Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones (3) celebrates his goal against the Vancouver Canucks in overtime of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
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The young Blue Jackets, with a ‘new culture,’ are the NHL’s biggest surprise

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are the latest proof that the NHL is a young man’s game.

The Jackets won their ninth in a row Sunday in Vancouver, giving head coach John Tortorella his 500th career win. It has been a dramatic turnaround for this team that finished 2015-16 with the league’s fourth-worst record. So far this season, Columbus is 20-5-4 and boasts the NHL’s highest points percentage, the best offense, the second-best goals-against, and the best power play.

“When I came halfway through last year, things were already pretty south,” said defenseman Seth Jones, the overtime hero against the Canucks. “But this year, it definitely feels like a different atmosphere, new culture. We have an identity this year, which is something we need.”

Jones, 22, is just one of the talented youngsters on the squad. His dynamic defensive partner, Zach Werenski, is the youngest at 19. Meanwhile, Alexander Wennberg is still only 22, Boone Jenner 23, and Brandon Saad 24. Even some of the veterans aren’t that old. Brandon Dubinsky only turned 30 in April, Nick Foligno and Jack Johnson are 29, Sergei Bobrovsky is 28, and Cam Atkinson just 27.

“I think we’re a pretty good hockey team right now,” said Jones. “We can’t get too ahead of ourselves, but for years to come, we have 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds on this team that are going to be pretty special players in this league.”

It was suggested to Tortorella that having such a young, impressionable team has made it easier to get his message across.

Read more: Jackets are far better fit for Torts than Canucks

After all, this is the same coach who failed so spectacularly in his one year with the veteran-laden, “stale” Canucks.

But he wasn’t buying that theory.

“It’s easy to get buy-in when you have some success, and we’ve had some success early on here,” said Tortorella. “I don’t think it’s ever young or old, I think it’s how you sell it, how you communicate with your team. I think with different personnel, you may be communicating differently. That’s part of our job, that’s one of the biggest chores of our job, as a coaching staff, is how you get to them, how you make them understand what we’re looking to happen here.”

To be sure, it has been a process for Tortorella, who took over early last season and did not have immediate success. The Jackets went a modest 34-33-8 under his watch, and he lashed out at times, saying things like, “I see weakness. I think we’re weak mentally, and it’s not the kids. I worry about the kids getting into bad habits by watching other people.”

What does he see today?

“We’ve got some good leadership that I think is growing,” he said. “It was one of my points of contention last year, I don’t think we had leadership in doing it the right way and raising the standard. I think everybody has their finger in the pie right now, not just the coaches, but all the players too.”

The Jackets return home for three tough games before the Christmas break. Tuesday it’s Los Angeles, Thursday it’s Pittsburgh, and Friday’s it’s Montreal.

The second half of the season may be more of a challenge for Tortorella and his charges, because the way things are going, the days of taking this team for granted are gone.

Deadline target Streit says ‘it’s too early’ for extension talks in Philly

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 09:  Mark Streit #32 of the Philadelphia Flyers completes a pass against the Carolina Hurricanes on April 9, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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Yesterday, we touched on the dynamic at play between Buffalo and veteran captain Brian Gionta.

Today, a similar situation to discuss — but it’s in Philly, and involves alternate captain Mark Streit.

Streit, 39, is in the last of a four-year, $21 million deal with a $5.25M cap hit. Like Gionta, he’s a pending UFA and — also like Gionta — has a limited no-trade clause (Streit can list 10 teams he’d accept a trade to.)

Like the Sabres, the Flyers are in a tricky spot.

Right on the wild card bubble, they’re cognizant that a veteran presence like Streit — who has 17 points in 35 games, averaging 19:43 per night — would be valuable come playoff time.

But if Philly falls out of playoff contention, Streit would undoubtedly be an asset worth flipping at the deadline. It’s something the team is surely aware of.

The Swiss rearguard has more than 30 games of playoff experience and, as we’ve seen at previous deadlines, the return for rental defensemen can be high.

More on this situation, from the Burlington County Times:

So if the Flyers were to keep him past the deadline and offer him a new contract, would he be willing to stay?

“At this point, I just want to play and I want to make it into the playoffs with the Flyers,’’ the Swiss native said. “That’s on my mind. I love it here, love playing for the Flyers.”

The subject of a new contract is tricky because the Flyers are currently right on the bubble for a playoff spot.

There’s really no point in opening contract negotiations if he’s only going to be here another five weeks, is there?

“Not yet, it’s too early,’’ Streit said. “I’d like to stay here. I’ve been part of this organization for four years now. I love the guys, I believe in the group.”

Flyers GM Ron Hextall told the Times he hasn’t made any decisions on his UFAs, adding he’s in no rush to sign them.

There’s actually quite a lot of business for Hextall on that front — in addition to Streit, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz, Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth are all up on July 1 — so it’s not surprising he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.

As for Streit, he said he’d like to stick in Philly beyond this year… and, per the Times, even joked with reporters that he’d love to sign another four-year deal.

We assume he was joking, anyway.

Sens nab Wingels in trade with Sharks

SAN JOSE, CA - NOVEMBER 25:  Tommy Wingels #57 of the San Jose Sharks looks to pass the puck while covered by Artem Anisimov #15 of the Chicago Blackhawks at SAP Center on November 25, 2015 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Ottawa Senators have acquired forward Tommy Wingels from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for two AHL forwards, Buddy Robinson and Zack Stortini, and a 2017 seventh-round draft pick.

The Sens announced the trade via Twitter. As part of the deal, the Sharks will retain 30 percent of Wingels’ $2.6 million salary this season. The 28-year-old is a pending unrestricted free agent. His total cap hit is $2.475 million.

Wingels has just five goals and three assists in 37 games this season, and his average ice time under head coach Pete DeBoer had fallen from 13:38 last season to just 10:03.

Perhaps he’ll find a bigger role now under Guy Boucher. Wingels is expected to join the Sens tomorrow in Ottawa.

In a press release, Sharks GM Doug Wilson called Wingels “a valuable member of our franchise for many years, a phenomenal teammate and a true role model on and off the ice for our organization and the NHL.”

Wilson added, “As a team evolves and younger players push for roster spots, unfortunately tough decisions have to be made. We wish Tommy and his wife, Molly, nothing but success in the future.

“We also want to welcome Buddy and Zach to our organization. They add size and depth to our reserve list and we look forward to having them in San Jose.”

It’s crunch time for the Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop stays on the ice after giving up a goal to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Michael Stone during the second period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
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The Tampa Bay Lightning are desperate for wins.

How desperate?

Well, it’s estimated they’ll have to win around 21 of their final 34 games in order to make the playoffs.

So, pretty darn desperate.

It is shocking, frankly, that the Lightning have found themselves in this position. After 48 games, they sit dead last in the Eastern Conference with a record of 21-22-5. Even without Steven Stamkos, most observers thought they’d hang in there.

But if it’s not one thing (allowing too many goals), it’s been another (not scoring enough) for Jon Cooper’s bunch. Heading into tonight’s game in Chicago, the Bolts have just two wins in their last 10 games.

Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Coyotes, one of the NHL’s worst teams, was a low point.

“Disappointing is probably not even the right word,” veteran forward Brian Boyle said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “We’ve got to do a better job in (the room), I guess, especially the veteran guys. It’s got to be way better from the start, maybe in preparation? Obviously, our focus wasn’t where it needed to be. That’s a hard one to swallow.”

The Lightning outshot the Coyotes by a big margin, 48-23, but for the 13th time this season they lost a game in regulation despite finishing ahead on the shot clock. Only Carolina (17) and Boston (15) have lost more games that way. 

In a related story, Ben Bishop‘s save percentage has fallen from .926 last season, when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist, to .905. He was pulled Saturday after allowing five goals on just 17 shots.

To be fair, Bishop had played well in his three previous starts since returning from an injury. But Saturday was a bad time to have a bad game. Those were two points the Lightning really needed, and they didn’t even get one.

Tampa Bay has two games before the All-Star break — tonight in Chicago and Thursday at the Panthers in Sunrise.

That game Thursday will be huge for both teams, each of which went into the season with high hopes, before injuries and other frustrations arose.

The reality now is that both Florida clubs are likely to miss the playoffs. Yes, there’s still time to climb out of their respective holes, but the odds say they’ll probably fail.

Sabres welcome back oft-injured Kulikov, who has missed 26 games

CALGARY, AB - OCTOBER 18: Dmitry Kulikov #77 of the Buffalo Sabres in action against the Calgary Flames during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on October 18, 2016 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
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Dmitry Kulikov‘s first year in Buffalo has largely been defined by his lingering back injury, but he’ll set about changing that narrative when he returns to the lineup tonight in Nashville.

Today, Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma confirmed Kulikov would play for the first time since Dec. 27, having missed nearly a month with his lingering ailment.

Kulikov also missed 13 games earlier in the year with the same back problem.

Acquired at last year’s draft in a deal that sent Mark Pysyk to Florida — along with picks being exchanged — Kulikov was expected to play a big role in Buffalo this season, and projected to play on the club’s top defensive pairing with Rasmus Ristolainen.

“You watch Florida when they go on the PK; he was the first guy on the ice, when they needed a goal on the playoffs he was on the ice, when they needed to protect a lead late in the game he was on the ice,” Sabres GM Tim Murray said at the time of the trade, per NHL.com. “So we certainly liked what we saw.”

All told, the 26-year-old Russian’s appeared in just 20 games this year, registering a single point. He has averaged over 22 minutes per, though — meaning head coach Dan Bylsma has used Kulikov quite a bit, when available.

Kulikov didn’t take this morning’s skate, so no clear indication on who he’ll pair with this evening.