Blue Jackets’ future cloudy after Kekalainen’s gamble falls short

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If you’re looking for a feel-good story about how the Columbus Blue Jackets ignited hockey fandom in a town for the past month, you won’t find it here on this Tuesday in early May.

Fuzzy feelings are fleeting when a team that went all-in, risking future assets and big returns on key pending unrestricted free agents, crashes out of the playoffs in Round 2.

The talk or progress would be a sentiment I could be more bullish on if they weren’t fixing to lose two or three of their stars come the summer.

Yes, the Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Swept them, no less, in emphatic fashion.

Sure, Columbus battled the Boston Bruins hard, taking them to Game 6 before being unable to solve Tuukka Rask

They showed tremendous tenacity during those two rounds and a sense of having bought into a suffocating style of hockey that stymied one of the best regular-season teams of all-time.

Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 against the Lightning will be memorable. As, too, will be the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who gave the Blue Jackets a chance every night, as did the scoring touches of both Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, who proved to be crucial pieces that stepped up when the lights shined brightest.

The crowds, the chants, the atmosphere, the cannon — all special while it lasted.

John Tortorella said his team made huge steps forward. True. The exact makeup of the team as of Monday’s Game 6 made huge steps forward over the past month, and there’d be a lot of build on here if it weren’t for this dark cloud that’s also been hovering over the team.

There’d be a reason to be optimistic if every player mentioned above were locked into varying lengths of long-term deals with the organization. The sad reality is they aren’t. And it seems almost certain at this point that they will lose both Panarin and Bobrovsky to free agency, and Duchene could walk to under the same circumstances if he so chooses.

Losing them is, at the very least, a step back, right?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen gambled big here, so much so that he can probably skip his flight to Vancouver for this year’s draft because he won’t play a big part having only a third-round pick and Calgary’s seventh-round choice at the moment. (Not to mention no second- or third-round pick in 2020.)

The only thing that lasts forever in hockey is Stanley Cup banners and the engraving on hockey’s holy grail that goes with it.

Hockey’s a sport where if you’re not first, your last. You can raise feel-good banners, but they become the butt-end of jokes rather than revered pieces of fabric.

When the dust settles in or around July 1, the Blue Jackets could be without their top scorer, their No. 1 goaltender and the man they sold a good acre or two of the farm to get at the NHL trade deadline.

Per CapFriendly, Columbus’ projected cap space heading into next year is in the $27 million range. Can that coerce a No. 1 to sign in free agency if Bobrovsky leaves? Maybe, but the No. 1 goalie pool this year is slim at best.

Can it replace a 27-year-old superstar in Panarin? What about a 28-year-old point-per-game player in Duchene?

Kekalainen’s wand is going to need a full charge to pull off that kind of sorcery. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it’s a tall order in the highest degree.

Sure, the remaining players can draw on the experiences they had. Is there much to extract from that, however, if three big names are out?

“Next year who knows what’s going to happen?” said Cam Atkinson after Game 6. “Who’s going to be in this locker room?”

There’s a core in Columbus that will remain, however: Atkinson, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Nick Foligno, who’s a consummate captain.

But you don’t just magically regrow a couple of severed limbs. That takes detailed surgery and an unknown timeframe get back to full strength.

Gambles, however well calculated they may be, are still gambles at the end of the day.

Kekalainen pushed all in and got caught by a better hand.

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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.

Golden Knights make dream come true for young fan battling cancer

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He may not be on the payroll, but 13-year-old Doron Coldwell is a Vegas Golden Knight through and through.

But his story begins long before the Golden Knights stepped onto the ice for their inaugural season in 2017-18. As documented during a “My Wish” segment this summer on ESPN, Coldwell’s connection with the Golden Knights began with some heart-breaking news.

At first, the tests were inconclusive.

In June 2013, Coldwell’s mother Liat, a nurse, had noticed that his glands were swollen but a series of tests didn’t result in any concrete diagnosis of a problem.

“That started the rollercoaster ride for the next two years of he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this, he doesn’t have this,” said Brett Coldwell, Doron’s father. “But he wasn’t getting any better.”

Liat feared the worst.

“I had a very bad feeling that we were dealing with cancer,” she said.

Those fears would become reality. The diagnosis would finally come: Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His chemotherapy began in 2017.

Weakened by his treatments, Brett said that at one point Doron told him that “worst-case scenario, I guess I get to go be with Jesus.”

Instead, Doron, with a little help from the Golden Knights, began to heal.

“The chemo was working,” Doron said.

Gold being the color of pediatric cancer, Liat refers to her son as her ‘Golden Knight’.

And through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and with the help of the team that helped him heal — his cancer in remission — Doron recently became an official Golden Knight for a day.

Doron got a chance to meet the team. A locker bearing his name was in the team’s dressing room and for the first time, he got outfitted in goalie gear and received the full pre-game experience, including being introduced to an assembled crowd at City National Arena, the team’s practice facility.

With a little instruction of Marc-Andre Fleury, Doron was stopping Vegas’ top goalscorers with ease on an unforgettable day.

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

PHT Morning Skate: Stamkos best of an era; Russian Rangers revival

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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.

Steven Stamkos is the best shooter of the salary cap era. (Raw Charge)

• What active NHLers are Hall of Fame worthy? Here they are, ranked. (Yardbarker)

• Pittsburgh has players who rank among the best, worst at converting shots into goals. Who are they? (Pensburgh)

• Russian invasion fueling Rangers revival. (Featurd)

• Why the folding of the National Women’s Hockey League could be best thing for the sport. (AZ Central)

• Panthers view Bobrovsky signing as needed element for return to playoffs. (NHL.com)

• It’s time to move on from Jon Gillies. (Matchsticks & Gasoline)

• Competition aplenty as under-the-radar depth piece Nicolas Aube-Kubel re-signs with Flyers. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• NHL stands out when strengths of major pro leagues are pondered. (StarTribune)

• The latest on the changes and improvements coming to NHL 20. (Operation Sports)


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

Seattle close to naming Ron Francis as GM

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SEATTLE — Seattle’s NHL expansion team is close to an agreement with Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Francis to become its first general manager, a person with direct knowledge tells The Associated Press.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because the team had not made an announcement.

The expansion Seattle franchise is set to begin play in the 2021-22 season as the NHL’s 32nd team.

After longtime Detroit GM Ken Holland went to Edmonton, adviser Dave Tippett left Seattle Hockey Partners LLC to become Oilers coach and Vegas’ Kelly McCrimmon and Columbus’ Bill Zito got promotions, there was a limited pool of experienced NHL executives to choose from for this job. Francis fits that bill.

The 56-year-old has been in hockey operations since shortly after the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. All of that time has come with the Carolina Hurricanes, including four seasons as their GM.

Carolina didn’t make the playoffs with Francis in charge of decision-making, though his moves put the foundation in place for the team that reached the Eastern Conference final this past season.