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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.

Surging Blue Jackets finally getting some help

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams over the past month-and-a-half, riding a 12-2-4 run over their past 18 games. They have the league’s third-best record (behind only St. Louis and Pittsburgh) during that stretch and have played their way back into playoff contention in the Eastern Conference, entering play on Wednesday in a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot.

What makes this run even more impressive is the team has been absolutely ravaged by injuries during that stretch.

The list of injuries includes…

  • Forward Cam Atkinson, a 40-goal scorer a year ago, has missed the past 12 games.
  • Forward Josh Anderson and defenseman Ryan Murray have not played since Dec. 14 (15 games).
  • Rookie defenseman Andre Peeke has not played since Dec. 17.
  • Oliver Bjorkstrand, who had 12 goals in his first 36 games, has missed the past 11 games.
  • Alexandre Texier, a rookie forward the team had high hopes for at the start, has missed the past seven games.
  • Starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo has missed the past eight games.

On Wednesday the Blue Jackets finally got some good news on the injury front when the team announced that Atkinson and Peeke have been activated from injured reserve (Peeke has since been assigned to the AHL).

Atkinson is expected to be in the lineup on Thursday for a huge game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes are just two points ahead of the Blue Jackets in the standings.

The Atkinson is significant because he is such a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ offense and has been one of the most underrated goal scorers in the entire league the past few seasons. Over the previous three seasons he scored 100 goals in 227 games, a rate that averages out to 36 goals per 82 games. That production is down a little so far this season, but a lot of that drop has been driven by a significant dip in his shooting percentage.

He was already starting to see a bounce back before the injury, scoring five goals in his past eight games.

Blue Jackets keep surprising

Expectations were low for the Blue Jackets at the start of the season after the team lost Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel in free agency. Add in the recent injury situation on top of a slow start, and this team has every possible excuse to have completely gone in the tank. That has not happened.

Even with all of the free agency departures the Blue Jackets still had reasons for optimism this season (we looked at that here and here) because of the young talent still in place. Zach Werenski and Seth Jones form one of the best defense duos in the league, and they have been their usual steady selves this season. Pierre-Luc Dubois is also an emerging star in the NHL and becoming a legit No. 1 center that can impact the game on both sides of the ice.

But perhaps the biggest factor in their ability to remain competitive has been the emerge of Korpisalo, and most recently, Elvis Merzlikins in net.

Goaltending was always going to be the big X-Factor for this team and would strongly dictate what the team could do.

Merzlikins has been the big story over the past couple of weeks as he has stepped up in place of the injured Korpisalo. After losing each of his first eight decisions in the NHL, he is now 6-2-0 in his past eight games with a .950 save percentage. That includes back-to-back shutouts in his past two starts.

It is not realistic for him to keep playing at that high of a level, but as long as he and Korpisalo (once he returns) do not completely fall apart the Blue Jackets are going to have a great chance to not only stay in this race, but also shock the NHL and potentially return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Especially if they can start getting some more of their key players (Bjorkstrand, Murray, Texier, Anderson) back in the lineup.

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.

NHL injury news: Good for Bruins, bad for Jack Hughes and others

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The 2020 Winter Classic began the next decade of NHL action, and that action included violence, a comeback, and Texas-sized fun. Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020 feels more like the first full round of hockey in this new decade, though, and it’s not surprising that there’s plenty of NHL injury news to consider, from returning Boston Bruins to less positive developments for the likes of Jack Hughes.

Let’s get to the tidbits like Brian Boucher seeking fried Snickers.

Plenty of good Bruins injury news updates

The Bruins hold a significant lead in the Atlantic Division, but can’t be happy about a 4-2-4 stretch, and their generally mediocre end to 2019.

That said, as much as the Bruins rolled with the punches over the last few seasons, you can only hold off injuries for so long. Boston buckled after a while, so the Bruins must be heartened to start 2020 a little bit healthier. It certainly looks that way right now.

The Bruins’ website shared plenty of promising updates:

Even if McAvoy can’t quite return, that’s quite the slew of returning players. Danton Heinen is also expected to be back in the mix after being a healthy scratch.

More bad breaks for Blue Jackets

The Bruins face the Blue Jackets on Thursday, and Columbus stands on the other end of the spectrum. The Blue Jackets keep finding ways to earn standings points, even as injuries pile up, and John Tortorella receives more fines.

The Blue Jackets placed intriguing young forward Alexandre Texier on IR on Thursday with a lumbar stress fracture. “Lumbar stress fracture” translates to a back/spine injury, so it’s no surprise that Texier is sidelined indefinitely.

Texier adds to an increasingly ridiculous Blue Jackets injury list that also includes:

Combine injuries with all of those free agent loses, and Columbus deserves credit for hanging in there. Sadly for Torts & Co., they face tough odds to actually persevere to the playoffs, though.

Setback for Jack

Jack Hughes looked like he was heating up with three points in his last four games, but now he’s hurt. The top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft suffered an upper-body injury, leaving him day-to-day.

Considering the sorry state of the New Jersey Devils, there’s no sense in risking Hughes’ long-term health by rushing him back. Honestly, Hughes might benefit from a break.

The Devils face the Islanders as part of NBCSN’s doubleheader on Thursday, with coverage beginning at 6 p.m. ET. Click here for the livestream link.

[MORE: Devils – Islanders preview]

Assorted injury news

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 injury roundup: Bruins’ Krug, battered Blue Jackets

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Not everyone healed up enough during the holiday break. This post runs down some of the biggest injury bits, including the Boston Bruins placing Torey Krug on IR.

Krug and other Bruins injuries

The Bruins limped into the break with just two wins in their last 10 games (2-4-4). Losing Krug only makes matters worse, especially with Charlie McAvoy also banged up.

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said that Krug will be out through at least Dec. 31, while McAvoy is day-to-day. Boston will ask more of the likes of Zdeno Chara, starting with a home-and-home against Buffalo beginning on Friday.

Banged-up Blue Jackets

Columbus deserves serious credit for going on a hot streak (five straight wins, 6-0-2 in eight) considering mounting injuries. The Blue Jackets didn’t push into the East’s top eight, though, so they’ll need to persevere some more.

Cam Atkinson going to IR represents the toughest loss, but the sheer quantity mixes with such quality. The Blue Jackets expect Oliver Bjorkstrand to miss multiple weeks. Combine those two with Ryan Murray and Josh Anderson, along with smaller ailments, and the list becomes daunting.

John Tortorella deflected talk of injuries presenting such a challenge to the Blue Jackets, according to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline (sub required).

“It isn’t a challenge, it’s just the way pro sports are,” Tortorella said. “You have injuries, you plug a guy in and you go play.”

More injury updates and news

  • The Red Wings updated that Anthony Mantha will miss at least four weeks with an upper-body injury. Jeff Blashill indicated that the injury is to Mantha’s ribs. Jake Muzzin‘s hit on Mantha prompted concussion concerns, so this is a mix of good and bad news.

This list isn’t considered comprehensive. If you want even more injury details, check out Rotoworld’s injury report and player news updates.

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 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.”