Boone Jenner

Blue Jackets look to Swedish players for scoring punch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets are looking to Sweden to help fill the scoring void left by departed star forward Artemi Panarin.

More specifically, the Blue Jackets are relying on a quartet of Swedes – two of them rookies who haven’t played in North America before – for some scoring punch as they open the season Friday night against Toronto at Nationwide Arena.

Twenty-year-old Emil Bemstrom and 26-year-old Jakob Lilja played together on the same Swedish elite league team last year, and both made the Blue Jackets’ opening night roster out of coach John Tortorella’s notoriously rigorous training camp.

Bemstrom, a fourth-round pick of the Blue Jackets in the 2017 draft, was a scoring machine in Sweden. Lilja was signed as a free agent and impressed the Blue Jackets in the prospects tournament in Michigan. Both could end up skating together on the fourth line on either side of veteran Riley Nash.

”It’s a really different game,” Lilja said. ”Smaller ice, so like if you lose the puck in the wrong places it’s creating scoring chances right away. The players are really skilled, so you don’t want to lose the puck to them. Overall, it’s like a high-speed game. Even at the pro level in Sweden it’s really defensive. So just better players and smaller ice, so everything goes a little bit faster.”

The other two members of the Swedish coalition will be expected to bear more of the burden as the Blue Jackets try to return to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Center Alexander Wennberg, 25, will try to fulfill the great promise he showed three seasons ago when he put up 59 points for Columbus and seemed poised to break out. Veteran Gustav Nyquist is a solid top-six forward who was signed as a free agent after registering 60 points last season with Detroit and San Jose. The two are slated to skate together on the second line.

Rookie Alexandre Texier is expected to take Panarin’s place on the top line with center Pierre-Luc Dubois and winger Cam Atkinson . Team veterans including captain Nick Foligno, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson all will have to step it up to compensate for the loss of Panarin’s team-leading 87 points a season ago.

No worries about the blue line, though.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones continue to make up one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, and there is some good depth behind them.

Joonas Korpisalo will be given a chance to be the everyday goalie after the free-agent departure of Vezina Trophy-winning stopper Sergei Bobrovsky, who is now with Florida. Rookie Elvis Merlikins also will see time in the net.

Last season was filled with drama surrounding the pending departures of Panarin and Bobrovsky. Tortorella said none of that is hanging in the air anymore.

”I think as the season begins here and all the questions start coming our way, I think there’s an inner camaraderie about the definition of guys wanting to be here,” he said. ”I think that’s really important, to have a team that’s going to try to be competitive in this league and stay competitive, is people wanting to be here. We have that. I think they’re rallying around that. This will grow as the season goes on.”

Previewing the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Uhhhhhh worse. Look, can the Blue Jackets surprise some people this year? Absolutely. It’s just tough to argue that they’re a better team today than they were at the end of last season. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingle and Sergei Bobrovsky are all gone, but there’s still some talent on this roster. How good can they be? We’ll find out early on in the season, but counting them out from get-go might be a silly proposition. John Tortorella is a good head coach, but he’ll have to do the best coaching job of his career if the Jackets are going to make a trip back to the postseason.

Strengths: Not many teams can say that they have a one-two punch like Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. They’re both two of the best defenders in the league and they should continue to be key contributors for the Jackets in 2019-20. They also have solid depth contributors like David Savard and Ryan Murray.

Despite losing some big names up front, Columbus is still pretty deep up front. Cam Atkinson, Gustav Nyquist, Alex Wennberg, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois and a few others. Losing Panarin will hurt the offense, but it also gives a lot of these young veterans an opportunity to take the next step in their careers.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Weaknesses: There’s no denying that the Blue Jackets are unproven between the pipes. Losing a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in free agency will do that to a team. It looks like Columbus will head into the season with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Korpisalo had a 10-7-3 record with a 2.95 goals-against-average and a .897 save percentage in 27 games last year. The issue with Korpisalo is that he’s never played in more than 31 games at the NHL level. As for Merzlikins, he’s been in the Swiss League for the last six years. He’s totally unproven as an NHL goaltender. So it’s tough to get a read on what he can bring to the team.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 6. The Blue Jackets stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were the talk of the NHL for a couple of weeks in the spring before eventually falling to the Boston Bruins in the second round. Even though they’ve lost key free agents, the expectations internally will be high for this group. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has spent the off-season telling people that the team isn’t going to be as bad as they think. If Tortorella can’t get the most out of this group, his job could be in jeopardy.

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see what Wennberg, Dubois and Korpisalo can do to help the Blue Jackets this season. Wennberg posted a 59-point season back in 2016-17, but he’s gone cold over the last two seasons, as he’s scored 35 and 25 points during that stretch. Can he finally get his career back on track offensively?

Dubois has taken a step forward in each of his first two seasons in the NHL. During his rookie year, he posted a 20 goals and 48 points in 82 contests. Last season, he followed that up by scoring 27 goals and 61 points in 82 games. Now, can he top those numbers? That would be huge for this team in transition.

As we mentioned earlier, Korpisalo could go into the season as the number one goalie on an NHL team, which is something he’s never had the privilege of doing. Can he be a solid starter? That remains to be seen. He could be the key to them making it back to the playoffs.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Jackets might be better than most people anticipate, but it might be difficult for them to sneak into a Wild Card spot with the other teams in the East improving significantly. Even with Panarin, Bobrovsky and Duchene, the Jackets only clinched a playoff spot on the second-to-last night of the season. Without those three, they will have their work cut out for them.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s Columbus Blue Jackets Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

2018-19
47-31-4, 98 points (5th in the Metropolitan Division, 8th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in six games to the Boston Bruins in Round 2

IN
Gustav Nyquist

OUT
Sergei Bobrovsky
Matt Duchene
Artemi Panarin
Ryan Dzingel
Keith Kinkaid
Mark Letestu
Adam McQuaid

RE-SIGNED 
Markus Hannikainen
Joonas Korpisalo
Ryan Murray
Scott Harrington
Sonny Milano
Adam Clendenning

2018-19 Season Review

Well, you can’t say it was an uneventful year in Columbus. The Blue Jackets were a playoff team for most of the year, but they definitely started to struggle early in the second half of the regular season. In January, the Jackets dropped their final four games and they followed that up by losing their first contest in February. They managed to go on a four-game winning streak in February and they managed to go a respectable 8-5 that month.

It was a bit of an awkward time for the organization. They were talented enough to be a playoff team but they had a few key pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Could they afford to lose them for nothing? Many speculated that both players wouldn’t be with Columbus beyond the trade deadline. Not only did they stay but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen also added to his core group of players.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Kekalainen felt like this was the time to go all-in. He traded for Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. This sent a strong message to the players, fans and the entire NHL. The Blue Jackets weren’t just going to watch the parade go by while their top two players became free agents. It was a bold strategy, especially because there was always a chance that they could play the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the end, the Blue Jackets ended up finishing in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and they only clinched it on the second-to-last day of the regular season. Kekalainen’s team was a nice story, but no one expected them to go head-to-head with the Lightning and come out victorious.

In Game 1, the Bolts jumped out to a 3-0 lead and most people in the hockey world were starting to type up their obituaries for the Jackets. But Columbus stuck with it and they ended up coming back to win the first game of the series. The rest must have been a blur for the Lightning, as they get swept by the Blue Jackets in the opening round.

With Tampa out of the way, who was going to stop Columbus?

Unfortunately for them, they ran into a red-hot Bruins team that they pushed but were unable to beat. They dropped the series in six games, and just like that their season was over.

It’s hard to blame Kekalainen for going all-in. After all, the organization had never won a playoff series before. So on one hand, he was able to deliver a series win and one of the biggest surprises in postseason history. On the other hand, the additions he made at the deadline only got his team to the second round.

Duchene, Bobrovsky and Panarin all ended up walking in free agency, so the team isn’t as strong as it was last season. They still have Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, but no one can argue that they’re a better team than they were one season ago.

There are plenty of question marks surrounding this team, but this group will be able to prove all their doubters wrong all over again in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Playoff Buzzer: Rask dominates for Bruins; MacKinnon keeps scoring for Avs

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  • The goalies were the stars for Boston and Colorado as they helped their teams tie their Round 2 series’.
  • Boston’s top-line comes through in a big way against Columbus.
  • Nathan MacKinnon is unstoppable right now offensively. 

Boston Bruins 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1 (Series Tied 2-2)

It was the Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask show for the Bruins as they tied their Round 2 series with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Bergeron scored two goals while Rask stopped 39 shots in the 4-1 win. David Pastrnak and Sean Kuraly also scored goals for the Bruins in what was their most complete game of the series so far.

Colorado Avalanche 3, San Jose Sharks 0 (Series Tied 2-2)

The Avalanche are not going away. After stunning the No. 1 seed Calgary Flames in Round 1, the Avalanche now find themselves tied with the second-best regular season team in the Western Conference four games into their Round 2 series. Philipp Grubauer shined for the Avalanche on Thursday while Nathan MacKinnon continued to play like the superstar that he is, making a noticeable impact every single time he was on the ice.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins. On a night where all of the Bruins’ best players came through, Rask was the best of them all. He stopped 39 out of 40 shots including a penalty shot and a handful of shorthanded opportunities for the Blue Jackets. He was the difference in the game and bailed his teammates out on more than one occasion. He would have had a shutout had it not been for a missed call on a puck into the spectator netting.

2. Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche. Grubauer has been great for the Avalanche the entire postseason and played his best game yet on Thursday night, stopping all 32 shots he faced to record his first ever postseason shutout. He is now up to a .929 save percentage for the playoffs and has been a huge part of the Avalanche’s surprising run.

3. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins. The Bruins needed their best players to shine in Game 4, and they all did. Bergeron came through in a big way with a pair of goals, both on the power play, to help spark the team’s offense. Bruce Cassidy reunited his top line of Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak at the start and they quickly made an impact with two goals in the first seven minutes.

Highlights of the Night

Rask’s biggest save of the night came early in the first period when he turned aside Boone Jenner on a penalty shot.

Nathan MacKinnon just keeps on producing, extending his point streak and scoring his sixth goal of the playoffs to break a scoreless tie in the second period.

It has been a tough stretch for Pastrnak, but he helped get the Bruins rolling on Thursday night with a big goal for both him and the team.

Factoids

  • Grubauer is the first German-born goalie in NHL history to record a shutout in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the second of German nationality to do so (Olaf Kolzig is the first). [NHL PR]
  • MacKinnon’s point streak has now reached eight postseason games, tying him for the third-longest streak in Avalanche history. [NHL PR]
  • Ohio native Sean Kuraly scored against his hometown team on Thursday night when he gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead midway through the third period. [NHL PR]

Friday’s schedule

Game 4: New York Islanders at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (CAR Leads 3-0) (Live Stream)
Game 5: Dallas Stars at St. Louis Blues, 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series Tied 2-2) (Live Stream)

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.

Bruins win wild Game 4, even series with Blue Jackets

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The Boston Bruins needed their best players to shine in Game 4 on Thursday night, and they did exactly that.

Because of that performance the Bruins were able to even their Round 2 series with the Columbus Blue Jackets at two games apiece thanks to a 4-1 win that was, at times, pretty chaotic.

Let’s take a quick look at everything that unfolded at Nationwide Arena.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

We need to start with the Bruins’ top line as it was finally able to get going after a quiet start to the series. The Bruins reunited the line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak for this game and that trio combined for three of their four goals. Pastrnak got things started just 3:33 into the game to give the Bruins the lead, which was followed by Bergeron adding a power play goal just five minutes later to extend the lead. Bergeron would score another power play goal late in the third period to put the game away.

While the stars at the top were doing their job to jumpstart the offense, starting goalie Tuukka Rask was absolutely spectacular in net stopping 39 of the 40 shots he faced on the night.

That includes a Boone Jenner penalty shot just six minutes into the game that could have tied the score at one with the Bruins on the power play.

It would not be be the only shorthanded opportunity Rask would have to stop on the night as the Bruins gave up chances all night on the man-advantage for much of the night (at least five of them, almost all of which were by Jenner).

Had it not been for the play of Rask this game could have easily gone in a different direction, or at least been a lot closer on the scoreboard at the end.

The only goal he allowed was a controversial one that was the result of Artemi Panarin scoring after the puck hit the protective netting behind the Bruins goal, which was missed by all four on-ice officials.

Along with the emergence of the Bruins’ top line, a penalty shot, countless shorthanded chances, and a controversial goal, there was also another controversial hit in the series as Columbus’ Dean Kukan was given a two-minute minor for this hit to the head of Bruins forward David Backes.

Backes was down for a few moments and exited the game for a while before ultimately returning. It is a play the NHL’s Department of Player Safety will almost certainly look at, but given the standard that has been established this postseason it may not be enough to reach the level of supplemental discipline.

It was an eventful night in what has been a ridiculously close series through the first four games. Now it all comes down to which team can win two of the next three for a chance to go to the Eastern Conference Final.

Game 5 of Bruins-Blue Jackets is Saturday at 7:15 ET on NBC.

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.