Alexander Wennberg

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Blue Jackets are trending up

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A couple of weeks ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz hit the nail on the head in stating that the Columbus Blue Jackets “are not going away.”

Still, for those of us who’ve been impressed by their play and their war chest of prime-age (and nearing the cusp) talent, it’s been a little frustrating to see Columbus stumble a bit here and there through the baby steps of becoming a contender.

While acknowledging the risk of being the blog that cried wolf on this situation, Monday once again presented evidence that the Blues Jackets might just find their stride.

Now, it wasn’t easy against a struggling Buffalo Sabres team on Monday night,* as the Blue Jackets barely protected a 3-2 lead, with this near-goal making people hold their breath:

The overall trend is way up, however, as the Blue Jackets are now on a four-game winning streak. A lot has gone right for Columbus during that span; Sergei Bobrovsky‘s been brilliant, they haven’t allowed a power-play goal, and Artemi Panarin did this on Monday.

Diverse weapons

Columbus can be a scary opponent because they can send waves of quality forwards at opponents, especially with Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand (also perhaps Pierre Luc-Dubois?) emerging as threats. That said, Panarin might rank as their most dangerous “gamebreaker,” so it’s promising to see him score a goalie-had-no-chance brand of goal like that.

Sure, it would have been nice to add even one extra push with, say, Matt Duchene … but there’s a lot to like here, nonetheless.

Actually, I probably should have specified that Panarin is arguably the team’s most dangerous gamebreaker among their forwards.

As Alison Lukan discussed for The Athletic (sub required), the Blue Jackets are allowing their superb defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones to run while as “rovers,” and that’s scary news for opponents. Defensemen given the green light to be aggressive can sometimes be that much tougher to track, and Werenski and Jones have the tools to mix attacking and responsible defense for a potent, frightening mix.

The evolution of Torts

On a similar note, allow me to utter an opinion that isn’t often shared by people who are even mildly interested in “fancy stats” and non-traditional ways of thinking: John Tortorella’s evolution makes me intrigued about this team’s chances.

It’s fair to ding Torts for being stubborn about certain things, yet I wonder if there’s some Mike Babcock to him: the fiery nature of an “old school” coach mixed with the survival instincts and competitiveness needed to actually embrace changes in the league.

Giving Jones and Werenski isn’t the first example of Tortorella going “safe is death” and it’s not the first sign of innovation in Columbus. After all, it took the NHL some time to adapt to the Blue Jackets’ power play last season, which involved using a would-be depth forward (Sam Gagner) in a specialist role that was quite effective and off the beaten path.

Robber Bob

The last reason to be excited about Columbus is fairly straightforward: it sure seems like Sergei Bobrovsky is less streaky and more, perhaps, the best goalie in the world. Or at least the best goalie on enough nights to make this team pretty scary.

Now, does this mean that Columbus won’t stumble again this season? Of course not. Really, we don’t see many teams nearly immune to struggles, and some arguably suffer if they don’t hit much regular-season turmoil (the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Capitals, perhaps?).

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get excited about The Next Big Thing(s) in the NHL, and the Blue Jackets seem like they have the potential to be just that.

* – Check PHT on Tuesday for more on Jack Eichel and his struggling Sabres.

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.

Blue Jackets bet big on Cam Atkinson

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Carrying a $3.5 million cap hit, Cam Atkinson ranked as one of the better bargains in the NHL, especially considering his trip to the 2017 NHL All-Star Game. It sounds like the Columbus Blue Jackets rewarded him for that hard work on Thursday.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports (sub required) that the Blue Jackets signed Atkinson to a seven-year, $40.25 million extension, which translates to a $5.75M cap hit starting in 2018-19. (Confirmed by the team Friday morning.)

Atkinson will turn 29 in June, so his extension will kick in before he turns 30. Portzline explains that Atkinson sacrificed some short-term cash for the security of a longer deal.

Interesting.

PHT broke down the Blue Jacket’s salary cap structure after they signed Alexander Wennberg to a six-year deal that carries a $4.9M cap hit. Atkinson was singled out as one of the big forks in the road for Blue Jackets management, so they made a big commitment to him tonight.

(Note: the Blue Jackets haven’t confirmed the extension, but multiple outlets back up the news Portzline broke.)

It seems like Atkinson checks out pretty nicely from a fancy stats perspective, although the $5.75M question will be: how long will this count as a bargain?

The Blue Jackets are committed to Atkinson for more term than any other player now. That said, they do have some other guys under contracts for three years or more: Wennberg, Seth Jones, David Savard, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Josh Anderson, and Pierre-Luc Dubois (granted, the latter is a cheat since he’s on his rookie deal).

Columbus still has some questions to answer. Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin both only have two years remaining on their deals (counting this season). They need to figure out where Boone Jenner fits in the picture, as he’ll be an RFA next summer. Ryan Murray and Jack Johnson are both on expiring contracts, as well.

Overall, there’s definitely some risk involved in this Atkinson extension, yet we’re talking about a player in his prime who’s riding four consecutive 20+ goal seasons. If he can flirt with his breakthrough of 37 goals in 2016-17 fairly often, the Blue Jackets will be very happy with their decision.

Atkinson had been off to a somewhat slow start in 2017-18 (four goals, two assists in 15 games coming into Thursday), so maybe this extension will ease his mind, too?

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.

Why the Columbus Blue Jackets are not going away

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At the start of the 2016-17 season expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets were, to say the least, low.

They were coming off of a disastrous season the year before, had a roster that was full of what looked to be questionable to perhaps even bad contracts and a coach that nobody really believed in (or wanted to believe in). After losing four of their first six games it seemed as if they were on a path to fulfilling the only expectation anyone had for them — to be a very bad hockey team.

Then a funny thing started to happen. They started to win. A lot. After that initial six-game stretch to start the year they went on an 8-2-2 run over the following 12 games, then ripped off an 18-game point streak that included a 16-game winning streak. They ran into a terrible goal-scoring slump at the end of the regular season, and were then shut down by Marc-Andre Fleury in a first-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that was much closer than the five-game result would seem to indicate.

Usually when a team like Columbus comes flying out of nowhere and is driven by some of the same high shooting percentage and save percentage numbers that the Blue Jackets were there is an expectation that they might come back down to earth. So far this season that has not quite happened, even if you include their recent three-game skid.

As of Wednesday the Blue Jackets are still right in the thick of a heated and incredibly tight Metropolitan Division race, and they have probably played even better than their 9-6-1 record would indicate.

They are one of the top teams in the league when it comes to shot attempt percentage, indicating they are pushing the pace of play and dictating where it is played, while three of their seven losses have come with backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo in net (he has a .896 save percentage in those starts).

Do not expect them to regress too far from that spot over the next few months.

Or in the foreseeable future.

While the Blue Jackets might still have a contract or two that could end up looking ugly on their salary cap (Brandon Dubinsky and maybe Nick Foligno in a couple of years) they have assembled a rock solid roster that really does not have many weaknesses. Their forward lines go four lines deep and over the summer they added a true front-line player in Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks in the Brandon Saad trade. His goal-scoring has not quite been there yet, but his playmaking is still superb and he is driving play at an elite level, currently owning a near 60 percent Corsi mark.

Given his shot generation (a career 3.06 per game) it is only a matter of time until he breaks out from a goal scoring perspective.

The same is true for quite a few players on the roster.

Panarin, Foligno, Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson (a 35-goal scorer a year ago) have combined for just 10 goals this season (on a combined shooting percentage of just 6.7 percent) and the team is still a top-five team in the league in goals and just one point out of first-place in the Metropolitan Division. Add Alexander Wennberg to that list and that quintet has combined for only 11 goals (on just 6.3 percent shooting).

There is a lot of bad shooting luck there that is destined to change at some point. That group of players is too good to be kept off the board for that long.

The fact the team is still winning is a testament to how deep the roster is.

But what is perhaps most encouraging for the Blue Jackets is how young a significant part of it is.

If you look at the Blue Jackets’ top-eight scorers right now only one of them of is older than 23. That player is the 26-year-old Panarin.

Included among that group are two of the biggest core pieces of the roster, defensemen Seth Jones (currently the team’s leading scorer) and Zach Werenski. They are going to be the foundation of the Blue Jackets’ defense for the next decade and are already impact players. They are the type of modern day NHL defensemen that can skate, move the puck and help drive the offense all over the ice.

They not only have a strong roster, but a significant portion of it — especially the core — is still at a point where it is either in the prime of its career (Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky) or has yet to reach it (Wennberg, Werenski, Jones, etc.).

Meaning there is still room for them to grow and get better.

The wild card in all of this is probably the player that is the best one on the team — goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

Since arriving in Columbus Bobrovsky has been one of the best goalies in the league, having already won two Vezina Trophies. He was a significant part of the Blue Jackets’ success a year ago.

He was also a significant part of their early exit in  the playoffs thanks to a miserable performance (especially when in comparison to the goalie at the other end of the ice) against the Penguins.

For as great as Bobrovsky has been in the regular season during his time in Columbus he has been equally bad in his two postseason appearances.

If the Blue Jackets are going to take the next step in their development as a team and go on a deep playoff run that is going to have to change. There is still reason to believe that if it can. If it does happen there is no limit for what this team is capable of given the way the rest of the roster is constructed and the way they have played this season. They are for real. They are not going away.

—-

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Sabres look to keep rolling against Blue Jackets

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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2017-18 campaign tonight when the Columbus Blue Jackets host the Buffalo Sabres at 8:00 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

After dropping seven of their first eight games of the season, the Sabres have won back-to-back contests over Boston and Detroit.

Both victories were far from easy, as they had to complete a huge comeback in Boston on Saturday night before beating the Wings by a slim 1-0 margin last night.

Whenever a new coach takes over behind the bench, there’s always an adjustment that needs to be made. The Sabres are still trying to figure master Phil Housley’s system, so a slow start wasn’t totally unexpected. Now, the focus will be on how much they can improve over the next few weeks and months.

“When you play the right way you’re not always going to get what you want,” Housley told the Buffalo News. “You’re just going to have to take what’s given, and sometimes you’re going to have to defend. We all want to play offense. We all want to play in the offensive zone, but when it’s your shift to come back and play solid defense and it requires that, you have to do it.”

As of right now, it seems like they’re heading in a positive direction, but getting rid of the losing mentality that’s set in over the last few years won’t be easy. Overcoming their awful start is going to be a huge challenge. At least they’ve found some positive momentum.

“It just gives us a little confidence and a little mojo going forward,” defenseman Jake McCabe said. “We’ve put two good games together in how we want to play. I think going forward to Columbus, now is the time to make up for our slow start. Hopefully, we continue this.”

The Blue Jackets’ four-game home stand didn’t exactly get off to a roaring start. On Thursday night, they dropped a 2-0 decision to the Tampa Bay Lightning and on Saturday, they lost, 6-4, to the Los Angeles Kings.

They have a chance to salvage this string of home games against the Sabres tonight and against Winnipeg on Friday.

One thing is for sure, their lines will look a whole lot different going into tonight’s game, as head coach John Tortorella’s “line blender” has been doing overtime.

Nick Foligno, not Alexander Wennberg, will play between Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. Wennberg found himself on the second line with Oliver Bjorkstrand and Boone Jenner.

“I thought that was probably (the Wennberg line’s) worst period of the game when we needed it to be their best period,” Tortorella said of that trio’s performance against the Kings, per the Dispatch . “I had to take them off of (the ice). I don’t like doing that. Top players should play against top lines. … I had to do that because of the way they were playing.”

Enjoy the hockey!

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.

The Buzzer: Giroux helps Flyers rout Caps, Hitchcock climbs wins list

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Player of the night: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers put on quite a performance for their fans in their home opener on Saturday night, completely dominating the Washington Capitals by an 8-2 margin and outshooting them 37-22.

It was a big night for a lot of Flyers, including Sean Couturier (three points), Jakub Voracek (three assists) and Scott Laughton (two goals).

But the player of the night had to be Claude Giroux as he finished with four points (two goals, two assists) and is now up to seven points in his first five games this season.

The 2016-17 season was a bit of a down year for Giroux as he finished with only 58 points, his worst offensive output (not counting the lockout season in 2012-13) since 2009-10, his second year in the league. He is off to a great start so far this season.

Highlight of the night.

Another huge play from Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin, this time in overtime as he made another slick entry into the offensive zone to help set up Alexander Wennberg for the game-winning goal. He finished the game with three assists, already his second three assist game of the season. He is now up to seven points in five games. Huge pickup for the Blue Jackets.

Factoid of the night.

Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock is now third on the NHL’s all-time wins list, passing Al Arbour in the Stars’ 3-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night.

 

Misc.

— The Ottawa Senators have collected eight out of a possible 10 points without the services of their best player, Erik Karlsson. Pretty good sign for the Eastern Conference runners up. They completed the Alberta sweep on Saturday night with a 6-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. Following their blowout win in Calgary on Friday night that means they beat the Oilers and Flames by a combined margin of 12-1. That is pretty impressive.

— With their 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins the Arizona Coyotes are off to their worst five-game start in franchise history at 0-4-1. Not a great start for a young team.

Corey Crawford has been pretty much unbeatable for the Chicago Blackhawks so far this season, allowing just a single goal in four of his first five starts. That includes Saturday’s 2-1 overtime win agains the Nashville Predators when he stopped 37 out of 38 shots.

— Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov continued his fantastic start to the season by scoring in his fifth consecutive game. He has now scored in every game this season and helped lead the Lightning to a 2-1 win on Saturday night. He is one of the top offensive players in the league and is picking right back up from where he left off a year ago.

Scores and recaps.

Philadelphia Flyers 8, Washington Capitals 2

Winnipeg Jets 2, Carolina Hurricanes 1

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Montreal Canadiens 3

Tampa Bay Lightning 2, St. Louis Blues 1

New Jersey Devils 3, New York Rangers 2

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Florida Panthers 3

Dallas Stars 3, Colorado Avalanche 1

Columbus Blue Jackets 5, Minnesota Wild 4

Chicago Blackhawks 2, Nashville Predators 1

Boston Bruins 6, Arizona Coyotes 2

Calgary Flames 5, Vancouver Canucks 2

New York Islanders 3, San Jose Sharks 1

Los Angeles Kings 4, Buffalo Sabres 2