Seth Jones

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Blue Jackets score by committee to overcome Bailey hat trick

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At this rate, it could be a special month of December for Artemi Panarin of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Panarin came into Thursday’s game with five-assist and three-assist nights so far this month, totaling two goals and eight assists for 10 points in six contests. (You can check out footage of his remarkable five-assist performance in this post.)

It remains to be seen if tonight’s performance ranks among the best in his already-impressive December, but Panarin’s 20th assist – and Zach Werenski‘s 10th goal, already – looked so pretty and dominant, you’d almost think it was out of a video game.

Here it is in video form; the additional replays really sell just how long Panarin had the puck, and the fact that he essentially circled the entire New York Islanders’ defensive zone waiting for a recipient:

This GIF might capture it better, actually:

So far, Panarin’s been more of a distributor in Columbus after piling up 30 and 31-goal seasons in Chicago, as the slick Russian winger has seven goals and 20 assists (and counting?).

Werenski, 20, is looking to top what was already an impressive first impression in the NHL. During his rookie season, Werenski scored 11 goals and 47 points in 78 games (and also suffered a hideous facial wound). As of this writing, Werenski already has 10 goals (plus seven helpers), so a 20-goal sophomore campaign isn’t out of the question, even if he is unlikely to continue shooting like a forward.

As a reminder, John Tortorella is giving Werenski and fellow talented scoring defenseman Seth Jones more room to “rove,” as he told The Athletic’s Alison Lukan (sub required) back in early November:

“It’s staying involved even more on the offense,” Tortorella said. “It’s having enough guts when we’re rotating a puck offensively in the corner to go sneak down to the other corner so we can make an east-west play and spread the offensive zone.”

When you have players as talented as Panarin and Werenski bending the defense to their whim, it’s easy to justify taking chances. As you can see, the rewards of such risks can be rich.

Update: The Blue Jackets ended up winning the game 6-4, with Panarin collecting two helpers and Zach Werenski generated a goal and an assist in total. Ultimately, it was about Columbus getting offense from multiple sources, including Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s trio of assists.

Speaking of trios, John Tavares collected three helpers while Josh Bailey almost stole the show with a hat trick.

It wasn’t enough, though, as the Blue Jackets still won. That’s a pretty impressive hatty, though.

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 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.

Duchene owners win biggest in Turris trade, fantasy-wise

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Let’s all take a moment to toast Nashville Predators GM David Poile.

When it comes to league-changing trades, Poile is on top of the NHL, and no one is even all that close. OK, Peter Chiarelli and Marc Bergevin are up there, but while Poile wears a college graduate’s hat, those two sometimes don dunce caps.

Poile doesn’t just make trades, he generates headlines and injects some much-needed buzz into a league that lacks the movement of the NBA, where seismic shifts happen often enough to spoil hoops fans. Shea Weber for P.K. Subban. Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen. Some dented cans of vegetables for Filip Forsberg. And now this move, which nets the Predators Kyle Turris and delivers Matt Duchene from misery in Colorado to (insert question marks and happy faces) in Ottawa.

This post takes an early look at the fantasy dominoes that may fall/have fallen from this trade, but giving Poile a digital pat on the back was only the right thing to do first. Thanks Dave!

[Rotoworld on Clayton Keller’s Calder push]

Need for speed

Duchene ranked as one of my favorite sleepers coming into 2017-18 for three reasons: 1) his numbers, in my opinion, were bound to rebound after an unusually repugnant season, 2) he’s dual eligible, something that always gains my approval, and 3) it was reasonable to assume that he’d head for greener pastures.

In the case of playing with Senators speed demon Erik Karlsson, green means go for Duchene.

Imagine this scenario, something that will keep defensive-minded coaches up at night: Karlsson zips down the ice, getting the opposition off balance, and then sends a perfect set-up to Duchene, who can keep up. Then a lot of bad things happen to the other team, especially the opposing goalie.

Considering how hard the Senators went after Duchene, I’d wager he’ll inherit a lot of the big minutes and opportunities Turris received. Via Left Wing Lock, it looks like Duchene’s early linemates will be Zack Smith and, most enticingly, sniper Mike Hoffman.

Actually, scratch that; the most enticing element is still Duchene and Karlsson sharing the same ice.

One other thing to realize is that Duchene hasn’t been getting the best opportunities in Colorado for a while now. That was especially clear in 2017-18, as he ranked sixth among Avs forwards in power-play ice time, on average.

A mild loss for Turris, but a boost for Nashville

Early on, Turris’ linemates look quite intriguing with the Predators:

Still, Turris was logging 19:41 minutes per night with Ottawa, second only to all-around dynamo Mark Stone. With Ryan Johansen carrying that big contract and chemistry with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, Turris slides into a(n appropriate) role as a second-line center. There might be some losses, although the upside is that he might face lesser competition.

[The Rotoworld NHL podcast]

Craig Smith and Kevin Fiala are both intriguing, as Turris could open opportunities for Smith (a solid sniper who could use a boost) and Fiala (an intriguing young player who showed signs of a breakthrough before suffering a grisly leg injury in the playoffs).

Nashville’s talented defensemen P.K. Subban and Roman Josi could enjoy a subtle bump, while the Preds might be able to give more goal support to goalies such as Pekka Rinne.

Avalanche questions

We’ll have to see if Samuel Girard figures into much of anything for the Avalanche, at least early on. Over the long-term, he’s quite interesting. (That said, Left Wing Lock lists him on a top pairing with Erik Johnson, so you never know; maybe the kid will continue his strong work from early looks with the Preds right away.)

Other Colorado players face interesting challenges and opportunities. Duchene’s presence was a boon for Nail Yakupov, so can the struggling former top pick maintain that resurgence without him?

Keep an eye on the likes of Sven Andrighetto, as even with Duchene’s influence being a little muted, someone will be asked to step into a heightened role. It’s plausible that they’ll replace Duchene by committee.

***

Trades like these really spice things up, both in fantasy and reality.

Let’s hope that there will be other moves to break down as this season goes along, especially as we start to approach the “dog days.” Other NHL GMs, feel free to pitch in a bit. As impressive as Poile’s run has been, he doesn’t have to be the only person on the dance floor.

Now picture Poile dancing.

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.

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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.