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

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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.”

Atkinson ready for Blue Jackets to ‘prove people wrong’

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CHICAGO — When training camps open next week, the Columbus Blue Jackets will be missing a number of faces that helped stage the biggest upset of the 2018-19 NHL season. Gone are Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky. But for Cam Atkinson, the franchise’s longest-tenured player, there are a number of players who can take on bigger roles this coming season to offset those losses.

“A guy like Josh Anderson taking a step forward and being more of a powerhouse and bringing it every single game,” Atkinson told NBC Sports during the 2019 NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago this week, “Not that he didn’t, but every guy’s going to have to step up. 

“I’m going to have to step up more, guys like Seth Jones can contribute more. Zach Werenski, I look at him and he can contribute more offensively, I think. [Oliver] Bjorkstrand can score a lot of goals.”

One player who got a small taste of the NHL last season with two regular season and eight Stanley Cup playoff games is Alexandre Texier. The French forward saw plenty of time on a line with Anderson and captain Nick Foligno in the postseason and scored twice in Game 4 to knock out the top-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.

Atkinson firmly believes Texier will be one of the Blue Jackets’ impact players and do it for a long time.

“He’s a young guy that played some playoff games last year. He’s a 19-year-old kid, so I think he’s going to have a great career,” he said.

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella is “pissed” about the personnel departures, but to Atkinson, he understands it’s a business. 

Heading into the 2019-20 season, Columbus is a team that’s being pegged as a bottom dweller. That’s something Atkinson believes the Blue Jackets can rally behind.

“I think you have to look at it like we have to come in with a chip on our shoulder because everyone’s written us off already,” Atkinson said. “How do you think that makes the players feel? You can either go one of two ways: you can either take that and use that as motivation to prove people wrong or you can use it and go the opposite way and say maybe they were right. 

“I know being a leader I’m going to make sure we come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove people wrong.”

MORE:
• 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 at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

It’s Columbus Blue Jackets Day at PHT

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

2018-19
47-31-4, 98 points (5th in the Metropolitan Division, 8th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Lost in six games to the Boston Bruins in Round 2

IN
Gustav Nyquist

OUT
Sergei Bobrovsky
Matt Duchene
Artemi Panarin
Ryan Dzingel
Keith Kinkaid
Mark Letestu
Adam McQuaid

RE-SIGNED 
Markus Hannikainen
Joonas Korpisalo
Ryan Murray
Scott Harrington
Sonny Milano
Adam Clendenning

2018-19 Season Review

Well, you can’t say it was an uneventful year in Columbus. The Blue Jackets were a playoff team for most of the year, but they definitely started to struggle early in the second half of the regular season. In January, the Jackets dropped their final four games and they followed that up by losing their first contest in February. They managed to go on a four-game winning streak in February and they managed to go a respectable 8-5 that month.

It was a bit of an awkward time for the organization. They were talented enough to be a playoff team but they had a few key pending unrestricted free agents in Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. Could they afford to lose them for nothing? Many speculated that both players wouldn’t be with Columbus beyond the trade deadline. Not only did they stay but general manager Jarmo Kekalainen also added to his core group of players.

[More: Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

Kekalainen felt like this was the time to go all-in. He traded for Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. This sent a strong message to the players, fans and the entire NHL. The Blue Jackets weren’t just going to watch the parade go by while their top two players became free agents. It was a bold strategy, especially because there was always a chance that they could play the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In the end, the Blue Jackets ended up finishing in the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and they only clinched it on the second-to-last day of the regular season. Kekalainen’s team was a nice story, but no one expected them to go head-to-head with the Lightning and come out victorious.

In Game 1, the Bolts jumped out to a 3-0 lead and most people in the hockey world were starting to type up their obituaries for the Jackets. But Columbus stuck with it and they ended up coming back to win the first game of the series. The rest must have been a blur for the Lightning, as they get swept by the Blue Jackets in the opening round.

With Tampa out of the way, who was going to stop Columbus?

Unfortunately for them, they ran into a red-hot Bruins team that they pushed but were unable to beat. They dropped the series in six games, and just like that their season was over.

It’s hard to blame Kekalainen for going all-in. After all, the organization had never won a playoff series before. So on one hand, he was able to deliver a series win and one of the biggest surprises in postseason history. On the other hand, the additions he made at the deadline only got his team to the second round.

Duchene, Bobrovsky and Panarin all ended up walking in free agency, so the team isn’t as strong as it was last season. They still have Cam Atkinson, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner, Josh Anderson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, but no one can argue that they’re a better team than they were one season ago.

There are plenty of question marks surrounding this team, but this group will be able to prove all their doubters wrong all over again in 2019-20.

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.

Blue Jackets look to reassemble pieces after free agent losses

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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.