Elvis Merzlikins

Getty Images

New-look Blue Jackets figuring out what they have

3 Comments

Given all of the talent that walked away from the Columbus Blue Jackets this summer it was pretty obvious they were going to have a very different look this season.

Not only on paper, but also in the way they play on the ice.

They lost a franchise goalie with two Vezina Trophies to his name (Sergei Bobrovsky) and replaced him with two relative unknowns (Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins). They lost their biggest superstar (Artemi Panarin) and a couple of trade deadline acquisitions (Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel) that were supposed to help make them contenders.

That is a lot of talent to replace, especially in net. Because of that, and because of the uncertainty around their two goalies, they were going to have to adjust the way they played and take a more patient, conservative approach. The old “safe is death” mindset John Tortorella’s teams used to employ was never going to work with this roster. They not only do not have the skill to trade chances with other contenders, but they also don’t yet know if they have the goalies to help cover up for chances coming back the other way.

Safe is probably the only way for this team to play.

Through the first two games of the season (a 4-1 loss to Toronto and then an ugly 7-2 loss in Pittsburgh) they are still trying to figure out how they have to play and what they have to do to win.

Patience was the big word used after Saturday’s loss in Pittsburgh.

“We had a lot of good minutes in there,” captain Nick Foligno said after Saturday’s game. “I know it’s weird to say that, but we did some good things. It’s just the patience, it’s the understanding of how we need to play and being okay with a 1-0 game or a 0-0 game for 59 minutes if it has to be that, and sticking with that. We are almost over-anxious and our patience is getting away from us right now and it is costing us. We are doing so many good things throughout the game that are being negated by poor decisions because we don’t want to do the necessary thing in that moment. Sometimes it’s not the prettiest thing, but it’s the necessary thing.”

“I think it gives us an opportunity to teach a little bit here,” said coach John Tortorella, echoing Foligno’s thoughts that were still some positives mixed in with the early struggles.

“I thought our first 25-35 minutes or so were pretty good. I thought we were fast, I thought we were right there. They end up scoring a few goals and we end up losing our composure as far as how we have to play. So for me it just gives us a great opportunity to start teaching what the patience of our game needs to be.”

In recent years the Blue Jackets had Bobrovsky to mask a lot of flaws on the back end and serve as the last line of defense. A franchise goalie can change a lot for a team and allow the team in front of them to maybe take more chances and play a bit more aggressively. They no longer have that proven safety net behind them. Korpisalo has been a backup his entire career with varying degrees of success, while Merzlikins is getting his first taste of NHL action. Saturday’s game was his NHL debut and went about as poorly as it could have gone.

“I think it’s going to help him in the long run,” said Tortorella. “I thought he looked really calm in the first period, just the way he handled the puck the outside the net, stopped some wraparounds, broke us out. I thought he was right there. But it’s an unforgiving league. It’s a good lesson for him, and we knew there were going to be lessons like this for us. The most important thing now is how we handle it. It’s an opportunity for us right away at the beginning of this year to teach about patience, to teach about how we have to play. Hopefully we go about it the right way.”

They get a chance to start doing that on Monday against a white-hot Buffalo Sabres team.

It has been a frustrating start for sure. They had a tough draw out of the gate getting two of the most dangerous offensive teams in the league as their new goalies get settled, while the team in front of them hasn’t exactly adapted in trying to protect them. But there is still enough talent on the roster to get it figured out.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: First look at 2019-20 season

1 Comment

We kick off our 2019-20 PHT Power Rankings with a look at where every team in the league standings as the season begins this week.

What are expecting?

Do not give up on the Lightning, believe in the Avalanche, and be very, very, very worried about the defense in Winnipeg.

Where does your team stand as the season begins?

To the rankings!

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They embarrassed themselves in the playoffs and this core has a record of falling short when the chips are on the table. But the same things were said about the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues for years. They got over the hump. This team can, too. Still the best roster in the league on paper.

2. St. Louis Blues. Adding Justin Faulk to a Stanley Cup winning team is a nice way to end the offseason. Big question is if Jordan Binnington can come close to matching his 2018-19 performance over a full season.

3. Boston Bruins. This team is still loaded. David Pastrnak should be considered a real sleeper to win the goal-scoring crown.

4. Washington Capitals. Feels like the Capitals are kind of sneaking under the radar as a championship contender this season. The core is still in place and they are still great.

5. Colorado Avalanche. Buying all in on the hype. They needed to address their forward depth and they did that and more with Nazem Kadri, Joonas Donskoi, and Andre Burakovsky joining the roster. Their young defense is almost as exciting as their forwards.

6. San Jose Sharks. Even after losing Joe Pavelski and Donskoi they still have a great group of forwards and the best defense in the league. There is also no way that Martin Jones can be as bad as he was a year ago. Right? Right?!

7. Toronto Maple Leafs. It is a broken record at this point, but with all of that talent they can no longer tolerate third place finishes and Round 1 exits. At some point, Mike Babcock and Co. have to do something.

8. Vegas Golden Knights. A full year of Mark Stone, one of the league’s best all-around players, is going to be a game-changer.

9. Carolina Hurricanes. Their playoff run was no fluke. All of the focus is on the defense, but their forwards are excellent as well. Andrei Svechnikov looks like he is on the verge of a breakout season.

10. Calgary Flames. This feels low for the team that finished with the top record in the West a year ago, but a lot of things went right for them and I just don’t know how much I trust a full season of Cam Talbot and David Rittich in net.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

11. Nashville Predators. Can Matt Duchene help fix what was a truly depressing power play unit? That unit was the biggest thing holding this team back.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. A true wild card team that seems like it could be a Stanley Cup contender or miss the playoffs entirely. A lot will depend on Evgeni Malkin bouncing back, Matt Murray staying healthy, and figuring out a capable defense after their top pairing.

13. Dallas Stars. They have elite talent at all three levels (forward, defense, goalie) and Pavelski gives them a much-needed secondary scoring threat for their second line. Still some depth concerns, but this team was a double overtime goal away in Game 7 from reaching the Western Conference Final.

14. Florida Panthers. They addressed their biggest need with the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky, and while his contract will probably be a disaster before it ends, he is good enough in the short-term to help get them back in the playoffs, something they desperately need to do for their fans.

15. New York Islanders. Can Semyon Varlamov do what Robin Lehner did a year ago? If he can’t that is going to leave a big hole that will be difficult to overcome.

16. Columbus Blue Jackets. As long as one of Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins can be passable in net I am not sure the regression is going to be as significant as some think this season. They still have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot.

17. Chicago Blackhawks. They should be able to score, but forward depth is a concern and the defense, even after offseason changes, has big questions. An Olli MaattaBrent Seabrook defense pairing might be the league’s slowest.

18. Minnesota Wild. If everything goes right there is a path back to the playoffs this season. The return of a healthy Matt Dumba and Mikko Koivu would be a good start.

19. New York Rangers. Definitely a better team and what should be an entertaining one with the additions of Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, but lack of depth down the middle and on defense will be their undoing.

20. New Jersey Devils. If Cory Schneider does not rebound in a big way it could undo what was a wildly successful summer.

21. Arizona Coyotes. Phil Kessel gives them the type of game-breaking offensive talent they have been lacking for more than a decade. Is that enough to get them back in the playoffs?

22. Philadelphia Flyers. Enough good players to be an interesting team and just enough question marks to not fully buy into them.

23. Montreal Canadiens. They were just a couple points shy of a playoff spot, but a lot of teams around them managed to get better while the Canadiens mostly stood pat.

24. Winnipeg Jets. The forwards are great, especially now that Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine are signed, but the state of that defense, especially without Dustin Byfuglien at the moment, is some real nightmare fuel for Winnipeg.

25. Buffalo Sabres. They have two franchise players and made some nice offseason upgrades, but there is a huge gap between them and the top-three teams (and probably top-four, if you include Florida) in their division.

26. Anaheim Ducks. Probably one of the best goalie duos in the league and some intriguing young forwards will get a chance to excel, but still too many holes.

27. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, and Quinn Hughes offer long-term hope. The rest of the roster does not.

28. Edmonton Oilers. It looks like they are on the verge of wasting another prime season of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, which is still difficult to comprehend.

29. Detroit Red Wings. Steve Yzerman is going to need some time to get this thing back on track.

30. Los Angeles Kings. Even if Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick bounce back there just isn’t enough talent around them to matter.

31. Ottawa Senators. Anything other than the worst record in the league would be an accomplishment.

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 can be much better people think

Getty
2 Comments

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

1 Comment
(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.

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

3 Comments

Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.