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A tale of two teams

By Lori Bennett National Sports Columnist NHL Noise The intensity is picking up in the NHL, with teams getting desperate to lay a claim on this season and end the calendar year on a positive note. December 19th marks the Christmas trade freeze, and teams who want to finish strong are considering what they might get done in advance of that date. Most teams looking to do business have limited cap space, so they need deals that are of the “dollar in-dollar out” variety. Finding a trade partner has never been tougher, but perhaps a deal or two will get done. The Winnipeg Jets took care of some business this past week, signing forward Nino Niederreiter to a three-year, $12 million contract extension. Niederreiter is an important member of an effective third line for the Jets, along with Mason Appleton and Adam Lowry, bringing depth production to support a strong start in Winnipeg. With or without the help of General Manager Ken Holland, the Edmonton Oilers are fighting to climb their way back into the postseason conversation. Last Wednesday, December 6th, Zach Hyman scored three goals as the Oilers pummeled the Carolina Hurricanes 6-1 for their fifth consecutive win. Surely, this was the sign Holland needed to go out and get the Oilers some help for their back end. The game was a picture of two teams swimming in opposite directions while holding a similar anchor. I’d be exaggerating to say the Oilers have needed a goalie since Grant Fuhr left town, but not by much. The Oilers started poorly and are climbing back. On the other end of the spectrum, Carolina got off to a strong start but have been on a downward slide in recent games. The common culprit appears to be in net. Following the game against the Oilers, Coach Rod Brind’Amour met with the media and was asked about goaltender Freddie Andersen. He answered the reporter, but perhaps he was also speaking to his boss. “We really don’t have an update on that. That’s a long-long-term thing. It’s unfortunate. You know, really since we brought him in, he hasn’t been healthy. We didn’t get him in the playoffs, didn’t get him when you need him. Now you’re more concerned about his overall health.” That doesn’t sound very promising for Andersen, who signed with the Hurricanes in the Summer of 2021 after playing in Toronto for five years. Since moving to Carolina, Andersen has struggled with his health and has shared his net with backup Antti Raanta and young netminder Pyotr Kochetkov. All three have struggled, and it looks like the Canes should be competing with the Oilers to land a veteran goalie to support a young stopper in development. In the meantime, Montreal Canadiens GM Kent Hughes has his cell phone volume on bust. After signing Samuel Montembeault to a contract extension, Hughes appears ready to clear up their situation in net and veteran Jake Allen might be the perfect solution in Carolina or Edmonton. Hughes created a little drama in Montreal last week when he loaned fan favourite defenseman Arber Xhekaj to their farm team in Laval. Xhekaj was returning from injury reserve, and rather than joining the Habs line-up, he was sent to Laval. The intention may be a combination of regaining his conditioning, while also having an opportunity to work on some gaps in his game that had been identified prior to the injury. With a developing group of young defense talent in Montreal, there is little room for gaps. No doubt the Sherrif will be on duty in Montreal again before long. The Toronto Maple Leafs have their own problems on the blue line. With half a squad on the injury list, and T.J. Brodie showing his age a little, the Leafs would like to improve their defense group. Several names are on the market, but Toronto is not the only team on the hunt. The decision for GM Brad Treliving seems to be when, not if. His team is holding their own, so he can afford to wait until closer to the trade deadline. Blue Jays Babble Last week, the Major League Baseball winter meetings were held in Nashville, and the Blue Jays leadership group was there and ready to do some business. With some elite names on the market, both as free agents and trade bait, Toronto was at the centre of the rumour mill and had fans and pundits refreshing social media accounts for the latest updates. On Wednesday night, the New York Yankees won the sweepstakes on one of those elite names. The Yanks landed Juan Soto from the San Diego Padres in a seven-player blockbuster trade. Soto, a left-handed bat, a four-time Silver Slugger, and three-time All Star, is just 25 years old and has consistently had a batting average that hovers around .300 while also hitting for power. Soto would have looked fantastic in the Baby Blue, and Toronto was rumoured to have shown interest. But the name that had fans losing their minds was much bigger. The phenom, Shohei Ohtani, who remained on the free agent market as of press deadline, was reportedly considering making Canada his home. Who is Ohtani and why are Jays fans obsessed with him? I heard one guy describe it this way – imagine a player that is Connor McDavid and prime Carey Price combined in one person, and he signs with your favourite team. Ohtani is an ace pitcher, who is also strong at the bat and swings left, and would be franchise-altering for any team who lands him. He’s the kind of player that would have fans wearing his jersey on the streets of Toronto within hours of landing him. Baseball media have been following this story like hawks, while the Ohtani camp has been committed to keeping the decision-making process under their hats until their guy is ready to announce his next home. Insiders believe that Jays management met with Ohtani and his entourage at their practice facility in Dunedin Florida leading up to the winter meetings. This has not been confirmed by either the Jays or Ohtani’s camp. Ohtani was expected to make a decision by the end of the weekend, so you may be reading this knowing whether or not he will wear the Blue Jays kit in the Spring. Regardless of that outcome, no doubt GM Ross Atkins has other options he is considering that might improve the Jays. I can’t comment on what Plan B might be, except to say that whatever it is, it will pale in comparison to the Ohtani option. Is it too good to be true? You may already know.

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