New-look Blue Jackets figuring out what they have

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Given all of the talent that walked away from the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer it was pretty obvious they were going to have a very different look this season.

Not only on paper, but also in the way they play on the ice.

They lost a franchise goalie with two Vezina Trophies to his name (Sergei Bobrovsky) and replaced him with two relative unknowns (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins). They lost their biggest superstar (Artemi Panarin) and a couple of trade deadline acquisitions (Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel) that were supposed to help make them contenders.

That is a lot of talent to replace, especially in net. Because of that, and because of the uncertainty around their two goalies, they were going to have to adjust the way they played and take a more patient, conservative approach. The old “safe is death” mindset John Tortorella’s teams used to employ was never going to work with this roster. They not only do not have the skill to trade chances with other contenders, but they also don’t yet know if they have the goalies to help cover up for chances coming back the other way.

Safe is probably the only way for this team to play.

Through the first two games of the season (a 4-1 loss to Toronto and then an ugly 7-2 loss in Pittsburgh) they are still trying to figure out how they have to play and what they have to do to win.

Patience was the big word used after Saturday’s loss in Pittsburgh.

“We had a lot of good minutes in there,” captain Nick Foligno said after Saturday’s game. “I know it’s weird to say that, but we did some good things. It’s just the patience, it’s the understanding of how we need to play and being okay with a 1-0 game or a 0-0 game for 59 minutes if it has to be that, and sticking with that. We are almost over-anxious and our patience is getting away from us right now and it is costing us. We are doing so many good things throughout the game that are being negated by poor decisions because we don’t want to do the necessary thing in that moment. Sometimes it’s not the prettiest thing, but it’s the necessary thing.”

“I think it gives us an opportunity to teach a little bit here,” said coach John Tortorella, echoing Foligno’s thoughts that were still some positives mixed in with the early struggles.

“I thought our first 25-35 minutes or so were pretty good. I thought we were fast, I thought we were right there. They end up scoring a few goals and we end up losing our composure as far as how we have to play. So for me it just gives us a great opportunity to start teaching what the patience of our game needs to be.”

In recent years the Blue Jackets had Bobrovsky to mask a lot of flaws on the back end and serve as the last line of defense. A franchise goalie can change a lot for a team and allow the team in front of them to maybe take more chances and play a bit more aggressively. They no longer have that proven safety net behind them. Korpisalo has been a backup his entire career with varying degrees of success, while Merzlikins is getting his first taste of NHL action. Saturday’s game was his NHL debut and went about as poorly as it could have gone.

“I think it’s going to help him in the long run,” said Tortorella. “I thought he looked really calm in the first period, just the way he handled the puck the outside the net, stopped some wraparounds, broke us out. I thought he was right there. But it’s an unforgiving league. It’s a good lesson for him, and we knew there were going to be lessons like this for us. The most important thing now is how we handle it. It’s an opportunity for us right away at the beginning of this year to teach about patience, to teach about how we have to play. Hopefully we go about it the right way.”

They get a chance to start doing that on Monday against a white-hot Buffalo Sabres team.

It has been a frustrating start for sure. They had a tough draw out of the gate getting two of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league as their new goalies get settled, while the team in front of them hasn’t exactly adapted in trying to protect them. But there is still enough talent on the roster to get it figured out.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.