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Blue Jackets can be much better people think

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The 2019-20 NHL regular season has not even started and already the Columbus Blue Jackets are being almost completely written off.

This is a development they are very well aware of, and one they are not responding kindly to.

Coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about it. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen thinks it’s a slap in the face to the core of the team. Cam Atkinson is ready to prove everybody wrong.

The doubters are not without their reasons, and for much of the offseason I was right there with them. How could you not be?

The Blue Jackets were the last team to get in the Eastern Conference playoff field last spring and were hit harder by free agency than any other team in the league, losing franchise players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, as well as trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. That is a ton of talent and production to walk out the door, and with Gustav Nyquist (a very good player!) being the only significant outside addition to the team, it’s easy to have lowered expectations.

But Kekalainen made a fairly strong point in support of his core earlier this month when he said this to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline:

“I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said, “because it shows disrespect to our core group that’s brought us all the success we’ve had in the last three years.

“(Three) teams have more regular-season wins than we do (142) in the last three years, and we had 108 points the season before (Artemi) Panarin arrived here. I’m a little bit upset about all that, and I’m getting fed up talking about it.”

Obviously a general manager is going to go to bat for their team and believe in the roster at the start of the season. But he’s also not wrong here. Only Tampa, Washington, and Boston have more regular season wins than the Blue Jackets since start of the 2016-17 season, and only two of the players that left this offseason (Panarin and Bobrovsky) played a significant role in compiling that record. Out of those two, one of them (Panarin) was not even there in the year they won the most games and compiled the most points during that stretch.

But let’s focus on replacing those two since they are the most important.

The wrench in all of this is that Bobrovsky was there for all three seasons and was probably the most important part of that success, especially during the 2016-17 season (the pre-Panarin year) when he won his second Vezina Trophy. That is a difficult thing to replace, and the Blue Jackets are going to open the year relying on two completely unproven starters in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Obviously their success or failure as NHL goalies will play a massive role in what the Blue Jackets can do this season. But I’m not ready to totally eliminate the possibility of Merzlikins being good.

The thing is, they don’t need to totally replace Bobrovsky for the Blue Jackets to have a chance. They just need to be decent. The Blue Jackets were one of the better defensive teams in the league last season and were among the top-seven in suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing, and when paired together can help lock down a significant chunk of every game.

That will help any goalie. As long as the Blue Jackets can maintain that defensively they won’t need a superhero in net.

And while the departure of Panarin, and to a lesser extent Duchene, leaves a big hole at forward the cupboard is not completely bare. Nyquist won’t replace Panarin’s offense or game-breaking ability, but he is a legitimate top-six forward. Atkinson has been a top-10 goal-scorer for about four years, and they have an exciting prospect in Alexandre Texier ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Then there is third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois, an already dominant two-way player that seems to be on the verge of a breakout season (read about that here).

It’s not that Blue Jackets won’t miss the players that are leaving — they obviously will — but they still have enough high-end talent (and capable depth) that the season isn’t going to be a lost cause before it even begins. A lot will depend on the goalies, but they have enough around them to support them and keep them competitive.

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, Ovechkin among NHL stars helping CCM donate 500,000 surgical masks

CCM plans to donate 500,000 surgical masks for COVID-19 healthcare workers
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Hockey equipment company CCM announced plans to donate 500,000 surgical masks to healthcare workers. CCM states that they hope to donate the surgical masks “as early as the week of April 27.” They also stated that Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and other CCM endorsers helped make the donation possible.

“By teaming up with our roster of CCM athletes, we will be able to play a role in the collaborative effort to get past this crisis,” CCM Hockey CEO Rick Blackshaw said in a statement. “We focused on the best use of our network and our resources to have the quickest impact. Sourcing greatly needed equipment through our established supply chain partners in Asia is the most efficient way for us to support and keep our real heroes safe.”

CCM revealed the list of hockey players involved in the initiative: Mathew Barzal, Patrice Bergeron, Brock Boeser, Dani Cameranesi, Brandon Carlo, Thomas Chabot, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Sidney Crosby, Melodie Daoust, Alex DeBrincat, Brianna Decker, Matt Duchene, Matt Dumba, Marc-Andre Fleury, Filip Forsberg, Jake Gardiner, Miro Heiskanen, Filip Hronek, Jonathan Huberdeau, Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon, Charlie McAvoy, Connor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin, Carey Price, Vladimir Tarasenko, and John Tavares.

CCM’s plan to donate surgical masks adds to list of contributions from hockey world

This continues atrend of hockey teams, players, and companies contributing in different ways to help people during the coronavirus crisis.

Bauer recently announced its own initiatives (with help from Jack Eichel) involving manufacturing face shields. Bauer even provided instructions on how to make the shields on their website. Mary-Kay Messier explained Bauer’s plans during a recent episode of the Our Line Starts podcast.

Earlier this month, Islanders players helped to donate more than 3,000 N-95 masks to assist local causes.

NHL teams have also taken measures to pay employees during the coronavirus pause, among other meaningful efforts.

None of this erases the sacrifices healthcare workers are making. And this still figures to be a lengthy, difficult process. But it’s fantastic to see many in the hockey world rise to the occasion, CCM included.

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.

What is the Wild’s long-term outlook?

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Minnesota Wild.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

The Wild are kind of drifting toward that middle ground where they are not a true contender and they are not exactly awful, either. They have good players, but they also have some pretty significant flaws.

One of the biggest might be the fact they have a lot money tied up in players that are on the wrong side of 30. Mikko Koivu is a free agent after this season, and no one really knows what his future is at this point, but Zach Parise, Mats Zuccarello, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, and Devan Dubnyk are some of their biggest contracts beyond this season and Spurgeon is the only one younger than 32 years old. It is not a stretch to believe that every single one of those players has already played their best hockey. Parise was also the subject of trade rumors on deadline day with the New York Islanders, something that could be revisited later.

Beyond that, the Wild do have some intriguing younger players making up a second-wave of talent.

Kevin Fiala has been an outstanding pickup and is having an outstanding year, while Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway, and Joel Eriksson Ek are other younger players the Wild are hoping can become bigger contributors.

The most intriguing young player in the organization, though, has yet to even play a game in North America. That player is Kirili Kaprizov, the 22-year-old winger that has dominated the KHL for the past few seasons. He was a fifth-round pick by the team a few years ago and his arrival in Minnesota has been anticipated for some time now.

Long-Term Needs

Really what the Wild need is a difference-maker. A game-changing forward that can be the focal point of the offense and carry it. A franchise cornerstone to build around both in the short-and long-term.

They do not really have that player right now, and the ones that most closely resemble that player on the roster right now are older and on the downside of their careers. They are also not really well positioned to get one without a lot of luck going their way in the draft lottery. It is a tough spot to be in.

Their biggest hope for that sort of presence might be with the aforementioned Kaprizov. For as intriguing and exciting as his potential is, it is still just exactly that — potential. Even if he does eventually become that top-line standout player, it may not happen as soon as he arrives next season. There could be some growing pains and an adjustment period along the way.

Long-Term Strengths

When they are all healthy their defense has some intriguing players and can be really good with Suter, Spurgeon, Mathew Dumba, and Jonas Brodin are all signed through the end of next seaon, with the former three names all being signed to long-term deals. When it comes to scoring chances against and expected goals against the Wild have been one of the league’s top teams this season. The only thing that has held them back from being an elite defensive team has been inconsistency in net.

The addition of Cale Addison in the Jason Zucker trade also adds another intriguing blue-liner to the long-term outlook.

If Fiala can duplicate his 2019-20 performance he could also turn into a pretty big strength. He has been one of the league’s most productive 5-on-5 players on a per-minute basis this season and is still signed for another year at a very manageable salary cap hit.

The presence of him, Kaprizov, a still productive Zuccarello and hopefully improvements from players like Kunin, Greenway, and Eriksson Ek could give the Wild a formidable group of forwards.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild surprises and disappointments so far

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.

NBCSN’s Hockey Happy Hour: Kunitz puts Penguins in Cup Final

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NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour continues this week with matchups featuring unsung heroes.

Chris Kunitz opened the scoring in the second period of Game 7, his first goal in over three months. After regulation, tied at two goals apiece, Kunitz recorded his third point, and second goal of the game, in double overtime to send the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second straight year.

Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Pierre McGuire called the matchup from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Wednesday, April 8
• Senators vs. Penguins (2017 Eastern Conf. Final, Game 7, Chris Kunitz) – 5 p.m. ET
• NHL: Pause and Rewind – 6 p.m. ET

Thursday, April 9
• NHL: Pause and Rewind (Encore) – 5 p.m. ET
• Rangers vs. Kings (2014 Stanley Cup Final, Game 5, Alec Martinez) – 6 p.m. ET

#HOCKEYATHOME: EPISODE 1 – NHL BROTHERS – TUESDAY, 6:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
Kathryn Tappen and Sportsnet host David Amber will co-host a 30-minute program about brothers in the NHL. The three sets of brothers interviewed and featured in the program are Eric, Jordan, and Marc Staal; Brady and Matthew Tkachuk; and Quinn and Jack Hughes.

NHL: PAUSE AND REWIND – WEDNESDAY, 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN
The premiere of a one-hour special, NHL: Pause and Rewind, will take a look back at this past NHL season as well as how players are spending their time off in the current league hiatus. Highlighted segments will include a look at the current top five teams in each conference, reflecting on the season’s milestones, including Alex Ovechkin’s historic 700 goal accomplishment, as well as revisiting the Blues’ improbable Stanley Cup victory last season.

NBC Sports commentators conducting player interviews and sharing #HockeyAtHome social content will also be featured throughout the program.

Programming will also stream on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

More information about NBC Sports’ Hockey Happy Hour can be found here.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.