Ovechkin to receive Wayne Gretzky International Award

Alex Ovechkin's widespread impact will be recognized this winter.

The Washington Capitals superstar will be honored as the recipient of the Wayne Gretzky International Award as part of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on Dec. 12, the institution announced Wednesday.

Established in 1999, the award pays tribute to international individuals who have made major contributions to the growth and advancement of hockey in the United States.

"His performance on the ice and efforts off the ice have certainly translated into more kids and families wanting to be involved in our sport," USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said of Ovechkin. "He’s been a great ambassador for hockey and embodies what the Gretzky Award represents."

Previous recipients of the honor include Herb Brooks (2004), Scotty Bowman (2002), the Howe family (2000), and Gretzky himself in 1999.

Gary Bettman, Brian Gionta, Neal Henderson, Tim Thomas, and Krissy Wendell will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame as the Class of 2019.

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Report: Byfuglien mulling future amid personal leave from Jets

Dustin Byfuglien is contemplating his options while on personal leave from the Winnipeg Jets, reports TSN's Bob McKenzie, who adds that there's no timetable for a decision.

The club announced last Friday that the veteran defenseman had been granted a leave of absence. While the reason and timetable weren't disclosed, head coach Paul Maurice said at the time that the blue-liner was "going to be fine," and it was "nothing sinister."

Byfuglien, 34, is entering the fourth year of the five-year, $38-million pact he inked with the Jets in February 2016.

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Kings agree to 1-year, $1.5M deal with Ben Hutton

The Los Angeles Kings have agreed to a one-year, $1.5-million contract with defenseman Ben Hutton, the team announced on Wednesday.

Hutton, a left-handed shot, joins the Kings after spending his first four NHL seasons with the Vancouver Canucks. He appeared in 69 games for Vancouver in 2018-19, tallying five goals, 20 points, 43 penalty minutes, and a minus-23 rating while averaging just over 22 minutes of ice time.

The 26-year-old blue-liner was Vancouver's fifth-round pick (147th overall) out of the University of Maine in 2012. He's scored 11 goals and 70 points over 276 career NHL contests.

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Wheeler after Laine’s ice-time comment: ‘You want guys that are hungry’

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler doesn't have a problem with teammate Patrik Laine's comments regarding his lack of playing time.

"It's a great trait to have to want more, to want more ice time, more playing time," Wheeler said, according to NHL.com's Mitchell Clinton. "I would say those are all good things. You want guys that are hungry for more and not content with where he's at."

In an interview with Pekka Jalonen of Finland's Iltalehti published on Monday, Laine suggested he would be a first-line player on most NHL teams.

“In contract negotiations, one thing always is who you are playing with,” Laine said, as Jalonen translated. “With the merits I have, somewhere else I’d have an opportunity to play with the best players. Everyone who understands hockey should know that.”

Laine, who's currently training in Switzerland amid his contract dispute with the Jets, finished with a career-low 50 points in 82 games last season, and his performance was wildly inconsistent. Of his 30 goals, 18 came in November, and he found the net just seven times after the Christmas break.

The 21-year-old ranked fourth among Winnipeg forwards while averaging 17:14 of ice time per game, but he logged just 3:30 per contest with the man advantage.

"He's certainly one of our best players. He spends a good deal of time on that top unit on the power play. We've been top five in the league the last couple of years and a big part of it is what Patty does," Wheeler said.

Laine is one of two Jets players who need a new contract. Fellow restricted free agent Kyle Connor also remains without a deal.

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Ranking the NHL’s divisions by strength

It doesn't take long for the balance of power to shift in today's NHL. With so much parity, any team has a real chance to win on any given night; come playoff time, it's impossible to predict who may go on a lengthy run to Lord Stanley's Cup.

It's far easier to forecast things like which teams should be the best, and which division provides the toughest competition. Let's take a crack at that instead, and rank each NHL division's top-to-bottom strength heading into the 2019-20 season.

4. Pacific

Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images Sport / Getty
2018-19 Standings Record Pts Goal differential
1. Calgary Flames 50-25-7 107 +62
2. San Jose Sharks 46-27-9 101 +28
3. Vegas Golden Knights 43-32-7 92 +19
4. Arizona Coyotes 39-35-8 86 -10
5. Vancouver Canucks 35-36-11 81 -29
6. Anaheim Ducks 35-37-10 80 -52
7. Edmonton Oilers 35-38-9 79 -43
8. Los Angeles Kings 31-42-9 71 -61

The Pacific might own the best rivalry in the sport right now between the Sharks and Golden Knights, but the rest of the division lacks that same eat - no disrespect to the Flames.

It's hard to imagine any turnover among the top three Pacific teams heading into the 2019-20 campaign. Their order in the standings might change, but the clubs this division sent to the playoffs last season don't seem destined to drop out.

The Coyotes and Canucks made improvements this summer but don't project to be anything close to contenders just yet. The Ducks and Kings are both retooling, while the Oilers...well, you know the story there.

There's considerable talent at the top of the Pacific pack, but the drop-off is vast.

3. Metropolitan

Patrick Smith / Getty Images Sport / Getty
2018-19 Standings Record Pts Goal differential
1. Washington Capitals 48-26-8 104 +29
2. New York Islanders 48-27-7 103 +32
3. Pittsburgh Penguins 44-26-12 100 +32
4. Carolina Hurricanes 46-29-7 99 +22
5. Columbus Blue Jackets 47-31-4 98 +26
6. Philadelphia Flyers 37-37-8 82 -37
7. New York Rangers 32-36-14 78 -45
8. New Jersey Devils 31-41-19 72 -53

The Metro sent five teams to the postseason a year ago, but now there's some major inconsistency within the division. Aside from the Capitals - who have won four consecutive division titles - and the up-and-coming Hurricanes, the group is largely in limbo.

With their veteran core, the Penguins are always dangerous. But they did little, if anything, to improve their roster this summer. The Islanders lost their star goalie and replaced him with one who's proven inconsistent over the years, while the Blue Jackets lost more talent than anyone this offseason. The Flyers are seemingly stuck between the playoffs and the draft lottery, and their hopes of contention rest on the shoulders of a rookie goaltender.

Big offseasons from the Devils and Rangers certainly make the Metro more compelling, but both Hudson River rivals are likely a year or two from taking true steps toward contention.

2. Central

Bruce Bennett / Getty Images Sport / Getty
2018-19 Standings Record Pts Goal differential
1. Nashville Predators 47-29-6 100 +26
2. Winnipeg Jets 47-30-5 99 +28
3. St. Louis Blues 45-28-9 99 +24
4. Dallas Stars 42-32-7 93 +8
5. Colorado Avalanche 38-30-14 90 +14
6. Chicago Blackhawks 36-34-12 84 -22
7. Minnesota Wild 37-36-9 83 -26

Probably the most competitively balanced division in the league, the Central is always tightly contested. That should stay the same in 2019-20, as the three teams that topped the division last season - including the eventual champs - have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations once again.

The Avalanche and Stars, both coming off playoff appearances of their own, are strongly trending upward after busy summers; the race for top spot in the Central will be a close one all season long.

The Blackhawks and Wild probably can't keep up with the pack leaders here, rounding out what's otherwise an incredibly deep and dangerous group of teams.

1. Atlantic

Steve Babineau / National Hockey League / Getty
2018-19 Standings Record Pts Goal differential
1. Tampa Bay Lightning 62-16-4 128 +103
2. Boston Bruins 49-24-9 107 +44
3. Toronto Maple Leafs 46-28-8 100 +35
4. Montreal Canadiens 44-30-8 96 +13
5. Florida Panthers 36-32-14 86 -13
6. Buffalo Sabres 33-39-10 76 -45
7. Detroit Red Wings 32-40-10 74 -50
8. Ottawa Senators 29-47-6 64 -60

There are some very bad teams at the bottom, but the top three clubs in the Atlantic form undoubtedly the best group in the league. The Lightning are fresh off a historically dominant regular season and are Presidents' Trophy favorites in 2019-20. Then there's the Bruins and Leafs, who both have championship-ready rosters and could be on a collision course for a third straight first-round playoff matchup.

The Atlantic's middling teams are on the rise, too. The Panthers made a huge splash with the signing of Sergei Bobrovsky, and steady goaltending could be the key to getting a wildly talented forward corps into the playoffs. The Canadiens missed last year's postseason by two points and remain a threat to qualify this season so long as Carey Price is his usual self.

The Sabres have built a nice blue line and added some bodies to shore up a shallow group of forwards; they shouldn't be completely counted out if Jack Eichel is healthy.

As for the Red Wings and Senators, let's just say they're a few years away from being a few years away.

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Canadiens’ Juulsen to consult specialist about his headaches

Noah Juulsen's health problems have not subsided.

The Montreal Canadiens defenseman will consult a specialist to get a second opinion about his headaches, the club announced Tuesday. Juulsen and his agent, Jason Taylor, approved the decision.

Juulsen was ruled out indefinitely in February with what the team called a vision-related issue. He appeared in only 21 games with the Canadiens last season and none after Dec. 17.

The 22-year-old was initially ruled out indefinitely in November after suffering a facial fracture when he took a puck to the face during a game.

He appeared in 23 NHL contests during his rookie season in 2017-18, as well as 31 games with the AHL's Laval Rocket. Juulsen also played three contests with the Rocket last season.

Montreal drafted Juulsen 26th overall in 2015.

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