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.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.