PHT’s Pressing Olympic Questions: Can Slovakia surprise again?

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Not much was expected from Slovakia four years ago in Vancouver, and not much is expected heading into Sochi.

But if the Slovaks showed anything in 2010, it’s that expectations don’t mean much.

Despite star power in defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Zdeno Chara and forwards Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra, and Marian Hossa, the team lacked the depth of the major powers and was put in a tough group in Vancouver (Russia, the Czech Republic, and Latvia). Slovakia turned a lot of heads though, beating the Russians in the group stage, edging Sweden 4-3 in the quarterfinals, then dropping hard-fought decisions to Canada and Finland in the semifinal and bronze medal games. The fourth-place finish marked Slovakia’s highest ranking since the NHL began sending players to the Olympics.

So…what will the Slovaks do for an encore?

Let’s put it this way — it would be a far bigger Cinderella story if they finished fourth this time around.

There are a few reasons for that. For one, their top scorer in 2010, Demitra, passed away tragically in the Lokomotiv air disaster. Gaborik, meanwhile, will miss the games due to a broken collarbone and the Slovaks don’t have anyone new on their roster to fill the offensive void, putting tremendous pressure on Hossa to essentially lead the charge on his own.

Slovakia will also be without Visnovsky, the Isles blueliner who returned from a concussion on Jan. 27, but doesn’t feel up to playing in the tournament. Consequently, Slovakia has just four NHL defenseman on the roster, though one of them — Andrej Sekera — is having a banner campaign.

Finally, as challenging as their ’10 group was, the Slovaks drew perhaps even tougher competition this time around as they’ll have to face both Russia and the United States. In the end, their only victory might be against Slovenia, which didn’t even qualify for the 2010 games and only has one NHLer in Anze Kopitar.

All hope isn’t lost, though. When Slovakia was surprising opponents in 2010, goaltender Jaroslav Halak was at the center of it. He turned aside 36 of 37 shots in regulation against Russia and finished with a tournament-high 173 saves.

Following the Vancouver Games, Halak carried the eighth seed Montreal Canadiens past the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2010 playoffs with some spectacular goaltending performances.

He was traded to St. Louis that summer and while he’s had some good seasons with the Blues, injuries have prevented him replicating the playoff success he had as a Hab. This will be our first real chance to see if he’s truly a big game goaltender… or if it was just one magical year.

For his part, Halak doesn’t seem to think Slovakia’s success or failure will come down to him specifically.

“Hopefully we can get it together and play as a team,” Halak told IIHF.com. “We’ll see what happens. We have to play one game at a time. That should be the whole approach.”

So basically they need to be more than the sum of their parts — because when you do the math, they just don’t add up to much.

Under Pressure: Ryan Murray

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This post is part of Blue Jackets Day on PHT…

The Blue Jackets were naturally hoping for great things when they took Ryan Murray with the second overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, but he’ll turn 24-years-old in September and so far he hasn’t consistently lived up to those early expectations.

To be sure, he’s had some bad luck along the way. He suffered a torn labrum while playing in the juniors during the 2012-13 campaign and in the years that’s followed he’s been limited at times by knee and ankle problems. Most recently he missed the last 15 games of the regular season and the Jackets’ playoff run due to a broken hand.

Injuries haven’t been Murray’s only issue though. While they’ve resulted in setbacks along the way, when he was healthy last season he still wasn’t living up to expectations. Seth Jones, David Savard, Jack Johnson, and rookie phenom Zach Werenski served as Columbus’ defensive core while Murray was relegated to more of a supporting role.

That top-four core isn’t particularly old either as Johnson is the most senior member at the age of 30. Johnson is on the final season of his contract, but unless the Blue Jackets can’t re-sign him, Murray has no simple path back into prominence. He’ll have to get there through merit alone and he’ll want to demonstrate his ability to do so this season given that he’ll be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2018.

“It’s a big summer for Ryan; for him and for us,” Blue Jackets president John Davidson noted to the Columbus Dispatch in April. “He knows it. We’ve had good talks with him. He’s had good talks with our strength and conditioning people, our doctors.

“He’s a good hockey player, and we’ve seen some good things from him. He’s had bad injury luck without question, but he’s going to overcome that. He’s at the age now where he’s not a young pup.”

Players at his age are still typically regarded as having upside, but also beginning to transition away from the point where they’re regarded as prospects. There won’t be many more years where Murray will be looked at as a potential top defenseman if he doesn’t force himself into that role soon.

Alfredsson left front office job with Sens to be ‘stay-at-home dad for a while’

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Many people were surprised to see Daniel Alfredsson leave his role as senior advisor of hockey operations with the Ottawa Senators.

The reason for his departure was unclear at the time (he walked away in July), but he finally spoke to the Ottawa Sun during a golf tournament on Monday.

“I have a couple of projects on the go, but nothing major,” said Alfredsson, who added that he wants to be a “stay-at-home dad for a while.”

“Once school starts, it’s full on with activities with the kids. We’re moving into a new house here in the fall, so we have a lot of planning to do with that. So, it’s going to be a quiet year for me, overall.”

The 44-year-old, who has four boys, is moving into a new house in Ottawa, and says the family will live there for the foreseeable future.

Despite stepping away from the NHL for now, he also admitted that he wouldn’t mind jumping back into a team’s front office if the right opportunity presented itself.

“If that opportunity would come back again, I would look at it very hard. It’s what I know best. It’s what I love, as well. I can see that in the future at some point. But when, I don’t know.”

Alfredsson spent all but one of his 17 seasons playing for the Sens. He put up 444 goals and 1157 points in 1246 contests with Ottawa and Detroit.

Poll: Will the Blue Jackets get past the first round of the playoffs?

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This post is part of Blue Jackets Day on PHT…

The Columbus Blue Jackets have made the playoffs three times in their franchise’s history, but they’ve never been able to make it out of the first round.

In 2009, when they were still in the Western Conference, the Blue Jackets were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. They scored one goal or less in three of four games.

During the 2014 postseason, they were tied 2-2 in their best-of-seven series against the Penguins, but they dropped Games 5 and 6, and they were eliminated.

Last spring, again, they went up against the Penguins. After a solid regular season, the Jackets dropped the first three games of the series before being knocked out in five.

Despite picking up 108 points during the regular season, Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen made some major changes in the off-season. They bought out Scott Hartnell, and they traded Brandon Saad, Anton Forsberg and a draft pick for Artemi Panarin, Tyler Motte and a draft pick.

There’s no doubt that Panarin adds another dynamic to the Jackets’ attack.

“Artemi Panarin was the best rookie in the NHL two years ago, a second team All-Star this past season and is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the NHL,” Kekalainen told the team’s website. “There is a cost to adding a player like Artemi, as well as a very good NHL prospect in Tyler Motte, but we believe this is a very good move for our team.”

Panarin struggled to produce during the playoffs, but the entire ‘Hawks team seemed to be lacking in the scoring department. He finished the postseason with one assist and a minus-4 rating in four games.

The previous year, he managed to score seven points in seven playoff games, but the Blackhawks were still knocked out in the first round.

The 25-year-old will be surrounded by some other quality forwards on his new team. Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg are all expected to be back.

On defense, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, David Savard and Jack Johnson provide the Jackets with a solid top-4.

The biggest difference-maker is between the pipes, as Sergei Bobrovsky will look to win his second consecutive Vezina Trophy. Bobrovsky was outstanding throughout 2016-17, and if he can do it all over again, his team will be better for it.

With the Penguins and Capitals still strong options to win the division, any first-round matchup will be tough. Have the Blue Jackets done enough to make a run next spring?

It’s your turn to have your say. Vote in our poll and feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section below.

It’s Columbus Blue Jackets day at PHT

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The Columbus Blue Jackets made franchise history last season, reaching 50 wins and 108 points in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division.

Their campaign included a winning streak of 16 games and putting up 10 goals against the Montreal Canadiens. Consider last season a sizable step forward for this young group and a bounce-back year for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, the Vezina Trophy winner.

Not only was their goalie recognized, but coach John Tortorella won the Jack Adams Award — several months after oddsmakers stated he’d be the first coach fired last season.

Despite a terrific regular season, the Blue Jackets were bested in the opening round by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who would eventually move on to win the Stanley Cup.

Following their playoff defeat, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen pulled off a blockbuster deal with Chicago GM Stan Bowman, as Columbus acquired 2016 rookie of the year Artemi Panarin, forward Tyler Motte and a draft pick in exchange for Brandon Saad, goalie Anton Forsberg and a draft pick next year.

In Panarin, the Blue Jackets get a 25-year-old forward that has reached the 30-goal mark in each of his first two NHL seasons while getting to play on a line with Patrick Kane in Chicago. He also has two more years remaining on his current contract, which carries an annual $6 million cap hit, per CapFriendly.

Columbus also acquired Jordan Schroeder from the Wild and signed him to a two-year contract extension, and bought out veteran forward Scott Hartnell. On Monday, the Blue Jackets signed college free agent defender Doyle Somerby.

Right now, the Blue Jackets still have two restricted free agents in Josh Anderson and Alexander Wennberg to get signed.

Today at PHT, we’ll discuss the key storylines facing the Blue Jackets as training camp approaches.