Cam Atkinson

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The Buzzer: Samsonov shines in Capitals’ debut; Konecny’s big day

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Three Stars

1. Travis Konecny, Philadelphia Flyers. After signing a new six-year contract a couple of weeks ago, Konecny was able to get off to a great start for the season when he scored a pair of goals in the Flyers’ 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. He opened the scoring early in the first period then added a highlight reel backhander (see below) later in the game to pad the Flyers’ lead. He has scored 24 goals in back-to-back seasons and they are expecting even bigger things from him this season.

2. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. It was a big night for the Capitals’ rookie goalie as he made his NHL debut and stopped 25 of thee 26 shots he faced in a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders. With Braden Holtby‘s contract situation unsettled beyond this season it is entirely possible that this is the first of many wins for the rookie netminder. He made a couple of highlight reel saves in the win, while the only goal he allowed was a complete fluke of a play.

3. Neal Pionk, Winnipeg Jets. The Jets’ defense is a big point of concern this season and if that unit is going to make a positive impact they are going to need Pionk to have a big season. He had a huge game on Friday with two points, including the game-tying goal in the third period to help complete the Jets’ late rally as they spoiled Jack Hughes‘ NHL debut.

Highlights of the Night

There were a couple of incredible goals on Friday, starting with Travis Konecny’s highlight reel goal against the Blackhawks.

Auston Matthews continued his fast start to the season with this absolute rocket of a shot in the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The goal of the night, however, belonged to Devils forward Blake Coleman, scoring his second goal of the game on a completely ridiculous one-handed shot.

Blooper of the Night

The only goal Samsonov surrendered on Friday night was this wild mess of a play that saw the puck bounce off multiple Capitals’ player skates. This goes in the books as a goal for Islanders defender Devon Toews, but he needed a lot of help.

Factoids

  • Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury became the 16th goalie to appear in 800 regular season NHL games. [NHL PR]
  • Friday night was just the second time Jets franchise has overcome a 4-0 deficit to win. [NHL PR]
  • It came in a losing effort, but Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson scored in his sixth consecutive season opening game. [NHL PR]
  • The Golden Knights became just the 14th team in NHL history to record a shorthanded goal in each of their first two games of a season. They scored two shorthanded goals in their rout of the Sharks. Tomas Nosek scored two goals in the win, including one of the shorthanded tallies.  [NHL PR]
  • New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz told Al Arbour for third on the NHL’s all-time games coached list. [NHL PR]

Scores

Philadelphia Flyers 4, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Washington Capitals 2, New York Islanders 1

Winnipeg Jets 5, New Jersey Devils 4 (SO)

Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Columbus Blue Jackets 1

Vegas Golden Knights 5, San Jose Sharks 1

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.

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.”

Roundtable: Breakout players, bold predictions for 2019-20

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. The NHL Faceoff doubleheader on NBCSN continues at 10:30 p.m. ET when the San Jose Sharks visit the Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10:30p.m. ET.

What one playoff team from 2019 will not be back in 2020 and why?

SEAN: They’re division got a bit more competitive over the summer, and I don’t feel like the New York Islanders kept up. A lot, however, can change depending on how some of their kids like Noah Dobson, Simon Holmstrom, and Oliver Wahlstrom can find regular roles in the lineup at some point this season. Is Semyon Varlamov even a lateral move from Robin Lehner? Likely not. They found their way last season with great defense and goaltending, even if their offense was in the lower tier of the NHL. That area wasn’t addressed in the offseason, hoping the improvements can come from within.

JAMES: While I agree with Adam that the Blue Jackets are likely to be better than the grimmest expectations, I also believe that they’re a pretty average team once you take Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky (heck, even Ryan Dzingel) out of the picture. For every moment that John Tortorella seems sneaky-shrewd, there’s another moment where it feels like he holds his teams back.

That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if both the Blue Jackets and Islanders (two teams I pick to miss after making it in 2018-19) end up making it after all.

JOEY: I’m guessing most people will say Columbus, so I’ll go with a hot take. I think the St. Louis Blues will miss the playoffs. Yes, they’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions, but the long playoff run will take a lot out of them. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan Binnington take a step back this year. He’ll get a full workload and that’s not easy to deal with right away. The Blues will miss the postseason. You heard it here first.

ADAM: The Blue Jackets and Islanders are the obvious picks, and I could easily see one (or both) missing. But I am going to go with the Winnipeg Jets. I just see this as being a potentially brutal season for them, mainly due to the state of the defense. It is bad, and it is only going to get worse if Dustin Byfuglien really does walk away from the NHL. This looked like a team trending in the wrong direction a year ago, and I see an even bigger slide this season.

Who is a player ready to breakout this season?

SEAN: It may be a year of stepping back for the Blue Jackets, but Alexandre Texier will give them reason to smile more often than not this season. The 20-year-old forward from France has seen time this preseason with Cam Atkinson and Pierre-Luc Dubois and already has big-game NHL experience. He scored twice in Game 4 to help complete the sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in April. He might even play his way into the Calder Trophy conversation.

JAMES: I’ve been on the Andrei Svechnikov bandwagon for quite some time, arguing that he deserved more reps and ice time as far back as December, so I might as well not play coy about the sniper’s chances of even bigger things as a sophomore. Maybe Rod Brind’Amour will unleash him a bit since he’s no longer a rookie?

If that isn’t bold enough, consider Andre Burakovsky, who should have new life — and maybe better opportunities — now that he’s with the Avalanche.
JOEY: Nico Hischier has put up some solid numbers in his first two NHL seasons (52 points in 82 games and 47 points in 69 games), but he’ll erupt offensively this year. He’s expected to skate on a line with Taylor Hall, which means they’ll be the offensive catalysts on an improved Devils team. It wouldn’t surprise me too Hischier put up over 80 points in 2019-20.

ADAM: Cale Makar made the jump from the NCAA to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and not only did not look out of place, he looked like he completely belonged. The Avalanche are going to relying on him and Sam Girard quite a bit this season and I think Makar is going to be an immediate star on that team. Maybe even a rookie of the year kind of season.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

Give us one bold prediction for this season.

SEAN: The Corey Perry move pays off in Dallas and the 34-year-old recovers from his broken foot and nets 20 goals for the first time since the 2015-16 season.

JAMES: We will soon look at Brendan Gallagher in the same way that we look at Brad Marchand: a pesty, smaller player who we thought was good, but it turns out he’s even better than we realized. Gallagher creates havoc for opponents, and I think there’s room for him to climb a rung or two on the imaginary ladder of NHL forwards.

JOEY: Bolder than the Blues missing the playoffs? Alright! I’m gonna say that the Boston Bruins will not finish in one of the top three spots in the Atlantic Division. They won’t miss the playoffs, but they’ll be a Wild Card team. They’re coming into the regular season a little banged up and their core is also getting older. I expect the Florida Panthers or Montreal Canadiens to grab the third spot in the division behind Tampa Bay and Toronto.

ADAM: Your NHL goal-scoring leader: David Pastrnak. Yes, someone finally takes over for Alex Ovechkin at the top of the league, and no it is not going to be Steven Stamkos, or Auston Matthews, or John Tavares, or Patrik Laine. David Pastrnak is the choice here.

MORE:
Which 2019 NHL playoff teams are in danger of missing this season?
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews

Blue Jackets can be much better people think

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The 2019-20 NHL regular season has not even started and already the Columbus Blue Jackets are being almost completely written off.

This is a development they are very well aware of, and one they are not responding kindly to.

Coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about it. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen thinks it’s a slap in the face to the core of the team. Cam Atkinson is ready to prove everybody wrong.

The doubters are not without their reasons, and for much of the offseason I was right there with them. How could you not be?

The Blue Jackets were the last team to get in the Eastern Conference playoff field last spring and were hit harder by free agency than any other team in the league, losing franchise players Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, as well as trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. That is a ton of talent and production to walk out the door, and with Gustav Nyquist (a very good player!) being the only significant outside addition to the team, it’s easy to have lowered expectations.

But Kekalainen made a fairly strong point in support of his core earlier this month when he said this to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline:

“I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said, “because it shows disrespect to our core group that’s brought us all the success we’ve had in the last three years.

“(Three) teams have more regular-season wins than we do (142) in the last three years, and we had 108 points the season before (Artemi) Panarin arrived here. I’m a little bit upset about all that, and I’m getting fed up talking about it.”

Obviously a general manager is going to go to bat for their team and believe in the roster at the start of the season. But he’s also not wrong here. Only Tampa, Washington, and Boston have more regular season wins than the Blue Jackets since start of the 2016-17 season, and only two of the players that left this offseason (Panarin and Bobrovsky) played a significant role in compiling that record. Out of those two, one of them (Panarin) was not even there in the year they won the most games and compiled the most points during that stretch.

But let’s focus on replacing those two since they are the most important.

The wrench in all of this is that Bobrovsky was there for all three seasons and was probably the most important part of that success, especially during the 2016-17 season (the pre-Panarin year) when he won his second Vezina Trophy. That is a difficult thing to replace, and the Blue Jackets are going to open the year relying on two completely unproven starters in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Obviously their success or failure as NHL goalies will play a massive role in what the Blue Jackets can do this season. But I’m not ready to totally eliminate the possibility of Merzlikins being good.

The thing is, they don’t need to totally replace Bobrovsky for the Blue Jackets to have a chance. They just need to be decent. The Blue Jackets were one of the better defensive teams in the league last season and were among the top-seven in suppressing shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play (via Natural Stat Trick). Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are an elite defense pairing, and when paired together can help lock down a significant chunk of every game.

That will help any goalie. As long as the Blue Jackets can maintain that defensively they won’t need a superhero in net.

And while the departure of Panarin, and to a lesser extent Duchene, leaves a big hole at forward the cupboard is not completely bare. Nyquist won’t replace Panarin’s offense or game-breaking ability, but he is a legitimate top-six forward. Atkinson has been a top-10 goal-scorer for about four years, and they have an exciting prospect in Alexandre Texier ready to make the jump to the NHL.

Then there is third-year center Pierre-Luc Dubois, an already dominant two-way player that seems to be on the verge of a breakout season (read about that here).

It’s not that Blue Jackets won’t miss the players that are leaving — they obviously will — but they still have enough high-end talent (and capable depth) that the season isn’t going to be a lost cause before it even begins. A lot will depend on the goalies, but they have enough around them to support them and keep them competitive.

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.

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.