Getty

Under Pressure: Jarmo Kekalainen

4 Comments

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.

Blackhawks lose 8th game in a row on comical Hurricanes goal

Getty
Leave a comment

Heading into an emotional return to Carolina, Cam Ward was the focus of Monday’s Blackhawks – Hurricanes game. Ward didn’t get the last laugh as he faced his old team, yet it was Brent Seabrook who absorbed most of the mockery.

While Ward was on the ice trying in vain to stop Sebastian Aho from scoring the 3-2 overtime winner, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you kept your eyes trained on Ward … or Aho alone, for that matter. Instead, make sure you watch Seabrook during that decisive goal, and there are high odds that you’ll get a good laugh.

(Unless you’re a Chicago Blackhawks fan. Fans tend to miss the humor in eight-game losing streaks.)

This is one of those instances where you should stick it out deeper into the video, as the best angles of Seabrook’s unintentionally funny defense crop up around the 30-ish second mark:

When someone gets faked out, you might hear a Jeremy Roenick talk about a jock strap being sent to the bleachers. In Seabrook’s case, it looked more like a sleepy person fumbling aimlessly to silence an alarm clock.

That moment of levity was just part of a rocky night for Seabrook.

The Blackhawks built a 2-0 lead, yet former Chicago forward Teuvo Teravainen began the comeback with a power-play goal after Seabrook was whistled for delay of game. Seabrook also drew the ire of Jordan Martinook by boarding Hurricanes rookie Andrei Svechnikov:

Ward wasn’t able to protect that lead and gain a win against his former team, but the Hurricanes still embraced their longtime goalie, including rolling with the type of tribute video you’d expect:

The Blackhawks were on a five-game losing streak when they fired Joel Quenneville. So far, new head coach Jeremy Colliton hasn’t enjoyed the honeymoon period that a team often experiences after such a change, as he’s 0-for-3 in trying to get his first win as an NHL head coach.

You can forgive Cam Ward for wondering if he’s shuffled off from a playoff drought with the Hurricanes to what could be a painful stretch for his new team in the Blackhawks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Fight: Jamie Benn’s vicious bout with Josh Anderson

Leave a comment

In the rare moments when a star player fights, you usually grade them on a scale. You don’t really need to do that with Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars.

The big winger isn’t afraid to drop the gloves, and he’s done so with some big names – and big humans – such as Dustin Byfuglien. Benn engaged in another frightful fight on Monday, as Benn and Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson were throwing bombs.

(You can watch that fight – which seems like it’s going to end quickly, but then just keeps going – in the video above this post’s headline.)

Earlier this season, Benn fought with New Jersey Devils forward Miles Wood. Benn’s already matched his two fights from 2017-18 (vs. Byfuglien and Corey Perry). Considering we’re not even halfway through November yet, this could be an awfully ornery season for Benn.

You have to wonder if he’s tempting fate a bit – you’d call Benn’s hands soft when they’re not landing haymakers – in risking injuries with these fights. You can’t debate that by losing his temper, Benn’s leaving the ice for long stretches (decisions that can be especially onerous if he gets additional penalties).

On the other hand, hockey’s a rough sport, and perhaps being so physical helps Benn stay engaged?

Selfishly speaking, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to see him keep up this habit, as it’s quite the spectacle. Nothing will top his fight with Joe Thornton from many moons ago, which set the stage for a photo that would make for a great Fathead-style wall-sized poster:

via Getty

Classic.

Despite playing in different conferences, this game has had the nastiness of a heated divisional rivalry. You could see it in moments beyond Benn’s fight, particularly when Seth Jones was whistled for a nasty hit on Jason Dickinson.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Ward’s return to Carolina, Kesler vs. Johansen highlight Monday schedule

Getty
Leave a comment

There are only four games on the NHL schedule Monday night, but they feature a couple of intriguing storylines worth watching.

First, in Carolina, former long-time Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward will be making his return as a visiting player for the first time when he is expected to the start for the Chicago Blackhawks. He will be trying to help them snap their seven-game losing streak and get them their first win under new head coach Jeremy Colliton.

Ward did not play when the two teams met in Chicago (a 4-3 Hurricanes win) this past week.

Ward is certain to get a warm welcome, and already did when he first arrived in the arena on Monday.

Ward’s time with the Hurricanes is a complicated one.

On one hand, he spent 13 years as the primary starting goalie for the team. That is, to say the least, a long-time, and there are not many goalies that spend that much with one franchise. So it is always going to be a big deal when — or if — they return as a visiting player. But goaltending was a constant thorn in the Hurricanes’ side during Ward’s time with the team and that is usually what his time there is remembered for to everyone outside of Raleigh.

But, he is still a significant part of the team’s history for helping the Hurricanes win their first and only championship during the 2005-06 season. And he played a huge role in that title.

Ward was a rookie during the 2005-06 season, and even though he only appeared in 28 games during the regular season, he was a rock for the team in the playoffs with a .920 save percentage, picking up 15 of the team’s 16 wins during the postseason. That run included two shutouts, including one in the Stanley Cup Final, as he took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

The Hurricanes only made the playoffs one other time during Ward’s tenure with the team (a trip to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009 when they were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins).

But banners hang forever, and thanks in large part to Ward’s contributions as a rookie the Hurricanes have one.

That should never be forgotten if you are a Hurricanes fan, no matter what happened after that.

The other intriguing game on the Monday schedule is in Anaheim where the Ducks are hosting the NHL-leading Nashville Predators.

The intrigue here isn’t so much with the game itself, because, quite honestly, it looks to be a rather one-sided matchup on paper. Nashville is rolling — again — while the Ducks are going in the complete opposite direction and trending toward the bottom of the league.

What stands out with this one is it could be another chapter in the ongoing personal feud between Predators center Ryan Johansen and Ducks center Ryan Kesler. They do not like each other. At all.

For a quick refresher, refer back to this August post from our Sean Leahy highlighting the feud that was continued with this Tweet from Kesler over the summer.

Things really escalated between the two during the 2017 Western Conference Final (which Johansen and the Predators won) and consisted of some back-and-forth trash talk between the two.

Among the highlights:

Johansen to Kesler: “Nobody likes you”

And…

Johansen on Kesler: “I don’t know how you cheer for a guy like that.”

And…

Kesler on Johansen: “He’s not my friend. He’s not going to be my friend. He can say whatever he wants.”

So there is that little backstory.

Kesler, who was limited to just 44 games a season ago due to injury, only played in one of the Ducks’ three games against the Predators so we really have not seen them have a chance to renew their relationship on the ice since that Western Conference Final series.

In the one game they did face each other since then the two spent five minutes on the ice together and, of course, got into a fight late in the second period.

Referees Gord Dwyer and Jake Brenk, as well as linesmen Darren Gibbs and Brian Murphy, will be the ones in charge of trying to maintain order between the two on Monday night.

 

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Campbell injury adds to Kings’ frustrating season

Leave a comment

Nothing is going right for the Los Angeles Kings this season.

Already stuck with the league’s worst record and having just fired their coach, the team announced on Monday that goalie Jack Campbell will be sidelined for the next four-to-six weeks due to a torn meniscus.

Rookie Cal Petersen has been recalled from the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League to take his place.

This is problematic for the Kings because Campbell has taken over the starting goaltending duties while regular starter Jonathan Quick continues to recover from his own meniscus injury that has sidelined him since Oct. 23.

Not only had Campbell taken over the starting role, he has been one of the few bright spots on the team during this otherwise abysmal start. As of Monday, he had a .923 save percentage on the season and had been especially good in November with a .939 save percentage in his past five appearances. That includes a 35-save effort over the weekend when he lost a tough-luck 1-0 decision to the Calgary Flames.

[Related: Kings’ problems run far deeper than their coach]

Now he is out, too, and a team that is 31st in the league in goal scored (only 2.06 goals per game) is going to have to rely on an unproven rookie that has yet to play an NHL game, and a 36-year-old Peter Budaj to keep the puck out of their own net.

Budaj has appeared in just one game this season for the Kings, stopping 10 out of 11 shots.

Petersen, meanwhile, was originally a fifth-round draft pick by the Buffalo Sabres in 2013 and was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent in July, 2017. He signed with the Kings after an incredibly successful collegiate career at Notre Dame, and in his first year of pro hockey finished the 2017-18 season with a .910 save percentage for Ontario.

So far this season his play has dropped off considerably as he had just an .881 save percentage in his first 10 games.

In other words: Good luck, Willie Desjardins. You are going to need it.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.