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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins’ free-agent decisions; Would Rangers have made playoffs?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Bruins have some big decisions to make with some potential free agents. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• Boston needs to re-sign Jaroslav Halak this summer. (Causeway Crowd)

• Todd Reirden’s son, Travis, has an immunodeficiency that prevents his immune system from defending against bacteria and viruses. That makes things complicated for the family during this Covid-19 pandemic. (NBC Sports Washington)

Travis Zajac weighs in on the new Netflix documentary “Tiger King”. (NJ.com)

• If the NHL decides to give teams a compliance buyout or two, who would the Hurricanes move on from? (Cardiac Cane)

• A shortened season could benefit some of the young New York Rangers. (Blue Line Station)

Sergei Bobrovsky talked about giving financial support to the Florida arena workers. (The Hockey News)

• Claude Julien is trying to remain positive about the season resuming. (Sportsnet.ca)

• Sheldon Keefe expects Alexander Barabanov to be an important part of the Maple Leafs next year. (TSN)

Darnell Nurse wouldn’t mind playing hockey in empty arenas. (Oilers Nation)

• Pushing the Olympics to 2021 means that the NHL has a bigger window to finish their season. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• Would the Rangers have made the playoffs? (Blue Seat Blogs)

Alex Biega sees the importance of life after hockey for all players in the NHL. (Detroit News)

• The 1995-96 Red Wings needed just a little more seasoning before they were ready for primetime. (The Score)

• What’s next for the Blackhawks and Corey Crawford? (NBC Sports Chicago)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely

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It’s Wednesday, April 8 and tonight we should have been parking ourselves in front of our televisions or gathering inside hockey rinks across the U.S. and Canada to watch playoff hockey.

Instead, we wait. We don’t know when the NHL will resume its 2019-20 schedule and we don’t know how they will complete it if playing out the regular season isn’t an option. Since the NHL pause on March 12,  various formats thrown out, garnering a myriad of responses. If time prevents the league from holding a normal postseason, they’ll have to be creative.

“From an NHL standpoint, we’re viewing all of our options,” Commissioner Gary Bettman told Mike Tirico on NBCSN’s Lunch Talk Live Tuesday. “We want to be ready to go as soon as we get a green light — and the green light may not be crystal clear because there may still be some places in the [U.S. and Canada] where we can’t play and others places where you can. We’re looking at all options. Nothing’s been ruled in, nothing’s been ruled out. And it’s largely going to be determined what we do by how much time there is because we have next season to focus on as well.”

So what are possibly looking at for a right-to-the-playoffs scenario?

Points percentage

Here are your Round 1 playoff matchups if points percentage was to determine the eight teams in each conference:

Bruins vs. Islanders
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Flyers vs. Penguins

Blues vs. Flames
Avalanche vs. Stars
Golden Knight vs. Predators
Oilers vs. Canucks

There are some juicy pairings in that lot, but what of those teams who missed the cut? Surely the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Panthers, Jets, Wild, and Coyotes would like to see the field expanded considering the unique situation we find ourselves in.

“I don’t think it would be right if we’re left out,” said Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. “We’re close to a playoff spot and have 13 games left. We just started playing as well as we did before the All-Star break, the bye week. We were feeling pretty good, playing with confidence.”

If you stick with the traditional series format, the timing of everything would affect series lengths. Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly have been vocal about not having the 2020-21 season interrupted, so if we’re talking about July or August playoff hockey, we can’t have four rounds of best-of-sevens.

Tournament

P.K. Subban said he’d love to see a 31-team tournament to decide the 2020 Stanley Cup winner — and why wouldn’t he when you glance at the Devils’ place in the Eastern Conference standings. But while including every team in the league isn’t the best idea, using this opportunity to be different opens the door for that kind of format if there isn’t time for a full four rounds of playoffs.

Like the points percentage idea, a tournament would require some sort of cut off point to fill the field. Do you forget conferences and just go with an overall Sweet 16 and best-of-three series? Would it be ideal to include 24 teams and work in byes for those atop the standings?

Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly told NHL.com’s The Rink podcast that he wants a full four-round playoff.

“I know you can do it in a different way, but if it was up to me, from my time being in the League and other guys I’ve talked to on the team, we really need to protect the integrity of the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s a whole other season in its own so I think it’s got to be a full, best-of-7 for four rounds, for sure. It’ll be interesting to see how they make that work, how you can condense it to still give the teams fighting for a wild card a chance, but I think you have to have the full thing.

“It’ll be tough and obviously I don’t have all the answers, but I feel it really protects the integrity of the Stanley Cup. It is extremely difficult. Having to beat a team four times is not an easy thing to do, and I just feel we need to have that.”

Neutral sites

An NHL playoff or tournament set up with games played in either one city or multiple locations? That’s been discussed with locations such as Buffalo and Grand Forks, North Dakota serving as potential options. However many teams, isolated in a city, away from their families. The league would love the unique aspect to such a conclusion to a season, but would the players? 

As with the Major League Baseball idea that was floated on Tuesday or the NBA’s in Las Vegas, what would the logistics look like for the NHL? Would there be fans? How long of a period of time would the players and staff be away from their families in such a scenario? Will there be tests upon arrival? What if a player or staff member contracts the virus? Will there be an expansion of rosters?

And that’s just with the logistics involving the teams. What about the people working at the arena(s)? And should medical personnel be used in this case and not be assisting hospitals?

As Bettman said Tuesday, there’s too much uncertainty to have an idea when the NHL will be given a green light to resume games. The planning needs to be done for all situations once that happens, and more and more it’s looking like if playoffs do happen, it will be a unique format that wins out for this special circumstance.

Follow this NBC News live update thread for more on the coronavirus pandemic.

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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.

What is the Kings’ long-term outlook?

Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Los Angeles Kings.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Los Angeles Kings currently revolve around two cornerstone pieces, captain Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty.

They were central figures during two Stanley Cup seasons in 2012 and 2014 and remain vital to the organization. The Ilya Kovalchuk experiment ended when they placed the veteran winger on unconditional waivers for the purposes of terminating his contract in mid-December.

But now the focus has shifted, and general manager Rob Blake is tasked with finding new pieces to help usher in a different era of Kings hockey.
Blake and his staff aim to build through the draft and own 11 picks in the upcoming draft, including three in the second round, two in the third round and two in the fourth round. The Kings currently sit in the bottom five of the NHL standings and will have a premium first-round pick depending on the results of the lottery at the conclusion of the NHL season.

The Kings also made two selections in the first round of the 2019 draft and have a top-five NHL farm system, according to The Athletic’s prospect rankings this past summer.

Los Angeles won’t return to glory overnight, but they have the ammunition to rebuild their foundation and become a contender in the Western Conference once again.

Long-Term Needs

The Kings need to hit on their upcoming draft picks, simply put. The decisions made by the front office in the upcoming offseason could define the success of the franchise. It will be the difference between a three-year rebuilding process or 10-year absence from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Los Angeles also has to manage the salary cap over the next few seasons. Its patience will be tested, but the organization needs to wait until Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter’s lucrative contracts expire after the 2021-22 season. Goaltender Jonathan Quick’s deal expires the year after.

With new talent on the horizon, the Kings are in a position to clear out bad contracts but should avoid long-term commitments until a new core is established at the NHL level.

Long-Term Strengths

The good news is Kopitar and Doughty are still performing at a high level. The captain led the team in scoring with 62 points, surpassing his total from last season in 11 fewer games. Doughty leads the team in ice time, averaging a shade under 26 minutes per game and was close to eclipsing the 40-point mark for the sixth straight season.

In addition, Sean Walker secured a spot on the blueline with strong play in the first 70 games of his career. The undrafted defenseman also showed ability on the offensive side of the ice with 24 points, most of which came at even strength.

Most importantly, Todd McLellan looked to be making strides in his first year as head coach. The Kings finished (maybe) the season with an impressive seven-game winning streak and went 10-2-1 in the final 13 games.

The team has a lot of flexibility going forward and now it’s up to Blake to make the correct decisions, and McLellan to execute that plan on the ice.

MORE ON THE KINGS:


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Brian Burke, Mike O’Connell feud over claims about Joe Thornton trade talks

Burke, O'Connell feud over Thornton trade
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Hockey fans have fond memories of Brian Burke’s feud with Kevin Lowe, and now it seems we have a sequel. Burke and former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell are in a war of words over alleged Joe Thornton trade talks. The biggest winners? Us.

Consider it a very short three act play or … boxing match, maybe more appropriately?

Round 1: Burke recalls trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks, “babysitting” O’Connell

Burke provided refreshingly candid answers to fan questions during an April 2 Twitter Q&A. The thread is worth your time, as Burke discusses the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Phil Kessel, Roberto Luongo, and Gary Bettman.

But it was a two-part bit about Burke trying to bring Thornton to the Ducks that got the ball rolling.

Burke explained that he’s “still bitter” that the Ducks didn’t land Thornton, and believes he offered O’Connell a better deal than the Bruins ultimately received from the Sharks.

Most fascinatingly, Burke even gave specifics about what he was willing to offer. Now, one can speculate about who would have been in the Ducks top five in 2005. Would Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry possibly been available for Thornton?

But either way … wow.

As a reminder, the Bruins ended up receiving Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart for Thornton. As Bruins fans would like to forget, Thornton continued to be a star for the Sharks, including winning the 2005-06 Hart Trophy.

[PHT Time Machine: The Eric Lindros trade that didn’t happen.]

Round 2: O’Connell says Burke’s Thornton claims were a “fabrication”

Things got juicier between O’Connell and Burke on Tuesday.

O’Connell told The Athletic’s Joe McDonald (sub required) that Burke’s hypothetical offer didn’t happen, and that the details were a “fabrication.”

“The details surrounding this story are fabricated and I can confirm that no such offer was made to me as I never informed Anaheim of my intentions to trade Joe Thornton,” O’Connell said. “Unfortunately, certain personalities never let the truth get in the way of their ultimate goal, self-promotion.”

Whew! (Shakes hand to indicate serious heat emanating from this rivalry.)

Round 3: Feud sizzles to a new level as Burke counters

Not to be outdone, Burke responded to O’Connell’s claims in a fiery appearance on ESPN on Ice with Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski. Burke made a key point by noting that current Ducks GM Bob Murray was in Burke’s office when he made the offer(s).

Burke also revived memories of wanting to battle Kevin Lowe in a fabled barn over the Dustin Penner offer sheet, saying “I wish we were in the same room, if you’re calling me a liar.” You really need to hear the entire clip, which Wyshynski posted:

*Ponders putting on oven mitts, this is all too hot to handle*

So obviously, this is a he-said, Burkie-said situation. We can only take each hockey executive’s word for it, and one could even argue that Murray might feel loyal to Burke.

But, considering the specifics of Burke’s claims, it seems feasible that the Ducks made some sort of offer for Thornton.

Theories

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle.

It’s also crucial to realize how much a person’s memory can be altered by time. This happened in 2005, and sometimes the seeds of trades are planted far before a deal is consummated. It’s possible that O’Connell flat-out doesn’t remember Burke’s offer(s).

Not only has time passed, but O’Connell also took a ton of heat for the trade. McDonald notes this anonymous reaction from a Bruins player at the time of the trade:

“Are you kidding me? We traded Joe Thornton for three guys who can’t tie their skates.”

The Bruins fired O’Connell in March of 2006, and the Thornton trade undoubtedly served as a catalyst. Such events can leave you a bit scarred, and maybe even prompt you to forget certain details. Maybe phrasing like “babysitting” bothered O’Connell, even if I took it to mean that Burke was checking up on the situation quite often.

Or maybe O’Connell is right in claiming that Burke is making those Thornton trade claims with the “ultimate goal” of “self-promotion?”

One thing’s clear: this is fun

We can only really guess, and perhaps spend this coronavirus quarantine time imagining “What if?” scenarios. Could Thornton have pushed the Ducks into mini-dynasty status, as this was during their Chris Pronger – Scott Niedermayer era? Would the Bruins have landed blue chips rather than “guys who can’t tie their skates?”

(That’s totally unfair to Primeau, Sturm, and Stuart, as they all had lengthy NHL careers. Though I admit I have not received definitive proof of how adept they are with laces.)

The one thing we do know is that Thornton landed with the Sharks and had a great run. And that O’Connell (currently director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings) and Burke (Sportsnet personality) probably aren’t best buds.

Hey, it’s a lot more fun than talking about escrow though, right?

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.