All posts by capncornelius

How to Make the Best of the Worst: Free Agent Alternatives for the Blue Jackets

So, let’s look into a sad future.  A future less than 24 hours from now that sees all of the Jackets big three free agents walk.  It isn’t an unlikely future, unfortunately.  With Florida trading James Reimer so they could acquire and buyout Scott Darling it sure seems like the Panthers are looking to make room for at least one of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but preferably for Dale Tallon, both of the Russians.  The only talk about Matt Duchene for most of this week has involved Montreal and Nashville and his good friend, Ryan Dzingel, unsurprisingly will not be back in Columbus.

You can’t fault Jarmo Kekalainen for attempting to build a team that compete both in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs and beyond by shoring up his center position with the addition of Duchene.  Bringing in Dzingel to help sell Duchene on a more permanent move while also addressing the weakness on left wing initially seemed brilliant, but ultimately backfired when Head Coach John Tortorella was unable to find a way to co-exist with Dzingel, culminating with scratching Dzingel from the lineup during the Boston series in favor of playing the mercurial Alex Wennberg.  It was pretty clear when Dzingel was talking to the press and cleaning out his locker that he was a goner and Duchene had one less reason to stick around.

Should this all come to past, as noted in my other article, the Jackets shouldn’t just add players to add players.  They should continue to be methodical and creative to address their holes on the left wing and center.

It is important to remember that the center position is more likely to sort itself out internally.  The Jackets have two very good chances to develop a player that can take a role behind Pierre-Luc Dubois in the lineup.  There is every reason to believe Dubois will continue to develop as a first line center.  Which means the pressure on Liam Foudy and Alex Texier is not what it might have been in the past.  Boone Jenner is certainly capable of playing second line minutes in the short term.  Nick Foligno as first line left wing is a bit more concerning.  Foligno is a fine player, but at this point in his career is more suited to play second or even third line minutes.  So, the Jackets should be on the hunt for a center, but probably more importantly, for a left wing both because they lack a current left wing that has high level talent with Panarin’s departure and because their strength going forward is heavily weighted to the right side.

What assets do the Jackets have to offer in a trade?  TSN has conspicuously listed Ryan Murray highly on their Trade Bait list.  This isn’t too surprising.  Murray is due a raise and the Jackets have the opposite problem on defense–they are overstocked on the left side.  With the addition of Gavrikov and with solid play from Dean Kukan in the playoffs (already extended) and with Zach Werenski also due a substantial pay increase, Murray or Markus Nutivaara are probably the easiest players with value to move.  Some would argue David Savard, who played quite well in the playoffs and might be at a high point in his value, particularly as a right-handed shot, but the problem there is that the Jackets lack depth on the right side as it is.  Andrew Peeke is probably the next right handed prospect with a chance to play in the NHL and he is probably not ready to take on that role this year.

The challenge with Murray has always been his ability to stay healthy.  He finally showed his potential this season only to be slowed by another injury.  This makes him a difficult player to trade.  Additionally, the hotter commodity when it comes to defensemen, as noted above, is right handed defensemen.  There are names out there such as Tyson Barrie (whose contract is up after this season) and Rasmus Ristolainen.  Those players may have to find a destination before a team looks at Murray.  Another left defenseman out there who is likely to get serious consideration ahead of Murray if he’s truly available is Shayne Gostisbehere.  So, while Murray is a solid defenseman, he has some competition in the market.

Markus Nutivaara is a solid, cost-controlled defenseman with some upside.  He can play the right side even though he is left handed, so maybe that adds some attraction.  He may have more offensive upside than Murray, but isn’t necessarily as positionally sound as Murray is.  He hasn’t had the same injury history.  But these are the very reasons the Jackets may be less than thrilled to part with Nutivaara.

What else do the Jackets have in the way of assets?  Sonny Milano is still an asset, but, based on the rough season he had that included a serious injury, he is probably more of a throw in at this point.  Bemstrom, Texier and Foudy are untouchable at the moment.  There are certainly deeper prospects like Fix-Wolansky and Kole Sherwood who could be of interest in a trade, but, again, these are not going to be more than add-ins to even out a deal.  The Jackets’ draft pick situation isn’t all that great, but if Duchene is not re-signed, they will have a first round pick in 2020 if they want to dangle it.  However, given the uncertainty of the upcoming season, it seems like hanging onto that pick is the wiser option barring a truly ridiculous trade opportunity becoming available–this is the only time I’ll allow any thought of Mitch Marner because we are not giving up 4 first round picks for him via offer sheet, but if you had to put in 1-2 picks and a player and prospect, yes, you’d probably have to look at that.

I’m not going to entertain trading Werenski this offseason.  No, not even in a trade for Marner.  Maybe if Vladislav Gavrikov has an overwhelming season this would be a consideration next off-season, but I am just not there at this point.  Defensive depth is going to be a key if this team is going to be a contender and I don’t see trading Werenski as a particularly good option

There is one additional asset the Jackets could use in a trade and that is their depth at right wing.  As I noted in my other article, when you look at the Jackets’ right side, they have an overabundance both now and in he future.  Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Emil Bemstrom, Sherwood and Fix-Wollansky are all right wings.  Anderson and Sherwood are the only two with any real size.  The rest are of the speedy and skilled wings.  Anderson’s contract will be up again next year. He will have arbitration rights and his agent has not been easy to deal with in recent negotiations–witness the Mitch Marner situation.  Should he get Marner $11 million, as he hopes, he’ll be shooting for the moon, but not that high, with Anderson next summer.  With the way the Restricted Free Agent Market has changed since his last contract, he could be due for a huge raise.  If arbitration doesn’t go well, it could lead to a short term contract that might lead to Anderson’s departure before the 2021 offseason.

On the other hand, as noted, Anderson is very different from the Jackets other right wings.  He brings a combination of speed and size that is hard to find.  Compare this to Oliver Bjorstrand who has struggled to find ice time competing against Atkinson and Anderson.  Now add Bemstrom to that competition and where does Bjorkstrand fit going forward?  That’s without another prospect like Fix-Wolansky potentially coming up and surprising people (as he has repeatedly).  With the Jackets seemingly unwilling to play Bjorkstrand on his off-wing, where does that leave him?

I’m a huge fan of both Anderson and Bjorkstrand so I am not suggesting them as tradable assets without serious reservations.  They are good players and they may well become even better players.  Frankly, I think Bjorkstrand has been held back by his usage to this point.  But you have to give something to get something and the sign of a good deal (including a trade) is often that neither side is totally happy with it.  Make no mistake though, Anderson and Bjorkstrand are only available for a home run–a first line left wing or a second line (or better) center.

With all of that in mind, who might be some targets and what might be some other things the Jackets could do to put themselves in a position to improve the chances to make a deal?

Let’s start off with the low-hanging fruit–the guys on the trading block or plausibly on it.  Not necessarily in order of possibility or priority.

  1.  Jason Zucker.  When you, very publicly, try to trade a guy two times only for it to fail, its probably a sign that its time for both parties to move on.  Zucker is 27 years old and under contract for 4 more years at a cap hit of $5.5 million.  That is probably less than Mats Zuccarello is going to get and he will be the same age is Zuccarello is now when his contract is over.  Minnesota attempted to trade him for Phil Kessel, so they are primarily looking for help at forward.  While his production went from 64 points in 2017-18 to 42 points last year, in his defense, Minnesota was kind of a train wreck.  Nonetheless, would you trade Bjorkstrand or Anderson for Zucker?  I’m not sure I would.  Worth noting–Bjorkstrand’s father is from Minnesota, and you can’t underestimate the whole obsession Wild fans (and management) seem to have for guys with a Minnesota connection.
  2. Nazem Kadri.  You may have heard the Leafs need cap room in order to make room for Mitch Marner’s new contract.  You may also have heard the Leafs were not happy with Kadri’s boneheaded play during their series against Boston.  On a good team like the Leafs, Kadri is a third line center.  But, in a pinch, he can play second line center.  What do the Leafs need? Cap relief.  Cheap help on defense.  The challenge here is that the Leafs also don’t have a lot of depth at center. Shot in the dark–Riley Nash and Dean Kukan?  The Leafs are really in a bad situation, but I don’t buy the idea they move Marner or Nylander.  They will find a way and it probably will involve Kadri departing.  Just not sure there is a true fit here for the Jackets.
  3. Yanni Gourde/Tyler Johnson/Alex Kilorn.  This possibility may be fading.  Had the Lightning added Joe Pavelski, this seemed inevitable to make room for him.  At the moment, subject to change, Dallas seems to be in the lead for Pavelski’s services.  All 3 players have a no-trade clause to complicate matters.  What would the Lightning want?  Cap relief and a cheap defenseman wouldn’t hurt.
  4. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  Look, let’s just get through this quick.  He’s Spezza 2.0–the guy potentially in the rumor mill that fits a need the Jackets have.  He’s still only 26 years old.  He has 2 years left on his deal for a reasonable $6,000,000 and he plays center AND left wing.  What do the Oilers need?  Defense and, ironically, better wings for Connor McDavid.  And depth.  Maybe Ken Holland is finally the guy to trade RNH, but, I doubt it.  So, he’ll play out the next two years with Edmonton and then probably take his turn on the Dallas carousel of aging centers.
  5. Brandon Saad/Artem Anisimov.  No, I’m just kidding.
  6. David Krecji.  This would be a cap space move if it happened, but the Bruins aren’t giving this guy up for nothing even with his injury history.   His contract is down to the last two years, so the $7,250,000 cap hit suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.  I just think the price will be too steep.  Otherwise, the two year term is nearly perfect for the timeframe it is likely to take Foudy and Texier to develop and it would give them a mentor, etc.
  7. Kyle Turris.  There are a million warning signs with this guy.  The term of his contract is staggering.  His production has decreased.  I mean, there’s a reason the Predators are chasing Duchene.  Heck, even if you traded Alex Wennberg straight up for him in a “change of scenery” deal, I think you might regret it when you were stuck buying him out at a much higher cost than a buyout on Wennberg.  Hard pass.
  8. Mike Hoffman.  After only acquiring him a year ago, his name was in the rumor mill by the deadline.  And he kind of has a reputation as a locker room cancer from the whole mess in Ottawa. But, he only has a year left on his deal, so if it doesn’t work, not a huge deal.  And this is a guy that maybe a straight up trade for Murray works?  Certainly not a Plan A, but it’s a thought.  Likely a short term solution though.
  9. Chris Kreider. If they don’t sign Panarin (unlikely), I’m not sure there is much point in rushing to trade Kreider now rather than trading him at the deadline.  I’m also not convinced he’s a true #1 left wing.  They’d mainly be looking for a younger player/prospect and you do have to keep in mind that maybe John Davidson has his eye on a player in the Jackets organization.  But this seems like a subpar use of assets.
  10. Adam Henrique.  I only listed his name to ask how on earth Bob Murray keeps signing guys like him and Ryan Kesler to these absurd deals.  5 more years and almost $6 million/year cap hit at age 29. Hardest of hard passes.
  11. Nikita Gusev.  So, Vegas decided to rush their window and now they have to pay the piper.  He’s a left wing, but a right shot, so the Jackets may not feel this is ideal.  On the other hand, he’s 26 years old and could come cheap both as far as contract (he’s an arbitration-eligible RFA) and as far as what it takes to get him (Vegas is vulnerable to an offer sheet that gives them very little.). Worth consideration.

Okay, those are some names that are out there, but now let’s get really out there.  Jarmo threw away his Easy Button a long time ago, so, what could he do if he really wanted to get creative and go after a guy that is in the prime of his career?  Let’s talk offer sheets and RFA trades.

No, we are NOT going to talk about Mitch Marner or Brayden Point.  No one in their right mind is giving up 4 first round picks and paying $10 million for these guys.  Just not happening.  If you thought the screams were loud when Jarmo traded picks at the deadline, multiply that by 1000 times.  Just not going to happen.  But there are other guys out there on teams with varying degree of cap issues.  Specifically, Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), Timo Meier (San Jose) and Kevin Labanc (also San Jose).

So, there’s some good news and bad news here.  The good news–the draft compensation for these guys is likely to be substantially lower than it would for Marner and Point.  I would expect, at the high end, you’d be looking at a First, Second and Third Round Pick.  But, here is where the problem for the Jackets starts.  They don’t presently have their second and third round picks.

Enter the Ottawa Senators.  Even after the trade for Nikita Zaitsev which (wink, wink) isn’t yet complete, the Senators are below the cap floor.  Unlike the Jackets, their remaining RFA’s are not likely to push them over the floor.  Perhaps a player like Alex Wennberg might have some value for Ottawa–he’s still young, maybe he really does need a change of scenery.  Perhaps Sonny Milano is of some interest.  Whatever the deal, the Jackets somehow get back their second and third round picks in addition to their first round pick they retained as a result of Duchene now signing.

This would be a very visible tell to teams with restricted free agents that Jarmo was at least considering an offer sheet, which would change the tenor of subsequent conversations centered around a trade for the player in question.  The team would know that if a trade wasn’t worked out, there is a possibility Jarmo simply goes the offer sheet route.  And, frankly, for Meier or Connor in particular, the offer sheet route seems pretty good to me.  A first, second and third round pick for a top line left wing in the prime of their career?  Yes, I’ll do that.

San Jose is more vulnerable because of how close they are to the cap, but Winnipeg still has a lot of holes to fill.  Additionally, after trading Trouba and likely losing Tyler Myers on defense, they really lack defensive depth.  So, there’s a match there, but it could be a steep price–let’s say Murray and one of Bjorkstrand or Anderson.  Of course, the Jets are already potentially marketing Nikolaj Ehlers and if they can manage a trade of Ehlers for a defenseman–let’s say Tyson Barrie–their situation is probably less precarious and they are probably less interested in a trade.  Acquiring Ehlers is also a possibility, but the Jets priorities, to this point have been a right shot defenseman and with Barrie and Ristolainen on the market, it seems like that’s a price they should be able to get.

Kyler Connor would be a catch if he could be acquired.  Speed and size.  34 goals last year and 66 points.  5 points in 6 playoff games.  Connor is one guy that a trade of Anderson would hurt less because you are trading for a version of Anderson with higher upside who plays on the other wing.  Of course, having both of them in your lineup would also be very attractive.  It’s a long shot, but so was landing Panarin in trade.

San Jose, on the other hand, has painted themselves into a corner.  After re-signing Erik Karlsson, they’ve already effectively let Joe Pavelski walk.  Now they have to re-sign Labanc and Meier plus roster spots for 4 more forwards and a 7th defenseman with less than $15,000,000 in cap space and Patrick Marleau wanting to return to the team (presumably on a cheap deal).  Meier and Labanc are just 22 and 23, respectively.  Meier put up 30 goals and 66 points and Labanc had 17 goals and 56 points.  Of the two, Meier projects as more of a first line talent or at least a high end second line talent.  Also, Labanc is a right shot even though a capable left wing.

Teams have used offer sheets strategically in the past to get a team to further hamper their ability to match an offer for the actual target–ironically, it was what San Jose did to acquire Antti Niemi after they gave an offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson.  But I’m not sure if that would work out if you put an offer sheet on Labanc.  The Sharks might let you have him in order to protect Meier.  The direct route is probably the safest–go after Meier first and take Labanc if the Sharks match and put themselves in position that they can’t sign Labanc.  Of course, any offer sheet would be proceeded by a trade discussion and it may well be that San Jose might have interest in a cost-controlled forward and/or defenseman given their current cap situation.

Of course, it is also possible that Jarmo can facilitate a trade if one of these teams is threatened by another team with an offer sheet.  That’s apparently what happened that led to the Brandon Saad trade.  So, Jarmo is no stranger to these territories.

There are a lot of options, but a trade/offer sheet that nets one of Meier or Connor would be the most intriguing and seems like the sort of move Jarmo has made in prior years.

Go Big or Stay Home: Why the Jackets Should Avoid the Middle Road

After a year of highs (the sweep of Tampa) and lows (the Panarin and Bobrovsky saga), it all comes down to less than 24 hours for the Columbus Blue Jackets future to be determined.  While some may hope for a last minute change of heart from Panarin, that ship seems to have sailed.  With each passing minute, the chance for a sign and trade that nets some value from the departing Russians also fades.  It would seem the competitors for their services are more willing to overpay on annual salary than they are to give an asset to the Jackets to get an eighth year for the player.  So it. goes.

Matt Duchene’s future with the Jackets is also seriously in doubt.  However, of the three, the consensus seems to be that Duchene is the one that might still be persuaded to stay.  As I predicted previously, there seem to be 3 suitors based on Duchene’s personal preferences and cap space to sign him:  the Jackets, the Canadiens and the Predators.  The Predators seemed like a foregone conclusion when Ray Shero decided to help the Predators and his own team while potentially hurting the Jackets by taking on all of P.K. Subban’s salary.  However, proximity to home and the fact that Duchene grew up rooting for the Habs could tip the scales toward Montreal.  On the other hand, the Jackets might be a safe middle ground both literally and figuratively–geographically between home and Nashville’s country music scene that Duchene loves and also competitively somewhere between the Predators and Montreal as far as capability of competing for a Cup.

The Jackets shouldn’t shy away from backing up the Brinks truck to Duchene.  They came this far, might as well go all in.  Overpaying a productive player like Duchene, as I’ll explain, makes substantially more sense than paying for the likes of Mats Zuccarello.

There will be a cost to signing Duchene, make no mistake.  It is the same cost that the Jackets would have had to extending Panarin, which they were clearly ready to do even though the Jackets have more depth at wing than they do at center, presently.  The problem isn’t this year.  The Jackets had plenty of cap space to sign Bobrovsky and Panarin, which was likely the initial plan.  That’s even after paying Ryan Murray and Zach Werenski for their new contracts.  It is next offseason where things get tricky.

Let’s just assume for a moment that Werenski’s AAV on his next deal is around $6.5 million give the current free agent market.  You could argue up or down from there, but I think that is a safe midpoint.  Let’s also assume Murray ends up with an AAV of $4.5 million. Again, you could argue up or down from there, but that is probably a safe midpoint.  So, their combined AAV comes in around $11 million.  Also, worth pointing out that for this reason the Jackets are in no danger of being under the cap floor.

Now, let’s say that Duchene signs an 8 year extension and let’s just be conservative and say that the AAV is around $10 million.  That still leaves the Jackets about $7 million in cap space for this season.  But, again, next season is where it becomes tricky.  Anderson, Dubois and Merzlikins will all be RFA’s.  That Jackets would have only about $15 million in cap space to sign all 3.  They could make room with a buyout of Brandon Dubinsky, that would give them an extra, roughly $3 million.  They could also make room with a buyout of Alex Wennberg.  This actually creates more cap room–about $4.5 million.  The only problem would be that Wennberg would impact the Jackets’ cap through 2025-26.

There is another alternative if Duchene is signed that will certainly frighten some.  However, as I’ll detail in a separate article, it may end up being an alternative if the Jackets don’t sign Duchene–trade Josh Anderson.

I know what you are going to say: “Trade Anderson?  Are you nuts?  His size and speed.  He is exactly what you want in a player, particularly in the playoffs.”  I don’t disagree with any of this, but I also look to the future and I wonder how much it will cost to retain Anderson and whether the Jackets strength on the right side justifies trading Anderson to add someone on the left side, where the Jackets depth is weaker.  With respect to re-signing him, let’s keep in mind his last contract negotiation wasn’t pleasant and Darren Ferris will be even more emboldened should he actually get Mitch Marner $11 million or more per year.  What sort of contract will Ferris seek for Anderson if he puts up 30 goals or more next season?

If you are going to trade Anderson, you have to get a left wing that is cost-controlled for, ideally, at least the next 4 years.  Again, I’ll discuss this separately in another article.

Either way, getting Duchene keeps the Jackets as an immediate contender in the 2019-20 season by shoring up their center situation. With Dubois, Duchene and Jenner, there is probably a fight for the final center spot between the incumbent, Wennberg, Riley Nash, Alex Texier and Liam Foudy.  Something is likely to sort itself out there and it isn’t necessary for Texier or Foudy to have to face the immediate pressure of being a #2 center.  Heck, they might end up playing left wing to ease into the league.

Even if you trade Anderson as a result of signing Duchene, you have Atkinson locked in as the top right wing and Bjorkstrand moving up to the second line, where he played well to finish the season.  From there you have Bemstrom potentially getting a shot on the third line where, again, pressure will be lower on him.  If he isn’t quite ready, perhaps Sherwood is.  If not, depending on who takes the vacant center spot, Riley Nash might take on this role.  The right side really is not a problem even if Anderson were to be moved.

If the Jackets swing and miss on Duchene, they should not fall to the temptation of the middle ground.  Taking a shot and Anders Lee would be worthwhile because of the weakness on the left side and because of Lee’s talent level and skillset.  Unlike the departing Panarin, Lee is a guy who likes to play low in the offensive zone and who will grind and cycle the puck.  The idea of him with Dubois and Atkinson is intriguing and not too steep of a fall off from Panarin.  Joe Pavelski would have been interesting, but he apparently rebuffed a request by the Jackets to speak with him.  Gustav Nyquist is, perhaps, the must below-the-radar option.  He actually had more points than Lee last season, though is less of a goal scorer.  He’s capable of playing all three forward positions, which is always nice for a guy like him who, ideally, is a middle six forward.

After those two, it is a steep drop off.  One name connected to the Jackets has been Mats Zuccarello.  This has all the makings of a bad deal considering that Zuccarello is looking for 4-5 years on his deal and will be 32 years old entering the season.  His production has declined already and he’s only hit the 20 goal plateau once in his career.  As it stands, the Jackets cap situation gets even better in two years when Dubinsky and Foligno are off the books, giving the Jackets room when they need it to sign Bjorkstrand’s next contract, and Jones’ next contract, etc.  Adding Zuccarello takes away some of that future cap flexibility and feels like the sort of deal that may later result in a buyout.

Signing Zuccarello also takes away flexibility next offseason to go after free agents after getting Anderson and Dubois signed.  Taylor Hall will potentially be available, but so will guys like Alex Galchenyuk and Mikael Granlund.  If the Habs sign Duchene, an offer sheet for Max Domi would be an option.  Nothing about Zuccarello suggests that he is worth taking away options next offseason.  With Lee and Nyquist, at least they address immediate needs at left wing or center, but, perhaps the better approach is to simply stick with what the Jackets have and search for trade options.  Again, stay tuned for some thoughts on that.

That would serve another purpose–a test of John Tortorella’s ability to get the most out of players that fit the current NHL, but don’t necessarily fit the coach’s personal biases.  With no additions to the current roster, Torts will be forced to co-exist with the likes of Sonny Milano, Alex Texier, Eric Robinson and Emil Bemstrom and to get the most out of them if the team is going to succeed.  He’s going to have to get more out of Oliver Bjorkstrand and, for better or worse, Alex Wennberg.  If he can’t do that, when you look at the Jackets pipeline, some of the most talented of which are undersized wings, you have to ask if he is the right man for the job going forward.  Staying the course will give a clear answer on whether Torts is right for the job and will also give a clear answer on whether guys like Milano and Wennberg, in particular, have a future in the organization.  Overpaying a guy like Zuccarello and/or bringing in a guy like Brian Boyle will just allow Torts to, once again, bury young players.  If you aren’t adding a difference maker like Lee or keeping a guy like Duchene, that seems ill-advised.

So, we’ll know which way the Jackets go in less than 24 hours, but here is hoping that they either keep Duchene, damn the cost or perhaps add high end talent like Lee or even Nyquist.  Barring that, here’s hoping they have faith in the talent that made them comfortable to make the Duchene trade in the first place instead of feeling the need to placate fans (and their coach) with a guy like Mats Zuccarello.

 

 

Dr.Strangepuck or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the 2018-19 Columbus Blue Jackets

The 2018-19 Columbus Blue Jackets are a riddle.  Wrapped in an enigma.  On paper, this is the best team the organization has ever put on the ice.  Its top line features two wings capable of putting in over 30 goals and perhaps the first true top-line center the Blue Jackets have ever had in their history.  On defense they feature a top defensive pairing that, arguably, has two Norris Trophy candidates (albeit one will start the season on the IR).  In goal, they have a two-time Vezina winning goaltender.  Is there another team in the league that can say this? No.

Yet, if you have read the season previews of the experts, you would come away thinking that this Jackets team was appreciably worse than the one that made the playoffs the last two seasons.  The Jackets continue to be the Rodney Dangerfield of hockey, grabbing at their red tie, searching for some respect.  Certainly, their playoff performances have not helped.  All-world goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky, has yet to put in a performance equal to his Vezina-winning status in the playoffs.  The Jackets offense went missing after going up 2-0 on the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the Washington Capitals.

So, it isn’t surprising that few of the experts were willing to go out on the limb and predict great things for the Blue Jackets in the 2018-19 season.  Further complicating matters are the contract situations of the aforementioned Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin.  The situations, particularly Panarin’s, received more off-season attention from the hockey media than the additions of Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair to a forward group that was already quite deep.  There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the Jackets not moving Panarin in the off-season.  However, any trade of Panarin will be a trade the Jackets lose in the short term.  Therein lies the problem.

If you are Jarmo Kekalainen and you look at this team and you know it is better than last year’s and you know that last year’s team had the misfortune to play the team that won it all in the first round, do you make a knee jerk move that makes the team appreciably worse in the short term?  What if you think the team, as built, is capable of winning a Cup this year?

We know the answer, as we prepare for Panarin to take the ice on opening night for the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The Jackets stuck to their guns, didn’t accept offers for Panarin that they viewed as too low to allow them to compete for a Cup in favor of staying the course and making a run for a title.  Most of the experts expect Panarin to be dealt at the deadline, but many of the same people assumed he’d be moved draft weekend.  There is always the possibility that Panarin is moved at the deadline, but this only happens if the Jackets are out of playoff contention, which seems unlikely given what we know about the team.  Bobrovsky is even less likely to be moved given the limited value of goalies, even great ones, in trade.  So, enjoy watching them play what may be their final seasons with the Blue Jackets.

The assumption seems to be that somehow the Panarin and Bobrovsky situations will be such a distraction that Columbus won’t be able to overcome this and will miss the playoffs after a trade deadline fire sale.  This seems to ignore the fact that both Panarin and Bobrovsky will want to have great seasons to justify long-term contracts netting them $10 million per year or more.  This is especially true for Bobrovsky who just turned 30.  A bad season for Bobrovsky could damage his market value, regardless of the Vezinas on his resume as teams might question “is he starting to slow down.” Likewise, it would be in Bobrovsky’s best interest to play well in the playoffs for once.

Another factor lost in the supposed turmoil is the Jackets depth.  The top line is a bona-fide top line when a year ago it was a serious question mark.  Meanwhile, the depth the team lacked in 2017-18 has returned through a combination of underrated off-season moves and development of players in the Jackets’ organization.  Oliver Bjorkstrand, who had a solid first, full NHL season last year is poised to put up better numbers this season and has landed on the second line where he should receive more ice time and be freed up to play a more offense-first role.  Sonny Milano will start the season on the fourth line…but it is a fourth line featuring free agent additions Riley Nash and Anthony Duclair, which could quickly see its ice time increased if the third line struggles to find the net.  Every line has two wings capable of putting in 20 plus goals.  Every line has a bona fide NHL center, which has not always been the case for the Blue Jackets.  The biggest question will be whether coach John Tortorella, fresh off a contract extension, will learn from ice time mistakes he made in the playoffs and truly adopt his own “safe is death” motto to allow players like Milano to learn from their mistakes without being stapled to the bench.

The next question is whether Alex Wennberg will actually earn the second line center position he has been gifted the last two seasons.  There is no denying that he regressed last season–look at his game score numbers, look at his power play performance, which was a large part of the team’s struggles on power play.  His pre-season performance was lackluster, at best.  He’s already been demoted to the second power play unit.  The Jackets making a run for the Cup will hinge, to some extent, on Wennberg performing to the level of play some would like to attribute to him or the Jackets finding a replacement at the deadline (hey there, Matt Duchene).

There is some question about the performance of what I will term the “Underperformer Line” featuring Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and Josh Anderson.  It is probably unfair to Anderson to lump him in as an underperformer last season as he had to deal with injuries and bounced up and down the lineup without consistent line mates.  Jenner and Dubinsky, on the other hand, struggled mightily.  Particularly Dubinsky, who had to deal with scurilous rumors from the team’s road trip to Vegas.  All accounts are that Jenner and Dubinsky were leaner at camp, but neither left an indelable impression in the pre-season games in which they appeared.  If they struggle, it is probably less of an issue as the “fourth line” can easily replace them, but it would be best for the careers of all three players if they bounced back, if not to prior form, to something better than a typical third line.

With all of the above taken into account, despite the angst of the experts, the Jackets will likely make the playoffs.  I also think that Bobrovsky will play the best we’ve ever seen in the playoffs to get them out of the first round–his next contract may depend on it.  From there, it is up to Tortorella, Wennberg, Jenner and Dubinsky, in particular, to address the issues that held the team back last season or for the coaching staff and management to overcome those issues prior to the trade deadline.

There are plenty of reasons for anxiety if you are a Blue Jackets fan.  But, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, you’re already riding the bomb down, might as well enjoy the ride.

Pre-Draft Grab Bag

We’re just a few hours away from the NHL Draft, so I thought I would put together a few quick hits to tide you over before Gary Bettman gets up to say “we have a trade to announce” for the first time and every NHL GM talks about how wonderful Dallas is as a city.

At the beginning of the junior hockey season, I highlighted four draft-eligible players from the WHL–Ty Smith, Jett Woo, Riley Sutter and Alexander Alexeyev.  So, how did there season go and where might you see them go tonight?  Smith, the left-handed defenseman from Spokane, finished the year with 73 points in 69 games and another 7 points in 7 playoff games.  Central Scouting had him ranked 14th among North American Skaters and that is also where he finished the season.  ISS had him ranked at 19th at the end of the season.  Some rankings have him as high as #8 and others in the mid-late 20’s.  That is the nature of this year’s draft though–there is some depth in the draft and a wide variance in rankings outside of the top 2-3 picks.

Jett Woo really fell off the radar as the year went on.  Missing 28 games with an upper-body injury in your draft year will do that.  Some early rankings had him as a mid-late first round pick, but Central Scouting had him as the 28th best North American skater and ISS didn’t have him ranked in the first round.  His 25 points in 44 games wasn’t particularly remarkable and his playoff performance–3 points in 14 games–certainly didn’t help things.  Based on how the season went, I’d say Woo projects more as a dependable, second pairing defenseman who is good all around, but not stellar in the offensive zone.  There are enough positives that he will probably go in the first half of the second round.

Riley Sutter finished the season with a solid, but not spectacular, 53 points in 68 games.  He had a very good stint in the playoffs with 19 points in 21 games.  Sutter will probably still be on the board after the second round.  A solid two-way player, who plays the center position, has size, pedigree and plays his best hockey in the playoffs…some GM could get bold and take him in the second round.  In all likelihood, he projects as a very good third line center that can occasionally slot in on the second line.

Alexander Alexeyev put up 37 points in 45 games this season and followed it up with 5 points in 3 playoff games.  Like Woo, he’s had injury issues, but, when healthy, he’s been looked to contribute more than Woo, routinely logging 20 plus minutes a night.  Like Woo, he’s a solid, two-way defenseman, but, to this point, he’s had more offensive upside.  So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Alexeyev has been ranked higher than Woo, showing up at 24th on the final ISS rankings and 22nd on Central Scouting’s North American skater list.  There is a lot of risk in picking Alexeyev in the first round, but given the importance of defense, it wouldn’t be shocking to see a team take him with one of the last ten picks in the first round.

If somehow Ty Smith was still on the board at 18, I’d be stoked to see the Jackets get him, though they are more likely to prioritize a forward and the odds of Smith slipping that far seem low given the number of teams in need of a defenseman picking ahead of Columbus.

Quick Hits

  • It wouldn’t be the offseason without some sort of contract drama for the Jackets.  Last year we saw Josh Anderson‘s contract negotiations draft out until the fall.  This year, drama regarding the extension of Artemi Panarin has come a year early after the 2019 UFA-to-be stated he was not yet ready to sign an extension come July 1.  Jarmo Kekalainen was, predictably, calm about the situation, but he’s also going to spend the weekend seeing what the market is for the dynamic wing, which is the smart thing to do.  Despite the gloom and doom from certain local beat writers, Panarin isn’t going anywhere unless someone wants to overpay the Jackets.
  • Interestingly, Kekaleinen made a comment that what went for Panarin, also went for Sergei Bobrovsky, which was largely ignored as people focused on the Panarin rumors.  The Jackets didn’t have an easy go the last time they had to negotiate an extension with Bobrovsky, but their internal options to replace Bobrovsky next year are uncertain at best given the season Joonas Korpisalo had and the fact that Elvis Merzlikins has yet to play in North America.  The fact that Bobrovsky will likely be looking for a raise and a long-term deal when he is already making over $7 million/season is a concern for the Jackets going forward.  Something to watch.
  • As always, there are a lot of rumors out there about potential trade bait.  Ryan O’Reilly is a player Buffalo would like to move before his bonus payment on July 1, but doing so may require them accepting a lesser haul than they would get after July 1.  After the second pick in the draft, it wouldn’t be a shock to see any team move down.  Carolina is looking to move Jeff Skinner and, potentially, Elias LindholmCraig Anderson and, perhaps, Erik Karlsson could be on the move for Ottawa, which begs the question whether Matt Duchene might also be on the move again with only 1 year left on his deal on yet another team that doesn’t seem to be a contender.  The Habs are looking to move Max Pacioretty, and also to finally get a second line center.  So, could be a lot of busy real estate agents this weekend.
  • Get ready for the annual Ilya Kovalchuk tease.  Los Angeles and Vegas seem to be the leaders, but you should probably expect him to sign with a Russian team when it is all said and done because that’s how he rolls.

Jones Shuts Out Knights; Evens Series at 2

 

 

 

 

 

The San Jose Sharks got quality goaltending from Martin Jones and buried the Vegas Golden Knights 4-0 to send the series back to Las Vegas tied at two.  Jones had 34 saves on the night and bested Knights goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, who seemingly had Sharks circling him all night long.  The loss was the first shutout loss in the playoffs for the Knights.

The Sharks’ first goal came off of an impressive skating exhibition by Marcus Sorensen who outmaneuvered four of the Sharks skaters and Fleury to put the puck top shelf with under five minutes left in the first period.  The Knights felt there was interference (effectively a pick on one of their defending players), but the referees apparently felt otherwise.

The Sharks may not have got back Joe Thornton, but they did get back Joonas Donskoi and he didn’t waste time getting back on the scoresheet.  In the dying minutes of the first period, Donskoi skated down the ice with two Knights back to defend, but managed to shoot the puck through Brayden McNabb‘s legs and Fleury had no hope to stop it.  Fleury managed 30 saves and was better than his save percentage might suggest on the night.

In the second period, Tomas Hertl cashed in on chaos in front of Fleury after a shot by Mikkel Boedker.  At that point, it was all over but the shouting.  “Little” Joe Pavelski would add a power play goal in the third and that was the final nail in the coffin.

This was the first game of the series where the Sharks had a better Corsi-For percentage than the Knights.   The Sharks looked faster than Vegas and the Knights seemed unable to establish the forecheck.  The Vegas power play went 0-for-5 and they have to be a little concerned by the lack of offense.  James Neal still only has one goal for the series.   The Sharks have evened the series without much from Evander Kane to this point.

With that said, Vegas regained home ice advantage in Game 3 and now they head home for a critical Game 5.  They have to generate more offense and part of that has to come on the power play.  If they can do that and/or have Fleury play out of his mind, they have a good change.  But if they continue being out skated by San Jose and allowing the Sharks to take shots from high danger areas, the clock will strike midnight for Cinderella.

Is Player Usage Costing Jackets a Playoff Series?

Most of the focus in analyzing the playoff performance seems to focus on Sergei Bobrovsky.  This is understandable given Bobrovsky’s history of giving up three or more goals in playoff games, but it ignores another reason that the Jackets may be struggling against the Capitals as their series has progressed and that is player usage.

The Jackets played 82 games prior to the playoffs and that data tells us a lot about which players were making positive contributions to the team and which players weren’t.  Yet, John Tortorella’s player usage in this series suggests that some old school thoughts about playoff hockey may be leading to the Jackets deploying players in a sub-optimal manner.  In a series defined by close games and, more importantly, overtime games, choices in player deployment can be the difference between being up 3-2 and being down 3-2.

Let’s take the case of Oliver Bjorkstrand.  Bjorkstrand finished the season with a 5-on-5 CF% of 51.64 percent and was fifth on the team with 40 points.  Furthermore, Bjorkstrand had become a very solid player at both ends at the ice, something that Tortorella had him focused on at the start of the season.  Yet, through five games of this series, the only players with less time-on-ice than Bjorkstrand were Alexander Wennberg (who has only played in two games due to injury), Mark Letestu, and Sonny Milano (a healthy scratch for Game 5).  After scoring a goal in Game 5, Torts finally started playing Bjorkstrand more in the rest of the game and the result was a number of solid shifts where the puck was held in the Caps zone–something the Jackets have struggled with in this series. Bjorkstrand’s line had two of the best opportunities in the overtime period of Game 5.

One of the players getting less ice time than Bjorkstrand is Milano, who was a healthy scratch for Game 5, but played little to no minutes in the prior four games.  Like Bjorkstrand, Milano had a positive 5-on-5 CF% of 50.91 percent.  He put up 14 goals in only 55 games and his return to the lineup was one of the things that helped the Jackets down the stretch.  In fact, Milano was paired with Bjorkstrand on a line centered by Nick Foligno that provided a scoring threat when the top line wasn’t on the ice during a part of March.  That line was scuttled by Foligno’s injury.

So, who has been getting ice time over Milano and Bjorkstrand?  Thomas Vanek, for one.  While Vanek had positive possession numbers in 19 games for the Jackets, his possession numbers in Vancouver were less than stellar with a 45.01 percent 5-on-5 CF%. Seven goals and eight assists in 19 games was also probably not a sustainable pace for the 34 year-old Vanek.

You have to wonder how much of the decision to play Vanek more than Bjorkstrand and Milano comes down to an antiquated view of “playoff hockey.”  Neither Milano nor Bjorkstrand are known for a gritty or grinding style.  They aren’t veterans.  And, while Bjorkstrand is solid in his own end, Milano is still a work-in-progress in this respect.  However, none of this changes the fact that the team is better off with them in the lineup and playing.  The fact is that Milano is a dangerous player in both good ways and bad and the good still outweighs the bad based on what the advanced stats tell us.  Given Vanek’s own unforced-errors in Game 4, it hardly seems like playing him more has solved anything and it has, arguably, taken a more skilled player off the ice and certainly taken a quicker skater off the ice.

With Wennberg back in the lineup, one of Brandon Dubinsky or Letestu should be out of the lineup to make room for Milano.  The sole reason this apparently hasn’t happened would seem to be face-offs.  Wennberg is clearly being sheltered from this part of his duties, while Boone Jenner is actually being put in for spot face-off duty.

I’m not sure this is good enough justification to keep them both in.  Jenner has been strong enough in the face-off dot, as has Foligno.  Letestu been so-so this series and Dubinsky has been strong, though Dubinsky has taken three penalties while Letestu has taken none.  Flip a coin, but one of these two should sit instead of dividing minutes and taking a roster spot that could be held by a better player.  If you want to see how smart coaches can make dumb decisions about players based on overemphasizing face-offs, take a look at Jay Beagle‘s possession stats sometime.  Woof.

That’s another thing, here.  The Caps have dog crap for depth.  They had six forwards who played regularly who finished the season with a 5-on-5 CF% above 50 percent.  One of them–Burakovsky–is out for the series.  How many regular forwards did Columbus have above that mark?  Eight, all of whom who are available to play in this series.  That means the Jackets are one line deeper than Washington.  Josh Anderson is playing bottom-six minutes for the Jackets.  I’ve got no problem with that as long as (1) the right people are getting more minutes than him and (2) the Jackets more evenly divide the minutes.

Why should the minutes be divided more evenly?  Because the Caps have dog crap for depth AND these games are going into overtime.  The Jackets should be taking more advantage of their depth by spreading minutes more evenly.  Keep the legs fresh.  This isn’t the old days.  Penalties are called regularly in the playoffs now and the old grind and hold game doesn’t work.  The team with fresh legs is best prepared to capitalize on mistakes in overtime.  You look at the last shift yesterday and the Jackets’ top line was gassed and the Caps took advantage on the cycle.  Divide minutes more evenly and the story might end differently.  The Jackets can afford to do it because the skill difference between their third and second lines isn’t as pronounced as it is for Washington.

If the Jackets want to take it to Washington tomorrow, John Tortorella needs to face his fears and embrace the fact that speed and skill is what wins games in hockey in 2018, even in the playoffs.  Yes, Milano will make mistakes, but so have the guys who have played in place of him.  Show faith in your young players.  They are the future of this team and they didn’t let you down for the 82 games that preceded this series.  Don’t abandon them now because of fear, embrace them as your hope.  Depth is your advantage, press your advantage.  Divide playing time more equally not just because you expect these games to go to overtime, but because it is to your advantage even over 60 minutes of hockey.  Torts needs to think about his own motto in a new way.  When it comes to coaching playoff games in 2018, Safe Is Death.

Caps OT Win Puts Jackets On Brink

With an overtime-winning goal from Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps became the first team to win a game on home ice in this series as they moved within a win of the second round.  The Jackets have now lost three straight after starting the series with a 2-0 advantage.

The Jackets had played a solid first period, but the Caps got a power play that felt like it could shift momentum.  Instead, Matt Calvert scored a short-handed goal to give the Jackets their first 1-0 lead of the series off of some nice board work by Seth Jones.  The lead wouldn’t last long as Backstrom got a lucky break on a shot that went off of David Savard‘s skate, Sergei Bobrovsky‘s mask and into the goal.

As the second period started, it felt like the Caps were the hungrier team.  Dmitry Orlov sent a long stretch pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov that he buried to give the Caps their first lead of the game at 2-1.  It was one of several poor line changes by Columbus and Washington took advantage.  Despite continued pressure from the Caps, the Jackets would even it up when Calvert got his second of the game on a breakaway after initially whiffing on a shot and then making a spin move to put it in the net.  With 3:18 left in the 2nd period T.J. Oshie redirected a point shot from John Carlson to put the Caps ahead 3-2. Once again, it felt like maybe the Caps were going to take control of the game.

However, Oliver Bjorkstrand had other thoughts.  Ian Cole took a shot from the point that Bjorkstrand tipped to knot the game at three early in the third period.  Bjorkstrand had seen little time throughout the game (and the series), but he seemed to gain confidence in this game and John Tortorella rewarded him with additional time in the third period and overtime.  All of the momentum was with Columbus in the third period, but they couldn’t solve Braden Holtby.  The Caps were outshot 16-1 in the final frame of regulation.

Once again, the long change seemed to cause problems for the Jackets as momentum again shifted to the Caps in overtime.  The Jackets have struggled with the long change throughout the season and this trend seems to have carried into the playoffs.  The Jackets best chance in overtime was with Bjorkstrand and Jenner on the ice together.  It is a pairing that work at times in the early part of the season and which made some sense here given the game Bjorkstrand had played to that point and the series that Jenner has had.  But it wasn’t to be and the game-winning goal came on a shift in which the Caps managed to sustain pressure and, again, re-direct a point shot past Bobrovsky.

There were some encouraging signs for the Blue Jackets and John Tortorella was emphatic in the press conference that his team would be ready for Game 6 and that they would force a Game 7, but they are running out of chances and now they have their backs against the wall.  Getting Bjorkstrand involved in the game is definitely a positive as the Jackets have been over-relying on their top line.  Cam Atkinson finished the game with 28:25 time on ice and Artemi Panarin and Pierre-Luc Dubois weren’t far behind.

There are also some things to be concerned about.  Bobrovsky’s subpar save percentage in this game is probably not as big of a concern given that more than one of those goals was off a redirection.  What is more of a concern is that Panarin seemed less dynamic than usual after a slash to his knee.  While his 80 percent is still better than most players at 100 percent, his line has also been a big driver in this series and, as noted above, spends a lot of time on the ice.  The Jackets also need to make a decision about Brandon Dubinsky with Alexander Wennberg back on the ice.  Dubinsky’s struggles have been a story line this season, sometimes to the point of being tabloid material.  His struggles as this series have progressed are real and time on ice of just 7:28 (despite getting time on penalty kill) suggests the coaching staff is well aware of the issue.  Mark Letestu looked to be the better option as this game progressed.

The Caps will have the chance to finish the series off in Columbus on Monday and will have confidence having beaten the Jackets twice on the road.  Should they lose, however, the old doubts might start to creep back in, so the series still isn’t over yet and could have some surprises in store.

Sharks Move On From Past; Ducks Mired in It

 

Game 3 was a must-win for the Anaheim Ducks after losing two games at home to the San Jose Sharks.  The embarrassing 8-1 lost showed a tale of two California teams–one finally moving beyond the team helmed by Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton for the past decade and the other desperate to relive their past glory from 2007.  The team that has moved on from its past appears to be the team that will move on to Round 2, while the team trying to relive its past is learning a hard lesson–the NHL is not the same as it was in 2007.

When the Ducks brought back Randy Carlyle, the thought was that his discipline was what was needed to get the team to the next level.  If this is what discipline looks like, I’d hate to see what anarchy would look like for this team.  10 penalties, including four from Captain Ryan Getzlaf (including a misconduct), who should know better.

The Sharks breakaway speed has been a problem for the Ducks the entire series, and it was again in Game 3.  The Sharks started to break it open in the second period when two quick goals gave them a 3-1 lead.  The first of those two goals was scored by Joonas Donskoi on a nice feed from, who else, Evander Kane and the second saw Donskoi setting up Marcus Sorensen on another breakaway. It went downhill from there as John Gibson couldn’t bail out the Ducks and the score was 5-1 by the time the third period began, leading to the Ducks going to Ryan Miller in desperation.  It didn’t matter, despite a solid season, Miller would give up 3 goals in the third period.

I don’t know if the Sharks are good enough for Buffalo to get that first round pick from the Kane deal, but it is clear that Kane fits right in on the team.  The Sharks don’t appear to be missing either Marleau or Thornton.  Without Jumbo out there, they are able to take advantage of their speed against a team like the Ducks.  This is the way hockey is played in 2018.

The Ducks, on the other hand, are playing with a team built literally and figuratively for 2007.  Francois Beauchemin. Jason ChimeraRyan Kesler.  Miller. This doesn’t even include some of the guys not currently playing for the Ducks such as Kevin Bieksa, Antoine Vermette, Jared Boll and Chris Kelly.  Beauchemin played nearly 20 minutes, so its not as if he was a rarely-used third pairing defenseman.

Some of that was certainly the result of injuries.  But the Ducks, in general, need to do what San Jose has done this year and start moving on from the past.  This isn’t Getzlaf and Corey Perry‘s team any more than the 2007 Ducks were Teemu Selanne‘s team–its Rickard Rakell‘s team.  Its Jakob Silfverberg‘s team.  Its Ondrej Kase‘s team.   Yes, Perry and Getzlaf will continue to be important, but their role should be a supporting role the way Selanne’s role was when he returned to Anaheim.  This is a young man’s league and you can’t build a team in this league around a core of 30-somethings.

You also can’t build the team the Ducks need to build with Carlyle at the helm.  Bob Murray needs to learn from the mistakes of his mentor, Brian Burke.  When Burke got nostalgic and brought in Todd Bertuzzi, he messed with the chemistry he had created in Anaheim.  Murray needs to abandon nostalgia and build around youth and speed with Perry and Getzlaf there to provide just enough grit and physicality to balance things.

The Ducks will have at least one more game in 2017-18.  Hopefully it is the end of an era and the beginning of a bright future.  They have the young players and prospects to do it, but they need to have faith to hand the team over to them.

As for the Sharks, it is going to be fun to see what this team can do in the rest of the post-season, particularly as the next round is shaping up to be against the team with the Midas Touch, the Vegas Golden Knights.

Kane Raises Sharks, Ducks Lose Home Ice

 

I’ve seen many Ducks-Sharks playoff matchups through the years, but this one might prove to be different.  This year the Sharks are without Patrick Marleau, now in Toronto.  Joe Thornton is out with an injury.  Their big trade deadline acquisition was a guy portrayed (rightly or wrongly) as a locker room cancer.

The Ducks came into the playoffs a hot team after struggling with injuries early in the season.  Ryan Getzlaf put up over a point a game on the season, albeit after missing substantial time to injury.  Both John Gibson and Ryan Miller put up solid numbers on the season with save percentages over .920.  Despite trading Sami Vatanen, the Ducks still boast a solid defense.

Despite all of that, the Ducks managed to give up home ice and look pretty lackluster doing it.  In the first period, the Ducks seemed to have problems with the Sharks speed. Neither team’s power play could come up big despite opportunities.  The Ducks only managed 4 shots prior to the first intermission.

Things would get decidedly worse for Anaheim in the second frame.  With nearly 7 minutes gone in the period and the Sharks already outshooting the Ducks 15 to 7, the Ducks took two ill-advised penalties to give San Jose a 5-on-3.  Before the PA announcer could finish telling the crowd about the second penalty, Evander Kane had put the Sharks up 1-0 on a beautiful feed by Pavelski.

Pavelski would make another solid pass to Kane that led to the second goal for the Sharks.  Less than a minute later, Brent Burns would put the game away with a snap shot through traffic to put the Sharks up 3-0.  The score would hold through the third period, despite the Ducks out-shooting the Sharks 12-9.

Evander Kane looks like a guy trying to prove something.  This is a point made by several of us on the DTFR playoff podcast.  Randy Carlyle did nothing to contradict my hypothesis that the game has passed him by and the Ducks now find themselves down 1-0 and needing to win at least one game in the Shark Tank to win this series.  One bright spot for the Ducks was Gibson, who had a solid performance despite the loss.

If the Ducks are going to even up the series, they really need to stay out of the penalty box.  What is a bigger concern is how much the Ducks seemed to struggle with the Sharks’ speed.  Relying on Francois Beauchemin to play 20 plus minutes is probably not helping in this respect, something necessitated as a result of injuries and the trade of Vatanen earlier this season.  It is possible the Ducks get Kevin Bieksa back, but it is also hard to see how a lumbering 38-year old is going to do any better against the Sharks’ quick forwards.  Somehow the Ducks are going to have to find an answer before Saturday or they’ll find themselves headed to San Jose down 2-0.

Why Jackets Fans Need to Step Off the Ledge

This has definitely not been the season that Jackets fans had hoped for in September or even the season it seemed like it would be in late October.  Sitting outside of a playoff spot with a week to go before the trade deadline is less than ideal.  With the Devils now seven points ahead of the Jackets with 23 games left, the only spot left for them in the playoffs may be the eighth seed and a first round matchup against Tampa Bay, a team they have struggled mightily against this year.

Even if they went on a tear and somehow got the sixth or seventh seed, they would likely find themselves playing the Penguins or Capitals in round one, two other teams they have not played particularly well against.  The loss yesterday to Pittsburgh was not encouraging–a team built around speed looked slow and lethargic compared to the Pens (even more amazing when you consider the Jackets are the younger team) and the Jackets’ Vezina-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky again struggled to solve the Penguins.

Many fans are frustrated.  They want results and are tired of waiting.  I certainly understand this, but I also think that perspective is needed and last year’s unexpected season probably had us thinking the team was closer than it was just as the prior season’s disastrous performance had us thinking the team was further away that it actually was.

I’m going to take you back in time to April of 2016 at the end of that disastrous season when I wrote the following on another site:

So, a Jackets team that is capable of winning the Cup has those basic ingredients–an elite defenseman, an elite center, solid goaltending and forward depth.  The Jackets do not possess all of these things, clearly and you could argue that the 2015-16 Jackets had none of those things.  So, what is a reasonable timeline to get to the destination?

I am going to argue that the Jackets are closer than you think, but that the timeframe to get there is longer than you want it to be.  I believe this team can compete for a Cup in three years.

Three years.  This is year two.  Yes, it seems that the team has taken one step forward and one step back since then, but things are still on schedule.

Let’s start by looking at elite defensemen.  Zach Werenski and Seth Jones is as good of a pair as any in the NHL.  In 2016, this was still a question mark because we hadn’t seen Werenski.  This has been solved.  Beyond the top pair, there are some issues that will need to be addressed, but this could be resolved through players in the pipeline.  Markus Nutivaara has really shown his worth this season.  Gabriel Carlsson is still in Cleveland.  Vladislav Gavrikov will spend another year in the KHL–shout out to the NHL for deciding not to go to the Olympics!  Before he was hobbled with injuries, Ryan Murray was solid.  Beyond Jones, the right side is the weakness.  Savard has had a horrible year.  David Savard will get another chance next year likely paired with Nutivaara or Carlsson as Jack Johnson will not be back.  Maybe a new partner will reinvigorate him.  If not, one of the lefties will need to take that spot.  Either way, keep in mind that Jones and Werenski will play monster minutes in any future playoff run and the bottom pair will play minimal minutes.  They just need to get a top-four that works consistently.

Pierre-Luc Dubois has exceeded expectations.  His even-strength CF% within 1 is second only to Artemi Panarin for Jackets’ regulars (Zac Dalpe is the statistical anomaly at #1 due to small sample size).  His size, speed and willingness to drive to the net could make him a player in the mold of Ryan Getzlaf.  He’s the center the franchise has always needed.  There may be growing pains, but the potential is there and the work ethic also seems to be there.

Forward depth.  Let’s start with the positive.  The Jackets have a wealth of options on the right side.  Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand can all be scoring threats and they do it in their own unique ways.  Anderson’s size and speed make him a tough guy to defend.  Atkinson also possesses speed, but has more agility and creativity.  Bjorkstrand is a sniper who is also become a solid defender despite his size.  Meanwhile, Vitaly Abramov has picked up right where he left off last season in the QMJHL.  It is unclear if he’ll make the team next year or spend a year in Cleveland, but Abramov has a high upside.

On the left side, Panarin has been everything he was billed to be, but he has also impressed me with his play away from the puck more than I expected.  Matt Calvert always gives 100 percent.  Other than those two, this has been part of the team’s struggles this season.  Before yesterday’s injury, Nick Foligno has not looked as quick as he has when the team is at its best.

But, there is some good news.  For one, I don’t think Sonny Milano has been as bad as some would have you believe and I think maybe Torts needs to relax with the kid just a bit and find line mates who can cover for his deficiencies as he works on them.  This team was at its best this year when Milano was in the lineup.   The Jackets either need to give Milano another chance at second line left wing or they need to find someone else to fill that role so that Foligno can slot in on the third line.

The Jackets have center depth, it just seems that, outside of Dubois, every center is slotted about 1 spot above where they should be.  Alexander Wennberg‘s 2016-17 performance was inflated by unsustainable power play production.  Once Wennberg stopped producing on power play (January of last year), his overall performance trailed off and frankly, it hasn’t rebounded.  I’ll probably write about this at more length, but despite what you may have read elsewhere, his struggles are real.  The Jackets options are (1) upgrade Wennberg or (2) fix the problem on the second line left wing and hope that improves Wennberg’s production.  Given that Wennberg is never going to produce his own goals and the Jackets’ competition has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the first route may be the better route, but it is also the more expensive route.

The other issue may be Brandon Dubinsky.  No, I’m not all that concerned that he has “career-threatening issues” as some have reported.  I’m more concerned that the reporting has created a rift and lead him to want out.  Stan Fischler suggested this on a recent broadcast. Trying to move Dubinsky would be a real challenge.  Beyond that, Dubi playing on the third (or fourth) line is exactly the sort of depth we need.  The team may need to rebuild this relationship and hopefully certain journalists can avoid fanning the flames further.

In the pipeline and under the radar is Kevin Stenlund, who has been playing in Europe. Stenlund could challenge Lukas Sedlak next year for a roster spot or play a season in Cleveland with Abramov, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for both players.

While it has been a disappointing season in Cleveland as well, there are still some guys there who could provide the Jackets some needed depth.  Paul Bittner, Calvin Thurkauf and Tyler Motte are still young and could be nice additions to the bottom six.

The drags on the Jackets speed game and possession statistics may soon be moved.  Johnson has reportedly demanded a trade, and I’d like to personally thank him for that.  If reports are true that he could yield a first round pick (or more), that is very good news for the Jackets.  On a sadder note, Boone Jenner is probably in need of a change of scenery.  He doesn’t seem to mesh well with what the Jackets are attempting to do.  He could also still yield a valuable asset in return and could create some cap space for the offseason to address some of the issues raised above and to start dealing with extensions for key players like Panarin and Werenski.

Which leaves us with goaltending.  While I believe Joonas Korpisalo is an improvement over his predecessor, there remains a $9 million (plus?) question with respect to Bobrovsky after next year.  That’s a conservative estimate of what the two-time Vezina winner might seek on his next contract.  At 30-years-old, he’s also likely going to be seeking a six-eight year deal.  That is a large commitment to a player who has yet to come up big when it matters most.  The Rangers and Canadiens have two great goaltenders making $8.5 million and $10.5 million next year.  They are also both out of the playoffs this year with the Rangers having sent a letter to fans breaking it to them gently that they will be deadline sellers.

There is no doubt that the Jackets would be even worse without Bob, but the question has to be asked if the team can afford to tie up that much cap space in one player.  If not, this is the offseason they have to start dealing with the transition.  Does that mean buying out Elvis Merzlikins’ contract with Lugano so the 23-year-old can come over to North America next year?  Does that mean making a deal to acquire a goaltender in case negotiations with Bob don’t work out?  Does that mean getting Korpisalo more playing time next year despite the theory that Bob doesn’t do well on long rest?  Or, does it mean doing the unthinkable–trading Bobrovsky and acquiring a replacement at a lower cap hit?  It is a difficult situation and one that could define the franchise going forward.

While it would hurt to miss the playoffs, I would not be bothered by getting the top 10 pick I fully expected the team to get last year.  That’s another asset that can either be flipped for immediate help or, the better option in my view, kept to sustain organizational depth into the future.

Regardless, the Jackets are closer now than they were two years ago, and still on schedule.  They have the center they needed.  They have the defensemen they needed.  And, for now, they have an elite goaltender though they need to make a decision about his future.  They also have players who can yield them assets at the deadline (and, in Jenner’s case, even at the draft) if they decide to move them.  The Jackets are not far away, if they can use these assets and some cap space to address their issues on the second line, they can be in a position to be a contender next year and beyond.