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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 Wraparound: Inexperienced Hurricanes look for Game 7 road win

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

If the Carolina Hurricanes are going to eliminate the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream), they’re going to have to come up with their first road victory of the series. In Game 6, the ‘Canes found a way to come up with the first lead change of the series, so maybe we can expect the unexpected tonight.

The Caps have 19 players on their roster that have played in a Game 7. The Hurricanes only have seven.

It should be fascinating to see how the defending Stanley Cup Champions respond to the controversial ending in Game 6. With the Caps trailing 3-2 in the third period, Alex Ovechkin seemingly tied the game, 3-3, but the goal was called back because the officials felt like he jarred the puck out from under Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek. Ovechkin visibly upset and he was eventually ejected from the game for sarcastically applauding the officials after they called him for slashing.

Regardless of how angry the Caps captain is in Game 7, the Hurricanes have to find way to overcome their inexperience. Of course, even though the roster remains very young, those players can look to one of the best big-game performers of this generation, Justin Williams, for guidance.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“We don’t have a ton of those, but we do have Mr. Game 7,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “It’s nice for young guys to look across the room and see a guy who’s approaching the game the same way. We’ve had tons of emotions in the whole series, and you’ve got to go make plays. His game’s not going to change. That’s comforting for some guys.”

The 37-year-old has just three points in the first six games of the series, but his calming presence in big moments can’t be understated. Williams has faced elimination 23 times in his career, and in those games he’s found a way to score an incredible 15 goals and 27 points. Remarkable.

Now, the rest of his teammates have to follow his lead.

Sebastian Aho, who led the Hurricanes in scoring this season, has picked up four points in six games during this series, but only one of those points has come on the road. The 21-year-old helped create the turnover that led to the game-tying goal in Game 6. He needs to find a way to make a similar impact in Game 7.

Mrazek has made some huge stops to keep his team in games all series. But there’s no denying that his numbers need to improve away from home. In this series, he has a 3-0 record with a .959 save percentage at home. On the road, he’s 0-3 with an .833 save percentage.

But it doesn’t matter what the numbers are in the series because the Hurricanes can put all that behind them if they win Game 7.

Just hurry up, guys. The Islanders are waiting.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Kotkaniemi has surgery; Avs aren’t one-line team

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

• Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Tuesday. (NHL.com/Canadiens)

• Hilary Knight wants to help iron out the logistics of a women’s hockey league. “I’ve been able to work with some great partners and I’m extremely grateful for that, but I want that opportunity for the next girl or the next young woman that’s graduating college or the next woman that’s going to play at the professional level.” (Forbes)

• ESPN looks back at Dominik Hasek’s 70-save performance in a shutout win over the New Jersey Devils. “You’d probably have to put him on top of the greatest goalies,” Martin Brodeur said. “For the great players, the more you see of them, the more you get them. Like with [Wayne] Gretzky, I got him, but I played more against Mario Lemieux. And I was able to see the effect that he had. Dominik is in the same vein.” (ESPN)

• The Hockey News argues that the NHL shouldn’t change the playoff format. (The Hockey News)

• Jack Todd argues that there’s reason to be optimistic heading into next season if you’re a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. (Montreal Gazette)

• How did the New Jersey Devils defensemen perform based on quality of competition this season? (All About the Jersey)

• Find out how the Tampa Bay Lightning went from winning 62 games in the regular season to none in the playoffs. (SB Nation)

• Hockey fans keep suggesting that the Colorado Avalanche are a one-line team, but they’re deeper than you might realize. (Mile High Hockey)

• The Blues are now the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Travis Yost argues that the Buffalo Sabres should definitely extend Evan Rodrigues. (Buffalo News)

Jaccob Slavin is the most important Carolina Hurricane. (Cardiac Cane)

• Why has home-ice advantage meant so much to Carolina and Washington in their series? (NBC Sports Washington)

• The second-round series between the Stars and Blues will feature two great goalies. (NHL)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Golden Knights compare Eakin major to infamous call against Saints

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In case you’re wondering: yes, the Vegas Golden Knights are very unhappy about Cody Eakin receiving a game misconduct and five-minute major for cross-checking Joe Pavelski, which opened the door for the San Jose Sharks scoring an staggering four goals on the ensuing power play.

The Sharks would eventually fight back from a 3-0 deficit with that power play, although they needed OT to beat the Golden Knights 5-4, which means the Sharks won the series 4-3.

Here’s the hit, which left Pavelski bleeding, and needing plenty of help to leave the ice surface. (Pavelski didn’t return, and the extent of his injuries remains unknown.)

Whether you believe that was the right call or not, it absolutely swung the game, at least for a time. The Golden Knights were up 3-0, and it seemed like they could weather most things … but a power play that wouldn’t end even if the Sharks scored multiple goals? That wasn’t most things.

Credit the Golden Knights for playing well after the shock of that, even scoring a goal to send Game 7 to overtime, but that doesn’t mean they put that call aside.

The most colorful quotes probably come from Jonathan Marchessault, the player who scored the goal to send the game to overtime, and who had a strong Game 7 overall.

“It’s the same thing as that football game, the Saints, it changes the whole outcome,” Marchessault said, via Sin Bin Vegas’ transcription. “The refs just got involved in the game and now our summer starts. Now five [expletive] months until game one.”

Marchessault is referencing the missed pass interference call from the Saints – Rams NFC title game back in January, which drew an admission of a mistake from the NFL.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski has more from Marchessault, though a warning: Marchessault’s comments apparently rank as NSFW and not very family-friendly.

It seems like Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant kept it together a bit more, or at least used more PG-friendly language.

“Last season we lost in the Stanley Cup Final, and that was hard,” Gallant said, according to Jesse Granger of the Athletic. “But tonight, this is worse.”

No doubt, officials will be scrutinized for that call. The NHL might even feel compelled to tweak the way calls are made because of it. That much, we’ll need to wait and see.

Yet, there are some questions from Vegas’ end. Yes, it’s difficult to kill five minutes of power play, especially against a Sharks team that a) is extremely dangerous, b) was furious after seeing Joe Pavelski hurt, c) had already failed on four power plays, and d) smelled blood with its season on the line. Still, should Gallant had called a timeout to try to ease some of the momentum, and calm things down? Could Marc-Andre Fleury have stopped at least one of those four goals? As the anger subsides, the Golden Knights should grapple with some of those questions, even if they leave a bitter taste.

Much like the Rams advancing to the Super Bowl, the Sharks eliminated the Golden Knights and will face the Avalanche in Round 2, whether that finish seems unfair or not. The Golden Knights will have to face bitter months in trying to avenge this loss.

And, true, they might also lose some money if the league decides to fine them for criticizing the officiating.

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 Playoff Buzzer: Bruins, Sharks in Game 7 heaven after clinching respective Round 1 series

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  • The Toronto Maple Leafs must hate facing the Boston Bruins in Round 1. They’re now 0-for-3 in attempts to beat them in the opening series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after the Bruins beat them 5-1 in Game 7
  • 3-1 down in the series. 3-0 down in the third period of Game 7. And somehow, some way, the San Jose Sharks are off to the second round

Bruins 5, Leafs 1 (BOS wins 4-3)

It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as recent Game 7s between these two clubs, but the Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 lead, survived an onslaught in the second period and then found three more in the third as Mike Babcock failed to adjust in time. The Leafs are now 8-12 under Babcock in the playoffs over the past three seasons and are out of the playoffs after spending big money on John Tavares and bolstering their back end to get Jake Muzzin prior to the trade deadline. All for naught, and a lot of questions that need to be answered in TO.

Sharks 5, Golden Knights 4 [OT] (SJS wins 4-3)

How do you explain this one? Down 3-0 in the third period, the San Jose Sharks are sent a gift from the heavens in the form of a controversial five-minute major assessed to Cody Eakin. Then this happened:

PHT’s James O’Brien has the rest in the link above.

Three stars

1. Kevin Labanc, San Jose Sharks

Four points in a span of four minutes and change, including the go-ahead goal to cap off one of the greatest comebacks in hockey history (and sports, too).

Labanc assisted on the three goals that led to a tied game, all on the power play after Eakin’s major. Quite the turnaround for Labanc, who had one goal coming into Game 7.

Oh, and he set one record and matched another:

2. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks

Couture sparked the comeback, scoring seven seconds into Eakin’s major.

“The message was that’s one, let’s go,” Couture said after the game.

After Tomas Hertl scored his sixth of the series to pull San Jose to 3-2, Couture joined him with his sixth to tie the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

Rask had the kitchen thrown at him in the second period but stopped 12 of 13 in the frame to preserve a 2-1 lead. That effort (along with his 12 first-period saves) seemed to propel the Bruins in the third. Boston found three more goals, including two into an empty net and shut down the Leafs who were out of options and out of ideas to solve Rask.

Unlikely star of the night

Barclay Goodrow, San Jose Sharks

Goodrow barely played in regulation, going minus-3 and then he was stapled to the bench in the overtime period.

“Legs were fresh,” Goodrow joked following the game.

Fresh enough that he made sure the Sharks moved onto Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Two playoff goals for Goodrow. Two game-winners.

Highlights of the night

Goodrow’s series clincher in OT:

Sometimes big goals come from lower down the lineup. This one was massive:

Factoids of the night

Bizarre video of the night

Wednesday’s game

Game 7: Hurricanes at Capitals (Series tied 3-3), 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)


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