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Blue Jackets aim for playoffs with future of stars in doubt

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — So what’s going on with ”Bob” and ”Bread”?

That question dominated the off-season discussion around the Columbus Blue Jackets, overshadowing everything else surrounding a team coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.

A legitimate inquiry for sure, considering Bob and Bread – otherwise known as goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin – are major pieces of a team that should be a solid playoff contender again this season.

The two Russians are playing out the final year of their contracts, and Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s primary goal this summer was to lock up both superstars with multiyear deals. Neither of the deals got done.

Panarin has said he isn’t sure he wants to commit to Columbus for the long haul. Bobrovsky and the Blue Jackets haven’t been able to get together on numbers.

”They’re our best players, no question about it,” veteran forward Cam Atkinson said. ”We’re going to treat it as business as usual. I’m not going to look at them any differently, because at the end of the day it’s their decision. There’s only so many times in your career where you’re in the driver’s seat.”

WINDOW IS OPEN

If Panarin and Bobrovsky play to their capabilities, and some other Blue Jackets who battled injuries or otherwise struggled last year can bounce back, the team should be playoff contenders again. Columbus was eliminated in the opening round by the eventual Stanley Cup champions in the past two years.

”I think we’ve crossed the bridge as a team hoping to win,” said coach John Tortorella, who signed a two-year contract extension before camp opened.

”I think we crossed that bridge, I think we know we can win,” he said. ”The players’ mindset, I think they know they can win. I think we showed that the past couple years. We’ve stumbled in the playoffs, and that’s what we have to take note of here.”

Panarin set a franchise record with 27 goals and 55 assists (82 points) in 81 games. The second-highest scorer among forwards was rookie center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had 20 goals and 28 assists (48 points).

The Blue Jackets grabbed the first wildcard in the rugged Metropolitan Division despite subpar years from usually reliable forwards Atkinson (46 points), Alexander Wennberg (37 points), Boone Jenner (32 points) and Nick Foligno (33 points). Injuries definitely played a part.

THS STATE OF ZACH

Defenseman Zach Werenski is getting healthy again after playing much of last season with a bum shoulder. He started hitting last week and is hoping to be ready to go by the Oct. 4 opener in Detroit.

Werenski suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the 12th game last season. The rest of the way he wore a cumbersome brace that wrapped around his chest and arm to keep his shoulder from separating. His movement was restricted, which affected his defensive skills, but he still managed to finish with 16 goals.

”It’s awful hard for a defenseman to play all those games that he played and put up the numbers he put up and do some of the things he did with that shoulder the way it was,” Tortorella said. ”He’s one that we’re certainly going to watch very closely.”

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The Blue Jackets added some help at center by signing center Riley Nash, the 29-year-old former Boston Bruin who put up career numbers last year. Nash had 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points in 76 games, besting his previous high by 16 points.

The team also signed 22-year-old forward Anthony Duclair, who had 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 games with the Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes last season,

The Blue Jackets bid farewell to longtime players Jack Johnson (Pittsburgh) and Matt Calvert (Colorado), as well as to Ian Cole (Colorado), a defenseman who played valuable minutes down the stretch after being acquired at the trade deadline last season.

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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Panthers’ Matheson suspended two games for slamming Pettersson to ice

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The NHL announced on Monday evening that Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson has been suspended two games for “interference and unsportsmanlike conduct” against Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson over the weekend.

Petterson has been entered in to the NHL’s concussion protocol and is expected to be sidelined for the next 7-10 days as a result of the play.

The incident took place early in the third period of Saturday’s game in Florida and left the Canucks completely furious. Just after Pettersson had dangled around Matheson in the offensive zone, Matheson again encountered the talented rookie along the boards and after checking him, proceeded to slam him to the ice with the puck nowhere near the two players.

Here is the video as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner tried to defend his play on Monday by saying that Matheson is an honest player and that he was just attempting to finish his check hard, while Matheson’s agent said that his client was “surprised” by how light Pettersson is and that it all happened very quickly.

On Monday, Canucks coach Travis Green was still upset about the play and how it resulted in his team losing a bright young star to injury on a play that was not necessary.

“Am I mad at the play? Extremely mad. I’m really upset, I still am,” Green said. “We lost a bright young player to an injury that I don’t think was necessary. I’m pissed off right now, still talking about it.”

Matheson forfeits $52,419.36 in salary and is eligible to return to the Panthers’ lineup Saturday against Detroit.

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.

Crosby, MacKinnon surprise Kenyan hockey team (Video)

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Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon have teamed up before to promote Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and donut shop, but their latest venture saw them help spread the gospel of hockey.

Tim Hortons flew 12 members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team to Canada over the summer for a game. The African team, which was formed in 2012 and has set a goal for future Olympic participation, has only been able to play against themselves back home and this would be a new experience playing against an actual opponent.

As the players gathered inside their locker room, which featured brand new equipment and Kenya hockey jerseys, in came the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Colorado Avalanche star to join their team.

“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” said team captain Benard Azegere. “When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”

“That’s the best part about the game, just how it reaches so many people in a place like Kenya where you wouldn’t think there’s even ice,” Crosby said on Monday via the Tribune-Review. “To meet people from different places and to share the game that we love to play, I think I had as much fun as any of those guys today.”

The Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation is coming soon, and the men are not alone in their pursuit of a national team. As ESPN.com documented last week, a group of five women make up the Nairobi Ice Lions, who, like the men, see Olympic participation in their future.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

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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.

Golden Knights’ Stastny could miss up to two months

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It turns out the injury to Vegas Golden Knights forward Paul Stastny is a lot worse than previously expected.

Originally only thought to be out for a couple of games due to a lower-body injury, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant announced on Monday that his second-line center could be out of the lineup for up to two months.

“Going to be longer than we thought, probably up to two months. Possibly,” he said.

That, obviously, will be a big blow to a Golden Knights offense that has struggled in the early part of the season.

Stastny joined Vegas over the summer on a three-year contract in free agency and was expected to center the second line alongside the team’s other big offseason acquisition, winger Max Pacioretty.

Now those plans are on hold for the next couple of months.

After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their debut season the Golden Knights are off to a slow start this season having won just two of their first six games as of Monday. One of the biggest problems has been a lack of offense as the team has managed just 11 goals in six games. They have yet to score more than two goals in any one game this season.

While it is a cause for some concern, the Golden Knights are still controlling the shot attempt numbers in pretty much all of their games and being crushed by a dismal 5.2 team-wide shooting percentage. So there is some hope that things will turn around.

The process is there, even if the early results are not.

Still, they need to get more production from a line that isn’t their top one.

When the trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith is not on the ice this season they have been outscored by a 2-12 margin at even-strength. Whether Stastny is in or out of the lineup, that sort of production from the other three lines is not going to be good enough.

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.