Elvis Merzlikins

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.

Columbus Blue Jackets: This season’s biggest surprises and disappointments

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 surprises and disappointments for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Elvis enters the building as goaltending surprises for Blue Jackets

If any position in sports challenged the saying “You get what you pay for,” it would be NHL goaltending.

The Blue Jackets haven’t just watched Sergei Bobrovsky fall short of his $10M asking price with Florida already. They’ve also seen their $2M tandem of 25-year-olds (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins) provide some of the best goaltending since John Tortorella took over as Blue Jackets head coach.

If forced to guess, people might postulate that Korpisalo would drive that bus. While his development’s been bumpy since Columbus took measures to keep him during the expansion draft, Korpisalo at least had NHL experience. As much as people loved the idea of putting on blue suede shoes and making bad Elvis jokes, could the Blue Jackets expect Merzlikins to convert nice Swiss league numbers to acceptable backup work?

Nope. Instead, Korpisalo has been solid but unspectacular, when he hasn’t been hurt. Meanwhile, Merzlikins has been a smash hit.

Speaking of surprises and prices, there could be more up ahead. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are pending RFAs. What’s even a fair contract for Merzlikins, especially if the NHL doesn’t resume action until 2020-21?

Torts walks the walk

For some time, the feeling was: whether John Tortorella is actually a good coach or not, he at least provides entertaining press conferences. When the Torts rage boils over, snarky folks are the biggest winners.

Tortorella’s backers must feel vindicated, as the Blue Jackets sit in the playoff bubble even after the team lost Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin — along with facing wave after wave of injuries.

Much like Barry Trotz nurturing strong numbers for Islanders goalies, there’s a chicken-and-the-egg situation in Columbus. Merzlikins deserves credit for his strong .925 save percentage this season, but surely Torts helped make life easier for Elvis.

Take a look at Hockey Viz’s coaching impacts and you’ll see that Tortorella seems to be getting more and more effective during his time as Blue Jackets head coach:

Pretty impressive stuff from Tortorella.

Numerous health-related disappointments for Blue Jackets

Chalk up the Blue Jackets’ crushing run of injuries to bad luck … I think.

There is one thought: maybe certain style choices increase the risks of injuries. Tortorella’s teams are notorious for being gritty, and most obviously blocking shots. Could that make his players more susceptible to injuries? Maybe such issues wouldn’t just crop up because of single seasons, but rather multiple years of playing that way?

Overall, I’d still say it’s mostly bad luck.

The Blue Jackets should definitely be careful though, particularly if the NHL opts to squeeze in some portion of the rest of 2019-20 while holding a full 82-game campaign in 2020-21.

Offensive disappointments for Blue Jackets

Look, any reasonable person expected Columbus to have a tougher time scoring goals without Artemi Panarin (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Duchene). Even so, when Pierre-Luc Dubois is your leading scorer at 49 points through 70 games, it’s dishonest not to put offense on the list of disappointments.

This is likely the more reasonable knock on Tortorella’s ultimately-worth-it focus on defense than injury concerns. Certain Blue Jackets would likely put up bigger numbers in a more open system; it just likely wouldn’t be the wisest strategy overall.

There are disappointments within those disappointments for the Blue Jackets:

  • To some extent, it’s a bummer that Sonny Milano never quite found his place. Not surprising, but a bummer, as there’s talent there.
  • Alexander Wennberg didn’t rebound to his most promising form. Instead, he sits at a middling 22 points in 57 games, including just five goals.
  • Josh Anderson suffered through a disastrous 2019-20 season. Along with injuries, Anderson enjoyed almost zero puck luck, scoring a single goal on just a 1.6 shooting percentage (four points in 26 games overall). That hurts after Anderson scored a career-high 27 goals and 47 points in 2018-19, and fell just short of 20 goals in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

My guess is that Anderson can still contribute as a power forward once he gets healthy. Those numbers almost certainly were affected by injury issues to some extent, too. Even so … ouch.

***

Overall, the surprises are more pleasant than the disappointments ended up being painful for the Blue Jackets. It’s truly remarkable that they’re in almost the same spot in 2019-20 as they were in 2018-19.

What should we expect if there’s more for 2019-20, and then in 2020-21, though?

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS:

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

Record: 33-22-15 (81 points in 70 games played); fifth in the Metro, second East wild card
Leading Scorer: Pierre-Luc Dubois, 49 points (18 goals, 31 assists)

In-season Roster Moves:

  • Traded Sonny Milano to the Anaheim Ducks for Devin Shore.
  • Sent Markus Hannikainen to the Arizona Coyotes for a conditional seventh-rounder.

Season Overview: 

In 2018-19, the Blue Jackets finished the season in the second wild-card spot, right behind the Hurricanes. In 2019-20 … the Blue Jackets went into the COVID-19 halt in the second wild-card spot, right behind the Hurricanes.

Now, sure, it’s not the exact same situation. In this year’s case, the Islanders would take that spot if you went by points percentage, as they’re only a point behind the Blue Jackets (80 to Columbus’ 81) while the Islanders hold two games in hand (68 to Columbus’ 70 GP).

Yet,  how many people would have expected the Blue Jackets to manage this feat? Columbus didn’t just lose Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky to free agency. The Blue Jackets also lost a ton of players to injuries, often significant ones, from Seth Jones to Cam Atkinson to Joonas Korpisalo.

Like him or not, this season’s been a testament to John Tortorella’s coaching abilities. While the Blue Jackets aren’t winning every possession battle (especially regarding high-danger chances), they’re not cratering in the same way Winnipeg has after painful personnel purges.

All things considered, it’s impressive that the Blue Jackets fall in the middle of the pack by various metrics, including this “Reality vs. Expectation” chart from Charting Hockey (which uses Evolving Hockey’s data).

2019-20 Blue Jackets Charting Hockey Evolving Hockey

For Torts’ structure to bend-but-not-break, Columbus did need strong goaltending, though. Elvis Merzlikins delivered (13-9-8, .925 save percentage) even more than Korpisalo did (19-12-5, .911 save percentage) to help hold everything together.

We’ll see if the Blue Jackets get the chance to prove that they could hold onto their current spot. Either way, Tortorella and the Blue Jackets already proved a lot in 2019-20.

Highlight of the 2019-20 Season for Blue Jackets: 

The Blue Jackets didn’t only win six in a row during some of Elvis’ hottest days in the building. They also pulled off a 10-game point streak from Jan. 11 to Feb. 7 (9-0-1). Stretching back further, they went 11-1-1 in 13 games (Jan. 6 to Feb. 7) and 13-2-1 in 16 (Dec. 31 to Feb. 7).

Yes, they plummeted into the pause (3-6-6 from Feb. 8 to March. 8), but that previous tear was really something.

If you need something more of the highlight reel variety, recall Sonny Milano’s between-the-legs goal, a nice memory Milano created before he was traded:

And, hey, if you need some righteous Tortorella rage at refs, there was some of that this season, too.

MORE ON THE BLUE JACKETS

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Most intimidating players; Goalie debates

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• We’ll never find out how the unnamed Senators player contracted COVID-19. (Sportsnet)

• Here’s five things NHL fans can do during the COVID-19 crisis. (Featurd)

• It’s time for the Bruins to say something about paying their hourly employees. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Should the Vancouver Giants and Canucks share Rogers Arena? (Vancouver is Awesome)

• Cornell had a real chance to win both the Men’s and Women’s National Titles this year. (ESPN)

• Check out this virtual tour of Seattle’s Arena. (Seattle Times)

• PHT’s Adam Gretz shares his list of the most intimidating players on every team. (Yard Barker)

• How has Preds GM David Poile with trades this season? Here’s Part 1 of a series. (A to Z Sports Nashville)

Matt Murray of Tristan Jarry. Which one should the Penguins roll with going forward? (Pittsburgh Hockey Now)

Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo. Which one should the Blue Jackets roll with going forward? (1st Ohio Battery)

• Jesse Puljujarvi’s Finnish coach believes his player would be better off with another year in Finland. (Edmonton Journal)

• Signing Ryan Strome to a long-term contract may be costly for the Rangers. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• Here’s a look at the best value contracts on the Flames roster in 2020. (Flames Nation)

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Blue Jackets’ depth being tested down the stretch

Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2019-20 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The expectations around the Columbus Blue Jackets heading into this season weren’t too high. After all, they had lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel in free agency. But thanks to their team depth and the emergence of certain young players, they’ve found a way to put themselves in the mix for a playoff spot.

Heading into tonight’s game against the Calgary Flames, the Jackets find themselves in the final Wild Card spot, with 78 points. The Carolina Hurricanes are three points behind them, but they have three games in hand. This should be a tight finish.

The bad news for Columbus, is that they’ve been hit pretty hard by the injury bug this week. Not only did they find out that Josh Anderson, who has been out since mid-December, won’t be returning this year, they also lost Oliver Bjorkstrand for eight-to-10 weeks.

Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins has also missed the last three games due to a concussion. Seth Jones has been sidelined with a right ankle injury and Cam Atkinson is also out with an ankle injury.

They caught a break on Sunday, as they welcomed back Ryan Murray back from a prolonged lower-body injury. He played 20:28 in the victory over the Canucks.

They’re about to hit the road for a three-game road trip through Western Canada.

“Yeah, we have a good trip planned,” head coach John Tortorella said, per The Athletic. “We’re going to take off to go to an area up there to practice. I think it’s a good time for our team to get off and get away … quite honestly and just concentrate on each and every game. We’re looking forward to it.”

IF PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Bruins vs. Blue Jackets
Capitals vs. Islanders
Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
Flyers vs. Penguins

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Blues vs. Jets
Golden Knights vs. Canucks
Avalanche vs. Stars
Oilers vs. Flames

TODAY’S GAME WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS
Flyers at Capitals, 7 p.m. ET (watch live on NBCSN)
Blue Jackets at Flames, 8:30 p.m. ET
Ducks vs. Avalanche, 9:30 p.m. ET (watch live on NBCSN)
Coyotes vs. Canucks, 10:30 p.m. ET

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey-Reference)
Bruins – 100 percent
Lightning – 100 percent
Capitals – 99.9 percent
Flyers – 98.6 percent
Penguins – 96.9 percent
Maple Leafs – 84.6 percent
Islanders – 71.9 percent
Hurricanes 62.9 percent
Blue Jackets – 38.2 percent
Panthers – 23.3 percent
Rangers – 22.4 percent
Canadiens – 1.1 percent
Sabres – 0.2 percent
Senators – 0 percent
Devils – 0 percent
Red Wings – Out

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES
Avalanche – 100 percent
Blues – 100 percent
Stars – 99.6 percent
Oilers – 97 percent
Golden Knights – 96.2 percent
Canucks – 77 percent
Flames – 62.9 percent
Wild – 54.5 percent
Jets – 37 percent
Coyotes – 32.5 percent
Predators – 30.4 percent
Blackhawks 12.7 percent
Sharks – 0.2 percent
Ducks – 0 percent
Kings – 0 percent

THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE
Red Wings – 18.5 percent
Kings – 13.5 percent
Senators – 11. 5 percent
Ducks – 9.5 percent
Senators – 8.5 percent*
Devils – 7.5 percent
Sabres – 6.5 percent
Blackhawks – 6 percent
Canadiens – 5 percent
Devils – 3.5 percent**
Jets – 3 percent
Predators – 2.5 percent
Panthers – 2 percent
Rangers – 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets – 1 percent
(* SJ’s 2020 first-round pick owned by OTT)
(** ARZ’s lottery-protected 2020 first-round pick owned by NJ. If top three, moves to 2021)

ART ROSS RACE
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 108 points
Connor McDavid, Oilers – 95 points
David Pastrnak, Bruins – 92 points
Artemi Panarin, Rangers – 90 points
Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche – 86 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE
David Pastrnak, Bruins – 47 goals
Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs – 46 goals
Alex Ovechkin, Capitals – 45 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Oilers – 43 goals
Sebastian Aho, Hurricanes – 36 goals

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.