2010-2011 NHL season preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

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ricknash2.jpgLast season: (32-35-15, 79 points, 5th in Central Division,14th in Western Conference) To put it bluntly, the Blue Jackets were not good. They fired Ken Hitchcock halfway through the season and let Claude Noel ride things out the rest of the way. They were disjointed, they were bad defensively and they couldn’t score a lick. At least they scored a solid first-round draft pick out of that mess in Ryan Johansen.

Head coach: Scott Arniel takes over as coach and with that he’s going to try and bring in a puck-possession style, transitioning Columbus from a lock-down defense-first team to a team meant to keep the puck and pressure offensively. That doesn’t usually go too well as it takes time to play things out and get the players that fit the system best. Just ask the Minnesota Wild how they’re doing in the post-Lemaire era. Arniel will have his hands full negotiating through a system change. Hopefully GM Scott Howson can be patient with him through it.

Key departures: None. Seriously, they didn’t lose anyone of significance.

Key arrivals: F Ethan Moreau, F Nikita Filatov. Moreau comes over from the Oilers via waiver claim while Filatov returns from Russia after being essentially exiled by Hitchcock. The offensively-starved Blue Jackets could use a guy like Filatov breaking out and fulfilling his potential.

Under pressure: I’m going a little off the radar here and picking on Derick Brassard. When Brassard broke in, he had immediate chemistry with team leader Rick Nash. One injury later, Brassard hasn’t been the same player he appeared he was going to be and on a team that’s in desperate need of having a playmaker on the first line with Nash. Brassard’s regression (36 points and just seven goals last season) was a huge letdown. He’s making $3.2 million against the cap for the next four seasons so it’s high time he steps up and plays like a guy meant to earn that.

stevemason1.jpgProtecting the house: The Blue Jackets will again roll with Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon in goal. The 2009 Calder Trophy winner is coming off a nightmarish season, giving new meaning to the term ‘sophomore slump.’ His save percentage went from .916 in his rookie season to .901 and his goals against average went from 2.29 to 3.06 while recording only half as many shutouts (five compared to 10 the season before). While he benefited from Hitchcock’s system two years ago, he struggled behind it last season and was often left in games to take a beating. If his confidence is shaken, Mason’s struggles could resurface again. Garon is just a backup goalie at this point and if they need to fall back on him to save the team, the Jackets are in big trouble.

Defensively, this team is as weak as it gets. They lack a true shutdown defenseman, they lack a true power play quarterback offensively and while they’ve got nice role fillers they have no absolute presence here. Mike Commodore is a solid defensive defenseman and Anton Stralman has a good shot from the point, but after that things get really iffy. Jan Hejda, Kris Russell, Fedor Tyutin, and lifetime Blue Jacket Rostislav Klesla round out the pack. Marc Methot and Grant Clitsome help fill in when needed. If the team wasn’t concerned with finances they’d likely make a move for a guy like Sheldon Souray or Tomas Kaberle to improve things.

Top line we’d like to see: Let’s get creative. Filatov-Brassard-Nash. Nash has been working out some in camp at right wing so why not give him the playmaker he once had chemistry with in Brassard and a dangling potential star in Filatov and just let them run wild on the ice to see what they can create. This team desperately needs something exciting out on the ice and the slick skating of Filatov mixed with the skill and power of Nash could be a lot of fun. If Filatov isn’t your cup of tea, change it to Jakub Voracek and let them get rough and tumble out there with a wrecking ball-ish line.

Oh captain, my captain: Nash is the captain and much like Jarome Iginla in Calgary, he’s the whole show and the whole reason people want to watch their team. On a team severely lacking in offense last season, Nash still scored 33 goals to lead the team. He tries to lead by example doing everything he possibly can to help the team win and God love him, but there’s only so much a single man can do. The only thing left to wonder about this season is how many alternate captains will Nash have as his executive committee. The current Blue Jackets roster lists off six players as wearing the ‘A.’ That’s just goofy.

jaredboll1.jpgStreet fighting man: If there’s anything the Jackets have been good at over the years it’s fighting. Whether it was Jody Shelley back in the day or David Ling getting the call out of the minors to run around and be a maniac, they always had fighters going for them. Now it’s up to Jared Boll to be the one to show them the way of the fist. Last season, Boll had 21 fighting majors and with a holy terror like Derek Dorsett running around and creating havoc, Boll’s job is a tough one. Not that Dorsett has anything against dropping the gloves — he had seven fighting majors last season — but Boll is the heavyweight with Dorsett the cruiserweight.

Best-case scenario: If Brassard can regain his form and abilities with Nash, they both can have huge seasons. With Antoine Vermette, Kristian Huselius and Voracek doing their part as well. Columbus can have two solid scoring lines. The forwards play the way they look like they can and all play their roles to the max and get strong, serviceable play from the defense while Mason regains his rookie-season form, the Blue Jackets could push for a playoff spot. That’s a lot of ifs and variables, however.

Worst-case scenario: Brassard continues to struggle and Nash goes without a guy that can help set him up. Filatov and Voracek have middling seasons while guys like Vermette and R.J. Umberger check in with average seasons that seem better in comparison because the team is struggling. The defense plays as bad as advertised and Mason plays more like he did last season and the Blue Jackets are instant front-runners for the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.

Keeping it real: With as much promise as there is with this team with guys like Voracek, Brassard and Filatov, along with a guaranteed producer like Nash, there’s reasons to be hopeful. It’s just a question of when or if it’ll be fulfilled. With the brand of hockey that Arniel wants to play, however, he doesn’t have the players in place to make that successful right away. Counting on breakout seasons for the young guys they’ve got is wishful thinking. For now, this is not a playoff team and may still end up being one of the worst in the league.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Blue Jackets are a definitive 1. They’re in no way a threat to win the Stanley Cup. They barely have a defensive unit fit to win the Calder Cup in the AHL, and their scoring depth, while loaded with all kinds of potential has to show up in a big way to clear up any kinds of doubts. Mason is coming off a terrible season that casts doubts on his ability to carry a team. Unless Arniel catches lightning in a bottle the way Joe Sacco did in Colorado last year, this team isn’t even a threat to make the playoffs.

Beleskey expected to miss six weeks with right knee injury

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 20:  Matt Beleskey #39 of the Boston Bruins takes a shot against New Jersey Devils  during the third period at TD Garden on October 20, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeat the Devils 2-1.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Boston Bruins are expected to be without forward Matt Beleskey for the next six weeks because of a right knee injury.

That update came from the Bruins on Monday. Boston was victorious over the Florida Panthers in overtime, but Beleskey wasn’t in the lineup.

The Bruins have now won three in a row and four of their last five games.

Beleskey suffered the injury in a collision in the neutral zone with Taylor Fedun during Saturday’s game. He left the game and didn’t return, after his knee drove into the hip of Fedun as the Sabres defenseman pivoted.

In 24 games with the Bruins this season, Beleskey has two goals and five points.

The Penguins are playing a brand of hockey from another era — and it’s a treat for hockey fans

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 08:  Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins is congratulated by teammates after scoring a goal against the Edmonton Oilers at PPG PAINTS Arena on November 8, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Matt Kincaid/Getty Images)
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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins are doing their part this season to single-handedly address the NHL’s ongoing goal scoring shortage.

At both ends of the ice.

After their 8-5 win over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night — an insane game that featured both teams making a goaltending change, a hat trick, a penalty shot, a fluke goal bouncing off the glass, three replay reviews, and a random appearance by actors Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston in the stands — the Penguins find themselves at the top, and bottom, of pretty much every major offensive and defensive category.

Just consider:

  • Their 3.31 goals per game average is the second best in the NHL behind only the New York Rangers.
  • Their 3.04 goals against average is the fourth worst ahead of only Dallas, Arizona, Toronto and Philadelphia.
  • They are averaging 34.7 shots on goal per game, tops in the league and more than a full shot per game better than the No. 2 team (Chicago).
  • They are giving up 32.6 shots on goal per game, the second worst mark in the league ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes.

When it comes to the latter two points they outshot Ottawa by a 46-34 margin on Monday night, making it the fourth time in the NHL this season a team recorded at least 45 shots on goal and surrendered at least 34 in a single game.

The Penguins have played in three of those games (the other was that 60-shot effort by Columbus over the weekend, and that game went to overtime. The Penguins did all of three of theirs in regulation).

An important thing to keep in mind about that stat: There were only seven such games like that all of last season. For the entire NHL. By all 30 teams. Combined. Only one team (Philadelphia) played in more than one, and nobody played in more than two. The Penguins have played in three in their first 26 games.

Monday’s game was already the 13th time this season (in only 26 games) where they have faced a two-goal deficit at some point in the game when they trailed 4-2 midway through the second period. They have now won six of those games, and are 5-6-1 when they have trailed after two periods. In one of those regulation losses they actually overcome a three-goal deficit, tied the game, and then gave up the winner in the closing minute.

A lot of this is the result of having a team that rolls out four lines of forwards every night that possess the ability to score (including three of the most talented forwards in the league in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel), combined with a blue line that is made up almost entirely of puck-movers and offensive-minded defensemen.

On one hand, it is an absolutely thrilling and captivating brand of hockey to watch. It is a throwback to the 1980s and early 1990s when wide open 8-5 games were fairly common. It is showcasing skill during a time when defense, structure and goaltending have dominated the league.

Because of that, is also not a style of play that has resulted in a lot of success in this era.

Over the past 10 years only one team has won the Stanley Cup finishing worse than seventh in the league in goals against (the lowest ranking over that stretch: The 2008-09 Penguins were 17th. Six of the Cup winners were in the top-two, including three that were the best in the league).

Only one other Cup-winning team during that stretch finished worse than 10th on the penalty kill (the 2010-11 Bruins, who were 16th). The Penguins are currently 29th.

These are areas they clearly need to address and correct (and they know it), because you are not always going to be able to rely on erasing a two-goal deficit in the playoffs no matter how great your offense is, and you are not always going to be able to put a five-or six-spot on the scoreboard.

The funny thing about this is the Penguins are returning pretty much the exact same roster from their 2015-16 Stanley Cup winning team. They are still a team built on speed and playing fast, a recipe that drove them to that championship just a few months ago. But that team excelled in a lot of the important defensive areas. They held opponents to less than 30 shots per game. They were sixth in the NHL in goals against and fifth in the league on the penalty kill.

After Monday’s game, coach Mike Sullivan talked about the importance of playing a “speed” game without necessarily turning it into a track meet.

“We certainly want to play a speed game because that is when we are at our best,” Sullivan said. “We try to distinguish between a speed game and a track meet. For me, we want to play a speed game and use our speed to advantage, but also not feed their transition game and allowing a track meet where you are trading chance for chance. Sometimes I think when we get away from our game a little we have a tendency to get into that track meet a little bit.”

He continued:

“For me it starts with out decisions with the puck. When you look at the makeup of our team we are a team that wants to play with the puck, so we want to make plays instinctively, but when we recognize the danger zones and when the plays aren’t there to be made, that is when we force teams to play 200 feet and that is when we become a more difficult team to play against. That is playing a speed game. So we try to distinguish between those two things.”

All of this is what makes this current team and the way it is playing so fascinating.

Almost every game quickly devolves into madness, and their record so far is great. But they are clearly not playing the way they want.

In the meantime, it is an absolute treat for hockey fans that are starving for more speed, skill and goals to take over the league.

‘I’m going to address it harshly,’ says Trotz of Ovechkin’s penalty trouble

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 15: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on against New York Islanders during the second period at Verizon Center on October 15, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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There is no question the Washington Capitals are having difficulty through this portion of their season, with losses to the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning to begin the month of December.

They snapped their recent three-game skid with a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

Marcus Johansson scored twice, including the tying goal late in the third period and the winner in OT. Jay Beagle had a goal and six shots on net. It’s a step in the right direction for a team Barry Trotz said still needs to be better at five-on-five.

He’s also still unhappy with the penalties taken by Alex Ovechkin, who had another minor for slashing against the Sabres. Trotz has already expressed concern for the time his captain is spending in the penalty box and the coach has once again vowed to deal with the problem.

“Unacceptable,” Trotz told reporters.

“He’s a leader. He can’t take those penalties. He’s got to be on the right side. I’m going to address it harshly with him tomorrow.”

It’s a tough loss for the Sabres, who were just over six minutes away from a win. It could’ve been worse. Jack Eichel, who suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the season, was hurt in the second period.

He got tangled up with Dmitry Orlov along the boards and struggled to the bench. There was a shot of him on the bench in obvious pain, but he did return to the game.

Sam Gagner has been ‘a great story’ for the surprising Blue Jackets

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Sam Gagner #89 of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrates his second goal of the game for a 4-0 lead over the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center on October 28, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Columbus Blue Jackets just keep on winning, remaining one of the big surprises so far this season — provided their last two performances were against the Arizona Coyotes.

We’ve seen the emergence of Zach Werenski. And Alexander Wennberg continues to impress.

But what about Sam Gagner? At 27 years old, he’s another interesting story on this early-season surprise of a team. Signed by the Blue Jackets at the beginning of August to a one-year contract worth only $650,000, Gagner is off to a very strong start with his new team.

For the Blue Jackets, they have received tremendous bang for their buck with this signing.

Gagner scored twice in Monday’s 4-1 win over the Coyotes, giving him 10 goals this season. He also had two assists. Again, this is against a young, rebuilding Arizona team, but still, Gagner has provided Columbus with additional offense, with 17 points in 23 games.

He has already eclipsed his point total from last season, basically in half the time. He had 16 points with the Flyers — in 53 games.

“He’s applied himself,” coach John Tortorella recently told FanRag Sports Network. “When I had him at center, for some reason, it wasn’t working. When we moved him to wing, things started happening for him. He seems more comfortable on the wing and he can play both sides, too.

“He’s scored some big goals for us and helps us on the power play. He knows that this is probably his last kick at the can, and it’s amazing what it does for athletes [who are] thinking ‘man, this is where I’m at right now.’ I think he has done some soul-searching and to me, right now, it’s a great story.”

He’s part of a Columbus team competing right now for top spot in the Metropolitan Division. In December.

That’s a pretty good story, too.