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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.

Avs score three in first period, take Game 3

 

The old saying goes that a team is never behind in a playoff series until it loses a home match. With that in mind, the Colorado Avalanche beat the Nashville Predators 5-3 to win Game 3 and pull within a victory of leveling their First Round series.

The good news for the Predators is that G Juuse Saros saved all 18 shots he faced in his 33:34 of action.

The bad news is, of course, that he didn’t start the game.

Instead, that honor was bestowed upon G Pekka Rinne, who saved only 11-of-15 (.733 save percentage) before being lifted at the 4:25 mark of the second period.

Going back to the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals, this was the third-consecutive road playoff game that saw Rinne get chased from the crease, not to mention his fourth-consecutive road playoff loss.

The Avs have made a living in this series pouncing on Rinne early, and that trend was only magnified with the luxury of home ice when they buried three markers before the first intermission.

Just like in Games 1 and 2, the Avs scored the first goal when Third Star of the Game W Blake Comeau (F Carl Soderberg and W Matthew Nieto) buried a tip-in only 1:50 into play – Colorado’s first shot on net in the contest. That advantage doubled to two goals with 6:36 remaining in the frame when W Gabriel Bourque (D Patrik Nemeth and F J.T. Compher) scored another tip-in from a similar position as Comeau’s tally: right in front of Rinne’s crease.

Not to be outdone by his own bottom-six, First Star F Nathan MacKinnon made sure to get on the scoreboard 4:43 after Bourque’s marker by scoring a wrist shot with a breakaway-springing assist from Second Star LW Gabriel Landeskog.

MacKinnon’s next act not only proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Rinne, but it also ended up as the game-winning goal by the time the Predators’ comeback attempt was said and done.

4:22 into the second period, RW Mikko Rantanen did his best Serge Savard spin-o-rama impression to fire a centering pass from along the goal line. However, Landeskog was not able to corral the pass and the puck trickled towards the high slot. C Kyle Turris had an opportunity to take possession of the loose puck, but it bounced over his stick to MacKinnon, who was sure to pocket his wrister over Rinne’s right shoulder.

Now with a comfortable 4-0 advantage, Colorado made it its job to weather whatever resurgence Nashville was going to assuredly muster up. Unfortunately, that plan didn’t work to perfection when Nemeth and D Nikita Zadorov were both sent to the penalty box at the 9:27 mark of the second frame for respective cross checking and hooking penalties.

Handed a full two minutes of five-on-three play, the Preds did exactly what any good squad would do and took advantage of that opportunity. Nashville finally got on the scoreboard with 9:37 remaining in the second period to pull within a 4-1 deficit courtesy of a F Ryan Johansen (F Filip Forsberg and D Ryan Ellis) wrister.

While Nemeth was serving up the remainder of his penalty, G Jonathan Bernier decided it would be really neat to make a save with his neck. Ellis’ shot rode up on him and would have sneaked by had the netminder not squeezed the puck between his head and shoulder pads. As would be expected, Bernier took a second to recover from the play, but he stayed in the game.

Even though no more scoring occurred in the second frame after Johansen’s marker, Pepsi Center’s scoreboard operator still had much to do. Four more penalties occurred before the second intermission. Three of those infractions were against the Predators, including negating holding penalties between MacKinnon and D P.K. Subban. What doesn’t make the scorecard is why MacKinnon was holding Subban in the first place, as the Nova Scotian was on the receiving end of a questionable elbow. These teams are growing increasingly displeased with each other, and that is made even more apparent when the heavily-favored Predators struggle to get past Bernier and the Avs.

The closest Nashville got to a third period comeback occurred at the 7:12 mark when F Colton Sissons (D Roman Josi and Ellis) buried a wrister, but the Predators couldn’t make anything more out of that positive energy. That forced Head Coach Peter Laviolette to pull Saros for an extra attacker, allowing Landeskog (Rantanen and D Mark Barberio) to score an empty-netter with 1:36 remaining in regulation.

F Austin Watson did score a wrister 21 seconds later that was challenged for goaltender interference, but Toronto ruled it to be a good goal. Of course, it didn’t ultimately matter, as the Predators were unable to score two goals to level the game.

The Avalanche’s comeback is far from done, however. Game 4 is still an important match in this playoff series, as the Predators could go home with either a 2-2 tie or needing only one more win to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals. Game 4 is scheduled for 10 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, April 18 at Pepsi Center. Fans can catch the game on NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

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.

January 12 – Day 97 – Gagner is “to win” in French, so…

There’s one more day until the first wave of byes end! Get ready for an explosion of games tomorrow!

However, that still means today’s list of matchups is rather short. Only five pucks are going to be dropped this evening, starting with two at 7 p.m. (Vancouver at Columbus and Calgary at Florida) and Washington at Carolina half an hour later. Next up is Winnipeg at Chicago at 8:30 p.m., followed by Edmonton at Arizona acting as tonight’s nightcap. All times Eastern.

Teams on the bye: Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, Colorado, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Montréal, Nashville, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Jose, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Toronto and Vegas.

You’ll notice none of these games are being broadcast nationally in either Canada or the USA, which is a real bummer. Hopefully you live in one of these 10 markets.

As for which tilt we’ll feature here, my list of two candidates was trimmed to one by the still ongoing saga between RW Jaromir Jagr and the Calgary Flames, who was scheduled to make his return to Sunrise today. Since we featured the Canes and Caps yesterday (you can just use that preview for today’s contest), let’s take in F Sam Gagner‘s return to Ohio.

 

Life is not always easy for a first-round pick.

Just ask Gagner, who was the sixth-overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft – you know, the same draft with LW Jamie Benn, F Patrick Kane, LW Max Pacioretty, D Kevin Shattenkirk, W Wayne Simmonds, D P.K. Subban, RW Jakub Voracek… the list goes on to include a total of 93 skaters and four goaltenders that have seen time in the NHL.

It was a good draft class with some exceptional talent, but not a great one – look to 2003 for a better example of a draft with more depth.

By simply arranging the draft class by points they’ve scored so far in their careers, Edmonton picking him sixth is right on the money. He’s posted 149-272-421 totals over the course of his 11 seasons in the league, which puts him behind Kane (797 points), Benn (556), Voracek (539), Pacioretty (434) and Simmonds (424).

However, how is it Gagner, who provides .57 points-per-game, is one of the three players listed above that is no longer with the club that drafted him?

The obvious answer is just to say “Oilers” and move on, but Gagner’s story did not immediately end up in Columbus.

Gagner signed a three-year extension with the Oil before the 2013-’14 season, but he played only one year of that deal before being shipped to Tampa Bay for RW Teddy Purcell. The Bolts apparently never wanted him, because he was shipped off only an hour later to Arizona for a sixth-round pick.

Year two of that three-year deal was spent with the Coyotes as a right wing – not his usual center position. The results of that experiment in 2014-’15 were fairly poor given his 15-26-41 totals playing off the puck, but General Manager Don Maloney insisted Gagner could not play his natural position in the NHL and decided to trade him to Philadelphia that offseason for D Nicklas Grossmann and D Chris Pronger – who, by the way, hadn’t seen the ice since the 2011-’12 season even though his contract expired this most recent offseason.

For those counting at home, Arizona received 58 games played in the 2015-’16 season out of that trade.

Oh yeah, and Maloney was fired after that year. There’s also that.

And so, Gagner completed a hat trick of teams in as many seasons all on the same contract. It was a miserable campaign in Philly that saw him register only 16 points in 53 games (he spent time in the AHL that season as well), and he was allowed to test free agency.

No one wanted Gagner. Nobody. Free agents can begin signing contracts on July 1, but he didn’t earn a spot on a team until August 1. The former first-rounder signed a one-year, $650 thousand contract with Columbus, making $225 thousand fewer than he did during his first three seasons in the league.

The Jackets had nothing to lose in this situation and everything to gain. They had missed the 2016 playoffs entirely, falling all the way to last in the Metropolitan Division and 15th in the Eastern Conference a year after missing the postseason by only nine points. If Gagner failed to produce, the Jackets could easily waive him and he’d almost assuredly end up in Cleveland with their AHL affiliate.

To put things plainly, Columbus General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen looked like a genius after this deal. The Blue Jackets enjoyed their greatest season of all-time by reaching the 100-point plateau for the first time in franchise history, and Gagner was one of the biggest players. He posted fifth-best 18-32-50 totals, setting a career-high in points and tying his career-best in goals.

However, the money just wasn’t there for the Jackets to keep Gagner around for this season. For the second offseason in a row, he was a free agent. But this time, Gagner was one of the first players signed. He was brought into the Vancouver fold on a three-year, $3.15 million deal, and is currently centering the Canucks’ top line.

Unfortunately, Gagner hasn’t been able to bring along the Jackets’ spark to the 16-21-6 Canucks, who currently occupy second-to-last in both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference. Short of his stint with the Flyers, he’s having the worst season of his career, posting only 7-12-19 totals through 43 games played (.44 points per game).

Of course, it’s hard to say that Gagner is having a bad year on his own accord. His 19 points are enough to place him sixth on the team, and rookie sensation RW Brock Boeser is the only player on the squad with more than 30 points to his credit.

Vancouver is experiencing an especially rough patch in its season right now, as it is in the midst of a seven-game road trip (tonight is Game 4) while also suffering a five-game losing skid that has seen it earn only one point.

As you might expect from a team where 19 points is good enough for sixth-most on the squad, offense is a major issue for the Canucks. During this five-game losing skid, they’ve managed only eight goals, meaning they’re averaging a third-worst 1.6 goals per game since December 30.

What makes things even more frustrating is that the little offense the Canucks are getting is coming from only two players: the legends themselves, LW Daniel Sedin and C Henrik Sedin. D. Sedin has been extremely impressive over his last three games, as he’s managed 2-2-4 totals for a three-game point streak, and H. Sedin has thrown in three assists in that span as well.

Meanwhile, this hasn’t been the best of runs for 25-17-3 Columbus either. The Jackets have earned only a 3-4-1 record over their past eight games, and they now trail Washington, which has a game in hand, by four points for the Metropolitan Division lead.

It’s not very often that I’m disappointed with Columbus’ overall defensive effort, but for the second time in a row of me featuring the Jackets, that’s where I’m having concerns.

Over their past eight games, the Blue Jackets have allowed 24 goals. Those astute at math notice that is an average of three goals per game (well over the 2.69 Columbus has averaged all season), which ties Chicago for 12th-worst since December 27.

One of, if not the biggest issue over this run has been the penalty kill. Over its past eight games, Columbus has successfully defended only two-thirds of its 18 shorthanded situations, making the Jackets the fifth-worst kill over the past 16 days.

G Sergei Bobrovsky has posted only an .844 save percentage against the power play since December 27 (the 22nd-worst among the 61 netminders to face a power play situation in that time), but he’s also had to face a fifth-most 32 power play shots.

With D David Savard being the only Blue Jacket with more than three shorthanded blocked shots and a total of only four total takeaways in that situation, Columbus needs to find a way to get its penalty kill under control in a hurry.

Bobrovsky played yesterday to a 3-1 loss in Buffalo, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see 4-4-0 G Joonas Korpisalo draw tonight’s start. That being said, I’ve made that prediction once already this week and it didn’t pan out, so we’ll see what Head Coach John Tortorella decides to do.

With the Canucks sporting a 20.7 power play conversion rate that is 12th-best on the season, this may not be the easiest of home games for Columbus. Throw in the fact that Korpisalo, who hasn’t faced an NHL shot since December 31, could be in net tonight, and Vancouver has a very real shot at earning two points this evening.


With a 3-1 victory over the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day, the Carolina Hurricanes have moved into the Eastern Conference’s second wild card.

This was a game full of solid defense and counterattacking by the Canes. Even though they out-shot the Capitals 33-28 for the night, it felt like Washington was earning much stronger possessions and longer time in the offensive zone.

That was no more apparent than in Carolina’s first goal of the night. With F Josh Jooris in the penalty box for holding D Madison Bowey, the Caps were on the power play. However, when D John Carlson attempted to reset the play to W Alex Ovechkin at the blue line, C Jordan Staal intercepted the pass to set himself up for a one-on-one duel with G Braden Holtby. Staal won that battle, squeezing a backhanded shot between the netminder’s legs for his second shorthanded tally of the season, the most he’s scored in one campaign as a Hurricane.

Carolina took the lead with 8:27 remaining in the second period, but that advantage wouldn’t last for long. Third Star of the Game C Lars Eller (F T.J. Oshie and D Christian Djoos) was able to level the game 4:32 later with a slap shot from above the face-off circles. The one-all score held into the second intermission.

What other line to score the game-winning goal than RW Justin Williams‘? The former Capital didn’t earn a point on the play, but his protégé Second Star C Victor Rask did with his unassisted wrist shot with 9:06 remaining in regulation.

Because the Caps were facing a delayed penalty, it was a six-on-five situation for the Canes. D Justin Faulk fired an initial wrist shot from above the face-off circles that Holtby was able to deflect, but neither he nor any other skater clad in red could take possession of the loose puck. That’s what allowed Rask to one-time a wrister from the left face-off circle, beating Holtby short side.

Washington tried valiantly to find another leveling goal up its sleeve, but Head Coach Barry Trotz was eventually forced to pull Holtby as regulation was beginning to come to an end. That’s what allowed W Sebastian Aho (F Elias Lindholm) to bury a wrister with 89 seconds remaining in regulation to set the score at the 3-1 final.

While the Canes executed their game plan to a T, the player most deserving of praise was First Star G Scott Darling. Having lost his last two starts, he won this one by stopping 27-of-28 shots faced (.964 save percentage). Holtby took the loss, saving 30-of-32 (.938).

That’s the second-consecutive win by a road team in the DtFR Game of the Day series. The 54-31-12 home teams still hold the advantage in the series, but the visitors have now pulled within 22 points.

Merkle’s Weekly Bumblings: Weeks 12 & 13

With New Years and the GLI preventing me from posting last week (and being out of town this weekend pushing this yet another day back) I’ll be combining the past two weeks of action, because I make the rules here and you all just have to deal with it. So there.

Skater of the Week(s): Mikko Rantanen

Though the big Finn was overshadowed slightly by teammate Nathan MacKinnon by two points over this stretch, Rantanen’s 10 points in six games are still nothing to scoff at. An even split of five goals (one on the power play) and five assists (also one power play tally) to go with a ridiculous +9 rating over the six games put the 21-year old at 41 points in 41 games and dug him out of a -8 +/- hole to put him at a +1 on the season.

If Rantanen can continue producing at a point-a-game rate to go along with the incredible numbers MacKinnon is putting up, he may well lead the Avs (and my fantasy team) right into the playoffs.

Tendy of the Week(s): Tuukka Rask

(Special mentions to Jimmy Howard, Connor Hellebuyck, Jonathan Bernier and Ben Bishop, who all posted one more win than Rask over this span and all had terrific numbers of their own, as well.)

The Bruins are scorching hot right now and Rask is a huge part of that. The man with two Us and two Ks truly was too good over these past two weeks, posting wins in all three of his starts with a scarcely believable .974 save percentage and 0.67 GAA to his credit, along with a shutout (duh) for good measure.

Boston is never going to run down Tampa for the division’s top spot without some sort of extinction-level event befalling the Lightning, but with three games in hand over third place Toronto and the Grand Canyon between them and fourth place, the Bs look to be fairly comfortable in their push towards the playoffs. If Rask carries this play into the postseason, everyone should be scared.

Game of the Week(s): Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…………

Okay, so, admittedly I did not watch a lot of hockey over the past 14 or so days. I can tell you that Michigan vs Michigan State in the consolation game of the GLI was a lot of fun, and the Winter Classic looked like it was a barnburner. Also the Jackets and Panthers went eight rounds into the shootout Sunday night, a game that I was originally supposed to attend (you’re welcome, friend who I gave the tickets to), and all five goals scored were gross.

But if I’m being honest, I simply haven’t watched enough to make a solid pick this time around. So, tell you what, the game of the week is whatever you want it to be! Yeah, how about that? That’s me giving back to you, the reader.

News, Notes, & Nonsense:

David Savard was fined $5,000 for Paul Bunyon-ing Vincent Trocheck, a move that Cap’n Cornelius would probably deem the most solid defensive play he’s seen out of Savard all season.

Dan Girardi blocked a Martin Frk shot with his head, which is definitely not recommended, but luckily had all concussion tests come back negative and is only listed as day-to-day. In Girardi’s defense, at least half of the time Frk lets a shot go, even he doesn’t know exactly where it’s going (a point Red Wings’ color analyst Mickey Redmond made himself after the play occurred). For those unfamiliar with Frk, I can tell you that he almost certainly has one of the hardest shots you will ever witness. Living in northwest Ohio, I’ve had multiple opportunities to watch him in action over the past few years when he spent time with Toledo of the ECHL, and even his wrist shot hits the boards with a sound unlike anything you’ll hear from 99 percent of other players. Maybe work on keeping them down, Marty.

Patrice Bergeron had himself a four-goal game, which I assume was just to remind all of us that he’s still the best hockey player that no one ever remembers exists.

Glen Gulutzan had a meltdown for the ages at Flames practice, highlighted by heaving his stick into the stratosphere. No one has seen the stick land yet, and I assume it has simply joined Jose Bautista’s bat on its eternal journey through the cosmos.

Speaking of the Flames, the team is reportedly looking to release Jaromir Jagr, in a move that would likely put them on a level of heel heat that would rival Vince McMahon post-Montreal Screwjob (Bonus points to any reader that actually understands that reference).

Nazem Kadri fought Joe Thornton (bad idea) and apparently thought ripping some of Jumbo’s beard out would cause Joe to lose some of his strength (decent theory, story of Samson and whatnot). It did not cause him to lose his strength, though, so a bad day for Kadri there.

The Oilers nabbed goaltender Al Montoya from the Habs in exchange for a conditional 4th round pick, in a move that could be titled “Two dumpster fires exchange things in attempt to convince livid fanbases that improvements are being made.”

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.

November 17 – Day 45 – It’s the Rick Nash/Torts game

Hopefully you’re not interested in going to a hockey game this evening if you live on the West Coast, because there’s not a single game happening in the NHL west of the Wabash River.

Now that you’re done looking up where the Wabash River is, I regret to inform you tonight’s limited geography in the NHL is largely due to only two games being on schedule. The first is set to start at 7 p.m. and will feature the New York Rangers at Columbus (NHLN/TVAS), followed half an hour later by Buffalo at Detroit (SN360) acting as our early nightcap. All times Eastern.

The limited selection of contests also makes it difficult on me to choose today’s DtFR Game of the Day, because I try not to feature teams multiple times in the same week. That being said, the action in Ohio is going to be far more interesting, so it looks like we’ll watch the Rangers for the third time in the past 10 days.

 

I’m the author, so I get to make the rules: We’ve done enough talking about the 9-8-2 Rangers of late, so let’s dig into the 11-7-1 Blue Jackets, a team that hasn’t been featured in the DtFR Game of the Day series since October 25.

Columbus is quietly camping out in third place in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, trailing both New Jersey and Pittsburgh by only two points.

As you’d expect from a team that features the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, the Jackets play one of the best defenses in the league as measured by goals against-per-game. They’re seventh best in the statistic, to be precise, allowing only 2.63 goals against each time they lace up their skates.

A major part of that is the exemplary play of 10-4-1 G Sergei Bobrovsky. So far in 15 starts, he’s managed a .928 save percentage and 2.16 GAA that is pedestrian by his 2016-’17 standards (.931 and 2.06), but is still good enough to rank him in the top-six in his position among those with at least seven starts.

His GAA in particular is exceptionally outstanding, as it is the second-best among that group of 33 netminders. Of course, that statistic measures not only how well Bobrovsky performs, but also the success of the defense in front of him. That’s where D Jack Johnson and co. come into play, as their efforts have led Columbus to ranking (t)ninth-best in the league in shots against-per-game, allowing only 30.9 each night.

At first it seemed bizarre that Johnson’s 1.9 blocks-per-game was enough to lead the team. After all, D Alec Martinez leads the Los Angeles Kings – another club that doesn’t allow many goals – in that statistic with a whopping 3.5 blocks-per-game (1.2 more than second-best D Derek Forbort) that actually tops the league.

And it’s then that I realized this is the culture Head Coach John Tortorella has built over the course of his first two seasons in Columbus. Johnson’s effort by itself may not be all that impressive, but it’s the fact that he’s not alone in blocking shots that makes this Blue Jackets team successful.

As an entire squad, Columbus has blocked 280 shots to tie for eighth-most in the NHL as Johnson and fellow defensemen Seth Jones, Ryan Murray and David Savard all manage at least 1.6 blocks-per-game. Pairing that effort with the incredible ability of Bobrovsky, it’s impressive that eight teams have been able to outscore the Jackets.

Of course, the offense going up against the Jackets tonight is a good one. Even though they lost their last outing, the Rangers still takes credit for the seventh-best offense in the league, managing 3.28 goals-per-game.

C Mika Zibanejad takes a lot of credit for what New York has been able to achieve on the offensive end, as he leads the team with a point-per-game on 9-10-19 totals, but he’s also gotten a lot of help from new addition D Kevin Shattenkirk and his 5-12-17 campaign.

Of particular note for both players is that they’re playing the Blue Jackets this evening. So far this season, Zibanejad has had two three-point games, and the most recent was November 6’s contest against Columbus. Similarly, Shattenkirk’s last goal was scored in that game against Bobrovsky, so there’s no doubt he’d like to beat the netminder once again.

While their performances this season have been strong, it’s the Blueshirts’ versatility in the offensive zone that has made them so dangerous. A total of eight players, including two defensemen, have earned 10 or more points already this season.

New York also has a special way of capitalizing on opportunities, made evident by its third-best 24.6 power play conversion percentage. Considering the Jackets play only an average penalty kill, stopping 81.3 percent to tie the Rangers for 13th-best, they’d be wise to keep RW Josh Anderson and his 11 penalty minutes under control.

Since this game features a strong New York offense against an equally competitive Columbus defense, this game may very well come down to the activity in 8-5-2 G Henrik Lundqvist‘s zone. Even though the Blueshirts have a miserable 2-4-0 record away from Madison Square Garden, I think their clear edge in special teams will be enough for them to pull off the upset this evening at Nationwide Arena.


Led by First Star of the Game G Roberto Luongo‘s 35-save shutout, the Florida Panthers beat the San Jose Sharks 2-0 at the SAP Center in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

This game was a very competitive, grind-it-out affair, as the Panthers were able to pull out the win even though they managed to fire only 28 shots on G Martin Jones‘ net.

The first of those to sneak past him was a wrap-around goal from Second Star F Colton Sceviour (F Connor Brickley and F Vincent Trocheck), buried exactly 60 seconds into the second period. After escaping a scrum with F Joe Pavelski and D Joakim Ryan along the rear boards, Sceviour skated behind Jones from his left to right. No defenders moved to cover Sceviour when he reached the goalpost, so he took the opportunity to slide the puck past Jones’ right skate and into the back of the net.

Third Star C Nick Bjugstad (W Jamie McGinn and RW Radim Vrbata) tacked on the highly-desired insurance goal with 7:37 remaining in regulation to set the 2-0 final score.

That shutout was Luongo’s first of the season and the 79th of his career in the regular season or playoffs. Meanwhile, Jones took the loss after saving 26-of-28 shots faced (.929 save percentage).

Florida’s road victory snaps a three-game winning streak by the 23-17-5 home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. Visitors now trail the hosts by only four points.

October 25 – Day 22 – The former Foligno face-off

It’s been a slow hockey week in terms of games played, hasn’t it? There was only one game Sunday, two Monday and now only two today. Thank goodness for yesterday’s 11-game slate.

Both of tonight’s contests are scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern time, but only one game will be broadcast in either Canada or the USA. Via SN360, Canadians will have the opportunity to watch Calgary at St. Louis, while NBCSN will televise Buffalo at Columbus to those of us in the 50 States.

Unfortunately, there’s no major draw to either of these games (dang that soft tissue for landing RW Jaromir Jagr on injured reserve), so we’re just going to go with the matchup that features the teams separated by fewer points in the standings.

 

According to my highly scientific decision-making process, Central Ohio is the spot to be tonight.

But before we go any further, I need to clear the air about this tilt. Though NBCSN is advertising this game as a part of its “Wednesday Night Rivalry” series, Buffalo General Manager Jason Botterill ruined any sense of a rivalry this offseason.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “How does a GM ruin a rivalry? Surely the teams would continue disliking each other even after an individual player is gone.”

In truth, ‘rivalry’ might be a strong word for the relationship between these clubs. But, if one existed, it started in the 2013′-14 season, a year after the lockout-shortened 2012-’13 season. It was in that lockout campaign that F Nick Foligno, now captain of the Blue Jackets, began his tenure in Columbus and younger brother LW Marcus Foligno earned a permanent spot on the Sabres’ roster.

Since the lockout forced the schedule to be restricted to only intra-conference play and the Blue Jackets were then a member of the Western Conference, the brothers did not compete against each other for the first time as members of their respective clubs until October 10, 2013.

While we’re on subject, the Foligno Brothers are, of course, the sons of former Sabre RW Mike Foligno. The senior Foligno, undoubtedly the best of the trio, enjoyed 10 seasons in Buffalo, scoring 247 of his 355 career goals in a blue-and-gold sweater to help the franchise to seven playoff appearances in his tenure (eight if you count the 1990-’91 season when he was traded to Toronto in December).

But all that history doesn’t matter anymore thanks to the move Botterill made on June 30. In a trade with the Minnesota Wild, Marcus and teammate F Tyler Ennis were exchanged for D Marco Scandella and former Sabre RW Jason Pominville.

None of this is a knock on Botterill’s decision making. GMs can’t concern themselves with things as petty as media storylines, and he certainly hasn’t. In fact, his offseason efforts are finally starting to show results, as his Sabres team that started the season 1-5-2 has now won it’s last two games.

During this little run, it’s been the offense that has stood out most to me. Though far from pretty (Buffalo has fired 74 shots in its past two games, the second-most by any team since Saturday), it’s been effective as the Sabres have averaged three goals-per-game during this run, well above their 2.6 goals-per-game average for the season.

What all these shots have created is a wildly unpredictable attack, and there’s nothing a defense and goaltender (G Sergei Bobrovsky in this case) like less than unpredictability. In fact, all eight players on the Sabres’ roster to have fired the puck at least four times in the past two games has registered a minimum of one point.

Among that group of eight, none have been more accurate than F Benoit Pouliot. Though only a lowly fourth-liner, Pouliot has found the back of the net on a quarter of his shots during this run to take credit for his first two goals of the season, including last night’s game-winner against the Red Wings.

Of course, no matter how accurate Pouliot has been, there’s no replacing Buffalo’s top-line as the primary source of offense. Both C Jack Eichel (four goals) and LW Evander Kane (six goals) have registered 11 points in 10 games played this season, managing four and six goals, respectively, apiece.

Before discussing what the Blue Jackets bring to the table, a major hat tip is due to G Robin Lehner, who has allowed only four goals in the past two games even though he’s faced a total of 63 shots (.936 save percentage). Since he shutout the Red Wings last night, I expect 1-2-1 G Chad Johnson, who’s sporting a .881 save percentage and 3.84 GAA, to be in net this evening.

While the Sabres enter tonight’s game on a two-game winning streak, Columbus’ two-game losing skid is the negative inverse of that.

Of course, you can’t blame them after going through the gauntlet of hosting Tampa Bay and Los Angeles, the top-two teams in the league right now, in the span of three days.

When things are going the Jackets’ way, they have the incredible talent of absolutely shutting down opposing offenses. Whether it’s by a defense headlined by Jack Johnson, Seth Jones and David Savard‘s combined 6.5 blocks-per-game or Bobrovsky and his 2.16 GAA that’s fourth-best in the NHL, only three offenses have come away from games against Columbus with three or more goals.

In particular, the Jackets have been pretty darn good on the penalty kill this season. Stopping 83.3 percent of opposing extra-man opportunities, the Jackets are among the 10 best teams in the league when shorthanded. Considering the Sabres bring a measly 13.9 power play success rate into tonight’s game, the Blue Jackets should have no problem snuffing out any attacks on that front.

You know what they say: defense wins championships. That’s not a Stanley Cup pick from me, but it is a pick for this game – especially since Johnson will be in net for the Sabres. Columbus should have two more points by the end of the night.


Earning the second win of his career in his first-ever NHL start, First Star of the Game G Oscar Dansk led the Vegas Golden Knights to a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks at T-Mobile Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.

Though his night ended the way he wanted it to, the beginning of the game was not necessarily kind to Dansk. Even though D Duncan Keith was in the penalty box for tripping W James Neal, F John Hayden was able to score an unassisted shorthanded wrist shot only 3:33 into the contest to give the visiting Hawks an early lead. That lead lasted only 26 seconds though, as C William Karlsson (D Colin Miller and D Brad Hunt) took advantage of that very power play opportunity to level the game with a deflected goal. F Tomas Nosek (D Deryk Engelland and D Brayden McNabb) completed the scoring blitz at the 5:46 mark of the period with a wrister to give the Knights a lead they would not yield for the remainder of the game.

With his first goal of the season, Second Star F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (Nosek and LW William Carrier) provided Vegas’ game-winning goal with 106 seconds remaining in the second period.

This play started as a botched dump-and-chase by the Golden Knights, as Chicago’s D Jordan Oesterle was the first to reach the puck in the corner to G Corey Crawford‘s left. Unfortunately for him, he absolutely fanned on his clearing attempt, leaving the loose puck to be collected by Carrier and dumped into the trapezoid to Nosek. The forward carried the puck behind the goal line to Crawford’s right before seeing a waiting Bellemare and centering him a pass. Firing a one-timer from the slot, Bellemare directed his snap shot past Crawford’s glove.

With 9:40 remaining in regulation, F Jon Marchessault (D Nate Schmidt and D Luca Sbisa) provided an insurance tally with a power play wrister to set the score at 4-1 in favor of the Golden Knights. Though F Patrick Kane (W Brandon Saad and Oesterle) tried valiantly to pull Chicago back into the game with 65 seconds remaining, the Hawks could not alter the 4-2 score in the remaining time.

Dansk earned the victory after saving 29-of-31 shots faced (.935 save percentage), leaving the loss to Crawford, who saved 29-of-33 (.879).

That’s two-straight victories by home teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series. After a solid run by the road teams over the weekend, the 12-6-4 hosts have now reclaimed a six-point advantage over the roadies in the series.

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.