How should Columbus feel about its season?

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are a team with a relatively young core. Even though Columbus was an “underdog” in its first-round series against the Capitals, Columbus has to be disappointed with the way things ended, and there’s a few reasons for that.

The Jackets caught the league by storm last season, as they went from a 76-point season in 2015-16 to a 108-point season in 2016-17. John Tortorella’s team went from being 15th in East to third in the Metropolitan Division, but they eventually lost to Pittsburgh in five games last spring. At the time, that outcome was widely accepted as being successful (by people outside the organization) because of the quick turnaround from one year to the next. This year’s playoff loss is a different story.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Before we dive into what went wrong during the postseason, let’s take a look at the 82 games of the regular season first.

Columbus won eight of 12 games in October. They followed that up by dropping four games in a row early in November, but they responded by rattling off six consecutive wins. Even though they got off to a good start, Tortorella made it clear that their stars weren’t playing well. A lot of their early-season success came from Sergei Bobrovsky‘s stellar play.

Their play fell apart in the middle of the year, but even though it looked like they were in trouble, they managed to get their season back on the rails.

Artemi Panarin eventually got comfortable and he became the offensive catalyst the Blue Jackets expected him to be. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who’s still just a teenager, also grew up quite a bit during the season. He looked more confident down the stretch. It took some time, but Cam Atkinson also picked up his play in the second half of the year. Combine all that with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and company on defense and Bobrovsky, and you have a team that ended up finishing in a Wild Card spot. For whatever reason, it simply didn’t end up working out in the postseason.

Things were looking good early on, especially because they found a way to win Games 1 and 2 in Washington. Going back home with a 2-0 lead should have resulted in the Jackets eventually punching their ticket to the second round. Instead, they’ll be hitting the golf course earlier than they wanted to.

That’s not to say that the Blue Jackets totally fell apart. Four of the six games against Washington ended in overtime. In Game 5, they completely dominated the Capitals, outshooting them 16-1 over the final 20 minutes of regulation. Unfortunately for them, they ended up losing in overtime on a perfect deflection from Nicklas Backstrom. Washington ended up taking a 3-2 lead in the series and they never looked back.

“We learned a lot about ourselves, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m tired of learning,” Nick Foligno said after being eliminated, per beat reporter Steve Gorten. I want to continue to get better, and continue to move on. I hope we understand that now’s the time for this team.

“We had a real good opportunity being up 2-0 and didn’t make the most of it. That’s how fine it is to win. It’s hard in the postseason to close out things. I hope guys understand and realize the window you have to win. This is a hell of a team. Now’s the time to start winning.”

The quote above says it all. They may have put together back-to-back solid campaigns, but they’re a team that has legitimate expectations when it comes to making a run. As well as they’ve played at different times over the last two years, it doesn’t mean much if they don’t take the next step when it counts.

The Blue Jackets aren’t just a good story anymore, they’re a team that people expect to see in the playoffs every year. But simply getting into the postseason isn’t good enough by the fans’ standards or the team’s standards.

There’s some solid building blocks in place, now it’s just about gaining the confidence necessary to overcome adversity in the playoffs. The next two or three seasons should be interesting for this organization. Still, you can’t help but feel that they didn’t take a step forward in 2017-18.

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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.