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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.

Under Pressure: Robin Lehner

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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 New York Islanders.

You can make a case for a ton of New York Islanders for the latest installment of “under pressure.”

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

As discussed in a different post, Mathew Barzal faces serious pressure as the new face of the franchise after John Tavares‘ departure.

Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee enter 2018-19 on expiring contracts with a lot of money to gain or lose depending upon how they play, with no guarantee that they’ll be with the Islanders after this season (or even following the trade deadline).

Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz both have secured impressive, lengthy resumes of work in the NHL, yet their work with the Islanders will make an impact on their legacies regardless.

Robin Lehner probably has the most to win or lose overall, and could face a serious degree of difficulty, especially if Trotz can’t fix was very much a broken Islanders defensive system from last season.

There are a number of factors that make this both a lot of pressure and a high-degree-of-difficulty challenge.

  • One shot.

Lehner received just a one-year, $1.5 million contract to prove himself. The Islanders didn’t make much of a commitment here, so it’s up to Lehner to show that they should bring him back.

  • No guarantee.

On a similar note, the Islanders don’t have a ton of incentive to keep throwing Lehner out there if he flames out, or merely struggles early on.

As much as Lehner stumbled during his final season with the Sabres, Thomas Greiss was even worse in 2017-18. That said, goalies are a difficult lot to forecast, so you never know if Greiss might put it together and land the top job.

(Consider how the Jets invested in Steve Mason last summer, only to see Connor Hellebuyck pass him totally by. It’s unlikely that Winnipeg expected Hellebuyck to be a Vezina finalist and expensive signing, yet that’s how the situation played out.)

  • Clock ticking, at least as a No. 1.

Lehner, 27, is running out of time and excuses. The edgy Swedish goalie has already played in 219 regular-season games (generating a solid-but-not-world-beating .915 career save percentage), and the Islanders rank as his third team. He hasn’t converted opportunities to the types of transcendent moments you want to see from a No. 1 goalie, as he’s appeared in just 49 minutes of playoff hockey during his career.

None of this is to say that Lehner is a failure, or cannot be a starting netminder.

After all, he was fighting off Craig Anderson in Ottawa before joining a Sabres team that has been abysmal for quite some time. Blaming Lehner totally is pretty silly with all of that in mind.

On the other hand, there are only 31 starting goalie jobs in the NHL. If Lehner flounders in 2018-19, he might not get a chance to land the top job at this level again, at least not for a while.

  • Tough task.

Getting adjusted to a new city, team, arena, and fan base is a lot for any player. It must be especially tough for a goalie, particularly since the Islanders could really struggle next season. Lehner may be asked to save the day on a regular basis, which isn’t the most reasonable request even for established starters.

  • Big disparity.

If Lehner shines, he could easily sign a robust contract. When a team believes it’s identified an answer in net, they almost always lock that guy up for multiple years and big dollars.

Falling short could suspend Lehner in limbo. He’ll enter his second consecutive contract year, depriving Lehner of the security pro athletes almost always crave.

Overall, this is a make-or-break year for Lehner, with a ton on the line.

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.

Building off a breakthrough: Mathew Barzal

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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 New York Islanders.

Frankly, the Islanders’ brass would be pretty brash to ask more of Mathew Barzal following his sensational Calder-winning campaign.

[Looking back at 2017-18]

Barzal scored 22 goals and 85 points during his rookie year, lighting up highlight reel after highlight reel with his blinding mixture of high-end skill and remarkable confidence. Few players of any experience level would think to attempt the moves Barzal would throw out there, let alone pull them off as often as Barzal did in 2017-18.

You don’t really need to use the “for a rookie” caveat with what Barzal accomplished this past season, although such comments really cement how special his year was. His 85 points rank as the best for a Calder-winner since Evgeni Malkin scored exactly that many back in 2006-07.

Only 12 players scored more points than Barzal, whose 85 tied him with Brad Marchand and Jakub Voracek for 13th overall last season. So, yeah, Barzal set, well, the bar very high.

Expectations will be steep for Barzal, and not just because of his eye-opening breakthrough. With John Tavares gone, people will expect – or the Islanders will simply need – Barzal to be “the guy.” It’s not outrageous to picture Barzal becoming captain very soon, but even if he doesn’t wear the “C,” he’ll be expected to carry the scoring burden. Not the easiest draw for a guy who’s about to enter his sophomore year.

Not that Barzal seems to shrink from the spotlight.

Beyond his dazzling skills, Barzal seems to boast that swagger you look for in a star, and what the Isles might need after losing Tavares.

“I don’t want to say he’s happy about John leaving, I’m sure he’s not that type of guy,” Matt Martin said of Barzal, via NHL.com. “But he does have a chip on his shoulder. I think he believes he can be one of the best players in the League. And you’re going to have to have a bigger role to do something like that.”

Granted, this doesn’t hinge on Barzal alone.

With Doug Weight gone for Barry Trotz, will Barzal receive the same free range to grow and learn from his mistakes? There’s always that concern that a more defensive-minded coach might hinder a scorer such as Barzal, especially considering that he’s still so wet-behind-the-ears.

(Speaking of behind the ears, Barzal will need to deal with old-schooler Lou Lamoriello, too. The National Post’s Michael Traikos captured the follicle follies that are already taking place with the Islanders. Fun and dumb stuff.)

Will there be excessive punishments in lost ice time or press conference criticisms if Barzal’s chance-taking backfires, as it almost always does for players who take chances? Might Trotz dial Barzal’s ice time back, in general, because of his defensive proclivities?

For all that went wrong with the Islanders last season, Barzal’s deployment went quite well. He averaged identical power-play ice time as John Tavares, as both logged 3:10 of man-advantage time per night. It didn’t take long for Weight to lean on Barzal overall, either; after averaging 15:28 TOI in October, Barzal’s ice time average never slipped below 16:58 in any other month.

With Tavares out, the Islanders could experiment with giving Barzal even more opportunities. There’s no better time than now to find out if 20-minute-type-work suits Barzal.

(That might seem like a no-brainer, but you also don’t want to hurt his confidence, especially if this Isles team ends up being rough next season.)

It should be fascinating to see how Barzal handles being the focal point of this Islanders team. He’ll receive the big-time offensive opportunities, yet he’ll also be the top focus of the opposition. Even if everything goes well, topping 85 points won’t be easy.

If anyone can do it, Barzal can pull it off. He’s simply that good, and he presents an Islanders an opportunity to show that they can put a star center in the perfect situation after failing to do so with Tavares.

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.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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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 New York Islanders.

2017-18:

35-37-10, 80 pts. (7th Metropolitan Division; 11th Eastern Conference)
missed playoffs

 IN:

Robin Lehner
Leo Komarov
Matt Martin
Valtteri Filppula
Tom Kuhnhackl

 OUT:

John Tavares
Calvin de Haan
Jaroslav Halak
Shane Prince
Nikolai Kulemin
Alan Quine
Chris Wagner

 RE-SIGNED:

Thomas Hickey
Ryan Pulock
Brock Nelson
Ross Johnston
Christopher Gibson
Devon Toews

This off-season could very well stand as the most pivotal in the history of the New York Islanders, a team that’s been in the NHL since 1972.

(Deep breath) naturally, the move that towers above them all is a franchise-altering relocation, as John Tavares opted to sign with the Maple Leafs rather than sticking with the Isles.

Such a rattling decision would already make this summer one of big changes for the Islanders, yet while that was the main course, there were plenty of other crucial changes.

After a brutal 2017-18 season from a defensive standpoint, the Islanders seemed to be the only franchise to offer reigning Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz a deal within range of his market value. It would be tough to believe that Trotz won’t be able to provide the structure that the Islanders sorely lacked under Doug Weight, who was relieved of his duties.

Former Devils and Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello ended up making the decision to replace Weight, and also stripped such powers away from Garth Snow, who certainly received plenty of opportunities to put his stamp on the Islanders during 12 years as GM.

The Islanders struggled mightily in their own end, and were often porous in net, with the greatest measure of blame being a chicken-or-the-egg argument. How bad were their goalies, versus how vulnerable were they made by a Swiss cheese defense?

Either way, Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss struggled mightily in 2017-18, putting up the sort of save percentage stats that only would have been endearing during the Islanders’ dynasty era, when sub-90-percent was generally the standard. (Today it’s … uh, not.)

While Greiss stands as one of the NHL’s immovable goalie contracts, Halak is now out in favor of former Sabres starter Robin Lehner. It’s a one-year deal for Lehner, so he ranks as one of the leading wildcards for the Islanders.

As grim as it might feel to look at many facets of the Islanders’ season and summer, there are some good sides.

Most obviously, it sure seems like the Islanders unearthed another star center, one they’ll hopefully surround with better talent than Tavares enjoyed. Mathew Barzal took the NHL by storm last season, generating 85 points on his way to winning the Calder Trophy, the most generated by a rookie of the year winner in more than a decade.

Barzal supplemented all that substance with oodles of style.

For all of Snow’s struggles as GM, Barzal ranked as just one of the examples of his shrewd moves.

The trade that landed the Barzal pick looked like another punchline for the Islanders over Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, something that was accentuated by the Isles winning the Jordan EberleRyan Strome deal. Chia wasn’t the only person who maybe shouldn’t have taken Snow’s calls, as the Travis Hamonic trade looks like another victory for the Islanders, as it helped them land successive promising-looking picks during the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft (more on them in a moment).

The mixture of good and bad is dizzying, although it may also be crucial to soothe some of the agony that comes from losing a foundational talent like Tavares.

Can Trotz and Lamoriello lead this franchise out of some dark days? We’ll begin to find out in 2018-19.

Prospect Pool:

  • Oliver Wahlstrom, W, 18, US NTDP – 2018 first-round pick
  • Noah Dobson, D, 18, Acadie-Bathurst (QMJHL) – 2018 first-round pick

The Islanders selected Wahlstrom at 11th overall and nabbed Dobson one pick later at 12, impressing critics with each pick, as you could argue that both could have gone earlier. It’s likely a matter of debate regarding which player should have been selected first, not to mention if Dobson or Wahlstrom actually ranks as the top Isles prospect.

The similarities end there, aside from both being 18.

Wahlstrom is touted as a potential 30-goal scorer in the NHL. He’ll get a year of seasoning with Boston College in 2018-19, but whenever he makes the jump, Wahlstrom is expected to be a lethal sniper who can bring some other nice scoring skills to the table.

Oh yeah, he also generated quite a sensation at age 9.

Dobson, meanwhile, ranks as one of the most promising defensive prospects once you get beyond Rasmus Dahlin and Quinn Hughes. Dobson scored 17 goals and 69 points during a smashing 67-game season in the QMJHL, so the production was certainly there for the intriguing blueliner.

At least two outlets have compared Dobson to Blues star Alex Pietrangelo.

  • Ilya Sorokin, G, 23, CSKA Moscow (KHL) – 2014 third-rounder

It remains to be seen when the Islanders could even coax Sorokin to the NHL, as he’s under contract in the KHL for quite some time. Regardless, he ranks as one of the team’s most important prospects, as the Islanders clearly need an answer in net.

Sorokin’s shown promise overseas, generating no lower than a .929 save percentage in KHL competition since 2014-15.

Consider Josh Ho-Sang and Kieffer Bellows as the lead Islanders prospects who should be considered “honorable mentions,” at least if you still label Ho-Sang as a prospect (as he’s enjoyed quite a few – though not quite enough – NHL reps).

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.

Three questions facing New Jersey Devils

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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 New Jersey Devils.

1. Can youth lead the way?

We mentioned earlier that this team is going the young route as general manager Ray Shero continues to craft it around youthful exuberance.

The Devils will be led by Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier next season, and it’s important the latter takes the next step in his game while the former continues the play that won him the Hart Trophy. But the supporting cast needs to progess as well. Jesper Bratt had a solid rookie outing and will be counted on to forge ahead.

Ditto for Will Butcher, who had a productive year on the back end and likewise for Pavel Zacha, who enters his third season in the NHL this year and could have a more prominent role if the Devils decide to split Hischier and Hall up.

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

2. Can Schneider bounce back from two poor seasons and offseason hip surgery?

It bears repeating that Schneider is the most important component to the success of the Devils.

With the strides the Devils have made outside of the crease, Schneider getting back to the numbers that garnered him his $42 million contract seems like a surefire way for the Devils to stick out in a talent Metropolitan Division.

His .908 and .907 in the past two years, respectively, won’t cut it if the team wants to ride him for 60 games.

It may not come early for New Jersey. Schneider’s arrival next season largely depends on how he’s healing from offseason hip surgery. Keith Kinkaid can handle the load until Schneider makes his return, so there’s no reason to rush Schneider back in just to have him end up back on injured reserve.

The Devils showed they could compete despite adversity this season. Void of that this season, and the Devils could be competing for more than just the final playoff spot in the East.

3. Will secondary scoring come? 

The line with Hall and Hischier combined for a good chunk of the Devils offensive production last season.

Even between those two, there was a 41-point gap. Between Hall and the next best producer, it was 49 points.

Hall can lead the way, as he showed this year, but others need to step up and reciprocate to close that gap. It’s possible Hischier hits 70 points this season. It’s possible that healthy Marcus Johansson can hit the 50-point mark once again.

There’s a lot of scenarios, including New Jersey’s young contingent improving on last season’s numbers.

The lack of scoring was exploiting in the playoffs at just 2.4 goals per game. That was never going to be enough to see off the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there’s no reason to suggest that will change this season.

Bonus round: What should Ray Shero do with the $18 million he has left floating around in cap space? The team needs to re-sign Miles Wood still, but what should be added and where? 


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