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Three questions facing Columbus Blue Jackets

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

For even more on Columbus, check these posts out, too:

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough | Under Pressure]

1. Is this the year they finally make the leap?

Sports fans don’t love hearing about how “close” their team was to winning that elusive game, series, or title, but such thoughts can be absolutely crucial for decision makers.

To put it in stupidly simple terms, consider this: the Washington Capitals lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions (both times Pittsburgh) before finally winning a championship of their own. To put it mildly, people were running out of patience with the Capitals. The Blue Jackets failed to get out of the first round these past two seasons, yet in each case, they lost to the eventual champions (Pittsburgh, then Washington).

Even beyond the questionable elements of the Penguins’ statements after signing Jack Johnson, you can understand why Torts blew a gasket. This team is scratching and clawing to build something special, yet sports can be cruel to those who fall just short. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that the Blue Jackets held a 2-0 series lead before things went sideways against Washington.

The Blue Jackets face some challenges in figuring out what’s next regarding Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, two rare star players who enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts.

In Panarin’s case, in particular, there’s the very reasonable notion of trading him to get something in return, rather than losing him for nothing via free agency.

What if the Blue Jackets just throw caution to the wind and try to see how far this current group can take them, letting the chips fall where they may next summer? There’s a sober argument to be made that, while it would be painful to see Panarin go, they might have their best chance at a big run merely by taking one more shot with “The Bread Man” on their roster.

2. Youth movement, instead?

It’s not the easiest sell to ask Blue Jackets fans to tolerate a pivot, consider they’ve still never won a playoff series (“hey, look at the Winnipeg Jets,” they might say) and the darker days of the Rick Nash/Steve Mason eras.

On the other hand, the Blue Jackets could also be cagey about this, waiting just a little while for the right opening to really take control of the Metropolitan Division.

Consider these factors:

  • The Penguins and Capitals aren’t exactly spring chickens. Sidney Crosby is 31, Evgeni Malkin is 32, and many of Pittsburgh’s other key players could hit the aging curve. Alex Ovechkin is 32 and Nicklas Backstrom is 30. Both teams have unearthed some very nice, younger players, but those top stars still drive success the most. The Blue Jackets already gave the Penguins and Capitals some tough fights; imagine if they could bide their time and come back with another fleet of young players?
  • It really might be best to trade Artemi Panarin, and maybe even part ways with Sergei Bobrovsky, for all we know. Being proactive with Panarin, in particular, could be an example of short-term pain, long-term gains.
  • This team already boasts an enviable core of young talent. Seth Jones is 23 and is signed for four more years at a bargain $5.4M rate. They need to sign Zach Werenski after next season, but that’s a nice problem to have considering that he’s just 21. There are some nice forwards at young ages (Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alexander Wennberg, and Oliver Bjorkstrand in particular), too. This point is especially prescient if Joonas Korpisalo can be a No. 1 guy, as he’s 24 (compared to 29-year-old Bob).

If the Blue Jackets decided to hand the torch to young players, in some ways out of necessity if Panarin’s leaving, then there is the risk that they can fall into a rut like before: boasting plenty of nice players, yet few of the game-breakers like Panarin who can swing a series. It might be frustrating to settle for the team resembling “a bunch of little rats” once again.

Sometimes it’s crucial to read the writing on the wall, though. Slipping a bit in 2018-19 wouldn’t be pleasant, at all, yet it might increase their odds of bigger gains in the future.

3. Is this the right front office for Columbus?

Naturally, a big barrier to a pivot or “soft reboot” is that GM Jarmo Kekalainen and head coach John Tortorella might – understandably – believe that they’re fighting for their jobs.

You’d understand each front office figure being pretty impatient with such an idea, even if there was enough job security to take a bigger swing in, say, 2019-20.

As stated before, the Blue Jackets haven’t won a playoff series in their franchise history, and Keklainen’s been a part of that drought since 2013. Tortorella’s dealt with a long personal drought, too, as he hasn’t presided over a team that won a playoff series since his tense final year with the Rangers in 2012-13.

This Blue Jackets franchise faces some incredibly tough questions and decisions in the near future. At some point, those tough calls may also revolve around the people making those decisions.

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.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: NHLPA Executive Board backs RTP, CBA agreement

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

• The NHLPA’s Executive Board has approved the tentative Return to Play and Collective Bargaining Agreement. Now things move to the full union membership vote for ratification. Voting, which is by secret, electronic ballot, begins Wednesday and will end Friday. [NHLPA]

• Inside the NHL bubble: testing, what could cause postponement [PHT]

Justin Williams on coming back to the Hurricanes for one last run: “I didn’t come back to play 20 games. I came back for a chance to win a Stanley Cup.” [News and Observer]

• “Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr found sensible solutions to shared problems without resorting to any of the hostility or grandstanding these negotiations are typically known for. They and their respective leadership teams started meeting out of the spotlight last summer before recalibrating on the fly and piecing together the framework for this agreement amid a health crisis that poses a significant threat to their industry and many others.” [Sportsnet]

• Will any NHL players opt out of the Return to Play? [The Hockey News]

• These X-factors will shape the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. [ESPN]

• “Lawyers for the NHL Players’ Association are scheduled to appear by video conference before an Ontario judge Tuesday in an effort to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a former union employee who alleges the NHLPA covered up a theft of more than $100,000 in union funds by one of its executives.” [TSN]

• It doesn’t sound like Jake DeBrusk, a pending RFA, will be looking for a hometown discount this off-season. [NBC Sports Boston]

• Who is the No. 1 goalie and will rust be a factor are just a couple of questions facing the Penguins ahead of their series vs. Montreal. [Pensburgh]

• Are the Predators better served hoping to win the No. 1 pick or advancing by the Coyotes? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Oilers are deeper than their solid special teams units. [Oilers Nation]

• A long-term knee injury could keep Juuso Valimaki out of the Flames’ lineup next month. [Flames Nation]

• On the challenges facing Flyers veterans after a long break. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

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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.

IIHF encouraged by NHL’s potential return to Olympics in ’22

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International Ice Hockey Federation chief Rene Fasel is encouraged after learning the NHL’s pending labor deal opens the possibility of the world’s best players returning to the Olympics.

Aside from the uncertainty raised by the coronavirus pandemic, Fasel told The Associated Press he doesn’t foresee any major stumbling blocks that could derail negotiations leading up to the 2022 Beijing Games.

“No, I don’t think there’s a deal-breaker,” he said Tuesday. “There are a lot of challenges. But I think in principle, I would say the news that that’s in the CBA, for me and especially international hockey, is very good news.”

Fasel spoke a day after the NHL and NHL Players’ Association tentatively agreed to extend the collective bargaining agreement for four years, which would run through the 2025-26 season.

A person with direct knowledge of the agreement told the AP it includes a provision that would allow NHL players to compete at the next two Winter Games, including the 2026 Olympics in Italy. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the contents of the CBA were not released.

The league participated in five consecutive Olympics before skipping the 2018 Games in South Korea.

In order to return, the NHL and its players would first have to resolve various outstanding issues — including health insurance, travel costs and marketing rights — with the IIHF and the International Olympic Committee.

Travel costs alone to Pyeongchang two years ago were projected to be $15 million, which the IOC refused to pay. The NHL was also denied control of using Olympic game footage to promote the league and players. Another concern was weighing the benefits of shutting down the regular season for two weeks only to have Olympic games being played in the early morning hours in North America due to the 14-hour time difference; a similar time difference would be present for 2022.

Fasel acknowledged the NHL’s concerns and said he was encouraged after the parties had what he called “a very positive meeting” in New York in early February. Follow-up discussions were placed on hold due to the pandemic.

“We didn’t give up after Pyeongchang. We understood the situation, how it was at that time. No bad feelings,” he said. “We really hope it will come in ’22, and we are ready to work and find a solution.”

The NHL and union have declined to discuss the proposed CBA until it is approved, which could happen as early as Friday.

Carolina Hurricanes veteran forward Justin Williams called the Olympic proposal “really attractive.”

“I just think it’s great for the game of hockey to be able to showcase the best players,” Williams said. “The Olympics are a special event in itself, but having NHL players there, even as actual players, we love to see the best on best. That’s pretty special.”

USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher said he was thrilled by the possibility of being to put together a team with NHL players, which could include rising young stars such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau and Seth Jones.

“It’s exciting to consider the team of Americans that could represent our country in Beijing, and we applaud the efforts of the NHL and the NHLPA in making this a possibility,” Kelleher said.

The NHL previously tamped down the chances of returning to Olympic play.

“At this point in time, we believe that the negatives outweigh the positives,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said following the February meeting in New York. Daly did raise the prospect of folding Olympic participation into CBA talks.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr had a different take on talks with the IOC and IIHF, saying: “The impression I had coming out of the meeting was there ought to be a way to get this done to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Fehr previously described the decision to skip the 2018 Games as a lost opportunity to showcase the sport.

Fasel, whose term as IIHF president was extended a year to September 2021, praised the NHL and players for addressing the Olympics in the CBA.

“We do not have leverage, and we just have to get the PA and the NHL to understand this is good for the promotion of the sport, especially in Asia,” Fasel said. “I’m happy that in the end they understand this is important for the development of ice hockey in the future.”