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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.

Mrazek vs. Reimer and other Hurricanes lineup questions readying for Rangers

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Beyond obvious outliers like the Penguins, the Hurricanes rank among the most legitimate of the NHL’s Qualifying Round teams. Yet as stable as the Hurricanes are compared to a field full of erratic teams, Carolina faces many of the same lineup questions as the Rangers, the team they’d face in a best-of-five series.

Some might argue that the Hurricanes face tougher questions than the Rangers. (Though, the Rangers aren’t off the hook in that regard.)

In particular, the Hurricanes may need training camp to find answers in net and on defense. For all we know, Hurricanes lineup questions could even persist beyond “Phase 3.”

Let’s glance at both the goalie and defense questions for the Hurricanes.

Who should start in Hurricanes playoff lineup: Mrazek or Reimer?

Reimer, Mrazek, Hurricanes Rangers lineup questions NHL playoffs
(Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With Henrik Lundqvist jousting with two young upstarts, some might wonder if the Rangers have too much of a good thing in net. The Hurricanes don’t enjoy quite the abundance of options.

Even so, coach Rod Brind’Amour faces a decision, as they lack a clear No. 1. Should the Hurricanes go with Petr Mrazek — who helped them during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs — or James Reimer (who boasts superior numbers this season)?

If Brind’Amour knows, he’s putting on a poker face.

“It’s easy to say right now, ‘OK, I’m going to go with Petr,’ but I don’t know,” Brind’Amour said in a recent interview, via NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “He may be in rough shape. I don’t know until I get to see them and see what they’re like.”

It’s unclear if that last playoff run explains why Mrazek would be the “easy” choice, or if that came down to Reimer entering the pandemic pause with injury issues. (The Hurricanes may also be concerned about Reimer’s rather lengthy run of injury hiccups, too.)

Because, again, Reimer performed at a higher level than Mrazek in 2019-20. Reimer boasts a better save percentage than Mrazek this season (.914 to Mrazek’s .905) and over their careers (.914 to Mrazek’s .910). Reimer takes most/all goalie “advanced stats” between the two this season, as well. Generally speaking, we’ve seen more from Reimer over the past few seasons than Mrazek, whose career was teetering on the edge here and there.

(But, to be fair, Reimer’s had his issues, too.)

Regardless, just about every team should take a long look at how their goalies are performing during training camps. Even teams with clearer No. 1 options.

Honestly, with the NHL not expected to limit the number of goalies at training camps, maybe the Hurricanes should even look at options like Anton Forsberg or Alex Nedeljkovic?

An unexpectedly crowded defense

Dougie Hamilton Hurricanes Rangers lineup decisions playoffs
(Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

During the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, the Hurricanes acquired Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen. As you may remember, those moves hinged at least partially on injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. After the twists of those bad-luck injuries, the pandemic threw off Carolina’s rhythm once more.

The best news is that it sounds like Hamilton will be available. Don’t let the museum talk fool you. If Hamilton maintained his hot pace and didn’t get injured, he would have been a go-to choice for those making arguments against John Carlson‘s Norris credentials. Either way, Hamilton provides an enormous boost to the Hurricanes lineup — one they weren’t expecting during the deadline.

On the other hand, Brind’Amour told NHL.com’s Rosen that Pesce remains unlikely to return. However …

“It’s going to be a long shot, but the longer this goes the shot gets a little shorter,” Brind’Amour said.

(Anyone else visualizing that after that rather literal description from Brind’Amour? No? OK.)

So, Hamilton stands as probable while Pesce looks unlikely. Beyond that, the Hurricanes have two still-new faces in Skjei (just seven not particularly impressive games played) and Vatanen (who was injured and didn’t even get to suit up). Let’s say that represents three defensemen for the Hurricanes. Here are the other contenders for spots in the Hurricanes defensive lineup:

  • Jaccob Slavin, a lock.
  • Jake Gardiner, who dealt with a tough season, averaging only 16:40 TOI. Still, Gardiner is experienced, played in 68 games this season, and may have benefited from the break.
  • Joel Edmundson (68 GP like Slavin and Gardiner, averaged more TOI than Gardiner with 18:27 per contest).
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk (49 GP, less than 15 minutes per night; still, Hurricanes are very familiar with TVR).
  • Haydn Fleury (45 GP, averaged fewer than 15 minutes per game).

Realistically, Brind’Amour could have eight options on defense, and possibly nine if Pesce makes unexpectedly rapid progress. Being that some of those options are quite good, there are worse problems to have.

But it still adds to the notion that training camp could be quite important for Hurricanes lineup decisions. With both goalies and defense, Brind’Amour emphasized a wait-and-see approach. So … we’ll see?

More on the Hurricanes, Rangers, return to play, and similar subjects:

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.

Flyers’ Oskar Lindblom rings bell after final cancer treatment

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A week after hitting the ice with his teammates for the first time in six months, Oskar Lindblom got to ring the bell marking the end of his chemotherapy treatments.

The 23-year-old Flyers forward was diagnosed in December with Ewing sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, and played only 30 games this season.

On Thursday, Lindblom walked down the hall at Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to ring the bell and celebrate with the nurses who took care of him.

“I can’t even explain how I feel,” he told the Flyers website. “It feels I’m having a birthday, Christmas and all those holidays at the same time. It feels awesome to be done. I can’t wait to just get back to normal life again and start feeling like I’m living.”

(Lindblom will not play for the Flyers later this summer if the NHL resumes the 2019-20 season.)

Since being diagnosed, Lindblom received support from all over the hockey community. Players from the Flyers and around the NHL wore#OskarStrong” shirts and he was given a standing ovation when shown on the Jumbotron during a January game.

“From family to friends to fans, I can’t explain how much they’ve meant to me,” said Lindblom, who is the Flyers’ Masterton Trophy nominee. “Especially at the start when it was a rough time and I got all those kind words. It just made me feel so much better, calm, and it really helped along the way.”

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top free agents; O’Reilly up for ‘unique’ challenge

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• A look at the top 50 free agents who could hit the market at some point in the next few months. [TSN]

• Which UFA moments have defined the NHL’s salary-cap era? [Sportsnet]

Ryan O'Reilly is up for the “unique” challenge of helping the Blues defend their Stanley Cup title. [NHL.com]

• “There are health risks for the players who will be quarantined in hub cities for the Stanley Cup playoffs, but their concerns don’t end there. It’s possible the players will be paying for the lost revenues caused by COVID-19 for years.” [The Hockey News]

• On players potentially opting out of playing if the NHL resumes this summer. [NBC Sports Washington]

• It’s not looking good for Alexander Romanov, Kirill Kaprizov, and Ilya Sorokin in their attempts to play this season. [Hockey Wilderness]

• The NHL should thank college hockey for producing so many impactful young defensemen. [Grand Forks Herald]

• What Alexis Lafreniere would mean to the Blackhawks. [NBC Sports Chicago]

• Why Shane Doan should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Five for Howling]

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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.

Hurricanes losing Dudley, still in talks with TV’s Forslund

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Carolina Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said Wednesday that executive Rick Dudley won’t return and the team is still in talks with longtime TV play-by-play announcer John Forslund on a new deal.

The 71-year-old Dudley had worked as Carolina’s senior vice president of hockey operations since 2018, part of nearly five decades in professional hockey. That included serving as general manager for four NHL franchises, and he also played and coached the Buffalo Sabres.

“Rick and I talked months ago and he said that at the end of his contract, he was going to move on,” Waddell said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Waddell said the team has reached agreements with all employees whose deals expired Tuesday so far except for Forslund, who is in his 25th season with the franchise and also does national broadcasts with NBC.

“We’ve had multiple talks: I’ve talked to the agent numerous times, I’ve talked to John a couple of times,” Waddell said. “We’ve laid it out. They didn’t yesterday ask for anything other than some time.”

Reached by the AP on Wednesday evening, Forslund said: “I’ve said it (before), the door’s always open until it’s completely closed. And as of right now, that’s where it stands.”