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How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

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.

The Buzzer: Elvis, Ovechkin, and others who rocked

Elvis Ovechkin three stars pht buzzer
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Three Stars beyond Elvis and Ovechkin

1. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago blowing out Toronto will lead to some hand-wringing, no doubt. Yet, as much as that was on a tough night for Frederik Andersen, give the Blackhawks some credit. Toews topped all in that game with an outstanding four-point performance (two goals and two assists).

Saturday continued what’s been one heck of a month for Toews. The Blackhawks captained pushed his January total to 15 points (5G, 10A). Toews reached that total in just eight games, scoring at least one point in seven contests.

Scratch that. Toews has been on fire for a while now. He started off ice-cold with only two points in 11 October games. Toews took off after that, and has generated an impressive 41 points in his past 28 contests.

Underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik contributed to Chicago’s win, too, with three points (2G, 1A).

2. Riley Sheahan, Edmonton Oilers

Sheahan scoffs at Toews’ slow start. The journeyman forward failed to score a point in 12 October games, and managed one in 11 November contests. Sheahan went and matched his December points total (four in 14 GP) in one contest on Saturday.

That’s right, he generated four points, scoring an empty-netter plus three assists. Connor McDavid dominated in his own right with two goals, but Sheahan helped the Oilers rout the Coyotes. Josh Archibald generated three points (1G, 2A) as well.

This just in: the Oilers have a lot of “that guy’s still around?” forwards. It’s honestly cool to see some of them have such a strong day, and maybe take a bit of the pressure off McDavid here and there.

3. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

It’s as though Atkinson never missed any time. After scoring a goal and an assist in his first game in almost one month on Thursday, Atkinson generated three points (2G, 1A) on Saturday. This gives Atkinson seven points (4G, 3A) in his past four contests.

Others give Atkinson a run for his money, even beyond the next section. Jason Zucker (1G, 2A) and James van Riemsdyk (1G, 2A) both contributed to their respective teams’ blowouts. Atkinson’s extra goal gives him the edge.

OK, now let’s consider Elvis and Ovechkin

Saturday featured enough strong performances that it feels better to give these two a mention. After all, they already received their own posts. Yes, these two probably rank as the “real” third and fourth stars of Saturday, or higher, depending upon your personal taste.

Highlight of the Night

Marc-Andre Fleury is suffering through a tough season, big-picture wise. “The Flower” keeps adding to his resume of breathtaking saves, though:

Comic relief

Jamie Benn provides us with a reason to laugh. At least those of us who aren’t immediately transported to our own memories of hilarious blunders.

That video summarizes the Stars’ night succinctly, as the Wild beat them 7-0.

Factoids

  • Ovechkin nabbed consecutive hat tricks to push his career goals total to 692. He passed Mario Lemieux (11th all-time, 690) and tied Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time (692). Mark Messier sits just two goals away at eighth with 694. Ovechkin also generated consecutive hat tricks for the third time in his career. In doing so, Ovechkin joined Joe Malone (four times) and Wayne Gretzky (three) as the only players to generate consecutive hat tricks three or more times, according to NHL PR. Again, this post delves deeper into Ovechkin’s latest accomplishments.
  • Ovechkin’s teammate John Carlson reached 60 points. Carlson managed the feat in just 49 games, getting to 60 faster than any Capitals defenseman; Mike Green held the previous mark with 60 by game 57. Opinion: Green deserved better treatment from hockey folks during his peak years.
  • Merzlikins authored the 18th instance of a rookie goalie getting a shutout of at least 41 saves, via NHL PR.
  • Cale Makar scored his 11th goal, setting a new record for goals by a rookie Avalanche defenseman.
  • Dominik Kubalik reached 20 goals in his 47th game. NHL PR points out that Kubalik ranks among sixth Blackhawks to reach 20 goals in 50 games or less.

Scores

WSH 6 – NYI 4
COL 5 – STL 3
EDM 7 – ARI 3
OTT 5 – CGY 2
CHI 6 – TOR 2
MTL 5 – VGK 4 (SO)
FLA 4 – DET 1
PHI 4 – LAK 1
CBJ 5 – NJD 0
NSH 2 – BUF 1
MIN 7 – DAL 0
VAN 4 – SJS 1

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.

Bad news on Hurricanes’ Hamilton: broken bone in leg

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(Update: the Hurricanes announced that Dougie Hamilton underwent leg surgery. The timeline remains unclear, as he’s considered out indefinitely.)

The Carolina Hurricanes and others hoped that Hamilton’s nasty injury looked worse than it was. Unfortunately, the result is pretty bad: Hamilton suffered a broken fibula (broken bone in his left leg) on Thursday.

You can watch and cringe at Hamilton’s bad luck in the video above.

Michael Smith of the Hurricanes website confirmed the broken fibula, stating that Hamilton may undergo surgery as soon as Friday. Smith noted that a recovery timeline might become known later tonight. Either way, it’s clear that this is a huge loss for the Hurricanes.

Hurricanes teammate Jaccob Slavin replaced Hamilton on the 2020 NHL All-Star Game roster.

What Hamilton broken fibula injury might mean to Hurricanes

The Hurricanes face a small margin of error after losing Hamilton and Thursday’s game to the Blue Jackets. Looking at the standings, it’s tough to imagine them wading into the Metro’s top three, while the bubble race could be tight:

Speculating on how long Hamilton might be out is pretty tricky. A commenter in this thread pointed out that Jason Zucker returned from a break in as little as four weeks. On the other hand, Nick Kypreos notes that Hamilton’s Hurricanes teammate Jordan Staal missed half of a season with a similar injury.

Plenty of injuries are tough to figure, and that’s quite true with breaks.

The bottom line is that even an optimistic recovery window would be painful for Carolina. Earlier in January, Adam Gretz broke down why Hamilton ranks as one of the best defensemen in the NHL.

In a nutshell: Hamilton provides explosive offensive (14 goals[!] and 40 points [!!] in 47 games this season) while being better defensively than his critics realize. This Hockey Viz Heat Map tells much of the story:

So, yeah, this hurts a lot for Hurricanes team that could be in quite the battle (most likely) for one of the East’s two wild-card spots. Perhaps it might even push the Hurricanes to try to find some help on the trade market?

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Is Boudreau on the hot seat as wilting Wild face Lightning?

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Even under better circumstances, where coaches aren’t dropping like flies, it would be fair to wonder about Bruce Boudreau.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d rank Boudreau among the very best bench bosses in the NHL. Yet, as we’ve seen with a strong coach like Gerard Gallant and a big name like Mike Babcock, few coaches are immune to this recent bug.

Let’s take a look at Boudreau’s situation, and that of the Wild, as they host the locomotive Lightning on NBCSN tonight.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Boudreau and the Wild suffering through more than just lineup card gaffes

Again, with Gallant and other coaches surprisingly on the market, this ranks as a tense time for any coach whose team is meandering. Boudreau and the Wild stand out even by those standards.

Most clearly, the team can point to an immediate mistake. Boudreau admitted that he made a “dumb mistake” that left the Wild with only five defensemen in a brutal 7-3 loss to the Penguins on Tuesday.

“It was a mistake I made,” said Boudreau after the game. “It was all my fault. I do the lineups first thing in the morning, and the first thing that goes down is the lowest number. I put Donato on and forgot Pateryn. When I looked and saw [the lineup card] was full, I figured I did it right. It was a dumb mistake. Never done that before. Just hard to do the game with five D. I take full blame for that.”

That embarrassing loss pushed Minnesota’s losing streak to four in a row. The bad times extend beyond that, as the Wild only won once in their last seven games (1-5-1) and find themselves eight points out of a playoff spot. What seemed like a season-turning December hot streak now feels like a faint memory.

Combine this dire standings situation with the Lightning playing at an incredible high level, and it seems like a disaster in the making.

Boudreau is no stranger to the hot seat

Then again, Boudreau’s been here before.

Almost exactly one year ago, PHT asked if the Wild’s future should include Boudreau. We selected Boudreau for the “Under Pressure” feature heading into 2018-19, and his mild playoff semi-guarantee didn’t work out. Remarkably, Boudreau has persisted, even remaining in place when the team changed GMs to Bill Guerin.

Honestly, it’s kind of shocking to see Boudreau still behind that Wild bench, his face turning troubling colors as the team struggles.

Some might even get a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” vibe from wondering if this is the time Boudreau might go. We’ve even seen players call Boudreau out before, like when Jason Zucker called him out, but then apologized. How many lives does this cat have left, though?

The Wild would probably be better off bottoming out, but they’re instead choosing the pass of Sissyphus. Boudreau is one of the best at push that boulder up hill, yet you have to wonder if it’s all kind of pointless. Especially when you consider the contender who might stand in stark contrast on Thursday.

Lightning aren’t exactly an easy draw

It’s almost cruel to send the Wild in against the Lightning right now. They’ve stood out as one of the best teams in the NHL lately, seemingly rekindling some of last (regular) season’s magic.

You don’t need to dig too deep into the numbers. Simply recall that they recently went on a 10-game winning streak, and won 11 of their last 12.

However hot Boudreau’s seat is, this tough game opens a crucial stretch. To start, this represents the beginning of a seven-game homestand, pretty much all against challenging opponents. Zoom out and the stakes grow: the Wild play 11 of their next 12 games at home.

Just check out this enormously important stretch:

Jan. 16: vs. Tampa Bay
Jan. 18: vs. Dallas
Jan. 20: vs. Florida
Jan. 22: vs. Detroit
Feb. 1: vs. Boston
Feb. 4: vs. Chicago
Feb. 6: vs. Vancouver
Feb. 7: at Dallas
Feb. 9: vs. Colorado
Feb. 11: vs. Vegas
Feb. 13: vs. Rangers
Feb. 15: vs. San Jose

So, tonight’s game against the Lightning might not be make-or-break, but the next month sure seems that way. And that’s as close to “fair” as an opportunity you’ll see for coaches right now … assuming Boudreau gets a full swing at this.

John Walton will handle play-by-play duties alongside Pierre McGuire at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage on Thursday with Mike Milbury and Ben Lovejoy.

Crosby’s return makes resilient Penguins diligent, dangerous

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PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s messages can be relentless. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach peppers his team with a handful of mantras that seemingly run on a loop during every practice, every period, sometimes every shift.

They run from ”play the right way” to ”get to our game” to ”keep it simple.” All of them code words of sorts to a star-laden roster that in recent years got so caught up in its own offensive talent it occasionally forgot to do the little things like, say, play responsibly on both ends of the ice.

No more. The sometimes-careless group that was outclassed, outsmarted and outworked while getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs last spring has been replaced by a team that’s returned to the NHL’s elite through a mix of grit, resiliency and maturity.

Tuesday night’s 7-3 romp over Minnesota gave the Penguins their fourth consecutive victory and drew them within four points of Washington for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division as the All-Star break looms. It’s heady territory for a group that spent the last four months watching one high-profile player after another limp down the tunnel and onto injured reserve, the most jarring being captain Sidney Crosby‘s slow skate toward the bench in the third period of a shootout victory over Chicago on Nov. 9.

Five days later Crosby underwent surgery to repair a hernia. The Penguins were in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference at the time, their season at an early tipping point. Crosby had led the charge in making sure Pittsburgh played the 200-foot game Sullivan craves. Without him, the Penguins easily could have lost their way.

Instead, they reclaimed the identity that symbolized the teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Their offensive wiggle room basically gone, the Penguins tightened things up in front of goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. They made small plays in their own end that led to big opportunities at the other.

They knew that to stay afloat in the NHL’s best division, they didn’t really have a choice.

”It was kind of a catalyst for why we had to play the game the way we did, more defensively, less risky and ultimately why we’ve been giving up fewer chances as a team,” forward Zach Aston-Reese said.

What followed was an 18-6-4 stretch that propelled Pittsburgh to fourth in the overall standings during Crosby’s 28-game absence, the second-best record in the league over that span and absurd total for a group that has missed nearly 200 man games due to injury.

”When you miss a player of Sid’s caliber, obviously the game changes a lot,” forward Jared McCann said. ”You’ve got to simplify things. You’ve got to take it one period at a time, one shift at a time and we did that. We showed we could do it and now that we have him back, we’re a deadly team.”

It sure looked like it against the Wild.

Crosby needed less than eight minutes to pick up his first point since before Halloween when he assisted on the first of Evgeni Malkin‘s two goals, an opportunity that arose thanks in part to Crosby’s mere presence.

With the Penguins on the power play, Crosby skated into the zone and fed Malkin before darting to the far post, leaving Wild forward Jason Zucker with an unenviable choice. Zucker could either stick with Crosby or try to slow down Malkin streaking down the middle. Zucker opted to shadow Crosby, giving Malkin all the room he needed to tap in Bryan Rust‘s centering pass.

”Every player is important here in locker room but Sid is captain,” Malkin said. ”We know how important again, like he is our leader. He’s great player, great teammate. … Power play is better. We’re lucky he’s back.”

And determined not to backslide into the old habits that have crept in at times since their last championship parade. Asked if Crosby’s return means the Penguins can start taking unnecessary chances knowing he is there to bail them out if necessary, McCann laughed.

”We can’t do that,” McCann said. ”We know we can’t go back to the way we started. We were a different team at the start of the year and now we’ve found our way and we know what we’ve got to do.”

Namely clear traffic in front of Jarry, an All-Star for the first time after supplanting (at least for now) Murray as the team’s top goaltender. The Wild generated few quality chances while the Penguins built a four-goal lead on Tuesday and after Minnesota drew within two early in the third, Pittsburgh responded almost immediately.

The final margin pushed the Penguins to the top spot in the NHL in goal differential, a testament to the focus they’ve brought on a regular basis. A lineup infused by new speedy, slick-skating arrivals like forward Brandon Tanev and John Marino has helped. Yet Pittsburgh’s surprising rise during Crosby’s extended layoff is due mostly to a shift in mindset and execution.

It’s a mindset Crosby stressed he has no plans to upset as he gears up for the grind ahead. Even after finishing with four points on a goal and three assists, he kept his eye on the bigger picture, channeling his inner Sullivan in the process.

”It’s going to get more difficult with every game, especially in the second half, things tend to tighten up,” Crosby said. ”We’re going to have to continue to make strides. But our work ethic and attention to detail has been pretty good throughout.”

The Penguins became diligent during Crosby’s long break. Having his familiar No. 87 back makes them dangerous.

”If we keep doing the things we’ve been doing, plus him,” Rust said, ”I think that just makes everything that much more exciting.”