Author: Mike Halford

Artemi Panarin

Looking to make the leap: Artemi Panarin

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Artemi Panarin was never drafted by an NHL club, and has never played a professional game in North America.

Yet heading into next season, there are expectations for him to be a key contributor… for the defending Stanley Cup champs.

“The real excitement is Panarin,” Chicago GM Stan Bowman said last month, per the Tribune. “He has tons of talent. We’re trying to be patient with the expectations because he’s coming to a new country, learning the language. … There’s going to be a bit of an adjustment there, but he has special ability.”

Panarin, 23, first burst onto the scene at the 2011 World Juniors, when he scored two goals — including the game-winner — in Russia’s memorable gold medal-game comeback (the Russians trailed Canada 3-0 heading into the third period, but went on to win 5-3).

From there, he turned into one of the KHL’s most dynamic scorers, finishing fifth in the league in points last year (62 in 54 games) while potting another 20 in 20 playoff games for eventual Gagarin Cup champs SKA Saint Petersburg.

Not to be outdone, Panarin starred at World Hockey Championships this past spring, scoring 10 points in 10 playoff games to help Russia win silver.

“All the Blackhawks fans are going to absolutely love him, just love watching him,” Viktor Tikhonov, who also made the jump from SKA to the ‘Hawks, told CSN Chicago this summer. “He’s always wanted to come over; he just didn’t know if he was ready.

“And just seeing him and how fast he’s developing, he was one of the best players in the KHL this year. It was the right move for him to make the jump.”

Panarin’s leap will be difficult, however.

He’s not overly big — 5-foot-11, 170 pounds — and, as the ‘Hawks learned last year, simply plunking someone into the lineup doesn’t always yield immediate results. Teuvo Teravainen, the club’s ballyhooed Finnish prospect, struggled to find his niche with the group and spent nearly half the regular season with AHL Rockford.

On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Panarin reportedly has an out clause in his contract, which allows a return to the KHL should he not make the Chicago roster.

That means he’s looking to make the leap — but has a pretty comfy landing spot, should he fall short.

Blue Jackets ’15-16 Outlook

Scott Hartnell
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Columbus’ goal for this year should be simple:

Stay healthy.

Last year, the Blue Jackets led the NHL in man games lost, with 502. That figure derailed what was supposed to be a building block campaign; the year prior, Columbus posted a franchise-high 93 points en route to the first two playoff wins in club history.

While the team isn’t using health issues as an excuse for last year, it does recognize it can’t allow injuries to be so disruptive.

“We need to find better ways to maintain and not have major dips,” head coach Todd Richards said earlier this summer, per NHL.com. “We might have injuries this year, and you’ve got to find ways to stay afloat instead of sinking.”

If they do stay healthy, the Blue Jackets should be a legit playoff contender.

Brandon Saad, acquired in a summer blockbuster from Chicago, will give the team a dynamic, goalscoring power forward up front, presumably to play alongside franchise center Ryan Johansen. Behind those two are a host of capable scorers: Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell, Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky, to name a few.

On defense, the picture is murkier.

The club is holding out hope that Ryan Murray, the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, is finally over the health issues that derailed his first two NHL campaigns. The 20-year-old, who has the potential to be a top-pairing d-man, only appeared in 12 games last year, after missing 18 in his rookie campaign.

Outside of Murray, the familiar cast of characters remains: Jack Johnson, David Savard, Fedor Tyutin and Dalton Prout, most notably. The Jackets are counting on that crew to improve internally and possibly get a push from prospects like Dillon Heatherington and Michael Paliotta, the latter acquired from Chicago in the Saad deal.

In goal, there are no questions.

Sergei Bobrovsky enters as the clear-cut No.1, coming off a campaign in which he missed significant time to injury and posted below average numbers (.918 save percentage, 2.68 GAA).

The hope is that Bobrovsky will return to the form that saw him win the Vezina two years ago, and that the skaters in front of him will stay healthy. If both those things happen, Columbus will be knocking on the door of playoff contention, and not a team opponents will want to face should it get in.

It’s Columbus Blue Jackets day at PHT

Ryan Johansen
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After a stellar regular season and inspired playoff appearance in ’13-14, Columbus took a step backwards last year by finishing 11th in the Eastern Conference, and missing the postseason.

Though there were extenuating circumstances.

The Blue Jackets led the league in man games lost to injury, with 502. Nathan Horton, once the organization’s biggest free agent acquisition, didn’t play a single game before being traded to Toronto while Ryan Murray, the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, missed 70 of 82 games while dealing with a myriad of injuries.

Other key players, like Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and Sergei Bobrovsky all missed extensive time as well. Despite that, there were bright spots — Ryan Johansen continued to post solid numbers, with a career-high 71 points, while Nick Foligno earned himself the club’s captaincy with a 73-point effort, tops on the team.

In the end, though, missing the playoffs proved a damaging blow to the momentum gained by their impressive run the year prior.

Offseason recap

Few teams made a bigger splash this summer. GM Jarmo Kekalainen stunned the league by acquiring budding Chicago star Brandon Saad, the 22-year-old power forward that won two Stanley Cups in his first three NHL seasons.

The Saad deal reverberated throughout the league. With him in the fold, Columbus created one of the youngest and most dangerous top lines in the NHL with Johansen (who only turned 23 in July) and whoever their running mate will be, be it Foligno or Scott Hartnell (or, possibly, 22-year-old Boone Jenner).

Elsewhere, the club added some veteran experience and leadership in the form of ex-Bruins forward Gregory Campbell. Kekalainen also re-upped with the likes of Matt Calvert, backup goalie Curtis McElhinney and depth d-men Justin Falk and Cody Goboulef.

At the draft, Columbus was a major player with three top-40 picks, and used them to select Michigan d-man Zach Werenski (eighth overall), Swedish blueliner Gabriel Carlsson (29th) and WHL Portland product Paul Bittner (38th).

Calder runner-up Stone says injured wrist is ‘100 percent’

150829_MarkStone
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It’s been a pretty good summer for breakout Sens forward Mark Stone.

He finished second to Aaron Ekblad as the NHL’s top rookie, scored a three-year, $10.5 million extension from the Sens and, this week, confirmed there’s no lingering effect from the P.K. Subban slash he took to the wrist during Ottawa’s opening-round playoff loss to Montreal.

“It’s felt great out there the last couple of skates,” he told the Ottawa Sun. “The shot feels good. The hands feel good. My legs are starting to come along. I feel good and I feel like I’m 100 percent.”

That wasn’t the case this spring, when Stone suffered a microfracture from the Subban slash — an incident that set off a mini-firestorm between two clubs. Following the series, which the Habs won four games to two, Stone expressed frustration over how much the injury — which occurred in the second period of Game 1 — limited him.

Stone played through the injury, but needed to freeze his wrist before and sometimes again during each game.

“It was just frustrating not being able to feel parts of my wrist and parts of my fingers,” he explained. “It definitely didn’t help my shot, but I was able to play through it.”

Now healthy, Stone can focus on two major tasks — getting Ottawa back into the playoffs, and avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump.

Nichushkin says surgically repaired hip is pain-free

Valeri Nichushkin
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With all the big moves Dallas made this summer — Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Antti Niemi — it’s easy to forget that one of the club’s biggest acquisitions could come from in-house.

Valeri Nichushkin, who missed 74 games last year following hip surgery, is currently working out with teammates and giving positive reviews on his health:

Nichushkin, 20, lost nearly all of his sophomore campaign to the hip ailment, which he tried to play through at the beginning of the year, only to go under the knife in mid-November. That prevented him from following up on a rookie year in which 14 goals and 34 points and finished 12th in Calder voting; Nichushkin did return for a handful of games at the end of the regular season, and also represented Russia at the 2015 World Hockey championships.

Now at full health, the big-bodied Russian should slot into Dallas’ dynamic top-six forward group, one that projects to feature last year’s Art Ross winner Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky and Sharp.