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.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.