix of veterans and some young talent looking for an opportunity, no one on the roster comes close to Giordano’s years on the ice.

After 15 years in Calgary — the past eight as the Flames’ captain — coming to Seattle is a fresh opportunity for the nearly 38-year-old veteran.

And nothing is more exciting than the first day of camp.

“It wasn’t light out for a little while but I wasn’t first at the rink, I can tell you that,” coach Dave Hakstol said. “Everyone was here earlier, everybody was excited to get going. Overall, it was a good first day for everybody to get under their belts.”

Giordano was in the first group to take the ice shortly after 9:30 a.m. They were greeted by applause from fans who showed up at the team’s $80 million practice facility for a glimpse of Seattle’s players.

Most of the team has been in town for a couple of weeks having informal workouts.

“All the guys were here earlier than I’ve seen groups on other teams come in,” forward Jordan Eberle said. “We were all here for two weeks in advance to camp. I think that was just everyone wanted to get here, get settled obviously being new, getting a chance to meet the guys, joke around in the locker room, start some camaraderie within the group. That bonding is huge.”

Seattle plays the first of six preseason games Sunday against the Canucks in Spokane, Washington. Because the team is entirely new both Hakstol and some of the players said they would like to keep the pairings from the first day together for a bit to see how it develops.

“We’ve only got a certain amount of time so what we would like to do is put some combinations together and see what that looks like,” Hakstol said. “In order to see that you have to give it two or three days to build together, possibly even leave it together through one exhibition game and then we have the opportunity to look at a different combination.”

One unexpected sight was forward Yanni Gourde working with the second practice group, albeit wearing a red no-contact jersey. Gourde had shoulder surgery in July shortly before the expansion draft and was expected to miss the first two months of the regular season.

While that still might be the case, general manager Ron Francis said Gourde is ahead of schedule in his recovery.

“We’re finding out he’s a tough guy to hold back,” Francis said. “He’s really worked hard.”

NOTES: Francis said Seattle’s entire roster has received its COVID-19 vaccinations. … One noticeable absence on the first day was center Colin Blackwell, who is day-to-day with a lower body injury, Hakstol said.

NHL finds Evander Kane did not bet on games; still under separate investigation

The NHL announced on Wednesday evening that it has concluded its investigation on whether or not San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane bet on NHL games — including his own — and determined there was no evidence to support the allegations.

The allegations were originally brought forward in social media posts by Kane’s wife. Kane denied the allegations.

From the NHL’s final report:

“The investigation included a detailed review of social media, public data, and court filings from the bankruptcy proceeding initiated by Mr. Kane in January 2021 and his pending divorce proceeding; a review of sports betting data and analysis; and in person and virtual interviews of members of the Sharks organization and others, including Mr. Kane. It should be noted that Ms. Kane refused to participate in the investigation.

“The investigation uncovered no evidence to corroborate Ms. Kane’s accusations that Mr. Kane bet or otherwise participated in gambling on NHL games, and no evidence to corroborate the allegations that Mr. Kane ‘threw’ games or did not put forward his best effort to help the Sharks win games. To the contrary, the evidence raises doubts about the veracity of the allegations.”

 

While the NHL found no evidence of him betting on games, Kane is still under a separate investigation for potential wrongdoing that was recently brought to the league’s attention.

The new accusations come from Kane’s estranged wife and include sexual assault and multiple instances of domestic abuse. The accusations came in a domestic violence restraining order application that was filed by Anna Kane as part of divorce proceedings. They were first reported by Front Office Sports on Tuesday night.

The NHL is still investigating those accusations and will not offer any further comment until that investigation is completed.

It was reported earlier this offseason that several of Kane’s San Jose Sharks teammates did not want him back on the team due to strained relationships within the locker room.

Along with the investigation as to whether he bet on games and the current ongoing assault investigation, Kane filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in January in part due to mounting gambling debts.

Blues add Peter Chiarelli, Ken Hitchcock to front office

The St. Louis Blues announced a couple of significant changes to their front office on Wednesday, officially adding Peter Chiarelli and Ken Hitchcock to the staff.

Chiarelli will take over as the team’s V.P. of Hockey Operations, while Hitchcock will join the staff as a coaching consultant.

He will replace Dave Taylor in that role, who will take on a new role as a senior advisor to hockey operations.

Hitchcock previously served as Blues head coach between 2011 and 2017 and is second on the team’s all-time wins list. Along with the Blues, he also coached in Dallas, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Edmonton.

Obviously both names are very prominent around the NHL given the roles they have held. Both have won Stanley Cups (Hitchcock as a head coach in Dallas; Chiarelli as general manager in Boston) and been in positions of power for years.

Chiarelli is probably the most significant hiring given the responsibility he is going to have in the front office. It is also fascinating given how his past two general manager jobs (Boston and Edmonton) have ended, specifically his time with the Oilers and the types of trades he has made over the years in both Boston and Edmonton. Not only did the Oilers fail to find success despite the presence of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and several high draft picks, but the team was left with a tough salary cap situation and depleted NHL roster around the two superstars.

Doug Armstrong remains in place as Blues general manager, while Craig Berube still holds the head coaching position.

The biggest X-factor for every NHL team: Western Conference edition

Every team has a handful of players that could significantly alter the course of their season.

They are the X-factors.

Not necessarily the best player, or even a new player, but somebody that could make-or-break how things go based largely on their own individual performance. Maybe they are taking on a new role, or an increased role, or trying to fill a spot vacated by a departing player. Or maybe it is just somebody that is ready to take a significant leap forward in their development or career.

Let’s talk about the biggest such player for each team, including a couple of potential breakout stars, some goalies (always an X-factor), and some returning players that missed significant portions of the 2020-21 season.

We start here with the Western Conference teams. You can find the Eastern Conference X-factors here.

Anaheim Ducks: Trevor ZegrasThe Ducks are stuck in this seemingly perpetual mediocrity where they can not give up on the idea of contending even though they do not have the talent to actually contend. They are not only a bad team, they are a mostly boring team that needs a new star to emerge.

Arizona Coyotes: Shayne GostisbehereThe Coyotes are jumpstarting this rebuild and accumulating as many future assets as they can and got a bunch of draft picks from the Flyers for the cost of taking on Gostisbehere’s remaining contract. Thing is, Gostisbehere is still a pretty good player. He is just not as good as the Flyers hoped he would be. A big year from him could either make him a part of the Coyotes’ rebuild (he is still at an age where he could be part of the future) or make him an attractive trade chip.

Calgary Flames: Noah Hanifan. Mark Giordano is gone and that means more responsibility for the returning defenders. Hanifan has jumpstarted his career in Calgary and is going to be relied on to be one of their top players this season.

Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan ToewsMarc-Andre Fleury and Seth Jones are also candidates here, but getting your No. 1 center and captain back after he missed the previous season is also significant.

Colorado Avalanche: Darcy KuemperPhilipp Grubauer was an underrated part of the Avalanche roster this past season, and Kuemper has to fill those shoes. Goaltending will be the biggest question mark for this roster.

Dallas Stars: Tyler SeguinA healthy Seguin (and Alexander Radulov) could have put the Stars in the playoffs a year ago. Now that they are back the postseason expectations should return as well.

Edmonton Oilers: Mike SmithThe defense is not good and they are counting on a 39-year-old goalie that has had one good season in three years. They better hope he can repeat it. If he can’t? Bad times ahead.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Los Angeles Kings: Quinton Byfield. The best prospect in the league’s best farm system. Byfield becoming a star is a game-changer for the Kings’ rebuild.

Minnesota Wild: Marco Rossi. The Wild have plans to contend but they lack impact center depth. Rossi could get a big role, but he is coming back from a lost season due to COVID-19 complications. What is he capable of this season?

Nashville Predators: Eeli Tolvanen. Not really sure what the Predators’ short-term (or long-term) direction is, but Tolvanen becoming the star they have hoped he could become would dramatically improve both outlooks. They need a game-changing forward, and he is one young player that has the potential for it.

San Jose Sharks: Erik KarlssonHis career should not be falling off of the cliff just yet. He should still have some very good hockey in front of him.

Seattle Kraken: Jared McCannHis shot gives him a chance to score 30 goals every year. But can he put it all together to get there? Probably the most intriguing player they took in the expansion draft given his talent, age, and upside.

St. Louis Blues. Torey KrugThe Blues’ defense took a big step backwards in 2020-21 and Krug did not make the immediate impact probably hoped for. They need more from him given his role and price tag.

Vancouver Canucks: Oliver Ekman-LarssonThe Canucks need to be hoping like hell that the past two years were an aberration on a struggling, rebuilding team and he can regain his previous form. If he can not that is a big contract to be stuck with.

Vegas Golden Knights: Nolan Patrick. If the Golden Knights have a weak spot, it is center depth. This could be a good marriage for both team and player. Patrick gets a fresh start on a Stanley Cup contender, maybe Vegas catches lightning in a bottle with a talented player.

Winnipeg Jets: Pierre-Luc Dubois. The immediate returns on this trade were lousy for everybody. Winnipeg. Columbus. Laine. Dubois. Dubois still has No. 1 center ability, and if he reaches that it makes an already strong Jets team even better.