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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.

John Tavares to explore his options during free agent interview period

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DALLAS — John Tavares may still re-sign with the New York Islanders, but he’s going to at least see what’s out there before making a final decison.

On Sunday, the interview period for prospective free agents opens and Pat Brisson, Tavares’ agent, has confirmed that his client will speak to five teams.

The 27-year-old Tavares said all season long that he wants to re-sign, but as we sit eight days away from the opening of the free agent market, he’s yet to agree to any deal. The Islanders can offer him an eight-year contract, while other NHL teams can only go as many as seven.

“This is where I hope to be. I’ve always stated that,” Tavares said in April. “But obviously I have some time to think about my situation and go from there. I’ve loved it here and people have really embraced me, the team and organization have been first class since I’ve gotten here. Obviously, some great talent and some great things ahead. Definitely a lot of positives and I’ll have to take some time and figure out what I want to do and go from there.”

The Islanders have used their off-season to begin taking the franchise in a different direction. GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight were relieved of their duties and Lou Lamoriello was brought in as the new president and GM. This past week he went out and replace Weight with Barry Trotz, who just won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals.

Those are definitely a pair of moves not only to improve the organization but also show Tavares that ownership is serious about making the team a contender again. Will this work? Only time will tell, but the Islanders are hoping their solid off-season continues with No. 91 back in their lineup next season.

“Right now, until something’s done, it’s not done,” said Lamoriello. “There’s no question that he’s a very important part of this organization. We want him to be here. We’ll just have to wait.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Free agency looms for Orpik as Avalanche ready buyout

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When the Colorado Avalanche gave up their 47th pick to land the rights of RFA goalie Philipp Grubauer, they also took on Brooks Orpik and his $5.5 million cap hit. Joe Sakic didn’t play coy about Orpik’s time likely being brief with Colorado, and that appears to be the case.

[Get the lowdown on the trade here]

The Avalanche placed Orpik on unconditional waivers with a buyout in mind, according to reporters including Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

Via Cap Friendly, a buyout would mean a $2.5M cap hit in 2018-19 and a $1.5M cap hit in 2019-20 for Colorado. Between the buyout, 47th pick, and Grubauer’s eventual contract, Colorado is clearly making a significant investment in the former Capitals goalie.

As TSN’s Frank Seravalli reported on Friday, this situation shouldn’t be a surprise for Orpik.

“I told him I owed him the respect to let him know that the plan is to buy him out and let him be a free agent,” Sakic said. “I’m sure he’ll have a lot of teams that’ll want to add him to their group.”

Is it possible that Orpik, 37, could be back with the Capitals? The team kept the door open.

Considering that Orpik is essentially double-dipping here, it wouldn’t be shocking if the rugged defenseman came at a reasonable price. Then again, some teams might (over-)value a hard-hitting, veteran blueliner who’s won a Stanley Cup with two different squads.

After a 2018 NHL Draft loaded with modern-style, fleet-of-foot, smaller defensemen, it should be interesting to see how an old-school guy like Orpik will fare during free agency.

Chances are, there will be room for someone like Orpik somewhere, possibly even Washington.

2018 NHL Draft Tracker: Rounds 2-7

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After a lengthy first round on Friday, NHL teams are tearing through rounds 2-7 in a blur on Saturday. Not every name will stand out as of this writing, but GMs often unearth their biggest, franchise-turning bargains when they get in the weeds.

Before we get to today’s picks, let’s review some of the earlier action revolving around the top 31 selections.

This post will be regularly updated with picks coming in rapidly.

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Round 2

32. Buffalo – Mattias Samuelsson, D, NTDP
33. Detroit (from OTT via NYR) – Jonatan Berggren, W, Sweden
34. Florida (from ARI) – Serron Noel, W, OHL
35. Montreal – Jesse Ylonen, W, Finland
36. Detroit – Jared McIsaac, D, QMJHL
37. Vancouver – Jett Woo, D, WHL
38. Montreal (from CHI) – Alexander Romanov, D, Russia
39. NY Rangers – Olof Lindbom, First Goalie Taken, Sweden
40. Edmonton – Ryan McLeod, C, OHL
41. NY Islanders – Bode Wilde, D, NTDP
42. Carolina – Jack Drury, C, USHL
43. NY Islanders (from CGY) – Ruslan Iskhakov, C, Russia
44. Dallas – Albin Eriksson, W, Sweden
45. St. Louis – Scott Perunovich, D, NCHC
46. Washington (from FLA via NJD) – Martin Fehervary, D, Sweden
47. Colorado – Kody Clark, W, OHL
48. NY Rangers (from NJD) – Jonathan Tychonick, D, BCHL
49. Columbus – Kirill Marchenko, W, Russia
50. Philadelphia – Adam Ginning, D, Sweden
51. Los Angeles – Akil Thomas, C, OHL
52. Toronto (from SJS) – Sean Durzi, D, OHL
53. Pittsburgh – Calen Addison, D, WHL
54. Anaheim – Benoit-Olivier Groulx, C, QMJHL
55. Arizona (from MIN) – Kevin Bahl, D, OHL
56. Montreal (from TOR) – Jacob Olofsson, C, Swden
57. Boston – Axel Andersson, D, Sweden
58. Pittsburgh (from COL, NSH) Filip Hallander, C, Sweden
59. Tampa Bay – Gabriel Fortier, W, QMJHL
60. Winnipeg – David Gustafsson, C, Sweden
61. Vegas – Ivan Morozov, C, Russia
62. Edmonton (from WSH/MTL) Olivier Rodrigue, G, QMJHL

Round 3

63. Minnesota (from BUF) – Jack McBain, C, OJHL
64. Colorado (From, Pittsburgh, from OTT) Justus Annunen, G, Finland
65. Arizona – Jan Jenik, W, Czech
66. Montreal – Cameron Hillis, C, OHL
67. Detroit – Alec Regula, D, OHL
68. Vancouver – Tyler Madden, C, USHL
69. Chicago – Jake Wise, C, NTDP
70. NY Rangers – Jacob Ragnarsson, D, Sweden
71. Montreal (from Edmonton) Jordan Harris, D, USA
72. NY Islanders –   Jakub Skarek, G, Czech
73. Arizona (from CAR) – Ty Emberson, D, NTDP
74. Chicago (From Arizona/CGY) – Niklas Nordgren, W, Finland
75. Dallas – Oskar Back, C, Sweden
76. Toronto (From St. Louis) – Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, C, Russia
77. Boston (from FLA) – Jakub Lauko, C, Czech
78. Colorado – Sampo Ranta, W, USHL
79. Anaheim (from NJD)
80. Columbus
81. Detroit (from PHI)
82. Los Angeles
83. Toronto (from SJS)
84. Detroit (from PIT)
85. Anaheim
86. Minnesota
87. Chicago (from TOR via NJD and WSH)
88. NY Rangers (from BOS)
89. Nashville
90. Tampa Bay
91. Winnipeg
92. Minnesota (from VGK)
93. Washington

Round 4

94. Buffalo
95. Ottawa
96. Carolina (from ARI)
97. Montreal
98. Detroit
99. Vegas (from VAN via PIT)
100. Dallas (from CHI)
101. NY Rangers
102. Montreal (from EDM)
103. NY Islanders
104. Carolina
105. Calgary
106. Dallas
107. St. Louis
108. Calgary (from FLA)
109. Colorado
110. New Jersey
111. Nashville (from CBJ)
112. Philadelphia
113. Los Angeles
114. San Jose
115. Vegas (from PIT via TBL)
116. Anaheim
117. Buffalo (from MIN)
118. Toronto
119. Boston
120. Chicago (from NSH)
121. Tampa Bay
122. Montreal (from WPG)
123. Florida (from VGK)
124. Washington

Round 5
125. Buffalo
126. Ottawa
127. Philadelphia (from ARI)
128. Montreal
129. Pittsburgh (from DET)
130. Vancouver
131. Nashville (from CHI)
132. NY Rangers
133. Edmonton
134. NY Islanders
135. Vegas (from CAR)
136. New Jersey (from CGY via ARI)
137. Dallas
138. St. Louis
139. Florida
140. Colorado
141. New Jersey
142. Chicago (from CBJ)
143. Philadelphia
144. Los Angeles
145. San Jose
146. Pittsburgh
147. Anaheim
148. Minnesota
149. Toronto
150. Winnipeg (from BOS)
151. Nashville
152. Tampa Bay
153. Winnipeg
154. Vegas
155. Minnesota (from WSH)

Round 6
156. Buffalo
157. Ottawa
158. Arizona
159. Detroit (from MTL)
160. Detroit
161. Vancouver
162. Chicago
163. NY Rangers
164. Edmonton
165. Los Angeles (from NYI)
166. Carolina
167. Calgary
168. Dallas
169. St. Louis
170. Florida
171. Colorado
172. New Jersey
173. Columbus
174. Philadelphia
175. Los Angeles
176. San Jose
177. Pittsburgh
178. Anaheim
179. Minnesota
180. Vegas (from TOR)
181. Boston
182. San Jose (from NSH)
183. Tampa Bay
184. Winnipeg
185. Vegas
186. Washington

Round 7
187. Buffalo
188. Ottawa
189. Arizona
190. Philadelphia (from MTL)
191. Detroit
192. Vancouver
193. Chicago
194. Ottawa (from NYR)
195. Edmonton
196. NY Islanders
197. Carolina
198. Calgary
199. Dallas
200. St. Louis
201. Florida
202. Colorado
203. New Jersey
204. Columbus
205. Philadelphia
206. Tampa Bay (from LAK)
207. San Jose
208. Pittsburgh
209. Toronto (from ANA)
210. Minnesota
211. Toronto
212. Boston
213. Nashville
214. Tampa Bay
215. Winnipeg
216. Carolina (from VGK)
217. Washington

Ilya Kovalchuk, LA Kings agree to three-year deal

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DALLAS — The Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes has come to an end and the Los Angeles Kings are the big winners.

As the second day of the 2018 NHL Draft got under way, the Kings announced they’ve agreed to terms on a three-year contract which carries a $6.25 million cap hit per season.

“We are excited to add Ilya to the LA Kings organization. He gives us an added element of skill and scoring along with a desire to win. We will withhold further comment until July 1,” said Kings general manager Blake.

Kovalchuk last played in the NHL during the 2013 season before retiring to go play in the KHL. While he was “retired” the Devils still held his rights until his 35th birthday this past April. Any attempts to make a comeback prior to turning 35 meant that teams would have had to go through the Devils to make a deal.

After leaving New Jersey, Kovalchuk spent the last five seasons with SKA St. Petersburg helping them win two Gagarin Cups. This past February, he lead the Olympic Athletes From Russia to a gold medal at the Olympics in Pyeongchang.

It was eight years ago that the Kings tried to acquire Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers before the Devils stepped in with a better offer. According to ESPN, the Thrashers GM wanted Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson and Wayne Simmonds in return, but then-Kings GM Dean Lombardi refused to give up those young pieces in return.

There were a number of teams in the Kovalchuk hunt this time as well, with many pegging the San Jose Sharks as favorites. GM Doug Wilson did a good job of clearing cap space in order to present an enticing offer for the Russian forward, but now the can shift their focus to John Tavares, if he decides to explore the market.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.