Mike Halford

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 19: Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of Team Russia stops Dylan Larkin #71 of Team North America during the World Cup of Hockey tournament at the Air Canada Centre on September 19, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. Team Russia defeated Team North America 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty

It’s early, but Columbus has to be thrilled about Bobrovsky

3 Comments

It’s been said the Blue Jackets will only go as far as Sergei Bobrovsky will take them.

Debatable, sure. But after watching Team Russia at the World Cup, it’s easier to make the argument.

In the wake of Bobrovsky’s scintillating effort in a 4-3 win over Team North America — 43 saves, 19 on the power play — it’s clear the most valuable Russian isn’t Alexander Ovechkin, or Evgeni Malkin, or Vladimir Tarasenko.

It’s Bob.

“I would like to thank Sergei Bobrovsky for this win,” Artemi Panarin said, per the Russian Hockey Federation. “If he hadn’t played so well, the score would have been different.”

Bobrovsky was terrific, a continuation of the form shown throughout the exhibition and World Cup campaign. All told, he’s stopped 144 of 155 shots faced — a .929 save percentage — and posted his best performances against (arguably) the two best teams in this tournament: Canada, and TNA.

All of which is music to Jarmo Kekalainen’s ears.

The Blue Jackets GM knows how vital Bobrovsky is to the club’s success. When the franchise broke a four-season playoff drought in 2013-14, Bobrovksy was a big reason why. He started 58 games that season, going 32-20-5 with a .923 save percentage. He captured the Vezina, and was Columbus’ clear MVP.

Likewise, it was Bobrovsky’s struggles that played a major role in the Jackets’ disaster of a 2015-16 campaign. Not only did his save percentage fall to .908, a recurring groin injury limited him to just 37 appearances.

Add it all up, and the formula is simple — Columbus needs Bobrovsky to make a lot of starts, and play well in those starts.

Which is why keeping him healthy is so important.

This summer, Columbus hired a “high performance” consultant by the name of Nelson Ayotte. The purpose of the hire was to “bridge the gap between the medical staff and the staff of strength and conditioning coach Kevin Collins,” but Kekalainen specifically pointed out it was “a huge priority” for Ayotte to keep Bobrovsky healthy.

So far, so good. Bobrovsky already seems to have benefited from tweaks to his offseason training regimen.

But it’s a bit alarming to think just how much is riding on him this season.

Columbus is desperate to get back into the postseason after missing in each of the last two years. The management group of Kekalainen and president John Davidson has to be feeling the pressure, especially with a $69 million payroll and some of their highest profile moves (like signing Nathan Horton, then trading Horton for David Clarkson) going bust.

Kekalainen’s already played one of his biggest cards — firing Todd Richards in favor of John Tortorella — and Torts will undoubtedly be feeling heat this season, especially if the U.S. flames out of the World Cup.

So over to you, Bob. No pressure.

Nichushkin agrees to two-year deal with CSKA Moscow

Valeri Nichushkin
AP
8 Comments

Valeri Nichushkin is on his way back to Russia.

Nichushkin, the Dallas forward who had his KHL rights acquired by powerhouse CSKA Moscow on Monday, has agreed to a two-year deal with the club.

CSKA announced news of the contract on Tuesday. Per our hasty Google translation, it has to be pointed out that CSKA said the deal had only been “agreed” upon, and will be signed “in the near future.”

What this means for Dallas remains to be seen.

It could provide the club one final chance of reaching a new deal with the still-unsigned RFA, and perhaps try and smooth out the rocky relationship between Nichushkin and head coach Lindy Ruff.

As pointed out by Sport-Express’ Igor Eronko yesterday, Nichushkin doesn’t want to play for Ruff but does want to return to the Stars someday. That could be why his deal with CSKA is for two years — the same amount of term left on Ruff’s deal in Dallas.

The 10th overall pick in 2013, Nichuskin looked like a budding star following a 14-goal, 34-point rookie campaign. But a major hip injury and surgery sidelined him for almost all of his sophomore campaign, which set things up for an acrimonious third year.

Ruff sent a message right at the start of the season, making Nichushkin a healthy scratch while adding the 21-year-old needed to “get his head in the right place.”

In late March, an interview with with Russian news outlet Sport-Express made waves, as Nichuskin said he didn’t feel Ruff trusted him, or played him enough.

Not long after, Nichuskin’s agent tried to clear the air.

“Val loves it in Dallas,” Mark Gandler told the Morning News. “He’s very happy there.”

Related:

Despite erratic year, Stars say Nichushkin still ‘very important player to us’

Under Pressure: Valeri Nichushkin

Report: Panthers want Ekblad pulled from World Cup amid concussion concerns

NASHVILLE, TN - JANUARY 30:  Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers poses for a 2016 NHL All-Star portrait at Bridgestone Arena on January 30, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)
Getty

Florida isn’t taking any chances with Aaron Ekblad.

Ekblad, the franchise defenseman that was shook up on a Leo Komarov hit during North America’s win over Finland on Sunday, is reportedly on his way back to South Florida and expected to miss the remainder of the World Cup, per the Miami Herald.

From a source within the Panthers organization, the Herald reports Ekblad suffered a “mild concussion” on the hit. Florida also told the NHL it doesn’t want him playing in the tournament anymore.

Team North America brass, meanwhile, isn’t saying much.

GM Peter Chiarelli said Ekblad is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, and head coach Todd McLellan reiterated that diagnosis following North America’s 4-3 loss to Russia on Monday night — a game in which Ekblad was scratched and replaced by Jacob Trouba.

“Upper-body, day-to-day, don’t know how long he’ll be,” McLellan said. “And it’s a big loss.”

It’s not coincidental that “TNA” lost its first game without Ekblad in the lineup. The first overall pick in 2014, Ekblad burst onto the NHL scene and has emerged as arguably the best young defensive prospect in hockey.

After capturing the Calder in ’14-15, he racked up an impressive 15 goals and 36 points in his sophomore campaign last season, receiving a handful of Norris votes in the process.

Ekblad quickly emerged as a linchpin on the North American blueline. He averaged close to 22 minutes per game in the three exhibitions, finishing with two goals and an assist, then played a team-high 23:53 in the win over Finland.

It’s pretty obvious why the Panthers want Ekblad out of this tournament.

He’s a budding star, already one of the faces of the franchise and a major investment — this summer, he inked a monster eight-year, $60 million extension with Florida, one that will keep him with the organization through 2025.

Because of that, it’s almost impossible to think Ekblad will return to play for Team North America in this tournament.

Drama in Dallas as Nichushkin reportedly close to KHL deal (Updated)

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 18:  Valeri Nichushkin #43 of the Dallas Stars during the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on February 18, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Stars 6-3.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Getty
11 Comments

Latest update: The pendulum swings back in favor of Valeri Nichushkin signing with CSKA Moscow of the KHL, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

Nothing is official yet, however.

***

The Valeri Nichushkin saga in Dallas could be over soon — and not with the ending the Stars or GM Jim Nill hoped for.

Nichushkin, a still-unsigned RFA, had his KHL rights acquired by league powerhouse CSKA Moscow on Monday, per Sport-Express.

Not long after that news broke, various reports (including the original from R-Sport) claimed that Nichuskin was working on a two-year pact with CSKA.

The contract term is interesting, in light of this:

The rift between Ruff and Nichushkin is well-documented.

Nichushkin, the 10th overall pick in 2013, showed well as a rookie, scoring 14 goals and 34 points in 79 games, but his sophomore campaign was a nightmare — he missed nearly the entire season with a hip injury and subsequent surgery, and only appeared in eight contests.

Last year, he struggled.

And Ruff wasn’t exactly all warm and cuddly about it.

In fact, the veteran bench boss sent a message right at the start of the season, making Nichushkin a healthy scratch while adding the 21-year-old needed to “get his head in the right place.”

In late March, an interview with with Russian news outlet Sport-Express made waves, as Nichuskin said he didn’t feel Ruff trusted him, or played him enough.

Not long after, Nichuskin’s agent tried to clear the air.

“Val loves it in Dallas,” Mark Gandler told the Morning News. “He’s very happy there.”

Maybe not that happy.

Update:

Gandler denied a deal with CSKA has been reached, per Sportsnet, but didn’t rule out his client going to the KHL.

Related:

Despite erratic year, Stars say Nichushkin still ‘very important player to us’

Under Pressure: Valeri Nichushkin

Lundqvist (flu) feeling better, hopes to play against Finland

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 11:  (EDITORS NOTE: This image was created by in-camera multiple exposure.) Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers skates in warm-ups prior to the game against the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden on January 11, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
1 Comment

After missing Sunday’s 2-1 win over Russia as a late scratch due to the flu, Henrik Lundqvist could be back in goal when hSweden takes on Finland tomorrow.

“I feel better today,” Lundqvist said at Monday’s practice, per ESPN. “Yesterday was just not good enough to be able to play. The decision was made together with [coach] Rikard [Gronborg]. The position is what it is, and it’s a lot of responsibility.

“You just can’t go out there and see if you’re OK, so we made that decision, which was a good one.”

Lundqvist then praised backup netminder Jacob Markstrom, who played very well against the Russians by stopping 27 of 28 shots faced.

While there are probably some rumblings about Gronborg sticking with Markstrom for Tuesday’s game, it’s hard to envision Sweden parking Lundqvist if he’s healthy. (And yes, that’s taking King Henrik’s shaky exhibition effort into account as well.)

Gronborg said Lundqvist had a “strong practice” on Monday.