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What’s wrong with the Blue Jackets?

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After putting together a solid campaign last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets came out of the gate strong in 2017-18. They won five of their first six games and it looked like they were going to be a shoe-in to make the playoffs again. But after a good start, things have fallen apart in a hurry.

As of right now, they’re clinging to the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. They’re tied with the Islanders for that spot, but they do own a game in hand. The Hurricanes, who have also played one more game than the Jackets, are one point back.

So, it’s safe to suggest that Columbus is far from a lock to make the playoffs at this point.

“You pick up the standings today, we’re right in the middle of it,” head coach John Tortorella said on Wednesday, per the team’s website. “That’s where we’re going to look to the next day. I’m going to show ’em stuff [Thursday], as far as some of the things that I think we’re getting more consistent at, as I’ve talked about some inconsistencies with our team, and just get it ready for our next game.

“Like I was talking to the coaches today [about], I’m excited about the challenge of the struggle that we’re in right now, by where we could go if we just stay within [ourselves]. That’s when you become a better team. So, it’s going to be a grind. I’m not sure where we come out at the end, but it’s certainly an opportunity to find out something about yourself as a coach, an individual coach and a coaching staff; individual player and team concept as a team, to find out what you can do here.”

It’s good to see that Tortorella is embracing the struggles and using them as an opportunity to improve his team, but why are they having such a hard time of late? Let’s take a deeper look.

Where are the goals?

In 2016-17, only the Penguins, Wild, Capitals, Rangers and Leafs scored more than the Blue Jackets, who had 249 goals. Cam Atkinson (35) and Nick Foligno (26) led the way in that category last year. But they also got double digit goal totals from 10 other players.

Their top scorer in 2017-18 is Josh Anderson, who has 16 goals in 51 games. Artemi Panarin, who was acquired from Chicago for Brandon Saad, leads the team in points with 42 in 53 games. Those are respectable totals, but the players who were big contributors last year just haven’t been able to replicate the same offensive totals.

Atkinson has been a shell of the player he was last year. Even before he missed 11 games with a foot injury last month, he was already struggling badly. The 28-year-old has just eight goals and 17 points in 37 contests. That’s not enough production from a guy that signed a seven-year, $41.125 million extension at the beginning of the year.

Foligno, who had 51 points in 79 games last season, is on pace to 15 goals and 34 points over 82 games this year. Again, it’s easy to see why the team’s offensive totals have dried up.

In 13 games since the start of 2018, the Blue Jackets have scored two goals or fewer in 10 of those outings (Not counting goals they got for winning the shootout). Clearly, that’s not a recipe for success.

Special Teams struggles

It’s no secret that the Blue Jackets power play has been abysmal for most of the year. Even when things were going well for them in terms of wins and losses, they couldn’t score goals on the man-advantage. They’re the only team in the league that has converted on less than 15 percent of the power play opportunities. Yes, that part of their game has been better lately, but they still have a long way to go.

To make matters worse, their penalty killing has also struggled pretty badly of late. Their PK ranks fifth from the bottom at 75.2 percent. Columbus has dropped four games in row and six of their last seven. In those seven games, they’ve given up power play goals to Erik Haula and Brad Hunt in a 6-3 loss to Vegas, Brendan Perlini in a 2-1 win over Arizona, Jason Zucker in a 3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota, Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc in a 3-1 loss to San Jose, Nick Leddy in a 4-3 loss to the Islanders and John Carlson in a 3-2 loss to Washington.

Outside of the ugly loss to the Golden Knights, all the other games were decided by one or two goals. Executing on special teams is the difference between winning and losing tight decisions right now.

Thankfully for the Jackets, they can continue to lean on one of the best goalies in the league in Sergei Bobrovsky. Despite their recent struggles, they still rank 11th in the league in goals against with 146. Even though his numbers have dipped from last year to this year, he’s still managed to keep them in a lot of games. What would happen if they didn’t have him between the pipes?

Deadline Outlook

It’s become increasingly clear that the Blue Jackets need someone that can put the puck in the net. Many have mentioned a possible reunion with veteran winger Rick Nash. That wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad idea. He spent many years there, which should benefit him when it comes to making the adjustment to his new team. Also, three of Nash’s 16 goals have come on the man-advantage with New York this season. Panarin (five) is the only Blue Jacket that has more than three this year. Nash is just one possibility. If they don’t want to pay for a rental, they could also look to acquire Mike Hoffman from Ottawa.

When it comes to improving the penalty kill, they could look to add a veteran two-way forward. One name that comes to mind is Tomas Plekanec out of Montreal. The Canadiens are out of the playoff picture, so they could be willing to deal the 35-year-old pending unrestricted free agent. Plekanec’s offensive game has deteriorated over the last couple of seasons, but he’s still a useful player.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Penguins will be without Malkin, Hagelin for Game 1 vs. Capitals

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When the Pittsburgh Penguins open their second-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night they will be doing so without two of their top forwards.

Coach Mike Sullivan announced on Wednesday that even though both players skated on their own before practice, neither player will be available for the series opener. It is possible that Malkin will be ready for Game 2, but Hagelin will not even travel with the team to Washington.

Malkin was injured in Game 5 of the Penguins’ opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers when he was involved in a collision with Jakub Voracek. He returned to the game but did not play in the team’s Game 6 series-clinching win.

It was in that game that Hagelin was injured when he was hit by Flyers forward Claude Giroux.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Even with the two injuries the Penguins were still able to score six goals over the final 25 minutes of regulation, including four from Jake Guentzel, to leave Philadelphia with an 8-5 win, winning the series in six games.

Still, this is not a great way for the Penguins to be starting the second round against a better team. One of the big advantages the Penguins have had over the Capitals in the past two years has been their depth as the second-and third-lines did a lot of the damage in each series. Without Malkin and Hagelin, even if it is just for one or two games, they lose a lot of that advantage.

In Malkin’s absence on Sunday the Penguins elevated Riley Sheahan to the second line so they could keep the Derick Brassard, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary line together. That line has been excellent for them since it was put together.

Based on their practice lines from Wednesday that seems to be the way the Penguins will be approaching Game 1 as Sheahan and Dominik Simon skated on the second line next to Phil Kessel, while the Brassard-Rust-Sheary line remained together. Sidney Crosby will continue to center the top line between Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist, while Zach Aston-Reese, Carter Rowney, and Tom Kuhnhackl made up the fourth line.

Related: NHL announces second round opening games.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Heinen over Wingels right choice for Bruins in Game 7

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The Boston Bruins will make one change to their lineup heading into Game 7 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.

Danton Heinen, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6, will be back in the lineup, while Tommy Wingels, who’s played in three of the six games during the series, will watch from the press box again on Wednesday. On paper, this doesn’t seem to be a significant change, but head coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t just making changes for the sake of making changes.

Neither player has made an offensive impact in the series. Wingels has no points and a plus-1 rating in three games, while Heinen has no points and a minus-1 rating in five contests. Even though neither player has popped up on the scoresheet, there’s a significant gap when it comes to their advanced stats. Heinen has a CF% of 49.49, which doesn’t jump off the page, but when you compare it to Wingels’ CF% (39.34), you realize that there’s a significant difference. To further point the arrow in Heinen’s direction, the 22-year-old has zone starts in the offensive zone just 37.5 percent of the time compared to 47.62 percent for Wingels.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

So, in terms of offense, neither player has really contributed, but it appears to be pretty clear that the odds are on Heinen’s side when it comes to the way they’ve played this postseason.

If we take a look at the standard numbers during the regular season, it’s obvious that Heinen was the more productive player. The rookie had 16 goals and 47 points in 77 games, which is far from terrible for his first year in the NHL. Wingels, 30, had nine goals and 18 points in 75 games with the ‘Hawks and Bruins.

Getting an extra night off during the series could help Heinen find his game. And based on his comments after Tuesday’s practice, it sounds like the coaching staff made their instructions clear. Heinen mentioned that he needs to be more assertive, stronger on the puck and he needs to win puck battles so that he can have the puck on his stick a little more often.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

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Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.

PHT Morning Skate: Is Tavares to Avs realistic?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bruce Cassidy has a few important lineup decisions to make heading into Game 7 against the Leafs tonight. Does Danton Heinen come back into the lineup? Should Ryan Donato suit up? (Boston.com)

• It’s no secret that the Canadiens are lacking quality bodies on defense. Winning this weekend’s draft lottery and drafting Rasmus Dahlin would fix a lot of problems. (Sportsnet)

• It was a tough year for Braden Holtby, but he managed to come through at the most crucial time of the season. (Washington Post)

• Bill Peters opting out of his contract with the Carolina Hurricanes was a good thing for his former team because they badly needed a change behind the bench. (Cardiac Cane)

Leo Komarov is healthy, but it seems unlikely that Mike Babcock will play him in Game 7 against the Bruins tonight. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Two Denver Post writers debate whether or not it’s realistic to think that John Tavares could end up in Colorado. (Denver Post)

Shea Theodore has played some good hockey for the Golden Knights this postseason, which isn’t surprising when you look at his body of work in last year’s playoffs. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe is going to be honored by the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation. They’ll be retiring his number ahead of a game against Switzerland. (The Province)

• College basketball has a problem with their “one-and-done” rule. To fix it, they should take a page out of the NHL’s book when it comes to college prospects. (Raleigh News & Observer)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.