Tag Archives: Sonny Milano

Rask injured in, 3-0, shutout in Columbus

Three players scored their 4th goal of the season as the Columbus Blue Jackets shutout the Boston Bruins, 3-0, Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena.

Elvis Merzlikins (6-6-4 record, 2.53 goals against average, .921 save percentage in 18 games played) made 34 saves on 34 shots against for his 2nd consecutive shutout– becoming the first rookie Blue Jackets goaltender since Steve Mason to record back-to-back shutouts in consecutive appearances (Dec. 27-31, 2008).

Meanwhile, Bruins goaltender, Tuukka Rask (17-4-6, 2.27 GAA, .925 SV% in 28 games played) was injured 1:12 into the action after Emil Bemstrom delivered an elbow to Rask’s head.

Rask sustained a concussion on the play and was replaced by Jaroslav Halak (10-5-6, 2.49 GAA, .925 SV% in 27 games played), who made 24 saves on 27 shots faced for an .889 SV% in the loss.

Boston fell to 27-9-12 (66 points) on the season, but remained in 1st place in the Atlantic Division, while Columbus improved to 23-16-8 (54 points) on the season and remained steady in 6th place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Bruins also fell to 12-7-3 on the road this season.

The Bruins were without the services of Kevan Miller (knee) and Connor Clifton (upper body) on Tuesday night as Boston visited Columbus for the first time since defeating the Blue Jackets in Game 6 of their 2019 Second Round matchup.

Bruce Cassidy made no changes to his forwards, but replaced Matt Grzelcyk with Steven Kampfer on the blue line alongside John Moore on the third defensive pairing.

Par Lindholm and David Backes joined Grzelcyk as healthy scratches for the B’s in Columbus, while David Krejci tied Terry O’Reilly for the 7th most games played as a Bruin in franchise history (891 games).

Rask was replaced by Halak at 1:12 of the first period after Bemstrom struck the Bruins goaltender with an errant elbow.

Moments later, Pierre-Luc Dubois was sent to the penalty box with a cross checking infraction, yielding the first power play of the night to Boston at 5:53.

The Bruins did not convert on the ensuing skater advantage.

Almost midway through the opening frame, David Savard thought he scored a goal when he crashed the net and bumped into Halak, but the play was blown dead and there was no goal as a result due to goaltender interference that occurred.

Some harm, no foul– in a way. No goal, but no minor penalty either.

Past the midpoint of the first period, Alexander Wennberg (4) let go of a weak shot that slipped through Halak’s five-hole and reached the back of the twine– giving the Blue Jackets a, 1-0, lead.

Wennberg’s soft goal was assisted by Vladislav Gavrikov (5) and Nathan Gerbe (4) at 13:27.

Late in the period, Charlie McAvoy was guilty of holing against Gustav Nyquist and Columbus received their first power play opportunity at 18:59.

The Blue Jackets did not score on the resulting advantage, despite the fact that the power play overlapped into the second period.

After one period in Columbus, the Blue Jackets led the Bruins, 1-0, on the scoreboard and, 9-7, in shots on goal.

The B’s led in takeaways (2-1), hits (11-7) and faceoff win percentage (53-47), while the Blue Jackets had the advantage in blocked shots (5-4).

Both teams had two giveaways aside and were 0/1 on the power play heading into the middle frame.

Boston announced that Rask would not return to the game in a tweet after the puck dropped on the second period.

Midway through the middle frame, Gavrikov held Anders Bjork and was sent to the sin bin with a minor infraction at 9:36 of the second period.

Boston’s power play was powerless as Columbus killed off Gavrikov’s minor with ease.

A few minutes later, Joakim Nordstrom tried to engage Bemstrom in response for his elbow to Rask’s head that knocked Boston’s starting goaltender out of action, but Dubois stepped in between the two skaters and both Nordstorm and Dubois ended up receiving roughing minors at 12:35.

After two minutes of 4-on-4 action, the two teams resumed full strength play for the remainder of the period.

Through 40 minutes at Nationwide Arena, Columbus still held onto their, 1-0, lead over Boston and a, 22-21, advantage in shots on goal– despite the Bruins leading in second period shots alone, 14-13.

The Blue Jackets led in blocked shots (14-6), takeaways (7-1) and giveaways (7-3), while the B’s led in hits (19-14) and faceoff win% (56-44).

Columbus was 0/1 and Boston was 0/2 on the power play heading into the second intermission.

Early in the final frame of regulation, Sonny Milano slashed Charlie Coyle at 1:34 of the third period and presented the Bruins with another power play that did not yield a goal on the advantage.

A few minutes later, Brad Marchand caught Gavrikov with a high stick at 4:41 and presented Columbus with a skater advantage.

About a minute into the ensuing power play, Kevin Stenlund (4) blasted a one-timer over Halak’s blocker side and gave the Blue Jackets a two-goal lead with a power play goal.

Nick Foligno (14) and Bemstrom (7) notched the assists on Stenlund’s goal at 5:46 of the third period and Columbus led, 2-0.

Three seconds after resuming play, Eric Robinson interfered with Bjork off the ensuing faceoff and was sent to the penalty box at 5:49.

Midway through the third period, Riley Nash (4) capitalized on an individual effort and gave the Blue Jackets a, 3-0, lead on an unassisted goal over Halak’s blocker side at 13:05.

At the final horn, Columbus had won, 3-0, despite trailing in shots on goal, 34-27.

Though Boston had held the advantage in third periods shots on net alone, 13-5, the Bruins failed to find the back of the net on any of their shots.

The Blue Jackets finished Tuesday night with the advantage in blocked shots (19-8) and giveaways (10-7), while the B’s left Nationwide Arena with the advantage in hits (28-17) and faceoff win% (55-45).

The Blue Jackets went 1/2 on the power play on the night and the Bruins finished 0/4.

Columbus handed Boston their first shutout of the season as the Bruins fell to 1-4-3 when trailing after one period and 4-7-4 when trailing after two periods this season.

Boston finished their three-game road trip (1-1-1) and returns home for a home-and-home series with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday at TD Garden and Sunday in Pittsburgh at PPG Paints Arena.

After the Bruins swing through Pittsburgh, the B’s finish their game action before the All-Star break with a home game against the Vegas Golden Knights on Jan. 21st. 

Dubois lifts Columbus over Boston, 2-1, in OT

The Columbus Blue Jackets came back to beat the Boston Bruins, 2-1, in overtime at TD Garden on Thursday in their first meeting with Boston since being eliminated by the Bruins in the Second Round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Elvis Merzlikins (2-4-4 record, 2.92 goals against average, .905 save percentage in 12 games played) made 25 saves on 26 shots against for a .962 SV% in the win for Columbus.

Bruins goaltender, Tuukka Rask (15-4-6, 2.30 GAA, .923 SV% in 25 games played) stopped 31 out of 33 shots faced for a .939 SV% in the overtime loss.

Boston fell to 24-7-11 (59 points) on the season, but remained atop the Atlantic Division, while Columbus improved to 19-14-8 (46 points) and remained in 6th place in the Metropolitan Division.

The Bruins also fell to 14-1-9 at home this season and are now on a two-game losing streak.

Boston was without the services of Kevan Miller (knee) and Connor Clifton (upper body) on Thursday. Miller has yet to make his season debut and Clifton was ruled out of the two-game homestand after being injured against Buffalo on Dec. 29th.

That was the only bad news for the Bruins heading into Thursday night’s matchup with the Blue Jackets as Torey Krug (upper body), Charlie McAvoy (lower body) and David Krejci (lower body) all returned to the lineup.

McAvoy was a game-time decision, but took part in full practice on Thursday and was on the ice for warmups– indicating that his return was imminent.

Due to all the returns, Jeremy Lauzon was reassigned to the Providence Bruins (AHL) on Wednesday and Anton Blidh was assigned to Providence on a long-term injury conditioning loan.

Blidh was injured in the second-to-last preseason game for Boston and has yet to make his season debut within the Bruins’ organization (Boston or Providence).

Bruce Cassidy made some changes to his lineup against Columbus since Tuesday’s, 3-2, shootout loss in New Jersey, moving Charlie Coyle to the second line right wing slot with Jake DeBrusk and Krejci, while bumping up Sean Kuraly to center the third line with Anders Bjork on his left side and Danton Heinen on his right side.

The fourth line comprised of Joakim Nordstrom at left wing, Par Lindholm at center and Chris Wagner at right wing.

On defense, McAvoy and Krug went back to their usual roles while Matt Grzelcyk slid over to the right side of the third pairing with John Moore on his left.

Brett Ritchie, David Backes and Steven Kampfer were all healthy scratches for Boston on Thursday night.

At puck drop, B’s captain, Zdeno Chara, became the 12th player in NHL history to play in at least one game across four decades.

San Jose Sharks forwards, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau became the 13th and 14th players in league history to do the same thing upon puck drop between the Sharks and the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Gustav Nyquist thought he scored off a rebound 17 seconds into the game, but Cassidy used a coach’s challenge to review the call on the ice (goal) on the basis that Rask was actually interfered with as Boone Jenner appeared to be in the crease before the puck crossed the blue paint.

Upon review, it was determined that Jenner did, in fact, more than just encroach Rask’s territory, but had actually bumped into the goaltender– impeding his reaction to the play and thereby causing goaltender interference.

The call on the ice was overturned and the score reverted back to, 0-0.

It was the first time the Bruins challenged a call this season, as well as their first successful coach’s challenge this season.

Boston has had five calls overturned on six prior challenges against them thus far, which leads the league.

After Nyquist had a goal overturned, nothing else happened for the rest of the first period. Seriously.

There were no goals and no penalties called in the opening frame and both teams spent the last 7:10 span of the period uninterrupted.

Through one period of play on Thursday, the Bruins and Blue Jackets were tied, 0-0, with Columbus leading in shots on goal, 9-8.

Columbus also held the advantage in blocked shots (5-1), takeaways (3-2), giveaways (6-4) and hits (14-9), while Boston led in faceoff win percentage (67-33).

Early in the middle frame, Nick Foligno hooked Brad Marchand and was assessed a minor penalty at 4:48 of the second period.

The Bruins did not convert on their first power play of the night, but got a second chance on the skater advantage at 11:02 when Dean Kukan tripped DeBrusk.

This time around, however, Boston capitalized on the power play five seconds into the skater advantage– winning the ensuing faceoff back to the point, then sliding a pass over to David Pastrnak (30) for the one-timer that went off Blue Jackets forward, Riley Nash, and over Merzlikins’ glove to give the B’s the first lead of the night.

Krug (22) and Patrice Bergeron (19) notched the assists on Pastrnak’s power play goal at 11:07 of the second period and the Bruins led, 1-0.

With his 30th goal of the season, Pastrnak became the first Bruin in franchise history to score 30 or more goals in four of his first six seasons, as well as the fastest Bruin to score 30 goals (in 42 games) since Cam Neely scored 30 goals in 27 games in the 1993-94 season.

Almost 90 seconds later, McAvoy was caught interfering with Kevin Stenlund and subsequently sent to the penalty box at 12:36, but the Blue Jackets couldn’t muster anything on the power play.

Columbus had one more chance on the skater advantage at 19:15 as Chara cut a rut to the sin bin for holding against Nyquist, but the Blue Jackets didn’t capitalize on the power play once again– even though the skater advantage was split over the course of the final seconds of the second period and the opening minute of the third period.

The Bruins have killed off 21 consecutive penalties as a result of killing off Chara’s minor.

After 40 minutes in Boston, the Bruins led the Blue Jackets, 1-0, on the scoreboard, despite Columbus maintaining the advantage in shots on goal, 23-20– including a, 14-12, advantage in the second period alone.

The Blue Jackets also led in blocked shots (12-1) and hits (23-15) entering the second intermission and the Bruins led in takeaways (6-5), giveaways (10-6) and faceoff win% (70-30).

As there were no more penalties called for the rest of the night, Boston finished 1/2 on the power play and Columbus went 0/2 on the skater advantage.

Early in the final frame of regulation, Sonny Milano (4) pounced on a turnover by Coyle, then fired a shot with purpose from the goal line along the boards that deflected off of Grzelcyk and dipped through Rask’s five-hole– tying the game, 1-1, in the process.

Nathan Gerbe (2) and Alexander Wennberg (12) tallied the assists on Milano’s goal at 2:06 of the third period and there were no more goals scored until overtime.

At the end of regulation, the Blue Jackets led in shots on goal, 32-26, but were even on the scoreboard with the Bruins, 1-1.

Columbus held the advantage in blocked shots (15-2) and hits (32-25), while Boston led in giveaways (13-8) and faceoff win% (65-35).

Both teams had six takeaways aside heading into overtime.

Cassidy started Krejci, Pastrnak and McAvoy for the B’s and Blue Jackets head coach, John Tortorella, opted for Nyquist, Jenner and Seth Jones for the opening faceoff before quickly replacing Jenner with Pierre-Luc Dubois.

Just 52 seconds into the ensuing extra frame, Dubois and Jones entered the attacking zone on a 2-on-1 and made McAvoy look foolish before Jones sent the puck to Dubois (14) for the one-timer goal from close range.

Jones (19) had the only assist on Dubois’ game-winning overtime goal and the Blue Jackets took home the, 2-1, win in Boston.

Columbus finished the night with the advantage in shots on goal (33-26), blocked shots (15-2) and hits (33-25), while the Bruins ended Thursday’s effort with the lead in giveaways (14-8) and faceoff win% (66-34).

The Bruins fell to 5-1-6 when tied after one period, 13-0-5 when leading after two periods and 17-5-7 when scoring the game’s first goal this season. The B’s also fell to 2-5 in overtime this season.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets improved to 6-6 in ovetime this season and 11-5-3 when tied after one period.

Boston concludes their two-game homestand (0-0-1) against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday before traveling to Nashville to face the Predators next Tuesday.

The Bruins return home for a Thursday night (Jan. 9th) matchup with the Winnipeg Jets before venturing on the road to visit the New York Islanders on Jan. 11th, the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 13th and the Blue Jackets on Jan. 14th.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2019-20 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

47-31-4, 98 points, 5th in the Metropolitan Division

Eliminated in the Second Round by Boston

Additions: F Marko Dano, F Gustav Nyquist

Subtractions: F Matt Duchene (signed with NSH), F Ryan Dzingel
(signed with CAR), F Mark Letestu (signed with WPG), F Artemi Panarin (signed with NYR), F Lukas Sedlak (KHL), F Sam Vigneault (signed with Cleveland, AHL), D Tommy Cross (signed with FLA), G Jean-Francois Berube (signed with PHI), G Sergei Bobrovsky (signed with FLA), G Keith Kinkaid (signed with MTL)

Still Unsigned: D Adam McQuaid

Re-signed: F Ryan MacInnis, F Sonny Milano, F Justin Scott, D Scott Harrington, D Ryan Murray, D Zach Werenski, G Joonas Korpisalo

Offseason Analysis: After going all-in at the trade deadline, the Columbus Blue Jackets went all-out on trying to keep their recently acquired talent in town– as well as their biggest stars Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky from leaving altogether.

Unfortunately for Columbus, that “high-end” talent had “high-rise” on the mind and then some.

Bobrovsky informed General Manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, that he didn’t intend to re-sign with the club early in the season, Panarin turned down more money for The Big Apple, Matt Duchene was building a house in Nashville anyway and Ryan Dzingel fell victim to coaching decisions that limited his playing time.

All of them left the Blue Jackets.

Whether you believe in their core (Pierre-Luc Dubois for Leader of the Free Universe!) or not, Columbus is going to face a setback this season.

Head coach, John Tortorella, is right in his analysis of the team in that the roster had something going en route to their playoff run that was cut short in the Second Round by the Boston Bruins.

Columbus was shaping up for something special– their first playoff series win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, at least– if not more this season and in the coming years.

As much as fans like Tortorella’s approach to speak his mind about everything, there are times when it backfires.

Dzingel didn’t betray the Blue Jackets organization by signing with the Carolina Hurricanes when he wasn’t getting ice time in the first place. Plus, he didn’t technically leave a “winning” team to go elsewhere to win if the team that he signed with (Carolina) made it further in the postseason than Columbus did.

The Hurricanes made the Eastern Conference Final. The Blue Jackets did not.

Sure, Panarin joined the New York Rangers and Bobrovsky joined the Florida Panthers, but both of those teams missed the playoffs altogether last season. Tortorella has a point to be made about those two players, however, his point is that of a TV analyst’s mindset.

When the Blue Jackets broadcast approaches Bobrovsky’s exit, they can talk about how he betrayed a “culture that was committed to Columbus/winning the Cup this season” or whatever.

They get paid to do that– to please the watchful eyes in Columbus’ ownership box.

When the mantra comes from Tortorella, he is seen as out of touch with his players– that he couldn’t get them to “buy-in” and win, not that he couldn’t communicate with them and coach them effectively for better or worse.

It’s bulletin board material that makes sports fans tune in to ESPN for other sports and NBC between periods.

What did Stephen A. Smith say now? Why does Mike Milbury look like he wants to punch Jeremy Roenick in the face?

Because of their opinions, their “hot takes” and their ability to sway fan bases to and from narratives driven by ratings, owners and us and them mentality.

Tortorella had a stint with NHL Network before becoming head coach in Columbus. He’s a quintessential analyst that’s deserving of respect for his musings.

But sometimes his coaching style intersects with his analytical mind.

Sometimes his brash statements don’t translate well with his message, the medium it’s on (TV, Twitter or the like) and sometimes we forget how Toe Blake, Scotty Bowman, Punch Imlach or Art Ross utilized their power to drum up the local media, verbally abuse their players, etc. from a different era.

Because it’s Tortorella, because he has a fire to win, because he’s already won it before and wants to win it again– there’s a whole host of reasons why people often react with such strong visceral opinions the way they do to Tortorella, Mike Babcock and others in the league.

Columbus has one thing on their mind from this offseason– moving forward.

Offseason Grade: F

Last season might have been one last hurrah for the Blue Jackets’ current setup. Kekalainen gave Tortorella all the pieces to push for a deep run, Tortorella botched the lineup at times, certain players couldn’t elevate their game at other times– it was all too soon for an organization and fans that have been yearning for playoff success for almost 20 years.

They didn’t make any changes behind the bench and Kekalainen still has his job. It was a risk worth taking, but now there’s consequences to pay at this season’s end if ownership doesn’t see growth in what’s left behind. Columbus failed to retain what could’ve been this offseason and their consolation prize was Gustav Nyquist.

A one-year setback won’t hurt them. Two years might.

DTFR Podcast #163- Cap’n Crunch

The salary cap isn’t going up as much as everyone hoped. Also, there were plenty of trades, buyouts and extensions handed out in the last week. Nick, Colby, Cap’n and Pete examine each move and pick 2019 NHL Awards winners.

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

Columbus Blue Jackets Forecast Through 24 Games

It’s past the quarter mark of the 2018-19 regular season for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but thanks to the way the calendar (and life) works out, I’m a few games behind on presenting my latest forecast for Columbus.

Thankfully, the Blue Jackets have a couple of days between their game on Monday (a 7-5 victory against Detroit) and their next matchup against Minnesota on Thursday.

As such, here’s a quick look at what to expect through the remaining 58 games this season.

Keep in mind, there’s many unknown variables that will change what’s to come due to injury, lineup changes, roster moves and whatever else Microsoft Excel doesn’t already know. My degree is in communication– not math– and I’d like to keep things as brief as I can in John Tortorella fashion so you can look things over, get a gist of it and go back to watching the game.

If a player meets the forecasted stats I’ve updated, they’ve met the latest expectations. If they do better, they’ve exceeded expectations. Of course, if they do worse– they just didn’t live up to expectations– it’s that simple. Well, either that or they missed a lot of action due to injury or something.

Anyway, you can’t forecast puck luck, but you can indicate general trends and estimated hunches based on what the scoresheet indicates each night.

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Columbus Blue Jackets Forecast Through 24 Games (58 Games Remaining)

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Good news, Blue Jackets fans, Artemi Panarin should reach the 80-point plateau this season. Bad news, Blue Jackets fans, Panarin’s still a pending-unrestricted free agent at season’s end and still doesn’t seem intent on sticking around in Columbus.

Other than that, Cam Atkinson is expected to amass 62 points this season (35 expected goals, 27 expected assists) and lead the team in goals, while Pierre-Luc Dubois sits one goal shy of reaching 30 this season.

Josh Anderson should tie Panarin for third place on the roster in goals scored this season with 26 expected goals, while Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner contribute close to 20 goals each.

Newcomer Anthony Ducliar continues his career revival with respectable 19-18–37 expected totals and Zach Werenski should lead all defenders in expected goals (14), assists (32) and points (46).

Meanwhile, noted top-pairing blue liner Seth Jones, should amass 10-28–38 totals from the point with Werenski beating out Jones in goals from the blue line by four.

Scott Harrinton’s expected 18 points fit perfectly behind Ryan Murray (30),  Markus Nutivaara (25) and David Savard (24) as the Blue Jackets defensive corps continues to improve at moving the puck out of their own zone and into quality scoring opportunities.

Other than Panarin’s uncertain future, the only other concern for Columbus revolves around the franchise’s stability in net.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s expected goals against average has worsened after the first quarter of the season. It’s now set to be a 2.46 GAA by season’s end. Yeah, that’s not great.

In fact, it would be Bobrovsky’s worst GAA since he posted a 2.75 in 37 games played in 2015-16. To begin with, he’s at a 2.74 currently with a .912 save percentage in 16 games this season.

At least Bobrovsky’s save percentage is expected to improve to a .920 SV% by the time 2018-19 wraps up.

Backup netminder, Joonas Korpisalo should end up with a 2.61 GAA and .919 SV% by season’s end, which would be significant improvements from last season’s 3.32 GAA and .897 SV% in 18 games.

As is it, Korpisalo has a 3.73 GAA and .886 SV% through nine games played this season, so things can only get… better? That’s the hope anyway.

Columbus has to work on suppressing shot attempts against, let alone shots on goal, since they’re evidently overworking their goaltenders and it’s showing (remember, a goalie has to move around and “make the save” regardless of whether or not the puck actually hits the net as an official shot on goal).

It’s either that or maybe Bobrovsky isn’t worth as much as some might think he is (because he’s also a pending-UFA in July)– especially in a contract year.

Somehow the Blue Jackets find themselves 2nd in the Metropolitan Division with 30 points on the season and a 14-8-2 record on the season and a plus-six goal differential.

So has Columbus been under the radar and quietly good? Or are they just quietly lucky and surviving in a volatile division (whereby the Pittsburgh Penguins– remember them? they won back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017– are currently 6th in the division outside the playoff picture)?

Time will tell or @capncornelius and/or @vanekatthedisco might fill you in on their outlook sometime.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Projections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s words. My degree is in communication.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cryptic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason Grade: C+

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

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

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

Is Player Usage Costing Jackets a Playoff Series?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.