Tag Archives: Alexander Wennberg

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Projections

Hello Columbus Blue Jackets fans, I’m not Cap’n Cornelius, but since we know each other and I visited your wonderful city in August, I was determined to deliver some Blue Jackets forecasted stats throughout the season.

Alas, the regular season started almost a month ago, but I promised I’d have some forecasted stats for Columbus’ entire roster for the entire season by the end of the month and I have finally gotten around to it.

These things take time when you’re transferring data into a new system and trying to watch every game on TV, as well as exist on Earth among its people.

For now, let’s pretend the season hasn’t started or that we’ve all jumped into a time machine and gone back to October 1st. How would things play out for the Blue Jackets this season?

Based on last season’s results– a 45-30-7 record, good enough for 97 points on the season and 4th place in the Metropolitan Division as the first wild card team in the Eastern Conference– Columbus is poised for a bit of a bounce-back in the division standings.

Why? Because the other teams ahead of them got worse– namely the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals.

The Flyers are off to their usual slow start (wait, I forgot, we’ve time travelled back to the beginning of October) just overall worse and the Capitals look to be dethroned by the Pittsburgh Penguins for the Metropolitan crown at the end of the regular season.

Last season’s Blue Jackets won two playoff games on the road against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, then lost the next four games to extend Columbus’ misery as the only NHL franchise without a playoff series win.

Ian Cole and Matt Calvert left for the Colorado Avalanche in the offseason and defender, Jack Johnson, signed a long-term five-year contract with the Penguins.

Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky survived an offseason of trade speculation, but they’ve both still pending-unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2018-19 season.

That’s the major storyline to the Blue Jackets this year– will it be one last hurrah or will Panarin and/or Bobrovsky leave the city in the dust among the cornfields on its outskirts in what might become the franchise’s greatest departure(s) since trading Rick Nash to the New York Rangers in 2012?

If this season is a failure, is it head coach, John Tortorella’s fault, a roster problem or General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen‘s inability to construct the necessary components of a successful organization?

Critics will be sure to point out all the flaws that mar the franchise, but one thing’s for certain– there’s a lot of expectations.

One way to generate an unnecessary buzz about expectations is to believe your educated guesses about how players should perform this season makes any difference to what actually goes on the ice.

Fear not, for I am about to do just that.

Before I do, however, I’d like to remind those of you in the audience that are familiar with my roster forecasts before and inform those of you that are new here for the first time of my actual area of expertise.

It’s words. My degree is in communication.

There’s nothing that I will present here that you cannot do yourself, better and/or read anywhere else. All of this is an educated guess– an educated expectation– thanks to one of my sport management classes from college.

A player who performs better than their expected outcomes here is merely exceeding these presented expectations. A player who doesn’t meet the expectations could’ve been injured, a healthy scratch or on a chronic cold streak that’s technically unpredictable.

Anything else is just an error outside my expertise and/or Microsoft Excel’s fault.

That, or there’s a little gut-feeling added for players with substantially fewer career NHL games played than the rest of the data shows (basically, if someone’s projected to score 100 goals and has only played in nine games, I might tweak the result until they’ve played a quarter of the season and have either proven themselves as Wayne Gretzky 2.0 or nothing like “the Great One”).

Take a look at the charts below as though everything were to fall in line and nothing bad could ever happen– an utopian view, if you will. Some things may pan out, some things may not– it’s just a suggested (expected) outcome in a sport that’s highly unpredictable thanks to its collective nature and sheer puck luck.

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Columbus Blue Jackets Forecast Through 0 Games (82 Games Remaining)

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As has been the custom since his arrival via trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, Artemi Panarin is expected to lead the Blue Jackets in points with 30-49–79 expected totals. The next best player on the team? Cam Atkinson.

Atkinson’s bound for 27 goals and 24 assists (51 points) this season, while the third best forward on the team, Pierre-Luc Dubois, is expected to match his rookie season totals with another 48-point season, at least.

Alexander Wennberg and Oliver Bjorkstrand are both landing somewhere in the mid-40s in total points as complementary complete players for the Blue Jackets this season.

In the meantime several other forwards fall within the 40-point range, while free agent signing, Riley Nash isn’t expected to break into the 30-point plateau after amassing a career-high 41-point season with the Boston Bruins in 2017-18.

On defense, by default (thanks to Seth Jones‘ delayed start due to injury) or by talent, Zach Werenski emerges as the best two-way defender in Columbus with 14 goals and 30 assists (44 points).

Werenski’s expected totals tops Jones (9-28–37 expected totals) by seven points and is in a league of his own compared to his teammates on the blue line.

Ryan Murray (4-19–23 expected totals) and David Savard (7-19–26 expected totals) land in a respectable range for top-4/top-6 defensemen.

In goal, Sergei Bobrovsky is looking for redemption with an expected goals against average of 2.37 and an expected save percentage of .923 over the course of 2018-19. Backup netminder, Joonas Korpisalo seeks to provide healthy competition with an expected 2.68 GAA and .917 SV% prior to puck drop on the season.

Of course, now that we’re a month into the regular season, it’ll be time to update this entire forecast once Columbus is about a quarter of the way through their 82-game schedule.


Feel free to check out this season’s forecasts for Boston, Carolina or Vegas.

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.

DTFR Podcast #125- 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Season Preview

Injuries, Stealth, Miles Wood, Brian Gionta’s retirement, Gritty, Ottawa, Shea Theodore and our 2018-19 Metropolitan Division Season Preview. Bring on the regular season already.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes)Stitcher and/or on Spotify. Support the show on Patreon.

2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.

The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.

After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.

I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?

Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.

How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)

2018 NHL Entry Draft

The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.

It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.

As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.

Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.

Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.

My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.

Pending Free Agents

The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).

Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.

Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.

Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.

Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.

The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.

Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.

Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.

Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.

At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.

I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.

Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…

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.

Costly penalties abound; Jackets win 4-3 in overtime

 

In a contest filled with a combined 29 penalty minutes and four power play goals, the Columbus Blue Jackets earned a 4-3 overtime victory to beat the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena in Game 1 of their first round matchup.

With the exception of this being the first overtime match of the 2018 postseason, easily the biggest story coming out of this game is RW Josh Anderson‘s boarding penalty against D Michal Kempny with 2:37 remaining in the first period. Kempny struggled to return to his skates after the hit and never returned to the game, earning Anderson a match penalty (and a probable call from the Department of Player Safety if D Drew Doughty‘s one-game suspension is any indication) and the Capitals a five-minute power play.

Having managed only four shots on goal in their first two power plays against Columbus’ (t)fifth-worst regular season penalty kill, Second Star of the Game F Evgeny Kuznetsov took matters into his own hands to score two goals in the first 58 seconds of Anderson’s infraction. Both markers, which set the score at 2-0, were a result of primary apples from C Nicklas Backstrom and hockey assists by Third Star D John Carlson.

However, the man-advantage didn’t just favor the hosts, as the Blue Jackets also earned themselves a pair of power play markers in the third period – including the tally that forced overtime.

RW Tom Wilson was caught charging D Ryan Murray 1:18 into the third period, and W Thomas Vanek (F Pierre-Luc Dubois and First Star LW Artemi Panarin) needed only 13 seconds of the man-advantage to tie the game at 2-2 with a wrist shot (C Alexander Wennberg [F Boone Jenner and Vanek] got the Jackets on the board with a second period even-strength goal).

Even though Washington regained a one-goal lead at the 5:12 mark when W Devante Smith-Pelly (LW Jakub Vrana and Carlson) scored a wrister, another Capitals penalty – this one an W Andre Burakovsky tripping infraction against D Seth Jones – proved to really send the hosts off the rails.

Burakovsky was sent to the sin bin with 5:05 remaining in regulation with a two-minute sentence, but Jones (Panarin and RW Cam Atkinson) – the very man he tripped – found it in him to post his bail after serving only 39 seconds of confinement by scoring a wrister.

Forgiveness is a fickle thing in the NHL, isn’t it?

Speaking of forgiveness, the Capitals will be begging for it from Head Coach Barry Trotz before too long considering how easily Panarin (D Ian Cole and Dubois) was able to get into position to rip his overtime wrister over G Philipp Grubauer‘s left shoulder.

Upon receiving Cole’s falling pass from Columbus’ zone, Panarin sped along the left boards – dodging D Dmitry Orlov in the process – to end up on Grubauer’s front porch. Instead of being patient and attempting to drag the play across the crease, Panarin elected to elevate his wrister from the slot to beat the netminder to the far post.

G Sergei Bobrovsky earned the victory after saving 27-of-30 shots faced (.9 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Grubauer, who saved 23-of-27 (.852).

With the obvious goal of limiting penalties in Game 2, the energy levels of both teams – specifically Columbus’ offense and Washington’s defense – will be of much interest. Playing almost the entire game short a skater can be extremely taxing, and everyone involved will surely be grateful for the extra day off before returning to Capital One Arena.

Speaking of Game 2,  it’s scheduled for Sunday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. For those that can’t make it to Capital One Arena, the tilt will be broadcast on NBCSN, SN360 and TVAS2.

March 22 – Day 162 – Get ready for a wild ride

Thursdays are just the best days in the NHL, aren’t they?

There’s 10 games on tap today, starting with four at 7 p.m. (Tampa Bay at the New York Islanders [SN], the New York Rangers at Philadelphia, Arizona at Carolina and Florida at Columbus) and two more (Edmonton at Ottawa [RDS] and Washington at Detroit [NBCSN]) half an hour later. Toronto at Nashville (TVAS) drops the puck at 8 p.m., while Vancouver at Chicago waits 30 minutes before getting underway. Los Angeles at Colorado finds its start at 9 p.m., while tonight’s nightcap – Vegas at San Jose (NBCSN) – closes out the evening’s festivities with a 10 p.m. tilt. All times Eastern.

There’s two rivalries on the schedule tonight, including:

  • New York at Philadelphia: A fierce matchup like this should get the Rangers excited to snap the Flyers’ three-game point streak.
  • Vancouver at Chicago: The beginning of the decade was so long ago, wasn’t it? If the fans were in charge, I’d bet either group of supporters would happily take a loss by their team tonight.

Instead, I’m most drawn to the Panthers-Blue Jackets and Kings-Avalanche matchups, as both are going to have some serious playoff implications.

Considering how hot Columbus is and the fact that the Panthers need only one point to advance into a playoff spot, let’s make the trip to Central Ohio to see how that match unfolds.

 

For those that still use the Florida Panthers as the punchline to your hockey-related jokes, it’s time for you to catch up to the final third of the 2017-18 season. The 37-27-7 Panthers have not lost consecutive games since February 18 and 20, earning an 11-2-1 record in that time to put them right on the doorstep of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.

Before we jump into just how well Florida has been playing, we should probably have a discussion about its schedule. Over the past 14 games, the Panthers have played only three away from BB&T Center, of which only two were outside the state of Florida.

However, a run like this is not due just to limited travel and the luxury of sleeping in their own beds on a nightly basis. After all, the Panthers have played – and beaten – clubs like Washington, Pittsburgh, Toronto, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Boston recently, all of which are currently on the right side of the East’s playoff bubble. Mix in taking the Lightning to overtime at Amalie Arena on March 6, and you have a Florida team that is playing some incredible puck.

This may come as a surprise, but the best offense in the Eastern Conference since February 22 has been none other than the Florida Panthers, whose 3.71 goals per game is (t)second-best in the league in that time.

A major reason for that success has been the brilliant play by the first line, specifically W Evgeni Dadonov. All three of the starting forwards – Dadonov (8-11-19 totals since February 22, 23-33-56 overall), C Aleksander Barkov (6-13-19 since February 22, 26-47-73 overall) and F Nick Bjugstad (7-9-16 since February 22, 17-28-45 overall) – are averaging more than a point per game over their past 14 showings, leading the way for an attack that still boasts F Vincent Trocheck (28-38-66 overall) and F Jonathan Huberdeau (23-41-64 overall) on the second line.

Of course, any good offense these days employs some contributions from the blue line. Enter D Keith Yandle, who’s posted 1-13-14 totals over this 14-game run to improve his season marks to 7-42-49. Yandle has been a vital asset during this impressive run by the Panthers, as all but one of his last 20 points have been registered with either of the top-two lines.

The best way to describe Florida’s offense might be by equating it to a reckless boxer that drops his guard to throw a punch.

Over this run, the Panthers have averaged a whopping 34.43 shots per game. Given the amount of success they’re finding lately, it’s obviously a strategy that is working for them and one I don’t see Head Coach Bob Boughner deviating from anytime soon.

However, there’s such a commitment to the offensive end that Florida’s defense gets left exposed on the regular.

How exposed, you ask?

Even though it seems like Florida is possessing the puck as well as anybody, its defense still allows 34.79 shots against per game, the seventh-most in the league since February 22. Games with the Panthers are high-energy affairs that leave both sides exhausted after everything is said and done.

This style of play would not work if not for the exemplary play of 15-9-2 G Roberto Luongo. He’s started all but three of the Panthers’ last 14 games, earning eight victories with a .926 save percentage and 2.51 GAA. Coming into tonight’s action, Luongo boasts a .928 season save percentage (fifth-best in the league) and 2.53 GAA.

While the Panthers have been hot lately, they’ve still suffered a few losses during this impressive run. If that’s not your style, you’ll love what the 41-28-5 Blue Jackets have been up to lately, as they’ve posted nine-consecutive victories to climb into third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Just like the Panthers, Columbus’ driving force during this run has been an indomitable offense. Since March 4, the Jackets have averaged an insane 4.22 goals per game, easily the best mark in the NHL in that time.

LW Artemi Panarin has saved his best hockey for the end of the year, and nobody in Ohio is complaining.

Hold on, let me check: Hey @jdettro and @vanekatthedisco, are you guys okay with the Breadman going nuts now instead of at the beginning of the season?

Yeah, I thought as much.

Over the last nine games, Panarin has posted unbelievable 7-8-15 totals to improve his season marks to 25-43-68, numbers that have him in line to exceed last campaign’s 31-43-74 effort that earned him a spot on the second NHL All-Star team at season’s end.

Of course, it hasn’t just been Panarin doing all the work, as he’s joined by linemate RW Cam Atkinson on his opposite wing. Atkinson has also averaged a point per game during this winning streak with his 4-5-9 totals, improving his season marks to 17-18-35.

A major way that Columbus’ recent attack is different than Florida’s is that the Jackets are getting far more contributions from their third line than the Panthers could ever dream of. Both F Boone Jenner (5-4-9 totals since March 4) and C Alexander Wennberg (2-7-9 since March 4) are averaging a point per game during this winning streak, and their ability to continue to apply scoring pressure even while the first and second lines are getting a breather is a big reason why Columbus is finding so many wins right now.

Remember that bit about how the Panthers are dropping their guard to find their offensive firepower?

That’s a ditto for the Blue Jackets.

During this winning streak, Columbus has allowed an average of 32 shots against per game, the (t)14th-most in the NHL since March 4. Fortunately, it has its own Luongo in 33-21-5 G Sergei Bobrovsky, who’s started six of the Jackets’ last nine games. In those outings, the Russian has posted an impressive .93 save percentage and 2.17 GAA, improving his season marks to an imposing .92 save percentage and 2.42 GAA.

While nothing noticeable happens if the Blue Jackets win this game, the standings could look totally different if they lose.

Should the Jackets emerge victorious tonight, they’d pull into a tie with Pittsburgh for second place in the Metropolitan Division with 89 points. However, the Pens would hold onto their spot due to having a game in hand on Columbus.

In other words, no pandemonium here.

But, let’s just say you’re not a fan of either of these teams, or even an Eastern Conference club. Let’s just say you’re a fan of chaos.

In that case, you need to cash in on the Panthers tonight.

Not only would Florida snap Columbus’ nine-game winning streak – the longest active in the NHL right now, but a Panthers win would jump them ahead of New Jersey for the second wild card… with another game in hand in their pockets. That game in hand means that all Florida technically needs to advance into the playoff picture – at least temporarily – is one point, as it would win the games-played tiebreaker over the Devils.

Of course, the Jackets not winning tonight has the potential to open up another can of worms, as that brings the Flyers into the picture. Should Columbus fall – whether in regulation or extra time – and Philly win in regulation or overtime, the Flyers would jump back into third place in the Metropolitan Division, forcing the Jackets into the first wild card.

Isn’t this time of year fun?

In addition to the difficulty of playing a team that is performing the best it has all season, the Panthers also have the fact that they’re still looking for their first victory against the Jackets this season lurking in the back of their minds.

In two previous meetings, Columbus has come away with a total of four points, beating the Panthers 7-3 in Sunrise on November 2 (Jenner posted a one-goal, three-point game) and narrowly defending home ice on January 7 with a 3-2 shootout victory (Bobrovsky earned First Star honors with a 42-save performance, plus four more in the shootout).

This has the potential to be one of the wildest games of the season. Skaters are going to be flying up and down the ice at blazing speeds and firing more shots than Head Coach John Tortorella knows profanities. Games like these boil down to which goaltender can make the most saves, which is why – as much as I love Luongo and am impressed by his recent performance – I have to lean towards the younger Bobrovsky earning Columbus two points tonight.

However, there’s no telling how a game between these high-powered offenses could end, so there’s a good shot Florida could depart Ohio with the point it needs to jump Jersey in the table.


With two two-goal periods, the Arizona Coyotes cruised to a 4-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

It took only 1:46 of play before C Jack Eichel committed the first penalty of the game – a holding infraction against D Niklas Hjalmarsson – and Third Star of the Game C Dylan Strome (D Alex Goligoski and W Brendan Perlini) made him pay 1:52 later with a power play deflection. F Jordan Nolan (F Evan Rodrigues and D Nathan Beaulieu) leveled the game at 1-1 on a backhanded shot with 8:18 remaining in regulation, but First Star C Derek Stepan (D Oliver Ekman-Larsson and F Clayton Keller) returned the one-goal advantage to the Coyotes 6:02 later with what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Another first period penalty proved to be the demise of the Sabres, as Beaulieu was sent to the penalty box with 4:06 remaining in the frame for hi-sticking Strome. Once again Buffalo pulled within 10 seconds of successfully killing off the penalty, but Stepan posted Beaulieu’s bail early by waiting out an attempted sliding block by F Scott Wilson and threading a wrist shot from above the right face-off circle through four skaters and past G Chad Johnson‘s right skate.

RW Richard Panik (Keller and Stepan) and F Max Domi (D Jakob Chychrun) provided two insurance goals in the third period to seal the victory for Arizona.

Second Star G Antti Raanta earned the victory after saving 29-of-30 shots faced (.967 save percentage), leaving the loss to Johnson, who saved 13-of-15 (.867). Johnson was pulled at the 6:04 mark of the second period with a yet to be announced injury, pulling G Linus Ullmark into play. Ullmark saved 12-of-13 (.923) for no decision.

Another DtFR Game of the Day, another two points for the featured road teams. Visitors have earned points in 10 of the last 12 tilts we’ve focused on, meaning the 89-53-20 hosts’ lead in the series is now trimmed to 33 points.

March 15 – Day 155 – More Metro mayhem

There’s nine games on deck this evening, so let’s jump right in!

The evening’s action finds its start at 7 p.m. with three tilts (Toronto at Buffalo, Washington at the New York Islanders [SN360] and Columbus at Philadelphia), followed half an hour later by two more (Pittsburgh at Montréal [NBCSN/RDS/TSN2] and Boston at Florida [TVAS]). 8 p.m. marks the puck drop of another pair of tilts (Colorado at St. Louis and Chicago at Winnipeg), while tonight’s co-nightcaps – Nashville at Arizona and Detroit at Los Angeles (NBCSN/SN360) – waits until 10 p.m. to close the night out.

Two rivalries are in action tonight, and both are taking place in the Empire State!

  • Toronto at Buffalo: The Battle of the QEW rages on this evening with the second meeting in 10 days.
  • Washington at New York: If the Isles can’t get up for this home-and-home series while trailing a playoff spot by nine points, their season is officially toast.

However, rivalries aren’t the most important things this time of year. Instead, we need to make the trip to the City of Brotherly Love for an important Metro matchup!

 

The 37-28-5 Blue Jackets are streaking, folks! Winners of its last five games – including opponents like San Jose, Vegas and Colorado – Columbus has held on to the second wild card and is eyeing the first.

What makes this run of success even more impressive is how Columbus is doing it. For the season, the Jackets have averaged only 2.67 goals per game, the seventh-worst mark in the NHL. However, these last five games have seen the Blue Jackets post an unbelievable 4.2 goals per game, more than 1.5 times stronger than their usual performance and good enough for third-best in the NHL since March 4.

An impressive five players have averaged at least a point per game over this win streak, but none have been as intimidating as LW Artemi Panarin. The Breadman has been playing out of his mind lately, posting incredible 3-5-8 totals in his last five games to improve his season marks to 21-40-61. As made apparent by both of those numbers, Panarin hasn’t posted the goals we grew accustomed to while he was in Chicago (he scored at least 30 goals in his first two seasons), but he has a chance of exceeding the 47 assists he registered in his rookie season.

One of Panarin’s favorite teammates to set up to score lately has been D Seth Jones, another Blue Jacket averaging at least a point per game during this winning streak with his 4-3-7 marks. In fact, Panarin’s last three apples have resulted in Jones tallies.

Joining Panarin and Jones in their impressive performances are C Alexander Wennberg (1-6-7 totals since March 4), F Pierre-Luc Dubois (1-5-6 in the last five games) and F Boone Jenner (2-3-5 over this run).

One final player that deserves credit for this winning streak is 30-21-5 G Sergei Bobrovsky, tonight’s likely starter. Having started three of Columbus’ last five games, he’s managed an impressive .939 save percentage and 2 GAA to help hold opponents to only 2.2 goals per game during this winning streak, the (t)sixth-best mark in the league since March 4. On the season, Bobrovsky now has a .921 save percentage and 2.42 GAA.

While Columbus is experiencing winning, the same cannot be said for 35-24-11 Philadelphia of late. Since March 1, the Flyers have posted a lowly 1-5-1 record to tie Vancouver for the second-worst record in the league in that time.

Just like Monday when we last featured the Flyers, I’m standing pat on placing full blame for Philly’s struggles on 12-11-4 G Petr Mrazek, tonight’s starter. Mrazek came to Philadelphia with a .91 save percentage and 2.89 GAA from his 22 appearances in Detroit, but has failed to live up to expectations and effectively fill in for 21-11-7 G Brian Elliott and 8-7-3 G Michal Neuvirth.

Since the beginning of March, he’s posted a lowly .878 save percentage and 3.64 GAA, even though the defense in front of him is limiting his workload to only 29.71 shots per game ([t]eighth-fewest in the league since March 1), due in large part to the solid play of F Valtteri Filppula (averaging a takeaway per game in March) and D Radko Gudas (3.7 hits per game and 2.1 blocks per game during this skid).

That’s forced the offense to play back, which is showing up in production. In their last seven games, the Flyers have averaged only 2.29 goals per game, the (t)fourth-worst mark in the NHL since March 1. F Claude Giroux can take credit for most of that limited success, as he’s managed to post 3-5-8 totals over his last seven games – the lone Flyer averaging at least a point per game over this run.

Those that keep a close eye on the standings know how important tonight’s game is.

The easiest situation to describe is Philadelphia’s, so let’s start there: Leading the Devils by only one point, the Flyers desperately need points if they want to avoid becoming one of the Eastern Conference’s wild cards.

Additionally, Philly trails the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals and runners-up Penguins by only four points. While the Caps have a game in hand on the Flyers, the Flyers have a game in hand on Pittsburgh, meaning a Philly win paired with a Pittsburgh regulation loss in Montréal would set up quite the race for home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

Things get a little bit wilder when we discuss Columbus, who can jump into a tie with the Flyers with a regulation win tonight. Though the Jackets would lose that tie based on regulation+overtime wins, they would jump the Devils (who thrashed the Golden Knights 8-3 in Vegas last night, for those keeping track of those types of things) for the East’s first wild card.

Of course, there’s also the subject of the Florida Panthers lurking behind the Jackets. On the surface, it doesn’t seem Florida poses much of a threat yet considering it has four fewer points than Columbus. However, the Panthers have a whopping three games in hand on the Jackets, meaning any lead less than six points is not safe. If Florida loses in regulation tonight at home against the Bruins and the Jackets earn two points, that would be a major card in Columbus’ back pocket as the Panthers would need to win all three games in hand to simply match the Jackets’ point total.

Through the first three games of this four-tilt regular season series, neither side has had much of an upper hand on the other. In fact, all three games have ended with a 2-1 score. That being said, Philadelphia currently owns a superior 2-0-1 record against the Blue Jackets, but Columbus can level the series with a regulation win tonight – an important note given how tight every tiebreaker between these clubs is.

I’m not saying I want playoff seeding to boil down to a literal coin toss, but I’m not saying I don’t want playoff seeding to boil down to a literal coin toss. If it happens, it’d better be televised with at least a half-hour pre-flip show complete with a full-blown strategy session that I will definitely watch. Your move, NBC and Sportsnet.

Anyways, Columbus hosted the first two games, and both required more than 60 minutes to determine a winner. The Jackets took Game 1 on December 23 with a 2-1 shootout victory (Bobrovsky earned First Star honors with a 30-save performance followed by a clean shootout), but Philly struck back on February 16 with a 2-1 overtime win (Neuvirth led the way with 35 saves).

When Game 3 transitioned east, Giroux posted a one-goal, two-point third period to lead Philadelphia to a 2-1 regulation victory.

WIth the Jackets rolling right now and Mrazek unable to stop much of anything, it’s hard to imagine a game that doesn’t end in two points for Columbus. However, the Blue Jackets need to ensure they end this game in regulation, as every point is precious.


The Toronto Maple Leafs survived a wild game at Air Canada Centre with the Dallas Stars in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, as they earned a 6-5 shootout victory.

No period in this tilt saw fewer than two goals scored, and it featured two four-tally frames.

The first of those insane periods occurred was the first frame, which saw both sides register a pair of scores. 4:28 after the opening puck drop, C Nazem Kadri opened the scoring with an unassisted tip-in to give Toronto the lead. His marker was followed only 25 seconds later by a wrist shot from First Star of the Game LW James van Riemsdyk (C Tyler Bozak and D Connor Carrick), which doubled the Leafs’ advantage.

Scoring subsided for almost 10 minutes before the Stars brought the scoreboard to life once again. With 5:31 remaining in the frame, LW Jamie Benn (Second Star F Tyler Seguin and D Esa Lindell) scored a wrister to pull Dallas back within a goal, followed by C Radek Faksa (D Greg Pateryn and F Tyler Pitlick) 1:32 later to level the score at 2-2.

In all, Dallas scored four unanswered goals before the second intermission, as the Stars took credit for both of the second period tallies. Seguin scored the first at the 4:30 mark of the frame with an unassisted wrister, followed 9:33 later by LW Remi Elie (F Devin Shore and D John Klingberg) registering his seventh career marker to give the Stars an impressive two-goal advantage with only 20 minutes remaining.

Another four goals were in store in the third frame, but most of them belonged to the hosts. Van Riemsdyk (Bozak and D Travis Dermott) provided the first at the 5:13 mark to pull Toronto back within a tally, and he (F Mitch Marner and D Morgan Rielly) followed himself 5:30 later to complete his hat trick and tie the game at 4-4 with a power play wrister.

With 6:42 remaining on the clock, Dallas once again took a one-goal lead when RW Brett Ritchie (Seguin and Benn) scored a wrister. That advantage nearly lasted until the end of regulation if not for F Patrick Marleau (Marner and D Jake Gardiner). The former Shark forced home a tip-in with only 16 seconds remaining to tie the game at 5-5 and force overtime.

As five minutes of three-on-three play did not yield a game-winner, this contest was thrust into the dreaded shootout. As host, Toronto had the choice of shooting first or second.

  1. As usual, the home team chose to go first, meaning Bozak was the first to take a shot. His attempt was pure, as he beat G Kari Lehtonen to give the Maple Leafs an early shootout lead.
  2. That lead was cemented a shot later, as Seguin’s wrister was saved by Third Star Curtis McElhinney.
  3. Next up for the Leafs was Mr. Hat Trick himself, van Riemsdyk. The left wing couldn’t find the back of the net for the fourth time in this game as Lehtonen was there to save his wrister.
  4. With an opportunity to level the shootout at 1-1, the Stars sent out RW Alexander Radulov, who proceeded to meet the same fate as Seguin: his wrister was saved by McElhinney.
  5. A Toronto goal would clinch the bonus point for the Leafs, and that’s exactly what Marner did. He beat Lehtonen to win the shootout 2-1.

Though he didn’t start the game, McElhinney earned the victory after saving 13-of-15 shots faced (.867 save percentage). He replaced G Frederik Andersen with 9:35 remaining in the second period with the score at 3-2 after the starter suffered an upper-body injury. Andersen saved 17-of-20 (.85) before exiting the game.

Lehtonen took the shootout loss after saving 28-of-33 shots faced (.848 save percentage).

Toronto’s home victory snapped a four-game winning streak by road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The 87-49-19 hosts now have a 38-point advantage on the roadies in the series.

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.