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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.

The Buzzer: Greiss shutout gives Trotz win in return to Washington

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Three stars

1. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

There was probably a little pressure inside the Islanders dressing room prior to this one. Sure, it was just another game in the 82-game slog that is the regular season, but for their head coach, it was a bit more special than that.

Barry Trotz made his return to Washington for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup as the Capitals bench boss last June. They gave him a classy tribute and then he and his Islanders made sure they wouldn’t forget him in a 2-0 win.

Greiss was instrumental in that, stopping all 19 shots he faced as the Islanders leapfrogged both Washington and Columbus to move into first place in the Metropolitan Division.

John Tavares who?

2. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

Sticking with goalies and their help in big wins… Luongo stopped 20 of the 21 shots he faced in a 3-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s not a 40-save night, but consider that the Panthers came into the game with a seven-game losing streak as a heavy anchor. They needed something, and Luongo provided the near-perfect game to end the longest active streak in the NHL.

3. Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames

Bennett usually gets lost in the Johnny Gaudreaus and the Sean Monahans of the Calgary world.

Some nights the other two don’t light it up, allowing other Flames to shine. Bennett provided that spark, scoring twice and adding an assist in the game.

Bennett’s second of the came with under four minutes left and broke a 4-4 deadlock in a 6-4 Calgary win over the Detroit Red Wings.

Highlights of the night

Bennett’s winner came off a nice pick up on a not so nice pass:

Kuemper the keeper:

A nice tribute to Brooks Orpik, who played his 1,000th game on Friday:

When you celly too hard:

Factoids

Scores

Panthers 3, Maple Leafs 1
Canadiens 4, Blue Jackets 1
Islanders 2, Capitals 0
Senators 4, Hurricanes 1
Flames 6, Red Wings 4
Penguins 3, Coyotes 2 (OT)
Canucks 4, Sabres 3


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

Caps give Trotz, coaching staff classy tribute in return to Washington

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They helped build a team that would eventually win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup last June, so when Barry Trotz, Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn returned to Washington to face their former team on Friday, it was only fitting that the Capitals made sure to give the trio a classy salute.

And classy it was.

A 1:35-long video played on the jumbotron at Capital One Arena, while a packed house stood and showed their admiration for the coaching staff that led the Capitals to four consecutive 100-point seasons, 205 wins, a .677 points percentage and back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies.

Trotz was named the winner of the Jack Adams Award for the best coach in 2016 and, of course, led the Capitals past the Vegas Golden Knights in five games last season to capture hockey’s greatest prize.

Here’s the video tribute:

Trotz is now the head coach with the New York Islanders, with Korn and Lambert also by his side once again, and they have already put their stamp on that team, helping them get past the loss of John Tavares over the summer and still be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference.

That’s just the Trotz way.

You can read more about Trotz, his return, why he left and what he’s done on Long Island in this story from PHT’s Sean Leahy.


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

Matt Dumba’s ‘anger’ led to indefinite stint on sidelines

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Chalk one up for those who are staunch supporters of their star players not engaging in fisticuffs.

Fans of the Minnesota Wild would have wished that Matt Dumba wouldn’t have thrown a “wild punch” at Matthew Tkachuk in a game against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 15.

The fight happened just 40 seconds into the first period. The result? A torn pectoral muscle, surgery, and an indefinite timeline for return.

Dumba, who led the NHL in defenseman scoring prior to the injury, told the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan that he was “angry.”

“I was angry and threw a wild punch that didn’t connect,” Dumba said Friday. “I had a bunch of stitches in my face and I think he rubbed those, had hit those a couple times, and it made me pretty angry.”

Dumba, wearing a brace around his right arm, told reporters that he didn’t feel the pain of the injury until he had a chance to calm down in the penalty box.

Dumba’s surgery came on Dec. 26 and along with it, a three-month timetable to return. On Friday, Dumba didn’t have a firm return date.

“It’s pretty slow to start here,” he told NHL.com. “Everything is just letting it heal, letting it get the rest that it needs. That’s our focus right now. I’ve been doing that and making sure this repairs the right way.”

Dumba will be stuck in that brace for a few more weeks before he can start rehabilitating the injury.

The Wild could sure use their best defenseman in the fight for a playoff spot. They could use that scoring — the Wild are 25th in goals-for this season. It appears that if he’s to play again this season, it might not be until the playoffs begin in early April.


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

Plunging Panthers get a break: Trocheck is back

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About two months since fracturing his ankle in a frightening on-ice accident, Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck is back. He’s suiting up against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner makes it sound like Trocheck essentially kicked down the door to get back in the lineup, as Jameson Olive of the team website reports.

“He came in pounding the table. You know Troch, he wants to be back in so bad,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “The doctors reaffirmed he’s back to 100 percent, so now it’s just our decision … we’ll see.”

Getting the 25-year-old back is a big deal, so it’s not surprising to see the Panthers celebrate this positive development.

You can firmly plant this under the heading “hockey players are tough.” It was perfectly reasonable to expect Trocheck to miss the remainder of the season. Instead, Friday’s game against Toronto is merely the Panthers’ 46th game of 2018-19.

Uncomfortably enough, it’s fair to wonder if Trocheck’s return will still be a matter of “too little, too late.”

The Panthers are carrying a bruising seven-game losing streak into Friday’s action, and it’s not as though the Toronto Maple Leafs will make things particularly easy on them.

Just about all the prognostications look dour. Money Puck gives them a 3.05-percent chance to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, less than their odds for the Los Angeles Kings. Corsica’s projections put Florida at 2.6-percent, this time tying the lowly Kings, but lower than the Devils and Flyers. Woof.

Now, let there be no doubt that the Panthers could be a highly formidable opponent if Trocheck returns at anywhere near “100 percent.”

Even the Trocheck boost likely won’t be enough for Florida to earn just its third postseason trip since 1999-2000, yet with plenty of questions swirling about Boughner’s job security, perhaps a more fully-formed effort could earn the current Panthers regime another swing in 2019-20? However you feel about Boughner and GM Dale Tallon, this franchise’s history is littered with more reboots than “The Fantastic Four” and “Spiderman” movies combined (and with box office receipts that lean more toward The Invisible Woman than webslingers). A little stability could be good for the Panthers.

The worst-case scenario is scary, mind you. What if the Panthers end up hitting the reset button and it’s shown that Trocheck rushed back from injury too soon, possibly aggravating issues?

Such worries hover in the background, but regardless, it’s impressive that Trocheck has been able to return so soon.

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.