Josh Anderson

Blue Jackets look to Swedish players for scoring punch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets are looking to Sweden to help fill the scoring void left by departed star forward Artemi Panarin.

More specifically, the Blue Jackets are relying on a quartet of Swedes – two of them rookies who haven’t played in North America before – for some scoring punch as they open the season Friday night against Toronto at Nationwide Arena.

Twenty-year-old Emil Bemstrom and 26-year-old Jakob Lilja played together on the same Swedish elite league team last year, and both made the Blue Jackets’ opening night roster out of coach John Tortorella’s notoriously rigorous training camp.

Bemstrom, a fourth-round pick of the Blue Jackets in the 2017 draft, was a scoring machine in Sweden. Lilja was signed as a free agent and impressed the Blue Jackets in the prospects tournament in Michigan. Both could end up skating together on the fourth line on either side of veteran Riley Nash.

”It’s a really different game,” Lilja said. ”Smaller ice, so like if you lose the puck in the wrong places it’s creating scoring chances right away. The players are really skilled, so you don’t want to lose the puck to them. Overall, it’s like a high-speed game. Even at the pro level in Sweden it’s really defensive. So just better players and smaller ice, so everything goes a little bit faster.”

The other two members of the Swedish coalition will be expected to bear more of the burden as the Blue Jackets try to return to the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Center Alexander Wennberg, 25, will try to fulfill the great promise he showed three seasons ago when he put up 59 points for Columbus and seemed poised to break out. Veteran Gustav Nyquist is a solid top-six forward who was signed as a free agent after registering 60 points last season with Detroit and San Jose. The two are slated to skate together on the second line.

Rookie Alexandre Texier is expected to take Panarin’s place on the top line with center Pierre-Luc Dubois and winger Cam Atkinson . Team veterans including captain Nick Foligno, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Boone Jenner and Josh Anderson all will have to step it up to compensate for the loss of Panarin’s team-leading 87 points a season ago.

No worries about the blue line, though.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones continue to make up one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, and there is some good depth behind them.

Joonas Korpisalo will be given a chance to be the everyday goalie after the free-agent departure of Vezina Trophy-winning stopper Sergei Bobrovsky, who is now with Florida. Rookie Elvis Merlikins also will see time in the net.

Last season was filled with drama surrounding the pending departures of Panarin and Bobrovsky. Tortorella said none of that is hanging in the air anymore.

”I think as the season begins here and all the questions start coming our way, I think there’s an inner camaraderie about the definition of guys wanting to be here,” he said. ”I think that’s really important, to have a team that’s going to try to be competitive in this league and stay competitive, is people wanting to be here. We have that. I think they’re rallying around that. This will grow as the season goes on.”

Previewing the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets

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(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.

NBC Sports NHL Player Survey: Most underrated player

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NHL players love Aleksander Barkov.

That’s what we learned during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. When we asked a number of the attendees who, in their eyes, is a player who deserves more love and attention, the Florida Panthers star was a popular choice. (Does this no longer make him underrated?)

We tried to push the players to give us an underrated choice away from their own teams, but a few broke the rules, and that’s OK. 

Here’s who we were told is most underrated around the league when we asked, “Who’s an NHL player who deserves more recognition?”

Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes: “He’s starting to come into that light but Aleksander Barkov — a lot of guys would probably say him. His skill is unbelievable. I remember last year he battled one out of the air against us on his backhand, puck was probably going three, four feet wide but somehow he came across and tipped it in. He’s just an all-around solid player.”

Derek Stepan, Arizona Coyotes: “There’s more and more undercover guys that are starting to get recognition. I think a guy like Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg, Barkov. These guys are getting more but I believe that they should be getting more than that. On the other side of it, a guy on my own team that I’m a little biased with that doesn’t get as much is Nik Hjalmarsson. He’s a very underrated defensive defenseman that maybe doesn’t as much credit because his stats don’t really show up on a gamesheet afterwards other than blocked shots.”

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks: “I like Barkov. He had a great season, doesn’t really get talked about that much. I don’t know if it’s the Florida market or whatever, but he was one of the best players in the league last year and you don’t really hear about him too much.”

Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche: “My answer to this is usually Mark Giordano, but now he’s won the Norris so he’s not underrated anymore.”

Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders: “Jordan Staal is a pretty underrated player in the league. Playing against him in the playoffs and playing against him in the Metro, I don’t think I’ve beat him on a faceoff in two years. He’s tough to play against and has got a great skillset for a big guy. He’s a really good player.”

Sam Bennett, Calgary Flames: “A player that jumps out at me is Josh Anderson on Columbus. He’s a guy that battles hard, plays hard, is tough, but can score goals as well.”

Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens: “Barkov in Florida. He’s very, very good.”

Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: “Brayden Point. He’s a really good player and he deserves to be talked about.”

John Klingberg, Dallas Stars: “Probably this guy [pointing to Jonathan Marchessault]. He’s kind of a sick player, eh? I would say him or Nick Backstrom.”

Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights: “Obviously Barkov, Huberdeau, I think you don’t hear [about] them enough. They’re super good in Florida.”

Kevin Hayes, Philadelphia Flyers: “Probably Kyle Connor. I was with him in Winnipeg and he’s an elite player. He’s really good.”

Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs: “I think Roman Josi. We only play against them twice a year so we don’t see much of them. I was able to skate with him a couple weeks ago for four or five days in Florida. He’s a guy that probably doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves even being the captain for Nashville. Just being on the ice against him, being on the ice with him, he’s a really special player and he does it all out there.”

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators: “One guy I’ll talk about and I think he’s going to get there is Thomas Chabot. I think he’s got a Norris Trophy in his future. Because of the way things finished in Ottawa last he kind of flew under the radar. Start of the season he was top-two in scoring for defenseman for the first third of the year. I think he’s a guy we’re going to hear a lot about coming up.”

Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators: “Mark Stone. People know he’s good but I think people don’t realize how good he is because maybe he’s not as silky as Matthews and those guys. When you look at everything he does out there it’s special. The takeaways he does. The way he plays in his own zone, the way he plays in the offensive zone. Those are the special things that not many players have in this league.”

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets: “He’s got it now, but a guy that I thought was a good player but I didn’t know he was this good was Ryan O’Reilly. He’s put up numbers, for sure. This year he took himself and the team to a whole new level and he’s a big part of what they did last season. He’s doing well.”

Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild: “Probably my boy Mikael Granlund. I definitely know his skill and how talented he is. Obviously you have to earn that and earn that ability to play more and have that new trust with a new team. I think they’ll see, they’ll understand in Nashville what they got this year. This guy’s got vision. It’s fun to talk hockey with him.”

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars: “I’ll stay in-house and look at a guy like Miro [Heiskanen]. I think playing in a small market he didn’t get the respect that he deserved. He’s going to be a tremendous player.”

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks: “It’s Barkov from Florida. He’s always underrated and I love how he plays.”

P.K. Subban, New Jersey Devils: “Now he’s getting more, but Nathan MacKinnon is a very, very good hockey player. In my opinion, he’s been in the top five forwards in the league for a little while. I’d like to see him get a little bit more. I just appreciate his work ethic, how he plays the game, and the way he impacts the game. It’s very difficult to do it the way he does it, with the speed, the skill, his power, [the way] he protects the puck, his ability to make guys around him better. There’s only a few players in the league like that that have that big of an impact. We know about [Connor] McDavid, we know about [Sidney] Crosby, but MacKinnon makes everybody on the ice better. I’d like to see him get some more love.”

MORE NHL PLAYER SURVEYS:
Commissioner for the day
2019-20 sleeper team
Change or keep current playoff format?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Q&A: Max Domi on the pressure in Montreal, getting Canadiens back to playoffs

Max Domi isn’t afraid of playing under the spotlight. Growing up with a dad who played in Toronto certainly showed him what it was like when the pressure to win is there every single night.

So when the 24-year-old Domi was dealt from Arizona to Montreal in June 2018, the switch in markets didn’t affect him at all. In fact, it may have even played a role in his career season where he scored 28 goals and recorded 72 points. Those totals followed two subpar seasons with the Coyotes where he tallied 18 total goals in his last 141 games in the desert.

“Some people aren’t like that but for me, it forces you to bring out the best in yourself,” Domi told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago earlier this month. “I really enjoy being in the spotlight, not just myself personally but our team. That whole city just expects success from not only our team but everyone involved with it. I think it’s a good sense of accountability and I really do enjoy it.”

Domi’s 72 points led the Canadiens last season, the first time he’s been tops in points on his team since the 2013-14 London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League — a team that featured the likes of Bo Horvat, Mitch Marner, and Josh Anderson. Montreal, however, fell just short of their goal of making the playoffs, missing the final Eastern Conference wild card spot by only two points.

We spoke to Domi about his career year, why the Habs fell short, and more.

Enjoy.

Q. Why did it all click you for offensively last season?

DOMI: “A little bit of everything. I think it was a decent year. Unfortunately, we didn’t achieve our goal of making the playoffs. That being said, on a personal level you finally just find your way, right? You get put in a situation where you’re playing for a team that brings out the best in you, the pressure brings out the best in you, the big stage and all the stuff that I grew up around, it’s pretty cool. It’s a huge honor to play for that team. I really do enjoy it on a daily basis.”

Q. : What about Montreal helped revitalize your career?

DOMI: “Just the personality that I have and the way that I grew up, you crave that pressure and the atmosphere of not only just the rink but the energy around the city about the team. I’ve been lucky enough to play in an Original Six team and, you know what, as far as I’m concerned I’m the luckiest guy in the world and I actually enjoy every second of it.”

Q. What was missing last season that didn’t get the Habs to the playoffs?

DOMI: “It’s funny, when you look back at it everyone always says you’ve got to win these points in October, November, and yeah, of course, you know that, but then you’re kicking yourself come February: Ah, damn, only if we would have just buried them on that power play there. It makes a difference, it really does. Missed the playoffs by two points, it’s a tough pill to swallow, but honestly, in the long run it’s going to be better for our group because we have the bitter taste in our mouth and we’re very hungry and eager to get going and we know what it takes now. We were also essentially playing playoff hockey in the second half of the year because we were in such a dogfight with a few other teams. The exposure we got to those games and the pressure and the character our team showed and resilience we showed, I think that’s a really positive step forward. We’ve just got to carry that into this year.”

Q. Why did Montreal have so much trouble scoring on the power play (13.2%) and how does it improve?

DOMI: “I think we can all give a little bit more. Obviously, it’s not really our job to figure out who’s in what position and that stuff, that’s the coaching staff, but once they figure that out and they tell us then it’s on us to be better. We have the personnel to do it, that’s for sure, we’ve just got to go and execute and find ways to get better. Last year’s behind us, we’re not really thinking about that. It’s a negative way of thinking and doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Q. Why do you believe the Canadiens be a playoff team this season?

DOMI: “We’ve got a lot of work to do, for sure, just as every other team does, but it’s still early and we’re not really focused on the end goal. We’ll kind of keep that in our locker room and we know what we’re capable of and all that stuff. As of right now we’re just getting ready for camp and getting acclimated with everything and [getting] back in the swing of things and we’ll take it game by game.”

MORE:
Burning questions for Montreal Canadiens in 2019-20
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets look to move past drama of departing stars

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The offseason drama churned up by the exodus of some of their top stars is now behind the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now they open training camp with some burning questions.

Can veteran Joonas Korpisalo, rookie Elvis Merzlikins or someone else step into the huge skates vacated by star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky?

How will Columbus replace the scoring of forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene?

Can Blue Jackets stalwarts like Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson and Pierre-Luc Dubois make the Columbus faithful stop grumbling about the superstars who spurned the city and get the team to the playoffs for a fourth straight year?

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen, for one, is indignant that anyone thinks the Blue Jackets will take a step backward following the offseason exodus of talent. He’s tired of talking about it already.

”We’re very, very confident in our core group,” Kekalainen said. ”And I’m a little aggravated by the doubters, to be honest with you, because it shows disrespect to our core group that brought us all that success we’ve had in the past three years.”

Kekalainen decided to go with a strategy of counting on trusted veterans to step up their offensive production along with moving up NHL-ready prospects to help fill the void left by Panarin – who made it clear a year ago he didn’t want to re-sign with the team and subsequently left for the New York Rangers – and Duchene, a trade-deadline rental who signed with Nashville.

”We’re all going to have to do it by committee,” said Atkinson, who had a career-high 41 goals and 28 assists last season. ”Hopefully, the guys who get the opportunity seize the moment, step in and step up for us because we’re going to need everyone.”

Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom, both 20, are among the prospects expected to contribute. Texier came to the U.S. at the end of last season, had a short stay in the minors and then showed flashes of what he could do down the stretch for the Blue Jackets. Bemstrom starred in the Swedish professional league and comes to camp amid plenty of hype.

”(Panarin) is a very good player, he’s a game-breaker. But I’m not going to sit here and say that’s a hole,” said coach John Tortorella, who acknowledged he has a chip on his shoulder because of the predictions of doom. ”It just gives other people an opportunity to fill that, and I feel very comfortable where we’re going with some of our young kids.”

Kekalainen’s biggest offseason move was adding veteran help with Gustav Nyquist, a top-six forward who had a career-high 22 goals and 38 assists last season with Detroit and San Jose.

Replacing Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, is the toughest order. Columbus will give Korpisalo a chance to be the everyday guy. Korpisalo has played well in stretches as Bobrovsky’s backup for the past four seasons. He’ll compete with the flashy 25-year-old Merzlikins, who has been outstanding in the Swiss league and in international play.

Players who have been here awhile insist the naysaying will go away if they win.

”We feel confident with what we have in this room,” All-Star defenseman Seth Jones said. ”We understand what the narrative is probably going to be this year, and I think now more than ever we have to maintain the tight chemistry in this room and not let outside noise interfere with what we’re trying to accomplish.”

The Blue Jackets, who got to the second round of the playoffs after a stunning sweep of Tampa Bay in the opening round last spring, will skate together for the first time Saturday free of the drama Panarin and Bobrovsky dragged around all last season after both made it known they didn’t want to stay in Columbus any longer than necessary.

”Maybe we don’t have the shiny pieces people like to talk about,” captain Nick Foligno said. ”But there’s going to be a lot of headlines, a lot of great plays going on because of the skill we have.”