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.
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.
Columbus Blue Jackets Forecast Through 24 Games (58 Games Remaining)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Columbus Blue Jackets Forecast Through 0 Games (82 Games Remaining)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division
First Wild Card in the East, lost in First Round to Washington (4-2)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Now that all the fun of the opening week is behind us, it’s time to get focused for the two-month run to American Thanksgiving.
Don’t think the holiday is that important in the NHL? Maybe this will change your mind.
With that in mind, let’s jump into the five games on the schedule this evening. The action starts at 7:30 p.m. with two contests (New Jersey at Toronto [SN] and Pittsburgh at Washington [NBCSN]), followed two hours later by Boston at Colorado. Fixtures continue to fall in line every half hour as the New York Islanders visit Anaheim at 10 p.m. and tonight’s nightcap, Calgary at Los Angeles, drops the puck 30 minutes later. All times Eastern.
Tonight was supposed to be Brian Boyle‘s return to Toronto, but since his diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia has kept him off the ice to star the season, we’ll delay the celebration of the Leafs’ trip to the second round until his return in mid-November.
Instead, let’s take in one of the NHL’s best rivalries in recent years.
If not for the Capitals’ significant roster turnover this offseason, it would have been safe to pencil these two squads into a third-straight meeting in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Then again, given Washington’s 2-0-1 record to lead the Metropolitan Division after a week of play, maybe that assumption isn’t too far off the mark.
What has made Washington so deadly to start the season has been its ultra-efficient offense. Though the Capitals average 4.33 goals-per-game ([t]fourth-best in the NHL), they take the fewest shots-per-game in the league at 25.7.
In effect, the Caps are attacking opposing goalies with scalpels instead of battle axes.
At the head of that attack is head surgeon W Alex Ovechkin (.389 shooting percentage), who’s assisted by American Sniper F T.J. Oshie (.375) – both of whom are in the top-15 of shooting percentage and combine for 10 of Washington’s 13 goals. With two solid centers in Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov feeding them passes, Head Coach Barry Trotz is optimistic his top-two lines won’t miss a beat after the offseason departures of F Marcus Johansson and RW Justin Williams.
Speaking of the title of “American Sniper,” Oshie should look out for Columbus’ LW Sonny Milano and his obnoxious .571 to start his rookie season. The kid’s going places with a shot like that, but we’ll worry about that when the Capitals and Jackets tangle in early December.
Back to our game tonight, Washington has felt its turbulent offseason most within the defensive corps. It’s a good thing G Braden Holtby moonlights as a brick wall, as his career .922 save percentage has been put to the test by facing an average of 37 shots-per-game, the (t)fourth-highest in the league. If the Pens want any chance of beating the reigning Jennings Trophy winner, they’ll need to attack him early and often.
All but two (D Nate Schmidt and D Kevin Shattenkirk) of the goalscorers from the second round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs have returned to Washington this season. Mentioned above as simply play-makers, Backstrom and Kuznetsov both found much success against Pittsburgh in May, as they both beat former Penguins G Marc-Andre Fleury for four goals apiece.
Similarly, only two players (C Nick Bonino and F Matt Cullen) that scored on Holtby last postseason departed Pittsburgh. In particular, Holtby is least looking forward to seeing F Jake Guentzel again, as the 23-year-old scored on him four times five months ago.
The Penguins simply haven’t played the same way twice to start the season (most notably falling flat on their faces in Chicago, losing 10-1), though they’d like to repeat their performance from Saturday when they beat Nashville 4-0.
Beyond simply jumping out to a quick start (F Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winning goal only 66 seconds into the game), Pittsburgh got back to playing a sound defensive game. The Predators managed to fire only 26 shots at G Matthew Murray, far below the Penguins’ average of 34.7 shots-against-per-game.
It was also in that game where the city of Pittsburgh fell in love with RW Ryan Reaves, similar to how St. Louis did seven years ago, as he provided a goal to go with his fights with W Cody McLeod and F Austin Watson. Fans and pundits alike questioned General Manager Jim Rutherford‘s decision to bring in an enforcer, but if he can manage to be a goon with a little bit of touch and put up similar numbers to his 7-6-13 performance last season, he’ll be a welcome addition to this lineup.
This is a tough game to pick, as it seemed the Penguins turned a corner last Saturday and are resuming the form we’ve come to expect from them year in and year out. That being said, I think this Capitals team matches up well against them. No matter how hard Pittsburgh’s defense tries, I believe that either Ovechkin or Oshie will be able to find just the right shot to beat Murray.
In an exciting and emotional night for the city of Las Vegas, the Golden Knights were able to beat the Arizona Coyotes 5-2 to win their first-ever home tilt at T-Mobile Arena in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day.
The Knights absolutely blitzed the Coyotes out of the gates, as they scored four of their five goals in 10:42 of play. First up was F Tomas Nosek (F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and D Luca Sbisa) burying a wrist shot 2:31 after puck drop, followed by Second Star of the Game D Deryk Engelland (LW Brendan Leipsic) finding the back of G Antti Raanta‘s net only 107 seconds later. Scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal was none other than Third Star W James Neal (D Brayden McNabb and W David Perron), the same man who has now accounted for all three of Vegas’ winners to begin its inaugural season.
Within this sequence, the puck first made its way towards the goal off a shot by McNabb from the top of the offensive zone. It was casually blocked by D Jason Demers at the top of the crease, but Neal was able to collect the rebound and pivot towards the face-off circle to Raanta’s right. Once he finished his spin, he squeezed his wrister between the goaltender’s blocker and the near post.
But Neal wasn’t done. Thanks to F Mario Kempe interfering with Fleury, Vegas earned a power play that Neal (W Reilly Smith and F Erik Haula) was able to convert with a wrister from the crease to beat a fallen G Louis Domingue five-hole. Though F Tobias Rieder (D Niklas Hjalmarsson) was able to get the Coyotes on the board with 7:23 remaining in the first period, it did little to dampen the spirits of the newborn hockey fans.
After a wild opening frame, the second and third periods were much more tame. C Oscar Lindberg (Leipsic) and D Kevin Connauton (C Derek Stepan and F Clayton Keller) were able to score for Vegas and Arizona, respectively, but their tallies had little impact on the outcome.
Overall, the Knights absolutely dominated this game. To start with, they won 68 percent of face-offs, but they were further helped by sloppy play from the Yotes. Though the statistic is recorded as takeaways, most of Vegas’ 12 steals (led by Smith’s three) were a result of aimless passes from Arizona. The Coyotes supposedly improved on paper this offseason, but this showing was not evident of that.
Fleury earned his third victory in as many games played by saving 31-of-33 shots faced (.939 save percentage), leaving the loss to Raanta, who saved two-of-five (.4) before being pulled. He was replaced by Domingue 6:15 into the game, and saved 21-of-23 (.913) for no decision.
That’s a fourth-straight win by a home team in the DtFR Game of the Day series, a series that now favors the 5-2-1 hosts by four points.
One of my favorite days of the hockey calendar is finally upon us: Opening Saturday.
What could possibly be so awesome about this day, you ask? Take a look at today’s schedule. With the exception of the Boston Bruins, every single club is in action today.
The festivities start at 2 p.m. when Colorado visits New Jersey (SN), but the real meat of the day starts at 7 p.m. when seven fixtures (the New York Rangers at Toronto [CBC], Detroit at Ottawa [SN1], Tampa Bay at Florida, Buffalo at the New York Islanders, Nashville at Pittsburgh [NHLN], Montréal at Washington [CITY/TVAS] and Minnesota at Carolina) drop the puck. Dallas at St. Louis joins the mix at 8 p.m., trailed 30 minutes later by Columbus at Chicago and Vegas at Arizona at 9 p.m. A trio of games (Edmonton at Vancouver [CBC], Philadelphia at Anaheim and Winnipeg at Calgary [CITY/SN1]) get the West Coast involved at 10 p.m., followed half an hour later by tonight’s nightcap: Los Angeles at San Jose. All times Eastern.
There’s a compelling reason to watch almost every game. Here are just a few I thought of…
- New York at Toronto: It’s an Original Six matchup. Do I really need to say more?
- Tampa Bay at Florida: If you like intrastate rivalries, this is the game for you.
- Nashville at Pittsburgh: Oh, you know, just a Stanley Cup Finals rematch. No biggie.
- Montréal at Washington: It’s homecoming for D Karl Alzner!
- Dallas at St. Louis: Head Coach Ken Hitchcock spent the last six seasons with the Blues. Now, he’s back with his ex in Dallas.
- Columbus at Chicago: After being traded from the Hawks this offseason, LW Artemi Panarin is so amped for this game.
- Winnipeg at Calgary: It’s old-timey rivalry night in Alberta.
- Los Angeles at San Jose: If you like intrastate rivalries that actually matter, this is the game for you.
Like I said, there’s a compelling reason to watch almost every game.
However, this is the “Game of the Day” series, not the “Games of the Day.” I already broke that rule on Opening Day, so I can’t do it again today.
With that in mind, I’m leaning towards making our first visit of the year to the Windy City.
That Stanley Cup rematch was tempting, but we’ll let both squads find their form before they tangle in The Music City a month from now.
Of course, no matter how much I sell this game on the superior action between the two squads, there’s two players in particular that will garner all the attention: Columbus’ Panarin and Chicago’s W Brandon Saad.
Saad, originally drafted 43rd-overall by the Blackhawks in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is now in his second stint with the team after being traded from Columbus for Panarin, an undrafted Russian that looks like he can solidify the Jackets’ position near the top of the Eastern Conference for the next 10 years – at least.
Both players played vital roles for their now-former teams last season. The Bread Man registered a lowly 31-43-74 effort in 2016-’17 after posting 30-47-77 numbers during his rookie campaign, while Saad managed 24-29-53 totals last season in Columbus.
Based on those numbers alone and considering Saad has never posted more than 53 points in a season in his five full NHL seasons, it’s safe to say that the Blue Jackets won this trade on ice. But, in a league ruled by a salary cap, one of the most important numbers has a dollar sign associated with it. Both players will earn $6 million for every year they’re under contract, but Saad’s four-year deal is two seasons longer than Panarin’s.
Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks’ general manager, is fully aware that Panarin is the superior left wing of the two, but he also knows that because of that very fact, the Russian’s salary is going to skyrocket the day he has the opportunity to test free agency. That’s why he opted to go the more fiscally-responsible option in Saad, an option with which he’s won two Stanley Cups.
All that being said, I still think Columbus won this trade. We’ll have a final answer when we see how much bread Panarin is bringing home in 2019-’20.
If you can manage to take your eyes off those two players, you should witness quite a game between two solid teams. The Blue Jackets shut out the Islanders 5-0 yesterday at Nationwide Arena with goals from LW Sonny Milano, RW Cam Atkinson, D Ryan Murray, D Zach Werenski and F Pierre-Luc Dubois – not to mention a perfect performance by G Sergei Bobrovsky on 29 shots faced.
Of course, even that incredible effort pales in comparison to the Hawks’ annihilation of the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins Thursday. Led by a hat trick from – who would’ve guessed – Saad in his first game back in a red sweater, Chicago exploded to a statement 10-1 victory.
Both clubs enter this game with high confidence and higher aspirations for their seasons. In fact, if we break out the standings tiebreakers, these are the top teams in their respective conferences. I expect a highly competitive game, but am leaning towards Chicago winning due to the Jackets playing last night and having to travel.
The Vegas Golden Knights saw the numbers about franchises making their regular season debuts and told statisticians to shove ’em, as they beat the Dallas Stars 2-1 in yesterday’s DtFR Game of the Day series.
Who woulda thunk it?
In fact, it wasn’t simply a win by an expansion team, but a come-from-behind victory. With 2:59 remaining in the second period, F Tyler Seguin (F Devin Shore and D John Klingberg) tipped-in a power play to give the Stars the advantage with only 22:59 of action remaining.
But he wasn’t done. Neal followed up that marker with what proved to be the game-winning goal with 2:44 remaining in regulation. Assisted by former Star C Cody Eakin and D Jason Garrison, Neal dropped to both knees in the slot to elevate his wrist shot to the far post over G Kari Lehtonen, securing the Knights’ first-ever victory.
First Star G Marc-Andre Fleury earned his first victory in a non-Penguins sweater by saving 45-of-46 shots faced (.978 save percentage), leaving the loss to Lehtonen who saved nine-of-11 (.818). Lehtonen replaced starter G Ben Bishop four minutes into the third period after being cut by a shot from W Reilly Smith, forcing him to be pulled and receive medical attention. Bishop had saved all 19 shots he faced before leaving the game.
Road teams in the DtFR Game of the Day series are off to an impressive start, as they have a three-point advantage on hosts with their 3-1-0 record.