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Blue Jackets sign USHL’s goalie of the year

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed goalie Matiss Kivlenieks to a three-year entry-level contract.

Kivlenieks was an undrafted free agent that a number of NHL teams were hoping to sign after his sterling season in the USHL.

The 20-year-old was originally planning to attend Minnesota State University next season, but he’s a professional now so that plan has changed.

From the press release:

Kivlenieks, 20, went 36-7-4-2 with a 1.85 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and five shutouts in 49 games to help the Sioux City Musketeers capture the 2016-17 Anderson Cup as the league’s regular season champions. He was named the USHL’s Player of the Year and Goaltender of the Year and to the First All-Star Team after leading the league in wins, GAA, SV%, shutouts (tied) and finishing second in minutes played (2,991).  

Next season, Sergei Bobrovsky will be the starter for Columbus, likely backed up by either Anton Forsberg or Joonas Korpisalo.

But Kivlenieks may get the chance to be other goalie in the AHL, behind either Forsberg or Korpisalo.

The Blue Jackets also have 23-year-old goalie Oscar Dansk in the system; however, he struggled last year (.903) in the Swedish league.

Related: Jackets loan Dansk to Swedish club

Report: Blue Jackets’ Bobrovsky open to seeing sports psychologist to get over playoff struggles

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Sergei Bobrovsky was probably the Columbus Blue Jackets’ best player during the 2016-17 regular season. His performance was good enough to not only lead the NHL in save percentage (.931), but also make him a finalist for both the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie (something he has already won once in his career) and the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

By any measure it was a fantastic season. He was one of the single biggest reasons the Blue Jackets not only bounced back from a horribly disappointing season in 2015-16 to become one of the best teams in the NHL.

His performance in the playoffs, however, was pretty much a complete 180 from what we saw in the regular season. That is a trend we have seen throughout his career in the NHL.

According to Aaron Portzline of the Columbus-Dispatch, Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets both agreed that his struggles in the playoffs are mental and that the goalie was “receptive” to the idea of either working with a sports psychologist, or doing “other types of mental training” to help get over those struggles.

More from the Dispatch:

“Sergei is devoted to excellence,” said Paul Theofanous, Bobrovsky’s agent. “Every year he looks at himself after the season and says, ‘What can I do better? What can I do smarter? How do I make myself more effective?’ He’s an incredibly driven player and person. Incredibly devoted.”

But nobody will say what that’s going to entail, mostly because they don’t want Bobrovsky’s struggles to become a constant topic of discussion.

Bobrovsky’s performance in the Blue Jackets’ first-round series against the Penguins was a big reason that series ended in five games. He allowed at least three goals in every game, including two games where he surrendered at least five goals, and generally just looked completely off. With a better performance from Bobrovsky that series would have easily gone on longer, or perhaps even had an entirely different result as the Blue Jackets outplayed the Penguins for extended stretches in the series.

His postseason save percentage is only .887 for his career, a massive drop from the .920 mark he has in the regular season. Of the 30 goalies that have appeared in at least 15 playoff games since the start of the 2010-11 season only one of them (Ilya Bryzgalov, who is no longer in the NHL) has had a worse postseason save percentage during that stretch. That change in performance from the regular season to the playoffs is also one of the largest for any goalie in the league.

Bobrovsky certainly wouldn’t be the first goalie in the NHL that has seen a sports psychologist. Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury worked with one following the 2012-13 season following a disastrous postseason performance that saw him lose his starting job to Tomas Vokoun.

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a finalist again this season, referenced that he has worked with one, including during their second-round series against the Penguins this year.

‘We took two steps forward, maybe three’: Kekalainen excited about Blue Jackets’ future

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Despite an early exit from the playoffs, Columbus Blue Jackets executives like the team’s development and defensive depth.

However they won’t rule out a trade this summer that would bring another standout goal-scorer to town.

The Blue Jackets, picked by many to finish near the bottom of the stout Metropolitan Division, won a franchise-record 50 games and 108 points on the way to a third-place finish in the division behind Washington and Pittsburgh.

That’s 16 more wins and 32 points better than 2015-16. They were at the center of the hockey world at midseason when they had a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest streak in NHL history.

But the playoffs were a big disappointment. Columbus lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky struggled to get saves at critical times as he had done all season.

“Last year sitting here you probably felt we had taken a step backward, and this year we can feel that we took two steps forward, maybe three,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters Monday.

“Obviously, we’re disappointed with the 4-1 exit from the playoffs,” he said. “(But) four out of five games we thought we were right there, neck to neck with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“(We) out-chanced them, outshot them, didn’t get the result we wanted. We always try to look behind the results. There were games in that series where we played very well.”

Kekalainen said the organization will stick with its patient strategy of developing players from within. But also possible, he acknowledged, is a big trade or free-agent signing for another scorer who could get them over the hump.

“Do we look for somebody from the outside? Absolutely,” he said. “But we’re going to try to build it with the process in mind that we’ve talked about all along. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s make sure that everything makes sense in the long term as much as it does in the short term.”

Kekalainen and team president John Davidson said the team that lost to Pittsburgh in five games this season was better than the one eliminated by the Penguins 4-2 in 2014.

“I firmly believe in this group going forward,” Davidson said. “We’ve got a good base here, but we’ve gone through a lot of the transition of trying to build your own from within through the draft. I’m pretty positive about this.”

The players are disappointed but also optimistic about the future in Columbus. Everyone finished generally healthy, except for defenseman Markus Nutivaara, who needs hip surgery and four months of recovery.

Nineteen-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski, who took a puck in the face that fractured his cheekbone in a playoff game, is recovering and not expected to suffer any long-term effects.

“We’ve really just been a team that’s just trying to get to the playoffs,” captain Nick Foligno said Saturday when the team gathered for the last time.

“Now the mindset is how are we going to stay, how are we going to do well, how are we going to win? That’s what I’m most excited about is the growth and the mentality.”

Kekalainen is not worried about Bobrovsky, who had a .882 save percentage and a 3.88 goals-against average in the five playoff games after finishing the regular season among the league’s best with a .931 save percentage and 2.06 goals-against average. He’s a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

“He knows he needs to be better in the playoffs,” Kekalainen said. “He will be better, I’m convinced. He’s that driven, he’s always looking for ways to get better.”

Nobody wants to get started with another season more than the 28-year-old Russian.

“It’s a tough way to finish the season,” he said. “It’s disappointing. But you have either success or experience. So this time, with this playoff, I had experience and I will learn from it and move on.”

Penguins roll in Game 5, eliminate Blue Jackets

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PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t always pretty, but the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to deliver the knockout punch to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night with a 5-2 win in Game 5 to punch their ticket to the second round.

There they will face the winner of the Washington Capitals-Toronto Maple Leafs series.

Thanks to some strong play from Marc-Andre Fleury (he made 49 saves on Thursday) and an overwhelming offensive attack the Penguins were able to overcome what was, at times, some sketchy play in the defensive zone to advance.

Bryan Rust continued his strong postseason play with two more goals (giving him eight in his past 14 playoff games) while Phil Kessel picked up three points (a goal, two assists) in the win.

Sidney Crosby and Scott Wilson also picked up goals in the win.

The big story in this series though was missed opportunities for the Blue Jackets in their continued failure to build on the fast start they had in pretty much every game, as well as a nightmare performance from Sergei Bobrovsky in net.

Bobrovsky, the likely Vezina Trophy winner this season and a player that will probably get his share of MVP votes, played some of his worst hockey of the season at the worst possible time. He surrendered at least three goals in every game (and at least four goals in four games) and just never seemed to be comfortable at any point in the series.

After giving up the first three goals on Thursday, the Blue Jackets tried to mount a late rally in the second period with a pair of goals to cut the deficit to one.

But following an Alexander Wennberg goaltender interference penalty early in the third period Crosby helped put the game away with a ridiculous one-timer.

Just 53 seconds later Wilson added his first goal of the playoffs.

Blue Jackets’ Foligno will miss Game 5 with lower-body injury

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PITTSBURGH — Already playing without their top defenseman, the Columbus Blue Jackets will also be without their captain, Nick Foligno, when they take the ice for Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.

The Blue Jackets announced just before the start of the game that Foligno is sidelined with a lower body injury.

He will be replaced in the lineup by veteran forward Scott Hartnell who did not play in Game 4.

It’s a bit of a surprise given that Foligno did not seem to be injured in the Blue Jackets’ Game 4 win (though he did play just 17 minutes, his lowest total of the series) and coach John Tortorella announced earlier in the day there would be no lineup changes for Thursday.

In four games this postseason Foligno has no goals and two assists (both in Game 3).

He finished the regular season with 26 goals and 25 assists in 79 games.