Alexandre Texier

Departing stars could slow progress for Blue Jackets

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — If the Blue Jackets’ two best players leave town as expected, it will ripple through just about every move the team makes this summer.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin are unrestricted free agents and almost certainly are out the door. Retooling the roster to compensate for the loss of the two Russians, and possibly other free agents, will mean a busy and interesting offseason for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

”We want guys that are proud to be Blue Jackets, guys that want to live in Columbus, want to raise their families in Columbus,” Kekalainen said Wednesday. ”If that’s the reason why you want to play somewhere else, then go play somewhere else.”

Kekalainen knew the elite pair probably would go – their refusal to sign contract extensions caused some strife in the locker room during the season – but held on hoping to make a deep postseason run. ”Bob” and ”Bread” ended up being a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ march to the playoffs and first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team during the regular season.

Columbus played in a second-round series for the first time in the 19 years the franchise has been in existence but fell to Boston 4-2 in an Eastern Conference semifinal.

”We took a step in the right direction,” coach John Tortorella said. ”I hope we can see how difficult it is to keep on going. There are so many good things going on in our room now and – in talking to Jarmo and the management group – so many good pieces coming here. It’s an exciting time for us.”

But there will be retooling.

Forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, both picked up from Ottawa at the February trade deadline for the playoff run, also will be unrestricted free agents. Both were so-so down the stretch, but Duchene caught fire in the playoffs with 10 points in 10 games. Defenseman Adam McQuaid, also a trade-deadline pickup, didn’t contribute much because of an injury and may or may not be re-signed.

”That’s part of the business, unfortunately,” said winger Cam Atkinson, who led the team with a career-high 41 goals. ”That’s the crappy part about it. But we’re so close as a team and an organization. We took a lot of huge strides forward this year. Ultimately, those guys get the make their own decision, but we know what we have in this room. We have a winning team and a winning culture.”

The Blue Jackets have some goalies in the wings but none of Bobrovsky’s caliber. Backup Joonas Korpisalo will get a good look but may not be an everyday goalie. Columbus likely will try to re-sign 29-year-old Keith Kinkaid, who was acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline but didn’t get into a single game with his new team.

The team also likes 24-year-old Elvis Merzlikins, a flashy Latvian goaltender who was a 2014 third-round draft pick. He’s had success in the Swiss National League and is expected to start next season on the Blue Jackets roster.

Columbus hopes forward Alexandre Texier and defensemen Vladislav Gavrikov – rookies who joined after their foreign league commitments finished – can develop into reliable NHL players. Both showed flashes in limited action in the playoffs. Highly touted prospects Emil Bemstrom and Liam Foudy also could be ready to contribute.

Columbus will have to find a way to replace Panarin’s team-leading 87 points, but will have Atkinson (41 goals, 28 assists) and Pierre Luc-Dubois (27, 34) as well as top blue-liners Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

”We’re trying to put a stamp on what this place is, what this organization is, how we run our business here,” Tortorella said. ”Our community put a stamp on it (in the playoffs), not just for us but for the hockey world.”

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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Bruins vs. Blue Jackets: PHT 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview

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For the first time in franchise history the Columbus Blue Jackets will get to see what life is like in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After pulling off a stunning upset in Round 1, where they not only beat the NHL’s best team, but completely dominated them, the Blue Jackets get to see if they can shock the world once again when they take on the Boston Bruins.

The big thing to watch early in this series will be whether or not the lengthy, week-long layoff for the Blue Jackets will be something that helps or hurts them against a Bruins team that is coming off of a grueling seven-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs where they had to win back-to-back games to fight off elimination.

From a big picture outlook the Bruins are the superior team on paper and based on their overall regular season performance, but the same thing was said about the Lightning in the previous round, and we all saw how that turned out.

Going back to March 24 the Blue Jackets are 11-1-0 in their past 12 games, with that only loss coming at the hands of the Bruins, a 6-2 defeat on April 2.

The two teams met three times during the regular season with each team winning once in a blowout, and the Bruins taking the extra game in a 2-1 overtime decision on March 16.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Schedule

Surging Players

Boston: It should be no surprise that the three-headed monster of of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak is leading the way offensively for the Bruins. They have been doing it for years, and they did it again in Round 1 against the Maple Leafs. What is really helping is they are getting a lot of contributions from players outside of that group. Charlie Coyle, one of the Bruins’ trade deadline acquisitions, scored three goals in Round 1, Brandon Carlo didn’t record a point but was outstanding at times defensively, and their Game 7 offense came from a lot of their unsung depth players. The Bruins are a team with superstars at the top of the lineup (all playing exceptionally well) and has found some depth to go with the. That is a dangerous combination.

Columbus: Instead of dealing away their pending free agents, the Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline with Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid, and it not only helped produce the first postseason series win in franchise history, it helped them pull off one of the biggest Round 1 upsets ever. Duchene was one of the driving forces behind that four-game sweep of the Lightning, recording seven points in the four games. Artemi Panarin was also an impact player throughout the opening round, while young players Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand started to make a name for themselves.

Struggling Players

Boston: Marcus Johansson had what could probably described as an “up-and-down” series for the Bruins. He scored a huge goal in Game 7, but it was his only point in the five games he played while he also finished as a team-worst minus-4 in the series. Jake DeBrusk also had a quiet round, but that was mostly due to poor shooting luck (only one goal on 20 shots) than anything that he was or was not doing.

Columbus: When you sweep the best team in the NHL in four games there probably are not many players on your roster that are struggling, and even if there are, you haven’t had enough time to figure out who they are. Still, the Blue Jackets would probably like to see a little bit more from Dzingel and Brandon Dubinsky in Round 2, as both were held off the scoresheet entirely in their first four games.

Goaltending

Boston: Bruins fans always seem to be waiting for an opportunity to criticize Tuukka Rask and make him the scapegoat for whenever the team falls short in the playoffs. While his regular season performance wasn’t consistently great, and there is reason to believe he is not the same goalie he was four or five years ago, he is still a very capable starter that has the potential to steal a game or two, and perhaps even an entire series should it come to that. He was outstanding in the first round with a .928 save percentage and was at his best in Games 6 and 7 when the Bruins needed him most.

Columbus: This was always going to be the big question for the Blue Jackets. For as good as Sergei Bobrovsky has been throughout his career he has been one of the least productive goalies in the NHL come playoff time, consistently melting down at the worst possible time. He did a lot of work in Round 1 to quiet the doubters in helping to shut down one of the greatest offenses the NHL has ever seen. The Blue Jackets dominated the series so much that they didn’t even need Bobrovsky to be great, and he still finished with a .932 save percentage in what has been — by far — the best postseason performance of his career.

Special Teams

Boston: The Bruins’ power play can be a game-changer for them. It was among the best in the NHL during the regular season, and then absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs in Round 1 by scoring seven power play goals in the seven games (and they didn’t even get a power play in Game 7). And it wasn’t just any one player during the damage. They received power play goals from six different players in the first round (only Bergeron scored more than one) while eight different players recorded at least one point on the power play. The only flaw the unit has — and it is a big flaw — is that it is sometimes vulnerable to shorthanded goals against, giving up 15 during the regular season and another one in Round 1. The Bruins’ PK unit, on the other hand, is a tough group to figure out. With Bergeron, Marchand, and the defense they have behind them it should be a good group, at least based on the talent they have at their disposal. But they were only middle of the pack during the regular season and were just “okay” against the Maple Leafs, though they did kill have six in a row to end the series, including all five in Games 6 and 7 when facing elimination.

Columbus: It’s not always about how many goals you score, but when you score them. That was the case for the Blue Jackets’ power play that was one of the worst in the NHL during the regular season, but went off in Round 1 by scoring on five of its 10 attempts against the Lightning. Nobody should reasonably expect them to continue clicking at 50 percent into Round 2, but if they can find a couple of goals on the man-advantage and continue their excellent penalty kill that could be a huge difference in the series — especially if they can keep staying out of the box. Columbus was tied for best PK unit in the league during the regular season and then followed that up by taking just six minor penalties in the four games against Tampa Bay. Their PK will probably get more use in Round 2, and they are going to be challenged by a Bruins power play that is not only good, but is white-hot right now.

X-Factor for Bruins

After scoring 27 goals in only 68 games during the regular season Jake DeBrusk had a mostly quiet series against the Maple Leafs, but he still showed some signs (like the fact he had 20 shots on goal) that he could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way at some point very, very soon. If he does that would give the Bruins just one more weapon that Columbus has to contend with and try to slow down. In his first two years in the league he has already shown that he can be a legit top-six forward and could be a huge X-factor in Round 2 for the Bruins.

X-Factor for Blue Jackets 

Alexandre Texier was a late addition to the Blue Jackets’ roster, and the 19-year-old has already made a sizable impact. He has only played in six NHL games (two at the end of the regular season, all four playoff games to this point) and has already scored three goals and an assist. That includes his two goals in the Blue Jackets’ series-clinching win over the Lightning where he opened the scoring with an early power play goal.

Prediction

Bruins in 6. The Blue Jackets are not going to be an easy out, and even though they entered the playoffs as the No. 8 seed the roster they have now is very different from the one they had for most of the regular season. And all of the new additions seem to have found their place in the lineup. They are legit. But so are the Bruins, and they not only have a trio of stars at the top of their lineup that are probably superior to Columbus’ top players, but they have also found some depth to complement them.

PHT’s Round 2 previews
Round 2 schedule, TV info

Questions for the final eight teams
PHT Roundtable
Conn Smythe favorites after Round 1
Hurricanes vs. Islanders
Blues vs. Stars
Avalanche vs. Sharks

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.