Getty

‘We took two steps forward, maybe three’: Kekalainen excited about Blue Jackets’ future

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Despite an early exit from the playoffs, Columbus Blue Jackets executives like the team’s development and defensive depth.

However they won’t rule out a trade this summer that would bring another standout goal-scorer to town.

The Blue Jackets, picked by many to finish near the bottom of the stout Metropolitan Division, won a franchise-record 50 games and 108 points on the way to a third-place finish in the division behind Washington and Pittsburgh.

That’s 16 more wins and 32 points better than 2015-16. They were at the center of the hockey world at midseason when they had a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest streak in NHL history.

But the playoffs were a big disappointment. Columbus lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky struggled to get saves at critical times as he had done all season.

“Last year sitting here you probably felt we had taken a step backward, and this year we can feel that we took two steps forward, maybe three,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters Monday.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the 4-1 exit from the playoffs,” he said. “(But) four out of five games we thought we were right there, neck to neck with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“(We) out-chanced them, outshot them, didn’t get the result we wanted. We always try to look behind the results. There were games in that series where we played very well.”

Kekalainen said the organization will stick with its patient strategy of developing players from within. But also possible, he acknowledged, is a big trade or free-agent signing for another scorer who could get them over the hump.

“Do we look for somebody from the outside? Absolutely,” he said. “But we’re going to try to build it with the process in mind that we’ve talked about all along. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s make sure that everything makes sense in the long term as much as it does in the short term.”

Kekalainen and team president John Davidson said the team that lost to Pittsburgh in five games this season was better than the one eliminated by the Penguins 4-2 in 2014.

“I firmly believe in this group going forward,” Davidson said. “We’ve got a good base here, but we’ve gone through a lot of the transition of trying to build your own from within through the draft. I’m pretty positive about this.”

The players are disappointed but also optimistic about the future in Columbus. Everyone finished generally healthy, except for defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who needs hip surgery and four months of recovery.

Nineteen-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski, who took a puck in the face that fractured his cheekbone in a playoff game, is recovering and not expected to suffer any long-term effects.

“We’ve really just been a team that’s just trying to get to the playoffs,” captain Nick Foligno said Saturday when the team gathered for the last time.

“Now the mindset is how are we going to stay, how are we going to do well, how are we going to win? That’s what I’m most excited about is the growth and the mentality.”

Kekalainen is not worried about Bobrovsky, who had a .882 save percentage and a 3.88 goals-against average in the five playoff games after finishing the regular season among the league’s best with a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average. He’s a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

“He knows he needs to be better in the playoffs,” Kekalainen said. “He will be better, I’m convinced. He’s that driven, he’s always looking for ways to get better.”

Nobody wants to get started with another season more than the 28-year-old Russian.

“It’s a tough way to finish the season,” he said. “It’s disappointing. But you have either success or experience. So this time, with this playoff, I had experience and I will learn from it and move on.”

WATCH LIVE: Lightning at Devils

Getty
Leave a comment

The Tampa Bay Lightning visit the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, in a match-up of the early season Atlantic and Metropolitan division leaders.

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone to see the Lightning, with Steven Stamkos in their lineup, among the higher scoring teams so far. The Devils, on the other hand, have enjoyed a great start to their season and are currently third in the league with 4.20 goals-for per game. You can check out tonight’s game on NBCSN (7:30 p.m. PT) or online via the live stream.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

Here are some links to check out for tonight’s game:

The Buzzer: Nikita Kucherov just keeps scoring goals

Kucherov’s star continues to rise, Stamkos sharp as Lightning beat Penguins

‘Fun to watch’ Devils rookie Jesper Bratt off to hot start

Hischier ‘played his way’ into top-six role with Devils

————

Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Test your might: Buckle up for fascinating night in NHL

Getty
Leave a comment

With 11 games on the schedule and a doubleheader on NBCSN, Tuesday provides a veritable buffet for hockey fans.

That volume opens up opportunities, such as getting closer to seeing where the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers really are at, and which one of the struggling San Jose Sharks and Montreal Canadiens can get their second win of the season (note: Montreal at San Jose closes off that NBCSN doubleheader).

It says a lot that a Penguins – Rangers game is intriguing, but not necessarily headline-grabbing.

Oh yeah, and we also get to see how the stubborn Ottawa Senators look now that Erik Karlsson is returning to lineup. There’s really something for everyone tonight.

For the sake of brevity, let’s limit this to four games that should be especially fascinating on Tuesday.

Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals

Remember that fantastic first-round series? The one that ended up being uncomfortably close for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps?

Tuesday could be another thriller, as Alex Ovechkin‘s off to a heck of a start for the up-and-down Capitals (3-2-1), who host the dumb, fun Maple Leafs (4-1-0). It says a lot that, despite only playing five games, Toronto leads the NHL with 26 goals scored. Ovechkin vs. Auston Matthews is rarely not a fun time, in general.

This game may answer some questions, including: “How long can Mike Babcock really push Mitch Marner down the lineup?”

Tampa Bay Lightning at New Jersey Devils

These aren’t your older brother’s boring Devils, but this is increasingly looking like your older brother’s very good Lightning.

Anyway, Tampa Bay (5-1-0) already beat a surprisingly hot Red Wings team on Monday, and now they look to cool off another dark horse in the Devils (4-1-0).

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are doing their usual suspects act for the Lightning, while the Devils are off to the sort of start that has made them one of the most entertaining teams of this early season. It’s not just obvious guys like Taylor Hall or even 2017 top pick Nico Hischier, either, as Will Butcher already has eight assists and Jesper Bratt is currently second on NJ in scoring.

Tampa Bay is closing off a back-to-back, which might make it tougher for them to keep up with this young team in Newark.

This potential barnburner begins NBCSN’s doubleheader at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here.

MORE: Full preview for Lightning – Devils, Canadiens – Sharks

Colorado Avalanche at Nashville Predators

Nashville isn’t too impressive just yet with a 2-2-1 record, but do note that they’re 2-0-1 in their last three games. They’re also getting a chance to eye Matt Duchene, whose feelings might not be totally soothed even though the Avs are off to a 4-2-0 start.

This one stands as an interesting test for the upstart Avalanche, but the Duchene angle might be most interesting. Is he facing his future team here? Could the two squads pull a “Moneyball” and have him change locker rooms tonight? (OK, that’s probably going too far.)

Columbus Blue Jackets at Winnipeg Jets

John Tortorella’s loaded, “safe equals death” group featuring the likes of Zach Werenski versus the ridiculously loaded Jets (Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, so much more)? Yes, please.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Debuts, Returns: Penguins may get Cole back, Rinaldo ends suspension

Getty
3 Comments

There are quite a few interesting lineup notes heading into a busy, fascinating Tuesday night of games. Let’s cover some of them in lightning round fashion.

(This collection isn’t necessarily comprehensive. If you need even more updates, Rotoworld’s NHL news section is your friend.)

  • Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan announced that defenseman Ian Cole is healthy enough to play and a game-time decision. In related news, Cole has relatives who are dentists, which might be the funniest profession for family members of hockey players.

  • Keep your heads up, Dallas Stars. Zac Rinaldo’s five-game suspension has ended, so he’ll make his Arizona Coyotes debut on Tuesday.

Rinaldo, 27, hasn’t made an NHL appearance since the 2015-16 season with the Boston Bruins. He spent last season with the Providence Bruins.

(See the bottom of this post for Rinaldo’s most recent suspension … in the NHL, at least.)

  • Rinaldo isn’t the only debut to watch in Arizona. With Antti Raanta injured and Louis Domingue unable to give the Coyotes their first win of the season, the team turns to Adin Hill for his first-ever NHL start.

Who is Adin Hill, you might ask?

Well, he’s a 21-year-old goalie with some pedigree, as the Coyotes selected him in the third round (76th overall) in 2015. Hill spent most of last season in the AHL, going 16-14-0 with a .906 save percentage for the aptly named Tucson Roadrunners. As you can see from this Sportsnet profile, Hill sports the sort of size NHL teams look for these days.

Left Wing Lock places Tippett on a third line with Jamie McGinn and Jared McCann. Is that enough of an opportunity to get a look at him?

“I have the upside of Phil Kessel—the speed, the shot, the way he can make plays. I also have some things I need to work on to be a 200-foot player,” Tippett said before Panthers training camp, via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox.

Panthers fans should already bat around nickname ideas. Perhaps “Big Red” would work for soda pop fans? Should he steal “Red Rocket” from Bengals QB Andy Dalton?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS:

Rangers, Sharks need to wake up from early slumps

Getty
Leave a comment

It’s already bad news that the New York Rangers (1-5-0) and San Jose Sharks (1-3-0) enter Tuesday’s games with a single win apiece.

There’s a simple reason why those slow starts should sting a little extra, though: these teams are squandering home-heavy stretches, or at risk of doing so.

More on the Rangers’ slow start here

Rangers need to wake up at MSG

There are some reasons to believe in both the Sharks and Rangers, with their long track records of recent regular-season success headlining such arguments. It’s worth noting that the Rangers have played two road contests versus four at home, so the situation isn’t too extreme. Yet.

Things could get ugly in a hurry, starting with a real challenge in hosting the Pittsburgh Penguin at Madison Square Garden tonight:

Tue, Oct 17 vs Pittsburgh
Thu, Oct 19 vs NY Islanders
Sat, Oct 21 vs Nashville
Mon, Oct 23 vs San Jose
Thu, Oct 26 vs Arizona
Sat, Oct 28 @ Montreal
Tue, Oct 31 vs Vegas

By the end of October, the Rangers will have played 10 of 41 home contests. At best, a creaky start could cost them seeding. At worst, they may look back at this when pondering how they missed the postseason.

(It doesn’t help their cause that they’re in the brutal Metropolitan Division, either.)

Beyond the established track record, the Rangers can also point to recent history as an act that travels well. In 2016-17, the Rangers boasted a better record on the road (27-12-2) than at home (21-16-4). While they were better at home in 2015-16, they were also 19-17-5 in away games then, too.

So, it’s not all bad for Alain Vigneault & Co., but they could make life much easier for themselves (and maybe see openings to rest Henrik Lundqvist more often) if they take advantage of these opportunities.

Sharks face erratic runs

San Jose ends a five-game homestand against the mercurial Montreal Canadiens tonight. A 2-3-0 mark in such a run wouldn’t be the end of the world, while going 1-3-1 or 1-4-0 would hurt.

While the Rangers look to October as a time where they need to create some breathing room, the Sharks need to take better advantage of future homestands, as their schedule seems to rotate road trips and runs of home games.

This veteran group readies for a five-game road trip, then they play eight of nine at home from Oct. 30 – Nov. 20.

***

Significant members of both the Sharks and Rangers have “been there before.” Players such as Joe Thornton, Lundqvist, and Rick Nash might view October as insignificant; they’ve each likely been on teams that shook off bad starts, even if it meant squandering bountiful opportunities at home.

You can understand a certain level of complacency, but you never know when you’ll no longer have the spring in your step to make it up that hill once again.

The next month or two isn’t “make-or-break” for the Rangers or Sharks, at least in a literal sense. Then again, wins and standings points weigh the same during an 82-game season, so why not stock up while the schedule bends in your favor?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

MORE FROM NHL ON NBC SPORTS: