Alexandre Texier

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups

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We now know who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer and who will have a long wait until next season.

With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Western Conference matchups]

(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens

Regular season recap

At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.

How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).

The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.

Between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins needed both goaltenders this season. Murray started the year, Jarry took over and was named an All-Star Game replacement, and it was Murray getting most of the work down the stretch.

It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.

Season series

Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.

Injured players who could return

Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.

An ankle injury kept Jonathan Drouin out for Montreal’s last six games and an upper-body injury sidelined Tomas Tatar for three matchups. Jesperi Kotkaniemi (spleen), who was in the AHL at the time of his injury, is not expected to play again this season. Victor Mete could be back after suffering a fractured foot in February.

Storylines to watch

This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…

Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?

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(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers

Regular season recap

It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.

New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.

The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.

Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.

Season series

Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.

Injured players who could return

Leg injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen had them out of the lineup for extended periods of time. Given the time between games potentially being played, the Hurricanes blue line could be bolstered with those two back on the ice. Brett Pesce, meanwhile, may not be back in time from shoulder surgery. His timeline was 4-6 months back in March.

Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.

He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.

Storylines to watch

Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?

[MORE: Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal]

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(7) Islanders vs. (10) Panthers

Regular season recap

Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.

Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.

While the offense will rely heavily on Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mike Hoffman, they also have received good depth production. Noel Acciari potted 20 goals, Brett Connolly hit for 19, and Frank Vatrano hit for 16. It remains to be seen how much they’ll miss Vincent Trocheck, who was dealt to Carolina in February, bringing back a package that included Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark.

If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.

That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.

Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.

J.G. Pageau was acquired at the trade deadline to assist an offense that needs firepower. The Islanders don’t generate a ton of even strength chances and only feature a pair of 20-goal scorers — Brock Nelson (25) and Anders Lee (19).

Season series

Islanders lead season series 3-0-0. Last meeting: Dec. 12; an Islanders 3-1 win.

Injured players who could return

After receiving 90 stitches following a frightening skate-to-the-eye injury in March, Johnny Boychuk should be back on the Islanders’ blue line. Casey Cizikas, who suffered a skate laceration, is also expected to be ready to go. An Achilles injury put defenseman Adam Pelech out of the lineup in January and it would be a stretch to see him back this summer.

Storylines to watch

The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.

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(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets

Regular season recap

The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.

Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.

Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.

The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.

Season series

Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.

Injured players who could return

Could Josh Anderson come back by late summer? He was given a 4-6 month recovery period and it’s been nearly three months since he underwent shoulder surgery. The extra time off bodes well for Cam Atkinson (ankle), Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Seth Jones (ankle), and Alexandre Texier (back) among the Blue Jackets’ long list of walking wounded.

For the Leafs, Ilya Mikheyev (wrist laceration), Jake Muzzin (hand), and Andreas Johnsson (knee) should be good to go when play resumes.

Storylines to watch

On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.

On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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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.

GM: Blue Jackets stay in the present but plan for the future

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amid uncertainty about whether the 2019-20 season will continue, the Columbus Blue Jackets are looking ahead to next season.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen announced the signing Monday of Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko to a one-year contract for next season. A person with knowledge of the contract told The Associated Press it’s worth $1.2 million, speaking on condition of anonymity because the team does not release contract terms.

The deal was later rejected by the NHL, and the Blue Jackets tweeted that it was due to a ‘misunderstanding with regard to the filing window, and that the contract will be resubmitted July 1.

Last week the team locked up goalie Joonas Korpisalo for two more years with a contract worth a reported $5.6 million.

”I think it’s just business as usual for us,” Kekalainen insisted during a Monday conference call with reporters, while noting that the team is embroiled in discussions internally and with the NHL about if and how the current season will resume after the coronavirus threat wanes.

”We’ve talked to Grigorenko for two years, and now his contract’s up and he’s done playing for the year,” Kekalainen said. ”It’s business as usual, we’re just not meeting at the office. We’re doing it on FaceTime or Zoom on our computers, talking to each other by phone.”

The 25-year-old Grigorenko had 22 goals and 42 assists in 217 career NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres from 2012-17. He was the 12th overall pick by Buffalo in 2012 and can play all three forward positions.

The native of Khabarovsk, Russia, has spent the past three seasons with CSKA in the Kontinental Hockey League, with 46 goals and 70 assists in 147 games from 2017-20. Kekalainen said he’s noted improvement in the player since he was in the NHL.

The two-year contract for Korpisalo will give the 25-year-old a chance to establish himself as the team’s starter. Rookie backup Elvis Merzlikins also proved he is worthy of a starting job.

The team likely will try to re-sign Merzlikins, and conventional wisdom is that one of them will eventually be trade bait as Columbus seeks more offensive help for next year.

Korpisalo said he wants to be the guy.

”I’ve been working for many years, and I’ve got a good chance to make it,” he said Monday. ”I think I’ve said I played OK. I always knew I had it in myself, and now signing a two-year contract, I’m really honored and it’s really a place I want to be. Just happy to stay in Columbus and try to make the best of myself.”

Korpisalo, who is at home in Finland, said he reckons it will take ”a couple weeks” just to get players back together and start training again if the league comes up with a plan to finish the season.

Ideas floated include trying to finish the regular season at neutral sites with no fans or going right into an expanded playoff scenario. If the playoffs were to begin with 16 teams, the Blue Jackets would be edged out by percentage points, so naturally Kekalainen is advocating for an expanded playoff field.

”I don’t think there’s a fair way to cut it to 16 teams right away,” he said.

”We have some ideas,” he said. ”And obviously we want to be part of it. We were right there when play halted and paused.”

If the season continues, most players who were injured would be ready to go, Kekalianen said, including star defenseman Seth Jones and forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alexandre Texier.

What is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pending Free Agents
Josh Anderson (RFA)
Gabriel Carlsson (RFA)
Pierre-Luc Dubois (RFA)
Vladislav Gavrikov
Jakob Lilja (RFA)
Joonas Korpisalo (RFA)
Ryan MacInnis (RFA)
Elvis Merzlikins (RFA)
Devin Shore (RFA)
Kevin Stenlund (RFA)

The Core

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not have the elite goal-scorer or dangerous playmaker that top-tier NHL teams have, but they do possess a few critical components of their foundation to build a long-term successful roster.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchor the Blue Jackets’ blue line and make up one of the top defensive pairings throughout the NHL. Their steady play helped goaltender Joonas Korpisalo become an All-Star this season and Elvis Merzlikins look like a seasoned veteran in his rookie season between the pipes.

Pierre-Luc Dubois continued his development as a top-line center and was in position to match his 61-point total from a season ago. However, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson’s production dropped off dramatically. Atkinson only netted 12 goals in 44 games this season, while Anderson scored one time in 26 games. Both players missed time with injuries this season (along with most of the Blue Jackets’ roster) but couldn’t produce offensively the way they have in the past.

Despite Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin leaving the organization last summer, the Blue Jackets remained in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race up until the NHL Pause a few weeks ago.

The experience gained in the spring of 2019 when the Blue Jackets secured a playoff spot and won a series for the first time in franchise history paid dividends for the team this season.

Long-Term Needs

The Blue Jackets averaged 2.57 goals per game in the 70 games they played this season and desperately need to add more playmakers. The lack of production from Atkinson and Anderson hurt dramatically and injuries contributed to them becoming one of the bottom-five teams in goals per game this season.

One area of concern is depth at the center position. Dubois is on track to become a building block every successful team needs in the middle, but the roster lacks playmakers behind the promising young player.

Alexandre Texier showed promise this year before a back injury derailed his season and John Tortorella believes he could fill a gaping hole in the lineup.

“The thing I like about Tex is I think he understands how to play low in that (center) position,” Torts told the team website. “A lot more comes into play as a centerman when you don’t have the puck in your end zone, a lot more reads like a defenseman, and I think he has the intelligence to do that.”

Columbus does not have the sexiest roster in the NHL, but they do have the right pieces of the puzzle to be a playoff team for the next several seasons.

Long-Term Strengths

While Tortorella’s antics during press conferences have been entertaining, he had one of his strongest seasons behind the bench and proved to be one of the NHL’s best bench bosses. The Blue Jackets did not have a 50-point scorer and proved to be greater than the sum of their parts with a strong season following a tumultuous summer.

The Blue Jackets sustained a league-leading 15 overtime/shootout losses (including a mistake which produced an epic postgame press conference) and could have pulled away from a crowded playoff wild-card race if a few of those outcomes went their way.

Jones and Werenski are two world-class defenders and Dubois is growing into a dynamic center but Columbus needs to fill out its roster. The Blue Jackets’ front office must find the right corresponding pieces to skate alongside their foundational players in order to take the next step as a franchise.

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Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

Blue Jackets’ nightmare season of injuries continues with Bjorkstrand news

You could not possibly blame the Columbus Blue Jackets and their fans if they thought there was some kind of supernatural force aligning against them this season.

It is obviously just a lot of bad luck, but the ongoing injury situation is really starting to become absurd.

It continued on Friday with the news that Oliver Bjorkstrand, currently the team’s leading goal scorer this season with 21 goals in only 49 games, is going to be sidelined for the next 8-10 weeks due to an ankle sprain and fracture.

The injury happened in the Blue Jackets’ loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night.

Columbus managed to overcome a free agency exodus this offseason to remain in the playoff race far longer than most expected, but the injuries are starting to add up into something that might be too much to overcome.

Bjorkstrand’s injury comes at a time where the team is already playing without Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones, Joonas Korpisalo, Josh Anderson, Ryan Murray, Alexandre Texier, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Dubinsky, and Dean Kukan.

That list includes two of their top forwards (Atkinson and Bjorkstrand), their top defenseman (Jones), their starting goalie (Korpisalo), and a couple of young players they were counting on to take big steps forward this season (Texier, Wennberg).

For the season the Blue Jackets have lost a league-leading 345 man games due to injury.

Despite all of that they went on a 19-2-5 run for the two-month stretch between Dec. 7 and Feb. 7 to climb to within striking distance of the second playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Since then, though, they have managed just an 0-3-4 record in the seven games since.

As of Friday they occupy the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference with 73 points, just one point ahead of the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes. They are also just two points behind the Flyers for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division. The problem is all three of those teams have games in hand on the Blue Jackets and are on pace for more points this season.

MORE: PHT’s 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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.

Blue Jackets suffer worst injury yet: Seth Jones out 8-10 weeks

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The Blue Jackets received their worst injury news yet: Seth Jones is expected to miss 8-10 weeks after surgery. The surgery addressed a sprain and hairline fracture of his ankle. It’s the latest bit of injury news on a tough Tuesday for such updates.

Seth Jones injury likely keeps him out of Blue Jackets playoff push

If that recovery window holds, Jones would miss the remainder of the regular season (which ends on April 4). Hockey players sometimes beat even optimistic recovery windows, though, so we’ll see.

Jones suffered the injury during this play on Saturday:

Jones leads the Blue Jackets in average time on ice (25:17), ranking sixth overall in the NHL. Jones earned his third All-Star appearance in 2019-20, generating 30 points in 56 games.

John Tortorella must find a way to replace a versatile player, not just a star. Jones spends almost as much time on the PK (2:25 SH TOI per game) as he does on the power play (2:34).

It will be interesting to see who steps up in Jones’ jarring absence. Zach Werenski has already been logging more than an extra minute of ice time per night (23:44 to 24:52) since Ryan Murray went down with an injury, with David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov seeing similar increases. We’ll see if Torts can spread out that added burden in a way that keeps the Blue Jackets competitive.

About the only (weak) argument you can muster is that perhaps Jones’ loss might be exaggerated by some. There are certain measures, such as Evolving Hockey’s RAPM charts, where Jones looks great, but maybe not mind-blowing:

Seth Jones RAPM injury

To clarify: I don’t think such an argument goes very far, aside from maybe if you’re trying to choose between Jones vs. other of the NHL’s best.

The Blue Jackets have done a marvelous job limiting high-danger chances against (maybe carrying over from their sweep of the Lightning?). If the Blue Jackets can hang in there without Jones, it would be one heck of an argument for Torts as a Jack Adams candidate.

Banged-up Blue Jackets

Again, Columbus already faced waves of injuries this season.

Alexander Wennberg recently joined a list that includes Murray, Joonas Korpisalo, Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier, Brandon Dubinsky, and Dean Kukan. Jones shows that their injury list is a galling mix of quality and quantity.

The Blue Jackets deserve ample credit for hanging in the East playoff races, but they don’t enjoy much margin for error:

There are at least occasional reasons for optimism, mind you. Jackets Insider’s Jeff Svoboda reports that Anderson, Atkinson, and Korpisalo all were on the ice on Tuesday, if nothing else.

The larger point remains: it would be quite the story if the Blue Jackets can make the playoffs, especially after losing Jones.

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.