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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.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Duclair; Staal one point away from 1,000

NHL Scores Eric Staal Minnesota Wild
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Three Stars

1. Anthony Duclair, Ottawa Senators. This had to be a satisfying game for Duclair. He showed John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets that he does, in fact, know how to play the game by scoring three goals in a 4-3 win for the Ottawa Senators. That performance includes the game-winning goal in overtime. The 24-year-old Duclair now has 18 goals in 33 games this season and is on pace for more than 40 goals this season. Read all about his day here.

2. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brian Dumoulin, Nick Bjugstad, and Patric Hornqvist out of the lineup the Penguins have more than $35 million in salary cap space sitting in the press box at the moment. They still keep finding ways to win. They picked up a 5-4 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings in Saturday thanks to another huge game from Rust. He scored two goals and picked up an assist in regulation, then scored the game-winning goal in the shootout. Rust now has 12 goals and 22 total points in only 19 games this season for the Penguins. He has always been one of their most versatile — and valuable — players, and he is showing why this season.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild. Staal has been on a roll for the Wild and thanks to his two-goal effort in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, he now has six points in his past five games and is up to 999 for his career. That means with one more point he would become only the 89th player in NHL history to hit the 1,000 point milestone. The Wild are one of the league’s hottest teams since the start of November with a 12-3-5 record in their past 20 games. They were 4-9-0 before in October.

Other notable performances from Saturday

  • David Pastrnak extended his lead in the NHL goal-scoring race with a pair of goals in the Boston Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers. He now has 28 goals on the season and is five ahead of Jack Eichel.
  • Warren Foegele scored two goals for the Carolina Hurricanes, James Reimer stopped all 32 shots he faced and Dougie Hamilton scored against his former team in a 4-0 win over the Calgary Flames.
  • Anthony Beauvillier was the overtime hero for the New York Islanders as they topped the Buffalo Sabres.
  • The New Jersey Devils gave Alain Nasreddine his first NHL win as a head coach while the Taylor Hall watch continues. Read all about it here.
  • Frederik Andersen stopped 36 out of 37 shots as the Toronto Maple Leafs sent the fading Edmonton Oilers to their fourth consecutive defeat. It is the 200th win of Andersen’s career.
  • Jonathan Bernier backstopped the Detroit Red Wings to their second consecutive win as they hold off the Montreal Canadiens.
  • Mika Zibanejad‘s two goals are not enough for the New York Rangers as they drop a 4-3 shootout decision to the Anaheim Ducks.
  • Ben Bishop turned aside 37 out of 38 shots to help the Dallas Stars crush the Nashville Predators.
  • Evander Kane and Logan Couture both record two points as the San Jose Sharks get a much-needed win over the Vancouver Canucks. It is the first win for Bob Boughner as head coach of the Sharks.
  • Tyler Bozak scored two goals as the St. Louis Blues stunned the Chicago Blackhawks. Read all about it here.

Highlights of the Night

Timo Meier finishes a great passing play for the San Jose Sharks with an absolute rocket of a shot to beat Jacob Markstrom.

Jonathan Quick has really struggled the past two years, and it came in a losing effort in Pittsburgh on Saturday, but this series of saves in overtime is pretty ridiculous.

Garnet Hathaway score with some style for the Capitals.

Give this fan a contract

This is a $50,000 shot between periods in Montreal.

Factoids

  • The Blues’ comeback is just the second time in franchise history they erased a three-goal third period deficit to win. [NHL PR]
  • Zibanejad’s first goal for the Rangers came just 10 seconds into the game, the fastest goal for the Rangers since the 1985 season. [NHL PR]
  • Jack Eichel extended his point streak to 16 consecutive games, making it the fourth longest in Buffalo Sabres franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • The Wild have earned a point in 12 consecutive home games, the second-longest streak in franchise history. [NHL PR]
  • Brad Marchand hit the 50-point mark for the season, the first Bruins player since Adam Oates during the 1995-96 season to reach that mark in 34 or fewer games. [NHL PR]
  • Marc-Edouard Vlasic played in his 1,000th career game on Saturday night, making him the 340th player in NHL history to reach that milestone. [San Jose Sharks]
  • Foegele’s two goals for the Hurricanes both came while shorthanded, making him the fifth Hurricanes player to ever accomplish that in a game. [NHL PR]

Scores

Ottawa Senators 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 3 (OT)
New York Islanders 3, Buffalo Sabres 2 (OT)
Anaheim Ducks 4, New York Rangers 3 (SO)
Carolina Hurricanes 4, Calgary Flames 0
Dallas Stars 4, Nashville Predators 1
Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Edmonton Oilers 1
Minnesota Wild 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Detroit Red Wings 2, Montreal Canadiens 1
Washington Capitals 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Boston Bruins 4, Florida Panthers 2
Pittsburgh Penguins 5, Los Angeles Kings 4 (SO)
New Jersey Devils 2, Arizona Coyotes 1
St. Louis Blues 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3
San Jose Sharks 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

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.

Devils give Nasreddine first win as Taylor Hall trade watch continues

Devils Taylor Hall Trade Watch
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For the second game in a row the New Jersey Devils held star forward Taylor Hall out of the lineup as they continue to work toward a trade.

They were still able to give interim coach Alain Nasreddine his first win as an NHL coach by defeating the Arizona Coyotes, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Kyle Palmieri.

Entering play on Saturday the Devils had been 0-4-1 since firing John Hynes and replacing him with Nasreddine.

The win also snapped a seven-game losing streak.

The big story, though, continues to be where Hall ends up as trade talks continue between the Devils and several teams around the league. Trade speculation has followed Hall and the Devils all season and reached a boiling point on Friday night when he was made a late scratch in Colorado for what the team called “precautionary” reasons. The fact he did not play again on Saturday seems to further drive home the point that a trade could be imminent.

At this point it simply a matter of where he ends up.

While the Avalanche remain the odds on favorite to land him, several other teams have reportedly emerged as possible destinations. One of those potential teams: Saturday’s opponent in Arizona.

Other teams that have been rumored to be interested include St. Louis, Florida, and Edmonton.

The Coyotes are an intriguing option because it would be a pretty clear sign that they are ready to try and win right now. Even with Saturday’s loss to the Devils they remain in first place in the Pacific Division and are off to one of their starts in years. They have a good young roster, but are still lacking impact forwards. Phil Kessel was supposed to help address that over the summer, but he is off to a slow start (only one even-strength goal) and has not yet been a difference-maker.

Adding Hall would be a huge win for the Coyotes not only because of the impact to their own roster, but it would also keep him away from a division rival In Edmonton.

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.

 

Blackhawks self destruct, blow 3-goal third period lead to Blues

Blackhawks Blues third period rally
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Just when it looked like the Chicago Blackhawks had hit rock bottom they found a way to keep digging.

Their disastrous three-game road trip came to a brutal end on Saturday night in St. Louis when they allowed a three-goal lead with 16 minutes to play turn into a 4-3 regulation loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues.

The meltdown began when St. Louis’ Tyler Bozak scored just 30 seconds after Patrick Kane had given the Blackhawk a 3-0 lead, capitalizing on a terrible turnover by Alex Nylander.

The Blues completed the comeback with three goals in the final six minutes of regulation, including a pair of goals just 12 seconds apart to tie the game.

Just three minutes after that sequence Justin Faulk scored his second goal of the season for the game-winner.

1. The Blackhaws’ problems remain the same

It’s the defensive zone play. It has been the defensive zone play. It continues to be the defensive zone play.

At times the Blackhawks look like a team that has never had to play in the defensive zone before. Turnovers, missed assignments, blown assignments, and just about every possible defensive calamity that can happen to a team in the defensive zone happens to this team on a near nightly basis. All of that was on display in the final 16 minutes on Saturday and it once again left their goalie — in this case Corey Crawford — all by himself on an island.

2. Where they stand now

In last place in the Central Division and next-to-last place in the entire Western Conference, just one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings. Needless to say, that is a brutal position for a team with one of the league’s largest payrolls to be in.

They are 3-8-2 in their past 13 games (only one of those wins in regulation), are nine points out of the second Wild Card spot and 12 points back of the top-three teams in the Central Division.

They were outscored by a 14-6 margin on their three-game trip that took them through Arizona, Vegas, and St. Louis.

At this point the season is not only getting away from them, it appears to be completely gone.

3. What happens next?

This is the type of stretch, and this is the type of game, that leads to change.

Or at least starts the ball rolling toward change.

Head coach Jeremy Colliton has been on the job for just one year, and firing him that quickly after he replaced a future Hall of Fame, three-time Stanley Cup winning coach would make it seem like the Blackhawks don’t really have much of a plan and don’t really know what they’re doing.

But do you know what? Maybe they don’t know what they’re doing, and maybe they don’t have a plan. General manager Stan Bowman gambled big on his core and that its strong second half a year ago was a sign of what the team was still capable of. That it maybe just needed a few tweaks to compete again. With every passing game this season, and with every defensive meltdown that seems worse than the previous one, it is becoming increasingly clear this team just isn’t very good and the right changes were not made.

In the end something is very wrong with this team and there does not seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel.

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.

 

Duclair’s revenge: Hat trick leads Senators over Tortorella, Blue Jackets

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Anthony Duclair knows how to play the game. He proved that to John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.

Duclair scored three goals in the Ottawa Senators’ 4-3 win — including the game winner in the video above — and was able to get some small amount of revenge against his former team and coach.

It’s such a big day for Duclair because it was a little less than a year ago that he was the focal point of Tortorella’s public wrath. In late February Tortorella ripped Duclair by saying, among other things, that he didn’t know if he knew how to play the game, while also referring to his play as being “off the rails.”

The focal point of the criticism centered around Duclair’s situational play away from the puck. Three days later the Blue Jackets sent him to Ottawa in a trade for Ryan Dzingel.

Fresh start for Duclair

Duclair’s game has started to blossom offensively since arriving in Ottawa. With his three-goal effort on Saturday he is up to 18 goals in 33 games this season. No player on the Blue Jackets has more than 10 goals.

He also has 26 goals in 53 games with the Senators since the trade.

Duclair is a fascinating player because he is still only 24 years old and is already playing for his fifth different organization. While he may still have some improvements to make away from the puck, there is no denying his talent level with it, while he consistently averages a 20-goal pace per 82 games. He is now on pace for more than 40 goals this season.

A smart team should be able to find a use for him, and right now the Senators are.

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.