Tag Archives: Dubois

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…

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.

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.

April 5 – Day 176 – From green jackets to Blue

To commemorate the final Thirsty Thursday of the regular season, make sure to pour one out for the best day of the hockey week. Fortunately, that should be pretty easy to do considering there’s a dozen games spread out across the continent.

The action finds its start at 7 p.m. with five contests (Toronto at New Jersey, the New York Rangers at the New York Islanders, Carolina at Philadelphia, Nashville at Washington [NBCSN] and Pittsburgh at Columbus), followed half an hour later by two more (Montréal at Detroit [RDS/TSN2] and Boston at Florida [TVAS]). Calgary at Winnipeg drops the puck at 8 p.m., while Vegas at Edmonton (SN1) waits an hour before doing just the same. Next up is Arizona at Vancouver (SN360) at 10 p.m., with tonight’s co-nightcaps – Minnesota at Los Angeles and Colorado at San Jose – cleaning up the festivities 30 minutes later. All times Eastern.

There’s rivalries galore tonight!

  • New York at New York: The Battle of New York looked so good at the beginning of the season, but neither team was able to maintain that positive energy and make the playoffs.
  • Pittsburgh at Columbus: Pens fans don’t want to admit that this is a rivalry, but important games like this one might be just the trick to change their minds.
  • Montréal at Detroit: It’s the penultimate Original Six matchup of the season.
  • Calgary at Winnipeg: This rivalry might be dated, but the Jets just might run up the score for fun anyways.

Even though it’s not on national television, there’s only one game worthy of begin watched after the first round of The Masters is done. In fact, it just so happens to be taking place in Jack Nicklaus’ hometown.

 

The past month has been pure bliss for Ohioan hockey fans, as the 45-29-6 Blue Jackets have gone on a 13-1-1 record to improve from outside the playoff picture to competing for second place in the Metropolitan Division.

The biggest reason for that success has been Columbus’ unstoppable offense – specifically the spectacular play of the first line. Combined, LW Artemi Panarin, F Pierre-Luc Dubois and RW Cam Atkinson have managed incredible 25-36-61 totals since March 4 to lead the Jackets to averaging a league-best 4.27 goals per game in that time.

Of those three, Panarin is certainly deserving of the most attention. Though all three members of the top line are averaging at least a point per game over their last 15 outings (Dubois barely makes the grade with his 6-9-15 marks), the Russian has been the class of the bunch with his 9-18-27 totals sine March 4, averaging 1.8 points per game in that time to improve his season numbers to 27-53-80 – new career-highs in assists and points with two games left to play.

Another major player on this offense has been D Seth Jones – to the point that he might as well be considered a fourth member of the first line. Since March 4, he’s posted impressive 6-10-16 totals (16-41-57 overall), with all but three of those points occurring with at least one member of the top line also participating on the play.

One team that knows all about that story of resurgence is the 45-29-6 Penguins, who were also falling on on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff early in the season. Since then, Pittsburgh has climbed into the second position in the division that Columbus is searching for, and it has done its best to hold onto that spot with a 2-1-0 record in the past week.

The position most under the microscope in Pittsburgh lately (you know, other than the gaping hole in center field that should be occupied by Andrew McCutchen if not for Robert Nutting’s questionable business practices) has been the Penguins’ goaltending. Completing his comeback from another injury, 26-16-3 G Matt Murray looks like he is rounding back into form just in time for another playoff run. In his past three starts, Murray has managed a .912 save percentage and 2.67 GAA – both marks that are well better than his season numbers of .907 save percentage and 2.9 GAA.

Of course, Murray will be facing arguably his toughest test tonight since returning to action on March 20. Any help he can get from his defense – which has allowed a 13th-best 30.33 shots against per game since March 29 – will go a long way towards Pittsburgh stealing another win at Nationwide Arena.

With both teams tied at 96 points with two games remaining, saying this is a huge fixture just might be the understatement of the season. With 43 regulation+overtime wins to Columbus’ 39, the Penguins have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Jackets should it be necessary at the end of the campaign. As such, a regulation win tonight would clinch second place in the Metropolitan Division for Pittsburgh – the same position from which it has won back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Of course, that means anything better than a regulation loss keeps the Blue Jackets alive for swiping second, but the fact that their final game of the season is in Nashville compared to the Penguins hosting the D Erik Karlsson-less Senators makes this even more of a must-win for Columbus.

Unfortunately, tonight’s opponent hasn’t exactly been very generous to Columbus all season, as Pittsburgh has swept the Blue Jackets through the first three meetings this year – even if a couple of those games were won by the skin of its teeth beak.

Similar to the potential playoff series between these clubs, Games 1 and 2 both took place in the Steel City before transitioning west for the second half of the series. They first met on December 21, playing to a 3-2 shootout victory (F Evgeni Malkin earned First Star honors for his regulation and shootout goals). The Jackets were back in Pittsburgh only six days later, but they once again fell in a shootout – this time by a 5-4 final score (Malkin stole headlines again with three points and another shootout goal).

Most recently, the Penguins made the trip to Nationwide Arena on February 18, claiming a dominant 5-2 victory on the back of C Riley Sheahan‘s two-goal effort.

It feels weird to say, but with every offense in the NHL chasing Columbus’ lately, the Penguins’ attack might have to work to keep up in this tilt should Murray be unable to keep the Jackets’ top line under control. Since I have to make a pick, I think the Blue Jackets earn two points tonight.


With their 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild at Honda Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Anaheim Ducks have clinched a spot in the playoffs for the sixth-consecutive season.

All credit goes to the goaltenders for keeping the first frame a scoreless affair. Even though First Star of the Game G Ryan Miller faced 13 Wild shots and G Devan Dubnyk faced 11 Anaheim offerings, both nets remained empty.

Thanks to C Ryan Getzlaf tripping F Mikael Granlund 5:16 into the second period, that scoreless draw ended at the 6:08 mark courtesy of D Mathew Dumba (D Jonas Brodin and W Jason Zucker) burying a power play slap shot. Minnesota’s one-goal advantage lasted 6:47 before LW Nick Ritchie (D Francois Beauchemin and Third Star D Josh Manson) leveled the game with a snap shot.

Another pair of goals were registered in the third period, but much to the disappointment of Minnesotans everywhere, they both belonged to the Ducks. Second Star W Ondrej Kase (Manson and C Adam Henrique) takes credit for the first, as he tapped home a shot with 3:56 remaining in regulation to score what proved to be the game-winning goal.

Not every goal is a pretty one, but Kase isn’t complaining with his 20th tally of the season – not a bad mark for an NHL sophomore playing on a third line. Manson fired an initial clapper from the point, but Dubnyk was able to make a miraculous save considering all the bodies he had to track the puck through (I counted at least two, but would accept arguments as high as five). However, pads aren’t very good at preventing saves from becoming juicy rebounds, which is exactly what led to Kase completing the play with a tip-in.

Now facing a deficit with little time remaining on the clock, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau was forced to pull Dubnyk for the extra attacker. That left the Wild’s net wide open, allowing F Andrew Cogliano (W Jakob Silfverberg and Beauchemin) to score his 11th goal of the season to set the 3-1 final score with 2:13 remaining.

Miller earned the victory after saving 26-of-27 shots faced (.963 save percentage), leaving the loss to Dubnyk, who saved 27-of-29 (.931).

Anaheim’s win is the third in a row for home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The series’ hosts now have an imposing 101-54-21 record that is 50 points better than the visitors’.

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.

Weekly Bumblings for Week 9 With Special Guest Host, Cap’n Cornelius

Peter’s vacation continues, so you are stuck with me once more for the recap of last week’s NHL action.

Player of the Week: Artemi Panarin

You didn’t really think I’d get through two straight columns without talking about the Blue Jackets, did you? The Breadman had been having a solid if unspectacular year as the calendar turned to December.  Despite his talent (or because of it), it had taken some time for the Jackets to find line mates that paired well with the Russian winger.  The initial thought was to put him with Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson.  On paper, that line made all of the sense in the world—two high scoring wingers paired with a player who showed his acumen for setting the table last season.  On the ice was a different story.  While Atkinson and Panarin clicked at points, Wennberg was too conservative, often playing in no man’s land beyond the offensive zone face-off circles.

This lead to weeks of John Tortorella running the blender to try and find lines that worked. In the meantime, Wennberg’s injury also forced Tortorella to get more creative at center, a position the Jackets had been looking to upgrade during the offseason.  Enter rookie, Pierre-Luc Dubois.  While the Jackets wanted Dubois to be their center of the future, the team had been hesitant to play him at the position, preferring to try and ease him in.  But Torts took the advice of Dubois’ father who had found that when he was struggling with his game, he actually improved when forced into the rigors of playing center.  After a bit of a cold spell for Dubois, Tortorella decided to give it a try and Dubois slowly moved his way up the lineup, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by Wennberg’s absence, and finding himself on the top line with Panarin and Josh Anderson.  If the Jackets make noise in the postseason, the decision to unite the three unlikely line mates may be looked back as the moment that set the table for their success.

So, in recent weeks, the line which has affectionately become known as PB&J (Pierre, Breadman and Josh) has started to click, but Panarin had yet to really have a performance where he went off. That changed on Friday night in New Jersey.  After a poor performance in Columbus on Tuesday against the Devils (notwithstanding excellent possession performances from the PB&J line), the Jackets’ backs were to the wall.  They really needed the win against their divisional opponent given how tight the race is in the Metropolitan.  The game didn’t start well for the Jackets with the team entering intermission down 2-0 and likely facing an unhappy LukasTortorella in the locker room.  But the tide would turn in the second period largely due to the efforts of Panarin.

Panarin caused a turnover which found its way to Dubois’ stick for his first assist of the night. Another turnover created by Panarin lead to a goal by Lukas Sedlak in the middle of a line change to even up the score.  Panarin’s third assist of the night may have been the most impressive.  As four Devils watched Panarin, he saw the trailer, Scott Harrington, and made a perfect cross ice pass to get Harrington the goal.  After the Devils tied it before the second period ended, the Jackets got a rare power play goal when Panarin made a backhanded pass to Wennberg who, in a rarer aggressive play, went to the net and buried the puck.  Panarin would add a fifth first assist of the night when he found an open Zach Werenski for the fifth and final goal of the night. And that summary of the game doesn’t even fully encapsulate how well Panarin played.  He was consistently finding his way through traffic and the puck seemed to be magnetically attracted to the tape on his stick blade.

While Saturday’s game was not nearly as exciting, Panarin still managed a Corsi For percentage of 58%. The Jackets would strike early as Panarin found Anderson behind the net and he would bury it top shelf.  When you have Sergei Bobrovsky in net, sometimes one goal is enough, and it would prove to be the case.  Panarin now has 6 straight primary assists for Columbus, but when you look back at Panarin’s performance this week, the thing that stands out that is underrated about him and is the big difference from Brandon Saad, is his play away from the puck.  His work in creating two turnovers that set up those first two goals against New Jersey during a crucial time in the game on Friday prevented the game from getting out of control and righted the ship for a team that had a couple poor performances against divisional opponents before that game.

Game of the Week: Winnipeg Jets 3 at Tampa Bay Lightning 4 (OT), December 9, 2017.

We’ve covered this game extensively this week, and with good reason. One of the top teams in the Western, versus one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. A classic matchup between the immovable object and the unstoppable force.  Even with the Jets coming off of two losses entering the game, you knew they would play up for this one.  Yes, I’m talking about Winnipeg for the second time in my two weeks doing this column and no it isn’t because there is a social media account that retweets anything you tweet featuring the word Winnipeg, positive or negative (yes, that really was a thing).

The game got off to a quick start as you’d expect from two offensive powerhouses. Adam Lowry showed some great patience with two Lightning players defending him to find Andrew Copp in the slot for the first goal of the game.  The Lightning continued their streak of nine straight games with a power play goal (that’s possible, eh?) when Brayden Point made a beautiful feed to give Yanni Gourde a goal that Connor Hellebuyck had no hope to stop.

A Cedric Paquette goal was overturned for goaltender interference by Chris Kunitz, so the score would stay 1-1, but Mikhail Sergachev would finally put the Lightning ahead with a beautiful shot after losing his defender with a quick change of directions. The Jets would not go away though.  Former Youngstown Phantom, Kyle Connor, would redirect a rising shot from Josh Morrissey to even the game at 2 and that is how the second period would end.

Winnipeg retook the lead near the midway point of the third period when Nikolaj Ehlers somehow found Andrei Vasilevskiy’s five hole before the goaltender could even react to the shot.  After Vasilevskiy would stop another attempt by Ehlers, Nikita Kucherov’s shot through traffic somehow found the net and the score was again tied at three.  Note—the sequence I just described happened in all of about 2 minutes of game time.  Both teams then settled down and got the game to overtime to salt away a point for their troubles.

Overtime wouldn’t last long though as Point would elude Bryan Little and get his backhand over Hellebuyck.

The Lightning continue to be in a class by themselves in the early part of the season, but the Jets gave it their all.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

A busy week in NHL and other hockey news. On Tuesday the news came down that Russia would be banned from the Winter Olympics as punishment for their concerted efforts to violate anti-doping rules during the Sochi games in 2014.  Clean Russian athletes will still be permitted to play at the games, but not under the Russian flag.  If they are looking for a team name, I suggest “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Russia, Steroid Free!”  There was concern that the KHL might prevent its players from playing in the Olympics, which would have thrown a monkey wrench in Team Canada’s plans for the games.  However, cooler heads prevailed as the KHL probably realized there was value to having its athletes compete on the world’s highest international stage…unlike the NHL.

Backing up slightly, last Monday the City of Seattle approved the memorandum of understanding with the Oak View Group to remodel the ancient KeyArena at a cost of around $600 million (most of it comes from private funds) so that it could be suitable to host one or more professional sports franchises. This will likely be the death knell for a competing project which would have seen a new arena built closer where the existing stadiums are, in SoDo.  The NHL owners, who conveniently had a Board of Governor’s meeting, couldn’t wait to let Seattle know that they would be willing to take their money consider their application for expansion.  Fee for expansion?  $650 million, exceeding the $500 million that Vegas just paid.  I think Seattle is a great market for hockey in an underserved part of the country, but I also think the economics of a team with startup costs of over one billion dollars are a bit shaky.  For comparison, the Blue Jackets paid a franchise fee of $80 million and built an arena at a cost of $175 million…and still eventually needed a bailout from local government.  From the league’s side, it is understandable why they prefer Seattle to, say, Quebec City, because of the geographic balance adding the market will create.

Finally, let’s take a moment to remember 11 years ago when Anson Carter and his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates released a Christmas album. Amazingly I see no trace of this masterpiece on YouTube, so, if you are looking for a Christmas gift for me, there you go.

Jackets and Oilers Are Perfect Trade Partners

There have been a lot of rumors swirling in recent weeks about the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Edmonton Oilers. Jackets GM, Jarmo Kekalainen, was recently at the Oilers-Devils game.  Oilers GM, Peter Chiarelli, was at the Jackets-Sabres game on Monday.  Darren Dreger went on TSN 1050 in Toronto yesterday and had this to say:

“But things have changed a little bit. So let’s go back to the draft in Chicago. I know Columbus was willing to consider a top pick for Ryan Murray. Now they want player-for-player, and they’re in the market for a center. Is it Ryan Nugent-Hopkins out of Edmonton. Who might it be. Right now Nuge is playing great hockey for the Oilers, so I don’t think they’re interested in parting with him. But my sense is the asking price – if it’s Ryan Murray, or for most defenseman that the Oilers have some interest in – is still too high.”

Last night, the Oilers got absolutely hammered in St. Louis, losing to the Blues by a final score of 8-3. It is the second time in the last week they have lost to St. Louis, having lost 4-1 on November 16.  In between, they managed another blowout loss to Dallas, 6-3.  While Cam Talbot isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with a 5-on-5 save percentage of 91.2 percent, he’s also faced more shots against 5-on-5 than all but two other goalies—Frederik Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy – not to mention facing the fifth-most high-danger chances against in the league.

No doubt, Edmonton is currently having some bad luck. The luck stat, PDO, has them third from the bottom with 96.67 percent combined shooting and save percentage.  Their shooting percentage is particularly noteworthy because they are shooting an abysmal 5.8 percent.  This is particularly interesting given that their expected goals for is top-five in the league.  This means they are not just getting shots, they are getting quality shots and for whatever reason they are not going in to this point.

So, what we know about the Oilers is that they are doing a good job in the offensive zone though they have been unlucky, and they are letting opponents get too many shots on net, which may be asking too much of Cam Talbot. If they were going to try and salvage this season, the fix has to be on defense.  Darnell Nurse has finally started to look like the player that people hoped he could be.  Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson have struggled a bit.  But the biggest problem is still Kris Russell.  It should be no surprise that Russell is their worst defenseman when you look at Corsi For Percentage as that has been a problem for Russell for a long time.

Meanwhile, Columbus’ struggles have been finding a center who can play with Artemi Panarin. An early experiment with Alex Wennberg failed when Wennberg became too passive.  There was no chemistry with team captain, Nick Foligno, who only converted to a center out of necessity.  While Pierre-Luc Dubois has shown some promise in recent games on a line with Panarin and Josh Anderson, the Jackets may not want to rush Dubois and may want insurance in case he hits the dreaded “wall” later in the season.  This is a team that is near the top of its division, a division that includes the Stanley Cup champs, despite not playing its best hockey and it is clear that management feels with an addition that the team can contend for a Cup this season.

Meanwhile, the Jackets top defensive pair of Zach Werenski and Seth Jones has been out of this world. With John Tortorella loosening the reigns and allowing Jones and Werenski to “rove” in the offensive zone, the dynamic duo has already accounted for 7 goals. You shouldn’t be shocked to learn that their possession stats are also quite good. What has been a surprise, has been the play of young Markus Nutivaara.  In just his second season, the 2015 seventh round pick of the Jackets has suddenly contributed offensively the way that Tortorella had hoped that he would, putting up 7 points and solid possession numbers.

On the other hand, David Savard and Jack Johnson have struggled and it isn’t the much maligned Johnson who has struggled the most, it has been Savard. Tortorella finally had seen enough and scratched Savard last week against the Rangers.  Savard was back in against Buffalo on Monday and both he and Johnson were significantly better.  If that pair can get back to playing at the level they did last season, the Jackets have a better shot of making it deep into the playoffs.  Don’t listen to rumors from out-of-town reporters that throw around Savard’s name.  It seems highly unlikely a team weak in depth on the right side is going to give up on Savard just because of some early-season woes.

The one regular defenseman I haven’t yet mentioned is Ryan Murray, who has spent the season paired with Nutivaara. As has been the case for most of Murray’s career, his role on that pair has been to be the “responsible defenseman” freeing up Nutivaara to roam in the offensive zone. He’s quietly excelled in this unheralded role, managing a positive Relative Corsi, but, more interestingly, the highest expected goals for percentage of any Blue Jackets defenseman.

The Jackets are blessed to have a seventh defenseman who is ready to take on a regular role. Gabriel Carlsson played for the Jackets during their playoff series against the Penguins and showed some promise playing a similar role to what Murray is currently playing.  And, while he still needs some work, Carlsson’s possession numbers aren’t bad in the limited minutes he’s been given.  The problem is that Carlsson won’t crack the lineup as long as the other six defenseman are on the roster and the AHL isn’t going to give Carlsson the development he needs at this stage, though it is a fine temporary solution to get him playing time.

Additionally, both Johnson and Murray will be free agents in the off-season. Murray is still a restricted free agent, but after taking a bridge deal on his last contract, he’ll be looking to get some real money this summer.  Meanwhile, the Jackets have another prospect in Vladislav Gavrikov who will be in Russia through the end of his current contract in the summer of 2019, but will then likely be looking to make the jump to the NHL.  With the Jackets re-signing Cam Atkinson and looking ahead to extending Werenski and potentially Sergei Bobrovsky in the summer of 2019, they may not be able to commit to Murray long-term.

Enter the Oilers and frequent trade rumor candidate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Nugent-Hopkins is having a great season from a production standpoint, despite finding his line mates changing with some frequency.  He’s on a pace to have his best season to date with 17 points including 8 goals through 21 games.  That’s roughly a 30-goal pace and nearly 70 points. On the flip side, his possession stats are not particularly stellar.  He has a negative Relative Corsi For Percentage and Relative Expected Goals For Percentage.  I do have to wonder how much of that is based on the line mates he is playing with to this point in the season.  He’s spent the most time out there with Milan Lucic (who has lost a step) and Ryan Strome.  At times they have had him out there with Lucic and Zack Kassian.  All of those players are negative possession players.  Kassian has only 3 points, all assists, to this point in the season.

With Leon Draisaitl counting $8.5 million against the cap and Connor McDavid’s new deal with a $12.5 million annual cap hit kicking in next year, it has been clear for a while that Nugent-Hopkins was the odd man out. Paying $6 million for your third line center or playing an $8.5 million center as a wing is not exactly the best use of resources when McDavid is already getting $12.5 million against the cap.  Using Nugent-Hopkins to land a defenseman to round out the top 4 and send Kris Russell down to anchor the bottom pair would be a wise move for the Oilers, but one they need to pull off sooner than later if they have any hope of making the playoffs this spring.  While I think there is a good argument that the deal should be one-for-one given Nugent-Hopkins’ $6 million cap hit, I think it is likely the Oilers want something more and that may be the hardest part for the Jackets.  I’d keep Sonny Milano or Boone Jenner in mind as a possible second piece in a deal.  Milano might fit the Oilers’ game plan better than he fits with Torts’ system.  Jenner is another possible cap casualty for the Jackets who is going to be coming off his bridge deal this summer.

While a deal makes sense for both sides and both sides seem to be investigating the possibility, that doesn’t mean it gets done. The Jackets hold the cards here in the respect that they are near the top of the standings and don’t need to make a move right now, particularly as long as Dubois and Panarin are playing well together.  If this deal doesn’t happen, there will be other options for the Jackets.  I’ll look at some of those options in my next column, barring a trade in the meantime.

October 7 – Day Four – Here comes the Bread Man

One of my favorite days of the hockey calendar is finally upon us: Opening Saturday.

What could possibly be so awesome about this day, you ask? Take a look at today’s schedule. With the exception of the Boston Bruins, every single club is in action today.

The festivities start at 2 p.m. when Colorado visits New Jersey (SN), but the real meat of the day starts at 7 p.m. when seven fixtures (the New York Rangers at Toronto [CBC], Detroit at Ottawa [SN1], Tampa Bay at Florida, Buffalo at the New York Islanders, Nashville at Pittsburgh [NHLN], Montréal at Washington [CITY/TVAS] and Minnesota at Carolina) drop the puck. Dallas at St. Louis joins the mix at 8 p.m., trailed 30 minutes later by Columbus at Chicago and Vegas at Arizona at 9 p.m. A trio of games (Edmonton at Vancouver [CBC], Philadelphia at Anaheim and Winnipeg at Calgary [CITY/SN1]) get the West Coast involved at 10 p.m., followed half an hour later by tonight’s nightcap: Los Angeles at San Jose. All times Eastern.

There’s a compelling reason to watch almost every game. Here are just a few I thought of…

  • New York at Toronto: It’s an Original Six matchup. Do I really need to say more?
  • Tampa Bay at Florida: If you like intrastate rivalries, this is the game for you.
  • Nashville at Pittsburgh: Oh, you know, just a Stanley Cup Finals rematch. No biggie.
  • Montréal at Washington: It’s homecoming for D Karl Alzner!
  • Dallas at St. Louis: Head Coach Ken Hitchcock spent the last six seasons with the Blues. Now, he’s back with his ex in Dallas.
  • Columbus at Chicago: After being traded from the Hawks this offseason, LW Artemi Panarin is so amped for this game.
  • Winnipeg at Calgary: It’s old-timey rivalry night in Alberta.
  • Los Angeles at San Jose: If you like intrastate rivalries that actually matter, this is the game for you.

Like I said, there’s a compelling reason to watch almost every game.

However, this is the “Game of the Day” series, not the “Games of the Day.” I already broke that rule on Opening Day, so I can’t do it again today.

With that in mind, I’m leaning towards making our first visit of the year to the Windy City.

 

That Stanley Cup rematch was tempting, but we’ll let both squads find their form before they tangle in The Music City a month from now.

Of course, no matter how much I sell this game on the superior action between the two squads, there’s two players in particular that will garner all the attention: Columbus’ Panarin and Chicago’s W Brandon Saad.

Saad, originally drafted 43rd-overall by the Blackhawks in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is now in his second stint with the team after being traded from Columbus for Panarin, an undrafted Russian that looks like he can solidify the Jackets’ position near the top of the Eastern Conference for the next 10 years – at least.

Both players played vital roles for their now-former teams last season. The Bread Man registered a lowly 31-43-74 effort in 2016-’17 after posting 30-47-77 numbers during his rookie campaign, while Saad managed 24-29-53 totals last season in Columbus.

Based on those numbers alone and considering Saad has never posted more than 53 points in a season in his five full NHL seasons, it’s safe to say that the Blue Jackets won this trade on ice. But, in a league ruled by a salary cap, one of the most important numbers has a dollar sign associated with it. Both players will earn $6 million for every year they’re under contract, but Saad’s four-year deal is two seasons longer than Panarin’s.

Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks’ general manager, is fully aware that Panarin is the superior left wing of the two, but he also knows that because of that very fact, the Russian’s salary is going to skyrocket the day he has the opportunity to test free agency. That’s why he opted to go the more fiscally-responsible option in Saad, an option with which he’s won two Stanley Cups.

All that being said, I still think Columbus won this trade. We’ll have a final answer when we see how much bread Panarin is bringing home in 2019-’20.

If you can manage to take your eyes off those two players, you should witness quite a game between two solid teams. The Blue Jackets shut out the Islanders 5-0 yesterday at Nationwide Arena with goals from LW Sonny Milano, RW Cam Atkinson, D Ryan Murray, D Zach Werenski and F Pierre-Luc Dubois – not to mention a perfect performance by G Sergei Bobrovsky on 29 shots faced.

Of course, even that incredible effort pales in comparison to the Hawks’ annihilation of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins Thursday. Led by a hat trick from – who would’ve guessed – Saad in his first game back in a red sweater, Chicago exploded to a statement 10-1 victory.

Both clubs enter this game with high confidence and higher aspirations for their seasons. In fact, if we break out the standings tiebreakers, these are the top teams in their respective conferences. I expect a highly competitive game, but am leaning towards Chicago winning due to the Jackets playing last night and having to travel.


The Vegas Golden Knights saw the numbers about franchises making their regular season debuts and told statisticians to shove ’em, as they beat the Dallas Stars 2-1 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day series.

Who woulda thunk it?

In fact, it wasn’t simply a win by an expansion team, but a come-from-behind victory. With 2:59 remaining in the second period, F Tyler Seguin (F Devin Shore and D John Klingberg) tipped-in a power play to give the Stars the advantage with only 22:59 of action remaining.

Then Third Star of the Game W James Neal happened. Assisted by D Nate Schmidt and D Luca Sbisa, he scored his first goal with 9:33 remaining in regulation to level the game at one goal apiece.

But he wasn’t done. Neal followed up that marker with what proved to be the game-winning goal with 2:44 remaining in regulation. Assisted by former Star C Cody Eakin and D Jason Garrison, Neal dropped to both knees in the slot to elevate his wrist shot to the far post over G Kari Lehtonen, securing the Knights’ first-ever victory.

First Star G Marc-Andre Fleury earned his first victory in a non-Penguins sweater by saving 45-of-46 shots faced (.978 save percentage), leaving the loss to Lehtonen who saved nine-of-11 (.818). Lehtonen replaced starter G Ben Bishop four minutes into the third period after being cut by a shot from W Reilly Smith, forcing him to be pulled and receive medical attention. Bishop had saved all 19 shots he faced before leaving the game.

Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are off to an impressive start, as they have a three-point advantage on hosts with their 3-1-0 record.