Blue Jackets might make playoffs, but work remains to attract fans

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With a 37-30-6 record, this is shaping up to be one of the best seasons in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets. That’s a pretty sad statement, even after acknowledging the fact that the franchise only debuted in 2000-01.

Maybe that’s why fan interest in the Blue Jackets remains an area that’s lacking, even as the on-ice product seems to be moving in the right direction. Despite bolstering the number of season ticket holders they have compared to the shortened campaign, the Blue Jackets’ average home attendance has actually dropped this season and ranks 29th in the league at 13,959, per ESPN.com.

Only the Phoenix Coyotes have done worse and both teams are well behind the Dallas Stars, which rank 28th with an average of 14,477 fans. TV viewership for the Blue Jackets is similarly down and ranks 29th in the NHL.

“We’ve still got work to do with some folks, and we’ve not shied away from that,” Blue Jackets’ president of hockey operations John Davidson told the Columbus Dispatch. “People have been disappointed by their hockey team here through the years, and so we have a lot to prove to those people.”

This isn’t an issue the Blue Jackets can hope to completely solve by the summer, but they can certainly take some important steps in the right direction.

They are in the thick of the battle for an Eastern Conference Wild Card spot and if they get to the first round, that might spark renewed interest and excitement in the franchise. That would be especially true if they manage to at least make things interesting in the first round after they got swept in their only postseason series to date.

That’s the underlining theme as they prepare for tonight’s game against Carolina. They aren’t just fighting for a postseason spot. They are competing to win over a market that wants to start seeing results.

Report: Panthers want Jagr back (just for less money)

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Jaromir Jagr made $4 million with the Florida Panthers last season. The team wants him back in 2017-18, but at least a mild discount, according to the Miami Herald’s George Richards.

Ultimately, the Panthers may remain the best fit for the 45-year-old, although it would be awfully interesting to see what kind of interest Jagr would draw if he truly put “feelers” out there.

Jagr saw a reduction in production last season, generating 16 goals and 46 points after a spellbinding 27-goal, 66-point campaign in 2015-16.

(He actually seemed to rotate such years, as he had 47 points in 2014-15 after generating 67 in 2013-14).

Of course, beyond the production, Jagr brings name recognition. He also continues to chase history; Jagr currently ranks third all-time in goals (765), with at least an outside chance to be the third NHL player to cross the 800-goal mark. Jagr may also want to boost his second all-time points mark of 1,914 to 2,000.

For a team struggling for relevance (not to mention a clear direction), having a box office draw isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Sorting out Jagr’s situation isn’t the only key decision for (reinstated?) Panthers GM Dale Tallon, who gets to assert his viewpoint on a team with about $20 million in cap space. Then again, for the Panthers, there’s always the battle between cap space and their actual budget.

Will Jagr be worth the money? Could he leave for greener pastures? It likely won’t be long before we get some answers.

Report: Kings among several teams in contact with Joe Thornton

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Yesterday, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported 12 teams were in contact with San Jose’s Joe Thorton who, on Saturday, will become an unrestricted free agent.

Now, it’s been revealed that one of those teams is also one of San Jose’s biggest rivals — the Los Angeles Kings.

Per LA Kings Insider, the Kings have “been in contact” with Thornton, who just wrapped the last of a three-year, $20.25 million deal with a $6.75M average annual cap hit.

More:

On top of Thornton’s abilities are his relationships with key figures in Los Angeles’ front office. He played with Kings General Manager Rob Blake in San Jose, while Senior Advisor to the General Manager/Development Mike O’Connell was Thornton’s general manager when he played in Boston.

On top of these relationships, Thornton also remains very close with Glen Murray, a figure in Los Angeles’ player development, and I’m told the two, who played together with the Bruins for three and a half seasons, regularly communicate.

LeBrun reported that staying with the Sharks remains Thornton’s No. 1 option, but it’s pretty clear interest in him is sky-high — and coming from a number of different places.

Los Angeles has been making moves to clear cap space, recently buying out the remainder of defenseman Matt Greene’s contract. The Kings also lost blueliner Brayden McNabb to Vegas at the expansion draft.

What happens with Marian Gaborik‘s $4.875M cap hit remains to be seen. The veteran winger underwent an offseason procedure for a “chronic” knee issue and, depending on his recovery, could open the year on long-term injured reserve.

Thornton would give L.A. a formidable one-two punch at center along with Anze Kopitar (and a truly formidable 1-2-3 punch with Kopitar and Jeff Carter, for that matter). It’s also worth noting that as he’s gotten longer in the tooth, Thornton has successfully platooned as a winger — most notably during San Jose’s Stanley Cup run in 2016.

Update: The Kings are the most interesting team connected to Thornton thanks to their location and status as San Jose’s rival, but Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman notes some other interesting suitors: the Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers.

5. He’s staying low profile — and there is serious doubt he actually wants to leave San Jose — but there is a list of teams who want to peer inside Joe Thornton’s head. At the draft, there was a lot of talk it would take a three-year deal to lure him. Potential suitors include Columbus, Los Angeles, Montreal and the Rangers. I could see Toronto having interest, but I’m not certain. There was a time Detroit appealed to him, but it doesn’t seem right now for either side. It looks like San Jose is closing in on extensions for Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (both can be announced on Saturday), so we’re all waiting to see what is left for Thornton and/or Patrick Marleau. I’m really fascinated by the Blue Jackets, who are going all-in over the next two years and will try something big. Toronto is quieter about its intentions, but don’t forget that Mike Babcock has plenty of Team Canada history with both Marleau and Thornton.

Friedman also makes passing mention of Thornton eventually leaving for Switzerland. Interesting stuff.

Busy Blackhawks bring back Pokka, reportedly let Rasmussen walk

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A busy off-season for the Chicago Blackhawks continued with some smaller moves that may still surprise some.

The eyebrow-raiser, at least in some quarters, came when the Blackhawks decided not to hand Dennis Rasmussen a qualifying offer, thus allowing the 26-year-old forward to hit free agency. That news comes from The Athletic’s Scott Powers.

Rasmussen played in 68 games last season (along with three playoff contests), receiving almost 12 minutes of ice time per night. Both were examples of him seeing more of a role in his second year with Chicago.

Still, he didn’t put up big numbers at either the AHL or NHL level, so apparently the Blackhawks decided to spring him free. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reports that the team might have soured on Rasmussen after he rejected an offer for a contract extension back in March.

Powers also notes that Ville Pokka was signed to a one-year deal, opening the door for him to possibly make Chicago’s roster.

These developments aren’t likely to add to what’s already been a frustrating off-season for Joel Quenneville in particular, but this still lines up with a pattern of changes. In the latest edition of “30 Thoughts,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman shares some details of Coach Q’s irritation:

21. Joel Quenneville was at the draft Saturday after not appearing on Friday. He stormed out of a coach’s meeting — in full view of reporters — as news broke of the Chicago trades. It would have been very tough for him to lose Hjalmarsson, one of the NHL’s underappreciated great players.

Quenneville’s cage was already rattled by the firing of assistant Mike Kitchen, so here’s hoping he at least signed off on these latest moves.

Report: Red Wings grant Coyotes permission to interview Todd Nelson

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There’s some activity as far as the Arizona Coyotes’ coaching situation goes, and soon there may be some answers.

As noted during the weekend, the Coyotes were interested in speaking with Todd Nelson, who most recently coached the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate) to a Calder Cup victory. The Red Wings granted Arizona permission to interview Nelson, according to the Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James.

(Red Wings fans are greeting this news with despair.)

It’s not the only noteworthy development, either, as the Arizona Republic’s Sarah McLellan reports that the Coyotes parted ways with associate coach Jim Playfair today. (The Coyotes confirmed the news moments after this post went up.)

This is a time of change for this organization, and some are bristling at the way they’re handling things. Still, there’s also an argument that the team is ultimately making wise choices, and Nelson could end up being a big part of that.

Assuming they convince him to come on board, of course.