Laine, Merzlikins powering Blue Jackets’ strong start

Columbus Blue Jackets
Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

Nobody would blame you if you had low — or even no — expectations for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering this season.

The 2020-21 season was a bitter disappointment across the board, while they made some pretty significant changes to the organization. John Tortorella was replaced behind the bench by Brad Larsen, Cam Atkinson was traded for Jakub Voracek, and Seth Jones was dealt away for Adam Boqvist and draft picks.

With Columbus shifting back to the Metropolitan Division where pretty much everybody is good, it seemed like a long season was on the horizon.

But the Blue Jackets did have two things going for them that could dramatically change what their season looks like.

The first is the fact they have an upper-tier goalie in Elvis Merzlikins. A good goaltender can mask a lot of flaws and turn an average team into something competitive overnight.

The other is the presence of Patrik Laine.

Both of them are driving Columbus’ 3-1-0 start to the season.

Laine was acquired early last season from the Winnipeg Jets when the two clubs swapped disgruntled young players. The Jets got Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Blue Jackets got Laine and Jack Roslovic. Neither team, or player, ended up winning the trade with their individual performances in the immediate aftermath of the trade, and that was especially true in Columbus. After a strong start that saw Laine record 10 points, including six goals, in his first 10 games. And then? Almost nothing. He clashed with Tortorella, was benched on more than one occasion, and tallied just four goals and seven assists over the final 35 games of the season. Not at all what Laine or the Blue Jackets expected.

Nor is it an accurate reflection of what Laine is as a player.

When he is at his best he is one of the league’s top goal scorers, and a player that still scores 30 goals for you in what is considered a “down” year for him. That is quite a wild card to have sitting on your roster, especially when he is still only 23 years old and entering what should be his prime years.

A big year from Laine and Merzlikins playing like an elite goalie? Suddenly your season and its outlook is wildly improved.

That is what has happened so far for the Blue Jackets.

In his first three appearances Merzlikins has stopped 89 out of 94 shots (.947 save percentage) and looked like the goalie Columbus hoped he could be when they signed him to a long-term contract extension over the summer. His track record in the NHL right now is still limited (only 64 games) but he has been consistently strong.

Laine also looks like a different player so far for the Blue Jackets, and closer to what he was during his peak with the Jets. He already has five points in the first four games, including two game-winning goals in overtime.

The odds are still stacked against the Blue Jackets given the division, but the start is at least encouraging. And if Merzlikins and Laine play to their maximum potential that is two high-end pieces at the top of the lineup.

Add in Oliver Bjorkstrand playing exceptionally well so far (seven points) and Boqvist maybe already being an upgrade over what Jones had given them the past two seasons and this season might be more interesting than expected. It would not be the first time in recent years this team overachieved and exceeded expectations.

Scroll Down For:

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

    Harry How/Getty Images

    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

    The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

    The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

    Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

    Getty Images

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

    The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

    The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

    Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

    The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.