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Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division

First Wild Card in the East, lost in First Round to Washington (4-2)

Additions: G Jean-Francois Berube, D Adam Clendening, D Tommy Cross, LW Anthony Duclair, C Liam Foudy (’18 1st round pick, signed ELC), C Ryan MacInnis, C Riley Nash, D Dillon Simpson

Subtractions: LW Matt Calvert (signed with COL), D Taylor Chorney (signed with HC Lugano), D Ian Cole (signed with COL), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with TB), D Jack Johnson (signed with PIT), C Mark Letestu (unsigned UFA), RW Thomas Vanek (signed with DET)

Re-signed: RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (3-year, $2.5M), LW Boone Jenner (4-year, $3.75M), D Ryan Murray (1 year, $2.825M)

Offseason Analysis: The Jackets enjoyed a successful, if not slightly underwhelming ’17-’18 campaign, where all-time high hopes were somewhat cooled by some notable underachieving seasons from players like Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and even captain Nick Foligno. Fortunately these were offset somewhat by terrific years from players like rookie standout Pierre-Luc Dubois, emerging Norris Trophy candidate Seth Jones, and superstar Artemi Panarin. They’d close out the regular season on a 15-4-2 run over their final 21 games to lose out to Philadelphia for the final Metropolitan Division spot by a single point, instead drawing the first Wild Card spot and a date with the Washington Capitals.

The Jackets shocked everyone by taking Games 1 and 2 of the series in Washington, both in thrilling overtime fashion, to head back home with a 2-0 hold on the series. Then came “The Promise”. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told the media they’d be back in Washington for Game 5 with the series tied. They did just that, and rode the momentum on through the Blue Jackets, and everyone else in their way as they went on to grab the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This was no consolation prize in the minds of Jackets fans, though, as losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions is sort of a calling card in Columbus’ recent history. *throws another dart at a poster of Sidney Crosby*

Now, with another disappointing playoff performance on their record, a list of notable pending free agents on their plate, and the ever-looming Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin contract situations on their hands, the Columbus brass faced a rather trying offseason. But, as has been his MO over the years, GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t about to panic. Or really show any sort of human emotion of any kind. I think that’s just a Finnish thing.

First came the NHL draft, where once again ‘J.K.’ and his staff went a bit off the board for their first round pick, drafting speedster Liam Foudy 18th overall. Generally projected as a very-late first or early second round pick, Foudy caught the eye of the CBJ scouting staff for his ability to inject speed into their lineup, something it could definitely use. While likely to spend at least another year in Juniors, Foudy did ink his entry level contract over the summer.

When free agency opened, the Jackets very quickly lost longtime roster stalwarts Jack Johnson (fans weren’t that upset) and Matt Calvert (fans held memorial services), along with rentals Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu. Kekalainen quickly nabbed penalty-killing specialist Riley Nash to replace Letestu’s bottom-six depth. Initially his $2.75 million cap hit over the next three years seemed slightly steep for a guy who projects as a third-line center at best, but with the raised cap and resulting numbers we saw on some other signings/re-signings over the summer, the deal has aged fairly well. A few days later the Jackets would pick up troubled youngster Anthony Duclair on a league-minimum $650 thousand, one-year deal. Likened to the ‘show me’ contract given to Sam Gagner by the Jackets a few years ago that paid dividends, Columbus is hedging bets on Duclair’s willingness to shed some of the baggage he’s accumulated over the past few seasons and work hard to get back to being the player that scored 20 goals and 44 points as a 20-year-old. If he can, he’s an absolute steal. If he can’t, he’s barely even a blip on the salary cap radar, and could be placed on waivers without much concern.

Kekalainen decided to let his organizational depth fill the rest of the vacancies in the roster (which has definitely created one of the more intriguing training camps to watch). Instead, he invested a good portion of his time and effort over the summer into attempting to secure the future services of Artemi Panarin and, to a lesser extent, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky only recently broke his silence about his situation, revealing that management knows his plans after his contract expires next summer, but declined to make public that information.

Cryptic.

The Panarin situation was much more public, and highlighted by Kekalainen flying to France to visit with Panarin and his agent while the dynamic winger was on vacation. No real progress was made on a contract extension, as Panarin seems likely to either test the waters of free agency or possibly even return to Russia after this season. Some reports indicated he’d prefer to play in a larger market than Columbus, or perhaps at least a market with a beach (he did spend the last month or so of the offseason training with friends Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa), but no solid proof of any of this ever emerged.

The prospects of a future in Columbus that include neither their most potent offensive weapon nor their multi-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender are not fun to consider for the fanbase, but they do appear to be looming. In net, the Jackets do at least boast one of the strongest goaltending prospect pools in the league, but that’s far from a sure thing. Apart from possibly young Vitaly Abramov, they certainly don’t have anyone currently in the pipeline that could replace Panarin’s offensive production.

Getting away from the doom and gloom, let’s circle back to the earlier claim of a very interesting training camp.

The Jackets’ camp roster includes over 60 players, and there are some very tight battles for more than a few roster spots. The race for bottom-six wing minutes is hotly contested. Players with Blue Jackets tenure like Sonny Milano, Markus Hannikainen, and Lukas Sedlak now find themselves being challenged by newcomer Duclair, along with a serious pool of prospects like Sam Vigneault, Kevin Stenlund, Eric Robinson, Jonathan Davidsson, Paul Bittner and even 2018 draft picks Foudy and Traverse City tournament standout Trey Fix-Wolansky.

While I don’t see the 2018 picks making the roster (more time in Juniors would serve their development better than limited fourth-line NHL minutes), the rest are interesting. Duclair obviously adds an element of offense and speed, but has also shown he’s not afraid to play with an edge as well. Vigneault and Stenlund are both every bit of 6-foot-5 and well over 200 pounds, but lack some speed and are both natural centers, a position that should be filled on the roster. Bittner is a superior skater to either of the ‘Twin Towers’, still comes in at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and is a natural wing, but has struggled to adapt his offensive game to the pro level to this point. Robinson played one game with the Jackets last year coming in as a free agent after captaining the Princeton Tigers in his senior year where he put up 31 points in 36 games. His pro game has yet to really be seen, so training camp and preseason will be important for him. To me, the most interesting name at forward is the Swedish RW Davidsson. An effortless skater, he brings plenty of speed and agility to the lineup, and has shown to be an extremely intelligent playmaker, but he’s definitely not a physical presence nor a defensive stalwart, so not who you’d normally have in a bottom-six role. He could probably use another year in either the SHL or AHL to continue his physical and defensive development, but if he impresses in camp he could at least get a look.

My projected forward lines are:
Panarin – Dubois – Atkinson
Jenner – Wennberg – Bjorkstrand
Milano – Dubinsky – Foligno
Sedlak – Nash – Anderson
Extra forwards Hannikainen and Duclair

On defense, Columbus has the luxury of one of the best top pairs in the league, with Seth Jones alongside blueline sniper Zach Werenski. Werenski set the franchise record for goals as a defenseman last year while playing basically the entire year with a destroyed shoulder. Offseason surgery will keep him slightly limited in camp and likely out of all preseason games, but he’s projected to be 100 percent ready to go for the beginning of the season. After the top pair, though, things are pretty fluid, with approximately seven players vying for the four remaining spots. Three of the four (David Savard, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara) are pretty well locked into the lineup, just more a question of where exactly they’ll sit on the depth chart. But the competition for the No. 6 spot and final roster spot as the seventh man is tight. Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington both saw limited NHL action with the Jackets last year, with Kukan putting up a respectable 4 points in 11 games and Harrington proving to be a reliable No. 6 down the stretch run. Adam Clendening only saw five games with Arizona last year, and has bounced between the leagues a lot in the past few seasons, but his last full season in the AHL saw him put up 59 points in 74 games. He’s not always the most defensively reliable guy, but he’s the best puck mover of the contenders. My personal pick for not only the Jackets roster but also for the No. 6 slot is 6-foot-5 Gabriel Carlsson. While still working to put some bulk on his lanky frame, Carlsson has already adapted well to the North American game, being a steady presence on the Cleveland blueline last year in the AHL. While certainly not an offensive producer, he’s very poised with the puck and is a confident passer. He skates well and uses his lengthy reach to make sure he’s always in good position. He’s also capable of playing either side of the ice.

I have the defense shaping up like this:
Werenski – Jones
Murray – Savard
Carlsson – Nuutivaara
Extra defenseman Harrington

In net, things are unlikely to look any different than last year. While J.F. Berube was brought in to challenge for the backup position after Joonas Korpisalo had a bit of regression last year, he’ll likely head to Cleveland as Korpi’s deal is one-way. Elvis Merzilikins and Daniil Tarasov are both top goaltending prospects, but they’ll continue their development overseas for the time being.

Offseason Grade: C+

Though there seems to be a general sense that more should have been done to improve the team over the summer, the handful of moves made were smart. The big thing here is that there is a lot of potential turmoil brewing heading towards next year. Kekalainen was likely smart not to hedge any knee-jerk bets on this season and instead rely upon his strong organizational depth to improve the team.

If the youngsters make an impact, and you get a rebound season from a vet or two, suddenly even the prospect of losing your two Russian dynamos seems less daunting. Panarin is definitely trade bait for a big return before the deadline if you need to go that route, and if the team gets better from within, that leaves big chunks of cap space to bring in other pieces if necessary.

While they’ll obviously look to improve their fortunes (particularly in the playoffs) this year, it will really be next offseason where the brass will have to earn those shiny new contracts they received this month.

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.

Columbus sitting pretty with 2-0 lead

 

Another overtime game, another Columbus Blue Jackets victory, as they beat the Washington Capitals 5-4 to take a two-tilt advantage going into Game 3.

Even though it was challenged for offsides, First Star of the Game LW Matt Calvert (D Zach Werenski and RW Josh Anderson) scored his fourth career postseason goal – and second-ever playoff overtime winner – to etch his name into Jackets lore on an elevated wrist shot to the near post from along the goal line with 7:38 remaining in the first overtime period.

For a franchise that has never escaped the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Blue Jackets are a mighty confident team right now. Going back to the regular season, Columbus has earned a 15-2-2 record in its last 19 games played and is showing no signs of slowing down yet.

That being said, tonight was not a game in which Columbus dominated play. That was made apparent right from the opening puck drop, as F Jay Beagle (D Brooks Orpik and D Jakub Jerabek) scored Washington’s first shot on goal to give the Capitals an early 1-0 advantage. That lead doubled to two 11:14 later when Third Star W Alex Ovechkin (D John Carlson and F T.J. Oshie) scored a power play slap shot from his usual spot in the left face-off circle.

In all, the Capitals out-shot the Blue Jackets 58-30, earning a dominating 28-shot differential that effectively demonstrated just how much action was taking place in G Sergei Bobrovsky‘s end.

However, it was the incredible play of Bobrovsky – who saved 54-of-58 shots faced (.931 save percentage) and earns the honorary DtFR Fourth Star – that not only kept the Jackets alive defensively, but also allowed Columbus to set up an effective counterattack on numerous occasions.

Enter Second Star RW Cam Atkinson with 1:35 remaining in the first period. Having been the Jacket called for the goalie interference penalty that allowed Ovechkin to find the back of the net 4:59 earlier, Atkinson (F Nick Foligno) collected a long stretch pass that crossed both blue lines to beat G Philipp Grubauer‘s left skate to the post with a wrister, pulling Columbus back within a goal.

Even though it came late in the period, Atkinson’s play signified a major turning point in this game. The tally came on the heels of the conclusion of two minutes of four-on-four play (F Pierre-Luc Dubois and F Evgeny Kuznetsov were charged with corresponding slashing minors) that certainly boosted the confidence of Columbus’ defense.

Of course, it didn’t take long for Washington to try to reclaim control after the intermission – and it did with a little help from F Brandon Dubinsky, who accidentally removed Carlson’s helmet with a hi-stick while hitting W Devante Smith-Pelly.

The power play is usually Ovechkin’s (C Nicklas Backstrom and Carlson) time to shine, and he didn’t disappoint by burying another one of his patented clappers at the 4:09 mark of the frame – only eight seconds after Dubinsky took his seat in the sin bin.

However, a two-goal advantage is all the Caps could manage, as the Jackets started to turn the tides in their favor to score three goals before the second intermission.

Getting back to the counterattack point from earlier, Anderson (Werenski and LW Artemi Panarin) was the next beneficiary at the 8:49 mark of the frame. After W Brett Connolly fell down in the corner to Bobrovsky’s right, Anderson pounced on the newly vacated puck to set up a five-on-two rush for Columbus. With such a man-advantage, it’s no surprise that the Jackets were able to pass the puck back-and-forth enough times to confuse Grubauer and pull themselves back within a one-goal differential.

The theme of Game 1 was unwise and untimely penalties, and the Capitals decided to reprise that story line for the remainder of the second frame with two such infractions that resulted in Columbus goals.

First was a RW Tom Wilson roughing penalty against D Seth Jones with 9:24 remaining in the period. Like so often happens in a hockey game – regardless of if it is in the regular season or playoffs – there was a little scrum in front of Grubauer’s net after he froze the puck. However, Wilson took offense to this one in particular and elected to literally jump into the fray and take Jones down to the ice. In turn, Atkinson (Panarin and Jones) made his stay in the penalty box only 37 seconds long after tying the game with a power play wrister.

Old habits die hard, so it only makes sense that Smith-Pelly was sent to the box with 2:20 remaining before the second intermission for a holding the stick penalty. This power play lasted 1:12, but the net result as the same: Werenski (RW Oliver Bjorkstrand and Panarin) scoring another goal for the Blue Jackets, giving them their first lead of the night.

With the rumored hockey gods distributing power play goals like Oprah gives away household appliances, it’s only logical that the Capitals would be handed one last opportunity to level the game when Werenski flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game infraction with 4:51 remaining in regulation.

Still looking for his first goal of the 2018 postseason, Oshie (Backstrom and Carlson) capitalized on the man-advantage to bury a power play snap shot, tying the game at 4-4 with 3:35 remaining in regulation.

But wait, there’s more! After Oshie scored, F Boone Jenner didn’t like him very much so he tripped him with 1:59 remaining in regulation. That’s right, ladies and gentleman: Jenner decided to give the regular season’s seventh-best power play a shot at winning this game in regulation.

Fortunately for Jenner, he escaped the wrath of Head Coach John Tortorella when Wilson absolutely whiffed on an excellent opportunity, allowing the game to advance into overtime which eventually ended in Columbus’ favor.

Though he didn’t start the game, G Braden Holtby takes the overtime loss after saving seven-of-eight shots faced (.875 save percentage) in the third period and overtime. He replaced Grubauer, who saved 18-of-22 (.818) and earned no decision, following the second intermission.

Of note, W Andre Burakovsky suffered an upper body injury on his first shift of the game, meaning the Capitals played almost the entire contest with only 11 forwards. It remains to be seen what his status for Game 3 and beyond will be for Washington.

After a short flight west to Central Ohio, Game 3 will take place at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, April 17 at Nationwide Arena. American viewers can catch the game on NBCSN, while Canada will be serviced by SN360 and TVAS.

March 6 – Day 146 – Colorful adjectives

Nine games are on today’s schedule, so let’s jump right in!

Like most nights, the action finds its start at 7 p.m. with a quartet of games (Detroit at Boston [NBCSN/SN/TVAS], Montréal at New Jersey [RDS/TSN2], Winnipeg at the New York Rangers and Vegas at Columbus), followed half an hour later by the Governor’s Cup featuring Florida at Tampa Bay. A pair of tilts drop the puck at 8 p.m. (Dallas at Nashville and Carolina at Minnesota), with Colorado at Chicago waiting 30 minutes before getting underway. Finally, Washington at Anaheim (NBCSN) closes out the evening’s schedule at 10 p.m. All times Eastern.

Some of the games I circled before the start of the season include…

  • Detroit at Boston: Original Six matchup, anyone?
  • Vegas at Columbus: Remember that C William Karlsson guy the Blue Jackets left exposed for the expansion draft? Turns out he’s pretty good at hockey.
  • Florida at Tampa Bay: Given the Panthers’ recent surge, this season’s Governor’s Cup is turning out to be a big deal.

Of those three, the game in Ohio looks like it will be the most competitive. Off to Nationwide Arena!

 

 

 

 

 

Though selected by the Ducks in the second round of the 2011 Entry Draft, Karlsson played only 18 NHL games with Anaheim before it shipped him, RW Rene Bourque and a 2015 second round pick to Columbus (the Jackets used to select C Kevin Stenlund, if you’re wondering) at the 2015 trade deadline for D James Wisniewski and Detroit’s 2015 third round pick (the Ducks chose F Brent Gates, for those keeping score at home).

Though it seems hard to believe in light of this season, Wild Bill was far from the main attraction in this transaction. The Ducks were rolling as the Western Conference’s top seed, and they brought in the experienced 30-year-old Wisniewski to shore up their defensive end. Ultimately, Anaheim fell in the Western Finals in seven games to Chicago, even though it rolled through the first two rounds by suffering only one loss.

But this isn’t about those Ducks. It’s about Karlsson.

After only one offseason in the Columbus system, Karlsson earned a permanent spot on the NHL roster for the 2015-’16 season. He improved nominally on his 3-2-5 totals in 21 games during the 2014-’15 season, managing 9-11-20 marks in 81 games played in what was technically his rookie campaign. Of note, Karlsson also earned 10 votes for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy that season, finishing 32nd behind award-winner and former rival C Anze Kopitar.

We started to get glimpses of Karlsson’s new normal last season, as he improved his season marks to 6-19-25 in 81 regular season games played. Though far from exemplary, Karlsson was still showing growth and reason for optimism.

Then the postseason started, and Karlsson officially earned his “Wild Bill” nickname.

The Blue Jackets lasted only five games in last season’s playoffs against the Penguins, but boy was the Swede impressive. He posted dominant 2-1-3 totals (tying RW Cam Atkinson and F Boone Jenner for most goals and forcing a four-way tie for most points [W Brandon Saad]) in his five showings, while also tying W Matt Calvert for a team-leading +4 goal-differential.

This is the return General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen was hoping for when he traded Wisniewski!

Well… maybe not.

Not only was Karlsson left exposed to the Golden Knights for the expansion draft, but Kekalainen also traded a 2017 first round pick (Vegas flipped that pick to Winnipeg, who selected W Kristian Vesalainen) and a 2019 second round pick to General Manager George McPhee to ensure Karlsson was the Jacket selected to relocate to Sin City.

There’s no telling if McPhee and Head Coach Gerard Gallant always had their eye on Karlsson or if they considered him at Kekalainen’s request, but considering how everything has gone their way this season, I wouldn’t doubt it. I’m sure they saw Wild Bill’s coming out party in April and dreamed of playing him on their top line with much success.

Of course, even with his playoff performance, who could have expected this explosion? Karlsson has played in every game this season for the Golden Knights, posting 35-24-59 totals in 65 showings. His 35 goals are (t)fourth-most in the league, and he’s only five short of Richard Trophy-leader W Alex Ovechkin. Additionally, his +39 goal differential on the season is far and away the best in the NHL, as he has a +5 advantage on linemate W Reilly Smith.

Karlsson is slated to become a restricted free agent this summer, but I have an inkling he’ll be a Golden Knight for the considerable future considering Vegas has almost $28.5 million in cap space next season.

Even though they’re still leading the Pacific Division by 10 points, the 42-18-5 Golden Knights don’t necessarily come to Columbus in top form. A win against the Devils Sunday snapped a three-game losing skid that saw Vegas earn only one point.

Vegas’ biggest struggle right now seems to be on the defensive end. Since February 26, the Knights have allowed 36.75 shots against per game, the fourth-most of any team in the league in that time. That mark is well off the 30.6 shots the Golden Knights have allowed per game all season, which is sixth-best in the NHL.

However, unlike a couple teams in the Metropolitan Division, Vegas’ defense isn’t poor due to a lack of effort. D Brayden McNabb in particular has been leaving everything on the ice lately, as his five hits-per-game and 2.5 blocks per game over the past week are both the best marks on the team in that time.

Of course, additional shots have made life a bit more difficult for 22-8-3 G Marc-Andre Fleury. Though he’s managed a decent enough .914 save percentage in his last three starts, the added shots mean that he’s posted a rather unattractive 3.31 GAA. For the season, Fleury has now earned a .928 save percentage and 2.24 GAA.

Tonight’s tilt will be 33-28-5 Columbus’ first since getting back from a three-game Californian road trip that saw the Jackets earn only two points (a 4-2 win in San Jose).

While away from home, the Jackets’ usually solid defense failed them miserably. With 28-21-5 G Sergei Bobrovsky accustomed to facing only 31.3 shots per game (the [t]eighth-best mark in the league), Columbus’ defense has allowed 34.67 in its past three games – the ninth-worst mark in the NHL since March 1.

Just like McNabb has been doing all he can to keep the Knights’ defense together, D Jack Johnson has been doing the same for the Ohioans. Johnson’s 2.7 hits per game and two blocks per game since March 1 are both tied for the team leads (F Brandon Dubinsky and D Ian Cole, respectively) as he is making his presence known all over the ice.

If you’ve reached this paragraph expecting talk about Bobrovsky, you have another think coming as the Russian will be unavailable tonight due to illness. Instead, that forces 5-7-0 G Joonas Korpisalo into the spotlight with his .899 season save percentage and corresponding 3.3 GAA, as he’ll be tonight’s starter. Korpisalo’s last showing was in Los Angeles on March 1, where he saved 29-of-34 shots faced (.853 save percentage) for five goals against.

When the Blue Jackets made their inaugural trip to Vegas on January 23, they joined the long list of teams that have suffered at the hands of the Golden Knights. With a two-goal night from none other than Karlsson, Vegas dominated Columbus to a 6-3 victory.

As for which of these teams needs the points in the standings more, the answer has to be Columbus. Currently occupying the Eastern Conference’s second wild card, the Jackets are in a dog fight with at least three other teams for two playoff spots, meaning every point is important. In fact, if Columbus does not win tonight, it runs the risk of dropping behind the Panthers if they can best the Lightning.

Playoff qualification is all but assured for the Golden Knights at this point, and the same might be able to be said for a Pacific Division banner soon enough. However, they’ve fallen behind the Predators for the conference’s top seed, meaning a potential Game 7 in the Western Finals is currently slated to be played at Bridgestone Arena. Trailing by four points with the same number of games played, this will be a very tight race to keep an eye on.

With two defenses struggling, there’s a big chance this game can turn into a barn burner. If that proves to be the case, there’s no doubt the Golden Knights will earn the victory, as their offense easily outclasses that of the Blue Jackets and should definitely be able to take care of Korpisalo.


The Calgary Flames had an answer for almost everything the Pittsburgh Penguins could throw at them, but it was the hosts that won 4-3 in overtime in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day at PPG Paints Arena.

Only 3:05 into the first period, the Penguins had already earned a two-goal advantage. D Chad Ruhwedel (RW Phil Kessel) provided Pittsburgh’s first tally at the 2:10 mark, followed only 55 seconds later by an unassisted wrist shot by F Evgeni Malkin. However, Calgary wasn’t going to let this game get away that easily, as D Mark Giordano (Third Star of the Game W Troy Brouwer and C Matt Stajan) buried a wrister at the 6:14 mark, followed by a C Mikael Backlund (F Michael Frolik and D Travis Hamonic) backhanded shot to level the game at 2-2 – the score that would hold into the first intermission.

The second period would also end with a tied score, but not without a flurry of goals in the final three minutes. Second Star D Kris Letang (Malkin and LW Carl Hagelin) returned a one-goal advantage to Pittsburgh with 2:59 remaining in the frame, but Brouwer (D T.J. Brodie and LW Johnny Gaudreau) buried a wrister with only three seconds remaining before the break to pull the Flames back even at three goals apiece.

With no goals being struck in the third period, that set up a five minute three-on-three overtime period, but First Star D Justin Schultz (Kessel and Malkin) needed only 2:36 of that to provide the Pens’ game-winner.

By removing four players from action, there’s a lot of free space on the ice to execute some deadly passes. That’s exactly what happened in this situation, as Kessel drove towards G Jon Gillies‘ net from the right face-off circle to draw the netminder’s attention – as well as that of Backlund and Frolik. That left Schultz with exactly zero people paying attention to him, leaving the defenseman with more than enough time to bury his snap shot into the gaping cage.

G Tristan Jarry earned the victory after saving 35-of-38 shots faced (.921 save percentage), leaving the overtime loss to Gillies, who saved 28-of-32 (.875).

Home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series have been unstoppable this week, as they’re currently riding a six-game winning streak. With that success, the 80-47-19 hosts have earned a 29-point advantage over the series’ roadies.

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.

April 4 – Day 167 – Who gets Game 7?

After a quiet Monday in the NHL last night, the final Tuesday of the regular season should be absolutely stellar.

Barring some freak weather system or facilities complication, 13 contests will take place this evening. All but four teams will be in action tonight, including the entire Western Conference.

The action gets started at 7 p.m. with three games (Tampa Bay at Boston [NBCSN/SN/TVAS], Philadelphia at New Jersey and Columbus at Pittsburgh), followed half an hour later by two more (Washington at Toronto and Detroit at Ottawa [RDS]). Another trio (Winnipeg at St. Louis, the New York Islanders at Nashville and Carolina at Minnesota) will be contested at 8 p.m., with Arizona at Dallas waiting 30 minutes before getting underway. Chicago at Colorado is the only matchup to start at 9 p.m., which is the same for Calgary at Anaheim (SN1) at 10 p.m. Finally, tonight’s co-nightcaps (Edmonton at Los Angeles [NBCSN] and Vancouver at San Jose) will drop the puck at 10:30 p.m. to finish the night.

Short list:

  • Philadelphia at New Jersey: Both teams may be eliminated from the postseason, but that won’t take away from the Battle of the Jersey Turnpike, which was already heated before Dalton Prout‘s hit on Radko Gudas.
  • Columbus at Pittsburgh: While the rivalry status of this matchup is still in the air, one thing is certain: it will have an immediate impact on the Metropolitan Division with only six days remaining in the season.
  • Edmonton at Los Angeles: With a little help from the Flames, this old-timey rivalry could provide the Oilers a shot at first place in the Pacific Division.

Riding a two-game winning streak, it seems like the Penguins are getting healthy and returning to form just in time for the playoffs. They’ll need all the help they can get tonight to try to retain home ice in the Eastern Quarterfinals.

 

There’s a lot at stake tonight in this game. 48-19-11 Pittsburgh currently has a one-point advantage on 49-21-8 Columbus for the second seed in the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference. Of course, that second seed is ultra-important in the not-so-new-anymore playoff format the NHL is using nowadways.

Instead of a conference tournament where the best team was paired with the worst team in a given conference until the conference championship (effectively the NBA’s playoffs, except the NHL used to reseed after every round), the league now crowns two division champions, determined by three seven-game playoffs, to play for one of the conference titles.

Whether you’re a fan of the format or not (Hint: I’m not. #TeamOldFormat), it’s the world we live in. And that’s what makes this matchup so integral. As all sports fans know, a home ice/court/field advantage can be wildly important in deciding who wins a Game 7 and advances to the next round, or loses and schedules tee times a week later.

All that aside, this also acts as a week-early preview for a highly-probable first round playoff matchup. Considering what is on the table, I doubt either of the coaching staffs are too concerned about putting too much film in their opponent’s hands. Then again, we are talking about John Tortorella, so who knows?

While I’m in no way implying that I think the Jackets have lost their edge, they have hit a slight rough patch in the past week; since March 30, they’ve amassed only a 0-2-1 record. Given, their two regulation losses are in Chicago and against the Capitals, but beating playoff teams is relatively important when the postseason starts next week.

The Blue Jackets have been one of the best defenses in the league all season long, allowing only 2.28 goals-against per game – the second-best mark in the NHL. In the last three games, they’ve allowed eight goals – well above that mark.

Much of that season success has been due to a solid blueline. Unfortunately for 41-15-5 Sergei Bobrovsky (more on him in a minute), a blueline collapse is not the reason for Columbus‘ recent struggles. They’ve allowed only 28.3 shots-against in the past week, which is actually down from the usual 30.4 they’ve averaged all year.

No, the blame rests on Bobrovsky’s shoulders. While he’s been almost as far from horrible as one can get, he’s not been his usual super-reliable self. On the season, he has a .934 save percentage and 1.99 GAA (both are best in the league among goalies with more than eight games played), but he’s let his numbers drop to .906 and 2.56 in the past six days.

As showcased by Chicago and Washington, that extra sliver of space is all elite offenses need to capitalize.

With the postseason on the horizon, the important thing is that the penalty kill has remained healthy. The fact that the Jackets have allowed only one power play goal against since March 30 is proof enough that nothing needs to be retooled in Columbus; Bobrovsky just needs to focus back in and the Jackets should be set for an effective postseason.

The thing that does need to be checked for life is the power play. Usually successful on 19.9% of attempts – an above-average effort – the Jackets haven’t scored on the man-advantage in their past seven attempts. It is moments like these where Captain Nick Foligno and power play-mastermind Alexander Wennberg need to step up and provide the offensive spark for their club, a squad that desperately needs one with the extra-man.

Meanwhile, it’s not as if the Penguins are doing much better of late. Since March 23, they’ve gone 2-2-2, though their last two contests were victories against solid offenses in Carolina and New York.

Though I love statistics, Pittsburgh‘s drop in production can be attributed to one thing and one thing along: injuries. There’s still seven Penguins on the injury report, including the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz, who went down against the Rangers Saturday.

That explains why the best offense in the league has managed only 13 goals in six games, but why has Pittsburgh allowed so many goals of late?

I’m going to give  30-10-4 Matthew Murray a pass here and blame the blueline. Of course, the Penguins‘ defense is hurt too. Trevor Daley, Letang and Olli Maatta have not registered a game since at least February 21, all of whom average more than a shot block per game when healthy.

One of those pieces looks to be coming back soon though. The Penguins‘ official Twitter handle indicated that Daley returned to practice today, so it remains to be seen when he will see game action.

Until then, Pittsburgh needs to find a way to keep shots off Murray. In the past six games, the Pens blueline has allowed 213 shots (35.5) to reach their goaltender, which is worse than their already very bad 32.6 season average.

Both Justin Schultz and Ian Cole have been fantastic in their efforts, as they’ve combined for 26 shot blocks in the past six games. But it’s skaters like Brian Dumoulin and Chad Ruhwedel that need to improve their effort.

It is hard to have such high expectations for Ruhwedel, who has bounced between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but the fact that he has only one block in five games with the Penguins should be alarming to Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan, and could impact if he gets a contract of any kind this offseason.

Where Murray doesn’t get a pass is the penalty kill. He’s faced seven power play shots in the past six games, and has saved only four of them. Four. As you’d expect, a .571 power play save percentage has dropped the Penguins‘ penalty kill numbers to the bottom of the league in that stretch of time, as they’ve successfully stopped only 76.9% of opposing attempts in the last 13 days.

The current Penguins‘ brightest spot has to be a a power play that has managed to convert 30.8% of its opportunities since March 23, the seventh-best effort in that time. Though Phil Kessel, who has 29 power play points on the season, still leads the team’s man-advantage, it’s been a full-team attack of late as both lines have found the back of the net. In fact, even though the squad has managed four power play goals in this stretch, no player has more than two points to his credit.

Though the Blue Jackets have gone 2-0-1 against Pittsburgh this year, they still have yet to clinch the season series. The Pens could tie it all up tonight if they can best Columbus in regulation.

If February 17 is any indicator, the Penguins will have to work extremely hard to get that done. Columbus needed overtime to best Pittsburgh 2-1 the last time they met (Brandon Dubinsky scored the game-winner), though they had that pesky home ice we were talking about earlier in their favor.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include ColumbusCam Atkinson (34 goals [tied for seventh-most in the league]), Bobrovsky (1.99 GAA on a .934 save percentage [both best in the NHL] for 41 wins [tied for the most in the league], including seven shutouts [tied for second-most in the NHL]) and David Savard (+30 [sixth-best in the league]) & Pittsburgh‘s Sidney Crosby (43 goals [leads the NHL] for 84 points [tied for fourth-most in the league]) and Murray (.923 save percentage [tied for sixth-best in the NHL]).

Though wounded, Vegas has marked Pittsburgh a -130 favorite going into tonight’s game. I expect a tight game, but I’m actually leaning towards the Blue Jackets. I think their special teams are an even match for those of the Penguins and their offense should take advantage of a struggling Pittsburgh defensive corps.

Hockey Birthday

  • Pat Burns (1952-2010) – It may have been the shortest stop in his 14 years of head coaching, but Burns is most remembered for leading the 2003 Devils to the Stanley Cup.
  • Dale Hawerchuk (1963-) – Winnipeg selected this center with the top pick in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, and it turned out to be a good pick. In addition to winning the 1982 Calder Memorial Trophy, this Hall-of-Famer played in five All-Star Games over his 16 seasons.
  • Yanic Perreault (1971-) – Selected 47th-overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft by Toronto, this center played 14 seasons – most of which with Los Angeles. Though he appeared in only one All-Star Game, he scored 247 goals over his career.
  • Kevin Weekes (1975-) – Before working for NHL Network and starting his clothing line No5Hole, this goaltender was selected 41st-overall in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by Florida. He ended up playing 348 games over 11 seasons – most of which with Carolina – for a 105-163-39 record.
  • Roberto Luongo (1979-) – Another goalie, Luongo was picked fourth-overall by the Islanders in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Currently in his second stint with the Panthers, he’s played 494 of his 966 games with Florida. He has a career 453-365-117 record.
  • Evgeny Artyukhin (1983-) – Tampa Bay selected this right wing 94th-overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, and that’s where he played most of his three-year career. He managed only 49 points before returning to Russia.
  • Doug Lynch (1983-) – Another player whose career didn’t last long, this defenseman was selected 43rd-overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft by Edmonton. He only played two games with the Oilers, and has since played most of his career in the EBEL.
  • Cam Barker (1986-) – This defenseman was the third-overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by Chicago, and that’s where he spent most of his eight-year NHL career. Most recently, he was playing in the KHL for HC Slovan Bratislava.

Led by Nazem Kadri‘s two-point effort, the Maple Leafs bested Buffalo 4-2 in the Battle of the QEW, yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Toronto took command of this game quickly, as it had a 3-0 lead by the 5:09 mark of the first frame. Third Star of the Game Leo Komarov (Kadri) took credit for the Leafs‘ first tally, tipping-in a shot 4:26 after the initial puck drop. 35 seconds later, First Star Auston Matthews (William Nylander and Jake Gardiner) doubled that lead by potting a wrist shot. That surge culminated with Second Star James van Riemsdyk (Tyler Bozak), who notched the game-winner only eight seconds after Matthews’ 39th tally of the season, the most ever by an American rookie.

Buffalo finally got on the board 1:51 into the second period. Though Marcus Foligno still had nine seconds remaining on his cross-checking penalty against Kadri at the end of the first period, Ryan O’Reilly (Brian Gionta) notched a shorthanded snap shot to pull the Sabres within two goals of their Canadian rivals.

That 3-1 score held until the 5:50 mark of the third period. That’s when Kadri (Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) buried his power play marker to reclaim a three-goal advantage for Toronto. Jack Eichel (Sam Reinhart) buried a backhanded shot with 56 seconds remaining in the game, but it was too little too late to effect Buffalo‘s fate.

Frederik Andersen earned the win after saving 20-of-22 shots faced (90.9%), leaving the loss to Robin Lehner, who saved two-of-five (40%). He was pulled after van Riemsdyk’s game-winning slap shot in favor of Anders Nilsson, who saved 39-of-40 (97.5%) for no decision.

Toronto‘s victory snaps the four-game winning streak by the 85-59-25 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Though hosts have still had more success when featured, their advantage over the visitors is now only three points.