Erik Haula

Getty

What’s wrong with the Blue Jackets?

10 Comments

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.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: A Saad Time

Getty
1 Comment

This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through the rough waters of your fantasy league’s waiver wire. We’ll give you suggestions on which players owned in more than 50 percent of Yahoo Leagues you should pick up. We’ll also tell you which players you should consider parting ways with.

Here we go!

Adds:

Erik Haula– C/LW- Vegas Golden Knights (49 percent)

Haula is right on the cusp of being owned in half of Yahoo’s leagues, but he’s not there yet. The Golden Knights center has been flying lately, as he just saw an eight-game point streak come to an end. He currently has 20 goals and 39 points in 48 games this season, which puts him on pace to score over 30 goals and 60 points.

Nick Schmaltz– C/LW- Chicago Blackhawks (33 percent)

Schmaltz has been mentioned as a possible “add” in this column before, but he’s still owned in just under 70 percent of leagues. The ‘Hawks forward has scored in back-to-back games and he’s currently riding a three-game point streak. He’s on pace to score 61 points this season. That number might keep climbing if he keeps getting opportunities to play with Patrick Kane.

Bo Horvat– C- Vancouver Canucks (33 percent)

Like Schmaltz, this isn’t the first time Horvat has been mentioned in this column. The Canucks forward has posted four points in six games since returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him for over a month. Horvat’s offensive totals might not top Haula’s or Schmaltz’s, but he could score just as much as they do between now and the end of the season.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s Waiver Wire column]

Sam Reinhart– C/LW/RW- Buffalo Sabres (23 percent)

Since being the second overall pick in 2014, Reinhart hasn’t topped 47 points. He probably won’t surpass that number this year, but there’s no reason why he can’t start producing with a little more regularity down the stretch. The 22-year-old has accumulated eight points in his last eight games, and he’s also seen his ice time increase significantly over the last three games (19:32, 18:36, 19:32). His average for the season is a shade over 16 minutes.

Kevin Labanc-LW/RW- San Jose Sharks (nine percent)

Labanc is one of those deep league recommendations. The Sharks forward has been hot of late, as he’s accumulated six points in his last five contests. With Joe Thornton on the shelf, there’s amble opportunity for some of the youngsters on the roster to step up offensively. Again, Labanc isn’t recommended in shallow leagues, but he could be a sneaky-good pickup in deeper fantasy formats.

• Bryant Rust- LW/RW-Pittsburgh Penguins (six percent)

Rust is another player worth keeping an eye on. He’s back in the Penguins lineup after missing almost a month with an upper-body injury. Rust has been skating on a line with Sidney Crosby, so that’s where his potential fantasy value will come from. He has five points in five games since his return. If he’s taken off Crosby’s line, his fantasy value will go down the drain.

Drops: 

Brandon Saad– LW- Chicago Blackhawks (67 percent)

As much as it might pain fantasy owners to admit it, Saad has been a total bust for most of the season. He got off to a hot start, but he simply hasn’t met expectations since returning to Chicago. He’s seen his ice time dip quite a bit of late, which isn’t unexpected considering he hasn’t scored in 11 games. He’s on pace to hit a respectable 21 goals, but he might not hit the 40-point mark.

Ryan Kesler– C- Anaheim Ducks (53 percent)

Kesler remains a solid two-way player, but his production simply hasn’t been there since coming back from injury. He has two goals in his last four games, but he’s also accumulated just seven points in 16 games. Picking up Schmaltz or Haula and dropping him could make sense for a lot of fantasy owners in standard leagues. Also, both Schmaltz and Haula can be slotted in multiple positions. Kesler can’t.

[Fantasy Podcast: Rotoworld Hockey’s Salute to Jagr]

Jimmy Howard– G- Detroit Red Wings (50 percent)

Howard has taken a back seat to Petr Mrazek, who has played in three straight and five of Detroit’s last six games. Mrazek even got to start two games in two nights on Friday and Saturday. That’s definitely not a good sign for Howard’s fantasy value down the stretch.

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.

Wild dominate lethargic Golden Knights in 5-2 win

It was always going to be a tough ask for the Vegas Golden Knights to come into Minnesota after playing nearly 65 minutes against the Winnipeg Jets 24 hours earlier and give the Wild a run for their money.

Thursday’s game eights hours north of Minneapolis was a battle between two of the top three teams in the NHL. And it didn’t disappoint as Vegas set a new NHL record for wins by an expansion team in its inaugural season.

What it did do, however, was empty Vegas’ tank.

So it wasn’t surprising, then, when the final score at Xcel Energy Center read 5-2 after 60 minutes, with the host Wild taking advantage of a cumbersome team unable to leave the starting post.

Vegas appeared flat from the get-go. Eric Staal scored his 21st on a nifty finish (which included this goal call on NBCSN https://twitter.com/NHLonNBCSports/status/959601903134040065) and Charlie Coyle doubled the score to lead 2-0 after 20 minutes.

The Wild managed 19 shots in the first.

By the time the second period was 1:11 old, Minnesota led by three through Tyler Ennis.

Erik Haula continued a trend of Golden Knights players smashing former career highs.

Haula recorded his 20th goal of the season in the second period, Vegas’ first of the game. Haula’s previous best was 15 last year with the Wild.

Vegas has shown plenty of resiliency in their inaugural season, and the goal may have sparked them to further markers on another night, but Jared Spurgeon put them right back into a three-goal hole 10 minutes later.

Minnesota limited Vegas to just five shots in the second.

Nate Schmidt would add his fourth of the season in the second half of the third period. Minnesota’s lead never really look in jeopardy, however, and Staal sealed the deal with his team-leading 22nd into an empty net — quite possibly the easiest of his career — with 89 seconds left.

Devan Dubnyk turned aside 22-of-24 he faced for his 20th win of the year. Malcolm Subban gave Marc-Andre Fleury a night off, allowing four goals on 35 shots.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

PHT Morning Skate: NHLers make their Super Bowl LII picks

Getty
1 Comment
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.

• Not many people expected the Bruins to be one of the better teams in the NHL this year, but here they are. Should they go it? (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Mika Zibanejad is the Rangers’ number one center. How does he stack up against the other top line centers in the league? (Blue Shirt Banter)

• Penguins captain Sidney Crosby made a surprise appearance at an outdoor rink in Quebec. No need telling you that the only kid on the ice was pretty shocked when Crosby decided to lace up his skates.  (CBC.ca)

• Blues players have had their fathers tag along on their recent road trip. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• USA Today discusses the possibility of having one game per season where players can get creative with their on-ice uniform just like they do in baseball. (USA Today)

• Team Canada defenseman Karl Stollery is taking it upon himself to be a good host during his team’s stay in Latvia. (CBC Olympics)

Jaromir Jagr‘s passion for hockey is both a strength and a weakness for him. (Flames Nation)

• What is the biggest rivalry in the NHL? Is it the battle of New York? Could it still be Pittsburgh and Washington? (ESPN)

Erik Haula has been pretty clutch for the Vegas Golden Knights this season. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The fine people at Predlines handed out some hardware to the Nashville Predators for their performance during the month of January. (Predlines)

• Some NHL stars decided to make their Super Bowl picks ahead of this weekend’s game between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles:

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.

A brutal night for NHL goalie interference calls

20 Comments

At this point, you almost expect the NHL’s Situation Room Blog to devolve into a Tumblr of crying GIFs.

As much as the league focuses on the minutia of offside goal reviews, the confusion around what does and does not constitute goalie interference is the elephant in the room. On Thursday, that elephant trampled all over the furniture.

Truly, this has become the NHL’s answer to the NFL’s high-profile headaches about what counts as a catch. Such situations seem to have the same potential to bewilder and ruin the fun.

You can see an especially bad example in the video above this post’s headline. Erik Haula‘s 2-1 goal for the Vegas Golden Knights counted even though James Neal broke his stick bumping Connor Hellebuyck in the head. That contact wasn’t as malicious as it sounded … but should that goal really count?

Blake Wheeler strongly disagreed with the decision, even getting profane. Here’s a censored version:

“Well, now it’s bad,” Wheeler said. “It was bad before but come on, (he) [expletive] breaks a stick over his head. That’s not a goal.”

You can see Wheeler’s full take, with the salty (also censored) part coming around the 1:15 mark:

Not surprisingly, Hellebuyck agreed that it was the wrong call.

Now, it’s one thing for players on the wrong end of the review process to comment, but it’s far from just Wheeler and Hellebuyck griping about that tally. Consider what highly respected St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong had to say about what is, frankly, a huge mess:

Yikes. The comment was likely prompted by this Bruins goal:

… But it doesn’t really invalidate such an opinion, right?

Hockey fans can probably go way, way back to other times when goalie interference seemed to inspire some very “mystical” interpretations, and there are plenty of notorious “goal or no goal?” moments. You can make a Buffalo Sabres fans insta-cringe if you merely utter the phrase “foot in the crease.” Tomas Holmstrom’s entire career felt like a field experiment for goalie interference calls.

Still, the angst seems to be rising, with even NHL executives admitting that the process is one big  ¯_(ツ)_/¯. Scroll through some of the decisions from Thursday, and it all seems subjective, at best.

At least it opens the door for jokes?

Naturally, the league would likely respond with a reasonable point: yes, it’s confusing, but fans won’t be happy if bad goals count, either.

After that Golden Knights win against the Jets, Paul Maurice provided some interesting insight on a memo that went out around the league about goalie interference.

“The memo came down they were going to let more go. We can’t have people swinging at our goalie’s heads. You can’t allow that to creep into the game,” Maurice said. “The whole thing started to protect the goaltenders. I would have thought that one, yeah, OK bumping a goalie might be one thing, rubbing him a little bit, pushing him a little bit, but if you hit him in the head with your stick and break it, we probably don’t want that in our game.”

Maybe a night like this will inspire the NHL to change course on, allegedly, letting more go?

It’s not an easy situation to deal with, but more and more, it seems like the league needs to find a way to arrive at some satisfying answers.

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.