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AHL approves structural framework for Feb. 5 start date – Sportsnet.ca

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The American Hockey League remains on course to start its season in early February.

What that actually looks like in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen.

AHL president and CEO Scott Howson said in a statement Wednesday the league’s board of governors “has approved the structural framework” for a schedule slated to begin Feb. 5 — the same target date announced in late October.

The NHL, which will have all seven of its Canadian teams play against each other in the same division because of border restrictions related to the pandemic, is scheduled to open its season Jan. 13.

All 31 clubs in the second-tier AHL are affiliated with NHL teams. The league has four franchises based in Canada — the Manitoba Moose, Toronto Marlies, Belleville Senators and Laval Rocket.

According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the four Canadian clubs will face each other this season, pending government approvals.

The AHL, which relies heavily on ticket sales for revenue, didn’t say how many of its teams plan to take part in the upcoming season.

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As Jets build foundation, comeback win over Senators an important step – Sportsnet.ca

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WINNIPEG — When it comes to building this foundation, the Winnipeg Jets are going to need to spend a bit more time tightening the screws.

Becoming a more defensively-conscious and detail-oriented team was never going to be an overnight process for this group, but Tuesday’s rousing comeback from a two-goal deficit could represent an important step in that process.

No, this wasn’t a defensive clinic by any stretch of the imagination, but the Jets stuck with it after falling behind 3-1, scored with the goalie on the bench in favour of an extra attacker with 77 seconds left to play and then earned the bonus point when Andrew Copp sent Nikolaj Ehlers in all alone on Matt Murray during the three-on-three session.

Instead of having to listen to the outside noise that comes with a two-game losing streak even if the season is just three games old, the Jets earned a 4-3 overtime triumph over the Ottawa Senators and quickly changed the tone of the narrative.

“That’s the most important piece for any team, that the score on the clock doesn’t dictate your effort level, your compete level. Maybe more important than all of it is your belief,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “That’s the foundation that’s most important to our team — build that belief that the next shift can be better, the next game can be better… that you’re always giving yourself a chance to win.

“Those comeback wins, the late comeback wins, have a really nice impact on your team, right? You carry those for a number of games, you always feel that you have a chance.”

The Jets and Senators meet again on Thursday at Canadian Tire Centre as Winnipeg wraps up a three-game swing and the two clubs play for the second time in this three-game mini-series.

Somewhat surprisingly, given his speed and skill set, it was the first overtime winner of Ehlers’ career.

Or was it?

Not so fast, says Ehlers, dipping into his memory bank while tossing in a side order of humour for good measure.

“My first year here, an own goal against Colorado,” Ehlers deadpanned during the post-game Zoom session.

Putting one into the proper net instead of sneaking an intended pass past an unsuspecting Michael Hutchinson back on Nov. 12 of 2016 brought a smile to Ehlers’ face.

“Personally, it’s obviously very nice to not just get one in OT but get the first of the year,” said Ehlers. “The team, we battled our asses off to stay in the game and get a chance to get the tying goal.”

Even one point was far from a certainty for the Jets after giving up a pair of power-play goals (one from Josh Norris, his first NHL marker, and another from Alex Galchenyuk) and an even-strength redirection from Chris Tierney before the game was 32 minutes old.

To that point, Adam Lowry had the lone marker for the Jets and his line with Mason Appleton and Copp was one of the only groups generating much offensive-zone time or pressure.

But Maurice got out the blender for the second time in as many nights — and this shake-up got the desired result.

After reuniting Kyle Connor on the top line with frequent linemates Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, the Jets produced an offensive spark.

“That’s our safe place,” said Maurice.

Thanks to a power-play marker from Connor (which was set up brilliantly by Wheeler), the Jets made it a one-goal game going into the second intermission.

Connor is up to three goals in three games — and he could easily be at five (or more), given the looks he’s had.

“He hasn’t had a lot go for him around the net,” said Maurice. “With the chances he’s generated or getting, he could have twice (as many goals of) what he has. Kyle is scratching the surface here. He hasn’t been lucky here in his start and he’s putting up great numbers.”

Then with the goalie on the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Josh Morrissey ripped a shot from the point through a double screen and it was tipped in by Wheeler with 1:17 left in regulation.

That set the stage for Ehlers’ heroics.

“He can be so dangerous, such a dynamic player late in a game,” said Maurice. “Just the speed to get into that hole and make the play that finishes it. We need him. We need him to feel confident and healthy and strong — and when he is, he’s so very dynamic.”

The most stable part of the foundation for the Jets to this point has been goaltending — and that should not come as much of a surprise, given that the reigning Vezina Trophy winner is on the roster.

After giving up three goals in the opening period against the Calgary Flames, Connor Hellebuyck has been brilliant over the next five periods and change, allowing only two markers in the next 50 shots that he faced.

Were it not for the brilliant play of Hellebuyck during the second period on Monday against the Maple Leafs, the Jets would have been blown out instead of having a chance in a game they really had no business being in.

Jets backup Laurent Brososit held up his end of the bargain on Tuesday, turning aside 16 of 18 shots on goal in the first period and finishing with 38 saves against the Senators.

Last season was a challenging one for Brossoit, but this performance was one he can build on.

Sometimes, all a backup needs to do is give his team a chance to win.

In others, stealing the game is required.

This one probably falls somewhere in the middle of those two categories.

“Very hard worker, very dedicated. He’s a guy that’s always prepared, that’s the best way to describe (Brossoit),” said Wheeler. “When his number gets called, you know you’re going to get a great performance from him because he just works so hard in between starts. He prepares his body and his mind, and I just think he’s always ready.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a goalie with (Hellebuyck) that can man a pretty great and strenuous workload, but even more fortunate — especially in a season like this — to have a guy like (Brossoit) ready to step up when his number’s called, when he might not get as many starts as he’s capable of handling.”

Entering the busiest stretch of the season, with six games over the span of nine nights, the Jets weren’t icing an optimal lineup — not with defencemen Dylan DeMelo (birth of his child) and Tucker Poolman (COVID Protocol Related Absence) back home in Winnipeg and forward Patrik Laine sidelined after suffering an upper-body injury that has him officially listed as day-to-day.

That’s a reason, not an excuse for the loose coverage and slow pace that was evident in the Jets’ play during a 3-1 defeat to the Maple Leafs on Monday.

After another slow start, it would have been easy for things to go sideways for the Jets on Tuesday.

Rather than get bogged down and frustrated, the Jets dug in and found a way to elevate their collective level of play.

“We were a way better team tonight,” said Wheeler. “Score wasn’t quite indicative of that, but we watched some video (Tuesday) morning, it wasn’t the way we want to play the game. It didn’t really fit into the type of culture we’ve established here in Winnipeg. Staying connected on the ice, helping each other out, giving each other easy outs, just those little things that make the game easier for everyone. We were much better in that area tonight, I think we felt good about where we stood in the game, kept clawing our way back and got some big plays at key times.”

One of the oddities for the Jets so far is that despite holding a record of 2-1, they haven’t actually played a single second of hockey with the lead.

Yet, thanks to a pair of comebacks that required overtime, the Jets have been able to bank four of a possible six points.

Chasing the game is not a recipe for success that can be sustained, though having the ability to rally is something the Jets will certainly look to build on as they continue the process of trying to build a stable foundation.

“We have some things we can work on,” said Ehlers. “We haven’t had the best starts to our games, obviously, that’s something we’re trying to change.

“But it shows that we don’t give up. If you’ve watched the games, you can see that. We find ways and we work hard to stay in the game and give ourselves a chance to get that tying goal and get ourselves some points.”

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Toronto Blue Jays flex financial muscle to secure George Springer, the player they wanted all along – TSN

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TORONTO — There was a time, not so long ago, that it would be hard to envision the Toronto Blue Jays as off-season heavyweights in the American League East.

Usually, the big splashes were reserved for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, with the Jays just happy to pick through the leftovers, hoping to win 85 games and make a surprise run.

Not so much anymore.

For the second year in a row, general manager Ross Atkins and the Mark Shapiro-led front office have made a huge splash, one that will not only change the dynamic of the AL postseason race in 2021, but the way the franchise is viewed in the all-important lens that is the “power player” landscape.

They may not be the Evil Empire, but a strong player development system and a newfound ability to flex their financial muscle is both resonating with free agents and leaving the traditional AL East powerhouses with something to think about.

Thirteen months ago it was $80 million for Hyun-Jin Ryu.

Late Tuesday night, Atkins followed through on the front office’s promise to spend this winter by going the extra mile to secure the services of George Springer for the next six years, handing the 31-year-old centre fielder the biggest contract in franchise history at $25 million per year for a total of $150 million.

Anyone still doubting whether the Shapiro regime will spend Rogers’ money to win ballgames has all the proof they need, and there’s expected to be another payroll level coming next winter as the Jays are, philosophically, a year behind the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres’ all-in efforts this winter.

“A part of (last year’s) plan was this off-season and nothing has changed about that plan and our ability to make this team better, even with going through the pandemic,” Atkins said at the outset of the off-season. “We obviously realize that the best way to recovery and getting back to full steam is winning. We are united on that front.”

The contention window is fully open and the Jays are expected to pour significant resources into building a winner around the young, cheap core of Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio.

Springer fits perfectly into that puzzle.

As far back as a year ago, it was obvious centre field was not only a hole on the big-league roster, but within the organization, and they’d likely be on the hunt for an outside solution.

Springer, who the Astros took 11th overall in 2011, has a seven-season history of consistent production — trash cans or no trash cans — and can get on base at an above average clip, something the Jays front office has coveted.

The blueprint they used to lure Springer was the exact same as Ryu: Add an extra year at market value and force the player to say no to more money and term than he’d find anywhere else.

As usual, that didn’t happen.

With a career .270/.361/.491 slash line, 174 career homers and centre field defence that has graded out as above average in three of the past four seasons (per Defensive Runs Saved), Springer simply helps round out what could be one of the most potent lineups in the American League.

In 2020, the Jays already finished eighth in baseball in runs scored, crossing the plate 4.9 times per game.

Insert Springer’s power and his 11.1 per cent career walk rate into the middle of that lineup — or at the very top because he’s spent the majority of his Astros career leading off — and it suddenly becomes even more of a problem and a top five offence in baseball is not out of the question.

An outfield of Teoscar Hernandez, Springer and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. would give the Jays the Nos. 12, 13 and 15 outfielders in baseball if ordered by wRC+ at 146, 146 and 138, respectively.

If you’re not familiar with that stat, just know that 100 is a league average offensive output, so the Jays would have some serious outfield pop and production on their hands.

The odd man out would clearly seem to be Randal Grichuk, but there are ways to find him at-bats as a fourth outfielder if that’s what it comes to.

The more likely scenario now is that one of Gurriel or Hernandez is used as trade bait to upgrade a rotation that’s currently Ryu, maybe Nate Pearson for a innings-capped half-season, and then a grab bag of Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling, Tanner Roark and unprovens.

The lineup is postseason calibre, but the rotation decidedly is not.

Overall, however, the talent accumulated by the Jays through various means over the last few years now looks like a carefully manicured plan that has left them in an enviable position.

“We feel that we’re on a good path towards having one of the stronger rosters in baseball,” Atkins said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve made some steps towards that.”

And with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report next month around Feb. 18, the Jays aren’t done, either.

Impact in the rotation, more bullpen depth, and a versatile infielder who can handle second base, third base or both are all still on the shopping list.

But no matter who they end up with from here, patience has paid off for the Blue Jays and for the second straight winter they were able to close on a marquee free agent target.

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McIlroy hoping for ‘close to normal’ Ryder Cup

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Ryder Cup

(Reuters) – Rory McIlroy said he is hopeful that a near-capacity crowd will be able to attend the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September.

McIlroy said organizers had made the right call by deciding not to stage the event without fans last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m excited for the Ryder Cup,” McIlroy told the European Tour’s website.

“Hopefully, with how the vaccine is being rolled out, we are starting to see some light at the end the tunnel with this pandemic.

“It may not be the full, full capacity that a Ryder Cup usually is, but hopefully it will be very close to what a normal Ryder Cup is and I am excited for that.”

McIlroy, who is playing at the Abu Dhabi Championship this week, said he was in a good frame of mind.

“I’m raring to go after the Christmas break, I’ve done some good practice and you come into the new season with renewed optimism and a lot of goals,” McIlroy said. “I guess that has translated into some good golf here.

“I keep getting myself into contention and someone goes out and has a really good Sunday but I need to take the initiative and have one of those really good Sundays myself to get over the line.”

The Ryder Cup will be held from Sept. 24-26.

 

(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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