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Under Pressure: Jarmo Kekalainen

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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.

Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t the only NHL GM facing difficult decisions.

The difference between the Columbus Blue Jackets’ GM and many of his under-pressure peers is that, frankly, the ceiling’s higher for Kekalainen. While Senators GM Pierre Dorion is essentially just trying to clean up a severe mess, Kekalainen could help the Blue Jackets finally break through — if he can succeed in walking a tightrope (with alligators licking their chomps below, really).

[Looking back to 2017-18 | Building off breakthrough]

Given the cruel nature of sports, it doesn’t seem to matter much that a frequently promising Blue Jackets team lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions two years in a row. The heat’s already rising considerably, and the toughest times may just be ahead.

Breaking bread

Just consider the uneasy futures for two of the Blue Jackets’ most important players.

There’s been plenty of speculation regarding Artemi Panarin‘s situation, as the game-breaking forward’s $6M cap hit will expire after 2018-19. The general feeling, via the Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, is that (no hard feelings but) Panarin simply doesn’t want to spend the rest of his career in Columbus, or seemingly most markets that aren’t large. Among other gloomy reports: Panarin wants “all business set aside” by Sept. 13, according to Portzline (sub required).

So, should Kekalainen trade Panarin sooner rather than later, instead of risking being in a similar place as the Islanders, who saw John Tavares leave for nothing but cap space and an open roster spot? The good news is that Panarin and his reps are illuminating the subject for Kekalainen. The bad news is that the hockey world knows, so he’ll look foolish if Columbus ends up with nothing, yet other GMs also know that he might be at a disadvantage.

Kekalainen would be forgiven for sweating the Panarin situation alone, yet that’s just one of some pressing issues for Columbus.

What to do about Bob?

Sergei Bobrovsky also will need a new contract after his $7.425M AAV expires after next season, and that situation is comparably tricky, only in different ways.

You’d be hard-pressed to pick apart the work “Bob” has done in Columbus, generating a beautiful .923 save percentage over 312 regular-season games, with especially impressive work done during the past two years.

The elephant in the room, for many, is Bobrovsky’s playoff struggles. More analytical types will roll their eyes at such criticisms – particularly when the tone really condemns – but it’s also fair to note that, for all Bob has accomplished in winning two Vezina trophies, Columbus hasn’t been able to put it together enough to win a mere playoff series yet.

If you’re Kekalainen, you’re fearful that Bobrovsky could become the next Carey Price.

Bob is already 29, and he’ll turn 30 on Sept. 20. When the Montreal Canadiens extended Price with a massive eight-year, $84M contract, it probably felt – to them – like the price of doing business with an all-world goalie. That deal already looks horrifying, and it’s only officially going to begin in 2018-19, with Price already 30.

The Bob situation could turn out poorly for Kekalainen in a variety of ways, sadly.

The Blue Jackets may decide to roll with Joonas Korpisalo and other, younger, cheaper options … only to see “Bob” flourish somewhere else. Conversely, they could see Bob turn into Carey Price 2.0, a goalie with memories of elite work but a contract that screams “albatross.”

The Panarin and Bobrovsky situations stand as brutal challenges, and the Blue Jackets also must pay some young players soon. Most pressingly, Zach Werenski is set to enter the final season of his rookie contract. The American defenseman is, bar none, an elite talent. It’s unlikely that his value will go anywhere but up after he accrues another season of work in 2018-19. Getting that contract done would provide some cost certainty, yet Werenski might be smart to wait this out for maximum value. That’s another big challenge, and a crucial situation regarding Columbus’ future.

Reaching for the Alka-Seltzer yet, Blue Jackets fans?

Some hope, but big risks

You could probably place Kekalainen somewhere in the Brad Treliving range of NHL GMs.

There’s a lot to like about what Kekalainen has done since taking over in 2013.

Sure, the Panarin situation is challenging, but it was a huge win for Columbus and could still reap rewards if they make the painful decision to trade him. As nice a talent as Ryan Johansen is, it seemed like his relationship was untenable with John Tortorella, so Kekalainen deserves even more kudos for (in my opinion) winning the trade by landing near-Norris-level defenseman Seth Jones. Kekalainen’s draft acumen has paid off nicely, too, with Pierre Luc-Dubois ranking as the latest breakthrough.

Even so, you have to wonder if the clock is ticking on his tenure, and there are some less-than-ideal contracts on the books, considering that Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, and Cam Atkinson combine for $17.225M for the next three seasons (with Atkinson’s $5.875M lingering through 2024-25).

There’s a nightmare scenario where the Blue Jackets end up on the wrong end of the Bobrovsky/Panarin situations while still never tasting the second round of a postseason, all while spending a pretty big chunk of cash.

Fair or not, it’s tough to imagine the franchise keeping Kekalainen around if most of these situations go sour.

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.

Bruins coach Cassidy has some harsh words for his defense

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PITTSBURGH — For the third time this season and the second time this week the Boston Bruins lost a game after holding a three-goal lead. On Sunday, it was a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

After scoring three first period goals, the Bruins allowed the Penguins to climb back into the game and eventually tie it on a Jack Johnson shorthanded goal early in the third period. That set the stage for Bryan Rust to score the game-winner with just over seven minutes remaining.

That goal is the one that really seemed to draw the ire of Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy after the game. Especially since it is the type of thing he has been seeing too much of lately. He used that goal as an opportunity to criticize the play of his defensemen and the type of hockey they are playing.

It all started with Penguins center Evgeni Malkin forcing a turnover on the forecheck thanks to a heavy check on Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy. McAvoy gave up the puck to Malkin, Malkin found Rust wide open inside the faceoff dot, and Rust deposited in the net before Bruins goalie Jaroslav Halak could figure out what happened.

This game had to be especially frustrating for the Bruins after losing a three-goal lead in Philadelphia earlier this week.

“We saw some poor defending, poor goaltending I think in Philly. Tonight I thought it was more the same to be honest with you,” said Cassidy on Sunday. “Not so much on the goalie, they were good goals. But we get beat off the wall on the first one. The last one I can’t tell you what happened to be honest with you. It’s a rimmed puck goalie needs to get out and stop. The D need to communicate.

“You need to make a play. You can’t turn the puck over there. There’s too much of that going on. Guys that have offensive ability have to start playing to their strength a little more on our back end, or we have to seriously consider what type of D corps do we want? We are supposed to be mobile, we are supposed to be able to move the puck, break pucks out and add to our offense. Right now that is a challenge for us.”

Cassidy never mentioned anyone by name there, but it’s not hard to figure out who he is talking about.

McAvoy is the one that was guilty of the turnover on the game-winning goal, and it is probably fair to say that he is one of the players Cassidy wants to see playing to their strength more offensively. McAvoy spoke to the media after the game and admitted he needed to be stronger on that puck.

Aside from the turnover, McAvoy has been having an underwhelming season based on the standard he set for himself over his first two seasons. His possession numbers are down, and as of Sunday he has yet to score a goal in 46 games. He scored seven goals in 54 games a year ago, after scoring seven in 63 games during his rookie season.

It should also be noted that veteran John Moore was the one that got beat on the first goal that Cassidy mentioned. Moore, normally a 17-18 minute per game defenseman, was pretty much benched after that play. He finished the game with just 10 minutes of ice-time, only six of which came in the second and third periods after that goal was scored.

Cassidy was asked if he thought the team let up a little bit after getting the early lead. He did not see it that way, instead focussing on the type of goals they allowed.

“We got out-chanced in the second, but I don’t think it was to the point where they were bombarding us,” said Cassidy. “They were better, but we lose a battle low on the second goal, and our forward swings away. These are correctible mistakes, but the goals we are giving up against this good team like tonight. What is it? Is it lack of focus? Did we lose our urgency? Because they are gifts a little bit. Little bit of gifts. You can get out played, you will by good teams in stretches, but they were gifts.”

This Bruins team — and especially their defense — had their toughness questioned by the Boston media in the wake of their response to the hit that sidelined starting goalie Tuukka Rask.

Now they are facing public criticism from the person whose opinion matters most — their own coach — for a far bigger problem.

Their actual play on the ice.

Related: Penguins score four consecutive goals to beat Bruins

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Penguins rally from 3-goal deficit to stun Bruins: 3 takeaways

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins erased a three-goal first period deficit against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon to pick up a 4-3 win. The Penguins have shown an ability to rally all season, but their first period performance on Sunday, combined with the dominance of the Bruins, made it seem like this one might be a little too much to overcome.

It was not.

Here is how they did it.

1. Matt Murray and Jack Johnson bounced back

Murray and Johnson were at the center of the Penguins’ early struggles on Sunday as Boston jumped out to a 2-0 lead just two minutes into the game.

The first goal came just 11 seconds into the game when Johnson got caught out of position and left Patrice Bergeron wide open for a shot that he buried behind Murray. Two minutes later, Anders Bjork took advantage of another defensive breakdown to score his eighth goal of the season.

Just after that Murray received a mock cheer from the sellout crowd when he stopped a rolling puck from the neutral zone.  Things only got worse when David Pastrnak scored his 37th goal of the season thanks to some help from Johnson who accidentally knocked Pastrnak’s centering attempt into his own net.

“I had a feeling [Pastrnak] was going to throw it across the goal line to the guy on the backside,” said Johnson. “You have to try and stop it and lay it in the pads. You can’t let it go through or deflect it into the slot. It’s a tough bounce.”

It would have been easy for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan to make a goaltending change at that point but he decided to stick with Murray. He was rewarded for it. Murray was not only perfect for the remainder of the game, he actually finished with a very strong .918 save percentage and made some huge saves in the second and third period to keep the Penguins in it.

He has been relegated to backup duty for most of the past two months behind All-Star Tristan Jarry. But the Penguins know they will need both goalies this season and have tried to get Murray more playing time recently to get him back on track. He has now won each of his past four starts with strong numbers.

While Murray was bouncing back in net, Johnson made up for his first period own goal by scoring the game-tying goal early in the third period with a booming shorthanded slap shot.

2. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dominated

The Penguins’ superstar center duo did not finish with huge numbers (Crosby had two assists; Malkin had one assist) but there was no denying the impact they had on this game.

Crosby helped start the Penguins’ rally late in the first period when he set up Dominik Simon for the Penguins’ first goal.

Just 33 seconds into the second period he added another ridiculous pass to his highlight reel when he did this.

Crosby now has eight points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Malkin, meanwhile, was a constant threat all day and finally made an impact on the scoreboard when he set up Bryan Rust on this play late in the third period.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan praised Malkin’s effort and the message it sends to the rest of the team.

“Malkin made a great play on the game-winner.” said Sullivan. “He gets in on the forecheck, it’s just a hard-working goal. When you have one of your best players and a leader like that step up, it speaks volumes for the leadership of the group.”

The bad news for the Penguins’ forwards on Sunday is that Simon and Dominik Kahun both exited the game with injuries.

3. The Bruins lost another three-goal lead

This is something that just does not happen to the Bruins.

Consider this stat from NHL.com’s Wes Crosby when the Bruins jumped out to their three-goal lead.

 

The concerning thing here is three of those now eight losses (one regulation and two overtime) have come since Nov. 1 of this season.

They lost in a shootout to the Florida Panthers on Nov. 12 after holding a 4-0 lead. This past week they had a 5-2 second period lead over the Philadelphia Flyers before allowing that to slip away, again losing in a shootout. Then on Sunday they turned a 3-0 first period lead into a 4-3 regulation defeat.

The Bruins are still in a good position in the Atlantic Division with a six-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning, but there are some issues here. For one, Tampa Bay is gaining ground fast. There is also the fact that Boston has cooled off considerably over the past couple of months and is just 8-7-7 in its past 22 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Gerard Gallant on coaching future: ‘I’m far from done’

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The Vegas Golden Knights decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant this past week came as a shock to pretty much everyone across the NHL, and that of course includes Gallant himself.

Gallant told his hometown paper, the Journal Pioneer on Saturday that he was “quite surprised” by the Golden Knights’ decision and that it isn’t too popular with him.

“You don’t see something coming like that when you have two-and-a-half years in. I was disappointed and surprised, but I understand the hockey business and things have to change sometimes. They made a tough decision and I’m sure it was tough on them, but that’s the way hockey is.”

Given the nature of the NHL’s coaching carousel it seems to be a given that Gallant will be back behind a bench at sometime in the near future. He told the Journal Pioneer that he “definitely” still wants to coach and that he is “far from done.”

Under Gallant’s watch the Golden Knights were the most successful NHL expansion team of the modern era with a 118-75-20 regular season record in two-and-a-half seasons. They made the playoffs in each of his first two full seasons and made a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Even though they were on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture at the time of the coaching change they were still just one point out of a playoff spot and only three points out of first place in the Pacific Division.

The Golden Knights are 1-0-1 in the two games since the coaching change. Given the way they have played at 5-on-5 this season there is every reason to believe they can turn their season around after a slow start as long as they get more consistent goaltending.

Perhaps the most interesting comment from Gallant in his interview was how he and the NHL were going to handle the 2020 All-Star Game. Gallant had initially been announced as the head coach for the Pacific Division team, but his dismissal from the Golden Knights put that into question. Gallant said he and the league talked about how to handle the situation and that the NHL left it up to him on whether or not he wanted to participate. In the end he decided he would not have been comfortable going.

The NHL named Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet as the replacement.

You can read Gallant’s entire interview here.

More on Gerard Gallant

Golden Knights fire Gallant, hire Peter DeBoer
Golden Knights’ Gallant firing seems like short-sighted, knee-jerk reaction
Gallant replaced by Rick Tocchet at 2020 NHL All-Star Game

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins host Bruins on NBC

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NBC’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Two of the NHL’s top teams meet for the second time in four days as the Bruins head to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. Sunday’s matchup will be the third and final game between these two this season. Boston won the first two meetings

After losing in Boston Thursday, the Penguins had a chance to get right back to it with a game against the Red Wings Friday night. Pittsburgh started slow, trailing 1-0 to the league’s worst team through two periods. But early in the third Bryan Rust scored his 20th of the season on the power play to even the score. And in overtime it was the captain Sidney Crosby who netted the game-winner on the power play to help Pittsburgh escape with a win.

Since returning from his 28-game absence, Crosby has 6 points (3G-3A) and has scored a goal in each of his three games.

With All-Star goalie Tuukka Rask (concussion) on injured reserve, the Bruins are now relying on Jaroslav Halak as their primary goalie. After starting the season on a tear, Halak has not been as sharp over the past six weeks.Halak has started (and won) both games against the Penguins this season. Over his career, he is 11-8-2 in 21 starts against Pittsburgh, with a 2.53 GAA and .921 SV%.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 12:30 P.M. ET ON NBC]

WHAT: Boston Bruins at Pittsburgh Penguins
WHERE: PPG Paints Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 19, 12:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBC
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Bruins-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BRUINS
Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskCharlie CoyleAnders Bjork
Danton HeinenPar LindholmKarson Kuhlman
Joakim NordstromSean KuralyChris Wagner

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy
Torey KrugBrandon Carlo
John MooreMatt Grzelcyk

Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak

PENGUINS
Jared McCann – Sidney Crosby – Dominik Simon
Dominik KahunEvgeni Malkin – Bryan Rust
Alex GalchenyukAndrew AgozzinoPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jusso Riikola – Chad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call of the Bruins-Penguins matchup on NBC from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.