Josh Anderson

Getty Images

Blue Jackets look to reassemble pieces after free agent losses

7 Comments

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets watched three of their best players leave for other teams on the opening day of free agency and did relatively little to fill the holes.

When the dust settled after Monday’s comings and goings, many questions remained about whether general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will be able reassemble enough pieces for Columbus to make a run at the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

The success of the team in 2019-20 will depend on a player or combination of players filling the offensive void left by departed forward Artemi Panarin. And it will require last year’s backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo – or someone else – to be nearly as good as two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.

Panarin, who was considered a long shot to re-sign with Columbus after two seasons, inked a seven-year deal with the New York Rangers worth $81.5 million. Bobrovsky went to the Florida Panthers after seven years in Columbus, and center Matt Duchene, picked up at the February trade deadline, moved on to Nashville.

Forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid – all acquired at the deadline and now unrestricted free agents – are not likely to stay with Columbus, which also lost its top executive, John Davidson, to the Rangers’ front office.

The Blue Jackets did pick up free-agent forward Gustav Nyquist from the San Jose Sharks. The Swedish winger was dealt by the Detroit Red Wings at the deadline and helped the Sharks advance to the Western Conference finals. He totaled 22 goals and 38 assists last season.

Kekalainen has said he wants only players who are happy to play in Columbus. Nyquist said that includes him.

”I think it’s a team that has some really good pieces, some young pieces and also some great veteran leaders, and a team that’s really heading in the right direction,” Nyquist said. ”You saw that in last year’s playoffs. Those were things that really excited me.”

Nyquist said the departure of some of the stars doesn’t concern him.

”I’m sure the media will talk about that,” he said. ”But I think we want to prove that there is going to be opportunity for other guys who are going to try to come in and fill some of those holes, and I’m sure everyone will be excited to keep building on what they’ve done here for the last few years. I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to be a really good team.”

Kekalainen had declined to deal Panarin and Bobrovsky at the February trade deadline, even though he knew there was scant chance of re-signing either. Instead, he added Duchene, Dzingel and others for an ”all in” playoff run.

That paid off when Columbus won its first postseason series in franchise history, stunning the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning with a four-game sweep. The Blue Jackets then lost to Boston in six games in the second round.

Kekalainen said he knew some of those players might leave, but ”then we just move forward with what we have and start building other ways.”

That increases the reliance on scoring forwards Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois and Josh Anderson. It also puts pressure on underachieving center Alexander Wennberg to play up to his potential.

Talented defenseman Ryan Murray and Korpisalo, who was Bobrovsky’s backup last season, signed new contracts Monday. Bobrovsky leaves huge skates to fill for Korpisalo, who will compete with flashy rookie Elvis Merzlikins for the starting job in the net.

Blue Jackets’ Kekalainen has tough task moving forward

Getty Images
4 Comments

He bet big, lost bigger and now has to pick up the pieces of a team that appears like it won’t have the star power that pushed them to their first playoff series win in franchise history.

Is that the cost of doing business? Or was it a short-sighted gamble — perhaps a little greedy — that was likely never really going to pay off?

Whatever the case, Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has his work cut out for himself this summer. Seemingly set to lose Sergei Bobrovsky, the team’s starting goaltender, Artemi Panarin, the team’s leading point getter, and Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel (who is for sure gone now), two players that Kekalainen mortgaged the team’s future on to acquire around the trade deadline, the challenges to ice a competitive team will be many.

And it all feels self-inflicted.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The Blue Jackets weren’t exactly in a great spot on deadline day. They entered in in sixth place with a queue of teams behind them. Twenty-four hours later, they were down in ninth. Kekalainen says he’d do it all over again if given the chance, something he has to say. Teams in that kind of spot, with no guarantee of a playoff berth, don’t often become one of the most aggressive buyers in the market.

The Blue Jackets were, however, selling off draft picks for rentals and not cashing in on pending unrestricted free agents in ‘Bob’ and the ‘Bread Man’.

“We said all along we assumed the risk and if they’re gone by July 1, we’re going to have lots of cap space and lots of different other opportunities to move forward,” Kekalainen said. “Life goes on. That was part of the risk we were willing to take.”

Columbus’s draft this year included just two fourth-round picks after doubling down on their third, and a seventh rounder. Stocking the cupboards wasn’t a priority in a draft that appeared to be pretty deep.

The Blue Jackets certainly have cap space — nearly $30 million of it. But $30 million won’t replace Bobrovsky and Panarin. That talent isn’t on the free-agent market outside of those two players. And they have to sign Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray, so the cap space is less.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Blue Jackets don’t have some budding talent. And some established stars, too.

Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones are great players and Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois are two pieces of a young crop of talent. But there can be no denying that losing a Vezina-calibre goalie and a point-per-game player is detrimental, if not back-breaking.

Remember, the Blue Jackets barely made the playoffs with the four players in question.

Kekalainen hasn’t seemed that worried in recent interviews. That, in itself, might be cause for concern among Blue Jackets fans.

Whether it all pans out or not remains to be seen. Can Kekalainen woo players into the fold after a bunch of big names headed for the hills? And will the team be competitive if they can’t?

Kekalainen certainly has his work cut out for him this summer.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

McAvoy’s back for Bruins, and now comes the easy part

BOSTON (AP) — When he’s playing, Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said, it’s easy for him to maintain his composure and concentrate on the game in front of him.

Up in the press box, that’s the hard part.

”I’m not a very good hockey watcher,” McAvoy said as he prepared to return from his one-game suspension for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes. ”The game seems like it’s much longer.”

McAvoy was suspended for a shoulder to the head of Columbus forward Josh Anderson in the second-round finale. So instead of taking the ice in his usual pairing with Zdeno Chara, McAvoy was wandering around the media dining area before Game 1, wondering if he had to pay or not. (He didn’t.)

And while his teammates were beating the Hurricanes 5-2 in the conference final opener, McAvoy was in street clothes on the very top level of the TD Garden, trying to keep his emotions under control.

”Here on this level, I’m like this,” McAvoy said, holding out his hand, palm down, and moving it in a steady and straight line in front of his face.

”But up there,” he said, pumping his fist and bouncing out of his imaginary seat. ”I’m glad I get to play tomorrow.”

A 21-year-old first-round draft choice from Boston University, McAvoy had seven goals and 21 assists from the blue line this year, his second full season in the NHL. He missed six weeks early in the season with a concussion and another two over Christmas because of a foot injury.

But he hadn’t had to sit out healthy, for just one game.

McAvoy said he would try to use the forced break to his advantage.

”Whenever you’re out, you can use it as an opportunity to get other things feeling right,” he said, adding that watching the game from above game him a perspective that would be beneficial. ”I feel like I picked up on some things.”

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said McAvoy was missed for his physical play and his ability to start the transition to offense.

”Those up-the-middle passes that maybe the other guys just don’t have the vision or confidence, or both, to make,” he said. ”Those quick-strike plays where forwards are getting the pucks in their hands in good spots with a better chance to attack.”

Steven Kampfer, who replaced McAvoy in the lineup, had Boston’s first goal, and the Bruins scored four times in the third period on Thursday night to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 2 is Sunday at the TD Garden, with the series moving to Carolina for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday.

The Hurricanes fell behind 2-0 in their first-round series against the Washington Capitals before eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champions in seven games. In the second round, they swept the New York Islanders.

”We don’t want to get down 2-0,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said. ”If we get to that point, that’s what everyone will be saying. We have some things to draw on, no matter what, no matter which way this thing goes.”

INJURY UPDATE

Cassidy said forward Noel Acciari won’t play in Game 2 but may be on track to return for Tuesday’s Game 3 in Carolina. Acciari (undisclosed injury) returned to non-contact practice on Saturday and was expected to be cleared for full practice on Monday, Cassidy said.

Saku Maenalanen is skating, but he still can’t shoot because of his hand injury, Brind’Amour said. Forward Jordan Martinook ”is going to play,” Brind’Amour said. ”He’s banged up, a little gimpy out there. But we want him in the lineup.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ McAvoy suspended for Game 1 against Hurricanes

38 Comments

Charlie McAvoy‘s hit on Josh Anderson didn’t draw a major penalty in the Boston Bruins’ Game 6 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but it will force McAvoy to sit out Game 1 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Final versus the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday.

Here’s the video explanation from the NHL, which labels the check as an illegal check to the head, one that McAvoy could have avoided. Anderson was able to return during the third period of Game 6, and also seemed to share a cordial handshake with McAvoy following Boston’s 3-0 win.

The video gets into the nitty gritty of the hit, noting that McAvoy attempted a hit that would be difficult to execute without making contact with Anderson’s head. The Department of Player Safety also claims that McAvoy elevated to make the hit.

The league also noted that McAvoy hadn’t been fined or suspended during his NHL career before this incident, so that factored into the check drawing a one game suspension, rather than something more severe.

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.

Blue Jackets’ future cloudy after Kekalainen’s gamble falls short

11 Comments

If you’re looking for a feel-good story about how the Columbus Blue Jackets ignited hockey fandom in a town for the past month, you won’t find it here on this Tuesday in early May.

Fuzzy feelings are fleeting when a team that went all-in, risking future assets and big returns on key pending unrestricted free agents, crashes out of the playoffs in Round 2.

The talk or progress would be a sentiment I could be more bullish on if they weren’t fixing to lose two or three of their stars come the summer.

Yes, the Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Swept them, no less, in emphatic fashion.

Sure, Columbus battled the Boston Bruins hard, taking them to Game 6 before being unable to solve Tuukka Rask

They showed tremendous tenacity during those two rounds and a sense of having bought into a suffocating style of hockey that stymied one of the best regular-season teams of all-time.

Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 against the Lightning will be memorable. As, too, will be the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who gave the Blue Jackets a chance every night, as did the scoring touches of both Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, who proved to be crucial pieces that stepped up when the lights shined brightest.

The crowds, the chants, the atmosphere, the cannon — all special while it lasted.

John Tortorella said his team made huge steps forward. True. The exact makeup of the team as of Monday’s Game 6 made huge steps forward over the past month, and there’d be a lot of build on here if it weren’t for this dark cloud that’s also been hovering over the team.

There’d be a reason to be optimistic if every player mentioned above were locked into varying lengths of long-term deals with the organization. The sad reality is they aren’t. And it seems almost certain at this point that they will lose both Panarin and Bobrovsky to free agency, and Duchene could walk to under the same circumstances if he so chooses.

Losing them is, at the very least, a step back, right?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen gambled big here, so much so that he can probably skip his flight to Vancouver for this year’s draft because he won’t play a big part having only a third-round pick and Calgary’s seventh-round choice at the moment. (Not to mention no second- or third-round pick in 2020.)

The only thing that lasts forever in hockey is Stanley Cup banners and the engraving on hockey’s holy grail that goes with it.

Hockey’s a sport where if you’re not first, your last. You can raise feel-good banners, but they become the butt-end of jokes rather than revered pieces of fabric.

When the dust settles in or around July 1, the Blue Jackets could be without their top scorer, their No. 1 goaltender and the man they sold a good acre or two of the farm to get at the NHL trade deadline.

Per CapFriendly, Columbus’ projected cap space heading into next year is in the $27 million range. Can that coerce a No. 1 to sign in free agency if Bobrovsky leaves? Maybe, but the No. 1 goalie pool this year is slim at best.

Can it replace a 27-year-old superstar in Panarin? What about a 28-year-old point-per-game player in Duchene?

Kekalainen’s wand is going to need a full charge to pull off that kind of sorcery. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it’s a tall order in the highest degree.

Sure, the remaining players can draw on the experiences they had. Is there much to extract from that, however, if three big names are out?

“Next year who knows what’s going to happen?” said Cam Atkinson after Game 6. “Who’s going to be in this locker room?”

There’s a core in Columbus that will remain, however: Atkinson, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Nick Foligno, who’s a consummate captain.

But you don’t just magically regrow a couple of severed limbs. That takes detailed surgery and an unknown timeframe get back to full strength.

Gambles, however well calculated they may be, are still gambles at the end of the day.

Kekalainen pushed all in and got caught by a better hand.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck